“Traditional”

It’s almost October.

You know what that means. It means damp, russet leaves underfoot and a chill in the air like a whisper telling you to make vegetable soup. It means zipping up jackets and debating whether or not you need to wear a beanie. It means gratefully pulling on your Uggs on the way out the door because they have once again become borderline acceptable, like they do every year around the time Starbucks brings out the pumpkin spice latte. It means cold fingers and early dusk and thick, knitted jumpers that feel like inanimate hugs.

I like Autumn, and I particularly like October. There is something magical about Halloween; I love that the tradition has lasted to the present day. I love the pumpkin-carving and the skeletons and the ghosts and the fireworks. I love the idea of a holiday that involves death in such a harmless way, a traditional, cultural celebration that’s a little macabre but ultimately unthreatening.

A couple of years ago, I visited family in Spain and brought with me some cartoon Halloween stickers for the kids. They were packs with the usual cast of characters – an arched cat, a laughing witch, a cheery pumpkin – and I gave them out to the younger children because it was about this same time of year, and in my experience all little kids love stickers.

Quick as a flash their dad was right there, taking them back from the children and shuffling them into a neat pile as if he were taking cards from gambling addicts about to play a game of poker. I stared at him, wondering if he intended to save them for later. Maybe he was afraid they would stick them on the dashboard of his car?

Instead, he turned, held them out to me, and stiffly said, “Thank you, but we don’t celebrate pagan holidays.”

I took them from him wordlessly and stared in disbelief as he got into the car and they drove away, a huddle of forlorn faces looking longingly out the back window at the contraband stickers in my hand.

I think about that quite a bit around this time of year, especially as the houses in my area start to get creative with their front garden decor. Some put motion-activated sensors at their gates so that anyone passing through hears rattling chains and ghoulish moans. Plastic ravens are twist-tied to trees, and small stuffed ghosties made from ping-pong balls and tissue paper dangle from invisible string. There are candles and cobwebs and paper decorations in the windows. It’s like a creepy Christmas. I LOVE it, and so do the kids. I would hate to see the tradition of trick-or-treating die away.

Last year in Spain there was a lot of controversy, because some of the traditional Three Wise Men parades that happen every January were… modified. They were adapted; secularised slightly in an professed attempt to make it more inclusive. The staunch Catholics were, of course, up in arms about it. They complained about there being a lack of respect for tradition and how it shouldn’t matter that it’s a Catholic tradition, because it’s part of the culture, and it’s for the children after all, and why can’t people just enjoy it?

Personally, I agree that traditions are important. They’re cultural touchstones. Even if the root of the tradition is something to give pause (I’m not sure American Thanksgiving is as wholesome as the name suggests, and Valentine’s Day celebrates the execution of a saint), the traditions themselves bring people together. I remember the magic of the Three Wise Men when I was a child. I remember them throwing fistfuls of sweets into the crowds, I remember the jeweled robes and the pageboys and the music and the sparkling lights. I LOVED it. I certainly didn’t stop to think about the religious undertones, in much the same way as I was largely oblivious to the pagan history of Samhain when I dressed up for Halloween.

As I listened to the Catholics on the television banging on about how people needed to think of the children and respect the beauty of tradition, I thought about the Halloween stickers. I thought about how intolerant that man had been with what amounted to a silly symbol of a strange and wonderful tradition. I wondered why people feel so threatened by beliefs other than their own, and why sometimes we can’t just allow ourselves to enjoy things that aren’t hurting anyone.

It would be nice for people to respect the beauty of tradition, but I would happily settle for people just learning to respect each other.

Hamilton: The Experience

We took our velvet-covered, straight-backed seats and looked around the auditorium. People streamed in the doorways, ribbons of colour; no narrow demographic here. They were young, old, white, black, businessmen in suits and ties, and purple-haired teenagers in leggings and grimy converse runners.

A lady in her mid-fifties took the seat next to mine. A woman with an asymmetric pixie cut and severe black glasses sat in the row in front. I leaned back and enjoyed the slow wooden percussion of seats being pulled down, the rustle of people settling in, ready for the show. Behind us, a girl in her twenties bounced into her seat clutching a bag of merchandise, her parents behind her beaming with joy. The lights dimmed. The theatre quietened. The music kicked in.

