It was around two years ago that Zoe Brock first suggested I write for The Nervous Breakdown. We were in her San Francisco lounge room and I’d made it to about the space between ‘some’ and ‘how’ in the thought Maybe this will get me laid somehow¹ when I said ‘Zoe, I’ll do it.’

With thanks to Facebook’s search function, apologies to Dave Gorman, and gratitude to Northern Hemisphere Simon Smithson, who agreed to answer my questions and be my friend.

Hello, Simon Smithson! How are you, who are you, and what do you do?

Who am I? A 34 year old Englishman, father to my 21-month-old daughter Libby, husband to my lovely wife Becky.

What do I do? In a nutshell, I work in an office. It’s a very nice office mind, (we even have an escalator), but still 9 to 5 office drudgery. Sometimes I feel like a battery hen.

Not quite the glamorous, globetrotting lifestyle that you, my namesake, appear to lead. Strangely, since befriending you on Facebook, my Gmail inbox has been replete with invites to parties and other exciting gatherings. Though it seems possible that I might be invited to parties on the other side of world by strangers, it seems more likely that your friends have instead been confounded by our similar, yet mirror-image like, email addresses and have sent me these invites in error. However, I am now able to explain that I am not the handsome, literary Kiwi to whom they intended to extend the hand of friendship, but am in fact a grumpy, exhausted, Yorkshire-dwelling Englishman who simply happens to share the same name. They must find the experience confusing, and slightly disturbing.


I am glad to hear you’re good – and in three months, happy birthday to Libby!

You know, I’ve never worked in an office with an escalator? And now I really, really want to.

I’m afraid I have to correct you, however. I’m an Aussie, not a Kiwi. If I let that one slip through to the keeper, I’ll never hear the end of it. It’s similar to being confused for a Welshman – something I learned from my grandmother, who, as a matter of fact, was from Yorkshire, as is my mother. They were from Rotherham – are you anywhere nearby?

Which brings me, by a neat piece of coincidence, to something I’ve been looking into recently. Yorkshire puddings. I’ve never had one, and I’d always had a mental image of a creme caramel kind of thing. Tell me, is this something you’d regularly eat? I realise this is perhaps not the kind of question you saw coming.

The escalator is overrated. The office is supposed to be one of the most energy efficient in Europe, though how they can acheive this with an escalator (in actual fact 4 escalators!) that run 12 hours a day, and a glass roof is entirely beyond me. Perhaps it’s just one of those self-fulfilling proclamations, like ‘this is the longest bar in the world’ (my university bar) or ‘this is the longest pier in the world’ (Great Yarmouth Pier), both of which are blatantly untrue, but have entered local folklore.

My humblest apologies about the geographic confusion (I notice you didn’t contradict the ‘handsome’ or ‘literary’). I can’t claim that geography is a strong point of mine; this I can only blame on poor choices early in my education (choosing German over Geography is a somewhat confounding choice; I can now speak the language, but have no idea where Germany is, or how to get there).

Rotherham is about 40 miles from my doorstep. It seems a strange coincidence that your family originate from so nearby. I’m not a native Yorkshireman, though I’m rapidly approaching the point where I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived elsewhere, so will achieve honorary status. My father’s family originate from the next County south. Maybe we share a common ancestor?

You’ve fallen into a common trap with regard to Yorkshire Puddings, which are not in fact a dessert, but an accompaniment to a ‘roast dinner’, which otherwise consists of a roasted meat (typically chicken, beef or lamb), roast potatoes and boiled vegetables, all served with gravy. In a bizarre twist they actually have identical ingredients to pancakes, but rather than made thin and fried are made thick and baked in an oven. If done properly they come out delicious, light and air-filled. If I make them they come out thick, heavy, and much like an unpleasant pancake.

My university bar was never going to lay a claim to anything; I worked there, and let me tell you, it was a decidedly low-rent operation. But speaking of bars, and Yorkshire, is there still a bar called The Atlas, opposite a cemetery, in existence, that you know of? Apparently my great-grandparents ran it for a little while.

I wonder if we do share any ancestry – my English ancestors went by either the surname Walton or the surname Dewick; and I think they got around a little.

As for backgrounds, did you know we have a crest? We have an actual, honest-to-God family crest, that, I guess, we can officially use. I’m not sure how one goes about using a crest, but it gives me a sense of belonging that feels strangely comforting. Typing my own name into Google has never been so rewarding.

So how is life in England, at present? I’ve always meant to visit, but never gotten around to it. My great-uncle, who’s an ex-Royal Marine, keeps telling me I should go back and visit.

Yorkshire is a pretty big place. However, a brief bit of research on Google Maps shows this.

Which appears to be a pub of the same name, opposite a graveyard, in Rotherham, so perhaps this is the very place! At the point at which the Streetview car captured the image the pub was up for lease (and given the state of the UK economy it probably still is) so if you feel like a return to your roots it presents an interesting option!

Neither Walton nor Dewick ring any bells, though I do know that at some point my family name was ‘Smithson-Hogg’. Thankfully they dropped the second of the two barrels before I came along. Simon Smithson is quite long enough thank you.

Not sure about the correct usage of a family crest. Does it have a motto? Are there eagles on it?

I often wonder whether our name has any link to the Smithsonian museum; is this something that you’ve thought about? Have you ever been?

Life in England is currently fair to middling, it’s a pretty average kind of place. Where are you currently? You seem to spend a lot of time alternating between Australia and the US, why is this? Talking of Australia, are you affected by the floods that I hear so much about? Coming from such a small, and thankfully generally natural-disaster-free, country events on such a scale boggle my mind.

I was wondering recently how similar the signatures of different people with the same name will be. This then got me thinking about the possibilities of fraud between two people with the same name; to prove I’m me all I need is my passport or driving license bearing my name and picture. This I could also surely use to prove I’m you. How does this work if one has an entirely common name like John Smith? Can I just go into a bank with my passport and withdraw all funds for any one of the inevitable gaggle of John Smiths on the banks records? How fragile this concept of identity!


A pub landlord you say? Well… I’ve heard of worse ideas. Although I don’t know about this whole warm beer business. Is that true, or just a cruel and unusual stereotype?

Simon Smithson-Hogg? I can’t even imagine what kind of person you, or I, would be, with such a name. It’s just so… so very different. The emphasis on the syllables is all different, it changes the sounding out of it… how strange. Maybe this is something people should do as a daily meditation; throw a ‘Hogg’ on the end of their name to see how it sounds.

The crest has a knight’s helmet, three suns, and a number of feathers. I’m not sure how it’s officially used, but apparently you can get it in mousepad form. Which must have been what our ancestors had in mind…

I’ve never been! I’m not sure if James Smithson had ever been to the States – I know he charged his son with founding an institute for the benefit of all mankind, and he had enough ready cash that he could just up and order such a thing done and be reasonably confident it would be taken care of.

Which segues neatly into my back-and-forth to the US and back. I used to live there, until I was left jobless by the GFC and moved back. Now I’ve got friends from my first stay, from back here, or from TNB, and that makes it a lot easier to go over. And, honestly, I just love it. Have you yourself been?

I’m in Melbourne right now, and, thankfully, unaffected by the floods. Queensland has been hit the hardest but my home state is also not faring too well, with record flood levels in some towns. What’s been great is the reaction of the country; people have been so good about coming together to support those affected.

Hmmm.

I think we’re going to need a passport comparison. Mine is shocking, by the way. It’s a horrible scrawl I developed in primary school and never trained myself out of.

We probably shouldn’t publish them to the internet though.

Glad to hear that the floods haven’t affected you directly. The news coverage in the UK has pretty much stopped now, which is either an indication that the situation has improved, or that something sensational involving either X-Factor or Pop Idol has overtaken events.

The warm beer thing is a bit of a myth, though until recently bitter (served at room temperature) was more popular than lager (obviously served chilled). I’m not sure Rotherham would prove a good location to cut your landlording teeth; it does have a reputation for being ‘a bit rough’, which generally means you’ve got a much greater chance than is acceptable of ending a night out with fewer teeth than you started with…

It would be interesting to know the origins of the family crest, though I suspect these things are just generated at random by some dubious website nowadays. Does it have a motto? I’m fascinated by the idea of having something potentially inappropriate in modern times as an official family slogan.

I can’t believe that with all your cross-Atlantic (does that apply if traveling from Australia to America? Remember my lack of geographical prowess!) traveling you’ve not yet been to our museum! I’ve got some friends who live in Washington DC, so I really ought to visit at some point. Unfortunately I’ve only visited the US three times, and I doubt either can be considered a real taste of the place; the first was to Orlando with my wife’s parents, the second was to Las Vegas to get married, and the third was to Los Angeles to do some work for Harbor Freight in Camarillo.

