Don’t mess with my paws

‘She was a bit naughty,’ the vet said. ‘We had to sedate her.’ A vision of Grumpy entering a phone booth and emerging as a feline Edward Scissorhands, crossed my mind. I didn’t mention that it recently took two vets and two vet nurses to trim a single claw before passing our pocket rocket of trouble back to us.

I refer to Grumpy as our Monday model, assembled by workers still dreaming of the weekend, using machinery that hadn’t properly warmed up. She came to us as a nervy kitten and grew up to be as jumpy an adult, distrustful of being picked up and god forbid anyone should go within cooee of her paws. Some years ago she made several attempts on the life of our our younger cat, Loudmouth, a Wednesday model with the sweetest nature. This prompted multiple interventions, including putting Grumpy on a course of kitty Prozac. Things did come good and it’s been heart-warming to see the two of them behave like a normal cat couple, even if Loudmouth knows never to take food from the bowl first.

Shortly before Easter, a golf-ball-sized swelling in Grumpy’s neck was diagnosed as malignant. We were given the option of bombing our 16-year-old girl with cortisone or going down the path of chemotherapy, the prognoses for each being inversely proportionate to their costs. I should mention that we don’t have pet insurance.

Given her age and temperament, we decided to try the cortisone approach. After a week, the good news was that the golf ball had become a marble. The bad were the all-night stentorian breathing and blood-laced sneezing. I started inquiring about in-home euthanasia services, the least we could do being to give her a proper send off. Then I had a rethink.

As we enter week six of six months’ worth of cat chemo at Sydney University’s oncology vet practice, several things have emerged. Remission can take as little as three weeks to achieve. Our sleep patterns have returned to normal. Loudmouth is unaware of what happens when her sidekick disappears every Wednesday but is only too delighted to have her back. Each week we’re reminded that Grumpy needs to put on weight, a failure to achieve that has struck through the heart of my Jewish-mother gene. Much to M’s disapproval, I’ve taken to following Grumpy around the house with bowls of food, placing pan-fried liver and other non-solid temptations wherever she is – the sofa or our bed – and periodically monitoring for changes in levels.

While treatment is costing us an arm and a leg, there have been positives. There’s a view that animals tolerate chemo better than humans because they’re incapable of overthinking things. Certainly, Grumpy has better quality of life compared to a few weeks ago, and she submits – not exactly willingly but without too much operatic accompaniment – to being transported across the Bridge to have strange people and objects enter her space. She’s still on daily cortisone as well as some new medications administered at home. Just don’t ask us to mess with her paws.



At the weekend, this post from a Facebook friend entered my feed: ‘Learned a new acronym today. PFM.’ The urge to lob in a comment was strong, but I haven’t spoken more than 10 words to this person in as many years – yes, it’s complicated – so held back from pointing out the error of their ways. PFM – more on that later – is an initialism, up there with the ubiquitous LOL, BTW, OMG, WTF and a host of other abbreviations made popular by text speak, and that are pronounced one letter at a time. By contrast, acronyms are abbreviations spoken as words e.g. SCUBA, NATO, AWOL etc. Call me a pedant, but I feel much better having cleared that up.

Acronym is a recent word, formed from the Greek roots acr – meaning height, summit or tip – and –onym, meaning name. It seems to have originated in German, with Akronym appearing as early as 1921. Citations in English date from a 1940 translation of a novel by the German writer, Lion Feuchtwanger who was known, among other things, as a literary peer of Bertolt Brecht and being one of the first to produce propaganda against Adolf Hitler. That didn’t go well for him but Lion’s story had a happy ending.

So, what did my FB friend mean by PFM? One of the internet’s many acronym – I mean, initialism – generators popped up several possibilities, including Pray for Me, Prison Fellowship Ministries, Personal Financial Manager and Pure Freaking Magic (polite form). A commentator on the post said she used that term all the time in her DC electrical class. Somehow, I don’t think my FB friend had Pulse Frequency Modulation in mind, but IDK for sure.

Who did he think he was?

‘Have you been to this theatre before?’ The man was a stranger, but he had a friendly manner, and it was another 20 minutes before the band would start playing.