As the opening song came to an end, I was already twitching in my seat. The girl behind us had turned into a musical echo, muttering every lyric just slightly out of time. Her words, breathed out in an awed whisper just loud enough to be heard over the music from the stage, were distracting to the point of physical discomfort. When the closing line of “ALEXANDER HAMILTON!” was parroted behind us in a hissed, urgent whisper, my shoulders snapped up into a defensive posture of displeasure.

There was a blessed millisecond of silence.

I rolled my shoulders, trying to coax them back down from my earlobes.

The auditorium erupted into ecstatic applause. The girl, unfettered by the roar of noise around her, leapt to her feet and proceeded to give a standing ovation of rapturous enthusiasm.

“WHOOOOOOOOO!” She bellowed. “WHOOOOOOO! WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

My fingernails dug into the velvet pile. I resisted the urge to grab her plastic bag of merchandise and pull it over her head.

The next song started and she sat back down, leaning all the way forward until her face came to a stop unsettlingly close to Scrubs’ ear. She whispered her way through the next song, pausing at:

“I was seeking an accelerated course of study
When I got sort of out of sorts with a buddy of yours;
I may have punched him… it’s a blur, sir.
He handles the financials?”
“You punched the bursar?”
“Yes!”
It’s no exaggeration to say she almost choked with laughter.
The rest of the song alternated between whispered rapping and hysterical laughter at every mildly amusing line. At one point, unable to restrain myself any longer, I turned in my seat to stare at this Hamiloonie. Her lips were parted and her eyes were shining – shining! – with euphoria. She looked for all the world like one of those children you see in the Disneyworld ads, with the slow-motion fireworks reflected in their eyeballs as their mouths form tiny Os of wonder.
 
Giving her up as a lost cause, I turned my gaze to her parents, who were smiling adoringly at their (presumably only) child as she clutched her bag of Hamilton t-shirts and pins and phone covers and booklets and muttered along in hushed tones that were not nearly hushed enough for anybody in a five seat radius. I narrowed my eyes. I tried to glare daggers. I tried to glare daggers with inscriptions on them that read, ‘CONTROL YOUR CHILD. CONTROL YOUR ADULT CHILD BEFORE I STRANGLE HER WITH A HAMILTON LANYARD.”
 
They didn’t blink. They deflected my eyeball daggers with a strong force-field of love for their daughter, ignorance of my plight and stratospheric levels of self-absorption.
 
By ‘You’ll Be Back,’ my boiling rage had turned to a simmer. Her delirious laughter had dulled my senses and a small and uncharitable part of me had started to believe she wasn’t all there. ‘Poor thing,’ I thought, tilting my head away from the mumbling so that I looked like a King Charles Spaniel with a neck deformity. ‘This is probably her one supervised day out from the musical addiction rehab facility.
 
Her enthusiasm for each and every line of the performance was both commendable and impressive, but it was (unfortunately) definitely not infectious.
 
As somebody who had purchased tickets for this show over a year in advance, and who had listened to the soundtrack multiple times, I considered myself, you know, a fan. I think Hamilton is an extremely well-crafted musical! The lyrics are sharp, the melodies are catchy, and the characters are memorable. All of this to say, I didn’t enter the Victoria Palace Theatre with an indifferent attitude. I arrived ready to enjoy myself.
 
I was not ready, however, for the back of my head to be pummeled by the waves of exhilaration coming off this girl in the seat behind us. I was not ready to simultaneously experience Hamilton: The Musical and also Hamilton: The Breathily-Whispered Performance From a Seated Position in the Upper Balcony. I was not ready to have the amusement of every mildly funny line cut through with screaming, manic laughter, or to have every tender scene building up to a moment of sorrow hijacked by loud, hacking sobs.
 
When we reached the interval, Scrubs and I practically sprinted to the relative tranquility of the corridor – the only place we could find blissful silence – to shakily recover from the assault on our senses.
 
