Sunday, December 31, 2006

Why the holiday season is working for me

An antidote to my earlier self-indulgent black rant, in no particular order

1. Spending lots of lazy time with my soon-to-be-gone husband and soon-to-be-left-behind child.

2. Lots of reading time. And new books to read.

3. Enjoying F’s excitement on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Leaving a carrot for the reindeer and a cookie, a white wine (in F’s favourite cup), and a candy cane for Santa. And a note, written across the back of three carefully lined up business cards: ‘Dear Santa, have I been good? Write your answer here (arrow pointing to the side) with this texta (arrow pointing below).’ The answer card was topped with ‘Dear F’, with ‘Love Santa’ at the bottom, and a blank space in the middle. My husband wrote Santa’s answer in old-fashioned cursive, so F wouldn’t recognise our handwriting. When F examined it in the morning (‘He left crumbs! He ate it! This PROVES that Santa exists!’), he exclaimed that Santa’s writing was just like his teacher’s.

4. My First iPod – a birthday present from the Husband. I have been mumbling about not needing new-fangled technology to listen to music and consumerism and ‘boy’s toys’ for a while. I didn’t realise until Birthday Morning that I wanted one, too. I went for an hour-long walk with the dogs in the park yesterday with my new toy and I’m determined to keep it up. What a thoughtful and very cool present. Much better than the year he bought me underwear, including a much-hated G-string, for my birthday. (That was, admittedly, In The Beginning.)

5. A very pleasant birthday spent with the Husband in which he thoroughly spoilt me and let me choose everywhere I wanted to eat and everything I wanted to do, while F was playing at his friend’s house. The gelati at Gelo Bar on Lygon Street was a highlight. Simple girl, simple pleasures.

6. Really enjoying F’s company (when he’s not giving me attitude or behaving appallingly with other young’uns). I just like hanging out with him. He’s interesting. He makes surprising observations. He’s affectionate. He makes me laugh. We spent Thursday picking up mail from the post office, sharing brunch at a local café while I told him stories about when he was little and then read to him from his new books (received in the mail), shopping together for groceries and then a backpack for me, lying on my bed eating toast and reading books (me mine, him his), napping in my bed, and then a quite well-behaved play date/sleepover with his younger ‘cousin’ (actually my mother-in-law’s foster child).

7. Going to Adelaide in three weeks, where I will FINALLY catch up with all my family, who I haven’t seen since March. Mum has promised to make me a lemon meringue pie as a belated birthday cake. A week is not really long enough to rotate between four houses (Mum’s, Dad’s, brother’s, sisters’) but it’s something. And I am well aware that I always romanticise my relationship with my family in their absence, yet after a prolonged stay I’m usually ready to head home. One heavily divided week will keep the romance alive …

8. Backyard BBQs with friends that stretch long into the night, with no work to worry about in the morning.

9. Eating two excellent roast dinners in one day (Christmas Day), followed by an intoxicated night of Trivial Pursuit and Christmas lollies at a friend’s house, while F slept over at my mother-in-law’s with his ‘cousin’.

10. Did I mention all the lazy time with my loved ones? And, yes, there is excitement about the impending Big Trip, combined with a sense of unreality. I think that part of me doesn’t believe it will really happen. But the tickets are booked, the job is (nearly) left and F’s extended time with his dad is arranged … I guess that means I’m going!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Why the holiday season is not working for me

Warning: self-indulgent black mood ahead …

1. F’s play dates are not working out well. Something to do with a disinclination to share Christmas toys by all parties, sugar overloads all round, childish hubris generated by the recent avalanche of gifts, and F’s current ‘phase’. At least I hope it’s a phase. *sigh* My birthday present yesterday was picking him up from a friend’s house to get a long tale about bad behaviour (which mirrored my experience of this trio of children earlier in the week), ended by the observation that F's problem is probably ‘his personality’. A play date he won’t be having again …

2. Apprehension about returning to work.

3. Fear of having no work after impending three-week training-my-replacement period is over. What if I can’t find a job (or at least, one that suits me more than the one I’ve given up) when I return from overseas? My friends and husband tell me of course you'll find a job. But how do they know? And, yes, this is entirely self-inflicted.

4. Rising panic at the thought of leaving my son for two months (okay, seven weeks) very, very soon while I gallivant off overseas. (What if his behavioural problems worsen? What if he misses me too much and feels abandoned? What if he forgets me and prefers his dad when I return? What if he changes while I’m away, with no input from me?)

5. Rising panic at thought of being all alone while husband is overseas for six out of the following twelve months. I’ve been all alone in the inner city with single friends and excellent PT. But all alone in suburbia with crap access to public transport and no single friends left – and working from home – seems different. (Actually, I do have one single friend but he’s an ardent clubber and I’m too tired for that.)

6. I miss my family in Adelaide. Usually I would have seen them by now at this time of year. In-laws are not the same, even if mine are very nice.

7. Apathy. Too much to do and not enough energy to do it all.

8. Deep concern about my parenting skills. Why did F have his biggest tantrum ever this week? Why is he such a smart-mouth at the moment? It FEELS like I’m always disciplining him. What else can I take away after pocket money, Lego, Bionicles, Exoforce (new Lego), dessert and any junk food or sweets whatsoever?!? What I would like is to have an independent observer come in and invisibly watch me for a week or two and then give me an unbiased opinion on what I’m doing wrong (and right) and what to do next. Of course, they’d have to share my values and broad philosophy of parenting.

