Death And All His (Or Her) Friends

SistersofStJosephI’m not religious in any way, I think that’s pretty well established. I have no faith. Sometimes I think that’s a great pity, because death is pretty weird, all told.

There are few times in the life of average folk when, as the main character, front and centre, they’ll generate such a swell of emotional response. So many people fussing about – remembering, crying, celebrating, organizing and, perhaps most importantly, preparing food. Oh the food! Our waistlines can think themselves lucky that we’re not permanently surrounded by death.

I’ve spoken of my thoughts on death a few times before on mattsoldmanrants. I’ll generally be able to find something rantworthy in any topic, death being no exception. But this time, I have to acknowledge that death also has its good points.

I went to my aunt’s funeral yesterday. It was a day of recollection, happiness and celebration. More than anything, it was a day of community. My aunt belonged to a community from which my day-to-day life couldn’t be more distant; at the same time, it’s one that I’ve always been made to feel so much a part of, as if I were somehow integral to it and always so very welcome under its roof and within its walls.

As we were leaving yesterday, I mentioned to mum that I’m made to feel like some kind of layperson-celebrity every time I’m in their company. That’s just what they’re like. It’s not tacky, pointless adoration for the sake of it. Quite the opposite: it’s pointed, purposeful respect. I honestly think it wouldn’t matter who you were, they’d always make anyone feel that way.

In conversation, on whatever topic, they look into you, rather than at you; into your eyes, into your soul, as if they’re reading you, that’s how it sometimes feels. There’s never any suggestion that they’re pondering what the hell’s going on with your hair or how much weight you’ve gained since they last saw you or why that outfit. It’s a kind of genuine interest in you, the person, that’s rarely found elsewhere.

The whole thing really made me feel a part of something. As I was leaving a lady, who I’d never seen before in my life, called out to me, “congratulations on your wonderful aunt!”. Suddenly I felt proud of someone for whom I was in no way responsible but who, in so many ways, was very much responsible for the man I am today. Of everything she taught me and all the character traits I’ve tried to mimic over the years, the one thing I’ve never managed to achieve is my aunt’s absolute faith, her self-discipline and her dedication. I’d love to have that much faith – in something, anything. But I never have.

See, my aunt was a nun for nearly 58 years. She was a Josephite – one of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, a congregation co-founded by Saint Mary MacKillop in South Australia in the 1860s. As a kid, I almost always lived wherever my aunt wasn’t, so I never had the opportunity to truly discover who she was until my teenage years. Up till then, I had a clichéd image of nuns, no doubt thanks to the likes of The Sound of Music and The Flying Nun. By the late-80s, even though it was still common to see nuns in full habit – whether the big spooky pre-Vatican II black garb or its more relaxed, modern (and usually quite beige) post-Vatican II update, my aunt and many of her sisters were abandoning the habit altogether and, for the first time, I began to see them as people, rather than as ‘nuns’. It was as if seeing them out of habit was like seeing a different person; it took me a long time to realise that they were always exactly the same, regardless of what they wore.

There was no denying it, though. They weren’t like normal people, in or out of habit. They were genuinely caring, giving and interested – all the time. If it was ever called for, they would quite literally give you the shirt off their back, or at very least rustle one up from somewhere with minimal difficulty. At their profession ceremony they take a public vow of poverty, amongst other things, which means they live quite unlike anyone in mainstream society, particularly in the modern age. The sisters’ lot in life is still as austere as it’s always been, yet they all seem perfectly happy.

Today convents are run much like businesses. Day-to-day life is a combination of work, prayer and learning through study or contemplation. It’s a simple life, far removed from what the majority of us know and, in many ways, very much a product of another time. Yet they’re all still wonderfully caring, graceful and among the most contented people I’ve ever known, despite having not a single possession to their names, other than perhaps a handful of personal effects. Aside from a box of photo albums and a watch that I immediately recognized, my aunt had no other possessions. Nor did she ever wish for any.