‘No, does it show?’

He laughed and we fell into conversation about live music – his wife, like me, had come armed with ear plugs – and what had brought us to the south coast. They were former Sydneysiders who had settled in the area a year ago, wanting to embrace a different lifestyle as well as be closer to a 40-hectare bush property they owned farther down the coast.

‘We have friends in the district who used to live in Sydney,’ I said. ‘We’re just down for the weekend.’

‘And will you be making the move, too?’

There is a strong validation theme running through the sea and tree changers we encounter. While the stranger in the seat next to me wasn’t pushy, some of our now out-of-town friends don’t mince words. It’s one thing to celebrate the virtues of regional life we less fortunate folks enjoy, but suggesting that Sydney Harbour is a bog and that city dwellers don’t make eye contact in public places, is unfair. I could point out that the Harbour is clean enough for me to swim in and that a promenade thronging with strangers is hardly conducive to an exchange of nods. I could also remind the critics of how often they return to the city for cultural events and specialist health services.

Sure, Sydney traffic sucks, but if I want to do something spontaneously – like sign up for a comedy festival at short notice – I don’t have to think about accommodation or finding a house sitter first. The big city has threshold, something Shangri La by The Sea will never possess. It’s what justifies the provision of international airports, teaching hospitals, myriad arts events and outdoor swimming pools that stay open all year round. It supports chain stores that sell parmesan skins – Grana, no less – a staple of our diet. That store is thinly distributed outside Sydney and not at all on the south coast.

Perhaps saying ‘not going to happen ever’ to my theatre acquaintance was a tad blunt, but it’s true. I love the alternating pulse and quietude of the city, the fact that I can embrace its charms and attractions or disappear into a cone of anonymity when I want to. Detractors may argue that the ease of self isolation is a fundamental problem of where I live, but – according to one set of friends who decamped to a small country town – the alternative is pressure to join mates at the pub every night because there’s nothing else to do after 8pm.

Not so anonymous and far from retiring was Barry Humphries. Shortly before he died, the comedian who invented Dame Edna Everage was interviewed for an episode of the Australian version of Who do you think you are? part of the international franchise and an adaptation of the original British series of the same name. At the end of the segment Humphries declared, truthfully if arrogantly, that he was by far the most interesting person in his family tree. He was not without controversy, his trans-phobic comments prompting Hannah Gadsby to tweet that ‘Barry Humphries loves those who hold power, hates vulnerable minorities and has completely lost the ability to read the room. That’s not a comedian, that’s an irrelevant, inhumane dick biscuit of the highest order.’ My late mother-in-law, a broadminded and tolerant Londoner, referred to him as ‘that awful woman’ every time Dame Edna made an appearance on TV and, indeed, his performances as a boring suburban housewife were borderline cringeworthy at times. But whatever one thought of Humphries, he made people laugh. And despite having had a close relationship with the British Royal Family, he wasn’t averse to taking the piss. On the eve of King Charles’ coronation, this clip says it all.

Emoh Ruo, Linga Longa or Gloria Soame?

Last week, I booked a half-hour slot with our council’s local studies librarian to find out whether our house, one of several in the suburb built during the Edwardian era, has been known as anything other than number 3 during its lifetime.

The architecture of these houses is similar to that of the Victorian and Queen Anne revival periods in Britain, its Antipodean identity forged in the addition of balconies, native flora and fauna motifs – think terracotta kangaroos on roof tops – leadlight windows and doors, and decorative elements such as ceiling roses, fireplace surrounds and timber fretwork.

When we bought the place 30 years ago, it came with a marble fireplace in the lounge room and a timber one in the interleading dining room. We weren’t great fans of the latter, an unwieldy structure that was out of scale with other features in the room. We found a stone mason who could make a marble fire surround to the exact specifications of the one in the lounge room. I remember the moment when the wooden fire surround was pulled from the wall to reveal sheets of an old newspaper tacked to its rear. The date of publication was obscured but an article referred to the 1906-1907 fishing season, giving us an idea as to the age of the house. I still kick myself for having thrown those sheets out.

