Categories: Stuff

15 Jan 2013, Comments (14)

On the Ridge

Author: Helen

My dad died. It was sad, and it wasn’t. He had had a long and really quite wonderful life. Age, injury and illness had taken away, one by one, the things he loved to do. In the end, he was ready to go.

We took his ashes to Namadji National park and scattered them from a cluster of granite tors on a precipice looking down to the Orroral valley, with the outline of abandoned Orroral Station showing. The rocks were on a ridge above the Honeysuckle Creek campground, where the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking station (the Deep Space station which received the first images of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk) used to be. How appropriate for a man who grew up with a love of astronomy.

We were lucky. It was an afternoon in early January. The extreme bushfire weather which as turned NSW and ACT into a patchwork of fiery outbreaks the following week hadn’t arrived yet. The ACT National Parks association, of which he was a life member, turned up in force. The park gates were closed, but fifty of us crowded into the Visitor’s centre and then drove up to the campground, then to the trailhead on the ridge. No toilets, no barbecues or ashphalt parking lot, just a clearing in the forest.

Tables and chairs were unfolded, eskies and bags and bottles came out of car boots. We ate, drank and chatted there up on the remote ridge in the evening sunlight. Two groups of overnight pack walkers had to pass through our circle as they crested the hill and walked on down the track. The expressions on their faces as they found a noisy party at that remote place after park closing time were unforgettable.

Some of us were quite old – My mum is 91 and there was an ACT walking group member who looked very old indeed, a little slip of bone and spirit walking with two sticks. The lookout to the valley was only a few steps down the walking path and then another few steps on a side track. Everyone made it, at least to the Granite tors. That’s my mum there – she went all the way and sat right on the edge. There were many hands waiting to grab her if she went over.

Lizzie sitting on a granite tor looking down on Orroral valley - scattering Dad's ashes

We scattered Dad’s ashes over the cliff and the valley as the sun took on that velvety, golden afternooon light. The ACT walkers told stories of his love of walking and his often erratic navigational skills, combined with an enthusiasm for side trips and brilliant alternative routes which would often have his walking groups bushed and nearly benighted.

Scattering Dad's ashes at Namadji national park

Scattering ashes, looking out over the Orroral valley

Now he’s out there forever, with (I’m told) quite a few other former members of the walking club.

11 Apr 2012, Comments (3)

Goodbye, Larvatus Prodeo

Author: Helen

If you’re not a reader of Larvatus Prodeo, it’s a group blog where I (sometimes) contributed as a writer, more often hung out and commented. No day would go by without checking in at LP unless I was away from the city and/or an internet connection. From 2005 to 2012 we laughed, snarked, stoushed and pondered our way through the problems of the day.

But everything comes to an end. And as everyone’s favourite commenter, Nabs, says, “If you love something, set it free. Then it’ll shit on your head, fly aimlessly around in circles for a a while and then nest on your roof blocking the gutters.” I think there’s something in that for all of us.

Goodbye, purple blog. Thanks to Mark, Brian, Kim, Tigtog, Anna, Mercurius, Paul, Phil, Robert and many other writers with whom I had the honour to share writing credits, although my output certainly wasn’t equal to theirs. Thanks for having me, and thanks for the great conversations we’ve had over the years.

More tributes to LP from Liam at Orange Juice and Ryvita and Tigtog at Hoyden about Town.

14 Nov 2011, Comments (18)


Author: Helen

This is the new Cast Iron Balcony home with my very own domain name. Adjust your bookmarks now!

Thanks to Sam Da Silva of Spinach 7, who hosted the Balcony and Barista on the Spinach server from May 2004 to now – that’s seven years – for nix, nothing and nada, and to David of Barista who organised it. I am so grateful to both of them. Also to Viv of VIVidWeb, AKA Tigtog of Hoyden about Town, for making the setup of the new domain so easy and transferring the blog for me. Did you know Viv had a web wrangling business? Well, now you do. File that away for future reference.

It’s been strange not having my blog – like losing the keys to the car and waiting for the RACV. Normal obstreperal outpourings should resume very soon.

I have such loving memories of the scruffy, worn-down Womens Hospital in Carlton, which has moved to a new building. I had two babies, and lost two pregnancies there. Despite the ageing and creaky building, the staff were wondrous, especially the midwives. Driving past, I’d squint up the boxy building to try to guess which windows I’d been behind.

