Wednesday, September 26, 2012


As we returned to the car after an unusually happy dinner, I was struck for a moment by how incredibly lucky I am. And then my third child ran into me at top speed, knocking my smart phone out of my hand, up into the air, and smack face down on the road.

That same phone has hit the ground many times before. Sometimes completely naked, this time in the safety vest highly recommended by the *genius* hipster in the blue shirt with fruit insignia.

I picked the phone off the ground and found that my beautiful (dirty) screen was now completely shattered. And I wondered (as did my husband) if anybody else on the planet had a worse track record when it came to killing electronic devices than me. 

It all started in 1999 with the Palm Pilot that I placed carefully on top of the car as I strapped my new baby into his seat. And then drove off. You can guess the rest. 

Tomorrow my new(ish) refurbished smart phone will arrive. I shall dress it lovingly in its safety vest and my husband will make sure that all the paperwork is in order. We now buy the best insurance available every time we get another device and then pray that I break it inside the window. I usually succeed.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Spare me the inspirational thinking

"Life is 10% what happens to you, 90% how you react to it."

Inspirational quotes have their place I guess, but when this one popped up in my Twitter timeline today I couldn't help thinking of the 10-year-old girls in India who spend their days (11-hour days) sewing footballs together for the Australian market rather than attending school. They are forced to give up their education, their only chance of a better future, for less than $1 a day that is then used to help feed their families.

I am not too sure how exactly to react to that? But what I am sure of is that the circumstances these girls find themselves in has nothing to do with their reactions to the world around them and far more to do with the weight and logic of globalisation, extreme poverty, structural inequality, corporate bottom lines, market forces, gender inequality, and willful ignorance and corruption on the part of governments, corporations and consumers.

Believing that life is 90% how you react to it is positive thinking gone mad. It also strikes me that it is a useful lie; useful that is for those who sit at the top of the pile and beyond cruel to those at the bottom, whose lives are weighed down by brutal realities that are completely out of their control.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Building bridges

When my husband worried that our youngest would tear a whole in his pants as he slid down the dirt hill to get to the creek I shushed him, knowing that ripped pants and skinned knees were something to be celebrated rather than worried over. When I saw that our daughter was doing the same thing - in her long white skirt - I had to shush myself.

As I repeatedly (almost compulsively) called out "be careful", I remembered the countless hours I had spent exploring the bush and creek that ran behind my childhood home without the  prying eyes of adults monitoring my every move. I also recalled the one time I had slid into a river fully clothed. 

Just when I thought we were finally ready to leave, I saw my youngest heading back down the dirt slope leading to the creek bed. Following closely behind was his 8-year-old brother, responding to yet another of my pitiful wails to "be careful". Big brother hovered as little brother added his final touch to the bridge and then pulled him back up the slope to safety with the aid of a large stick.

Watching my four children today, as they went from collecting sticks to deciding that they would use those sticks to build a bridge across a creek, I knew that what they were learning here was every bit as valuable as anything they would ever learn in a classroom: they cooperated, looked out for each other, tested theories, and eventually left with a deep sense of satisfaction of the sort that does not require the stamp of adult approval in the form of a grade, gold star or chocolate chip cookie.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Hey, somebody has been saying bad things about you ....

"Hey, somebody has been saying bad things about you..."

This charming message appears in my DM column on a fairly regular basis, and I have learned to read it as nothing more than irritating spam. But the strategy of the spammers, appealing to our most paranoid selves, obviously works or they'd come up with something new.

No doubt, somebody somewhere in the world is saying bad things about me; but worse would be the DM that read "nobody has thought of you at all, not in a very long time".

This is the fear, and even the reality, of the elderly person who sits at home waiting for the phone to ring; the same person who gives their credit card details to an unscrupulous telemarketer who in turn is simply trying to keep up, meeting sales targets anyway they can.

Or the teen who sits alone in her bedroom on a Saturday night, unable to shake the fear that her friends have made plans that do not include her. She picks a fight with her brother because it is better than sitting with the jealousy and hurt that is eating away at her; anything is better than that.

Today, that teen will have their fear ameliorated or confirmed the minute they log onto Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. But she will also be able to find comfort in the world of social media, confiding in online friends who are every bit as real as the ones who stood her up.

I write this as I sit at home alone on a Saturday night. I flick through my email and see that my sister on the other side of the world has been thinking about me; a friend on Twitter has left an @mention that is beyond kind at just the right moment; and my DM stream is full of reassuring words from a person I have known for literally my whole life, a person who believes in me even when I don't.

