Yesterday and Tomorrow

When I need a break from the very bad news that wants to control my life and eat my brain, I watch old TV. The series I’m watching right now is the original The Tomorrow People. There is a reason for this. Not a very sensible reason. I’m not watching it because it’s primary fodder for my research (though if something comes up, I keep that something in mind): I’m watching it because it is the TV series that matched my age and interests when I was a teen. I needed to discover some parts of my past. Re-visiting the past is particularly useful when the present isn’t as easy as it could be.

Australia was a lot less USA-like in the 1970s, and The Tomorrow People is a classic science fiction show targeted at teens, and I was a classic SF tragic when I was a teen, and… let me get back to the beginning.

The Tomorrow People was shown from 1973 until 1979.

If I were to ask you to to take a wild guess as to when I began high school I hope that you would say ‘1973’ without hesitation. I was eleven-going-on-twelve. I was a science nerd and a history nerd but we had no words to describe that. The science didn’t need a term to help it fit into my life, because my mother was a science teacher. The history I had to argue for and persuade people that museums were worth visiting.

“You have half an hour” I was told when we went caravanning. Five minutes if it was a monument, half an hour if it was a museum. I found ways of spinning out that half hour. When I found a display of diamonds that had been found in streams (it was the goldfields, of course diamonds were found in streams, though in my case I found a few minuscule rubies and garnets, some gold and a vast amount of cassiterite) the whole family came in to investigate them. We understood rocks. All of us. Rocks and food. And, for me, baby clothes and irons from a century ago, and anything written or printed from before I was born and…

I’ve wanted to understand the whole world around me since I was about two. I was told “It will get boring” and it never has. A friend gave me an Australian cookbook from 1968 just this week, as an early birthday present (when things are difficult friends give early birthday presents, I suspect) and I cannot put it away until it has been thoroughly explored and my relationship with each and every recipe has been re-established… I knew this book when it first came out, you see. I was seven. I loved it then and, now, at 62, I have my own copy and life is suddenly so happy I needed to rewatch The Tomorrow People.

I am quite possibly, a failure, but I’m a failure who developed an early love of science fiction. SF and food are two of my happy places.

When I was heading for my teens, I read SF magazines from the US and watched a few TV series from the US but mostly, in the 70s, it was Doctor Who and Blake’s Seven and The Tomorrow People. For me it was, anyhow. The Tomorrow People was the one with children like me, who didn’t fit in. I couldn’t do telepathy, but I liked the TV series so very much that an aunt gave me Franklin’s ESP (a board game for incipient telepaths) for my birthday. I could try to be a Tomorrow Person. I could write stories about it. That need to write stories stuck, but my need to teleport did not.

My favourite actor on the series was Elizabeth Adare. I discovered today that this was because her acting style channels my inner teacher. I wanted to meet her. The actress, not the character. I probably still do. She was the right public person when I was the right age to pay attention. The series of The Tomorrow People where she was absent felt a little bereft. Why is this so? (A totally misplaced quote from an Australian science TV show, also from my childhood.) It’s because The Tomorrow People finished just when I left school and went to university. It lasted just the right amount of time. There was an adult woman on the television who was permitted to be intent and interesting and intelligent and when the actress was interviewed she was even more interesting and intelligent. We all need role models: I was very lucky to have that one at that precise and difficult time.

And now, if you’ll kindly excuse me, I have books to see and TV to meet.


I am a bit late today because I met a baby on my Monday. Not just any baby. The baby of a student who has, over the years, stopped being a student and became a friend. T is her second child and is so curious and intelligent. Not even four months, and responding to everyone and laughing when I teased him and happy to be held by me.

While I and T were being happy together, his mother and I chatted. We spoke about a lot of personal things, and about the cultural differences between Indonesian women over 60 and Australian women over 60.

She’d been to a lecture recently and so we also chatted about the bias that means that much research into early trade between SE Asia and northern Australia has been under-reported. The talk was by a scholar whose papers I read. We would both like to see more written about the pre-1600 non-European engagement with the people of the far North of Australia.

