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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bmag Dec 17th 2013 - Love Actually

Breaking news. Donna Weeks has finally seen Love Actually! Who is Donna Weeks and why is this such a big deal? Donna is a political scientist. Last year, I was interviewing her about the Japanese election and stumbled on the fact she had never seen Love Actually. Was Donna the last person on earth not to have seen the classic Richard Curtis romantic comedy? I ribbed her about it on air and this led to someone buying her a copy on DVD, yet still Donna held out. Until last weekend when it was shown on the big screen at GOMA.

Donna’s verdict shortly. But first I’m going to put my (Christmas) cards on the table. Love Actually may well be the most divisive Christmas film ever made but I adore it. I could enchant/bore you for as long as the movie itself (and at 135 minutes, it is reasonably long) with all my favourite moments. And it all starts with that opening scene at an airport arrivals hall. Who hasn’t sat waiting for a family member to clear customs, happily observing all the kisses and hugs going on around them? Then there’s the romantic fumbling between the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) and new staffer Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). Who wouldn’t have sent her to work elsewhere to avoid the awkwardness, only to chase her down and get her back? And how touching is Mark (Andrew Lincoln) and his undying love for the recently-married Juliet (Kiera Knightly)? First she discovers all the close-ups of her after Mark shoots the wedding video. Then, in a real tissue-grabber, Mark stands at her front door silently confessing his feelings (and letting her go) with a series of hand-written signs.

 There is so much in the film we can all relate to. And yet there are those who despise it. Among my friends and colleagues, captain of the negatives is radio producer Amanda Dell: “I just don't get it. I get none of the `awww’ factor that seems to drive the passionate love of this film. It leaves me cold and quite bored. Maybe it's just too twee for me.”

Jose Ferrara agrees: “Appalling. Makes me squirm if I ever see as much as an ad. Hugh Grant is a ham. He and Martine McCutcheon have zero chemistry. Clunky script supposed to be romcom but just nauseatingly saccharine and not very funny to boot.” And there’s no doubting how Stephanie Beames feels: “Bleugh!!! One of the all-time most gag-worthy, formulaic, predictable movies.”

Captain of the supporters is ABC family affairs reporter Susan Hetherington, who watches it every year without fail: “The 24 December is the day of viewing in our house. Others call it Christmas Eve. I call it Love Actually Day!” Siding with Susan is Sally Piracha: “It has Colin Firth. Aside from that, one of my favourite movies of all time. I can watch it anywhere, anytime, with anyone. One of the best casts ever assembled, top soundtrack, and it has Colin Firth in another lake.” Jo Stone says it’s a great film: “So many different interpretations of love in the world! And Hugh Grant dancing…gold!”

And from Adam Hay, who tied the knot just last week: “It’s my wife's favourite film. It has been watched every Christmas at both families’ houses since it was released. It is a beautiful film and shows how love actually is. Sometimes easy but most of the time unpredictable. Love it. Destined to watch it forever now!”

So, what did Donna Weeks think? After watching the film for the first time ever, Donna tweeted: “I’m with Amanda Dell…sorry.” She later emailed me: “Good ensemble, cute kid role, OK movie, glad I’ve seen it, pressure off. But really, as if the British Prime Minister would ever speak to the President of the United States like that! If only things happened in real life like they do in the movies, the world would be pretty cool, actually!” “OK movie”? Just OK?! Donna, I think you need to unwrap that DVD and watch it again straight away! From the Howsons to you and yours, have a safe and joyous Christmas. May your holidays be filled with love (and hopefully Love Actually)!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Bmag Dec 3rd 2013 - I'm not the only non-citizen in the village!

I’ll be honest. I was a bit nervous about the reaction I would get to the revelation in my last column that I had lived here for over thirty years without becoming a citizen. I thought some might have judged me harshly for remaining a pom all this time. Instead, I’ve been overwhelmed by readers and listeners ‘fessing up’ that they too have been tardy. I tell you – this country is full of immigrants who have lived here for decades without taking the plunge!

Valerie Kerr writes: “We arrived in 1976 and none of us kids has done it yet.” Valerie goes on to say she’s never really felt the need. And that’s where I was until recently. You can’t pressure people into becoming citizens. It’s a deeply personal and individual decision. Barbara Richards tells me her mum came from England as a two year old in 1911 and never became naturalised. Her younger sister eventually signed up when she turned eighty!