The librarian confirmed that the house was built in 1908 and that for the next 50 years it was called ‘Yamba’, a common name in our suburb at the time, and probably assigned by the builder. Why Yamba, better known as a coastal town in Northern New South Wales, she didn’t know.

Perhaps there’s a clue in the Aboriginal meanings of the word. This throws up three options, two of which can be eliminated straight away: our house is not on a headland and there is no edible shellfish on the property. The third interpretation – carpet snake – is a distinct possibility. Diamond pythons, a form of carpet snake, are regularly spotted in the nearby bushland areas and a giant specimen washed up on the beach four years ago, parking itself against a wall where we deposit our belongings before going for a swim. While we’ve not had one slither into the garden, they may have inhabited the area prior to subdivision.

One of the things I’ve admired most about Federation houses is their stained glass front doors. When we moved into number 3 – Yamba – all that remained of the original features were the two leadlight ‘eyes’ above the centre pane and most of the flannel flower glass panes above and adjacent to the door. The centre pane had been replaced with stippled white glass and the large pane next to the door with bright orange, both equally undistinguished.

When a friend mentioned he had a spare sheet of white flannel flower glass we decided to give the front door a facelift. We found a glazier who took a rubbing from the small lead lights to guide his design. Few people who visit the house know that the centre pane is not original.

The boys decided that they could instal the flannel flower glass themselves. After measuring up a piece at one end of the sheet, the friend started cutting. I remember the excitement at seeing the outline of the new panel take shape before watching it shatter into a heap of shards. Round two was no more successful. We were all very quiet as the third and final cut was made.

The librarian sent me away with pointers on further research, most of which can be done online. While I sense a project in the making, I’m also trying to think what the hook would be for readers. Is it the small bell next to the original fire surround in the lounge room? M complains endlessly to newbies that no-one comes when he presses it. The board to which it was once linked hung at a jaunty angle in the old pantry before we renovated the back of the house. I wish I’d kept that as well.


Friends introduced us to backgammon over Easter. It’s a straightforward, entertaining game predicated on a mix of strategy and luck. I took to it quickly, beating our host after a few rounds.

Back home, I searched for a boardgame on Ebay, finding a selection so wide that I couldn’t choose. Did I need a leather-backed board or would a simple plastic one do? What represented value for money while also looking good? I poked my nose into a few op shops to see if I could pick up one second hand. ‘They come through from time to time,’ the salesperson at the local Salvation Army shop said, gesturing to the second floor of the shop. There were lots of discarded kids’ toys up there, but no backgammon board.

I looked for an online version as an interim measure, preferably one where I could play a bot; while my experiences of playing online games with real people have been mostly favourable, interacting with the occasional pervert or sore loser was unsettling.

The bot, ‘Bill’, a cartoon-like character with a moustache, creamed me. I sighed every time one of his pieces kicked mine off the board, and despaired when my dice throws didn’t produce the numbers to allow me to re-enter the game. But I kept at it and, after a few days of solid effort, took a game off Bill. ‘You won,’ the banner read, with an invitation to keep playing. And so I did, picking up tips from how my artificially intelligent friend engineered winning moves.

This was fun, I told myself, as I became better at beating Bill. It was also, though, blocking me from doing other more worthwhile things. Like the critiques for my writers’ group, a barnacle on the keel of my obligations. A list of work contacts I’d agreed to follow up last Monday, bypassed – again – in the name of ‘not urgent’. Doing a third edit on a piece of writing that is the closest to being published since The Guardian article.

Online backgammon had to go. I loaded the Block Site extension to Chrome on my laptop, effecting a partial divorce. Block Site for mobile phones, however, requires a subscription. I railed at the prospect of paying into eternity to suppress an unhealthy urge. But I couldn’t go cold turkey either.

After messing around with app-free blocking solutions – all a waste of time – I settled on AppBlock, enough of which is free to block sites on mobiles. After a tense moment this morning where I’d made everything from Chrome to Gmail inoperable, I located the uncheck button and options for selectively identifying unwanted sites and key words. I’ve since completed two writers’ group critiques, done grocery shopping for the weekend, and written this post. While I could unblock backgammon with a couple of moves, the act of having placed it off limits – and the hours invested in finding an app to do that – is enough to keep me honest. I still want a backgammon board, but that can wait.

