- Published: 1 December 2020
- ISBN: 9781761040900
- Imprint: Ebury Australia
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 272
- RRP: $37.00
A Ratbag's Rules for Life
SEEK AND DESTROY NORMALCY
‘Normal is a cycle on a washing machine’ is something my dad always told me. It’s an important life lesson I soaked up when I was a young fella. I agree with him: being normal sounds bloody boring.
It’s a funny thing, trying to be normal, as if it protects you from looking too strange. It’s a safe place to leave your hat. But toeing the company line and ‘doing what you’re supposed to’ isn’t for everyone. Who even makes those rules, anyway?
I’ve never been normal. Normal is a strange thing. I find things that fit into a ‘normal’ bracket kinda weird. It seems like a space where creativity goes to die, some strange precious pocket of mundane. I’ve been surrounded by everything except ‘normal’ my whole life. Even when things have tried to be normal, they’ve ended up just being weird.
I guess ‘normalcy’ for me represents society’s unspoken rules about what’s ‘expected’ of you. I don’t subscribe to most of that shit. Not everyone wants the same things – if they did life would be boring as fuck. All sorts of pressures and timelines are pushed on people by society, and that in itself is weird to me. I think the idea of everyone’s lives running parallel to each other – of everyone having kids and getting married and buying houses around the same time in their lives – is a bit fucken scary. Let’s get it straight: those things are awesome, but doing it just ‘because you’re supposed to’ doesn’t sit right with me. If you want all that stuff, bloody go for it – you’ll nail it. But do it your way. Fuck it, do what you want. If you’re at all like me and wired a little differently, that shit doesn’t really work for you.
And you need to know that sometimes being normal is super weird, and sometimes being super weird is totally normal and that’s actually pretty great.
Embrace your inner Greenfrog
There’s nothing regular or rational about life, as far as I’ve experienced it. I’ve been surrounded by anything but. Especially with relatives. I’ve got some fucken weird relatives. I mean, I know we all have, but I bet mine are weirder than yours. My late grandfather, my mum’s father, is a champagne example. He was a bit of a lunatic, and I can relate to that in a lot of ways. I definitely inherited some of his crazy energy. He was probably the first real comedian I ever met, though I don’t know if he knew he was a comedian . . . an offstage kind, at least.
Everyone called him ‘Grandad Greenfrog’ or ‘Custard Frog’. I’m sure he earned that name because at some stage he’d answered ‘custard frog’ to something someone asked him. He used to pretend that he couldn’t understand what you were saying and would rattle off a random bunch of words, pretending that’s what he’d heard instead. He had this kind of self-diagnosed industrial deafness from being a fitter machinist in the coalmines as a younger man. Look, I’m sure he did have some level of hearing damage, but he really loved to turn it up in the name of a laugh. You could say, ‘Pa, you wanna cup of tea?’ And he would reply, ‘What? Orange juice?’ Or you’d ask him, ‘Hey, what are you watching?’ and you could bet he’d come back with something like, ‘Milk mower? What’s a milk mower?’ So Green/Custard Frog it was, and I think he even went by Custard Head sometimes, and that’s what we all called him growing up. His real name was actually Lawrence.
Greenfrog was wildly eccentric, but that was one of the best things about him. Everyone in the family has some Greenfrog stories. He was staying with my parents for a while before I was born and all the stories they’ve told me about him have me rolling on the floor laughing. I have my own memories of him too and all of them are pretty fucken funny and ridiculous.
One of the stories is about how he used to have a sleep disorder of some sort, so he’d kind of come in and out of conversations at the kitchen table, falling asleep intermittently while telling a yarn. He’d have a little nap and then wake up an hour and a half later and kick straight back off where he’d left things, not worried at all that by then everyone else was miles away from that part of the conversation. He didn’t really have a great concept of time, Dad tells me. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear him angle-grinding at 3.30 am in the garage. Dad would have to go out and tell him to shut up, and Custard Frog would be completely confused as to what the big problem was, while angle-grinding something with an angle grinder he’d made out of four other angle grinders.
He had an interesting diet to boot, our Greenfrog. He used to love cups of tea with six teaspoons of sugar in them but wouldn’t like it if you stirred it because it made it ‘too sweet’. Go figure. He’d make these sandwiches he called ‘gaskets’, which were just white bread and butter he’d squash the shit out of so they were flat as a gasket. He also loved a lemon-curd spread, but only ever with white bread . . . white bread ONLY.
Though he was fussy about his tea and sandwiches, he was also a curious soul, always wanting to know how weird things tasted. He would taste fluids in the garage and other wild shit like that, just to know what they were like. I think he even tried cyanide one time . . . which is just plain sketchy. I remember on one of my birthdays as a kid we were at the park, and Custard Frog gave me fake pearls as a gift. He was also eating some of the grass. After we got home later that day, Mum found him in the kitchen making something on the stove. Turns out it was grass soup. Thankfully I didn’t learn any culinary tricks from Greenfrog. Recreating that grass delicacy would cause a stir on the channel, I reckon.
