That time Mother swapped Father’s dead parrot for another bird and thought he wouldn’t notice but he totally did

I’m writing a series of stories about my childhood, mainly featuring the adventures and exploits of my mum (who is actually visiting me in Sydney for a month right now). This is mainly for my daughter to read, but I thought I’d record them here to share.

It helps to understand the home that I grew up in.

Our main family cat, ‘Boots’.

As far back as I can remember, we had pets. I didn’t quite appreciate how unusual our pets were until I was old enough to have school friends over for playdates, and they’d be like, “Sonia, there’s a peacock in your driveway.”

Peacock! How ridiculous! 

“Oh, LOL. You mean a Bird of Paradise.”

I don’t remember what happened to it. I do know it didn’t have a name, which usually meant it didn’t stay with us for very long.

Just like the mouse deer that Mother forced Father to return. “What are we going to do with a deer?!”

I dunno. What were we going to do with the five ducks, two lorises, squirrels, a broken rooster (crowed at three hour intervals, all day, every day), two hamsters, two cats, many birds, and a terrapin? Mind you, we lived in a house in the suburbs, not on a farm or any kind of acreage. The other great thing was that all my best buddies lived within walking or bike riding distance from me. We were always at each others’ houses.

Colin, the come hither otter

I’d be on the phone with a kid from school, explaining that coming over to their house to play that weekend sounded awesome, but wasn’t going to work for me because “my mum needs me to help with Jackie.”

“Jackie is your sister?”

Sister! How ridiculous!

I mean, I had a little sister, but she was three, and no way was I going to look after her without the promise of some coinage to go to Funzone with friends. I’d stick $2 in 20 cent pieces into the Dumbo ride and my little sister would go around and around, up and down, while I waited at the sidelines and caught up on all the primary school gossip with my friends.

“No, Jackie is the monkey,” I would clarify.

By then, most of my school friends knew enough about my home life to not even think to question this.

lucky cats
We even had two cats at our holiday house – ‘Lucky’ and ‘Audrey’. They’d follow me all the way to the beach.

We also had a few parrots over the years. One was called Raffles, who utterly despised all human females. I’d try to approach her cage and she’d literally fling half-eaten fruit at me and squawk out a warning. But Father could scoop her up and she’d puff up and shiver with happiness (the hussy).

Twice, she escaped, and Mother ended up calling a Civil Defence crew to come with a huge crane so they could rescue Raffles from a nearby tree. Good thing they were all dudes, and that there were no other actual national disasters happening to occupy their time.

Another parrot could perfectly mimic the sound of our housekeeper’s voice, as she called out the arrival of the school bus each morning.


At which point I’d assume that I’d slept through my alarm, and would scramble out of bed to get into my school uniform, grab my bag…only to realise it’s frigging Saturday morning and THERE IS NO SCHOOL.

The parrot would look at me with a perfectly gormless expression.

They were all beautiful, loved and memorable, but there was one parrot that will go down in infamy. His name was Joey and he was my father’s young, rare, prize-winning, triple-threat, Hugh Jackman of a parrot. I mean this bird could talk, sing, jazz hands, the works. He was uncanny, such was his personality and presence.

We all fawned over him. Father heaped much praise and attention upon young Joey. Father’s friends made offers for Joey, but were scoffed at and turned down.

Some weeks after Joey became a part of the family, Father informed us that he was off to the US for six weeks to undertake a helicopter engineering course. Mother worked full-time as a school teacher, but was made to promise that she would take care of Joey like he was her own.

Precise instructions were relayed, involving cage hygiene and positioning (Joey lived on our second floor balcony), type and duration of interaction each day, special bird feed,  treats, etc. Mother was also told to speak to Joey regularly, so he wouldn’t get rusty.

To this day, Mother will swear that she took all of this very seriously and may even have written some of it down, but I remember the eye rolls and expression of extreme put-outness. She was a busy woman. The bird was not her responsibility, but yes, she would do as Father asked.

I can’t recall the exact day it happened, but I remember Mother calling me to the balcony with some urgency. She pointed to the cage and asked me if I thought something was wrong with Joey.