A week ago, something terrible happened to a member of our family, and so I had occasion to visit the new, you-beaut Womens Hospital in Parkville. I walked up the wide, easily accessible ramp (tick!) to the beautiful, spacious lobby (tick!) where an information section was easy to find (tick!) and found the person I was looking for in minutes.

It’s really a stunning building, and although, to me, the Women’s will always be about the staff, they now have the comfortable and beautiful working environment which they deserve. The patients and the friends and relatives who wait anxiously there benefit, too.

It’s just a shame about all the artwork. Not hanging pictures, which I was too preoccupied to notice, but the stuff that’s right up in your face: Environmental graphics, I think, is the correct term for what I’m talking about.

The new RWH features giant frosted-glass murals on the large exterior windows as you walk towards the entrance. This mural shows a younger blonde woman and a slightly older blonde woman. This is hardly a serious effort to fulfil the contractors’ brief, to portray a “broad demographic of age and culture”.

There were smaller murals on the wall facing the lifts, which were impossible to ignore for anybody entering or leaving any part of the building. These murals featured new mums and dads holding babies. Happy, happy, happy.

Although these murals are lovely and fulfil the diversity brief a little better than the one at the entrance, they completely fail the requirement to be “sensitive to the individual needs of patients and their supporters.”

Not everybody leaves the RWH with a live birth. Our family member would have had to walk past those murals as she left the hospital for the car park.

Women come to the hospital to have babies. They also come there to lose their passionately wanted babies, to have abortions, with cancer, with gynaecological troubles, with infertility.

Abstract, rather than figurative, environmental graphics would seem to be the way to go for an environment like this. The new RWH is beautiful and comfortable, but as triggery as all hell.

18 Jan 2011, Comments (15)

A 1950s Alternative Universe

Author: Helen

I’m taking some weeks off work courtesy of the wonderful 48/52 , and having an at-home holiday with a rare respite from early mornings and reasonable bedtimes. So it was that on Saturday night I found myself watching a late-night 1950s black and white movie – something I haven’t done much of since the demise of Bill Collins and Ivan Hutchinson’s shows. Oh, how I used to love those old black and white movies (cue massive eyeroll from the kids). Some of the interest lies in a mixture of plot points which appear to have been written while dropping acid combined with gender and class expectations which are all too real.

This one was No Sad Songs For Me, starring Margaret Sullavan, who was quite a hoyden in her youth, with Natalie Wood as her abnormally well-adjusted daughter. According to,

…Sentimental melodrama about a ridiculously self-sacrificing wife based on the book by Ruth Southard and starring a 12-year-old Natalie Wood. Mary Scott (Margaret Sullavan) is pregnant when she finds out that she has terminal cancer with only a few months left to live. She keeps this information a secret from her husband, Brad Scott (Wendell Corey), who is carrying on an affair with his assistant, Chris Radna (Viveca Lindfors). Mary encourages her husband to pursue Chris as a replacement wife and mother after she dies.

Heavy stuff, eh, especially as I was in Natalie Wood’s shoes in 1968, except that I was a year younger and not nearly as adorable, co-operative or conscientious with my piano practice. So the movie should have had me wallowing in memories and grief, except for that other marvellous feature of the 1950s B&W: the LOLWUT!? factor.

Consider the events which the writer of this weepie considered believable in 1950.

The movie opens with the happy family at breakfast discussing a new pregnancy. Mary says she’s off to the doctor that day to confirm. When she does, the doctor tells her sternly that she’s not pregnant and is never likely to be again. We’re given to understand that the doctor’s an old family friend, but this is all he tells her. Oh, and the hilarity – Doctor lights up a cig while giving her the bad news! In the surgery. Oh, the ’50s, those were the days.

Dr. Bedside Manner obviously has no intention of telling her anything at this point. He only tells her about her terminal cancer when she leaves the surgery, walks out to the car, is overcome by an unseemly attack of patient curiosity and walks back into his office to ask him for more details. We are asked to believe that the doctor has diagnosed the cancer some weeks ago yet hasn’t seen fit to tell the patient, who, remember, is also an old family friend. RIGHT.

Mary then says “I remember you’ve been taking dozens of X rays for the last few weeks!”