Greenfrog had a qualification in repairing things, having been a fitter and turner back in his heyday, so I think he fancied himself a Fix-it Fella, much to the distress of the rest of the family. He would try to repair things, and often leave them half-restored or strewn across the fucken floor of the house.
He owned an old Peugeot and he wanted to fix the gearbox or the radiator in it, or something. So, as the story goes, he pulled the radiator out of the car, and while he was there, he thought, Bucket of fish, I may as well pull all of this other stuff out too and have a tinker with that. He managed to pull the entire fucken engine apart and plonk it on pieces of newspaper throughout my parents’ house, which gave my mum the shits big time – and my dad as well, I’m sure.
Greenfrog then decided to colour-code everything, painting the entire engine different colours so he would remember what parts went with what. Before he could finish he got called off on some job and just took off, leaving the car lying in pieces on the floor on bits of the Herald.
I think my parents had given away their car to someone in the church because they felt that was the right thing to do at the time – which was pretty nice of them. So when they needed a car themselves, Dad – thankfully also quite in the know about things like this – decided to put Custard Frog’s Peugeot back together, in all its rainbow glory. He managed to do it but it looked like a fucking packet of Skittles under the bonnet of the car. Of course, Dad then had to take it to the mechanic to get it slipped, and when they opened the bonnet they thought he’d fucken lost his mind. I think Greenfrog came home shortly after, picked up the car and fucked off with it, after all the time Dad had spent putting it back together.
For some reason, that’s one of my favourite stories ever. Greenfrog was a bit of a character, to say the least, and I think a lot of his quirks were possibly coping mechanisms – I can’t help but wonder if they helped him to switch off to the real world in some respects. I often use humour in the same way to deflect a situation or just deal with the position I find myself in. I think I’ve always been pretty inspired by eccentrics like him in my life.
Sometimes the people others find weird are among the most fascinating. Seeing life through the eyes of someone who views the world differently to you can be some of the most enlightening, helpful and funny shit. Just because they’re a bit strange certainly doesn’t make them stupid, or less worthy of your time. Being open to people’s eccentricities can result in some of the most rewarding experiences. Or at least, in the case of Greenfrog, some fucken epic stories.
‘Normal’ isn’t always normal
And, I mean, weird’s good to a point, depending on what kind it is. Growing up in the church, I had such normalcy pushed on me so hard that it became warped and resulted in a life that was not normal at all and actually pretty damaging. I think that’s why I’ve pushed back against the concept of ‘normal’. I’ve kind of cracked the shits with anything that seems that way. I find everyday life a bit strange. I find the people in it strange. I find the structure of how things are supposed to happen a bit odd.
Take Civic Video or Video Ezy, which operated years ago. (What a bummer of an investment that must have been.) When I was a kid, renting a video was a standard thing to do. I think one of the earliest so-called ‘normal’ things I found weird was the video rental system. I never understood why some things were worthy of a three-day rental, while others were worthy of a weekly. Obviously there were tiers of ‘newness’ or desirability, but you paid less for a thing that you got to keep for longer – how does that make sense? Not that I was really complaining – as a kid there was a lot of value in getting to pick a video to hang onto for a week.
I always thought that would be a pretty funny thing to do for a laugh – reopen a video shop. Though it’s kinda trendy now to be into dead technology. Even the punk band I play in released our EP on cassette. It’s just a thing you do to seem sorta edgy, I suppose – use a format it’s painful to use. Maybe we should release our next EP on a minidisc or a series of floppy disks.
While we’re on the topic, I remember seeing a sign outside a Civic Video once that said, ‘We rent DVDs’, with ‘(Digital Video Disc)’ underneath, which made me laugh because I knew that DVD doesn’t stand for ‘Digital Video Disc’ – it stands for Digital Versatile Disc. Shit like that makes me laugh heaps.
I’ve always thought that naming your shop something ‘mania’ was a brave move, yet I see it a lot. A brave and possibly inconsiderate word to tack on to your business name. Mania is quite a serious state – a legitimate mental health issue and a pretty heavy thing for someone to be going through – and not a vibe I’d think you’d want to suggest you’re harbouring at your workplace. It certainly doesn’t imply that you’ve all got your shit together. Back to video stores, actually, there’s one called Video Mania, which to me makes it sound like all the videos are strewn across the floor, out of their cases, and people are just running amok doing whatever the hell they want. Another one that makes me feel unsettled is Chicken Mania – for a start, a place that sells chicken is not a place I want to be in while in a state of mania. I want the person or business in charge to be on their game (lol), not feeling out of sorts. Poorly cooked chicken can lead to some pretty gnarly events.
I think Big W had a Toy Mania . . . shit, can you imagine that in full swing? That’s all you need, a bunch of kids being encouraged to go fucken bananas at a massive discount store . . . Yikes.
Wearing a suit to court
Why do people need to wear suits for court? How does dressing like James Bond help you get out of a charge? Surely the judge at court sees a ratbag dressed uncomfortably in a suit and sees that as being bullshitted more than a sign of responsibility? Go figure, eh?