By pre-European, I’ve seen more papers about Christian voyages to the north, especially Dutch, Portuguese and British (the British ones were more recent) than about those from all the other cultures that are close, or who have settled or converted land that’s close to Australia. Given that much of Indonesia and Malaysia are now Muslim and given the large influence of Indian cultures on that whole region, this lack of public reporting has led to a vast, vast gap in popular knowledge and understanding.

Also given that the people of far Northern Australia know Muslims and Buddhists and Chinese traders with quite different religion still and they have incorporated this knowledge into their own cultural traditions rather than converting to any of those religions, it’s important in other ways. We talk about different cultures working together or living alongside each other and yet we don’t understand this for not-so-modern Australia.

The conversation moved (of course) to the particular culture of Sulawesi and how it has connected with the Australian continent. This led to beef rendang which, as my friend knows very well, is one of my favourite foods. Decades ago I made kosher beef rendang, just to prove that it could be done. It’s easy to make rendang kosher because it contains no dairy products, but I had to adjust the cooking slightly and the ingredients slightly to allow for the differences in the meat texture and salt levels.

From this we returned to talking about the children. Of course we did. My friend has two utterly gorgeous children and they’re a joy to talk about. Although we did spatter the conversation with why some childless women adore children and why some do not. I think we concluded that everything depends on who the woman is and what our life experiences are, but I’m not certain about this. I don’t think the conversation is done. We are certain that I like children of all ages and am keeping my role as an honorary aunt.

It’s going to be a month or so before we can chat again. As a mother of young children she won’t have time until after Ramadan. After Ramadan and before Pesach: perfect.

Building A Village

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. Not the future. My future.

My aunt turned 98 on Thursday, and I went down to spend a couple of days with her. I am often awed, not just by the devotion her primary caregiver shows (a woman who was her housekeeper for 30 years and took caregiving certification courses so she could be there for my aunt) but at the network of care that surrounds her. My uncle’s nephew manages the finances and coordinates her home care. Her medical care is overseen by UCLA’s Geriatrics department (which coordinates with all the medical visitors–primary care doctor, PT, nurse supervisor, meds management, etc.). Her wonderful primary caregiver is there for several days at a time (and her younger daughter, who is a PhD candidate at UCLA, subs in on occasion), and there are several respite caregivers that my aunt knows and likes, who come in so that Maria can have some time off. The guy who manages the building and takes care that everything is working properly. And family: my daughter lives in the garage apartment of the building and has dinner with my aunt a couple of times a week. I am planning to visit for a few days every couple of weeks for the foreseeable. So that’s more than a dozen people.

My aunt wanted to stay in her own home, and is fortunate that a lifetime of work and saving has made that possible–and that her sweetness, and the love everyone has for her and my uncle, ensures that she’s surrounded by kindness and affection.

On the other hand, my father, and my in-laws, both chose to go to continuing care residences. My father did so because he went blind, and living in a rural community meant that all of his time was spent arranging rides to shop and visit doctors, and… Dad was ferociously independent and deeply social. It was a better fit for him to move–on his own initiative–to a place where things like rides, and shopping, and a social life, were part of the of the package. He lived there for about a dozen years, and loved the place. And my in-laws sold their home and moved into a similar continuous-care place while they were still hale enough to make it their home: they made friends, got involved in politics and other things, traveled widely, and were always happy to come back to their new home. In both cases, moving in long before they needed assistance (medical assistance anyway) or heightened care, meant that they had a community and a sense of belonging. They did not mourn, as some elderly folks do, for the home they left when they were put into nursing care. They were home, and the care came to them.

Because I write SF and so many of my friends are writers (with all the colorful personalities and imaginations that implies) the subject of how to handle our own futures sometimes comes up. Every few years someone says “what we should do is pool our money and buy an apartment building/subdivision/whole town and live there.” Continue reading “Building A Village”

Of books and migraines and dancing

I am drinking a triumphal cup of tea. A very weak and immensely huge triumphal cup of tea. There is a story behind this cup of tea, and the triumph. A tiny story, but a story.

I’m in the middle of one of my longer migraines. This one is in its fourth day. As migraines go, it’s very mild. I find it hard to see things and almost impossible to sleep, I’m sensitive to sound and my emotional peace fractures easily. I’ve had worse. Much worse. The low pain levels (for a migraine) are due to the wonder of becoming older. Some things improve with age, oddly.

