Monday, 27 June 2011

Taking Twins to Melbourne

Going anywhere with twins is a challenge.  Having a day out in a substantial city puts that challenge on stilts.

How high are those stilts?  I tested by taking my twin 16 month old daughters to two rather different attractions in Melbourne on one day.  We went first to the Royal Botanical Gardens and then to National Gallery of Victoria.  Both places are straightforward to visit with twins, but a degree of planning is required.

The most critical piece of gear for an outing like this is the stroller.  This really needs to be selected according to the terrain you’re expecting (or vice versa).  A stroller where the children sit one behind the other is great for narrow doorways.  On the other hand, it’s generally unwieldy and after a while you feel like you're driving a supertanker.  A side-by-side stroller is better for feeding while out and about, but is often too wide for access to most doorways.

The Royal Botanical Gardens are a great place to visit with twins.  I strongly recommend a light jogging stroller (which likely means having the children side-by side) as a means of getting about.  The front-and-back stroller I had when I visited was less than ideal for reasons which will become clear.

The Gardens are less than ideal where parking is concerned.  If they have parking lots, I'm yet to see them.  Most of the parking is at street sides and requires a ticket.  Still, the parking spaces nearer
St Kilda Road
have a well made (if unsealed) path to start your trip on (pictured - picture now removed - my laptop seems to have blown a flux capacitor)

Parking notwithstanding, the Gardens are well set up for wheeled transport.  The internal paths, as best I could see and recall, are all sealed.  There is also a running track (known in Melbourne as the Tan Track) around the perimeter of the Gardens.  This pathway is made of compacted earth covered with very fine sand and gravel.  Taking a stroller like the one I was using off the paths and onto the lush grass is not recommended: You will find yourself not strolling but ploughing.  If you are intent on doing this, take a lighter make of stroller, which should be able to traverse the grass with few problems.


For obvious reasons, consider the weather before locking in a trip to the Gardens.  Winter in Melbourne is cold at the best of times.  The day I visited was a bright day and reasonably pleasant as long as you stood in the sunlight.  However, the nature of a public garden is that it will have trees, and trees mean shade.  This day the shade had held the cold of the preceding night and dawn.  As I went around, most of my navigational energies were put to keeping the stroller in the sunlight as much as possible.  As I went around I formulated Stephen's law of children and cold, which states "if you can see your own breath, don't leave the children exposed for long".

The gardens do offer some shelter from the weather.  There are some small huts just off of certain pathways (when we were courting my wife and I made out in one).  On the I was there with the twins, all I could find was a gloriously appointed pavilion (pictured) which would have kept the rain off but otherwise looked freezing.  I did, however, find the best place of all on a chilly day: I found the tropical greenhouse.  The temperature was warm and balmy and brought out my daughters' "relieved" faces.  It's also worth a visit for its own sake.  For one thing, I'd never seen the carnivourous "pitcher plant" before (pictured).  It's smaller than I'd expected.  In years to come I'll not be able to quieten unruly children by threatening to feed them to it.  I have adjusted my parenting strategy accordingly.



The operators of the Gardens have thought ahead to the warnings a parent might need and put up suitable warning signs as to bees and trees, (but not as to seas, knees or keys, presumably for fear of a lawsuit from Dr Seuss).


Another thing to remember about the gardens is that they are hilly.   A picture will clarify.  This gives you some great views, but be sure to choose comfortable footwear.  My somewhat thin-soled Skechers soon had my feet sore.  And even though the girls were well rugged up, I worked up a considerable sweat pushing the stroller uphill.

Attending the National Gallery of Victoria with children is (surprisingly) easier than one might expect.  For starters, the Gallery offers underground parking with lifts big enough to accommodate a front-and-back stroller.  These lifts deposit you near the entry into the Gallery.  Somewhat anticlimactically, the first thing you see is the cloakroom and the side of the gift shop.  Beyond this, though, is a vast court-yard like area with a glass roof and a flood of natural light.  This area also has a lot of padded chairs and was ideal for feeding the girls their lunch.  The Gallery has two cafeterias, but both were crowded the day I was there).


The Gallery has gone out of its way to accommodate parents with infants.  At least one washroom is set aside specifically for small children (the toilet is below an adult’s knee height).  This washroom includes a change table (pictured) which is clean if a little Spartan.  There is also a bigger baby-care area (sorry, no photo) which I highly recommend.  It supplies a long bench with multiple changing depressions, a microwave, a curtained area with armchairs for breastfeeding, and all the other accoutrements a parent could wish for.

