I’ve been re-watching Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.

It’s Christmas Eve and The White House is elegantly stuffed with giant baubles, tinsel and carol singers, and President Bartlett is preparing to give a speech about forgiveness, tolerance and generosity at this time of year. But true to this series’ interest in the painful personal stuff as well as the idealised intricacies of good governance, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman is diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress after having been shot by a loon gunmen a couple of episodes back.

I cannot stop watching this series. I am more interested in this series with its fast and brilliant walk-and-talk than anything else in the world. But this ep. gets me thinking about Christmas, about celebration in the face of trauma and how we grapple with grief at this time of year.

My friend told me this week that she doesn’t ‘do’ Christmas. What does that mean? I just don’t do it, she said. I haven’t done it in years. It’s just too hard you know, with the family stuff, the money, all the bullshit.

My friend does not ‘do’ Christmas anymore because it’s too painful. So what do you do on the day? I asked her. She laughed and said, what do you mean what do I do? I don’t have to do anything, that’s the point.

I get it.

I reckon I’d prefer to sit in front of the next 4 seasons of The West Wing until Christmas was done and dusted for the year. I’d eat and drink nice things while doing it, make some calls maybe, and I’m sure the odd family member or friend would join me at some stage during this, my day of the slaughter of the sacred cow of Christmas.

But I will do Christmas lunch at my place again this year for the sake of the kids and because it’s going to be a more open door affair this year. The more the merrier and diverse, the less the lonely and curmudgeon I say. As long as I promise not to get drunk and cry before 11am, like last year.

Plenty of people dread this time of year because it shines a light on the hard stuff and puts a high flame under what’s absent.

This Christmas we will again light a candle for my sister and set an empty chair at the table for the miserable, persecuted, neglected, absent or sick. You know, kind of like how they do at writers festivals when there is always that empty chair on the stage symbolizing the universal incarcerated writer in some repressive regime.

If you have a job you are real busy trying to get everything done at this time of year. If you have a job that goes on paying you during the Christmas holiday you are probably looking forward to taking some time out, having a well-earned break, winding down, doing nothing except sprout idiomatic chill-out clichés whilst lying prostate on a lilo in a pool somewhere. You will probably get bored after a week.

Plenty of us don’t have a permanent income though, and plenty others no income at all. Plenty don’t have family they want to be with or who’ll have them.

This time of year can really suck when you are caught up in the orgy of expectation and hype.

For the last few weeks I have been teaching Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ to my Classics class and Phillip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ in Literature. I asked my students what they thought of Christmas: did they look forward to it, what did it mean to them etc. The Classicists said that this time of year was cool because there were so many ancient myths all colliding with their contemporary incarnations it’s fun to try and make sense of it all.

The Dystopians said that Christmas is a desperate clinging to an anachronistic convention and that that no amount of cranberry jelly or gift giving can wrap up this increasingly warm and messed up planet of ours and make it look pretty.

Sorrow, personal or global, is particularly hard at Christmas.

Every Christmas since my sister’s death has felt kind of wrong. It is the fifth one without her this year. We will light a candle for her; we will lay a plate for her. We will pay extra attention to her little boy.

And after the day, and after the friends and the family all leave, I will watch Season 5 of The West Wing and eat all the leftovers. It doesn’t feel right to keep the party going for too long.

When a terrorist bomb wipes out a number of lives, in The West Wing, Martin Sheen, who plays the American President gives another one of his brilliantly written speeches and he says that ‘The streets of heaven are too full of angels tonight’.
It’s a nice line. Comforting. Even if you don’t really believe in angels.

(This piece was first published on ABC Radio National in Dec 2015)


AEU December Column

In this, our ‘culture of distraction’, many of us are bingeing on good and bad junk. I am forever on my son’s case about his screen addiction but perhaps I’m not much better?


‘Binge Viewing’ has became a part of the current lexicon so now I’m able to confidently self-identify as a member of this new club.


Some of us just have addictive personalities apparently, so shed one addiction, say, over-eating, alcohol or collecting blue bottle tops, and it figures that brain wiring like mine is going to need to re-fill those neural pathways with some new dopamine drenched activity.


So my latest binge of choice is a Danish series called ‘Rita’, that revolves around a Bolshie, opinionated, smart, dedicated and unconventional secondary school teacher and sole parent named Rita.


I could not stop watching ‘Rita’ until I’d finished the entire Family Block of three seasons! She teaches literature. Like me. She is brazen, Amazonian and crazy brave. Not so much like me, except for the crazy part maybe.


She and the rest of her less extrovert colleagues battle the vagaries of under funding, challenging students and work place conflict; the story had me hooked from the opening credits.


But while the writing is witty and fast and the characters beautifully acted, the plots are often implausible.


As if a teacher would get away with having her whole literature class back to her house for pizza and casual tuition. As if a teacher would care so much about a student that she’d put her job on the line. As if a teacher would have such a dysfunctional personal life and still be inspiring, compassionate and rigorous in the classroom.

As if.


When I was a student at a good and ordinary state high school in the 70s, who we my hero-teachers? I sure didn’t have a sexy, smart muckraker like Rita – but you know those Danish – but I did have a special literature teacher– Mr. Owen – and a fine drama teacher – Miss McIlwraith – who made life at school memorable for all the right reasons. You know the type of teacher? Maybe you are one of them and you just don’t know it?


But in primary school I had a memorable teacher for all the wrong reasons. One day she pinned a little piece of paper on a fellow student’s cardigan that said, ‘DON’T TOUCH ME. I’M DIRTY. The girl had sworn or something. Then this teacher had given me a cake of soap and instructed me to hand it to the girl so she could wash her mouth out. I refused and ran home to tell Mum who got that teacher sacked. Ah, those were the days…


Sure I remember those teachers that made us kids’ lives hell but let’s end on a positive.


Great teachers are everywhere. They may not all be as overtly extraordinary or highly visible as our radical Rita, but they are out there. I meet them every day and so does my son.