None of this is the story of my triumph. It’s the backstory.

I have lost so much worktime to this migraine that I had begun fretting about deadlines. I have a thesis to finish: the biggest chapter was supposed to be in a complete draft by Monday, and where I am it’s Tuesday. I need to get some edits to an editor (who else would one send edits to?) urgently, and can’t find a bio to go with the edits. I have a really cool piece to write in the next two days. And I have a short story to finish. I need to deal with 100 emails by bedtime tonight. Plus, as soon as I finish that chapter, I’m onto the next one. This PhD is in its final months and deadlines aren’t as porous as they once were.

Now you have most of the backstory. I’ve brought you to 4 am today, when I finally admitted that the migraine would not go away and that I had to find a way to deal.

The triumph is perfectly simple. Skip most of today, and let’s move to ten minutes ago.

I have a section of a bookshelf. It holds maybe 80 books and is ¼ of the whole (very large) bookshelf. This section is my working shelf for any research. It had gaps and space because I had not yet returned all the books for this chapter. I have finished with all but one book and the shelves are very full. One day I’ll have to return the books I won’t need again for this project to their real homes on other shelves, but right now I only have one book to return and two tiny sections of the chapter to write up and lo, I’m caught up with one big deadline.

I needed something to take the edge of the migraine before I delve into the last two thousand words, and the triumphal cuppa is that something. Small things matter. So do the simple tasks that enable one to work through this lesser-stage of such a long migraine.

I was going to tell you about a cousin of mine today. A folk dance teacher who taught people to deal with problems of right and left foot by wearing different coloured socks and shoes. On the day I heard he died, I watched Easter Parade with a friend. The “I do not know my right from my left” made its appearance there, hours before I heard the sad news. I haven’t seen Robin for years, but as soon as this migraine is past, I shall dance something in his honour: it will be a short and simple dance because dancing is difficult for me these days, but it will be joyous. We talked about death many years ago, you see, and Robin wanted people to dance joyously when he died. I told him that same day, that I wanted to be remembered with stories. I wanted friends to get together and talk and eat and laugh and tell stories. I shall miss him.

Retiring, Not Shy

For the past few decades, whenever I have seen an ad that says something like “The SFPD is hiring” or “You could be a police dispatcher” or something like that, there is a small, weird part of me that thinks, maybe I should apply for that. Despite the fact that I hate job hunting, and despite the fact that I don’t want to be a firefighter or police officer (and am well past the age where my application would produce anything but laughter). The urge to figure out the next thing is still deeply massaged into my psyche.

In February I gave notice at my job. The fact that I set my departure date in December 1) because when your workplace has only three employees, the replacement of one can take a while; 2) I wanted to wait until my 70th birthday, which is in December; and 3) If I held off until I turned 70 I would be eligible for the maximum Social Security benefit to which my years of employment entitled me. Or something like that. 

I started a file on the museum’s shared drive, initially named “How to be Madeleine,” but, as the time passed, respectably renamed “Operations Manager Procedures.” So that over the months, as I did something–say, filed the sales tax or applied for a one-day license to serve alcohol–I could document the work flow. So life went on. In October my boss started the recruitment process to replace me. I am happy to report that she found someone great, and I am busily sharing, not just those Operations Manager Procedures, but all the bits and pieces of organizational history and lore that are tucked somewhere in my brain.

So after all these months when retirement was sort of theoretical, it’s suddenly (as of this writing) two weeks away. I find I’m feeling a little unsettled about it. Continue reading “Retiring, Not Shy”

Where the past comes to my aid…

I’ve had my COVID update jab today. This means I’ll be clear in a few weeks and can maybe be a bit social. Unfortunately, I’m also one of those people who are COVID-vulnerable and who has a charming long and painful reaction to the vaccine.