The Gallery's other brilliant idea is a "Gallery for Children" area with little art exhibits at infants-eye level.  For older children there are small textual displays about colours, little coloured blocks to play with, and the coolest thing I saw all day: a projection of a kaleidoscope onto a wall.  This kaleidoscope was managed with a series of knobs and wheels laid out a control panel which would have looked perfect on the Starship Enterprise (if the Starship Enterprise had been commanded by toddlers).  There are also small stools, kind of like a hollow circle, which are ideal for adults to sit on or small children to play in.

The Gallery itself is surprisingly easy to navigate with a front-and-back stroller.  The collection is divided into reasonably predictable areas covering mediaeval and Renaissance art, Asia, European portraiture and so on.  Lifts take you for one floor to another (the passenger lift broke down that day, but the staff made the goods lift available).  Each area on a floor is connected by broad walkways and corridors.  The display areas themselves are very spacious and often have benches and chairs.  I can honestly say that getting about with children was actually relaxing.

One more thing: Toddlers like art.  This really shouldn't be a surprise.  Anyone listening to the dialogue or plot of Dora the Explorer, for example, would surely agree that it's the pictures that truly hold the kiddies’ interest.  The only secret is to keep moving at a pace that matches your child's attention span.  If they do get through the day without a meaningful meltdown, do what I did and reward them with softserve ice cream.  They’ll love it.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Southern Tablelands, NSW (14 March 2011)

This is just something I scribbled while coming down the Hume Highway a few months back.  I don't know if it warrants beng called poetry; happy to be clarified by someone more knowledgeable than I am.

Grey clouds stretch horizon to horizon
Drizzling, aching to be relieved of their burden.

Black cows stand sentinel on hill slopes
Suffering the misty rain, seeming to listen
Seeking something beyond the range of hearing.

Electricity towers, two legged, march endlessly
Not knowing where to, ignoring the terrain.

Little towns rest uncomfortably in valleys
Off the main drag, aware of their mortality
Remaining alive for want of knowing how to die.

Traffic speeds through on the highway
Touching the ground lightly, little noticed by the hills

The country is waiting for something.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Stop the world; I wanna get off!

We've all at some point wanted to scream: "stop the world - I wanna get off".  I've seen where you go if you pull the trigger on that thought and can safely say: don't do it.

In short, you go to South Australia.  Well, not simply to South Australia.  More precisely, the further from the Victorian border you get, the further from normality you go.  I discovered this a few months ago when I had to make a quick road trip to Whyalla one weekend.

I left Melbourne at 3am Saturday and got back about 6pm Sunday.  The first part of the trip took me though the simple, earthy realism of North-western Victoria.  I crept past the turnoffs to this or that regional centre, stopping to refuel in (I think) St Arnaud.  Appropriately, this part of the trip was accompanied by the down-home rhythms of Confederate Railroad.

The first hint that I might be reaching a different reality came in a far north-western town whose name escapes me.  It took the form of a Lutheran Church (pictured).  Lutheranism has never been a large denomination in Australia.  If memory serves, its greatest concentration of followers were the German migrants who settled in a vast arc from the Barossa Valley in South Australia to Holbrook in New South Wales.  The church seemed to be a sign that you were brushing up against a vaguely otherworldly world view.  My iPod presumably thought so too, because I was soon rolling though the Wimmera with "Omaha" - Counting Crows vaguely mystical hymn to the American midwest - playing on the car stereo.

This change in perspective was underlined shortly after crossing into South Australia itself.  My first stop was at a BP in Bordertown.  This service station is a splendidly 1970s style building which seemed ever so slightly out of place.  It also had the first hint of something faintly surreal outside: a truck on a truck.  Specifically, a curtain-sided tray truck which had clearly hit something solid and come off second best.  The road from there to Adelaide presented the second somewhat weird feature of South Australia: excavated road shoulders. I assume this is done elsewhere, but I've never seen it like this.  Essentially, the gravel at the side of the road has been cut away.  Where it would be there is about a foot and a half drop.  This more or less guarantees that crossing the fog line will do unspeakable damage to the underside of your car before it rolls.  I wasn’t on the road to Mordor but this lent a Fellowship of The Ring feel to the trip.