I looked at the bird, who was at the bottom of the cage, stiff as a board, with his legs up in the air.

“He’s dead,” I observed.

Oh, the commotion. The panic.

There was the obligatory backtracking of everything she had done with the bird since Father left. Mother could not work out what had gone wrong. She insisted she could not possibly be held accountable for Joey’s premature demise.

This did nothing to resolve the fact that she had killed Father’s pride and joy.

Most people would throw in the towel at this point, make that painful international call, and just ‘fess up.

No. Not Mother. She didn’t initially tell me what she was thinking, but Mother has possibly one of the world’s worst poker faces. If she had a beard, she would have stroked it. Her expression basically telegraphed Cunning Plan.

If you ask Mother to hide something in a room and not tell you where the thing is, all you have to do is bring her to the room and say, “Don’t look at the thing”, and she’ll immediately look at the thing. I was a toddler I when first defeated her in ‘I Spy’.

Thus did the cunning plan unfold. Everyone told her it wasn’t going to work, but she would not be swayed.

First, she visited EVERY pet store and breeder in the city, to find out if (A) they already had a pre-existing relationship with Father, and if not, (B) Did they have a bird similar to Joey and if so, could she buy the bird?

This was when she ran into the major problem with her plan.

It’s one thing to try and replace a ubiquitous Toyota and hope nobody notices you’ve swapped out one Corolla for another. It’s quite another thing to try and find a reasonable facsimile of a Lamborghini.

Everyone in the bird business knew of Joey and of Father’s enduring love of Joey. Possibly out of professional pride, or simply their sheer horror at her plan, NO ONE was willing to help Mother replace the bird.

As each day passed, we inched closer and closer to Father’s eventual return. I’m damned sure he asked about Joey over the phone, and I have no idea what Mother would have said to him.

She thumbed more desperately through the Yellow Pages, until one day, she hit paydirt.

It can’t have been a very reputable breeder, or one who knew Father well (I assumed he knew them all). She drove some distance to a location she would not reveal, and returned with a bird that honestly and stunningly looked so much like Joey that I thought she might just pull it off…

Father returned.

Like so many other engineer-types, he was not one for flowery demonstrations of affection. He gave us all perfunctory hellos, before bounding up the stairs to be reunited with the apple of his eye, with the son he never knew he wanted.

I sprinted after him with glee, ignoring the eye-daggers Mother was throwing at me.

Father had some fruit in his hand when he opened the cage door and went to touch ‘Joey’.

Who squawked aggressively and backed away.

Father offered him the fruit. The bird was not interested.

Father said, “Hello, Joey boy! Hello!”

No response. In fact, the bird looked terrified of him.

Father whistled, trying to goad his hand-raised, prize winning, trained-to-speak, pet bird, into speaking or singing.

The bird was unresponsive. It stared at us with vacant, black eyes. If Joey had been two shots of arabica espresso, this bird was weak, milky tea. It wasn’t Fake Joey’s fault. He was a fine bird. He just wasn’t Joey.

The jig was up, surely? But no. Mother had reserves I had not anticipated.

Father was looking at her now. “What happened to the small patch of red on Joey’s neck?”

Patch of red!? I didn’t remember ever seeing a patch of red, and from the expression on Mother’s face, neither had she.

Her commitment was impressive. “He was just a baby when you left. Maybe his feathers changed colour?”

Good one! Entirely possible!

“And he’s also forgotten how to talk? Or sing?” Father asked.

I can’t remember what she said to that, but I do know that had she not confessed to him at that point, it was the shopkeeper who ultimately betrayed her. As it turns out, Father did know the guy, and maybe through guilt or possibly fear, the man spilled all of Mother’s guilty beans.

It always seemed a bit morbid to me that we never changed Fake Joey’s name. He became the new Joey and stayed with us for quite a while, though he never did learn to talk, or sing.


Wrestling the Anxiety Monster

I can pretty much suss out how the day is going to be within the first 10 minutes of waking up Dubs.