Instead of a real post this week (and maybe next week and the week after, it depends on how long it takes to get through this) I thought you might like something from my past. Three things, in fact. If you scratch below the surface you’ll see a suggestion about how I approach the terrible things happening this month. The posts aren’t about that, however. The posts are about what I was thinking 15-16 years ago. The novels I was writing then were “The Time of the Ghosts” and “Poison and Light.” Both of them are still in print (“The Time of the Ghosts in its umpteenth edition, and “Poison and Light in its first) and the cover of “Poison and Light” contains artwork by Lewis Morley, who entirely understood my thoughts and dreams about the world of the novel. For a change, instead of saying “This book may be out one day, if I’m lucky” I can send you to the exact stories I wrote about, way back then. There aren’t many advantages to getting significantly older, but this is one of them…

(2007-11-26 21:45)

I need to tell you a story.

Once upon a time I was still active in the Jewish Community. At work on Friday afternoon I answered the phone and at the other end was a frantic community leader. “Gillian, you have to come to synagogue tomorrow, it’s very important.” He couldn’t tell me why. All he knew was that he had received a phone call from a well-known Melbourne rabbi (who had never met me) saying that Gillian Polack had to be at synagogue on Saturday morning. The rabbi knew I didn’t usually go to Shul, too, and he had said very firmly to “make sure she’s there”.

I couldn’t arrange a lift, so I hopped on my two busses very early and walked the half mile or so at the other end and found the Progressive Service and looked around for any reason I might have been summoned.

In front of me was a visiting cantor (but visiting from overseas – no links with me or mine), the backs of heads of the usual congregants, and about thirty aging pates. The usual congregants kept sneaking back to me to find out why I was there “Is there something happening this afternoon that wasn’t advertised?”

I whispered a question about the thirty heads to one of them and he whispered back “visitors from Melbourne, doing a tour – nothing to do with the cantor.” Somewhere in that crowd of heads probably lay my answer.

The service ended. Everyone stood up. The visiting group turned round to survey the back of the hall. I heard a woman’s voice cry, “There she is,” and one elderly lady ploughed out of the mob and towards me. The others all followed, like sheep. Some of them knew me, most of them were simply following their natural leader.

Valda is a friend. Except that it’s now “Valda was a friend”. I don’t believe it yet. Mum told me about her funeral just fifteen minutes ago.

She was nearly ninety and we just got on well. We snarked together at conferences and we stirred her kid brother (a close friend of my father’s and another friend of mine – the two of us have stood to the side at parties and brought down the tone of the proceedings since I was a teen) and we did a lot of very good volunteer work together. She died in her sleep, her life a resounding success.

I will miss Valda for a very very long time. And I will always remember how many people went into operation to make sure we got to chat when she was in Canberra. She could have rung me or she could have told my mother, but Valda simply told everyone she wanted to see me and – because it was Valda and we all loved her – everyone made sure it happened.

I will also never ever forget that horde of touring retirees descending on me. I was a whistle-stop for the Canberra part of their bus trip. And I bet Valda knew this when she called out “There she is.”

For the record, the questions were mostly about my Melbourne family. Also for the record, I asked in response “You’ve been away for a week and you miss them?” Valda hasn’t even been away a week and already there’s a hole in my life.

Fairies and Sarcasm

I misheard someone talking about the fairies in their garden as “I’ve got theories at the bottom of my garden.” And I do. So many of them. There are people who cannot deal with me for more than ten minutes at a time because that’s the limit they have for the way my brain works. I also have friends who love to talk with me for hours because I apparently say interesting things.

I’m not going to do that today. Not so much theory. Just a smattering of reaction that may one day become theory.

Yom Kippur is over and my life is the better for it, but I’m wrapped into how Australian Jews are represented on the public broadcaster responsible for multicultural services in Australia. My latest email from them told me (on Yom Kippur, though obviously I didn’t read it until afterwards) which shows are being moved from their streaming service. One of the two lead shows that is being taken down, as announced on the Jewish Day of Atonement, is David Baddiel’s “Jews Don’t Count.”

This is the same broadcaster that, when I asked what TV programming they had for the High Holy Days last year, sent me to a Hebrew radio show (hint: Hebrew is not the standard language of Australian Jews, English is).

This year, the special show they had just before our New Year was set at (in their regular email about programming), they explained, a Jewish funeral. It may have been a comedy set at a funeral, though the detailed description sounds as if it was set in the mourning period immediately after a funeral. I don’t know for sure because it was, honestly, not something I wanted to start my new year with. I’m assured by a non-Jewish friend that it’s a good show. If they put it on again, I’ll watch it and find out. I’ll watch the Baddiel tomorrow, though, because these programming decisions make me feel very much as if there are fairies at the bottom of the broadcaster’s garden, that Baddiel’s title sums up what needs to be said about it, and that I’m far safer with my theories than watching public television right now.