I have to confess I had to look up the meaning of GFC; I’m going to blame it on the late hour, and the lousy week I’ve had this far. What did you do before the redundancy?

You’ll be glad to hear that I’ve resumed reading Sparks. I absolutely need a break from Infinite Jest, which isn’t as riveting as I was led to expect. I’ll let you know my thoughts as I progress further, though so far I’m enjoying it very much.

There is no motto for the family crest; we’ll have to come up with something. ‘Orbis non sufficio’ would seem to have the requisite amount of flair – although I think that may be taken.


And no – I think that’s trans-Pacific. I’ve yet to set foot across the Atlantic; between the two of us, though, we’ve crossed the two big oceans. Maybe after the next redundancy I’ll have a crack at the Baltic, or the Adriatic.

Two jobs before the redundancy I was in PR; one job before I was in consulting, for the redundancy itself, I reviewed porn sites.

I know. Best job ever.

And speaking of which – I think it may be time to say good job, Simon Smithson, and adieu, on this interview – we’ve covered a lot of ground and the internet is a tyrannical master on how much space we can allocate. Sir, it was a pleasure, and I’m honoured to share the name.

What’s your middle name, by the way? Mine’s Nicholas.

Unfortunately we don’t also share a middle name, mine’s John.

It’s possible the redundancy was a blessing. I can image that job would play hell on your joints.

Thanks for the opportunity to get to know you better, though it may turn out that few others find this conversation interesting I’ve found it rather enjoyable!

Carpe Botulus!

To my darling Cecilia,

I’ve spent much of the day – such a harsh and lonely day! – reclining in my recliner and daydreaming of the house we once shared, of the days that once were, and are no more. I ate the remaining crabcakes – such last and homely crabcakes! – and washed them down with recollections of the home we made together, where we, or at least I, had so many good times. In the afternoon I bought some shirts.

And I was nearly overcome by the brutal and unforgiving strength of my fond memories. Nostalgia gripped me like a headlock from Jean-Claude Van-Damme, except around the face, and every time I tried desperately to break the hold of the past and steal a gasp of the present, all I could taste was another muscly mouthful of sweating Belgian.

Metaphorically.

I laughed as I remembered lying on my hammock in our shade-dappled orchard backyard, sipping on a glass of iced tea (as cold and refreshing as if it had been squeezed straight from Martin Sheen’s heart), the sun on my face, watching you gingerly reshingle the roof. I chortled heartily as I remembered you, shaky-voiced and trembling, confessing you had a mortal terror of heights. I guffawed until I couldn’t breathe and I started to faintly taste vomit as I recalled the terrified shrieks of anguish you made, falling three storeys up, only to hook your ankle on the giant breasts of one of the gargoyles that I had selected, and you had paid for and installed, some months previous.

Ah.

Those were the days, all right.

How I wish we still lived together now, Cecilia, because then my heart would once more be overflowing with love. And also, because I wouldn’t have to leave the house, or even the couch, really, to get laid.

But mainly, it would be about my love.

My love for my swimming pool, which cherished and understood me better than you ever could. Diving into its cool, forgiving waters was like hearing a choir of archangels sing Handel’s Messiah. Closing my eyes and drifting through its peaceful shallows was like listening to Mariah Carey’s sensual audiobook interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita. Swimming into the embrace of its darkened depths was like watching Joe Pesci get pulled apart by rabid timber wolves. It was my solace, and my bliss, and my respite from your well-meaning but misplaced and wearyingly continual attempts to engage me in conversation.

Just as there is no longer a you with which to spend my life, so too is there no longer a swimming pool in which to avoid you in.

And it’s breaking my heart, Cecilia.

I spend my nights alone now – alone and shirtless, gently rocking back and forth in this rocking chair that we bought together with your money for your mother, feeling the cool night breeze slink in through the open bay windows and caress my naked torso with gentle fingers. Sometimes I eat a sandwich and play Mortal Kombat to take my mind off my troubles, it’s true, but that’s not very often. Sometimes I wonder if Lord Byron would have been so moody if he’d had the chance to assume the role of Raiden, God of Thunder, and teleport from one side of a room to another, shooting bolts of lightning as he did so.

But Mortal Kombat is no you, Cecilia! Just as you are no swimming pool! I’ve been forced to make do with sneaking into my neighbour’s hot tub at nights, although, I have to say, the most entertaining part of these little endeavours lies in selecting which of the secret passages I have devised into his back yard to use – an idea that I lifted in its entirety from an Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Three Investigators novel:  The Mystery of the Falsified Paternity Test.

Do you remember our secret tunnels, Cecilia? I’m sure you don’t, because I never once shared the location of them with you, as it would most likely have raised questions about how I never had to buy gas, and your car kept getting siphoned clean, even when you parked at your sister’s house seven blocks over. Let me just say this – that with a shovel and determination, a packed meal and an up-to-date map of the municipal sewer system, a man can get his hands on a surprisingly large amount of his de facto wife’s car’s gasoline. If you catch my drift.

If I must spell it out for you, what I mean to imply is that I spent a lot of time watching your sister undress.

There.

I’ve said it.

The moon is full and the Glenlivet is good and the night is hot, Cecilia. Hot like the sex you had with Steve Buscemi on the Oriental rug that I brought back from the Orient, along with a scale model of the Orient Express. Although there were no Gypsy thieves making gas attacks on that particular miniature.

How happy I was when I walked in the door with that rug, proclaiming ‘Fuckin’ awesome! Check out this badass rug! I already totally love it way more than I’ll ever love you! I sure do hope I never catch you having a sex with a male celebrity or overweight female celebrity on this!’

Yeah.

I asked for one thing.

I turn for you, tragically,

Simon

Hi again, Cynthia Hawkins! I guess this was inevitable-we’ve spoken about the past history of action films (or at least, that part of it that fell in the 1980s), we’ve waxed lyrical about The Expendables and how it’s a modern-day retelling of those older stories… but we haven’t covered the extensions of those series; your Predators, your Die Hard 4.0s, your-and I’m sorry to use this words on such an august site as TNB-your Crystal Skulls.

Man, I hated that film.

To my darling Cecilia,

It’s all gone wrong, Cecilia. And I spend my nights lying awake and alone in my cold, comfortable bed, under my cold and comfortable duvet, tearing my memory to shreds and then tearing those shreds again, trying to pinpoint the exact moment when everything started to come undone.

Was it when I first set my sights on the distant heights of success, stood up tall and proud like my adorable monkey ancestors looking out over the rolling grass of the African veldt, and said ‘Yes, I will be a writer. A writer who dedicates himself to the wonder, to the art and the intricacy of his craft, to the dark forests of human nature, to the ravenous whirlpools of believable characterisation, and the majestic, lofty skyscrapers of interesting plot scenarios, but also, who makes a lot of money, sells film rights every week, and spends a lot of time in his Jacuzzi with at least two women?’ Was it when I challenged Frank Sinatra Jr. to a winner-takes-all pentathlon, my only understanding of the pentathlon coming from that Dolph Lundgren movie, Pentathlon? Or was it when you first set eyes on that rat-fuck Steve Buscemi, and your heart and, more concerning, your body, were lost to me forever?

I still love you, Cecilia. I still remember our first night of passion under the watchful eyes of your Chat Noir poster, in your fashionable and hip second-floor apartment, when we destroyed two beanbags and I broke my wrist. I still remember those lazy afternoons, when we lay content in each others’s arms, like basking oysters in the sun, and I kept saying ‘Man. Do you remember that night when I broke my wrist while we were having sex? Fuck, I’ve told so many people about that. Honestly, I’ve just been grabbing strangers from right off the street and telling them all about it. Straight up. Jive. Sassafras on the fifteen-hundred. Funky drummer.’

Then, as now, I had no idea how to stop once I had started using street lingo.

The slow murmurs of memory are a song that steals my sleep at night, my every pillowcase ruined by the acid of my tears. I remember how you played the guitar, your fingertips gently whispering a command to every fret they romanced. I remember how I’d be woken in the midnight hours by the sound of you inventing your latest invention, your muscular shoulders strapped tightly as you rained hammer-blows down on glowing steel.

And I remember coming home early from work to find you riding Steve Buscemi like a champion thoroughbred who has been breakfasting on finest Bolivian Red for a week and is starting to like it.

Buscemi.