There are various data points to collect from my daughter, my tousled-haired, sleepy, unit of analysis. Sometimes, she’s immediately teary and clutches her teddy just a little more tightly than usual. I note that. I go, “Ah, here we go.” Or I will remember that the day before was One of Those Days, which often follow on to The Next Morning.

On such occasions, I do everything I can to throw a spanner into the anxiety machine that will otherwise churn up everything in its wake. I’ve learned that my moods influence hers and vice versa. I don’t always succeed in masking my own foibles, and when this happens, our mornings are a powder keg.

The journey to school is a watchful one. I can read her moods pretty well by now. On good days, she almost skips to the train station. There’s giggling and bad jokes and observations about the world, and recaps of Trump’s latest antics on the morning news.

There are other times when I hold her hand all the way. A deep and meaningful pep-talk is warranted, or a long hug, or a quick jaunt to get a morning hot chocolate, or watching a funny YouTube cat video, or just knowing that I need to leave her to enjoy a good book. Still, there is no guarantee that she won’t have a quiet crisis of confidence in the final 20 meters to school. Despite my best laid plans, and all the forecasting in the world, it still happens. And I don’t know how NOT to feel like it’s my personal failure.

On particularly bad days, it’s hard to tell between physical ailments and poor mental health (which technically is still a physical ailment because of what is happening in the brain). Her mental health creates physical symptoms and when she’s sick, her mental health becomes just a bit more wobbly because she’s feeling so poorly.  She misses more school than she should and this is a constant source of guilt and concern for me, and admonishment and a lamentable lack of understanding from her school.

So much of the usual parenting advice feels counter-intuitive to me. If she’s not febrile or listless, send her to school, they say. They don’t tell you what to do when your child looks at you with panic in her eyes. Or what you should do when you both went to bed late the night before because you were trying to console a distraught child.

There is a very real mental and physical cost to living with anxiety. It feels a lot like constant, never-ending  weather forecasting. I find myself reflecting over the past few days, recounting events, consulting my calendar to remind myself of what’s ahead, and then working out how seemingly disparate events might connect in such a way that a storm is imminent.

After a while, pattern recognition takes over and you know how things align. You learn about cause and effect. It’s all so precarious, though. And the stress of keeping those balls up in the air, of not looking away for one moment…. Occasionally, I slip up. Maybe more than occasionally. I am a mess, sometimes. And I am told to allow myself these times, but they still seem unforgivable because of our precarious circumstances. I wish I was more organised, more resilient, more hardy, more everything. I try and wrangle work, study, deadlines, life, health issues, my own stress. When I slip up, all hell breaks loose and the anxiety monster comes out for a romp. He runs roughshod over my poor girl and this is when we lose time.

I mean this literally. We lose motherfucking time. On the worst days, nothing seems to alleviate the anxiety better than just lying in bed and talking. She cries, we talk, we cuddle, I try and make her laugh (we do laugh a lot, she and I, even when we’re despairing). I rub her back, she goes to sleep. Sleep is the inevitable end to these sessions. Deep, long sleep in a dark room, at whatever time of the day she needs it. I look at her still, tear-stained face and want to weep. Not with sorrow, but with envy (and its close cousin – guilt). I want to sleep, too. I want to go to sleep and wake up on a day when I don’t need to be vigilant. I want to weave whatever mystical, primal magic mothers are supposed to have and leach away all the fear she has inside of her and cast it to the wind. I want to take her place and give her respite. I want to slay her demons, imagined and tangible.

During these times, no homework gets done, which makes her more anxious when she wakes up. If she wakes up later at night, dinner is sometimes served at 9pm, which makes going back to sleep a bit of a challenge. So, the next morning is already in jeopardy. See how this works? She often falls into bed in her school clothes. No shower. No dinner. The number of times I’ve pulled shoes and socks off feet, taken hair out of pony tails… It’s almost an unwholesome rest, because I know it only ever comes at the end of significant pain. In addition to time, these days (and oh, there have been so many over the years), cost us money. I am not working when I am caring for her. I need to pay the rent. But I also need to rest in order to be functioning the next morning, always remembering those juggling balls.  I hate that it feels like my caring responsibilities are in constant conflict with my jobs and study and looking after myself. I am not doing justice to any of my duties

Today was a bad day, I guess. It’s been a week of bad days. I’m exhausted.