Others, like Ron Martin, have shared with me their epiphany moments: “I woke up some years back and realised there was no need to hold on to the past. So proud to own an Aussie passport and be in the best state and the best country in the world”.  I may have inspired Chris Williams, who says: “I came from the UK in 1964 and I must do the same! I should have done it years ago!”

Then there are stories like Phil Eldridge’s tale. Phil moved here from England, aged two in 1950. He was conscripted to fight for Australia, married an Aussie, then in 1983 they moved to New Zealand. When Phil’s wife died, he tried to move back to Australia. After all, he’d lived here over thirty years. He was told he would have to live here four years before he could even apply! Phil writes: “Spencer, this is an excellent decision”.

Aside from emails and social media comments, wherever I’ve gone in these past couple of weeks, people have wanted to talk to me about becoming true blue. I was in Regents Park the other night, recording a fabulous radio piece about a bloke’s love affair with his LED lighting. Gary Jones has multi-coloured flashing strips behind his wall-mounted plasma screen and is in the process of installing the same in his kitchen, at ceiling and floor height. He even has a device on the bottom of his kitchen tap that flashes rainbow colours when the water’s turned on!

Anyway, to get back to the story, when I rocked up to Gary’s place, his brother and sisterin- law, from Wales and Scotland, were having a cuppa. All three of them have lived here twentyplus years and immediately launched into this conversation about how they know they should, and will soon, apply to become Aussies! For those who are wondering, assuming you’re eligible, the process is incredibly swift and simple. You can do it all at From applying online, which took around an hour by the time I’d located and scanned all the documents you need, to sitting in the Immigration Department office on Adelaide Street completing the twenty question multiple choice citizenship test, took just four weeks. That said, there is a delay in being allocated a citizenship ceremony. At the moment, you’re looking at July of next year.

As for the test, it’s relatively straight forward, if you’ve lived here a while and have a good grasp of English. I felt for the woman who was in the booth next to me – I’m guessing she’s a more recent arrival – who had just failed for the fourth time.

Finally to Bill of Rosalie, thank you for your poem. Too long to print in its entirety, it starts: “Here’s to Spencer Howson, who’s finally seen the light. He’s going to become an Aussie. Now that’s a bit of alright.” Bill ends with the footnote: “Congratulations old mate, you’re a true blue, fair dinkum sport and your blood’s worth bottlin’. We’ll have to sink a few tinnies of the amber fluid at the Aussie Day barbie. All the best as you adopt the land of Oz.” Thank you Bill and everyone else who has extended the welcome mat. It seems I had nothing to fear in coming out as an unconverted pom!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bmag 19th November 2013 - Service clubs, citizenship and Doctor Who

One of the best perks of my job as a breakfast radio announcer is I have time during the day to speak at service clubs. At least once a week you’ll find me addressing a Probus or National Seniors' Club, telling behind the scenes tales from my twenty-odd years at the ABC. My favourite part is the question and answer time at the end, which has proven to be the best and most direct way to receive feedback from listeners, and we do take notice of what they have to say. But these talks are also a great source of story material for my breakfast show.

Here are a couple of recent examples: At Cleveland National Seniors, a woman handed me a nude 2014 calendar! It turned out her retirement village had produced it as a fundraiser for Look Good Feel Better, which helps women manage the appearance-related side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I flicked through the hilarious and very cheeky photos and who should I find playing piano in the all-together? None other than the first man on Queensland television, Hugh Cornish! What a great yarn! (Yes, the calendars are available – call Renaissance on 3820 7700).

Then just last week, after giving a talk at the Mt Gravatt Men’s Shed, I noticed the members were putting together 300 flat-pack timber cubby houses. Apparently a large department store imported them, then realised they didn’t meet Australian design standards. So they’ve all been handed over to the Men’s Shed, where the blokes are assembling and fixing each one – mainly reinforcing the verandah railings. It’s a great little earner for the Men’s Shed and will set them up handsomely for 2014 but they’re running out of storage space! So if you know any children who would appreciate a cubby house for Christmas, please call the Mt Gravatt Men’s Shed on 3343 2216. They’re $495. If you’d like me to speak at your service club in 2014, shoot me an email.

