Thursday, May 31, 2007

Best Stepfather in the World

Today, The Husband reminded me of why I am so incredibly lucky to have him, not only as a husband but as co-parent of my child. F sent him a quite haughty email:

As you know it is very hard for me to work out my dream teams' passwords because I have two.


I'm afraid I was terribly amused and proud of his seven-year-old writing ability. However, The Husband took the more appropriate and useful parental response and chastened him for his attitude. In the nicest way.

I mean in THE NICEST WAY, too. In fact, he sent a two-page inspirational email on learning to handle annoyance at not getting things right or needing help, using a football analogy throughout, along with a charming illustrative anecdote about Chris Judd's brother.

I am so incredibly impressed by this damned fine example of (step) parenting that here is his response:

I didn't actually know that it is very hard for you to work out your
dream teams' passwords because of the fact you have two. Maybe next time you can use the same password, then you only have to remember one.

Shouting at me, all be it via email, is not appropriate. If you want my help you know all you have to do is ask nicely rather than demand that I tell you.

When you can't work something out or you get frustrated remember that getting cross isn't going to help. All that does is make you feel awful and unhappy and it doesn't solve the problem. Take a few deep breaths and ask yourself "Now, how can I solve this?" and if you don't think you can solve it yourself ask someone else, politely of course.

The rewarding thing about finding things that you can't do or work out is learning how to do them. Because once you've learnt how to do them it's an extra thing you can do. Sometimes it's challenging, but you feel really good once you have learnt how to do it. Remember when you hated to kick the footy because you didn't know how? Well, maybe you don't remember, but you used to hate it and never wanted to go outside and kick it. Now look at you you love it, you can't stop kicking it, it's all about footy for you. And it feels really good when you do a good kick, doesn't it? When you kick it straight to someone or kick a goal it's the best feeling.

When you are having difficulty with something, on the computer or playing sport or doing schoolwork, just remember that great feeling you get when you can do it. Focus on that and remember that you will feel that way if you try and work it out rather than getting angry. Even thinking about how good you feel when you accomplish something can make you feel good. Sometimes it's tough, but often the toughest challenges, the hardest things to do, give you the greatest reward and make you feel the best.

Remember this also, you have a lot of people around you who love you and are there to help you and always want the best for you. You should see all those people as people you can learn from so you can be the best you can be. Look at your Dad and Mum and Stepmother and me, we've been around for a while, and we've had to go through all the things you are going through and will go through. All we want to do is help you and make it easier for you. When we show you how to handball, or write, or draw, or ride a bike we're just trying to help you out and help you improve in these things and make it easier for you.

You know people like Chris Judd and Daniel Kerr and Mark Seaby and Andrew Embley and Chad Fletcher and David Wirrpunda and Jason Akermanis and Aaron Davey and Michael Jordan and heaps of other people all became the best footballers and best basketballers and the best at what they do because they would watch what other people did, ask them for advice and listen to the advice that was given to them. They
realised that to be the best, the key was to get help and advice from others and not think that your way is the best way and the only way.

And here is the best bit, the story of Chris Judd's little-known brother:

Chris Judd has a brother who's not much older than him. He played football with Chris when they were growing up together and he used to always act like and say he could do everything. When his Dad tried to show him how to handball, he would say, "That might be your way but I do it like this" or when his Dad tried to show him how to tackle he said, "I know, I know" and not listen. Chris's brother didn't want to show anybody that he couldn't do something, he was a little embarrassed, so he would just make up how to do things on his own. Chris on the other hand listened to his father, his coach, the next-door neighbour, his friends and would practice what he was taught.

Chris's brother struggled through junior football, he really wanted to be good at footy, but he couldn't bring himself to take the advice or ask the advice of his Dad and coach and other people, because he didn't want to look like he didn't know how to do something. Meanwhile, Chris got really, really good. He would train and practice everyday, listen to the advice his coach and Dad and others gave him
and admitted that he didn't know how to do something, because then he knew that someone would show him how to do it and he would be even better.

Now you haven't heard of Chris Judd's brother* have you? That's because he didn't make it to the AFL or any football league for that matter. He still doesn't listen to anyone or even see his family and does his own thing. He lives by himself in a small apartment in Perth and has no friends, no job and no family. He's always angry and miserable.