Yesterday I learned – or, rather, I was reminded – that religious don’t view death as life ending, but as life changing. And it’s a change they celebrate, even though the loss of a physical presence may be mourned. There’s a sense of community surrounding death in the religious world and it clearly says “this is something valuable”. And it’s not ‘was’, it’s ‘is’. As long as someone exists to remember them it’s all still very much present-tense, however much their life, their essence or their physical presence, may have been relegated to the past through the act of dying.

And speaking of the past, I was reminded of something else important yesterday: it’s well past time for me to go out and do something valuable.

Downton Ad-y


I’ve seen a lot of ads before, but that was ridiculous!

Tonight I discovered that the Seven Network had finally deigned to commence screening series 5 of Downton Abbey, five months after its UK début. I was really quite excited about that, which is probably a bit sad but there it is. I know I probably could’ve found the whole series online by now but I haven’t bothered to, so learning with less than an hours’ notice that it was on tonight was, in its own way, genuinely exciting to me.

Tonight I was also well and truly reminded of how much watching free-to-air commercial television sucks when you’re living without a Foxtel digital recorder. Over many years I became very used to having at my disposal a device which not only allowed me to record programs on both an ad hoc and an ongoing basis, but which also meant I never had to sit through an ad break if I didn’t want to. As a Foxtel subscriber I watched virtually zero free-to-air TV anyway, but the ability to skip entire ad breaks – a revenue raiser for the Foxtel channels too – quickly became an obsession and invariably meant that I never watched anything while it was actually being broadcast.

I moved house three months ago. The necessary bits-n-bobs aren’t available for a Foxtel connection as yet and I’ve found that I really don’t need it anyway. But tonight I was reminded, more than at any other time over the past three months, why I avoid Australia’s three commercial networks as far as humanly possible.

The advertised time slot for tonight’s Downton Abbey season première was 9:00-10:30pm. According to my phone, it didn’t start until 9:04. By 9:12, after just eight minutes on air, they’d already cut to the first of seven ad breaks throughout the episode, all coming in at between three and four minutes’ duration.

After the fourth ad break, Downton recommenced at 9:47 only to stop for yet another round of adverts at 9:52, meaning the show itself was only on air for a paltry five minutes during the thirteen minutes that elapsed from 9:43 until 9:56.

After the seventh and final ad break Downton screened continuously for 17 whole minutes, before cutting to the closing credits which, in that newfangled way, end up being illegible when they’re squeezed down to the bottom of the screen so the rest of it can be filled with an ad for next week’s episode.

So from a 90 minute scheduled time slot, we got 64 minutes of Downton and 26 minutes of ads. It’s so blatantly about the advertising dollars that it’s almost embarrassing. Would they ever consider cutting half the ads out, for the convenience of viewers, and squeeze the program into a 70 minute time slot with only one or two three minute ad breaks? Of course they wouldn’t. And millions of Australians every week will sit there glued to the screen, probably feeling exactly what I just felt about the whole thing… which also just happens to be exactly what I feel every single time I have to endure anything on the Seven, Nine or Ten Networks.

Seven’s always been the worst offender where adhering to advertised start and finish times are concerned. Somehow they just can’t ever manage to finish anything on time, particularly live or ‘reality’ series. They’re also shockingly bad at littering the screen with all sorts of detritus about My Kitchen Rules, The X Factor or whatever their program de jour is (Network Ten comes a close second on that count).

What to do? Start forking out for Foxtel again once it becomes available in the building me thinks. I can’t cope with getting up for that many cups of tea.

Just in case you were wondering, I loved Downton Abbey, as ever. Sometimes I just want to be Dame Maggie Smith!

Walking The Family Line (R.I.P. AM)

1996.12.25_Xmas_AM+BD20-odd years ago my Dad’s sister, Aunty Mary, gave me a little book with a black cover. It had the word “Inspirations” emblazoned across the front in gold letters and was held together by gold spiral binding. I don’t remember exactly when or why, just that she gave it to me and said “I hope you can take something from some of the words in this book, Matt, some day when you most need to”. Most of the spirals are gone now, but the very first page I laid eyes on that day is still the page that sums up everything I’ve always felt about my Aunty Mary: it says, “You can preach a better sermon with your life than with your lips”.