This is something that’s strangely normal yet hugely inappropriate if you plan on sleeping. I don’t know how many times I’ve been offered a coffee after dinner, but every time I’ve thought, Bit late for that, don’t ya think? I understand it’s like a fucken digestive or something, but surely something without a drug in it that keeps you awake could fill those shoes? Maybe it’s cause I sleep like shit that I think it’s a pretty wild suggestion, but a dose of caffeine late at night seems fucken odd to me.
Tissues on the rear parcel shelf
Long-time listeners will know that I have an issue with tissues boxes on the parcel shelves of cars. Particularly Toyota Camrys – I don’t know what it is about that car that makes people chuck a fucking box of tissues in the back window, but I see it everywhere. You couldn’t pick a shitter spot for them if you ask me. What’s wrong with the glove box? Nothing. And why do you need a whole fucking box of tissues in the car? Maybe blow your nose before you get in, Snotty Steve, or even just bring a handful with you. It seems like total overkill to have an entire box, particularly in the back, where you can’t fucking reach them unless you stop the car, get out and climb into the back seat. I don’t get it.
Speaking of weird food we’re expected to eat, how’s the dodge fest that is eating food from a service station? Fucken hell, I used to get into that shit when I was younger – I mean, we all go there at some stage. I used to eat a lot of those chilli beef and cheese pies. If you want to catch the express train to shitting yourself while crying, that’s the way to do it. I don’t know how they get the cheese in there . . . it’s kind of frozen in time, managing to still be cheese on top of hot meat and gravy, while somehow still being acceptable for sale.
I remember seeing a sign outside a servo once that said, ‘If it’s not a Mrs Mac’s, take it back’. It made me think, Fuck, does that apply to anything? Can you have just bought a Ford Falcon and take it back because it’s not a Mrs Mac’s pie? I need to try that.
Dress for the job you’ve actually got: being you (duh)
I’ve never really fit into the Act Normal, Be Normal zone. I get quite jittery and frustrated when I’m told to behave or dress in a certain way. I probably find clothing one of the weirdest parts of the ‘normal’ world, with all its implicit rules about how you should and shouldn’t dress.
Clothing is such an awesome way of expressing yourself as an individual, particularly when you’re a kid trying to work out who you are and where you fit. I remember mufti day at school being the most exciting shit in the world at the time – I was so pumped to wear all my favourite shit to school and to finally show my inner cool kid on the outside. Fuck, I really thought I was so cool in my baggy Kepper pants and massive Mr Bean t-shirt. I remember feeling so great wearing what I wanted in a place I didn’t want to be – it made the day so much easier to cope with. I hated the fucking school uniforms more than I hated most things on earth. I always felt slightly humiliated in them. I felt like I looked like a fucken dickhead.
As a teenager I did my utmost to look as abnormal as possible. I used to cut my clothes into parts, sew bits of basketball singlets into my pants and dye my hair a million colours, just so I looked insane or different and mysterious. It made me feel strangely safe, inventing my own version of normal by looking like a lunatic. Always heaps of black clothing, and since the age of eleven or so I’ve worn a wallet chain. I always thought that was a really cool look, and I liked having this shiny bit of metal hanging off me – when I was a kid I reckoned it looked a bit tough. Some people think I’m a weirdo for having a wallet chain, like, ‘What, are you worried people are going to steal your wallet?’ I mean, not really. But I think it looks better than not having one, and that’s now my ‘normal’.
So, I still look like a fucken massive wacko, and it suits me much better than dressing ‘normal’. Wearing whatever you want is great, because it asserts that you don’t want or need to fit into the conventional world.
Like, why do people dress certain ways for certain jobs? I don’t understand why it matters that you wear a suit to work in an office building. Who gives a fuck? What has that got to do with how well you’re able to do your job?
It doesn’t really matter if you’re dressed differently from everyone else. I reckon the pushback comes down to the fact that people get upset about anything unfamiliar to them, as with xenophobia or homophobia or any of that shit. What does it matter that someone else is different from you? Insisting on sameness is fucken stupid.
Different is good. It keeps the world interesting. It’s a weird, special little world we live in, one that tries to cram people into little slots. I reckon the weirder you are, the better you are. Don’t fear coming off a little ‘weird’.
I am in the spare room, which doubles as my office, and I have just finished my day’s work.
I start wearing the family dog, a mini-sheltie, a little Lassie, in an unbleached cotton baby sling across the front of my body like a messenger bag, a few weeks shy of fall.
Johnny Casey launched into a fit of energetic coughing – a bit of bread down the wrong way.
According to the statistics, on this last day of the year a man of eighty-five has approximately an 80 per cent chance of reaching 31 December 2015.
INTRO Dearest Billy, I have a feeling that you’re going to find out about all this, so I thought you’d better hear how it all began, from your own mum.
Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.
In the spring of 1944, I was sixteen, living with my parents and two older sisters in Kassa, Hungary.