As you know, Chris Judd went on to play in the AFL, the best football league in the world, and was officially named the best player in that league a couple of years ago. He went on to win the 2006 premiership and became captain of his side. He even said when he won the Brownlow medal and the premiership, that he couldn't have done it without the help of a lot of people. People still reckon he is the best player in
the league, and you know what, he still trains and practices and listens to his coach and his Dad and others everyday to make sure he stays the best!

Love you lots

The Husband

I read it aloud to F. He looked at me with wide eyes during several sections, and looked pleased during others. Especially when I read about how good Chris Judd is.

'Wow' he said when I'd finished. 'If I keep going the way I am, I'll end up like Chris Judd's brother, won't I?'

*** I don't think the story about Chris Judd's brother is anything but an allegory, of course. Though I am so clueless about footy that it may well be.

The email generation

The Husband Skyped me today with a query about an email he had received this morning from my seven-year-old son. I was frantically making school lunches at the time he sent it and hadn't had a chance to read what he had written.

This was it:

As you know it is very hard for me to work out my dream teams' passwords because I have two.


They both play this online footy tipping competition called AFL Dream Team. That's what the email was referring to. Neither of us are quite sure what problem he was experiencing or why he asked the Husband, in Mexico, for his help.

But what made the Husband especially curious and me laugh and laugh was the way he phrased it, as if they are working together on a business project.

And the thing that REALLY made me smile was that F seems to have mastered, either by accident or design, what so many high school graduates have not: the art of the correct use of the apostrophe. Just look!

He is destined for a bright future.

* From a Chastened Mum: the Husband sent F a long and beautifully considered email about how to solve problems by talking rather than yelling at a person, even if it is yelling via email. (Including, 'Well, no, I actually didn't know that it was hard for you ...') Which is absolutely true. I really shouldn't be proud or amused by haughty emails. He is destined for a bright future so long as his stepfather helps his mother keep her head screwed on right.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Yapping bitches

I trudged to school for my afternoon pick-up through the bucketing rain today, wearing full eye make-up and lipstick as a result of an afternoon client meeting, teamed with and my trusty $10 hooded parka. Classy.

At school, I tied the dogs up by the gate and scurried across the yard to join the huddle of parents waiting under the shelter. No sooner had I started chatting to one of the few dads there, than the unmistakable yapping of small dogs cut through the dull thud of the rain. I started to go.

'Whose dogs are they?!' exclaimed one of the nearby mums.
'My god! I know!' boomed another, raising her voice in the hope of its reaching the culprit.
'They're right next to the SCHOOL GATES!' huffed yet another.
'Right!' said a fourth. 'I'm off to the microphone. That's IT!'

Meanwhile, I stood frozen, vacillating between running to move the dogs a few metres from the gate, as was my original instinct, and hiding so the pack wouldn't pounce and burn me at the stake.

When they mentioned the microphone, I jumped to it.
'That's my dogs they're talking about' I whispered to the dad. He laughed.

I bent in the rain to untie them and moved them down the road. As I turned to rejoin the schoolyard, I ducked my head again, though the rain was easing.

Back under the shelter, I made eye contact with the dad.
'If people really want you to do something, they shouldn't speak like that' I am surprised to find myself say. 'I was almost too embarassed to move the dogs then. If they'd asked reasonably instead of shouting about how awful the person with the dogs is, they would have got a quicker reaction.'

I realise I am speaking loudly.

I realise that once again, I am furious with petty playground politics and the way I always seem to take the role of the weird kid at school who can't do anything right.

I fetch my son, who has unbuttoned his shirt as I TOLD HIM NOT TO, revealing the bitten-off hole in his skivvy underneath. (He did it himself in the midst of a temper tantrum.) His parka is in his backpack and he stands shouting his news of the day into the rain.

'Stupid yappy bitches' I growl under my breath as we duck back across the yard and out of the gate.