The good news is that some of my thoughts will be words at a bunch of places in October: at the Irish National Convention (I’ll be presenting online), at a Melbourne academic conference, quite possibly at the World Science Fiction Convention (again online), and elsewhere. I won’t be bored. (And if you want details of where I’ll be, let me know and I’ll post them as they are finalised.) I also won’t be able to see if SBS finally sort out why I wax sarcastic about them. They stopped replying to my emails when I pointed out that sending me to Hebrew radio was about the same as sending Australian Catholics to Latin radio.

I may be full of ideas these days, but I used to be such a nice person. I suspect sarcasm comes with menopause. Just suspect, mind. I now want to read a proper and carefully researched scientific study of the relationship of sarcasm to menopause. I shall go to bed and dream of such a study…

How to Celebrate a Birthday

Yesterday was my birthday. No, I’m not going to tell you which one. I am too old to have exciting milestone birthdays and too young to brag that I’m still here despite my advanced age.

But I did celebrate. My sweetheart and I went on a hike in Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, part of the East Bay Regional Parks. It is about five miles from where we live, with the starting point for the trail we followed in the city of Oakland.

In addition to being a birthday celebratory hike, this is part of a project we’ve undertaken for the year. We’re going to visit all of the East Bay Regional Parks that we haven’t been to before. Actually, we might go back to some of the ones we have visited in the past, but at least one of them — Brooks Island — is only accessible by boat and with an appointment since they are trying to restore it and don’t let people on it except in very limited ways.

We are very fortunate to have these parks. According to the park district website, there are 73 of them, all in Alameda and Contra Costa County. They range from walks along wetlands near the Bay to challenging hikes on rugged hills.

Huckleberry is home to to the rare pallid manzanita, which only grows in one other place. It also has lots of bay laurels and, of course, huckleberry trees. A lot of the area looks like this:

trees and other greenery in Huckleberry Botanic Preserve

It was a typical California hike, which is to say that the trail was very narrow in spots, usually with a steep cliff down one side, and my sweetheart kept saying “Poison oak on the right. Poison oak on the left. Poison oak on both sides.” There were also several steep climbs up and down on the trail where I was very grateful to have good hiking poles and to have learned to use them. Continue reading “How to Celebrate a Birthday”

Not a Machine

My body is not a temple. It’s not a wasteland, either, or a castle, or any other locational metaphor I can think of. It’s a body, and frankly I tend to treat it like a machine. I take moderately good care of it–I don’t eat terribly (I’m fortunate that I like almost all healthy foods except liver and hard boiled eggs). I live a modestly active life–I walk a lot. I try to read and stay involved with the world (there’s a heartbreak) and to laugh as much as possible (I am helped in this by an extraordinarily silly family). But all the laughter and eating healthy and spending 45 minutes on the elliptical does not alter the fact that I’m getting older. I’m not trying to stay young–that’s a mug’s game. I’m just trying to optimize what I have.

My father made it to just-shy-of-98. His twin made it to 100. My mother died relatively young, but she had health complications that made it, well, unsurprising. But her sister is 97. Genetics-wise, and barring speeding vehicles, falling pianos, or illnesses I can’t currently anticipate, I may be around for a while, yet. And so I keep using what I have. Of course, what I have is not what I used to have, I forget that sometimes.

Case in point: this weekend my daughter and her husband moved. Discovery of several rooms-worth of black mold made this not just a good idea but an imperative. My husband and I drove up to help, and spent about eight hours packing things, carrying heavy things, and (in his case) driving a truck to and from storage. The move was complicated by the fact that my daughter had hurt her back and couldn’t lift anything (well, she could and did, but every time she did her body informed her that this was a dumb idea). I climbed up and down stairs (and was grateful to have remembered to bring my knee brace). After a few hours of standing in the kitchen packing dishes I had to take off my shoes: my feet hurt. I carried some boxes I probably shouldn’t have. But the work had to get done, and I did my part. But every now and then the thought occurred to me: this used to be a lot easier. A lot easier.