In what’s been a very busy couple of weeks, I also wrote and performed “A letter to the woman who changed my life” at an event called Men of Letters. I wrote my letter to the whole of Australia. As I hinted in the last bmag, there was a bombshell. Here’s an abridged version:

“My dear Australia, I’ve been disrespectful towards you. You educated me (even if that did mean sitting me next to Kyle Sandilands at Manly State School), you introduced me to my wife, you employed me (including that dream uni job as mystery shopper at McDonalds! How can I ever forget sitting in the loo at Maccas shoving a thermometer into french fries?), and you embraced me as a breakfast radio presenter on your national broadcaster. Yet for all of these 32 years, I have continued to think of another as my motherland. It has taken me all this time, but I finally see how this must hurt and confuse you. So I am writing to ask – dear Australia, please can we formalise our relationship? Australia, I have loved you for a long, long time. Will you have me as one of your own? PS: I may still support England in the Ashes. Can I let you know after the Second Test?”

I guess the surprise is more that I’m not already an Aussie rather than the fact I’ve finally applied. I’ll let you know when Australia (i.e. the Immigration Department) replies.

This Saturday (23rd) marks the 50th anniversary of Dr Who. TV stations around the world are broadcasting the special episode The Day of the Doctor simultaneously – there is no better way to crush TV piracy than to broadcast programmes at the same time everywhere. ABC Radio is launching a pop-up Doctor Who channel from 24 to 30 November. Look for ABC Extra on your digital radio or radio app (eg Tune In Radio). I’m presenting a two-hour special on the channel which will have rolling 24/7 interviews and discussion about Doctor Who.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Men of Letters - To the Woman Who Changed My Life - November 10th 2013

My dear,

It’s been over 30 years since we were introduced to each other and perhaps you were beginning to wonder whether today would ever happen. The thing is it never felt right before. But it does now. There is a question I must ask you and I do hope you’ll say yes.

My dear adopted motherland of Australia,

I cried when mum told me we were moving here. I can still picture the scene, as if I’m floating above it. We’re sitting at the top of the carpeted stairs inside our two storey cottage in the northwest of England. It’s 1980. I’m 8. Mum’s 33 and has recently suffered the loss of her second husband – my step-dad – to cancer. But she’s met an architect from Brisbane and we’re off to live in you!

I cried, not because I didn’t want to meet you. (I mean, this Aussie bloke that mum was about to marry was all sorts of fun. He was into filming trains on his Super-8 camera, and we would chase all over the English countryside. He also designed The Big Pineapple. Which, as a child, I thought was pretty cool. Even today, if you ever hear me on radio defending the Big Pineapple – and I think I’m probably the only person in the media who still does – now you know why!) No, the reason I cried was because I would leaving my Dad behind in England. Still, he bought me the 1981 Muppet Show annual at the airport… and you took us in.

Talk about a "Sliding Doors" moment. Where would I be today, if Mum and I hadn’t come here? That moment – and you, Australia, my adopted motherland – changed my life forever.

But I’ve been disrespectful towards you. You educated me (even if that did mean sitting me next to one Kyle Sandilands at Manly State School), you introduced me to my wife of 17 years, you employed me – including that dream uni job as mystery shopper at McDonalds! (How can I ever forget sitting in loo at Maccas shoving a thermometer into French Fries?) – and you embraced me in a very prominent and public position as a breakfast radio presenter on your national broadcaster. In short, you have cared for me as you would one of your own.

Yet for all of these 32 years, I have continued to think of another as my motherland. It has taken me all this time, but I finally see how this must hurt and confuse you. So today, I am writing to ask – dear Australia, please can we formalise our relationship? Will you have me as an Aussie?

Perhaps you’re wondering - why now? What’s changed? Well, it’s complex and even I don’t fully understand well enough to articulate why I’ve never asked you before. When people do find out that I’m not a citizen – and it’s been so long that most just assume I am (a very good friend of mine was shocked when I told her why I was writing you this letter. She had no idea) – I’ve always just said: I love you, I live in you, I pay taxes to you, I hope to die in you, but I just need to hold on to something from my past. And that something has been the fact that I am British and not Australian.