I don’t care that you loved him, if I ever see that man on the street I’m going to pistol-whip him like a red-headed stepchild. I don’t care that he’s got biceps like train carriages, or triceps like city buses, or calves like suitcases full of boa constrictors – the big kind of suitcases, and the big kind of boa constrictors. Whenever I think of you, Cecilia, and, believe me, I think of you often, your face is blotted out by Buscemi’s laughter. The laughter he laughed while he declared me laughable, as I stood in the doorway to the lounge room and I screamed ‘Cecilia! Steve Buscemi from Fargo, and Armageddon, and a host of other, equally-memorable character-based roles! Oh, merciful God, no!’

He didn’t even miss a stroke. He just kept laughing.

Fucking Steve Buscemi.

Did you do it to punish me, Cecilia? Did you do it as revenge for all the times I said I wanted a time machine so I could travel back to the day when the Breeders were filming the clip to Cannonball, so I could have sex with Kim Deal while she was wearing a wide variety of different but entirely flattering outfits? Because I only said that a dozen or so times, at most, most of which were while we were at breakfast with your friends – and I want you to know I was playing to the crowd when I used the phrase ‘and probably Kim Deal’s sister, Kelly Deal, at the same time.’

Because Kim, really, was the prize from that family.

Can’t we try again, my love? Without that sexual powerhouse Buscemi to ruin it all?

I miss you,so much. Every time I sit in the rocking chair we bought for your mother’s birthday and  I subsquently decided was too good for her, I think of your smile. I remember how I laughed when you found out  I had stolen the chair back from your mother’s party with the aid of my friend Harry. It was the funniest thing since Harry’s brother (Larry) asked me to be the best man at his wedding, and that bridesmaid thought that I was winking, when in fact I was blinking, because I’d been thinking.

So much has changed, my heart. My deepening madness has taken me to strange and unforgiving places, and I’m not the man I once was. I’ve been working out, Cecilia. No longer do I need two breaks to finish a glass of low-fat milk. These days I drink full-cream milk by the carton and I can hurl a half-brick through a car windshield from four blocks away.

Your new boyfriend is driving a Mercedes now, right? A black 2007 model with heated seats, triple-coil suspension, and a slight scratch on the top right hand corner of the underneath of the intake manifold? And he finds that sometimes he needs to re-adjust the seats after spending the night at your place, almost as if someone has made duplicates of his car keys and is embarking on a long-term campaign to subtly throw off his balance, little by little? So that someday, at his beloved Zumba classes, he over-extends and snaps one of his equally-beloved vertebrae, perhaps somewhere around the superior articular region?

Anyway.

I have to go now, Cecilia. I have a deadline to meet, and maybe, when I am very rich, you will love me again. If this is the case, please let me know what levels of affection would correspond to what amounts of money.

Christ, I love you.

I burn for you, tragically.

Simon.

Some people go to church on Sundays. I go to office supply stores.

Some people see organisation as a handy but ultimately dispensable tool; a way to corral the events and chores of the day into a docile herd of cattle to drive from the Texas of the morning through the Arkansas of the afternoon, finally coming to rest in the quiet Missouri of the night.

I see organisation as a religion, and every horizontal line on the pages of my daily planner is an ironclad commandment that will keep my eternal soul safe from the fires of damnation and the Devil’s searching hands¹.

Some people are content to let life come as it may and make do with writing the occasional reminder on their Google Calendar that Cobalt Larry expects the money from the book they’re keeping back on Friday and the vig is running².

I pray for these misguided fools, but not often, because I don’t want to throw my schedule out.

I’m trying to make two points here. The first is that suck it Rangers, we won the Series. The second is that my childlike faith in the power of organisation to get me everything I have ever wanted is, at one and the same time, absolutely steadfast and almost completely bordering on the mindless. Especially when taking into consideration the fact that my complex and multi-faceted plans – which can be ludicrously short on detail, but make up for that by being even ludicrouslyer shorter on plausibility³ and correct word usage – rarely go off without a hitch. And that hitch is almost always due to the fact that when it comes time to actually do something, I instead always choose to watch TV.

My reasoning for this is entirely justified. I watch TV because I really, really want to. And while, somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m all too aware there’s an Excel file lying dormant in the far reaches of my computer, at the front of my mind, and much bigger, there’s an awareness that I like to sit on the couch and watch Dexter much more than I like doing any real and actual work, or, indeed, moving much. If it wasn’t for the fall programming break, I would have starved to death years ago.

In principle, the end goal of this kind of hyper-organisation is one of freedom. It stands to reason that if I can get all the things I want to get done out of the way in an intelligent, timely manner, then I will be a) more productive in general, b) more relaxed, and c) left with more time to enjoy my leisure time, as there will be fewer things to crowd in and demand my attention throughout the day.

In practice, this usually goes south in a matter of hours, if not minutes, because inevitably, I fall victim to my various psychological resistances⁴ to accomplishing anything beyond keeping my Spam folder clean of advertisements for Viagra⁵ or, ironically, spamming everyone foolish enough to not have blocked me from their feed yet with constant, unremitting Facebook status updates⁶.

Trying to move past this self-destructive streak is like Tobey Maguire fighting the Sandman in Spiderman 3. No matter what punches you throw, no matter how relentlessly you fight, no matter how hard you hit… you’re still in a terrible, terrible, bad, awful film, and Topher Grace is the only one getting away with his dignity intact.

Knowing this, I still press on.

After returning from the US earlier this year, I decided I needed a plan. I decided I needed direction and structure and motivation. I decided I would put together a list of 20 goals – no more, no less – and knock them over, one by one. I chose to keep the list contained to 20 because I knew I have a tendency to over-burden myself, and, by attempting to do too much, in fact accomplish nothing⁷.

20! I said to myself. And no more! I refuse to fall into the same trap again!

25! I said to myself, one week later. And no more!

I gave myself three months. 25 things across 12 weeks; a mix of the easy and the hard, the time-sensitive and the expansive, the achievable and the requiring of divine assistance.

Given that Plan A hadn’t gone as hoped, I decided to name this goal list Plan B.

Part One.

I enjoy headings.

I completed 17 of the 25 items by the time my self-imposed time limit was done, and the 8 remaining were in varying stages of completion. Not bad, for a first run, I said to myself. And I can’t believe Joe Biden didn’t write back. I thought he was cool. And then, as I was coming back (again) from the USA (again) a few weeks ago, on my Virgin Australia flight, thirty thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean, I started sketching out Plan B, Part Two.

Again, 20 items. Again, 12 weeks. But this time, I decided, I would expand my knowledge base. I would husband the gaps in my ability with the intelligence of others. I would create a Facebook group, and ask for the insight and advice of the people I knew. I would access their knowledge and know-how and make my tasks simpler. Running 10K? What do I know about running 10K? Nothing, that’s what.

But I knew I knew people who did.

I created my group, sent out my invites, and got to the work of creating my list of goals.

Very quickly, the replies started to pour back in, and I nodded, sagely, to myself. There it is, Simon, I thought. Proof. Undeniable proof. You’re a genius. No one has ever thought of anything this smart ever. And I started reading through the accumulated wisdom of my peers.

Alice: Hey, do you know every time you update something, I get an email?

Ben: Hey, do you know every time you make a change on this group, Facebook emails me?

Rachel: ARGH WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING TO MY INBOX?

If you have no experience with the new Facebook Groups system, what you may not know is that the new default settings mean:

  1. People don’t have the option of choosing to say yes to group membership. If you invite them, they are automatically added and it’s left up to them to choose to leave.
  2. People have to additionally uncheck, rather than check, their approval of receiving notifications about each and every single thing that happens in said group.

If you have no experience with the new Facebook Groups system, what you quickly find out is that everyone gets annoyed by:

  1. Receiving 40 odd emails informing them of every single thing that’s written, in a group that
  2. they didn’t agree to joining in the first place.

After posting groveling apologies within the group, as my status and via email, and wondering aloud at the wisdom of a system that could, technically, allow me to add anyone I was friends with to a group titled anything I wanted, take a screenshot of their membership, and then send said screenshot to their place of employment, families, and Fantasy Baseball leagues, I started hastily deleting people from the group so they didn’t receive more of the same messages.

Once again, I blame Zuckerburg for everything.

That has ever happened to me.

However.

Wildly non-helpful mass emailing of the people I had asked to help me aside, I managed to get my twenty-goal list up and exposed to the accumulated genius of the group.