9. Crappy Melbourne weather – hail, rain, smoke haze and lack of warmth. It’s hot in Adelaide, dammit.

10. Awareness that I am being a self-indulgent grump and there are plenty of people worse off than me. Including me a few years ago.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The drug of a nation

A very fun TV meme from Elsewhere (and picked up up by Kate before me):

1. Earliest remembered television?
The first thing that pops into my head is coming home from school and watching Bewitched with Mum. How I loved Bewitched … But sensibly, I think Play School and Sesame Street were my introduction to television. I have a brilliant 1970s-era record of the Sesame Street cast album, with everyone boogying on a New York Street. Lots of afros and flares. I was so excited when F was old enough that I could pass it on to him.

2. TV series you would want on a desert island?
If I landed there tomorrow: Veronica Mars, my current TV obsession. Series 2, because I haven’t seen it all. My cousins gave me a downloaded version of Series 1 as a ‘joke’ wedding present, because they knew I was incredibly jealous that they had it (I’d managed to grab the odd episode last summer). I actually squealed when they gave it to me! I’m slightly ashamed to say (because it’s so unromantic and kinda wrong), but my husband I watched the whole series in two (or maybe – hopefully – three?) days on our honeymoon, with the odd trip to the beach in between. Veronica is like a cross between Buffy (whip-smart, kick-ass cute blonde who ends up taking of everyone around her) and Agent Cooper (eccentric detective extraordinaire) , with a *tiny* pinch of Donna Hayward (who I never liked all that much) - just with the whole solving-your-best-friend’s-murder thing. And her dad is brilliant. And love a good love triangle/URST (unresolved sexual tension). I have proved that I can watch Twin Peaks over and over again, though.

3. TV that made you laugh
Frontline. You gotta love a show that actually managed to damage the credibility of the genre it was satirising. The humour was so sharp, and often so bittersweet. Liked the way you ended up loving the villains of the piece (the producers, Marty if you think about it) – always a sign of clever storytelling. And I was a media student when it was showing on TV – I soooo wanted to be Emma, the incredibly clever (if under-appreciated and nearly always undermined) producer. I’ve discovered Scrubs this year and fallen in love with it. Just hilarious. Packed with witty one-liners and some great characters. Zach Braff is brilliant and I love his relationship with superficially-gruff-but-goodhearted Dr Cox. I think I’ll have a new appreciation for Garden State if I watch it again now (Braff’s self-penned film about a misanthropic actor who returns to his small town for a visit and resents the recognition he gets for the sitcom he was in). Yes Minister. The Office. Thank God You’re Here: the segments with Hamish Blake and Angus Sampson.

4. TV that made you cry – SPOILER ALERT – Love My Way
Love My Way, for my hands-down worst crying episode at anything fictional. I was watching the dvd and I had to turn it off and take a break. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed as if my heart would break (cliché I know, but I don’t care). I needed tissues. Lots of them. I can’t stand anything where a child is hurt or endangered – something that happened to me pretty much as soon as I had my son (I learnt the hard way, watching Sophie’s Choice on midday TV while breastfeeding). So, to have a child die, unexpectedly, in the middle of the series, absolutely shattered me. It got me in a very deep, primal way. Whoah. Especially, I guess, because I identified so much with Claudia’s character. (No, I don’t LOOK like that.) I share custody with my ex, we have a seven-year-old child, he and his wife had a new baby this year, we organise our custody in the way they did on the show, before I met my current husband, my son and I lived with an old friend of mine WHO WAS A CHEF and it fell apart partly due to a longstanding unrequited crush. It disturbed me for days. I also cried with happiness when Laura and Max finally got together on Sea Change. (I loved Sea Change and had the BIGGEST crush on Diver, then EVEN BIGGER on Max.) I also cried all afternoon once after a news story on selfish women who work while their children suffer without them. Snotty, semi-luxurious, reclining-on-my-pillows crying. Oddly, it was the week before I returned to full-time work … Probably lots more but I’ll stop there. I am a BIG sook.

5. TV crap that you enjoy.
Hmmm. Embarrassing. I am a crapmeister. (I was worse when we briefly had Foxtel.) I did enjoy Australian Idol, not so much this season, though I liked Bobby Flynn. I actually prefer American Idol. It’s the judges: Simon Cowell is hilarious and there’s some weird sexual chemistry going on between him and Paula Abdul. And my god, unlike Marcia Hines, though she is ‘the nice judge’, she actually SAYS WHAT SHE THINKS. Aaargh! Oz Idol needs Dicko to come back. I was hooked on Australian Princess last year, but haven’t really watched it this year. True confession time: I was into Neighbours and sternly told myself not to watch it anymore because it truly is crap, and I shouldn’t be watching TV at that time. That was three months ago and I haven’t watched it since. I just liked Evil Izzy and Scheming Paul. And Dr Karl when he was an alcoholic skirt-chaser. Moving right along …

6. TV you'll never forget.
Love My Way: episode where the child dies. See above. Also, an SBS doco that aired a few weeks ago, followed a 14-year-old girl working in a jeans factory in China. I turned it on about a quarter of the way through, but was riveted. It was almost more disturbing because the workers WEREN’T starving to death and didn’t live or work in barely lit shacks where there was no room to move. They weren’t forced to have sex with their employers or beaten for not working fast enough. The girls worked all night to finish big orders. They fell asleep on their desks and were prodded awake. They ate shitty dormitory food. They lived in shitty dormitories. They were paid badly, and pay was withheld as ‘bond’ for the first few months so that if they left, they would lose it. Many of them, like this girl, were kids who missed their families badly, and had been pulled out of work for this. The boss – the factory owner - was interviewed and he spoke about the need to control his lazy workers, etc. He seemed selfish and comparatively privileged. But he didn’t live much better than a lot of us. They also showed the owner in meetings with foreign buyers (aka People Like Us – Western movers and shakers) and you saw the way they squeezed him for every cent they could get, and pushed him as hard as they could on delivery. It’s not about evil Chinese factory owners: it’s about greedy Western business people, who get far more out the deal than they do. They cancel orders if they’re late – and set ridiculous schedules. And we wonder why poor 14-year-old girls work 18 hour days?