Yes, I know you can be both. In fact, I kindly went and made my son a dual citizen without asking him first. But I always had this fear that the British Government would pull the pin on dual citizenships and I’d be left without that link to the UK – which really means a link to my father, who still lives there.

I always said it was something in my heart that I didn’t feel the need to justify – and I stand by that. No one should pressure you into something so deeply personal.

And I always considered it a blessing that, as someone whose job involves talking on radio about politics, I simply cannot vote. I have never had to crystalise in my mind which side of politics I would support.

But a couple of things have brought me round. At the deli, I picked up a free magazine called “The Local Bulletin”. It’s all about Kenmore and surrounding suburbs. And inside was a photograph of a small, local citizenship ceremony. I never fancied the big flashy showy affair at City Hall – the one that’s on the telly every Australia Day, boasting it’s the biggest in the country. Suddenly I saw the beauty in becoming Australian alongside others from my suburb and community – people I would bump into at the shops or school gate.

Secondly, just before election day in September, a couple of recent arrivals to Australia were bemoaning the fact they couldn’t vote. They wanted to but couldn’t yet. That made me realise the value of being able to – and that I shouldn’t throw that privilege away.

And then, for some bizarre reason, I keep thinking about a scenario where I’m convicted of something – no, I’m not planning to join a bikie gang, or even chalk “I heart bikies” on the footpath – but in theory, I could be deported to the UK. Thousands of miles from wife Nikki and son Jack and you, dear Australia. I don’t want to think about life without you.

So you see how you’ve changed me? You can’t entirely take England out of the boy, but this boy left England long ago. He just didn’t realise it.

Australia, I have loved you for a long, long time. Will you have me as one of your own?

I know you’ll want to put me through a test. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I’m pretty confident. In fact, I am refusing to look at the sample questions online. I might not be able to spell Kosciusko or Palazszuk without checking, but I do know Bradman’s batting average so I’ll think I’ll go alright.

Are you going to ask me to quote some lines from that Franky Walnut song? I do hope so! I’ve been learning the words: “I’m as Australian as a sheep’s turd in the shape of Australia riding on the back of a sheep named Bruce who’s been shorn in the shape of Australia/I’m as Australian as a pie that’s been run over by a ute being driven by John Williamson while he narrates a documentary about Australia/I’m as Australian as a red-back spider and a funnel-web spider having a root inside a kangaroo scrotum purse/I’m as Australian as/I’m as Australian as.”

My dear Australia, I have attached the official paperwork. I await your response. Yours, if you’ll have me, Spencer

PS I may still support England in the Ashes
PPS Can I let you know after the Second Test?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Bmag 5th November 2013 - Separation of Powers

I wasn’t exactly sure how “The Meaning of Life” by Spencer J. Howson aged 17 ¾ would go down when I included extracts in my last column. I’m pleased to report the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. My favourite was from Julia Baker, a snake-catcher on Brisbane’s northside, who tells me she is about to start crowd-funding a TV show about her reptile-wrangling adventures.

Julia wrote: “Wow!! That is very impressive for a 17 year old! It took me over 40 years to realise that by doing things that make ourselves happy first, we are then naturally driven as humans to share that happiness and help create it in others. A win/win situation. Brilliantly written Spencer! The reason for working on and wanting this TV series so badly it hurts is my vision for what I want to do after it. I want to go into schools and speak in front of people that need an inspiration from someone that came from nothing, was pretty much labelled stupid, and show them how to set goals, dream big and achieve!”

You can count on some cash from me, Julia! Keep an eye on

Happiness is about as far removed as you can get from the way many people feel about the State Government granting Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie the power to overturn judges’ decisions and keep “the worst of the worst” offenders behind bars. Even Premier Campbell Newman says he’s uncomfortable with the Attorney-General wielding such power, but he says the community is calling for tougher sentences and that if you don’t like it, you’re “an apologist for paedophiles”.

But cast your mind back to high school and you’ll probably remember being taught that our parliamentary system is based on what’s called The Separation of Powers – the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. In other words, having made the laws, the parliament should leave it to the courts to apply those laws. No-one is being an apologist for child sex offenders. The concern here is the precedent this sets for governments targeting certain groups and then acting as judge, jury and executioner.