Wouldn’t you think a woman who thought she was pregnant, instead of harbouring a fatal illness, would question having “dozens of X rays” taken in the (presumed) early stages of the pregnancy? But these were the days of smoking in the doctor’s surgery. They didn’t have those namby-pamby, politically correct safety procedures.

In 1950, it appears, cancer was universally a death sentence. Mary asks Mr People Skills if operations or radiotherapy will do anything, and he replies that the treatment’s still in the experimental stage. Well, perhaps IF HE HAD TOLD HER EARLIER she might have had a chance to get a second opinion, or something.

Instead of going straight to a solicitor to file a medical malpractice suit – seeing as he’s a family friend, I guess – Mary swears the doctor to secrecy so that she can conceal her condition from her family. The doctor readily agrees with this, since obviously he’s given to withholding information anyway. Incredibly, although he can’t do anything at all about Mary’s cancer, he is able to give the most detailed prognosis: Nine months to live, six months of which will be “on her feet”. Modern oncologists would be amazed at the ability of cigarette-smokin’ 50s doctors to pinpoint the exact course of the illness.

The rest of the movie pretty much consists of Mary becoming more and more saintly. Her terminal cancer appears to involve no painkillers, curtailment of social activities or even symptoms, apart from the occasional frown and clutch of the hand to the abdomen, or a brief lie down on the couch. We are not told where this cancer is. One imagines that the ending will be Mary lying on lacy pillows becoming ever more beautiful and radiant as death approaches. However, it’s even more hokey than that.

After participating in a batty, and saintly, ruse to make sure her husband’s affair partner/girlfriend, Chris, is around to replace her(!) (LOLWUT!), Mary spills the beans. Husband, suitably devastated, breaks his philandering and working routine to take her on a second honeymoon to Mexico, where they dance together to a mariarchi band, after which Mary obligingly drops dead, thus eliminating the need for the sad bedridden final phase, and making the handover to Chris more seamless.

Although Chris is an exasperating entitled little shit, one can have some sympathy for her as she enters the movie in the guise of a professional draughtsperson working on a dam project with the husband, Brad / Wendell Cory. Thus we have the classic 1950s/1960s scene where the new worker turns out to be a WOMAN! Oh the HILARITY! The world turned upside down! The exchange between Brad, the hirer, and Chris, the prospective employee, illustrates perfectly the complete disdain for female employees and her need to plead and supplicate to convince him to give her the job despite her manifest inferiority. He demurs because the job’ll require her to go outside and it might rain! A woman might… melt, or something.

The plot then requires them to fall in lurve, but this is just predictable, because she’s a member of the sex class. That’s why we can’t have them on the job! They’ll distract the men!

In the final scene, the LOLWUT!? factor goes off the charts. Chris, the replacement mother, and the child Polly are sitting together at the piano playing a tragic musical piece. At this point, as far as Polly knows, Chris is the family friend/babysitter and Mum and Dad are just away on a nice holiday. The phone rings and Chris answers. It is terrible news from Mexico! Well, terrible for Mary, anyway. Chris makes some cryptic remark and they keep playing. Are they ever going to tell this kid anything? She never knew her mum was even sick. When are they going to actually let her know she’s DIED? The Wikipedia article on Margaret Sullavan says that her family life was fairly tortured and marked by suicide and institutionalisation. If this was the way 1950s families were supposed to handle family crises, I’m really not surprised. “Here’s your school lunch, dear. By the way, your mum’s not coming back from Mexico. She’s dead. I’m your new mum now. I’m sure Dad will explain everything when he gets back, but he’ll be a while because of organising the cold storage for the coffin ‘n all…”

Ah, those old black and white movies. If you’re ever tempted to join the conservatives in yearning for the Good old Days before the counterculture and modern medicine changed the world, when a man could still light up a satisfying fag in his doctor’s surgery and women knew their place, watch one of these and marvel. On the other hand, there’s no room for complacency yet; Judd Apatow and Charlie Sheen still churn out stuff which future generations will watch and…LOLWUT?!
Crossposted at Hoyden About Town

8 Jan 2011, Comments (9)


Author: Helen

Fell at the bus stop September before last and broke a hip.

