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Mad Max: the film, the man and the dog

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January 3, 2009 by Debbie Hindley

Creative non-fiction, life writing, auto-ethnography and autobiography are related genres that can be employed for writing about our own experiences. One purpose for writing in one these modes is to allow the author to pass onto a wide audience a narrative on how the personal is impacted upon by the political, particularly by those who feel marginalised. For example, ethnicity and sexuality of are often written in these styles. But I am not a member of a minority group. I am a second-generation Anglo-Saxon Australia woman, heterosexual and married with two children. I am ordinary. How possible is it for me to write according to these styles and what would I achieve?

One outcome is that the pedestrian can often be amusing. I told this story to a friend who is a lecturer in literature and culture at a dinner two years ago. She enjoyed the story and thought I should publish it as a short story. After procrastinating for a couple of years I've now been presented with an opportunity for publishing with the Creative Industrial Matrix hub of the Popular Culture collective. When I finished writing I thought "What does the story achieve?" What is it demonstrates is that no matter how ordinary our lives seem we do not live in a cultural vacuum. Our memory draws upon moments in history and popular culture to act as landmarks in our life journey. My own experiences coincide and collide with film, music, literature, demographic trends, historical events, social expectations and economic forces. Issues contained in my story pivot upon the dominant form of masculinity in Western society. One important issue relates to marriage. Why do people keep marrying when one in three marriages fail?

This is my story of Mad Max — A Dog's Tale or the Story of Two Maxs. While the people and events are authentic only one name used is, Max.

When Mad Max, the film that put Mel Gibson on the road to Hollywood and fame, was released I was in the second year of my three year marriage to another Max. Max was from Tasmania. We met one Sunday night at the Old Melbourne Hotel, the popular '70s band Air Supply, who sang of love and heart-break, were playing. He thought I was someone else but after getting over the embarrassment of mistaken identity there was an attraction between us. He said was on his way back to live in Tasmania after working in Western Australia for several years. Unfortunately, after his return to Tasmania he decided that he wanted to marry me and came back to Western Australia three weeks later. In less than twelve months we had met, been engaged, got married and quickly developed a sneaking suspicion that possibly this wasn't the smartest thing we had ever done. But our marriage bed had been made and, like Charles and Diana, for awhile we would try and lie in it. The trouble was when Max wasn't in our bed he was in someone else's (like Charles). While he didn't have Mel Gibson's looks, he did have "it" — charm and some magical quality that attracts the opposite sex. To borrow a phrase from my step-grandmother he "oozed sex." My mother did say, after the marriage was done and dusted, that at times she would be so angry with him and had made up her mind to give him a good blast (she was good at that) that Max would walk in flash a smile and charmingly say "Hi Sheila" and that would be that. My mother's rage would melt (not an easy feat).

During the time he was in my life the nicest thing Max ever did for me was to leave me and then leave Western Australia for good. He left me for a woman five years older than him and ten years older than me (again like Charles he preferred over-ripeness to the sweetness of youth). He took her with him, along with her teenage daughter. One of my male-friends passed the observation "Well I guess in a few years when she gets too old, he can move to the newer version."

"Remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience" the great English writer Samuel Johnson once said. Following our divorce I met a wonderful new man. We had a lot in common, none the least, having been married before. Hope triumphed over our experiences and we subsequently married. At first we were DINKS, Double Income No Kids and upwardly mobile. However, as the time passed the yuppies wanted puppies and we had two children. The trendy double-story townhouse in a high density inner suburb was swapped for a housing estate with a newly built single-storey four by two house that had a big backyard with room for a pool.

Our first child was a boy and he had the first dog in the house. His godmother, Jane, gave it to him. It was a soft plush toy puppy that came with papers (he was called Mutsy) and looked like the real thing, a baby Cocker Spaniel like her husband had. Jane had never really been a dog person, she was a cat person and because Ed (the Cocker Spaniel) had been given to her husband by a former girlfriend it took some time for her to warm to the dog, although once she did she was very attached to him. However, she told me that Ed liked to hump — anything and everything, moving or not. "You need to have him snipped" I said. But her husband would not hear of it. Until one day when Ed tried to hump his leg. "Jane - take this dog to the vet tomorrow!" It was a done deed.