  1. 8 weeks of Spanish revision
  2. Complete and launch an in-progress e-publishing idea
  3. Complete and submit an in-progress non-fiction proposal
  4. Complete and submit an in-progress scripted TV pilot pitch in the States
  5. Write four pieces for magazine submission
  6. Write my reading list for 2011
  7. Write my writing list for 2011 (list of lists are some of my favourite lists)
  8. 12 weeks of working out and swimming
  9. Take my tri-weekly runs from 5K to 10K (or 3.1 miles to 6.2 miles)
  10. Clean and organise everything
  11. A new laptop
  12. A new camera
  13. Pay off my credit card debt
  14. Write 4 pieces for TNB
  15. Work out where to take my Plan B in 2011
  16. Take better care of my skin
  17. Complete and submit an in-progress scripted TV pitch in Australia
  18. Plan out a vacation with some friends over Christmas
  19. Work out a way to live in the USA again
  20. Make $50K.

Some are designed to be easy. Writing lists of books I want to read, or avenues of publication I’d like to follow up? Easy. Surprisingly fun. And a good way to get some items knocked off straight off the bat and build some momentum. And I don’t have to break anyone’s legs (or put myself in a position where someone will break mine) to pay off my minor credit card debt; I simply wanted to be aware of it.

I have less than no idea how to make fifty grand in twelve weeks. But I figured it’s good to have something to shoot for. Also, I’d really like fifty thousand dollars.

And after the initial hurdles, advice flooded in. Don Mitchell and Kristen Elde provided help with running tips and guidelines for how to avoid injury. Photographer friends gave me advice on good camera buys. People told me what worked for their skin, for making housecleaning easy, for pitching scripts. People mentioned friends of their I should get in touch with; and, if nothing good is on TV tonight, I’m sure I will.

So far I’ve completed items #6, #7, #10, and #11, and made a start, at least, on every single other item.

Which is just as well, because with my schedule, it’s really hard to get anything done.









¹ The damnation of wasted time, and the searching hands of the Devil of an unrealistic budget. Also of my friend Clue, who has boundary issues and makes us all feel really uncomfortable.

² And if Cobalt Larry don’t get his end, you best believe someone’s going in the cobalt.

³ Life List Item #82: Be Mayor of Somewhere.*

* Seriously.

⁴ See: Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Paralysed/Maladaptive Perfectionism, and Gerard Butler-by-Proxy

⁵ Where do they keep coming from? Who keeps doing this?

⁶ Everything I think and do is interesting.

⁷ AKA Three Stooges Syndrome.

Departure

At half past five in the morning on a Wednesday Melbourne Airport is empty anyone but airline staff. The sun hasn’t yet risen, and the big bay gate windows face out into a vast darkness broken only by blinking red lights and the dim movement of the great shapes of planes.

Deserted airports are unsettling places. As many of the flights I’ve taken have been during peak traffic hours, I’m used to being surrounded by people; long lines of people, stretching away from the check-in desks manned by energetic, white-shirted staff with great skin, or waiting to be herded through the thin cream plastic gateways of metal detectors while security guards turn their heads away to joke with each other, but never with passengers, or standing bored at the boarding gate, the long blue-carpeted corridor and the sense of forward momentum that just being on a plane brings only a tantalising few steps away.

Sitting here all by myself is a little eerie.

I want to stay awake as long as I can, in order to reset to California time faster – if I can go to sleep eight hours into the flight from Brisbane, I’ll be well on the way to coaching my body over the line and past the worst of the jetlag on the other side of waking. But because I’m up so early, I’m already fatigued, and if I go to sleep too soon, I’ll end up setting myself back further. My plan is to sustain myself by drinking thin, complimentary airline coffee, the taste of which, inexplicably, I love anyway, and focusing on some writing I want to get done until it’s time to sleep.

The flight from Melbourne to Brisbane is OK, although Brisbane Airport is no place for a young man. Leathery middle-aged women with missing teeth and low-cut pink halter tops over their flat and freckled breasts and entire families resplendent in identical rat-tail mullets and Juicy Couture roam the halls, delighted with the presence of a solitary Krispy Kreme outlet staffed by a lone and defeated Indian man.

I make it through to my gate and find there’s no one here, either. Just a long concourse, clinical and neat in its white tiles and in its empty tables and chairs. It’s quiet; lifeless in a way that seems to have no expectation of ever being anything but.

Where is everyone today?

People arrive and sit in pairs and groups around the departure desk throughout the next hour. When boarding is announced and I take my seat on the plane to Los Angeles I wonder idly if there are going to be any young children sitting nearby. I’m situated two rows behind the main bulkhead, and as the plane starts to fill, my insides clench. Beside me is a family with an infant. To my right, a family with two toddlers. Ahead of me, two more families with young kids. As I watch, another two families, infants in tow, come down the aisle and take the rows across the aisle to my left.

‘Isn’t this nice!’ one mother exclaims to another. ‘All these families here! All the kids can play together!’

On cue, one of the younger babies starts to bawl, which sets off another on the other side of this grid of horror, this devil’s game of tic-tac-toe I have found myself imprisoned in.

‘Excuse me,’ I say to a stewardess as she walks past. ‘I see a seat up ahead is spare. Do you think I could…?’

Thank God, thank God, thank God I’m so good-looking, I think. She’s going to give me anything I want.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she says, smiling professionally. ‘That’s Premium Economy. I can’t let you sit there. But there are some seats spare down the back. After take-off, you could go and have a look to see if there are any still free? If someone else hasn’t beaten you to it?’

‘Thank you,’ I say, and sink back into my seat for take-off.

As soon as the fasten seatbelts light chimes off, I’m up and moving. Like a hungry ghost, I fly down the aisle.

And I see it.

It.

An oasis of solitude – empty seat surrounded by empty seat surrounded by empty seat; row after row of unreserved space. With one smooth motion, I strip my jacket from around my shoulders and launch it through the air. It soars in a graceful arc, its empty arms lifting like the eagle wings of sweet liberty herself, and lands perfectly in the middle seat of one of the empty rows, a message to the thieves and jackals who couldn’t think as fast as I: mine.

That night we hit the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced, and my three empty seats bring me no comfort. High above the Pacific, one of my three blankets tucked under my chin, and my three pillows gently cushioning my head against the shakes and buffets of the squalling wind beneath our wings, I close my eyes and think  Goddamnit. I’m never going to get to sleep on this flight.

I am right, and my next chance to close my eyes and rest comes at LAX. I catch a fifteen minute nap there, and thank God for the opportunity to sleep on the connecting flight to SFO, even if its only for an hour or so. After I’ve taken my seat, a pale and tousle-haired hipster kid slinks his way down the aisle. He is wearing jeans so tight I worry for his future children’s IQ, and a loose beige cardigan that matches his perfectly dishevelled, scruffy hair. He sits next to me, and before I take my nap I wonder what he would do if I warned him that sometimes I scream in my sleep.

But I do not, and I’m sure I will be sorry for this later.¹

*

Arrival

It’s Wednesday, still, more than twenty four hours later, and I wake from a deep and dreamless sleep as we’re touching down in San Francisco and catch a taxi from the airport to my hotel. The Huntington is a towering old building just below the top of Nob Hill on California Street that I can only afford because of the cut-rate prices on Priceline.com. My room number is 11-11, which I take as a good omen.

‘What brings you here?’ the desk clerk asks as I’m signing in.

‘Halloween, man,’ I say. It is the first of a hundred times this week I will say this.

‘You came just for Halloween?’ he asks. ‘Really?’

It is the first of a hundred times someone will ask this.

I shower and unpack before heading down the hill to buy toiletries and food and coffee. I’m here. I’ve done it. This is my time.

At last, I will have my Halloween.

*

Inside Baseball

It’s Thursday, and Meredith texts that she and her friends are going to watch Game 2 in a bar in Glen Park. On arrival, I am greeted by a sea of Giants fans in orange and black, and a buzz of friendly noise. I order a drink, Meredith introduces me, and I have to ask the group: ‘So how do you play this game?’

The rules are explained to me, and suddenly the bar erupts as we score against Texas.

‘OK!’ A, one of Meredith’s friends says. ‘Let’s drink a shot every time we score!’

In the eighth inning, Posey singles up the middle. Holland walks Schierholtz and Ross to load the bases, then walks Huff. Lowe walks Uribe, Rentería singles to left field, and Ross and Huff score. In the space of five minutes, the Giants score six runs, and we decide it may be in our best interests to abandon the drink-a-shot-whenever-we-score rule. Instead, we start drinking freely, and when the game ends with us victorious, we pour out into the night looking for another bar.

This is much better than any Australian sport.

*

Before Halloween

Just as I’d hoped, Halloween is everywhere and by serendipitous coincidence, with the city in the Series, the streets are decked out in orange and black.

Everywhere I look, there are carved pumpkins on porches,  or toy ghosts hanging in store windows, or cartoon witches soaring on broomsticks through supermarket shelves.

It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

My first real taste of the day comes as I’m getting a haircut at a salon a floor above street level. ‘Oh, quick!’ Joey the hairdresser says and puts down her scissors. ‘The kids from one of the schools nearby are trick-or-treating! You have to come see this, you’re going to love it!’