7. Favourite TV adaptation.
Have to say, I loved the BBC Pride and Prejudice. Colin Firth was a damned good Darcy. (He had the whole disturbed but brilliant and secretly lovely Angry Young man thing going on.) And Jennifer Ehle a suitably spunky Elizabeth Bennett. The recent BBC Vanity Fair with Natasha Little was also wonderful. What a fabulous Becky Sharp! And I thoroughly enjoyed the version of The Alan Clark Diaries shown this year, with John Hurt as the horrid little self-important Thatcher-boot-licking (or navy pump-licking) Conservative politician. So very, very funny. I do reserve a special space in my heart, though, for the (BBC again) adaptation of The Secret Garden, a major milestone in my love of reading. I fell in love with it when I was about six, watching it after school on the ABC, and I was absolutely dying to read the book. Mum LOVES the story of how she took me to Myer and the sales assistant solemnly handed me the Ladybird version of the book. I looked at it and said ‘no, I want the REAL book’. She explained that I wouldn’t be able to read it, and Mum told her that I was really a very good reader and I would be fine. The Myer bookshop lady, exasperated with Mum by now and (Mum thinks) sure that she was a horrid stage mother, handed me the book and said in condescending tones: ‘There you are dear, read it to me’, shooting Mum a presciently (she thought) triumphant look. And then I started to read aloud – perfectly fluently – and the woman apologised profusely and gave me the book. Which I read several times since and still have.

7. Favourite nerdish program
Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. I remember watching them after dinner with my dad, who was a fan. Later, I remember reading the collected scripts from Dad’s bookshelves. And then surreptitiously nicking them when I left home. And I am looking at them now. My husband bought me the whole two series on DVD and I re-watched them all. Still so sharp and funny and utterly relevant. And Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey … golden. And I was a BIG Twin Peaks nerd. I have a book of critical essays on Twin Peaks.

8. One TV program you are currently watching.
Love My Way Series 2. Veronica Mars Series 2. Smallville, intermittently. Partly because it's summer, partly because I'm watching Good Lex evolve into Evil Lex.

9. One TV show/series you have been meaning to watch
Um, Buffy. Of course I've seen it, but only intermittently. I really got into some of the narratives, but then missed the start of others. I think the narrative is often what gets me hooked. One day I'm going to hire the first series on DVD, and watch it sequentially. And Weeds.

10. Now tag five people.
Tag! You’re it, if you want to be. If not, you got away. Or you can say ‘barleys’ and then you’ve got immunity. (I don’t know why – it was a 1980s schoolyard thing.)

Monday, December 18, 2006

Keeping up with the Joneses

I hate the Sunday supplements. I buy the Sunday Age for the TV Guide in M Magazine. But, my god, it’s a vacuous piece of shit.

The (relatively new) editor, Michelle Griffin, is a respected literary journalist and a fine writer. She is incredibly intelligent. She seems to be a no-bullshit kind of person.

So, it is increasingly odd to me, after a long not-quite-acquaintance with her on the literary pages, to read her chirrupy little editorials. It’s not those that I have a problem with, though. (Hell, we all gotta earn a living.)

This week, there is an article on the ‘Homes’ pages that really pissed me off. It is about home cinemas:

Rodney Hearn is a born hi-fi and movie buff … He and his wife Anne are such avid cinema-goers that they pay for the gold-class experience. But even that edge of gilt-edged luxury isn’t quite enough for Hearn. “It’s very annoying to be watching a movie while someone is eating a three-course meal behind you,” he says. And it’s even worse in conventional movie theatres “with people behind you talking or rattling chips bags. How much of the movie do you actually get to see? That’s why the home theatre is cut out for people like the Hearns. They’re sinking $100,000 plus – their redundancy cheques – into creating a 9.5 metre by 6.5 metre home cinema on the back of their western suburbs home.

What the hell? So, the obvious solution to annoying eaters in movie theatres is to build your own home cinema? What is wrong with these people? Who are they? The article takes pains to make them sound like your average, perhaps slightly well-to-do couple. (Note ‘western suburbs’)

Their addiction is not as extreme as they might think. More and more people are forking out huge sums to set up a home theatre.
Is this: theatres are the new swimming pools? Obviously designed to make people think that this is normal, that anyone can do it, that you might feel as if it’s something you can’t afford, but everyone’s doing it these days. So just get a loan, or whack it on the credit cards …

Why is the trend towards home cinemas intensifying? … “Deep down, people love the idea of having their own private cinema. It was once just a futuristic dream. Now all members of the family can have fun together, playing electronic games or watching movies on the big screen.”
Oh, so it brings the family together. It’s an investment for the good of the kids.

If you build it, they will stay at home.

Am I crazy, or is this sickening? It’s similar to when they first started advertising steel fridges with built-in televisions. It’s just so extreme.