I started the second half of the musical in a dull, numb stage of acceptance. Clearly there was no saving this experience. I thought about asking her to be quiet, but one look at her face told me I couldn’t bring myself to be the one to pull her down from her personal Nirvana. From the looks I shared with the middle-aged lady beside me, I obviously wasn’t the only one with the same thought. During particularly enthusiastic mumbling from the back, she glanced at the girl, raised her eyebrows at me and shrugged her shoulders. ‘At least she’s enjoying herself,‘ I could hear her thinking.
 
I shrugged back, a silent gesture encompassing a multitude of emotions.
Towards the end of the play, (SPOILER ALERT) Alexander’s life comes to its inevitable end. You know it’s coming from the moment the play begins and still, it’s sad. It gets pretty emotional. When I listen to the soundtrack, I often skip over the ending because I don’t want to feel heartbroken for Eliza Hamilton.
 
On this occasion skipping the ending wasn’t really an option.
 
This time the sniffles started long before the sad notes kicked in. Our friend from the row behind was suffering well before anything tragic had taken place. As the music slowed and things started to take a dark turn, the sniffles grew to whimpers, and by the time an emotional blow had actually been dealt, the whimpers had become full, seat-clutching, body-wracking sobs. Her howls of sadness were punctured only by gasps as she desperately inhaled so as not to drown on her own tears.
 
I tried – I swear to God I tried – to stop myself, but I couldn’t help it.
 
I started to giggle.
 
And then I couldn’t stop.
 
My shoulders shook as I bit down on my lip in an attempt to stifle the laughter. I covered half my face with my hand, stealing a glance at the lovely woman beside me to see how she was faring. To my relief, she was just far enough away from the girl to have escaped this latest explosion of emotion. She was absorbed in the musical, her eyes wide and glinting with tears.
 
A keening wail erupted behind me. I snorted with laughter, then swallowed it down awkwardly in an attempt to make it sound like a choking sob. I was desperate to hide my laughter because it felt disrespectful, like giggling at a wake.
 
Unfortunately, it was a relentless assault; the girl was inconsolable.
 
If she had been Eliza Hamilton herself, she could not have been more earnestly devastated by Alexander’s death. Each sound, each distraught utterance from behind us sent me into a fresh wave of convulsions. I hunched over, hiding my face, hoping my shaking shoulders just made me look like any other member of the audience overcome with emotion, weeping into my hands.
 
Honestly I think my hysteria was partly fueled by the relief of knowing that our ordeal was almost over.
 
I turned away from the lady beside me – hoping to spare her the realisation that I was in fits of giggles – only to bump shaking shoulders with Scrubs, who by now was himself silently laughing into a tightly clenched fist. I looked up at him, he looked down at me, and that was a mistake of course, like throwing petrol on a fire. It only made things that much worse. I started crying with laughter from the effort of hiding it. There we were, both of us in tears, surrounded by people crying from actual emotion.
 
I felt like a terrible person.
 
By the time the cast had taken their bows and left the stage (to a standing ovation – they really were amazing), Scrubs and I were desperate to escape. We left the building in a sort of traumatised silence, breathing the night air in with gulping breaths, afraid to say a word until we’d left the theatre far behind us.
We decompressed with some wine and late-night pizza in the only place we found open. There was less discussion about the musical itself than there was about that girl’s slow but relentless goal to drive us all the way around the bend and back again. The show was great, but it just could not compete with the drama taking place in the row behind us.
Now that some time has passed, what did I think of Hamilton the Musical?
It was an experience.

Predator and Prey

David Attenborough’s voice

On the vast plains of the Penneys homeware savanna, a small Grant’s Gazelle picks her way past the rows of bed clothes. Distracted by the sight of a particularly fluffy cushion, she pauses in her pursuit of wildly unnecessary purchases.

A small movement in her peripheral vision attracts her attention. Suspicion causes her eyes to widen and she freezes, staring blindly across the shelf of vanilla bean tea lights. She can feel something watch her through the tangle of children’s clothes. A moment of utter stillness passes, and reassured by the lack of movement, she continues on, trotting past the scented candles.