She drags me to the window and from our viewpoint about the street we can see the long lines of kids, held in formation by the watchful shapes of teachers, dotted at regular intervals along the column, dressed in costume. Sunlight glints off astronaut helmets, off fairy wings, off the blades of cutlasses worn through belts.

I hate all of the children. Their bright and shining faces remind me that this could have – should have – been mine, and it never was.

Also, one of them has a bitchin’ Lady Gaga outfit.

I could never pull that off, and I know it.

Saturday night is Meredith’s all-girl football team fundraiser. Ten bucks at the door buys unlimited PBR, and Sue’s packing a giant bowl of Jello shots. Me and Zhu and Emily, Kate and Tara and Lindsey, and Lyn and Erin and Casey shout at the TV as the Rangers take the lead in Game 3 and beat the Giants. We turn to the bottomless PBR to drown our sorrow. Someone puts twenty bucks in the jukebox. The fundraiser tails into an invitation to a house party in the Mission, and we drag ourselves away from Stray Bar in Bernal Heights and work our way there across 18th, across Dolores, by bicycle, by taxi, by car.

The house party is being held by someone named Tersch, a werewolf with a kitchen full of Brazilians. She paints my face in black and red and shows me where the drinks are.

Zhu and I make it our unspoken mission to have more fun than anyone else here. We drink the unfinished Jello shots, we shoot Tersch’s whiskey, and when someone starts passing around a bottle of Jager, we can’t seem to avoid it. Twenty minutes into the party, Zhu’s doing a handstand against the wall and I’m holding onto her boots while she drinks a cup of water upside down to cure her hiccups. A nerd and a Native American and Cupid look on and laugh as Zhu proclaims her temporary illness finally fixed.

Somehow, a half dozen of us end up sitting on the side of the street, under a blanket in the bed of Cupid’s truck, crowds of hundreds of migratory Halloweeners laughing and partying and shouting out around us. Someone steals Tara’s crutch while we’re not looking, and I run across the street to ask security at the nearby street party if they’ve seen it.

I see a girl sitting holding onto a crutch and I think Aha! I’ve got you now!

Then I see she’s wearing a giant moon boot.

‘Can I help you?’ she asks.

‘Oh.’ I say. ‘Well, see, someone stole my friend’s crutch, and I thought… ‘

She looks at me, and with the honesty of someone who’s been drinking for about six straight hours, I say ‘I figured maybe you’d be the kind of awful human being who would steal someone’s crutch, but now I see that you have that big boot on, so you probably need your crutch, but I kinda hoped that whoever stole the crutch maybe thought it was part of a costume, because who steals a crutch? So I came over to check, but it looks like you actually legitimately need your crutch, and you didn’t steal it from my friend. Oh. Both of your crutches, I see.’

‘Your poor friend!’ she says. ‘I wish I could give her one of my crutches.’

‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Anyway, I’m gonna go.’

*

Halloween

It’s Sunday, and I’m going to meet  friends in a bar in Bernal Heights to watch Game 4 and grab a few quiet drinks. I catch the 22 to the top of the hill, and when I get off, the sky is still that perfect hazy shade of powder blue and ice-cream white.

I have no way of knowing that Bernal Heights is where people take their children for trick-or-treating. It’s like the whole suburban neighbourhood turns into a small town for the night – I crest the hill to see an ocean of people with their children, everyone in costume, wishing each other the best and knocking on doors. Jack O’Lanterns sit outside houses and stores alike; ghosts and witches hang from streetlights, the doors of haunted houses are thrown open to reveal thick cobwebs and polished skulls and grinning demons.

This is so perfect I’m almost on the verge of tears. This is everything I ever wanted from my childhood, and it’s right here. This is exactly how I pictured Halloween as being when I was a kid. I move through the crowd, taking photos, talking and smiling and never wanting to be anywhere but here.

*

Fear the Beard

It’s Monday night and Meredith and I are in the Mission. We’re sitting and watching Game 5 with two friends of hers. Lincecum is pitching what may turn out to be the game of his life – firing off eight innings of death from the mound. I wonder if he’s related to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and why his face looks like it’s always going to crumple into tears.

The ninth rolls around with the score 3-1 to the Giants.  Wilson takes the mound. He strikes out Hamilton, Guerrero grounds out, and Cruz takes the plate.

We’re watching the game on a TV with a delay of maybe two seconds, so as we see Wilson wind up for his final pitch and a roar suddenly goes up over the Mission, we know we’ve won.

Meredith and I take to the streets to meet some people I know, and the city has become a madhouse. Everywhere, Giants fans are roaring, running through the streets, slamming their palms down onto the horns in their cars. There are cops and roadblocks in the Castro, while people shout and sing and throw rolls of toilet paper over the streetlights. No one is inside; it’s like we just won every war that’s ever been fought.

Later that night, as I’m walking down Market Street, I come to a pedestrian crossing in front of a line of cars that goes back three blocks.

Unable to help myself, I yell ‘Go Giants!’ and the intersection explodes with the sound of people calling back to me and honking their horns. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The next day I read that people were burning mattresses in the streets.

Those guys party much harder than I do.

*

Jornada del Muerto

It’s Tuesday, and we’re in a giant open warehouse with a skull-headed DJ playing beats. For five dollars, make-up artists will paint your face with spray guns, shading paints, brushes and pads and pencils. But there are too many people here, and the line is too long, and the parade starts at seven. Zoe takes me to the DIY table and makes me up with black eyes, a hollow nose, and lipless teeth. She makes up Lexy too, before we head off for the parade. The organiser with giant hoops in his ears is bitchy about giving me my money back.

‘Well, I guess you’ll have to get here earlier next year, won’t you?’ he says.

Well, I guess that would help if I lived here.

Five of us start off through the Mission, following the route of the parade for Dia de Los Muertos, but Zoe’s stylist, whose name I can’t remember, hangs back to meet some people. Lexy and I and the other girl, another forgotten name, lose Zoe, then find her, then I lose the group. We stay in phone contact as I wander through crowds of the dead. Hundreds, thousands. Skulls and candles and offerings are everywhere. A giant black coach emblazoned with calaveras moves slowly through the mass of people that packs the streets. People hoist paper skeletons high on poles. Dead women in white dresses and dead men in black suits move through the crowd to the beat of graveyard drums.

I find myself at the head of the parade; dancers in long headgear shake and writhe under long banners. Somehow, I’ve overshot the mark of meeting everyone. There’s an anonymity here, all of us dead together and reaching out to offer a spark of life and love to that other black world that crowds in around us tonight.

I can’t believe I’ve never been to Dia de Los Muertos before.

This is the best week ever.


 

*

San Francisco

It’s Wednesday, and I start to realise just how much I miss it here as I walk into Walgreen’s for the first time.

I miss the way the light breaks over the top of houses in Bernal Heights and Noe Valley.

I miss the way coffee shops with dark wooden interiors and twentysomethings with yoga mats using Apple computers sit alongside Starbucks full of professionals with that wholesome mid-Western American look.

I miss that cold clean breeze that moves through the streets when the end of the afternoon starts to deepen into the start of twilight, and I miss the inexorable chill that signals the sun is going down.

I miss standing on the porch in the Castro and seeing the city spread out in front of me at night.

While I’m here, I walk from Chinatown to City Lights bookstore. I catch the Muni as much as I’m able, from Powell to Church, to the Castro. I catch the BART out to the Mission. I walk through Nob Hill, through the Mission, through the Embarcadero. At long last, I catch a cable car. I sit in Barnes and Noble and drink caramel lattes, and I want to be back here.

We drink at the Lex, we drink at the Argus, we drink at Stray Bar. We get coffee at Philz, at La Taza, at Urban Bread.

I get lunch with Angela Tung, and a bird relieves itself in my hair.

I sit in Dolores Park with Meredith, and we talk about traveling and settling down.

I buy a Giants cap at the Westfield Mall, and, unwittingly, take off and throw away the hologram on the brim that will result in it being worth money some day. I don’t care; I’m never selling this thing.

I promise myself that I’m going to get back here. Some way or another.

 

*

Los Angeles

It’s Wednesday, and I arrive, exhausted, at the Grafton, on Sunset. I make a couple of calls, send a few texts, and open up my laptop  to discover that the loose casing (my fault) has finally cost me. A wire is visibly broken, and my computer won’t turn on. I sit down on the bed and wake up the next morning.