My Aunty Mary died yesterday. She was my favourite aunt. In saying that, of course, I mean no offence to my other aunt. I’ve only ever had two aunts, but you know how it is – everyone has a favourite! Some people have more options to choose from, but even when you don’t, you still end up with favourites and Aunty Mary (or “AM”, as I started calling her in my early teens) has been my favourite aunt for as long as I can remember and probably longer.

Last night, from his home on the other side of the world, my brother posted a typically eloquent ‘eulogy’ to AM on Facebook. I skipped the banal but well-meaning “RIP” and “Sorry for your loss” comments and went straight to the ones with a little more thought behind them. Then I added my own. In it, I attempted to draw an analogy. I told my brother that as he and I got older, thinking about our family was a bit like looking up at a dark night sky sparsely populated by only a handful of stars and watching them all going out like fairy lights being turned off one by one. “So many of the most important ones from our childhood have gone out over the past 8 years. It’s an odd, sad feeling…”

Sometimes, I can’t help but feel I’m walking the line where family’s concerned.

1998.12.25_Xmas_PD+MD+BDIt really is quite an odd, sad feeling. AM was the last blood link to our dad, which is sad in itself. But, as my brother pointed out yesterday, aside from he and I our aunt’s death also effectively puts the kibosh on dad’s entire family line. In fact, realistically, even including he and I it’s still the end of the family line, given that there’s virtually zero chance of either of us ever producing offspring.

I haven’t asked my brother how he feels about that yet. He and I are quite different in that respect, so when I do ask I suspect he’ll deliver a measured, nonplussed response. He’s a carbon copy of dad: straight up and down, factual and (mostly) very sensible. I, on the other hand, take after the maternal line: hot-headed, temperamental, verbose, over-analytical and histrionic, that’s the mold I was apparently cut from. Who would’ve thunk it!?

So while our aunt’s death no doubt leaves both of us feeling a whole bunch of different things, I’m probably the most inclined to ponder the end of the family line, in ways that likely wouldn’t even cross my brother’s mind (no judgement there, just an observation). For example, first and foremost I’m sad but there’s also a sense of pressure, of somehow being responsible, to a degree, for the end of the family line. It’s as if, even though I had no control over my own nature, I somehow secured, if not brought about, the downfall; as if I somehow placed a pox on both paternal houses. Thank someone else’s Gods that we can’t be held accountable for the demise of the two maternal houses as well!

1998.12.25_Xmas_AM+MDMy paternal grandparents were, collectively, two of 22 children, born at a time when the mortality rate generally – and especially for infants – was high, so lots of them never made it beyond the early 1900s. Even so by the mid-1950s my Dad (who the family called “Joe” due to his uncanny resemblance to a long-dead uncle), Aunty Mary and our Uncle Bill still had more aunts and uncles than you could poke a stick at. Most of them became nuns, priests or missionaries so, arguably, the end of the family line was very much on the horizon long before I was even born.

By the time my brother and I arrived on the scene, our nuclear family numbered just four, while most kids I knew seemed to have at least two or three siblings; worse still, our extended family only stretched to ten: a maternal great-grandmother, grandmother and uncle (plus an aunt-by-marriage) and a paternal uncle and aunt. That’s it. My brother and I never knew three of our grandparents; neither did we have any cousins. My maternal uncle and aunt never had kids, while both of dad’s siblings gave themselves to the church from a young age.

1999.12.25_Xmas_AM+MDWe also used to move around the country a lot with dad’s job. For most of the first 13½ years of my life, more often than not we were living whole states away from our extended family. Aside from anything else, that certainly made for a few very quiet Christmases. Even so, relatively quiet Christmases for four – plus or minus a visiting grandmother, visiting uncle / aunt, or overseas son – became the norm for us.

In fact we were often reminded over the years that some people were actually envious of our simple little Christmases. Everyone else seemed to spend all day involuntarily traversing the country, moving between multiple locations to ensure all requisite in-law visits could be ticked off, all the while adhering to an itinerary of such military precision that everyone was rocking back and forth in the corner by the end of the night. We never had a single Christmas Day like that, nor do I recall us ever having the apparently traditional Christmas Day family fight. Our Christmases were good times and happy days with as many as possible of our tiny extended family (and other extended-but-not-technically-related family) coming together to celebrate Christmas. Or just to show how much we meant to each other. And maybe a bit of God stuff in there too, for the more spiritual of our number. As lovely as the whole Christmas thing still is, I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing the way it was.