But is it possible the Queensland Government is in fact well within its rights to take ignore the Separation of Powers? A nuance that seems to have escaped most was pointed out on “7.30 Queensland” by QUT Senior Law Lecturer Peter Black. Peter Black explained that whilst the Queensland Constitution states that the Supreme Court has unlimited jurisdiction, it can be overruled “either explicitly or implicitly” by a subsequent Act. “The Queensland Constitution is just an ordinary piece of legislation. It doesn’t have any special status like the Commonwealth Constitution”. Federally, says Peter Black, it would be a different story: “The Commonwealth Constitution would probably prohibit those laws taking place at a federal level”.

So, would the High Court attempt to shut down this legislation? Peter Black says: “It would require the High Court to extend its existing doctrine. “But these laws I think are so provocative and arguably so offensive that this is the sort of case that might tempt the High Court to extend their existing doctrine so that they do have a mechanism by which they could restrict and strike down the constitutionality of these laws”. Of course all this leads to the question – how else can we keep “the worst of the worst” behind bars? Jarod Bleijie himself admitted on 4BC that a better way would be for the parliament to pass tougher laws, equipping judges with tougher penalties. There’s also been talk of introducing a US-style system where we would get to elect (presumably tougher) judges. Perhaps all of this will lead to judges taking the hint about society’s expectations and the Attorney-General will never have to use his new-found power.

The other thing that’s been occupying my mind this week is an invitation to speak at the next “Men of Letters”. Along with Tim Flannery, Ernie Dingo, Lawrence Mooney and others, I am to read a letter to “The Woman Who Changed My Life”. So who will it be? Come along to The Zoo on November 10th and you’ll find out. There will be a bombshell announcement about me and this woman! “Men of Letters” starts at 3pm. Tickets are $25. Proceeds to Edgar’s Mission.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bmag Oct 22nd 2013 - Happiness is Healthy

I’m about to quote a very private essay I wrote when I was 17. I recorded the words into a micro-cassette recorder whilst lying in bed, then transcribed and finessed my latenight philosophising into a written document to be packed away in a box and not revisited until later in life.

This is the first time since then – 3 February 1990 – that I’ve looked at these three typed and dot-matrix-printed pages yet I have often thought about what I wrote and how I still agree with 17-year-old me. The essay is entitled – cue the dramatic music – “The Meaning of Life”.

What inspired me to share this with you now was a blackboard outside a clothing shop in Toowong. On the board were the words: “Do more of what makes YOU happy.” It stopped me in my tracks. On the surface, it might seem an egotistical approach to life. But I believe much good can and does come from people pleasing themselves.

Seventeen-year-old Spencer takes up the story: “While we cannot answer why we are here, we can explain why we do the things we do. “Having resigned to the fact that we are here, and that we are only here for a short time, humans all attempt to make the most of that time. It is my firm belief that every human being seeks pleasure as the number one lifetime goal. No-one ever does anything that does not bring pleasure or prevent displeasure. Every single human action has pleasure as its goal. Even the hero who risks his life to save a child from a burning house does so to prevent the possible displeasure he would otherwise feel for not trying. Given there is no reason, no why, no explanation for us being here, why do people breed more people? Again, for the pleasure. The pleasure of parenting, the pleasure of resuscitating the marriage, or the pleasure of security and care in the senior years”.

At this point, the essay really does start to sound like it was a written by a wide-eyed innocent 17-year-old boy, but I said I would share it with you so here goes: “The ultimate pleasures, according to the Krishna movement, are eating and sex. You can only eat so much before you become ill, and even sex has its limits.” How funny.

I’ll save you several paragraphs and jump to the conclusion: “Now we are coming closer to the meaning of life. Lifestyle, it would appear, is a conscious attempt to make the most of a limited lifetime. Whilst there is no reason for life, there is a reason for lifestyle.” It goes on (and on and on) but you get the idea. Over the years, whenever I’ve heard about people doing great deeds, I’ve found myself asking the question: are they getting pleasure from this? Invariably, yes, they are. And it’s not a bad thing. Happiness is not a dirty word. Charity workers, from Meals on Wheels kitchens in Brisbane to orphanages in third world countries, are all harnessing their own desire for happiness and using it to help others.