The bill started to come due on the drive home, when my entire body hummed with exhaustion, the knee brace was squishing my leg, and my feet ached no matter whether I had shoes on or off. It took about 36 hours–and two good nights of sleep–to restore me to my usual level of reckless activity. But I am reminded again that, while I tend to treat my body like a machine–oil it, fuel it, make sure it’s running smoothly, surely it’ll run forever–it’s not a machine. (Hell, even a well-tended machine has a useful lifespan, after which it’s–what? a museum display?) My new resolution is not just to hear what my body is telling me, but actually listen. I’m in it for the long game, maybe another 20-30 years, during which time what I have won’t be what I used to have. My goal, in the words of Spencer Tracy in Pat and Mike, is that “what’s there is cherce.”


Meeting Julie Again

My mother (left) and Aunt Julie, sometime in 1953.

I just returned from a flying visit to my Aunt. She is my mother’s sister, and my favorite aunt (my father had five sisters, all fiercely accomplished, but none of them were as flat-out lovable as Julie; I’m not sure that was their goal). The thing about her is that she was also fiercely accomplished: she had an extraordinarily complex job at UCLA for a couple of decades, and oversaw the switch from analog to digital communication and records. She married a marvelous guy, a professor of anatomy who very sensibly thought the sun shone out of her every pore Together they traveled the world and had adventures and made friends–and yet managed to be intensely private and very happy to be by themselves or with the handful of people they loved best. My brother and I were fortunate enough to be on that short list.

Ten years ago my aunt was the sharpest, funniest woman you ever met, able to balance details and organize troops, and make the troops love it. My mother, half-kidding, used to call her “Mrs. Megaphone,” but my aunt rarely raised her voice or got angry. Charm, a sense of humor, and a to-do list and organizational systems made it easy for her to get what she needed to get done, done.

Then my uncle got sick, and for perhaps five years their world got smaller and a smaller, and she became more wrapped up in my uncle as the inevitability of losing him became clearer. After he died she was devastated. She was still perfectly lovely, but broken. She didn’t return phone calls or letters much, she withdrew, and increasingly relied on the assistance of her marvelous housekeeper. And her memory started to fray. It was sort of a perfect storm: her hearing isn’t good, but she never remembers to wear her hearing aids, and when she does she doesn’t wear them long because she’s not used to them, and they annoy her. She used to have an iron organizational grip on the business of their house, but during her husband’s illness she’d put a lot of that aside, and while she expected to go back to it, she just never did. She didn’t want to see many people–family and the occasional friend who wouldn’t take no for an answer. So mental stimulation took a hit. Then COVID struck, and she was necessarily housebound. She is now 97 and unable to live without help–which thank God and all the fish she can afford.

My family went down to visit her over Christmas. My younger daughter lives in the same building as Julie and is sort of my agent in place. My older daughter and my husband hadn’t seen her recently, so they were expecting the Julie of a few years ago–sharp and funny and able to keep up with most of our rat-a-tat badinage. They wanted her to be the Julie of ten years ago. So do I.  Until this visit, when I found myself letting that go.

When my uncle was so sick, I was there to support them both in whatever way I could (as their whole family was). But I have come to realize that in some part of my brain I believed that after he died, and after she’d processed the terrible loss, I’d get my aunt of ten years ago back. And I’d been mourning the fact that that isn’t going to happen–which is not unreasonable, perhaps. But that mourning was getting in the way of my enjoying the aunt that I have. She’s still funny, she’s still immensely lovable, she lights up when the people she loves arrives. We don’t have long conversations anymore–it would be more like a monologue, with her trying to catch up. This trip, for the first time, I just sat there, responding when she said something, talking a little, holding her hand. When my daughter came by we clowned around, which utterly delighted her, which in turn, utterly delights me. Somehow, rather than holding on to the person my aunt was, on this visit I was able to just be with the person she is. And it was swell.

My father made to not-quite 98, and had all his faculties until the last week or so when he was actively dying. I’d like to live as long and stay as sharp as he did. But nothing is guaranteed. If I live that long but am not as sharp, I’d like to be like my aunt, full of love and joy, and grateful for the people around her who love her.