Image by mamewmy on Freepik.


It’s been one of those weeks where I’ve failed to find my groove. I don’t know if it’s because we switched to standard time last Sunday, or the message from Google about my mailbox storage being at capacity even though 80% is showing as available on my drive, or that our senior cat has been up and down to the vets over a marble-sized lump in her neck. It’s not Grumpy’s first brush with mortality and, at 16, we know our girl is into injury time. Oddly enough, though, whenever she’s had a turn before and M’s been convinced it’s tickets – I’ve always had faith in Grumpy – she rebounded like Peter Seller’s bugler in The Party. It’s as if she’s seen the movie.

I knew about Peter Sellers well before I saw The Party. With no TV in 1960s South Africa, radio was my refuge, and the The Goon Show – by then into repeats – the highlight of my week. I’d leave the beach early in summer to make the 6.25pm kick off, wondering what Spike Milligan had scripted for his co-conspirators in mirth, Sellers and Harry Secombe, to narrate. What would Neddy Seagoon, Henry Crun, Major Dennis Bloodnok and other characters be up to this week? And would Bluebottle – played by Sellers in a falsetto worthy of Barry Gibb – fall in the water at the end of the episode?

Milligan toured South Africa in the 1970s, packing a 3,000-seat auditorium in Cape Town. I went to his show with my father, also a Goon fan, the experience as memorable for watching Spike crack up at his jokes, as the tears of laughter roll down Dad’s face. Spike’s bipolar disorder and chronic depression were no secret as well as a source of his creativity. Statements like ‘money can’t buy you happiness but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery’ and the epitaph on his tombstone, ‘I told you I was ill’, are poignant and reflective of his mental state.

He had, of course, a close connection to Australia, specifically to Woy Woy, where his parents and brother Desmond migrated in the 1950s. Spike never missed an opportunity to lampoon this bland suburb an hour’s drive north of Sydney, referring to it as the ‘world’s only above-ground cemetery’ and that there were ‘…just three signs on the railway station platform, ‘”Woy Woy”, “Woy Woy”, and “Woy, Woy”. It’s a special service for drunks.’ He offended many locals with such irreverance, but the townsfolk of Woy Woy – which means “deep water” or “big lagoon” – eventually got over it, honouring him with a permanent exhibition at the local library. I’ve made my own small contribution to the memory of Spike and the Goons. My personal library includes copies – hard copies, that is – of all the written works of Spike Milligan; they are to me as the security blanket is to Peanuts’ Linus. My Twitter handle, @Napoleonspiano, is a direct reference to episode four of series six, broadcast on 11 October 1955; the transcript is here and the live version here.

Five hours later…

I haven’t heard from our IT tech support about solutions to the yes-no availability of space in my mailbox. It’s 77 days to the winter solstice and many more until daylight saving returns; the thought of what lies between makes me shiver (I hate winter). On the positive side, and I use that word lightly, there was a call from the vet; there’ll be more advice on Saturday following a cytology test to confirm what they believe the lump to be. M has made up his mind about what we should do while I’ll take a little longer to get there. Grumpy, currently asleep on our bed, couldn’t care less. She’s stone deaf anyway.

Going green

Back in 2020 we commissioned an energy assessment expert to conduct an audit of our house. Before he’d crossed the threshold, Adam proclaimed that our place ‘leaked like a sieve’. This didn’t come as a surprise: while summers in our high-ceilinged double-brick abode are a joy, in winter the cold seeks out every opening with the force of a surface-to-air missile. Adam presented us with several pages of improvements ranging from installing solar panels to filling cavity walls with synthetic ‘balls’ (we passed on that idea) and simple methods for plugging breeze holes.