Let it not be said that South Australia isn't a pretty state.  The rolling country from the border to Adelaide is a pleasure to drive though.  And sight of Gulf St Vincent had me texting my wife in Melbourne "ocean in sight ... O the joy".

Thing got weird in Adelaide.  For one thing, the road into the city takes you down a steep, steep road. How scary was this? I was so busy admiring the view that I didn't notice I was going straight on a bending road and almost into the side of a panel van.  Entering the city itself I learnt the Google directions I’d carefully downloaded hadn't kept pace with the presence of street signing.  I wasted an hour going up and down a series of main roads.  Eventually I found myself in a suburban street, figuring out how to make my GPS work.  This seemed like a further sign of leaving reality.  I was moving from the public world of highways and thoroughfares and into the private, closed off world of industrial estates and suburban streets.

My GPS came online, which soon put me on the road for Port Augusta (I remember it saying something like “Port Augusta: continue straight for 300 miles”).  This part of the drive began feeling like the moderately surreal passages of The Aunt’s Story.  I found myself driving through a landscape that didn’t seem to have anything memorable about it.  But every time I got ready to cast it in my mind as so much empty space, I drove though a town.  These weren’t big towns, but they were towns nonetheless.  In between times one would pass driveways, farmsheds and houses.  None of which made it less bizarre when I refueled at a little place called Dublin.  As best I recall this town consisted of a few houses, a BP, and at least one resident who looked like Patty the Daytime Hooker from My Name is Earl.  Despite all of this, the service station had one of the largest ranges of American candy I've seen outside of the United States.  It was truly breathtaking.  I stared at it and wondered why it was there and who on earth its target market was.

Towards Port Augusta the landscape became more and more flattened, aside from the blue-purple Flinders Ranges to the right.  Despite the steady stream of turnoffs - Wilmington, Port Pirie, Snowtown (now famous in the annals of Australian murder) - it was hard not to feel like the road was closing behind me.  Each mile not only took me further and further from pretty Adelaide, but further and further into somewhere very different.

Port Augusta described itself as the Crossroads of Australia.  The day was getting on by the time I reached it, and I didn't have time to stop and check it out.  Spencer Gulf seems to extend a long way into the town, and it's a curious experience to see road signs for Alice Springs anywhere, even here.

The road between Port Augusta and Whyalla seems designed to tell you you're in a very different place.  The road is somewhat higher than the surrounding terrain and all around it is low vegetation.  I'm sure the local wildlife was there somewhere but I can’t say I saw it.  Indeed, apart from the other cars on the road, I didn’t see any life that wasn't vegetation.  None.  No cattle, no sheep, no lizards, no kangaroos, no birds.  I did, however, see the world’s most determined marriage proposal (photo herewith).  When I got out of the car to photograph it my eyes start to burn in the atmosphere, so clearly our hero was crazy for his Chloe.  I hope she said yes.

The same road took me past the turnoff for Iron Knob.  All I could think was: Wow.  Everyone's home town should sound like an S&M sex toy.

I got to Whyalla about 5:30pm.  The town sits at the upper end of Spencer Gulf.  My motel was close to an esplanade which looked out over the iron-blue water.  There was a park with young people playing in it.  Everything was very green, which seemed out of place for somewhere that calls itself "where the outback meets the sea".  You didn’t need to drive too far from the built up areas before the trees got fewer and the low scrub again appeared.  The town itself is built on rolling ground, sometimes disconcertingly so.  The buildings had a kind of modest, self-aware pride.  All in all, it was hard not to think of it as a kind of pocket St Kilda.  I found what seemed to be the only fish-and-chip store still open and headed back to the Motel to have dinner and slough off a poem.

With this description, why is it a bad idea to get off the planet in Whyalla?  And is it even possible to do so?  In a town so closely affected by the world's events (World War Two, for example, generated the shipbuilding industry that created HMAS Whyalla (pictured), and that same industry was later destroyed by the rise of constructors in far-away Japan), it seems absurd to consider it a place to "get off the planet".  But being there and having driven the long road from Adelaide gives a sense of removal from metropolitan life.  If a reasonably secure job could be had, one could live here feeling substantially removed from the worlds problems.  One would be safe and secure in a place where the town newspaper felt that a resident receiving a Nigerian-style scam letter constituted "news".