But still, whenever I read that message "somebody has been saying bad things about you" my stomach lurches in spite of myself. For just a moment I am that teenage girl, sitting at home alone on a Saturday night, imagining that somebody is saying bad things about me, or worse, that nobody is saying anything about me at all.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


She edges slowly towards my table, her long thin face framed by wispy white hair that has escaped her ponytail; her body is supported by two long poles designed with mountains in mind rather than the uneven sidewalks and other perils of a trip to the shops. Those sticks are a poor stand-in for the walking frame she clearly needs.

I don't know if the plastic gloves she wears are a sympton of an unhealthy obsession with germs or a necessary measure to protect a compromised immune system. 

As she slowly lowers herself into the seat beside mine I offer to help, hoping this doesn't cause offense. She allows me to balance the hiking sticks against the wall behind us and after that we sit in silence, an occasional glance met with a small smile. I find it hard to concentrate on my reading, and am unsure if some light conversation would be welcomed or considered an intrusion.

As she readies herself to leave, she anxiously surveys the distance from her seat to the door and seems intent on making sure she doesn't leave anything of herself behind.

"Don't worry about the coffee cup," I say. "I'll pop it in the bin."

She accepts my offer but refuses anything more. I make sure her hiking sticks are ready for her to grab once she is in an upright position but leave her to make the epic journey alone from chair to door and beyond.

She makes it safely outside but is confronted by a ramp with a slight incline that to her represents a challenge of monumental proportions.

I breathe a sigh of relief after she leaves, settling back into my reading, constantly checking the clock to make sure I make the most of my final minutes before school pickup. And then I notice that the coffee cup she left behind has her name inscribed in clear black marker on its side. Marcelle.

A beautiful name. I read more into this new piece of information than is reasonable, but it somehow comforts me to think that this proud woman, with her hiking sticks and plastic gloves, has gone through life with such a distinctive moniker.

I  pick up my phone and take a photo of the cup bearing her name before returning to my book.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Reality check: class and parenting

Today we learned that Mitt Romney's definition of middle class is an income below $250,000. And we collectively shake our heads at his tenuous grip on reality.

It reminds me of the undiplomatic arguments my daughter has with classmates when they declare that they are middle class when they are clearly not (unless you subscribe to Romney logic).

I don't need to see anybody's tax returns. Observing the cars lined up at kiss n drop is information enough. And then there are stories, like the family who buys a new home every time they go on vacation in the same way others pick up a small souvenir, perhaps a tea towel, to mark their adventure.

My daughter tells me that her classmates often make jokes about "hobos", the common term for the homeless here. I am more shocked by this than anything else, knowing how the people in this solidly liberal town take such pride in being good. I despair at the notion that mocking a person for their poverty is somehow acceptable; that seeing a person in such circumstances would provoke anything other than a feeling of compassion.

At dinner, my 8th grader renews his campaign to get his own laptop. He reminds us that everybody else in his grade has one and no doubt they do. I watch the food server clearing tables and tell my son to cut it out, appalled at his sense of entitlement.

I think that rather than encouraging my kids to sign up to work for a charity or overseas aid organisation in their summer breaks - a common activity for teens around here who are shaping their Ivy League applications - they should instead work in minimum wage service industry jobs. This might not look as impressive to college recruiters but will give them far more understanding of how the world looks from the other side of the counter, the side where an income of $250,000 is more impossible dream than middle class. 

My son rolls his eyes. He knows that another lecture is headed his way. I won't stop because I never want to hear a child of mine look down on a person for having less, let alone make a homeless person  their punch line.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Conversations with my daughter: beyond cheerleading

My daughter has an audition on Monday for a local youth orchestra and, not surprisingly, she is nervous.

"You are playing your pieces beautifully," I tell her after a particularly trying practice that ended in hot angry tears.

"No I'm not. I sound terrible." Yes she is looking for reassurance but it is more than that.

"I'm glad to hear you say that. It means that you have high standards and are not easily pleased with yourself. That means you will always be aiming higher, striving to do better."

We talk about writing, and how often the worst writers have the highest opinion of themselves and the best are riddled with self-doubt. I want her to recognise that her doubt is in fact a strength, that rather than crippling her it can be the engine that drives her forward.

"You know if you don't get in you can try again in a few months." I say. "You can figure out where you went wrong, where you need to improve."

It would have been easier to pull out a cliche, to act as my daughter's dutiful cheerleader. But our kids are excellent detectors of parental bullshit, knowing how prone we are to well intentioned hyperbole when it comes to their talents. Indeed, more than once my daughter has met outright praise with "You are just saying that because you are my mum. You have to."

So instead of drowning her in praise I have chosen a different path. Of course I will whisper words of encouragement in her ear on the way to the audition, and I will feel at least as nervous as she does as she starts to play. And if she gets in I will jump around the house like a madwoman until she tells me to stop.

But if she doesn't, I want her to view it as a setback rather than a catastrophe, a challenge to work harder rather than a signal to give up.