We get help, of course. Mercer is our anchor. Dubs sees a great therapist once every two weeks. I used to as well until life and expenses got in the way. Our friends are wonderful, supportive and understanding. And I guess being in our line of work, Mercer and I try to be on top of the literature and the ways we can help both Dubs, and us, as a family.

To end this post on a more positive note, I give you Dub’s 2015 Eureka Awards video, ‘Anxiety in Kids’.

And last year’s episiode of SBS’ The Feed, where we appeared in a special about childrens’ anxiety.

And here are some things we tried that have helped:

  • tummy breathing ala Dub’s instructions in the above video (really works well)
  • loveys or special confidence boosting items ( we have a ton of them!)
brave heart front
We made a ‘braveheart’ token which she took to school in her pocket on particularly anxious days.
  • role play – act out situations that make you anxious to limit fear of the unknown and to practice assertiveness.
  • trial runs – visiting places that make you anxious and exploring those locations in a safe and supported manner. In Year 1, we visited school during the holidays to work on her school and separation anxiety, ticking off each item off a checklist as we went.

Some of the resources from therapy over the years:

worry monster
Dub’s pictorial representation of her ‘anxiety monster’, channelling Cthulhu realness…


Archie Rose

Mercer hadn’t slept for almost 3 days due to a spectroscopy paper deadline, but we were not to be thwarted from committing to a planned visit with our rock climbing crew to the Archie Rose distillery.  I haaaaate going to Alexandria. It’s due to a combination of a lack of parking, the traffic during the day-time, and the industrial feel of the suburb. I’ll make an exception for the Matt Blatt furniture warehouse, though.

And not just because it sells my new favourite lamp in the whole world.

Would you like some lamp with your horse?

We had no issues this evening, thankfully. And what a gorgeous venue it was! Admittedly, I am no gin connoisseur, but whoah, I might be a fresh convert.

charlie rosegins

moaning myrtle
No question, we got a Moarning Myrtle.
This was another no-brainer. Hah.
black star pastry
AR doesn’t serve any food, but the infamous Black Star Pastry (right across the street) provides platters to share for ridiculously reasonable prices. This was only about $27 and includes their legendary strawberry-watermelon cake.

On Sunday, morning, I had no luck rousing Mercer from his Sleep of the Dead. Not even the promise of coffee could make him budge. Instead, I had brunch with Dr M, who is due to return to LA within the next fortnight (*sob*).  She ordered the most photogenic corn fritters at Rustico in Five Dock.

corn fritters
So pretty. So tasty.

Being kind and thoughtful women, we also got Mercer a takeaway breakfast roll and then had a leisurely walk back to his place. I love the spring weather.

On Sunday night, Mercer, Dr M, TimTamSam and I FINALLY watched the last episode of Game of Thrones, Season 7.  All of us had already been thoroughly spoiled, but it was still a thrill and a privilege to see all the immaculate set design, the stunning costumes, breathtaking locations, impressive CG effects, fine acting, and also Jon Snow’s butt, in all its HD glory.

This morning, I sent a draft paper (on STEAM programs in Engineering pedagogy) to one of my bosses even before I got out of bed. Had a video meeting with another two bosses (owe them another paper, too…yikes), and then went to collect Dubs from school. We had a piping hot massaman curry for lunch (mmm potatoes and peanuts). And as is our ‘tradition’, we had to get something sweet for the train ride back.

Dubs visited the old Japanese granny who runs a tiny grocery store in Artarmon. This lady has the patience of a saint, given it’s one of the few, local sweet shops near the neighbourhood school. She’ll always give the kids discounts. I honestly don’t know how she makes a profit, given the astronomical rents in that area. I love Artarmon. Before we moved closer to my university, we lived there for over four years from when Dubs was just in pre-school. It’s close enough to be a short train ride to the city, and yet such a green and leafy suburb despite that proximity.