*

My American Year

It’s Thursday, and my friend Erinn comes into town from Ventura and spends the day ferrying me around. We go to Olvera Street and I buy a bunch of Dia de Los Muertos souvenirs for people. I pick up a 50-piece jigsaw puzzle for my mother, suddenly acutely aware that I have never once brought her back anything from overseas.

Better late than never, right?

We head out to the beach and I insist we find a place where I can buy a yearly planner for 2011. My reasoning is that if I buy it in America, it will be a sign to the universe that 2011, for me, will be a year spent in America.

I’m wearing my Giants cap, and we pass a woman wearing the same as we cross the streets.

‘Go Giants!’ I say, cheerfully. The woman stares at me blankly as we walk past.

‘Who were you talking to?’ Erinn asks. I shake my head and make a note not to show off any more.

Then as we’re in line at Barnes and Noble, where I’ve found a planner I like, I see a guy wearing a Giants cap two places ahead at the counter. He sees me looking at my hat as I see him looking at mine. He doesn’t say a word, just gives me a silent, satisfied nod of affirmation. Erinn laughs beside me.

‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘I saw.’

*

The Usual Suspects

It’s Thursday night and I can’t help it; if I think of Hollywood I think of Los Angeles, if I think of Los Angeles, I think of Lenore and Duke. If I think of Lenore or Duke, I think of Los Angeles, and I think of Hollywood. It’s just the way it goes.

Lenore and Duke pick me up from my hotel and we go to Delancey’s for dinner. I like that this is where we go when we’re together in Los Angeles, like it’s kind of where you go if you write for TNB. There’s an empty place at the table for four, and we allocate it to Zara, who calls a few moments into the meal. The food, as always, is good. Duke gets the chocolate cake for dessert, and I am jealous, as his choice is superior to mine.

It’s good to see them, and it’s strange to think I just got here and already I’ll be leaving tomorrow night. On the way back to the car we pass a cat who wants to play with us, and we decide that Zara’s place in the group can be taken by our new cat friend.

I secretly cannot wait to tell Zara she has been replaced by a cat.

*

Departures

It’s Friday, and I’m hanging out with my friend Linz. I’ve stolen Ben Loory’s delicatessen, Greenblatt’s. This is his place, as far as I’m concerned, but I want the hot pastrami dip sandwich. I must have it. I can have nothing else. The waitress is from San Diego and makes idle chatter as we wait about how good San Diego is, but has trouble pulling out specifics.

‘Hang on,’ I say. ‘We’re going to settle something.’

I call Joe Daly and ask him what the best place in San Diego is.

‘My house,’ he says, sounding surprised that such a question would even occur.

I promise Joe that Zara and I will make our next trip soon, and we will come to San Diego.

The day goes by too quickly, and soon I am back at LAX. I talk in my bad Spanish to the woman in front of me at the security checkpoint. She is from Colombia and going to Wisconsin, of all places. She is old, with bad teeth and a shy smile. We sit together after going through the metal detectors and put our shoes back on. Something falls from her bag, a piece of paper, and I hand it back to her.

‘Gracias, senor,’ she says.

‘De nada, senora,’ I say in reply. ‘Que tenga un bueno noche.’

‘Si,’ she says. ‘Y tu.’

I have no idea how to say, ‘I’ve had one of the best weeks of my life and I don’t want to go back to Australia yet,’ in Spanish. We haven’t covered that at El Patio Spanish Language School. So I smile and go to catch my flight, and in my head, I am laying plans for my return.

This week I have had my first baseball game, my first Halloween, my first Dia de Los Muertos. I have drunk my first Old-Fashioned, eaten my first tamale, done whatever it is you do with your first Jello shots. I have seen people I love and don’t see enough, people I don’t see nearly as much as I want to, because they’re so far away.

I could do this week every day of the year.

 

 

 

 





¹ – correct.


As you may know—but may not, because of my Scorpio predilection for Dick Cheney-level secrecy—I am a semi-professional astrologer.*For many months, I have been quietly collecting birth data from TNB contributors** whenever the topic came up on the comment boards, a sort of horoscopical scavenger hunt that netted quite a few charts for my burgeoning collection.

I don’t have many memories from kindergarten. I remember Paul Angelos, heavyset and Greek and the first bully our class ever encountered¹, scrawling a curse word on the side of our bright red plastic playhouse. I remember guiltily stealing an intricately-detailed toy space shuttle that had been die-cast from some kind of dense metal – I stowed it in my palm and could still hide it completely by closing my fingers, such was its size, and yet it had considerable heft, and dragged at me in my pockets as I walked out of the gate and home. I remember also a night one December when my father read Christmas stories to a group of us as we sat cross-legged in pajamas around his chair; what stands out most in my mind is that it was the first time I’d heard ‘Saint Nick’ used as a sobriquet for Santa Claus.

Cynthia Hawkins:  Hi Simon Smithson! Here we are again like an ’80s action sequel striving to be bigger and badder than last time. I’d just like to note that for the occasion I’m wearing mirrored sunglasses and just lit a match off my husband’s five o’clock shadow for no reason at all.  In other words, I’m ready to discuss The Expendables.

SS: Hi, Cynthia Hawkins! I’ve been enjoying your cinema posts on TNB; given that people are discussing and deconstructing literature and music and poetry it seems only fair that film is included. I’m glad you’re picking up the slack on that front, and I’m glad you seem to have become TNB’s resident movie buff. However, for this particular piece I’m not even going to make an attempt to go highbrow or even to attempt a neat segue … because what I’d really like to discuss is ’80s action flicks. The ’80s (to me) seems to be when action movies really hit their stride. I’m talking Terminator, Aliens, Die Hard, Predator… First Blood, Tango and Cash, Commando. This was the golden age of guys like Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Do you think there’s a defining quality, or qualities, to the action films that were such an iconic part of the 1980s?

CH: Why, hello, Simon Smithson! You don’t know how happy it makes me to take up any slack there might be in the TNB movie department. Finally, I feel as if my movie-geekness is being used for good instead of evil. And by evil I mean being unbeatable at Scene It on X-Box. It’s like I finally have a true purpose now, and that purpose is to talk about ’80s action flicks with Simon Smithson. I’d say ’80s action flicks were equal parts mullet, saxophone, slip-on shoes, and kicking ass. But more importantly, I think what seems to set the ’80s action flicks apart as a golden era is that they departed from the gritty realism of the ’70s action flicks and took action movies over the top. Everything was bigger and flashier — the actors, their personalities, the explosions. The same thing was happening in music as well, if you think about it. It’s like going from Boston to Motley Crue.

SS: Well, if you were to have any kind of life purpose, you probably couldn’t get better than talking about ’80s action flicks with yours truly.

Obviously, I’m kidding.

There’s no place for the word ‘probably’ in that sentence.

Do you think advances in special effects had anything to do with the hallmarks of the era? The technical ability catching up with the film-makers’s vision? Because you’re so right – reality went straight out the window. Suddenly, the archetypal story became the one guy, killing a whole bunch of other guys, in the most explosive ways possible, and kind of enjoying himself while he did it.

CH: Your description of the jubilant one-guy killing machine immediately brings to mind Bruce Willis yelling “Yippee ki yay, mother fucker!” in Die Hard. That has to be the quintessential ’80s movie moment. It has everything except a mullet. Now that you mention it, I don’t think the bombast of the era could have been facilitated without those advancements. But it’s funny to think of them as “advancements” now. I remember at the time The Terminator was, in true James Cameron fashion, supposed to be the second-coming of movies thanks to its use of the absolute latest in special effects. Watch that now, though, and it looks a bit chintzy by today’s standards.

In fact, it’s a little hard to pinpoint ’80s action films that do stand the test of time, whether that’s due to the special effects or not. They tend to be so very ’80s even when they aren’t supposed to be. Take Young Guns, for example. A western, so I’m veering a little from the action genre here, but even Billy the Kid has a mullet in Young Guns. And I’m pretty sure there’s a Casio on the soundtrack. The ’80s flicks unabashedly embrace the tastes and trends of the era in ways I don’t necessarily notice films in the decades after doing to that same degree. It’s not too much of a distraction for me, though. I love The Terminator anyway, even if a shot does look like an egg beater getting mangled in a high-school wood-shop vice. Since this is one of your favourite eras and genres, I’m wondering if there are a few that do stand the test of time for you — or if perhaps their rebellious refusal to do so might be part of their allure?

SS: I think you’re right – there’s so much about ’80s movies as a whole – not just action flicks – that are so soaked in the unique ambience of the decade that it’s impossible to see them as anything else. In terms of special effects, some films stand the test of time… some really don’t. So much of a film’s longevity comes down to storytelling, and so much comes down to how and what special effects are being used, and how judiciously – Aliens, for example. The menace is hinted at in darkness, and done with model work as opposed to the shoddy early-era CGI that started coming in afterwards. And it’s amazing how the monsters in Aliens look so much realer than the creature in Alien 3.