This reminds me of my short-lived stint at an architecture and lifestyle magazine, where I was gently chided over a line in a book review. It was one of those ‘50 Houses’ type things, showcasing the best new architecture around the world. I’d written something about it giving readers the opportunity to tour fabulous homes that they could never afford ‘But isn’t it true?’ I asked. ‘Well, ye-es,’ I was told. ‘But the whole point of the magazine is for people to realise that everyone can afford an architect. And that sends the wrong message.’

I’m sorry, but if we’re all that rich, why don’t we have better public schools, public health, child care, public transport?

Or are those things less important than the dream of having your own home cinema? Designed by an architect, of course.

Too much

On Sunday, I finally ventured out to do my Christmas shopping. Having slunk past the queues transfixed by the Myer Christmas windows, I elbowed my way through the crowds up five flights of escalators to the toy department … only to be stopped at the magical sixth escalator by a pair of security guards.
‘You can’t go up there.’
I and a handful of just-as-harassed-looking fellow shoppers made our way, as instructed, to the friendly lift lady. Who told us that the sixth floor was closed, and she was under instructions not to let anyone up there.
‘The queue to see Santa is a few hours long, anyway.’
‘But I don’t want to see Santa,’ I wailed. ‘I want to buy toooyyyys.’
‘One hour queue for that,’ she chirped, and I, grumpily, painfully aware that I had work to do this afternoon and all my Christmas shopping to do before I could get home to do it, was a bitch.
‘Well, fine then,’ I sulked. ‘I’ll go and spend my money somewhere else.’
The lift lady smiled, managed to look sympathetic, and waved me goodbye. She’d obviously dealt with sulky princesses like me before. As I walked off, I knew I was being unreasonable. More than that, I knew that a place that was actively turning customers away, that had security guards keeping them off the escalators, that had people queuing for an hour to hand over their money, would not care one bit whether I spent my money elsewhere.

They didn’t have the means to take my money anyway.

Yes, we have too much.

Still, as I wearily slumped from my fifth escalator on the way out, I paused to tell the information woman stationed there that if they’re not going to let people enter the sixth floor, they really should have a sign on the bottom floor to let them know.
‘Oh, they’re doing that again are they?’ she said, shaking her grey perm. ‘I was on the lifts yesterday when they did that.’ A knowing, wry smile. ‘I’m sorry love, but it’s just too much paperwork to get a sign made. It has to go though admin and then it has to be approved by management, and then by the time it gets down here … But I’ll be sure to let people know. Thank you.’

Random thought: the customer service at Myer is generally excellent. Maybe it’s partly because of the women approaching pension age who have learnt to handle annoying customers (like me) with grace. Good on them.

So, on concluding that as a society, we have too much, did I go home and hand-make gifts for my son?

No. I took my orgy of spending elsewhere. I went to Target, which was having 20% off toys, and gathered Lego, confetti glitter glue, a Wolfmother CD single, a Bionicles DVD and a comic book. (In the line, a customer handed me a spare 10% off everything voucher, an casual act of kindness that cheered me up a bit.) And then I went to AFL World and bought a West Coast Eagles cap and t-shirt.

I know he doesn’t need any of it, but it’s part of the whole Christmas ritual, and I’m stuck in it.

I’m too busy and distracted and generally frazzled by work and next year’s travel plans to do much about the problem of Christmas as a celebration of how spoilt we all are. I’m donating some children’s books to a worthy cause and taking F to choose a present for a charity Christmas tree. And my grandmother has asked for contributions of canned goods, pencils, paper, etc. to a woman she knows who is distributing these items to AIDS victims in Africa. So, thanks to her, there is that.

Maybe next year I’ll have a more creative and appropriate approach - though I’m pretty certain I’ll still be spending up big on things F doesn’t need, too. As, I know, my parents did for me.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Hell is other parents. Part One.

I’ve had a bad parenting week.

Partially due to the Boy, who pulled his pants down in the playground AGAIN, forcing me to carry through with my ill-conceived threat to write to Santa and tell him ‘No Bionicles for Christmas’. This was Wednesday.

Monday, after spending the morning throwing up (no, I’m not pregnant) and the day at work feeling weak and dizzy, I arrive at After Care deep in brain fog. They look puzzled to see me. ‘F’s not here,’ they say. I panic. ‘Could someone else have picked him up?’ They couldn’t. His father and stepfather are both at work. Where could he be? What could have happened? Then I remember. On Mondays, he plays at a friend’s house after school. More than a little embarrassed, I reassure the worried-looking carer that I know where he is, I’d just forgotten, and head for the friend’s house.

‘You’re early,’ the Mother greets me at the door. ‘Are you okay? You look terrible.’ I feel terrible, and I’m about to feel worse. She pulls me into the ‘good’ sitting room, the one they don’t use, to tell me about her afternoon. Apparently, she’d overhead F saying something about sucking a woman’s breast on the way home and told him that if she ever heard anything like that again, he is no longer welcome at the house. ‘I like F,’ she said. ‘But A is innocent, and I’d like to keep him that way. I let him watch The Blues Brothers, but that’s about it. I don’t mean to judge, but I don’t know where F has picked that up from. Do you? He’s a very advanced reader, so maybe he read it somewhere?’ (Yeah, like all those Playboys I keep in my bottom drawer?!) I apologise, and assure her I will investigate and give F a thorough talking to. ‘I mean, it was one thing when he told A about how babies were made last week,’ she continues. ‘I didn’t really mind that, but … I didn’t really want him to know about it, but what can you do? I did have to put up with him saying penis and vagina all weekend, but … but that was okay, I guess.’ I still remember the look on her face last week when I told her that I’d overhead them having The Talk. I slink off to collect my wayward son.