At home, I ask F to peel off his wet clothes and put them straight into the washing machine. All except the skivvy, which goes straight into the bin.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Recipe for a successful weekend (or: lazy blog topic)

1. Finally tackling the pile of dirty dishes threatening to engulf the sink and feeling virtuous

2. A lazy day trip to Carlton to sip lattes and eat lemon meringue tarts at Brunetti’s, while catching up with an old friend

3. Picking up your lay-by of a coveted pair of shoes (Doc Marten zip-up boots in a delicious shade of red)

4. Putting down a new lay-by on jeans … though not the skinny pair you’d kind of planned on, as these officially make you look like Mutton Dressed As Lamb

5. Dinner at the pub with a new(ish) friend and too much red wine, wearing wonderful new boots

6. Hot chocolate with pink and white marshmallows in front of a DVD (though it doesn’t go too well with the red wine, as you discover as you lie in bed half-watching Rage at the end of the night, feeling your age as you marvel at Depeche Mode and Frankie Goes to Hollywood)

7. Plotting revenge on your neighbourhood nemesis by sketching out a Desperate Housewives style satirical novel with HER as the villainess. Your pleasure is not diminished by the fact that you know you will never write it.

8. Serendipitously stumbling upon new lodgings – and getting a loan to help you move house within minutes (thanks Dad!)

9. Evading work and a creeping deadline for as long as possible*

10. Sunday night home-made lasagne (by you) with generous lashings of red wine in the sauce and enough left-overs to feed you for a week … which you’ll probably need, as you’ll now be too busy working to cook.

* I should mention that Sunday WAS spent working (though I should have been doing it Saturday too, really). But hey, then I got lasagne ...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Hell is other parents’ hang-ups

On Saturday, F and I trekked out to Readings Carlton to meet a certain idol of his. Author Andy Griffiths, king of the kids thanks to his wicked, Paul Jennings-ish sense of humour … and his wholehearted embrace of bums and toilet gags.

F is a big fan. He reads Andy’s Just series (Just Kidding, Just Annoying, Just Stupid) so often that the books look as if they’ve been buried under a few acres of landfill (which his room DOES sometimes resemble). He reads them on the train, in bed and on the toilet. More often than I’d like, about an hour after bedtime, I’ll open the door to the toilet and there he is, pants around his ankles, frowning intently at a Just book – with the look of a boy who has been hiding out in there for a Very Long Time.


Sunday, we had another engagement F was very much looking forward to: a birthday party for his sometime best friend, A. F had played at A’s house once or twice a week, until A’s mother cut off the play dates ‘until further notice’ a couple of months ago. She said she couldn’t cope with her son’s behaviour when F was over, and she was punishing him by depriving him of F’s company.

Yeah, right.

My fellow parent had not liked F very much for quite a while. Who could forget such gems as ‘the problem with his personality is …’ (one of them was ‘he reads above his age level’, I kid you not) and her ongoing annoyance that he had told her son where babies come from?


When I got back from overseas, my ever-so-slick ex had wrangled a couple of mothers into helping him out by each having F after school once a week. One of them was a single mother, who was helping him because he told her he was ‘all alone’. I pointed out to her that the Ex has a stay-at-home wife. (‘Oh god’ she said. ‘I never thought of that.’) The other was The Mother.

On my return, I offered to have her son every week for a while, or for the boys to play at each of our houses on alternate weeks. I could somehow sense that she wasn’t up to having F every week. In fact, while I was in Mexico, the Ex had laughingly told me about a few incidents where he would arrive to pick F up and find her having a meltdown over the boys’ behaviour.

The first Wednesday I was back (their old play day), I found F outside A’s classroom, giggling together over AFL trading cards. The Mother was looking slightly panicked by his presence.
‘But I play at A’s house on Wednesdays!’ F protested when he saw me.
‘Not necessarily anymore. We’re going home now.’
‘Can F come and play?’ chorused A and his younger brother. ‘Pleeeeease?’
The Mother smiled, with her mouth but not her eyes. I’d spontaneously taken her boys the previous day because she’d had a headache.
‘Oh, okay’ she said.
The three boys raced ahead to the bike shed. I suggested the alternate weeks idea.

‘YES!’ she said, relieved. ‘Let’s do that. W [her youngest] was playing with A and F in the playground at the start of the year and I was worried and I spoke to his teacher and she said that’s normal, that’s fine for preppies to hang out with older kids they know. Now A is playing with B in the playground instead, so THAT’s good, but W is still playing with F. And he’s been coming home saying rude words ever since he started school and he NEVER did that before. So, yeah, it would be good to, uh, limit the amount they …’
At this point in the monologue it seemed to dawn on her that I wasn’t suggesting the boys only play together every other week, but that they rotate houses. She paused.
‘Yes, okay, let’s do that. Swap houses every week. Okay.’ She sounded like she wasn’t sure how to get out of it. Which I’m sure is exactly what happened between her and my Ex.