Best place for your daily YanYan, fresh mochi or Pokari Sweat.




TGIF library banana


Takes a photo to show you her banana.


Should eat the banana yes no maybe?

Should NOT eat the banana because she is in the library and she is not a maniac.

Should eat the banana because that guy the other day ate an apple in the library with no fucks given.

Should NOT eat the banana because that guy the other day ate an apple in the library with no fucks given and everyone wanted to murder him because it was so noisy.

Should eat the banana because bananas are soft and do not make crunchy noises when you eat them.

Should NOT eat the banana because bananas give off a stronger scent than apples and this will annoy everyone just like apple guy.

IS NOW EATING the banana.

Has put it away again because someone is giving Sonia stink eye.

Is hungry.


It’s 4pm on Friday afternoon. I am fairly lightheaded from lack-of-lunch and 8 hours of squinting at statistics. On the plus side, am kid-free this weekend and going to romance some fine gin tomorrow at Archie Rose!

Like a rolling stone

Walking to uni to get some work done in the HDR student lounge at the library (my unofficial ‘office desk’). It’s lunch time here so there are hundreds of students and staff milling about. Am making my way across the front of campus, stats and paper deadlines on my mind when I see this girl paused in the middle of a thoroughfare, digging in her purse.

I am about 5 meters from her when it happens.

I see something ‘dislodge’ from her hand. Even from this distance, I know it’s a ring. There’s a quick flash of silver, glinting in the sunlight. It comes off her finger and falls to the ground. Clearly, this is no ordinary ring for me to have been able to spot it in the first place. The rock on this thing is big, So big, it must surely have its own gravity and climate system. Amidst the lunch-time hustle and bustle, I can hear the plink this ring makes as it hits the pavement.

And bounces, and bounces..

To my (and probably her) horror, the stone separates from its claw. The ring is now lying on the ground. But the stone? Oh no no no, that mofo is rolling its way down to the 20 or so meters of metal grating that runs alongside the pavement.

It occurs to me that I am not the only person who is witnessing this impending tragedy. Women of all ages (seriously, one of them looks to be a professor in her 60s) materialise out of the crowd. We are, all of us, RUNNING. Pretty sure not all of us know why or what we’ll do when we stop running, but dammit, we’re not standing there idly while this girl loses what is obviously her engagement ring.

I also belatedly note, with some amusement, that not a single guy makes a move. Its probably not for lack of ability. They just don’t notice. They’re all kinda gormlessly standing there wondering wtf is going on. Two or three of us ladies, including the ring’s owner, makes it to the grate just as the stone bounces towards the edge. Several pairs of hands and at least one foot attempts to either catch this wayward diamond, or block it from entering the drain. We are not about to let 1-3 million years of geological history and about 5 years of some dude’s salary disappear into the university’s catacombic drain system.

In the end, it’s the foot that does the trick. The diamond is saved and is returned to its very grateful owner.

This is the most exciting thing to happen to me all week. I think I need a stiff drink to recover, but it’s not quite Friday yet.

Slime and Now Teach

The answer to the questions:
1. Where has all the damn toothpaste gone, and;
2. Why does EVERYTHING in the fridge smell like peppermint?

If you have kids over the age 9 who are NOT obsessed with slime, I’d like to know about it. For the past few months, I’ve learned enough about slime-making (and OH, THE INHERENT CHALLENGES) to last several lifetimes. I guess it’s not hard to imagine what it is about slime that is so fascinating to children. It’s gooey, colourful, malleable, squelchy and fun.

You know you’re in for the long haul when your kid tells you, with an air of oh-didn’t-you-know-Mum? superiority, that slime-making has Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) therapeutic benefits.

Well, ooookay, then.

Here’s a good example of ASMR slime. And here’s a great intro to slime making.