Even those working within church organisations who would say they are serving God are also making themselves happier in the process. As that blackboard said, “Do more of what makes YOU happy”. To take it one step further, I would just say that if you can find a way of helping others that makes you happy, then you’ve hit the jackpot!

Last column, I told you about my wife Nikki now working at 612 ABC Brisbane. I wasn’t overly anxious about the situation but I knew there would be some challenges and I quoted other couples who had worked together. I’m pleased to report that I have loved these past three weeks!

With me presenting 612 Breakfast and Nikki producing Tim Cox 3pm to 6pm, there’s only an hour or so where we’re in the office together. But for the eight years I’ve been on the cornflakes shift, I haven’t seen Nikki until she’s arrived home from work, usually after 7pm. So to be able to gaze at her for that hour a day has been wonderful. And so far, only once has she asked me over the partition to pick up milk and bread on the way home!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Bmag Oct 8th 2013 - Working with the missus

Have you ever worked in the same company as your significant other? Think about it. Could you work alongside your husband/wife/other half? My wife Nikki and I met at a community radio station in Brisbane in 1992. I was one of two paid staff and Nikki was a volunteer. In my diary that first day I wrote: “With me tonight were two trainees including Nikki, est. 17/18, blonde, short, shy and VERY CUTE!” And you know what? I can still see that straw hat she was wearing!

Several months later, I summoned the nerve to ask her out. I remember the phone call: “Would you do me the honour of accompanying me to the opening night of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat? How dorky. You’d have thought I was asking her to marry me! Anyway, she said yes – eventually I confessed that the tickets were freebies – and we’ve been together ever since.

Back then we were young and it sure was fun having your girlfriend with you at work. The stories I could tell. And yes, whatever you’re imagining right now, it probably did happen at that radio station when everyone else had gone home!

Fast-forward to 2013 and Nikki has just started working at 612 ABC Brisbane, producing Tim Cox 3 to 6pm weekdays. Now, I don’t want you to think I’m at all anxious about the distraction of my beautiful wife as I glance up from my computer screen, but there must be pros and cons. For example, do colleagues expect you to share the same view on company decisions, rather than seeing you as two different people? And then, if you don’t agree in the workplace, how does that play out at home? I’d love you to email me with what you know, what you’ve seen and what you’ve learned.

A former radio producer of mine, Majella Marsden, says it’s a minefield for co-workers. “What about where one partner has knowledge of events that may impact on the other?” Social commentator Brett Debritz says it can make colleagues feel uncomfortable, especially if one of the couple is in a more senior position. Just ask ambo Bob Hartley: “We had some issues as my wife was in a subordinate position to me for a while. We had to use the drive home as a defuse/debrief”.

I.F. and R.B. ran a company together for two years. I.F. says they would never do it again: “Too much arguing over business decisions which led to resentment at home. The best thing we ever did was sell the company. We have a better marriage for it". For Daniel John, it meant the end of the relationship: “It was the worst mistake ever. Constant bickering all the time. It was a contract cleaning job at a factory. We worked right on top of each other. We were partners before and not long after".

But there are success stories too. Real estate agent Brett Andreassen has made it work for the last three years. His tip: “Don’t take work home and don’t bring home issues to work". Kallee Buchanan and her husband Ross work for the ABC in Central Queensland. Kallee says it’s okay to take work home: “It’s great having someone who gets the passion for the job. But you need to have your own time, away from work and home".

Nataasha Torzsa and her partner work for a telco. They’ve devised three rules: “Don’t discuss personal things during work hours, act like friends at work drinks etc., and don’t discuss 'us' with other workmates”. But the most surprising story I’ve heard so far comes from admin manager Brendan Taggart: “I used to work in the same department as my partner. The only issue was travelling to work together. He was always late. He was SO slow in the mornings, it was legendary. I hate being late. So I got my own car. Problem solved!” That is one expensive solution.

Coincidently, you may have noticed the new series of Survivor (Thursdays on GEM) sees loved ones pitted against each other - uncle against niece, brother against brother, husband against wife. I can tell you Nikki and I were both relieved to see all the married couples survived the first tribal council! A good omen perhaps.