‘What exactly did you say?’ I ask him as we walk home across the park.
‘I said that Supergirl was the stupidest movie I’d ever seen and A said Supergirl was beautiful. So I asked him if he wanted to suck Supergirl’s breast.’
‘Where did you get that from?’
‘From when you get born,’ he chirps. ‘You know, breastfeeding.’ His stepmother is breastfeeding. I breathe a huge sigh of relief and tell him to never say anything like that again.

Back to Wednesday. Wednesday is the day that A comes to play at our house. He’s a nice kid, and they play well together, but they also like to dob on each other. I have a rule: I don’t want to hear about it unless someone is hurt, someone is in danger or about to get hurt, or something is being wrecked. I find A before I find F.
‘My mum told me I have to tell you every time F says something rude,’ he tells me.
‘Great,’ I say, through clenched teeth.

I read F’s Communication Book outside his classroom. He has spent the afternoon in the office for pulling his pants down. I find his teacher. We talk. I find the vice principal. We talk, while F and A play in the corridor outside her office. I am almost in tears.
‘He keeps doing it because it makes the other children laugh,’ she says. ‘But they don’t laugh so much anymore. They think it’s weird.’ I nod and agree. I tell her what I’ve been doing, and ask her what she suggests. Then she says something that really brings me to the edge of tears.
‘F is a great kid,’ she says. ‘He’s come so far this year. We’ve told him we’re really proud of him. He’s incredibly smart, and sometimes that causes problems. But I love having him around.’
Really?’ I say. ‘You do?’
I’ve spent the year worrying that they don’t like him.

I feel slightly better as I walk the boys home. I tell F that if he does it again, I will give all his Bionicles to my mother-in-law’s foster child, J.
‘Who’s that?’ asks A.
‘His cousin,’ I say. It’s what F has taken to calling him, and it’s easier than explaining. I go to the newsagent on the way home and buy glitter glue, textas, paintbrushes. The boys play best when they are drawing together.

I push my bike, loaded with art supplies, through the hot, smoggy park. A lags behind.
F points to the wall along the power station.
‘That’s graffiti,’ he says. ‘S says when he grows up, he wants to write graffiti.’ The boys giggle naughtily. F whispers something.
‘Excuse me,’ says A. ‘F said when he grows up, he wants to sniff vaginas.’
‘WHAT?’ I am furious. I interrogate the boys. I turns out that F said he wanted to sniff bums. Okay, bad, but Andy Griffiths rather than Hugh Hefner territory. A just wanted to say vagina. I growl at them both. I am hot, my throat hurts, my eyes sting, and my arm is sore from pushing the bike for so long.

At the front gate, A taps my arm.
‘Excuse me,’ he says. ‘F said that daisy was stupid.’
I look at him.
‘And stupid is a bad word?’
He nods.
‘Okay,’ I say. I lock up my bike and entertain thoughts of killing the Mother, who has condemned me to what is already a long and painful afternoon.

I am cutting up honey toast and apples at the kitchen table. A comes to fetch his carton of Ribena, and stays to watch. He is thoughtful.
‘So, if F is rude again, his cousin gets all his Bionicles?’ he asks.
‘Oh.’ He pauses. ‘You know, you could give them to me.’
‘That’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think so,’ I say, envisaging even more dobbing in a plot to gain F’s Bionicles. I also envisage the end of the friendship.
‘Oh.’ He takes a slice of apple. ‘You could give half to me, half to his cousin?’
‘Maybe I could have just one?’
I snap. ‘A, if I was to give you F’s Bionicles if he was rude, you’d tell me was rude, wouldn’t you? So, I don’t think it’s a good idea. They’ll go to his cousin. And hopefully, F will be good.’
‘I won’t say he’s rude.’

The Mother is due between 5.30pm and 6pm. At 6.10pm, she hasn’t arrived. I want this to be over. I have a headache with trying to work out who is really being rude, who is making up stories, who actually deserves to be told off, and how to explain that I don’t really care if someone said ‘bloody’. There are just as many complaints about 'innocent' A as about F. Next week, I plan to revert to my rule.

The Mother arrives at 6.30pm, breezily. She has, as usual, brought A’s little brother. The three boys shoot out into the backyard for a light sabre duel. I want her to go. I am too angry and tired to deal with her. The Husband shoots her a look and disappears. He is furious, as is F’s father, about the fuss. They think she is a prude. F’s father actually came out with a killer of a line when I told him how upset she was about the sex ed, and penis and vagina. ‘What would she prefer?’ he said, icily. ‘That A goes around saying prick and cunt?’

The Mother deals with the frosty atmosphere by settling in for the long haul, to show that we are friends and everything is okay. She talks and talks. She follows the boys out the back and comments on the progress of the light sabre duels. She tells me about a meal she made recently, and gives me the recipe, step by step. She asks for lemons from the tree. She tells me that she wants to make lemon butter. She gives me a recipe for lemon butter. She tells me that the great thing to do with lemon butter is to make a pudding. She gives me the recipe. She tells me how nice the lemon tree is, and about her lemon tree, and about her friend’s lemon tree, and what her friend does with lemons, and how her mother propagates fruit trees, and how she herself does it. It is 7pm. She asks me, finally, about the sucking breasts thing. I tell her about the breastfeeding and she is surprised and relieved. She tells me, again, that she wishes A hadn’t been told the facts of life. She tells me, again, that he’s been saying vagina. That she was doing the ironing, and he said ‘Mum, you have a vagina, don’t you?’

