The clothes and the man

I went to the theatre last night and there on my seat waiting for me when I arrived was a letter addressed to me. When I opened it later (it was too dark to try to read it in the theatre), I discovered it was a fundraising letter signed by the actor David Wenham, who was starring in the production I saw.

The letter centres on the important role of costumes in theatre and the quality of the costumes at the MTC. “Clothes might not necessarily make the man,” David Wenham says in the letter, “but costumes certainly make the character”.

Funnily enough, that particular quote by Mark Twain, “Clothes make the man”, had come to me earlier in the day as well.

I was at my mum’s house, ostensibly to look through my dad’s clothing to see if I wanted anything before she gave it all away to charity. Actually, I shouldn’t say “all”. Mum told me that she’d already given away Dad’s more casual clothing a while ago, without telling anyone at the time. Now she felt ready to give his formal clothing away too and wanted to know if I wanted anything.

Dad had a beige bomber jacket that I hated when he was alive because it seemed so daggy and he wore it everywhere. Needless to say now that he’s gone I love that stupid jacket because it reminds me of him… ironically exactly because it is so daggy and he wore it everywhere.

When I’d spoken to Mum on the phone before going over I had asked her about the beige jacket but she told me she was going to keep it. I was a little surprised as my mum’s not hugely sentimental, but of course I don’t mind. I’m just happy it’s being kept.

I then asked about one of Dad’s flannel shirts, seeing as he wore them all the time. She explained that she’d given them away, having assumed that we wouldn’t want his old clothes. So I went over to take a look at what was left.

Dad died unexpectedly about a year and a half ago and while it took me a while to accept it, I’ve more or less become reconciled to it these last few months. I thought if anything, I might feel a twinge of sadness when I saw his clothes.

Instead as the wardrobe was flung open and I saw his shirts and jackets and pants hanging there, I was overcome with a thousand memories.

Dad in his blue checked shirt sitting on the back doorstep at Mum and Dad’s with my dog, Gus, and pulling a funny face for the camera. Dad in his green and maroon all-weather jacket, standing at my front door with Mum next to him, visiting in winter. Dad in one of his many pairs of tailored Fletcher Jones pants (his favourite brand) and short sleeved shirts. Dad came to life suddenly in the clothes that he wore when he was here with us.

Tears streamed down my face. In that moment I wanted to keep everything. I was afraid that giving it all away would mean that I would lose those memories forever.

The rational part of me knows that that’s not going to happen. But I asked Mum if we could put it off for a couple of weeks so that I could get my head around it first. We closed the wardrobe and I composed myself.

It was during this whole experience that the quote popped into my head: Clothes make the man. Yes, I thought. They absolutely do.

Except for a moment they also did much more than that. For a moment, just a moment, clothes made the man come back to life. Seated man in blue checked shirt pulling funny face and holding a little dog


So cool… not.

Earlier this year I rediscovered the wonderful Natalie Tran of CommunityChannel on YouTube. Back in the day when I had lots of free time (actually I can never remember a time when my life was like that, but you get my drift), I started watching her short but hilarious takes on life. Then life got busier, time passed and next thing you know it’s five years later.

What I love about Natalie Tran is that her humour is observational: her subjects are people and their everyday quirks and behaviours. Exactly the kind of thing I’m interested in.

In one of her recent videos, she makes the observation that she no longer understands young people who say things like “yolo” and “hashtag: hilarious”, acknowledging that back in her day the “cool cats” said different things. For example, she points out, back then it was cool to say “…not” at the end of everything.

My immediate reaction to this was to feel slightly uncomfortable. “Oh” I thought, “Aren’t people saying that anymore?”

I distinctly remember when I first heard that particular expression. It was on a beach in Sydney in the early 1990s. My friend Mez had a baseball cap on back to front with the word “NOT” on the front of it. When I asked her what it signified, she explained it to me and I felt just a little bit behind the cool kids for having had to ask.

I can’t say I was taken with it when I first heard it, and in fact, it was probably half a year before I started using the expression myself. But once I got hold of it, I didn’t let it go. And now it’s been nearly 20 years, and I’m still saying it.

This doesn’t just happen to me. In a clip shown during Graham Norton’s interview with Madonna last year, her teenager daughter Lourdes coolly ridiculed her for still using the expression “whatevs” which, Lourdes claimed, was out of favour with the cool set. I did take some comfort in the fact that even Madonna can be left behind the times, though admittedly saying “whatevs” is at least more recent than using “…not”.