Why is this a prospect to be viewed with concern?  Purely at an impressionistic level the place is unsettling.  Its greenness and pocket-St-Kilda charm sit uncomfortably with its location and the terrain you drive through to get there.

The more serious worry is what living there could do to the soul.  To borrow an idea from Clive James’ essay about Sydney, it runs the risk of making heaven seem just to close.  One could readily find one’s desires becoming at once more sophisticated and less fulfilling (simultaneously achieving the prophesies of Fergus Hume’s Madge Frettlby and Francis Fukuyama’s vision of the End of History).  In the end, one would risk being in the same position of Theodore Dalrymple’s underclass, in a life without much purpose.

All you can do once you’ve realized this is what I did at 3am the next day. Pack your bags, brew up some coffee, fire up the car and the GPS and put on some Kenny Chesney, and begin the long, long drive back to Melbourne.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Becoming accustomed, and why it can be a bad idea.

In the end, there's really nothing one can't get used to.  Which is the trap that often makes all the difference in life.  Even in the most dreary of situations one can find something to make it tolerable.  And that is the worst opiate of all: the one that takes away the belief that you deserve something better out of life.  The one that allows you to tolerate even things that are objectively (and even subjectively) wholly unsatisfying.
None of this is, of course, a huge insight.  St Bernard of Clairvaux says something similar in the De Consideratione.  Even during the Second World War a returning serviceman asked himself in an army annual "Do I want to go?".  An imprisoned Meursault reaches a similar epiphany in L'Etranger (although in fairness, Camus was making basically the opposite point).
I learned this in about 1995 when I was doing my final year in high school.  The final year is always difficult.  From the point of view of the student and (more importantly) their parents this year controls the future.  Astonishing value is set by each of the 10-12 major assignments and 5-6 examinations which establish one’s final ranking.  This saw many students become nothing if not neurotic bookworms.  Every waking hour would be spent poring over textbooks and essays, editing and re-editing as if to disprove the law of diminishing returns.  Unsurprisingly, many of us became kind of obsessed with time management.  So obsessed, in fact, that the actual time usage became a little less efficient.  As the pressure built, the less confident (like me) almost despaired.  Our every tiny misstep, we believed, had already doomed us to failure, shame, and attending Deakin University.
Human nature, however, is always to make life palatable.  Small pleasures (Camus: "les plus pauvres et les plus tenaces de mes joies", I think), therefore, acquired a disproportionate value.  In my case, this took the form of free time on Friday between getting home (5pm) and finishing dinner (8:30pm).  In this time I could walk the dog, play golf on the computer, and simply be "off".  That spare time - three hours or so - was enough to let me get used to year 12.  It was, one might say, a successful formula.
The problem is, people generally aren’t satisfied with successful formulas.  Once you develop one, you soon begin to push the idea further and further.  After a while, you're not so much building on success as going for reduction ad absurdum.  I learned this in my first year at university.  I was desperate to get marks sufficient to transfer into the law course and hit the books particularly hard.  At the same time, I had the student's challenge of living on not a lot of money.  Each week’s grocery budget was about $12-$15 (the quality was not high).  Socialising, even if I'd been temperamentally suited to it (which I'm not) was rarely an option.  Each day began with reading a textbook over breakfast, being on campus all day, and studying again till 2am.  I came to see my pre-existing friendships as distractions and let them atrophy.  I already felt like an outsider, and so I made few connections with other people.  Human nature, though, won't be denied forever.  You begin to make things palatable.  You convince yourself that Home Brand Irish Stew represents the pinnacle of cuisine.  Pathetically, you almost believe have a kind of friend in the form of the voices on the radio.
Soon enough this begins to feel normal, even kind of satisfying.  You continue it after entering the workforce and actually assuming adulthood.  You work long and longer days.  You relax on your own on Friday nights.  Sometimes you see your own family or pick up a hobby for a few weeks (dieting, gym).  Still, at some level you know that you’re going days - weeks - without speaking to anyone who isn't a business connection or a blood relation.
And yet you do it, because there's enough that brings you pleasure to keep you from noticing what you've become.  Until eventually, improbably, you do form a connection with someone.  Someone who shows you just how shut off, lonely, and drab your life has become.  Who shows you that you don't have to live like this.  And that maybe you might even be able to change.