Things started to change for AM a little over a decade ago, when she was diagnosed with a form of late-onset epilepsy. She started having strange turns. Then she had to stop driving because her eyesight was failing, despite tests finding nothing wrong with her eyes at all. She started to lose her “spatial awareness” and began wandering, forgetting where she was going and consequently getting lost. The last time I saw anything even vaguely resembling the woman I’d so hugely admired for so many years was a few months after my father’s death, nearly six years ago now. After that, there was a rapid decline. An undiagnosed but Alzheimher’s-like disease stripped away the mind, soul and spirit of my Aunty Mary so quickly and so completely that it was difficult to believe what we were seeing. Our once wonderfully fit and active AM had been totally bed-ridden for the past four years. With her eyes open but unable to see, she was also unable to move herself, unable to feed or bath herself and largely unable to speak, aside from a few nonsense sentences and largely indiscernable words every now and again. Even as a heathen, I can only hope that she’s gone to a better place and that next Christmas will be just as good as the ones she shared with us for so many years.

But here’s the rub: I am a heathen! I’m not religious. I don’t go to church and I don’t believe in the afterlife, so I can’t claim to hope that AM’s “in a better place”, because I don’t believe in that stuff to begin with! I’m not even overly into Christmas, neither as a religious event nor a commercial concept. I don’t do crowds or enjoy gatherings of people. I’m not especially sociable, but at the same time I’m not lonely and nor do I consider myself ‘alone’. I’m not into relationships and I don’t ever want offspring. And yet, every time another star disappears from that vast empty sky of extended family, I get these pangs of angst and the fear of a lonely future. What, exactly, am I so worried about, though? How different can the future actually be anyway, when you come from a baseline of hardly anyone in the first place? Particularly as a happily singular, ranty old man, these concerns don’t make sense to me.

I won’t go in for a spot of armchair psychology, though, other than to say that this is just mourning and it will eventually pass. I don’t think my emotional responses mean anything, other than to suggest that I’m perfectly normal. Well, sort of. Maybe not so much of the “perfectly”. Or the “normal”. I’m a relatively typical personal, who loves his family, who naturally mourns losses and who doesn’t necessarily want to end up old and alone and I don’t think there’s anything especially odd about feeling that way.

1998.12.25_Xmas_GD+MD+AM+BDI also know this initial flush of angst will pass. But for me the death of my Aunty Mary will always represent the loss of one of the most intelligent, eloquent, inspirational women I’ve ever had the very good fortune of knowing. Better still – I didn’t just ‘know’ her, there was a blood tie between us. Expertly and single-handedly, she complemented my parents’ guidance and teaching with her own unique and indisputable brand of wisdom; she educated me – with her life more so than with her lips – to what being a truly good person really means; she was the embodiment of the kind of public spirit and social conscience that always had humility, kindness and a liberal even-handedness at their core, everywhere she went and in everything she did.

She wasn’t a nun. She wasn’t even my dad’s sister. She was my AM.

R.I.P. Aunty Mary.
5 June 1938 – 20 February 2015.

Sister Mary Margaret Dunn: Sister of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart. School Teacher. School Principal. Social Worker. Charity Worker. Missionary. Counsellor. Lifeline. Musician. Writer. Tennis Player. Keen Cricket Fan. Theologian. Humanist. Christian. Daughter. Sister. Friend. My “AM”.

Say hi to Joe and Bill from us, eh!

Stairs of Disbelief

Before I begin, an acknowledgement: yes I’ve had this one on the back-burner for a while. When I first threw it together the date that you’re about to read originally said “yesterday”. Somehow time got away from me, as it has a tendency to do in the big, bad word of ranty old man blogging. <End of disclaimer>

SydneyTrains_UnanderraStationYou have to assume the 18th of February was a very slow news day for the ABC. During that day’s main evening news bulletin, one of the top stories was that – wait for it – there’s no lift access to the platform at Unanderra railway station.