He lay for twenty minutes on the pavement in the evening cold. Thankfully two other oldsters saw him and raised the alarm. The surgeon didn’t think he was in good enough shape for a hip replacement, and pinned it instead. A year and a half on and he was on so many painkillers he was hardly with us.

He deteriorated in December so much that she sought a second opinion. The operation was go, but there was no hundred percent guarantee that he’d survive surgery and an anaesthetic. Then, more deterioration and he went into hospital just before Christmas.

He woke up in HD (Intensive Care as they used to call it.) That was planned as part of the surgery, but of course, he assumed he was about to die. I thought that was perfectly logical. If I was ninety and I woke up in a hospital on various machines, and I was having trouble retaining things I’d been told that day or the day before, I’d assume I didn’t have long to go. And he was a bit of a wraith, those first two days.

Christmas in the hospital: he’s always been a scoffer, so I didn’t worry that he’d be devastated by missing out on the festivities. Neither am I one to make a big production out of Christmas. But the slabs of turkey in the covered lunch plate suddenly made me sad.

Am I dying? No, you’re getting better. You’ve had a hip replacement. Oh yes. Do you remember how much pain you were in? Was I in a lot of pain? Was it because of my broken leg? Yes. You’ve got a new hip now.

He’s in rehab now. Onward.

10 Oct 2010, Comments (0)

Bitch PhD closes down

Author: Helen
Bitch, PhD header image. Two little girls, possibly from the seventies, are looking into the camera. One laughing, one flipping the bird.

I will so miss that header image

I saw some sad news when I clicked on one of my favourite blogs yesterday. Bitch, PhD is closing down.

The signs were there. Posts from my favourite BPhD writers have been thin on the ground this year. This has been one of my go-to group blogs since 2004, and has been one of the feminist blogs which has helped me work out my own feminism.

It’s not too clear how long it will be up – the wording of that post suggests it’ll be pulled altogether – so go and read their archives, and enjoy that fabulous header image, while you can.

Here’s my favourite BPhD post. I’ve linked to it before for Blog for Choice day. It’s the best response I’ve ever seen to the nonsense that with “abortion on demand”, women will be “demanding” abortions on a mere whim. It’s especially relevant in Australia at the moment. Not that it addresses the specific case of Leach/Brennan, but you can bet that attempts to undermine womens’ reproductive choice will continue.


1 Sep 2010, Comments (9)

Falling Just Like

Author: Helen

First day of spring and it has rained all day.

It’s wet, cold and very, very welcome.

27 Aug 2010, Comments (8)

Friday Earworm: WAGONS!

Author: Helen

Orright, so I’ve gone from Earworm of the Week back to Friday Earworm. My blog, my rules.

You have to admit, the psychedelic-mushroom munching-hillbilly-slightly creepy and scary but hilarious vid for this song goes really well with the events of the week just gone.

And I love this quote from an old interview:

“When my relatives ask, ‘What have you been doing with yourself?’, and I tell them I’ve been playing in a country band, a grimace comes over their faces,” he says, “and they pretend to be supportive.”

25 Jul 2010, Comments (12)


Author: Helen

It’s Sunday! Let’s NOT write about the election! What about something less depressing and more relaxing?

One of my favourite things to do is to visit my brother in Tinytown, where he bought a Country Seat a while back. Not a bush block, a house in a quiet part of the town (if you don’t count an occasional milk tanker roaring past in the night.) He sold his house in Footscray and visits his place in Tinytown every weekend to dig the garden – a variety of potatoes, garlic, and every other kind of veg – chop wood, explore the surroundings on a little Postie bike, and drink red wine by the wood stove with his GF and any visitors and dogs who might be there.

Brother’s veg garden is not like my veg garden. Bro’s garden is some serious shit.

My brother's vegie garden in Tinytown, featuring a honking great trench. For potatoes? Or murdered neighbours?

My brother's vegie garden in Tinytown, featuring a honking great trench. For potatoes? Or murdered neighbours?

Victorians will easily be able to work out Tinytown’s real identity, but I’m keen not to raise the profile on Google in case it becomes the next Fitzroy. There have been upmarket cafe sightings.

One of the many things I love about Tinytown is the murals. They’re everywhere – on the supermarket, the servo, the side of every shop. When the people there get up in the morning and there’s not much to do, they paint a mural.