There was a time when I was the one ahead of the expression curve. When the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out in 1990, everyone started using the expression “dude” but I had been saying it for about a decade, thanks to my brother. I’m not sure where he picked it up from but I know “dude” has ridden the wave of cultural popularity a few times over the last 100 plus years.

Along with “dude”, “cool” is another staple in my popular expression diet. I’ve been saying it at least since my teens… and yes, I still say it. A lot. (Sometimes I turn it into “coolio” which is an expression I heard a few years ago and thought was … well, I guess cool so I added it to my repertoire.) “Cool” is another word with a fascinating etymology, coming into popular Western culture through the beatniks in the 1940s who picked it up from the African American jazz scene.

Mind you, not all expressions from popular cultural movements are timeless. You don’t hear “groovy” or “square” much (unless you’re watching an Austin Powers film). Those expressions from the 1960s counter-culture have definitely had their day. But then apparently, that’s what other people think of “ace” and “pox”, terms far more popular in the 1970s when I was growing up than they are now, but I still use them. Not often, and more often than not I’ll use them ironically (in the same way my brother sometimes uses “fully sick”), sure, but not always. Sometimes I genuinely think something is ace.

If I think about the popular phrases I have picked up over the years, they’re the ones I heard being used by people I admired.

There are also a lot of popular phrases I have never adopted, maybe because I never heard anyone I admire use them, or at least use them convincingly. I’ve never gotten the hang of the mostly American tradition of turning negatives into positives. I never jumped on the Michael Jackson “bad” bandwagon, for example, and when I watch popular talent shows and the judges say things like, “You murdered it! You killed it! You destroyed it!” I’m always a little confused. Was it a good performance or not? To me it sounds like negative criticism. Like they’ve ruined the song they’re singing, for example, where “to ruin something” is actually a bad thing. And I don’t mean bad as in good, I mean, bad as in awful. Bad as in terrible. Bad as in pox.

Increasingly I feel ridiculous using the expressions of the youth of the day. I think I’ve come to realise that talking like a teenager when you’re in your 40s only makes you sound like a fool. On the other hand, I’m obviously quite comfortable still talking like I did when I was in my youth.

So I’m sticking with “…not”. Even if that makes me sound daggy. Or aren’t people saying daggy anymore?

Luck. It’s a relative thing.

I have a theory that if a day is meant to be bad, it’ll turn out bad. Doesn’t matter what you do to try to make it good, if fate has decreed it’s going to be a crappy day you absolutely cannot stop it from turning out crappy.

As you might expect, I also think the converse is true. Sometimes, no matter how many mistakes or errors of judgment you make, things keep turning out all right.

This morning I thought I was having the second kind of day.

Anyone who knows me will agree that, firstly, I’m not a morning person, and secondly, I’m not very good at being on time. Consequently, the whole getting to work on time thing is a battle I fight every morning. Sometimes if I’m late the universe has conspired against me (for example, train delays) but more often than not it’s my own inability to focus on what I need to do to get out of the house on time and my propensity to get distracted.

So not a huge surprise that this morning I left the house running a few minutes late, certain I’d miss the train I needed to catch to be at work on time. The universe, however, had other plans. Fate intervened in the form of a bus that turned up exactly when I needed it to and I managed to make my train.

(Yes! Thank you, Universe!)

You can understand why I thought perhaps it was going to be the kind of day that conspires for you and ensures that, despite all you do to stuff things up, it turns out okay.

I even got a seat on the train.

(Double yes!)

Twenty minutes later as we pulled into Richmond Station, however, the driver announced that the train would not be running through the City Loop because of a signalling fault. Instead, it would be going direct to Flinders Street.

I, of course, needed to go through the Loop.

(Noooooooo. No, no, no, no, no, no… Universe! What are you doing?)

I got off my train to wait for one that would take me through the Loop. As I stood on the platform contemplating my bad luck, it occurred to me that there were people who had been on the same train as me for whom this unexpected change was a good thing. Maybe they had to get off at Flinders Street and they were running late, so not going through the Loop meant they were now going to be on time. Just as half the carriage groaned with the driver’s announcement, the other half did a mental fist pump and said, Yes! Thank you Universe! Just as I had, 20 minutes earlier.

Luck, I realised, is a totally relative thing. As it turns out, I’m not at the centre of the universe. It’s not all about me. Sometimes it’s the other people’s turn to have fate conspire for them.

Realising this made me feel a lot better about my morning. I realised I don’t mind being a bit late to work if it means a whole bunch of other people feel lucky and that their day has just been made. Thinking about it totally cheered me up and turned my morning around again.

Which is quite lucky, don’t you think?