A couple of years later our family expanded again with the birth of our daughter. Like most kids ours loved dogs, particularly our daughter. When our son was in Year 1 another parent would bring her puppy, a Shitzu, to school when delivering her child to class. Our daughter would pat the dog and take it for little walks around the school yard. The kids pleaded and begged for a dog. As kids, and in our former lives (read marriages), we had dogs. My husband had a Golden Retriever and then later a German Shepherd. As a child I had a Welsh cattle dog (a favourite of Regina Two and also known as corgis) and a German Shorthaired-Pointer. A common philosophy among parents is that having a dog can be beneficial to developing a child's character. Children will learn responsibility through feeding, watering, walking and washing the animal. That a myth because 99.9% of the time the parents end up doing all the work as well. However, dogs are good companions and most well-balanced children will give the dog affection as well as receiving its unconditional love. We decided to get a Shitzu.

After several weeks of reading the "Dog's" column in the For Sale section of the Saturday newspaper I rang a breeder of Shitzu's who was advertising puppies from a litter delivered in late November and placed an order. The puppy would be ready in early January. On Christmas Eve I rang the breeder again to say that we were going away on holiday for two weeks but that we still wanted the puppy. The breeder said she would ring us in the middle of January. Sometime after the holiday when the kids were returned to school and we had returned to work with the holiday feeling a vague experience I realised we had not heard from the breeder about the dog. My memory was triggered by a story on one of the news channels where a Shitzu breeder's puppies had died from being poisoned by a toxic flea wash. The distraught owners had buried them in the dog cemetery in a little coffin, it was very sad. However, in the intervening time the kids had also forgotten about the impending puppy. So as they say I "left sleeping dogs lie" and didn't ring the breeder to find out what had happened with our potential pup.

A distraction from acquiring a dog of their own had occurred because a new family had moved into the street with a child close in age to my children and, they had a dog, a Bichon Frise, called Phoebe. Phoebe was a meringue with legs and personality. The three kids and Phoebe played very much like when I was young. They went back and forth from house to house depending on whose pantry or refrigerator was more inviting or where the more appealing amusement was at the time. They went down the park, built cubbies in the nearby bush and Phoebe tagged along, not as a dog but as a fourth member of the group.

When both my children were at school I was working part time at the university where I had been studying. I enjoyed the job and especially the company of my colleagues who I built good friendships with. One Monday morning my friend, Pat, who was the Accommodation Officer for our international students told me that she was going to have a dog for a trial period in a couple of weeks. The dog was a Bichon Frise cross Toy Poodle — a designer mongrel. My friend said that one of the clients who boarded international students was looking for a good home for her dog as she could not keep it because the students didn't like dogs. Pat wanted to trial the dog because she had two old cats that she was devoted to. "If the dog doesn't work out Deb, you might like him." The idea of adopting this dog really appealed to me and I hoped that her trial would not work out. Pat came in after the trial and I asked how the trial went. It didn't. The dog was too boisterous for the old cats that had always had the run of the house. Plus Pat's partner didn't like the idea of a poodle (it wasn't a "man's" dog) and the dog wouldn't even walk on the lead for him, probably because it had never been on a lead before. So Pat returned the dog and didn't mention that I was interested in having him. After she left the office I turned to my other friend and colleague Jo "Jo I think I would really like this dog." Jo said "Well sometimes you have to make it happen. Ring up and offer to take the dog" and I did.

My son had come to work with me that day because it was school holidays. My daughter had gone to the Royal Show with her friend who Phoebe belonged to. Blair overheard the conversation when I offered to have the dog and described how we would be a good loving family and we were looking for a pet and said "what will Dad think of this?" I replied "Dad knows and is cool with the idea."

After work Blair and I went to see the lady and her dog. Blair took one look at the dog and fell in love with him. His then owner and I talked. She told me what he liked to eat and that he especially loved toast in the morning and that he had always slept on her bed. The lady saw how enamoured Blair was with the pup, now nine months old and said we could have him. She gathered up his leads and papers and we took him out to the car. It must have been very difficult for her to give him up because she had him from six weeks old. Then she had to say goodbye at the trial and then he was returned to her. As we drove away from her house we could see her crying. Half way home I turned and saw that Blair was crying. I asked what was wrong. He was upset that the lady was sad at giving away her dog. I explained that she couldn't keep him and that we would give him a good home and would take him around to see her from time to time so she could see how we loved him. As if knowing the dog licked Blair's face to reassure him that this was all right.

Helen and Fleur were back from the Royal Show when we drove into the street. Helen saw the dog on Blair's lap and asked Fleur "Why has Blair got Phoebe in the car?" Fleur replied "That's not Phoebe." When we got out of the car Helen called out from down the street "Whose dog is that?" "It's mine" I said. "It's ours" said Blair. With that Helen came running down the road towards us with her arms outstretched to greet the newest member of the family. Helen was full of questions about the dog and at the same time Fleur was trying to tell me that Helen had fainted on the Wild Mouse. It had been an eventful day.