Being the slow adopters that we are, it took a while to get going on all of this. We started with the easy and cheap stuff: stopping the gaps between skirting boards and floors, and where windows fit frames, with wooden strips and pliable goop respectively. As warm air was escaping through the pretty wall vents that came with the house when it was built circa 1906, those were removed, the voids covered with sections of black chipboard and new lookalike vents placed in front of them. That meant tossing out the gas heater in the lounge room, unless we wanted to open a fanlight to avoid falling asleep forever, which seemed like defeating the object of the exercise. We bought an electric fan heater and two throw rugs, the latter quickly appropriated by the cats. The gas heater went below, succumbing in the great downpour that flooded the cellar two years ago. Remarkably, someone was happy to take it.

This week things cranked up a notch: we got a heat pump. Our gas hot-water cylinder had reached the ripe old age of 18 and it would be only a matter of time before it blew. With our luck, that would happen on the night before we were due to fly out on an extended overseas trip.

The installers came on Tuesday, the wettest day of the week (La Nina may be officially over Down Under but, like Custer, it’s having a last stand). I felt a pang of sadness at seeing the gas cylinder being emptied of water and carted off the premises; it’s served us well, even if it’s climate unfriendly. But we’ll be saving ourselves a motza with the heat pump, which we’ve programmed to run during the day and switch off at night (the space between ours and the house next door is less than two metres). And as it’s still unofficially summer here, the pump is barely exerting itself to maintain a 50C water temperature.

There’s still some way to go to get us completely off the gas, with cooktop and the BBQ being the next frontiers, along with where we’d place solar panels to offset our energy use. Local research has shown that energy-efficient homes can sell for as much as 10 per cent more, making arguments about payback periods increasingly redundant. Not that we’re planning on moving any time soon.

Have we met before?

I read the latest newsletter of an Australian magazine I subscribe to this morning, scrolling through recent stories they’ve published. Like many journals, Magazine X relies on freelance writers for its content. For those who subscribe, like me, it’s an exclusive club where members get to pitch several times a year and can buy online courses at a discount.

There was something familiar about one of the authors, Stan Moosehead[1]. Now, where had I seen that name before? I clicked on Stan’s name, opening another window that contained his bio and links to other stories of his that Magazine X had published. There were three, including one on shopping at a discount supermarket chain. I’d found that quite amusing; I shop there, too.

I read somewhere – can’t remember exactly where – about journals that repeatedly publish the same people. I started clicking on other author profiles in Magazine X. Some had one acceptance to their name. Others had two or three, and one author had a whopping nine articles to her name. I read a few of them, noting the distinct flavour of the writing. It was not something my writing shared.

I started subscribing to this magazine, one of Australia’s most respected, about five years ago. After a year of pitching and being rejected, I terminated my subs in a dummy spit of frustration. In hindsight that was premature, and twelve months later I was back, having decided that $50 per annum wasn’t going to break me, but would go some way to supporting quality literature. Because Magazine X does publish good stuff, even if its primary readership is decades younger than me, something I established from reading their media kit during my year-long sabbatical.

I continued to pitch to Magazine X, paying closer attention to the guidelines – three pages of detailed advice, some of it overlapping – and watched a video of the editor giving tips on how to be successful. With each submission, I felt I was inching closer to what they wanted. And yet I wasn’t. As the form rejections piled up, I asked myself what was missing, other than being unable to come across as a millennial?

Last week Magazine X asked subscribers to complete a survey. There were the usual questions about services I used and new ones I’d like to see, my subscriptions across other media and so on. The last question was about how things could be done better. I missed the opportunity to press for tailored feedback, and may have blown up my bridges by being flippant, but you know what? It’s done. If I don’t score the gift pack incentive, that’s okay.

I last pitched to Magazine X in September 2021, and followed up with an entry to their inaugural – and fee-free – competition in late 2022. It was unthemed and I knew my chances would be thin to nil. I read one of the winning submissions, knowing that I couldn’t possibly have come close to such a well-constructed if anxiety-ridden piece. It really was good, but I don’t do that kind of thing. And that’s not something I can change.

My renewal comes up in October. I’ll probably hang around for the time being. Maybe do one of the discount courses. Learning is lifelong. But I’ll be pitching elsewhere.

[1]             Not his real name

Random post number four

This past Valentine’s Day I suggested to M that we go up the road to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s. We could have gone the whole hog with a glass of bubbles and a rose for me; instead, we exchanged two discount seniors’ vouchers for a no-frills experience.