After many months of experimentation, including maintaining a lab log book, Dubs has created some kind of slime which is both seemingly solid and liquid (more so than usual) and is the source of much oohing and ahhing from her classmates. I told her this is chemistry. She wrinkled her nose at the very idea (how uncool!) and literally in the same breath proceeded to explain to me the chemicals in clay face masks that are essential for her new slime. Science, my girl. It’ll out in the end!

log book
Mercer provided Dubs with a log book for science experiments, including slime.


In other news, I thought this was a really interesting article about a program that re-trains older adults who feel somewhat unfilled in their jobs, to become teachers. It’s quite an entertaining read.

Some of the sacrifices are more idiosyncratic. Every June for a decade, Howard Smith, a former derivatives trader, went on a pilgrimage to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker. This year he came second and left with winnings of about £100,000; next year he won’t be able to go at all – he’ll be teaching probability to 14-year-olds instead.

Lucy Kellaway is a journalist who, with a friend, set up an organisation called Now Teach. What a fabulous idea. The good response they received is indicative that many people genuinely want that professional sea change.

It all started last autumn when Katie Waldegrave, a social entrepreneur, and I set up Now Teach. We were sure there were lots of 50-somethings who wanted to teach, but no one was seeking them out. Of the 35,000 who started teacher training in the UK last year, almost none of them – a mere 100 – were over 55. Given that teachers, on average, last barely five years in the profession, and given that many driven 50-year-olds will work into their 70s, this makes no sense at all. What is madder still is that the subjects where the teacher shortage is worst – maths, science and languages – are things many of these people are good at.

The benefits of such an endeavour will go both ways, as the children can benefit from meeting industry professionals who have a lifetime of experience practically applying some of the more ambiguous stuff the kids are learning in school. In one of the projects I’m researching, we’re looking to provide industry internships for teachers to actually go out into companies like Dropbox, Ernst & Young, and National Geographic for immersive, professional development experiences, and to bring theirs insight back into their classrooms.

Spark Festival Sydney

For Sydney folks.

Some interesting STEAM-y workshops on innovation, start-up and entrepreneurial skills, and the future of work. There’s free kids coding and robotics workshops (8+) running at Town Hall, but you have to book fast. Our office intern and I might be going to the Education workshops!

What is Spark Festival?

Spark Festival is a ten day program of events and activities which showcases, supports and strengthens the vibrant startup and innovation ecosystem that exists in Sydney, and across all of of NSW.

The 2017 Spark Festival Program will run from Friday October 13 through to Sunday October 22.

Most of the events on the program are organised and produced by the community, for the community. With such a large program (100 events in 2016 with more than 6000 attendees!), Spark is an initiative which represents an unprecedented level of collaboration between startups, corporates, education and all levels of government.

Spark Festival had inclusiveness and diversity built in from the start, and this shines through in our program: alongside events for people already working in the startup sector, there are numerous opportunities for those who are curious to find out what it’s all about to take a peek and see where their skills might find a new home.




Random floofery

I’ve just realised I have enough random picture of Cats of Sydney to qualify for a blog of its own.

Random North Sydney floof that said hello on a bench.
Fatty lives in Adelaide and belongs to one of my bosses. This photo does not do justice to this floof’s majestic size and bearing.
And this is Fatty’s housemate, Digit. A goofy floofy.




Ramen Rainy Day


It finally stopped raining today. Well, that was until Simon and I walked to Darling Harbour after lunch and the gale-force rain resumed, coming down sideways and at one point, up-ways. Umbrella wielding was challenging. Simon, along with everyone else, struggled to predict the direction of the wind. His tiny, black, budget umbrella flipped inside out within minutes.  Continue reading Ramen Rainy Day

2015 wrap up!

death is coming

We went to Montague Island earlier in the year to dive with the seals, supervised by some marine biologist mates. As we walked along the beach, I spotted messages written in the sand, ostensibly by fellow travellers who had taken the same brisk (temperature, not speed) walk earlier in the morning. The messages conveyed pleasant, innocuous things like GOOD MORNING or JAKE & ASHLEY nestled within a love-heart. I handed Dubs a twig and suggested she write a message, too.  Continue reading 2015 wrap up!