At 7.30pm, she finally leaves. At the door, she grabs my arm and asks, ‘Are you doing anything right now?’ I need to cook dinner, serve dinner, bath F, get him into his PJs, put him to bed and read him a story. By 8.30pm. And then I need to write and research an article.
‘A is missing his bike,’ she says. (He left it here last week.) ‘Can you walk him to the park so he can ride it home?’
‘Okay.’ I just want it to all be over. A asks if F can come. I say no, too sharply. I say that F will walk home too slowly and I need to start dinner soon, an edge of resentment in my voice. As we trudge to the end of the driveway, the Mother grabs my arm again.
‘Hey!’ she says. ‘Come here!’ And she gives me a hug. I smile weakly and wave goodbye.
‘Why does F like Bionicles so much?’ asks A.
‘I don’t know.’ I try to be upbeat and friendly, overcompensating. ‘I guess he just does.’
‘I don’t,’ says A. ‘I like superheroes.’ And with that, he climbs onto his bike and pedals off down the hill, me jogging behind.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Red in the morning

Today started with a red sun, burning against a pale grey sky.

At first, I thought it must be a trick of the light. I opened my back door and stepped out onto the deck to get a closer look. It’s odd, that I was so surprised by seeing the sun as a ball of flame. I mean: that’s what it is. But normally, that’s not how it appears.

On the train platform, I looked around. I couldn’t believe that no one else seemed to notice, or find it odd. A little boy skipped by. He had tousled curls and a Bob the Builder backpack, and he stayed one step behind his immaculately suited father.

‘Daddy,’ he said, tugging at his sleeve. ‘Why is the moon in the sky? It’s daytime!’
‘It’s not the moon,’ said his dad. ‘It’s the sun.’
And he quickened his step, forcing the boy to skip faster.

That’s when I noticed: everyone was deliberately avoiding the ominous red sun. I looked again at my fellow commuters, and saw the woman closest to me glance at it, then return her gaze to her feet.

My eyes began to sting. I realised that I was staring directly at the sun, and remembered it wasn’t a good idea.

I remember an old folk rhyme: Red in the morning, shepherd’s warning. What exactly is it that we’re being warned about?

I’m afraid that it’s not just one hot summer, or the worst fire season on record. And I’m well aware that what we’re seeing in Melbourne is nothing compared to what’s happening in the bush.

My feeling is something akin to when I woke up in the middle of the night to find my flatmate transfixed by a crappy disaster movie about terrorists flying into the World Trade Centre. Or so I thought.

The world is changing.

And the natural world is a far more formidable enemy than Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda. Or rather: we are our worst enemy. A cliché, but true.

I don’t know if we have the courage to do what is necessary to stop this. I don’t know if we’re unselfish enough.

It seems to be far harder to make the decision to go without than to send troops and bombs to obliterate far away countries.

By the time that we accept that we need to drastically change our lifestyles it will very probably be too late.

It’s probably too late already.

I have a seven-year-old boy who I love more than I ever thought I could love anything or anyone. And I’m worried that he will not have the life I’ve had. I can’t bear to think or write anything more drastic than that. I just tried, and I literally can’t. A mental barricade goes up.

It’s much easier to be cynical about my own life than my child’s.

I don’t know what to realistically hope for anymore.

As I rode my bike to the train station this morning, towards the burning sun, I couldn’t help but think: What if this is the last year that we live the way we do now?

Will this be the time we look back on as a turning point, the moment when the world changed?

Maybe that could come true in a positive way. Maybe this could be the year that we collectively wake up?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

T'is the season to be shopping. Or selling.

In honour of the Shopping Season, and somewhat inspired by Comic Strip Hero's random rant about annoying shop assistants, I've decided to list some of my own retail pet hates - from both sides of the counter. Feel free to add your own ...

As a customer

1. 'That looks really good on you.'
Yeah, right. What else are you going to say?

2. 'You know what everyone's wearing with that at the moment?'
Do I look like I'm sixteen and get my fashion advice from Paris Hilton and friends?

3. Sales assistant looking aggrieved when you decide not to buy something that 's been recommended.
Operative word: buy. With my money. It's not like I didn't appreciate your gift.

4. Ambush you as soon as you glance at something: 'Oh, I love that, don't you?'

5. Pouncing on you as soon as you walk through the door. 'Hiiiii, how are yooouuu?'
I know some of them are forced to do it. I still hate it.

6. People who call you 'love'.

As a counter slave

1. 'They have that cheaper at Borders/KMart/Myers, you know.'
Then buy it there.

2. 'Can I get a discount?'
'Why is that?'
'Well, you never know if you don't ask, do you?'
Actually, you do. It's not a street market.

3. Customer talking on a mobile phone while they are being served. ESPECIALLY if they approach the counter, hand you their purchase while talking, and roll their eyes as if to say 'I'm on the phone!' if you ask them a question. Like, 'is that cheque or savings?'

4. Waiting until the store lights are out and it's one minute past closing time to ask complicated questions involving tracking down 'that book with the blue cover, reviewed last month in the Age'.

5. Celebrities who give you the 'you do know who I am, don't you?' look when you serve them, combined with an imperious air. Usually they hail from the B or C list.

6. People who call you 'love'.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The land of wishes

I decided to unpack my boxes of books today.