Get outta town!

The story was ostensibly derived from a video of a bunch of people struggling up and down some railway station stairs. The video apparently ‘went viral’ on YouTube and social media and an hysterical furore from the internet’s most righteous – as is so often the result with these things – thusly ensued.

Sadly, ABC News effectively ignored the broader issue and decided instead to interview some suitably under-enthused locals, giving all the focus to Unanderra station itself. By honing in on that one particular location, rather than taking a broader perspective, the ABC’s report only served to regionalise, or even trivialize, the issue. But when a social media-driven righteous hysterical furore gets legs, often there’s nothing for it but to let it run its course (which, these days, will never be too long, since most social media types have the attention span of a spec of dust).

So what does anyone even know about this Unanderra place, aside from the fact that its name is perilously difficult to pronounce correctly if you’ve never heard a local say it?**

Unanderra is about 80 kilometres south of Sydney and is a suburb of the city of Wollongong (equally perilous for the uninitiated to pronounce correctly). According to that bastion of all things factual, Wikipedia, Unanderra boasts “several local attractions”, of which the Unanderra Hotel – built all of 58 years ago, so hardly the town’s historical focal point – is apparently one of the most frequently visited. I’m guessing mostly by locals, but let’s not get bogged down in semantics.

As for Unanderra railway station itself, it was completely rebuilt in 2011, has more covered space and seating than most Sydney suburban stations and even has space for lifts to be installed – that’s because there were actually meant to have been lifts installed, but cabling was discovered beneath the intended location of a lift pit and moving them was obviously considered too difficult because – as with so many of the best laid plans of Transport NSW and its predecessors – to avoid the problem, they cancelled the installation altogether.

SydneyTrains_Unanderra3And therein lies the real point: the problem is far bigger than Unanderra.

Of course it’s all very sad for the elderly or ‘otherly-abled’ folk who want to use Unanderra railway station, but the fact remains that there are almost 200 stations across the New South Wales rail network – many of them with far greater patronage than Unanderra – that are also bereft of lift access to platform-level. That the issue is relatively more prevalent outside the metropolitan area is unfortunate; that it’s just one of many inconsistencies with our state’s rail infrastructure is undeniable.

Unanderra apparently has a population of five-and-a-half thousand, which is about a third of the population of Newtown or Redfern, or roughly equal to two inner-south western Sydney suburbs, where trains typically run in both directions every fifteen minutes. Poor old Unanderra only sees one every hour, aside from during the morning and afternoon peak times when intervals between trains decrease to between 15 and 45 minutes. There’s arguably a greater number and a higher proportion of rail commuters in Sydney than in Unanderra, so the hourly frequency of services is probably understandable.

But wait – there’s more. Unanderra station’s appalling lack of accessibility isn’t the end of the story; even after being completely rebuilt, its platforms are still shorter than the eight-car train sets that stop there at least eight times a day, thus presenting the very real risk of passengers headed for Unanderra not even being able to get off the train when it pulls up only partially alongside the platform. Is it really any wonder that wheelchair users still can’t take a lift to get down there?

Unanderra certainly isn’t alone in its woeful lack of facility. 76 of the 177 stations on Sydney Trains’ suburban network (that’s 43% of them) aren’t “wheelchair accessible”, meaning there’s either no lift, no ramp or no other accessible way for a wheelchair user to reach the platform. On the intercity network – to which Unanderra station belongs – I was surprised to discover that, while predictably worse, the stats weren’t as underwhelming as I’d expected, with 84 of 133 stations (or 63% of them) without wheelchair access.