Peter arrived home from work at dinner time and there was another mouth to feed. He took one look and said "Bloody poodle." It had been groomed more like a poodle with a pointy snout rather than the bouffant hairdo of a Bichon Frise, although his tail had not been clipped and was quite a magnificent blonde plumage at the end of his body. Oh no, I thought, surely you are not going to be like Pat's partner and think the dog to effeminate for this master. "Well Pete the kids love him. But there is one thing wrong with this dog." "What's that?" he replied. "His name." "His name?" "Yes I said — it's Max."

A thoughtful, slightly amused "Oh" came out. "We could change his name. May be Mutsy, Mutley or Muffin?" "No" replied Peter "It's bad luck to change a boat's name and I reckon it would be the same with a dog. You'd confuse the poor thing." So there it was, Max was in my life, again.

This Max wasn't like the two legged Max or four legged Ed that like to hump around but I still felt that male dogs are more affable and sociable if they are sterilized. In a very short time Max went to the vet to have "the snip." I must confess that the idea of neutering "Max" brought a smile to my face. Don't get the idea that I am a bitter person, possibly slightly twisted may be, but not bitter. And we weren't going to breed from him so why not help the dog to become more docile. Possibly this could be the key to many social ills — see I told you I might be twisted — I confess it was a cathartic feeling.

The operation could be the end of the story of Max 1 and Max 2 but I want to tell you husband number 2's post-operative reaction and how Max has settled into our lives, who sleeps at my feet as I write this creative non-fiction project.

I have to give you an insight to my husband first. At my daughter's six week check-up with the obstetrician I told Tony how gorgeous she was and how I wanted another child. "Don't push your luck" he said "You and her only just survived. Tell Peter to have a vasectomy, its quick and easy for men and has no complications." Six years later I fronted up to his surgery and he took one look at me and said "What are you doing here?" He is gorgeous and I knew he was pleased to see me although slightly alarmed. "Peter, errh, never got" "Around to it" Tony said. This was one tubal ligation that he was really going to be relieved at doing. This gives you the idea of how Peter is going to react to another male in the house being spayed. He drove me mad! Not Max, Peter! "That dog's in pain!" he cried. "The dog is not in pain Peter, he is fine." "He's in pain I tell you." I came home from a Weight Watchers meeting at 8pm and found him crushing up a Panadol to give to Max. He had rung the vet's emergency line and the vet told him to do it. He didn't let up. "The dog's in pain, his stitching are pulling." "All right, all right! I'll take him to the vet" which I did. They knew who I was when I explained why Max and I were there. Smiles all round. "The stitches are not pulling, and Max is not in pain, but we can give him something for your husband." "Thanks, no. It will be ok." I was inwardly groaning with embarrassment.

Thus began the devotion to the "bloody poodle." He has been forgiven for many misdemeanours, including eating Peter's cheese platter that was his regular Friday night supper (along with a good bottle of red). Peter had answered the phone and when he returned to the family room coffee table, there was Max, all fours on the table and up to his jowls in brie and blue vein. These days Max gets taken for a drive (not me), the window, wound down and his ears flapping in the wind. Max gets far more affection than either the kids or me from Peter. When visitors arrive Max is like an indulged child that must have all the attention first. He barks and yaps and does psycho dog, running around the house at great speed for guests until he wears himself out. If Peter and I didn't have children, our friends would say "this is their spoilt substitute child."

Blair and Helen of course adore him. Blair even forgave Max for biting him where boys don't want to be bitten. They were playing but Max zeroed in on target and Blair dropped to the ground writhing around. And Max joined the gang of four for a Nativity Play one Christmas. Phoebe was meant to be the sheep but was sick, so Max stepped in as understudy. He made a great sheep! Although the kids are in their late teens they still play with the dog, but they play with him as if he is another sibling. At times there are two on one side then the combination changes.

Max loves everyone in the family but he is particularly in love with me (even though I organised the snip). He might be showered with affection from Peter or Blair or Helen but if I leave the room, he follows. When I went to Turkey in 2001 (I was in Turkey for September 11) for two weeks, Peter and the kids said that Max went from room to room looking for me and whining. When I arrived back, two days late, Max was the only one home to greet me (the others were at school and work). However, instead of jumping all over me, he had a vexed attitude and a look like "And where have you been?" I was soon forgiven. Max remains the most loving and devoted companion I could ever have (want unconditional love — get a dog).

In a few years time the kids will probably move on. I love Blair and Helen but it is my philosophy that the gauge of being a good parent is bringing up independent children. So if we have been successfully in parenting by my reckoning there will then be three, Peter, Max and I. What a ménage a trois!

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