I packed up two of my bookshelves in a fit of American-style positive thinking two months ago. ('If you behave like you are moving house, you will move house.')

It's been clear for a while that we are, in fact, not moving house. But for some reason, I haven't unpacked those damned boxes. They've remained stacked in a corner of the study, for no good reason. Just in case. Meanwhile, the plundered bookshelves sit half-naked, accumulating new, haphazard, piles of books that don't quite cover them. Proof copies. New purchases. Picture books. Old favourites picked up from elsewhere and put down here.

In a fit of procrastinating this morning, I unpacked the boxes, sorted the haphazard piles, and restored my neglected shelves to their former dignity. I have three freelance articles due this week, plus my full-time job. (And my son.) It's all in the name of preparing for when my full-time work stops in January. And making nice with contacts who will hopefully continue to feed me next year.

Today, Sunday, is the day to get much of the work done.

I have decided that I will work better in a neat study.

As I empty the first box, my son appears excitedly at my side. He picks out a handful of books and hands them to me.

'Here you go.'

'What are you doing?'

'I'm helping.'

'Thanks. Why?'

'Can I play with these boxes now?'


As the empty boxes are scattered around the room, my son gets out his box of textas and begins work. There is a pirate ship, with a Pirate Smurf sticky-taped to the front and assorted pirates lovingly drawn inside and out. There is a Bionicle cubby house. I am enlisted to cut out windows and a trapdoor. And there is a Time Machine.

'I am such a lucky boy,' grins F. 'What did I do to deserve all these boxes?'

I finish my task and make grilled cheese on toast for lunch before moving on, finally, to my articles. F drags the Time Machine into the kitchen and writhes around on the tiles as I slice cheese and light the grill.

'I'm visiting other lands,' F informs me. It seems that the Time Machine is a cross between an invention in the latest Captain Underpants and the Magic Faraway Tree. 'I'm going to the land of wishes. What do you wnat me to get for you?'

I pause as I cover every white space of bread with cheese, right up to the corners. I think carefully.

'I would like some time. Can I have a week's worth of time between today and tomorrow?'


He lies back on the tiles, rolls on his side and wriggles backward into the box. He rolls over agin, the box covering his head, feet and arms. Only his bum, clad in shiny red boxer shorts, is visible from above. He talks to himself. He emerges triumphantly from the box. I come to meet him. He puts his hand into mine.

'There you go,' he says. 'I got it for you.'

'Thanks.' I kiss his cheek.

It was a nice thought.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

10 signs you drank too much the night before

1. You wake up at 6am. WIDE awake.

2. By the time the alarm clock goes off, you're in sleeping mode. It takes you a few whacks of said clock before you remember: when it shrieks at you, it's time to get up.

3. You forget (for once) that you cunningly set your clock 15 minutes ahead (months ago), and thus manage to get up in time anyway. Hooray!

4. You feel dizzy-ish when you stand up.

5. You remember leaving a self-pitying, self-indulgent comment on someone's blog at 1am.

6. You remember that you somehow posted it twice. You'd like to apologise, but you're too embarassed, as this will entail leaving YET ANOTHER COMMENT.

7. You are relieved rather than annoyed that you've left your bike at the train station. This means you can get a cab to the station. Walking not an option.

8. In the cab, you reach into your bag for your sunglasses and pull out a plastic wineglass.

9. Mental check: WHAT DID I SAY AND WHO DID I SAY IT TO? Nothing too bad springs to mind. But nothing too scintillating either.

10. You thank [Divine Being of choice] that you are happily partnered (married even!) and therefore don't have to worry about who you might have unwisely kissed or inappropriately flirted with.

Monday, December 04, 2006

My weekend in a nutshell

On Saturday night, my husband bought me a box of chocolates while he was doing the grocery shopping.

On Sunday afternoon, his dog ate them while I was reading on the back porch.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Inherited nostalgia

As The Husband and I once again contemplate moving house, I find myself wondering what kind of living place I really want. What makes me happy?

I’m compiling a wishlist in my head, which more often than not contains a strong element of: ‘if only I had THAT house again, on THAT street’. Or something like it.

My son, aged seven, has inherited my raging nostalgia for past houses.

One Sunday night a few weeks ago, with just the two of us for dinner, I put on an old home video tape I’d discovered. We sat companionably on the couch, hands and mouths full of home-made hamburgers (higher than F’s mouth is wide), equally entranced by the sudden vision of four-year-old F in the bath.

My heart melted as he squirmed around, lisping a little (I’d forgotten he lisped at four!) singing the theme from Lilo and Stitch: ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’. To me, on the other side of the camera. Seven-year-old F was gleefully chuffed at his follow-up performance, solemnly miming ‘I think you stink’.

Then it was dinnertime and he was pouring sauce onto a hot dog on his plate. He tipped the bottle upside down and shook it. A red torrent drowned the hot dog bun, lapping at the broccoli and carrots sitting beside it. F stuck his fork into the mess and lifted the whole bun to his mouth. He licked it and put it down.
‘Don’t you like it?’ came the voice from behind the camera (me again).
‘No. There’s too much sauce.’
‘Do you think Mummy should have done it for you?’

The screen fuzzed black and white for a second and then filled with water and the sound of children shrieking. The camera zoomed in to reveal F again, chubby and lively in royal blue Speedos, jumping from the pool steps into the water as an awed little girl stood by, watched, then followed suit. It was the now-defunct Footscray Pool, where we used to swim every week or so. It was a fifteen-minute walk from our old house.