The so-called ‘short platforms’ are also something of an issue on the intercity network. Though it isn’t quite as prevalent as the lack of wheelchair accessibility, around half of all intercity stations have platforms shorter than an eight-car train set. Passengers travelling to these stations must navigate a series of codes which indicate where on the train to disembark from – rear car, rear door of rear car, rear two cars, rear four cars, rear six cars, front six cars or, intriguingly, “the middle doors”. Even as a creature of habit who gets on and off the same carriage every day on the way to and from work, I still couldn’t tell you if I was on the second car, the fifth car or the eighth car. I’m not even sure I’d know if I was at the front or back of the train, let alone anywhere near its “middle doors”. And by the way, exactly where are the middle doors of an eight-car train set anyway? Given that every eight-car set is nothing more than two four-car sets joined in the middle, even the most seasoned train user would be hard pressed to work that one out. To new or infrequent train users headed for one of these stations, this must be a hideously complex system to grapple with.

Short platforms obviously weren’t much of a problem in the days when four-car and six-car sets were more common – and, to be fair, some regional lines are still routinely serviced by two-car, four-car and six-car trains to this day – but most stations now see regular service by full-length eight-car trains. Too bad if a passenger foolishly assumes their destination will furnish them with a sufficient length of platform for the number of doors on the train.

SydneyTrains_FeelingUnwellcomboThere are numerous other absurdities. A prime example is the series of “Feeling unwell?” posters that started popping up on trains and platforms last year. “Don’t risk boarding the train”, and “Don’t risk staying on board”, they variously warn. “Staff can get you help faster at the (next) station”. This is probably a very helpful tip if you find yourself feeling unwell while at, or approaching, one of the 48 suburban stations that are staffed 24 hours. If you’re anywhere near one of the 129 others (that’s 73% of suburban network stations) it’s only a useful tip if you also happen to be there during the hours they’re staffed – oh and, by the way, only 39 of those are staffed beyond 7pm on a weekday.

You’re in worse luck at night, even worse luck on weekends and worse still if you’re feeling unwell while at, or near, any of the five stations on the suburban network that are never staffed at all. But worst luck of all is if you’re feeling unwell while you’re anywhere near three of those five stations and you’re in a wheelchair; not only will there be no one there to help you, but you’ll also find it damn near impossible to get on or off the platform.

Transport NSW made lots of noise about re-branding the public relations disaster that was CityRail back in 2013, yet nearly two years later they still haven’t re-branded the network’s second-most visible infrastructure – its stations. Sydney Trains might’ve changed its name but stations across its network are a mish-mash of livery and signage from at least four different eras, some dating back to the State Rail Authority days of the late-1980s, others all the way back to the 1920s.

Some stations are über-modern, while others look like unloved relics of the past. Some have plenty of covered area and seating, others have virtually none, leaving intending passengers to huddle beneath the awnings of platform buildings or underneath overhead bridges to escape the heat or the rain. Some have one of several different models of electronic indicator board, others have none. Most now use pre-recorded announcements, but some still sound like they’ve been cobbled together by a station attendant who’s never even seen the system before, much less become proficient in its use.

Meanwhile, it took several abortive attempts before we were finally offered a ticketing system that (almost) matches those of other large world cities, though pricing is still inconsistent and illogical. Tediously, Sydney Trains passengers still have to contend with summer heat on rolling stock that isn’t air-conditioned – yes, most trains are, but the fact that a city with the summer heat and humidity of Sydney still has any that aren’t air-conditioned beggars belief. Perhaps worst of all is that Sydney Trains’ customer service is staffed almost entirely by people who, for the most part, rarely appear to hold the concept of customer service in high regard. And don’t get me started on their ability – variable at best and, frequently, not in evidence at all – to deal with ‘situations’ or to effectively respond to problems.

SydneyTrains_Unanderra1In truth, I should admit that there has been some evidence of improvement over the past year or so, but the CityRail of old was well-known for maintaining a focus on issues only for as long as the public or the press kept a focus on CityRail. Gladys Berejiklian and her Sydney Trains crew have a lot of work ahead of them, not just to avoid their predecessor’s pitfalls but also to address the roll-call of issues and inconsistencies that still plague the network.

It must be daunting. And it’s a whole lot bigger than Unanderra.


** In case you were wondering, it’s pronounced as three distinct syllables: YOU – N’N – DERRA. It’s definitely not pronounced YOU – NANDRA. I’m told that’s how most people who don’t know how to say it correctly tend to pronounce it, but it isn’t right. Now you can sleep at night.