I think what makes an action film stand the test of time is – and I’m loath to say this, I really am – honesty. For want of a better word.

Take Die Hard, for instance. It was a new take on a genre that was still being figured out; the storyline was one everyman up against terrible odds, he’s human, he’s damaged, he keeps getting beaten down… then compare that to Die Hard 4.0, which is slick and highly-produced and had tens of millions thrown at it in post-production. Die Hard is, by far, the better, more memorable, and more re-watchable film. Because I think they were still taking risks and trying new things and working from an idea rather than market research and exit polls, as opposed to the hollowness of Die Hard 4.0. Even though, I guess, Die Hard was one of the films that moved action films into the ’90s.

So. Schwarzenegger. Stallone. Willis. Van Damme. Russell. Norris.

Any particular favourite? And why?

CH: I noticed you left Mel Gibson off that list. Does his sharp turn into utter misogynistic, racist madness cancel him out of ’80s flick glory? Talk about things that can make a movie largely unwatchable. Is it possible to watch his Three-Stooges flip-out scenes as Riggs in Lethal Weapon without inserting that weird animal huffing followed by something like, “And I’m gonna chop you up in little pieces and put you in the garden! Rawr!” Tsk, tsk, Mel. You coulda been a contenda.

Stallone. I’d have to say Stallone is the stand-out for the variety of iconic characters he portrayed, the success of the majority of his films, and the fact that his works span that entire decade (whereas someone like Bruce is just getting started at the end of it). Stallone’s characters tend to be dark, brooding outsiders, which always appeals to me because there’s something in that darkness that implies this person is capable of wreaking serious havoc without a moment’s notice. You have faith in this person no matter the odds.

It’s an interesting list you’ve created, though, because each of them had such strong and distinct personalities driving their films. And if there’s anyone I’d cross off it’d be because their personalities just don’t click with me. Chuck Norris for example (I think I just unleashed the hate mail kraken!). Norris’ films just seemed comparatively sub-par in my estimation and his characters weren’t quite compelling enough to remedy that for me. I know I’ll meet with dissenters on that score, and I’ll probably deserve it.

I expect you to answer this question of favourites now, because if I’m going out on a limb here you’re coming with me compadre!

SS: Mel has, unfortunately, lost all cachet with me. Even home-town pride only goes so far, you know?

I have to go for Stallone as well. He gets a lot of flak for his less cerebral roles (which, let’s be fair, sums up most of them), but I would have dinner with him any day of the week.

Admittedly, he would pay.

The guy wrote Rocky when he was 30 and won an Academy Award for it. Say what you like, that’s a better script than I see myself writing at 30. He threw himself into action roles – First Blood is a good movie too; there’s a reason the word ‘Rambo’ became synonomous with the genre – but there’s a lot of darkness and thought that went into Stallone’s performance. I’ve never actually seen a Norris film – I just suspect I wouldn’t care for him, and I don’t really feel any yearning to challenge that assumption.

It’s interesting you say ’80s flick glory – because there’s a lot of glorying going on in ’80s actions flicks. I can’t help but link it to the fact the US was riding high in the ’80s – there’s even a scene in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where they talk about how people aren’t patriotic any more, and Mac says ‘Not like we were in the ’80s!’

Your thoughts on this matter, Ms. Hawkins?

CH: You do realize that there are now parts of the U.S., Texas mostly, in which we’ll only be able to travel incognito due to our Norris sentiments. And I live in Texas. There’s such a fervour over Norris of late, and I haven’t figured out if it’s a joke (like nominating Carrie for prom queen) or if it’s genuine admiration for the guy. I think I’ll quietly tiptoe away from this one and move along…

Oh, I absolutely agree that the bigness of those movies is reflective of the bigness of America’s collective sense of self at the time. I’ve always suspected that the best way to get a handle on any era is through its pop-culture. That said, this is the U.S.A. of the ‘80s based on Rocky IV: “If all we have is a donkey cart to train on, we can still kick your ass. And we will do it to synthesizers. Now, step back and take in the awesomeness of my shimmery satin stars-and-stripes shorts.”

But this reminds me that as much as we love them, these films aren’t entirely representative. They’re largely white, and they’re largely male-centric. Your thoughts on this, Mr. Smithson? (It’s like I just dropped a grenade at your feet and ran away!)

…Okay, I’m starting to feel bad for sticking you with analyzing 80’s flicks for NOT ONLY issues of race but gender as well. I mean, sweet jeebus, how much time do you have? If you’d rather, I was also going to ask you about what you thought of Stallone’s comment regarding the “death” of the genre as it was envisioned in the 80’s. If you’d rather go that route, here’s the official set-up…

Ahem…

So, Stallone told the Los Angeles Times recently that he felt Tim Burton’s Batman marked the beginning of the end for the 80’s-style action hero such as himself. Suddenly, someone more ordinary, less ripped, someone like Michael Keaton, could be the hero. He also felt that the “visuals took over,” becoming more important than the individual. Do you think the 80’s brand of action movie and action hero is truly dead? And, if so, would you agree with Stallone’s assessment of why? I’ll remind you he’s still really big and he’s buying you dinner.

SS: But wasn’t that what America was all about in the ’80s? White guys kicking ass all over the world? Even if they had a decidedly non-American accent. Huh. Can I even say this? Wesley Snipes didn’t become an action hero until Passenger 57, in ’92. Jackie Chan didn’t break for Western audiences until Rumble in the Bronx, which was what, ’95? Bruce Lee was a one-off in Hollywood, so it was up to Chan to open the market for guys like Jet Li and Stephen Chow. Carl Weathers and Bill Duke were probably the most well-known mainstream non-white action stars, and Sigourney Weaver was the sole representative for female heroes (although she beat the other guys to the punch – Alien was ’79). I don’t know, can you think of many other non-white, non-male action stars with the same level of notoriety?

As for the Batman idea… that’s really interesting. I remember reading that there was an outcry surrounding Burton’s decision to go with casting Keaton; people thought Keaton, known up until then primarily for comedic roles, couldn’t pull it off. I would say Stallone was right on the money there – although I think visuals probably would have been just as over-the-top as they are now, if they’d just had the technology at the time to do them. There is an element of escalation – action movies have to keep upping the ante, it seems, which could be one of the reasons they’re becoming so blase and staid.

I think now we’re seeing a combination of 80s and 90s heroes. Bond and Bourne and Batman are just as buff as their 80s forebears ever were – it’s become mandatory to have an shot of someone’s amazingly-ripped body as they train or fight; every film since Fight Club has sought to include it (Pitt’s toplessly muscular fight scenes set the gold standard). But they also have to be psychologically fascinating – the best of both worlds?

And of course, that brings us to The Expendables

CH: I think you’ve covered it well! If there is, by chance, any non-white or non-male kick-ass action hero we’ve left off, I think the fact we’ve forgotten them says it all about their unfortunate status in the ‘80s. I distinctly remember watching Burton’s Batman and feeling really anxious at one point when it seemed Batman was utterly defeated. He’d just gotten the crap beat out of him. His Batmobile was trashed. And I thought, “What is this? Stallone would have had this wrapped up twenty minutes ago.” Of course, he manages, just barely, to get out of trouble, but Burton’s vision of the action hero introduced a level of vulnerability and ordinariness you just didn’t see often in the ’80s. I think that’s the direction the action hero has continued to go coupled with that attention to visuals Stallone laments.

So … The Expendables. Have you seen it? Is it on where you are? I’m going this weekend, so I’ll report back on it afterward. I was going to avoid it, actually, but after our chat I’m feeling a little nostalgic for that bunch. Except maybe Dolph Lundgren. I’m not feeling nostalgic for Dolph. At all. Until then… I really want to know two things. What is it about this era of action movies that appeals to you, and if I asked you to queue up one of these films to watch this evening which one would it be?

SS: Are you kidding? Lundgren is one of the unmoveable Scandinavian pillars of the action genre. He’s blonde death incarnate. At least, he’s blonde death incarnate up until the last five minutes of any film, when he usually gets iced by the hero. Did you know he has a master’s degree in Chemistry, speaks seven languages, and competed in the Olympics? Which makes two ex-Olympians in The Expendables, along with Statham (and yes, it will shortly be on where I am, and yes, I am going to see it).

I think the simplicity of the concept is what appeals to me. There’s no pretense in ’80s action flicks – the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and an explosion will, most times, take care of any problems admirably. Most Hollywood movies – most movies, really – despite how high their aspirations may be, don’t really have all that much higher-level functioning to them as a matter of course. Which is OK, because, honestly, how much philosophy and understanding of the human condition can you fit into two hours of running time? Sometimes it’s nice to see something that dispenses with any kind of effort to be anything but gun porn.