It was the second time around for both of us. When I saw it 50-plus years ago, the only scene I committed to memory was where Holly Golightly ejects Cat from a cab in the middle of a New York downpour. I’d cried for Cat, a pudgy ginger tom with a penchant for high places.

Prior to seeing Breakfast at Tiffany’s last week, I’d familiarised myself with the plot and themes, going as far as I could without having to read the Truman Capote novella on which the movie is based. The first thing that struck me was how much the actors smoked; cigarettes featured in almost every scene and were worthy of their own credits in the line-up. I expected the hairdos and clothes to be vintage sixties – they didn’t disappoint – but felt that Audrey Hepburn’s little black dress had a timeless quality to it; I could wear something like that, I thought, if only I were shaped like her. The Japanese character who lives above Holly, portrayed by Mickey Rooney with an outsized set of false teeth, was embarrassing to the point of cringe worthiness, a casting decision that would never be made in the twenty-first century. It was the ending, however, that brought a wry smile to my face: mindful of sending cinemagoers home happy, Hollywood brought the two leads and Cat together in a tight clutch. My adult self would have coped, but it’s probably just as well that I didn’t know, as a 12-year-old, that Capote had Holly and The Writer part company and Cat disappear into the ether.  

In addition to re-running old movies, our local cinema has for the last nine years hosted screenings of The Room, a 2003 American independent romantic drama film starring Tommy Wiseau, who also wrote, directed and produced what is regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. It screens at 9pm on the first Friday evening of each month and regularly sells out. I’ve seen the promos for it many times and while The Room looks like a shocker, there is something compelling about it that has sucked me in. Maybe it’s the way Wiseau throws an old TV out of a window. Or how he looks when he says, ‘you’re tearing me apart, Lisa.’ Could it be that it’s so bad that it’s also good? Then there’s the fact that patrons are allowed to yell abuse and throw teaspoons at the screen. The sustainably sourced birchwood spoons are also reusable, making The Room an environmentally friendly movie-watching experience.

M does not share my enthusiasm for The Room. ‘It plays too late’, he says, echoes of my late father-in-law ringing in my ears (Bill never went to a movie that started after 8.30pm). After nagging for years, I’ve reconciled with going to see it on my own. I can throw a spoon with the best of them. Even if mine is likely to hit the person in front of me.

Filling in the blanks

Yesterday I submitted a short story about swimming to a journal I’d not pitched to before. It’s the 21st time around for this piece which earned a special mention in an Australian short story competition last year. Close, but not close enough.

In addition to the usual requirements for a biography and short statement about the piece, I was asked to identify my pronouns, and submit a Voluntary Identity Statement and Own Voices Response.

This is the first time I’ve been asked to identify myself in the third person, although I am familiar with the nomenclature of inclusivity. For the purpose of this submission, I am now ‘she/her’.

Insofar as an identity statement is concerned, the journal already knows that I am a woman. I can’t claim to have a disability or veteran status. Maybe it’s perceptual, but I feel that disclosing my race group and ethnic status could work against me.   

The premise of an Own Voices Response is that the author shares a diverse, minority or marginalised trait with the protagonist. My story is about an older woman – I – who maintains a routine of swimming in all weather conditions. Am I special in this regard? A member of my writers’ group was wide eyed when I told her I’d swum for almost an hour in the sea before fronting up to our meeting yesterday. My perspective is authentic, but it is not – from where I sit – one of a marginalised person in the more accepted sense of the word. There is no shortage of older female swimmers doing what I do, both in my neck of the woods and farther afield. Some may argue that we are privileged in having wide access to beaches and lap pools.

It is reasonable for the journal, which is associated with a not for profit, to want to determine its reach into under-represented groups. What I don’t know is to what extent its editors are swayed, either subconsciously or directly, by writing from minority groups. If they were to be presented with two similar pieces on swimming, one from me and one from a female, say, with no arms (yes, I know of such a person), would her story be preferenced over mine?

I left both the voluntary identity statement and own voices response fields blank. There’s no way of writing this without it sounding churlish, but I want to know that any decision to accept or reject my piece will be made solely on literary merit.