Out of the corner of her eye she spots another movement. She stops next to the tea towels. Something is following her. Now truly alarmed, she picks up the pace and makes a break for the relative safety of the ground floor. The predator behind her veers off only to come at her from the side and corner her at the foot of the stairs. Her heart flutters with panic.

“Heyyyy….” says the jackal. “How are you doiiiing?”

“Fine thank you” says the gazelle, because maybe she is overreacting? He hasn’t really done anything yet after all. Maybe he’s just an overly friendly jackal. She tries to step around him but he places a paw on her. She doesn’t like it.

“Excuse me,” she says, and sprints up the stairs before he has a chance to react. A swift run gets her to the till, where I hand a t-shirt to the woman behind the register, because I am the gazelle and this metaphor has gone on for long enough.

As the cashier slowly scanned the barcode, my mind ran down dead-ends and alleyways in a frantic effort to keep ahead of my anxiety. I thought about asking the cashier if there was, per chance, a jackal of a man lying in wait for me, but on one hand I thought that if he hadn’t followed me from downstairs then I might seem a bit hysterical, and if he had, then I might freak out the poor woman. And what if security asked him to leave? Then what? Would he wait outside for me? And he was foreign and hadn’t exactly done anything other than make me feel very uncomfortable. Would they think I was a racist?

I kept my mouth shut and paid by card. She handed me my bag and I took it as slowly as possible, stalling for time. When she started to eye me suspiciously, I realised I could put it off no longer. I turned around inch by inch and…

… And he was there. Waiting. Smiling. Staring.

I shook my head at him as if he were offering me something, and bolted for the door. Afraid to look back in case he took any eye contact as a sign of encouragement, I headed up the street and across the road. I pushed into a throng of people in an effort to disappear. I am no stranger to people following me, and I’ve learned that my gut feeling is usually correct. This time my gut feeling was that I was being hunted. I made a sharp right into a women’s clothes shop and made directly for the stairs at the back. I tripped down them two at a time before heading for the farthest corner. When I had nowhere left to go, I turned around.

Only to find him there. Behind me. Waiting. Smiling. Staring.

He moved to corner me again. A frightened “No, leave me alone” hissed through my teeth and I dodged him. Back through the store. Back up the stairs. Out a different door to the one I’d used coming in.

At this point, I was texting Scrubs. Partly because I didn’t know what else to do, partly in an attempt to normalise the whole situation.

“Some dude is following me” I wrote. “Wtaf”

A quick lap of the ground floor told me he wasn’t giving up.

I tried hiding in a food hall. Every time I turned in an aisle he was behind me. Waiting. Smiling. Staring.

I was lagging and my panic levels were through the roof, so I did the only thing I could think of and ran upstairs, straight into the women’s public toilets. I sank down on the red PVC seating provided with a sigh of immense relief.

I honestly could have stayed there all day if necessary. I sat there for twenty minutes. A peek around the doorway revealed he was leaning against the wall, scrolling through his phone, presumably waiting for me.

I considered calling the police. I dismissed it as hysterical.

I waited another twenty minutes.

Finally, he left. I emerged from the toilets and glued myself to the wall as I scooted around the perimeter of the shopping centre and made my way to the exit. Once out on the street I felt exposed, like he might appear out of nowhere at any moment. I hid in the Asian supermarket until my tram arrived, and made sure he wasn’t getting on before I hopped on myself.

Honestly, the stress. I know people say that all the time, but seriously THE STRESS. I got a migraine and had to spend several hours in a darkened room almost crying with frustration.

Every so often I tell myself I should get out more, go into town more often, but then something like this happens and it makes me want to become a cloistered nun. Except, you know, without the nun part. I am a perfectly average person in every way so if this is happening to me, it must be happening regularly to an awful lot of people out there. Either that or I have the invisible tag of “ABSOLUTE SUCKER” attached to me somewhere and I have yet to shake it off.

I used to enjoy bumping into strangers and striking up a conversation, but more and more I find myself immediately wary of anyone who so much as catches my eye, much less tries to talk to me. I am becoming a social hermit crab, and my earphones are my shell.

I don’t want to feel like prey. I want to feel like a (tiny) lioness, well able to stand my ground against any jackal.

Maybe it’s time to take up martial arts.