Any one of those films? Damn. You know, I might go with the original Terminator. It’s been a very long time since I saw that film. Did you know that in every James Cameron film that Michael Biehn stars in, Biehn gets bitten in the hand?

I wish Snipes and Van Damme could have made it into The Expendables. That would have been perfect.

So how about you? Any single ’80s action movie?

CH: I do appreciate Lundgren for one thing: uttering the words “I must break you.”

I have to say that Die Hard, First Blood, and the first Terminator are all movies I watch more than the normal person should. So I’m going to follow your lead and pick something I haven’t seen in a very long time. Predator. For one thing, it offers one of my other favourite movie quotes with Arnold’s “you one ugly mudda fucka.” For another, it has Carl Weathers who survives just slightly longer than most non-white people do in ’80s action movies. And then there’s the awesome heat vision special effects, the jungle razing explosions, and an alien enemy who leaves its prey hanging like strips of beef jerky in the trees. What’s not to love?

SS: Nothing.

I’ve been in something of a funk, recently¹.

I’ve been pondering some of the awful life choices that have brought me to my current point in time (did I ever really and truly think my childhood detective agency, The Four Investigators, would solve a single crime of note?), and, I’m sorry to say, it’s brought me down.

I wish I had more money; I wish I had some really, really great shoes. I wish I’d read more serious literary works; surely I had the time?

And so I’ve been sifting through my mental archives, opening my files, shuddering at what I’ve found, and hastily closing them again. Every now and then, a stifled ‘FUCK!’ emerges from the darkened shelves of the Congressional Library of my memory.

It’s been a long, dark, Sunday afternoon of the soul, fitfully illuminated only by the release of the first episode of Season 2 of The Vampire Diaries and Ian Somerhalder at his very finest.

And then… inspiration.

And I realised that my current trajectory can be traced back to a single moment in time, a fulcrum point, when I struck out, horrendously, horribly, and also, kind of humorously, with a French girl who looked just like Milla Jovovich.

I don’t think it’s at all hyperbolic to say If the back-and-forth between us had been a Zeppelin launch, then it would have been the Hindenburg. Which at the time had been on a mercy mission to save orphaned kittens. And everyone who watched the footage would have suddenly caught syphilis.

And yet… I wonder.

What if I’d gotten it right? What if, rather than making an inappropriate observance on the weather, I had come up with the perfect line? The perfect thing to say in that situation to sweep my Milla Jovovich doppelganger off her feet, out of her breath, and into the pleasantly-appointed bedroom I assume her suburban host family had provided for her?

What that line would have been, I don’t know. Something about Napoleon, probably.

Although I would have avoided any references to the Western Front.

Too soon.


*

‘Ow do you feel?’ Laura asks me, her eyes clear and steady, like an ocean, in the soft rain.

‘Like Napoleon when he first set eyes on his beloved horse, Emmanuelle, ma cherie,’ I say, softly – even softer than the rain that damps our faces.

She melts, and I take her in my strong arms.

We make sweet, unconcerned, French love in the night. Already soulmates, we move back to France, where she finds me a job in her father’s boulangerie and boot-resoling store.

With my sudden disappearance, two minor parts are left unfilled in our high school performance of Whistle Down the Wind. Rather than recast any of the understudies, who are even more useless at acting than I, Mr. Ritchie, the director and year 12 drama coach, gives both parts to my friend Ben, who is already a lead. Ben’s performance of three characters is rightly received as magnificent, and he is awarded the title of Australia’s Best And Greatest Actor. He flies to Los Angeles, where the creators of 6 Feet Under swear they will have him as their own. They make David Fisher a much younger part. Michael C. Hall never gets the gig, never comes to the wider attention of the public and thus, Dexter is never created. After Oz, David Zayas cannot find work, and sinks into depression. He contracts syphilis from a prostitute he knew during his time as a New York beat cop, and dies.

I have killed David Zayas.

*

‘Ow do you feel?’ Laura asks me, her eyes open and assured, like a secret agent’s bank vault, in the tender rain.

‘As if I’ve been dosed with arsenic, mi corazon,’ I say, even more tenderly than the rain that falls on our shoulders.

‘That is Spanish,’ she says.

‘Oh.’ I say.

She swoons, and I take her in my strong arms.

We make passionate, stylish, Parisian love in the early evening. Fuelled and impassioned by true love, I write a magnum opus about a traveling Russian pony circus that touches the lives of people everywhere, and becomes a movie starring Michael C. Hall as the head pony. It is translated into dozens of languages, and I am a hero. Everywhere I go, screaming crowds scream my name and throw double handfuls of money at me, because they know that is the only thing that will get my attention these days. Laura and I move to Los Angeles, but the pressures of fame, and my growing flirtation with Milla Jovovich, who looks even more like Milla Jovovich than Laura does, lead to our bitter, acrimonious, and very public divorce. Laura flies back to France, weeping endless hot and bitter tears, her only companions her beloved pet tortoise Stuart and her new and almost totally debilitating cocaine habit.

Milla Jovovich and I go to the New York premiere of my film together. Secretly, I am destroyed by my divorce from Laura, and Milla Jovovich is getting on my nerves. I drive drunk, and I accidentally hit David Zayas, who is directing traffic. When the inevitable press comes out, Luc Besson realises that Milla Jovovich is cheating on him, and throws himself into the ocean.

Damn it.

I’ve killed David Zayas again.

And Luc Besson too.

*

‘Ow do you feel?’ Laura asks me, her eyes black and lacking in even the most basic sparks of intelligence, like her pet tortoise Stuart’s, in the gentle rain.

‘Like the guy who killed Napoleon,’ I say, gently – even more gently than the rain that is ruining our hairstyles.

She blushes, and I take her in my strong arms.

We make foolhardy, art-noveau, Eiffel Tower love in the haze of twilight. Laura reveals her family is secretly rich, and neither one of us will ever have to work again. We drop out of school and travel the world, smoking French cigarettes, wearing denim jackets and striped scarves, and getting fauxhawks before anyone else realised they were fashionable.

We go to a West End play starring Laura’s old family friend, Michael C. Hall. Laura takes me to meet him backstage after the show. Although I have never been attracted to a man before, there is an undeniable spark between the actor and I, and I yearn for him to take me in his strong arms. Laura notices the flirtation between Michael C. Hall and I, and the next week is cold and stilted, and I cannot enjoy the afternoon we spend at the Rockefeller Centre. One night, after too much red wine, she makes several cutting remarks in French. What she does not realise is that in our time together, I have learned to speak French perfectly.

Sobbing, I run from our hotel room to a nearby payphone. There is a storm. As rain pummels the glass box, I call the only person I know in New York – Michael C. Hall.

‘Can I come over?’ I plead. ‘Laura and I… we’ve had a fight.’

Michael C. Hall says of course I can come over. But David Zayas, who has long nursed a crush of his own, sees me going into Michael C. Hall’s apartment.

In a drunken fit of jealousy, David Zayas kicks down the door, and, with his service pistol, shoots me, Michael C. Hall, and then himself.

I have killed us all.

 

 

 

And Laura marries Ian Somerhalder.

 

¹ and while I’d very much like to be the boss, I’m afraid that’s just not a cost I can pay right now.

Dear National Aeronautics and Space Administration,

Sup?

I hope you are all keeping well. If there’s a guy named Todd working there, please tell Todd I say ‘Hey’. Feel free to throw ‘Toddster’ in on the end of that. So it would then become ‘Simon says hey, Toddster.’ I hope he had a good weekend, doing whatever it is the T-Man does on his spare time.

I had seen neither Twilight nor New Moon, and yet, shortly after touching back down into Los Angeles, I found myself at a preview screening of Eclipse with my friend Lindsey and two of her friends. As it turns out, you don’t really need to have seen the previous two movies if you’ve paid attention to any newspaper in the entire world for the last two years. Vampires, werewolves, no sex, Taylor Lautner without a shirt, and you’re good to go.

Dakota Fanning.

What a bitch.

I freakin’ love San Francisco. I mean, I love it.

It’s a weird hybrid of its own unique spirit and architecture and people, and the parts of my home town of Melbourne that make Melbourne, Melbourne. The trams, the street art, the tiny pockets of arts and culture, the live music, the bookstores (and the books)… the mix of parks and streets; green and grey. Progressive politics and e-commerce side by side; innovation and cultural projects and tiny bars down tiny streets that you have to know about to get to.

And, also, Zoe Brock!