The Husband (then De Facto) cooked dinner as I filmed him. A close-up of the meal, one I’d forgotten was on his repertoire. I remind myself to ask him to cook it again. F’s beloved Cheer Bear (now face-down in a toybox) ‘talks’ to the camera and conducts a tour of the house. On the couch beside me, F giggles. He has abandoned his burger and curled up on the cushions, glued to the screen. I threaten him with ‘no TV’ and he wriggles back towards his meal.

He’s at the Show, stumbling in fake snow, throwing ‘snowballs’ at the camera. The screen goes black and I hear my own squeal. He’s hit me. Then he’s eating hot chips in the sun, the Ferris Wheel in the background. His Action Man vest, now worn, and faded, is proudly new, the colours bright. He shows off his Action Man compass and Action Man walkie-talkie. He waves his Action Man rifle in the air and takes imaginary aim.
‘I’m shooting helicopters,’ he says. ‘They’re the baddies.’

F perches on the end of his bed, impossibly small and chubby. A red cap partially obscures his face. A Spiderman backpack sits on one knee, his favourite Care Bear (Tenderheart) on the other.
‘You’re not going to kinder today,’ I say.
‘Really? Yes!’ he says, punching the air.
‘I thought you liked kinder.’

The camera is approaching the house from the street. Tendrils of jasmine embrace the frame of the porch. My old bike sits beside the wheelie bin, sun-bleached silver and purple streamers at the handlebars. I loved that bike. (Stolen) There is, for once, no F on screen. Stevie Wonder wails plaintively from deep inside the house. The hallway fills the screen, jammed with boxes and bare bookshelves. The virtual tour of the house continues, lingering lovingly in each room, pausing at the back door to take in the courtyard, F’s treehouse, even the outside toilet. Finally, the tour ends in F’s bedroom, stripped of its toys and posters. Painted stars and planets dance along the walls. Tenderheart lies abandoned on the bare mattress. As the closing bars of the song sob: 'this time could mean goodbye', the lens zooms in on the bear, closer and closer, pausing on his absurdly cheerful face before the screen goes black and the scene shifts to our current front yard.

F has abandoned his burger again. A corner scrap sits on his plate.
‘I’m feeling a bit sad,’ he says.
‘I’m sorry. Do you think it was the music? Mum was being a bit silly.’
I pat his shoulder, and am shocked when he crumples into a sob that racks his little chest, bursting from within. He is a dramatist, but not now. He’s seriously upset. I grab the remote and press stop, then gather him into my arms and let him cry.
‘I miss my old house,’ he gasps. ‘I want to go back there.’
‘I’m sorry honey, we can’t. The owners moved in.’
‘I want my treehooouuuse …’

I’m sad, too. I loved that house. I moved into it on my own: just the two of us, moving from a tiny flat (no yard) in North Fitzroy. I had believed that I would never afford a house for us and a yard for him. I had some truly awful times in that house, but I didn’t blame the house. I also had some great times. And we were happy there.

I managed to console F with an ice cream for dessert and a story about how his Poppa once built us a platform when we were young, which was like our treehouse. It had a sandpit underneath and a rope ladder on the side, and once, in a fight, one of my brothers threw the other off it.

Now he wants Poppa (who lives in Adelaide) to build him a new treehouse.

I spoke to Poppa this afternoon. He’s thinking about it.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Overheard on the train platform this week

Two schoolgirls in nondescript private school uniform. Probably year 11 or 12. Slightly offbeat in a hipster kind of way. Cropped, mussed, dyed and streaked hair, teamed with funky spectacles. They shriek excitedly among themselves.

I tune in to: ‘You’ve got a hot Asian and I don’t! Where’s the justice?’

Tune out again.

Tune in (but don’t look up) as the decibels shoot up again sharply.

‘GUESS WHAT? She’s got a hot Asian and I don’t! That’s so not fair.’

A moment of silence.

Curious, I look up, just in time to see a flicker of something cross the face of their newly arrived companion. (She’s Asian.) One second later, she is laughing with them.

‘She’s got a hot Asian,’ continues the loud one. ‘And you are a hot Asian. What about me?’

The train arrives. Torn between morbid curiosity and the same kind of moral restraint that keeps me from watching Neighbours these days, I decide not to be nosy and choose a seat at the far end of the carriage from the trio.

Still, I can’t help but hear the shrieking continue. It’s mostly muffled, but as we pull up to Footscray station, the decibels rise again. The loud one is squealing about her desperate quest for a Hot Asian to call her own.

The weird thing is, I think these girls are having their own crazy stab at political correctness. Positive discrimination. I’m reasonably sure they mean well. There was no malice whatsoever directed at the ‘hot Asian’ friend. In fact, the show was further dramatised for her benefit.

But I wonder: how does she feel about it? How does the ‘hot Asian’ boy feel?

One of my dearest friends, Indian by birth, has always hated the idea that men might dally with her as an ‘exotic’ experience. I don’t blame her. When we first met, we had a mutual friend who was engaged to an Indian and was subsequently obsessed with Indian culture. The Dear Friend similarly hated the idea that perhaps Mutual Friend saw her as a collectable, a cultural accessory. I’m sure Mutual Friend would have been genuinely horrified at the thought herself. If it was true, it was both subconscious and (inappropriately) well meaning.

But, back to the schoolgirls: I guess teenagers are, on the whole, pretty obsessed with stereotypes. And positive ones are better than the alternative. Hopefully, they’ll grow out of it.

But what do I really know on this? Maybe I’m wrong.