I bolted home across the park. I had mountains of work to do and I was (really truly) all alone for a month with F. I planned to make use of my newly gifted time to get through some work. As I sat down at my computer, the phone rang. I let it go through to the answering machine, listening to see if it was something I really needed to answer. No one spoke.

At 6pm, I arrived at the Mother’s front gate, as arranged. Our two small, fluffy white dogs yapped piercingly at my side. Her waist-high black dog barked back menacingly from behind the gate, lurching its great head through the bars to gnash its teeth at us. I stood there, shouting ‘F! I’M HERE!’

The Mother arrived and escorted Kujo into the house. She scurried back to the fence.
‘Oh GOD’ she huffed. ‘I called you as soon as I got home to say I’m sorry, I can’t do this, and ask you to pick him up. But you obviously weren’t there yet.’
‘What happened?’
‘Well, it wasn’t REALLY his fault.’
Apparently, A offered F his bike to ride home. F rode it. A started screaming and wailing that he wanted his bike. They caught up to F, who was waiting further across the park. A screamed that he wanted his bike. F said no, he gave it to him. The Mother said to A ‘no, I heard you give it to F, you can’t take it back.’
‘But, you know, he really could have given it to him anyway’ she said to me now. ‘He could see how upset he was. But anyway …’
A screamed all the way to the end of the park, where F waited to cross the road to A’s street. He offered A the bike. A screamed no. ‘But I wanted to ride it HOME FROM SCHOOL!’ he apparently wailed. ‘We’re NEARLY HOME now!’ And then once inside, he didn’t want to share his toys either, the cause of more screaming.
‘A is so HYSTERICAL’ wailed the Mother. ‘He says such NASTY things to me, to get a rise out of me. I don’t know where he gets it from. Neither of US are like that.’
I shake my head and commiserate as F comes out, schoolbag in hand, to join us. W scales the fence as F and A exit through the gate. They’re obviously fine now, all three of them squealing excitedly about nothing much.

‘I think’ said the Mother. ‘That we should not have F over any more. Until further notice. You know, to punish A.’
‘Okay’ I said, probably quite snippily, and stalked off down the street with the dogs straining at their leashes and her two boys following us on scooters.
‘F was bad’ W told me.
‘W’ I snapped. ‘Every time I see you, you tell me F was bad. He never tells me anything bad about you. Maybe he will if you keep doing it. I don’t really want to hear it.’
‘He took my brother’s biiiike’ W drawled, in that sing-song ‘I’m dob-bing’ tone.
I swung on him. Inappropriately. I’m 31, he is five.
‘Well, I heard that your brother gave him the bike. That your brother threw a tantrum about it. It sounds like your brother was naughty.’
F was looking at me with wide eyes.
‘No, he waaaasn’t. It was his bike. F was bad.’
‘He wasn’t, W. And I don’t want to hear it.’ I walked off, ignoring his shouts to the contrary at my back.

F didn’t say anything as we crossed the creek on the path home.
‘You won’t be playing there anymore’ I had to tell him. ‘It’s because of A being naughty, not you.’


Saturday. We are on the train, our first leg of our journey to Readings. We are deciding what to get A for his birthday. I suggest that maybe we should get something at Readings.
‘YES’ says F firmly. ‘Do you know that they don’t have ANY BOOKS? Really, mum. Their bookshelves are full of toys. Toys! A is NOT that into reading. All he reads are COMICS. We MUST get him a book and get him into reading.’
I am amused and tickled and pleased for so many reasons. As a bookworm, it’s nice to be reminded (by his natural enthusiasm) that my son is one of his own volition, not my pushing. As a profound disliker of The Mother, I am bitchily amused by his observation. As his mother, I am amused by his staunch statement. And as a lazy woman embarking on a lazy Saturday, I am pleased that we can kill two birds with one stone at the bookshop.
‘But we can’t get an Andy Griffiths’ says F. ‘[The Mother] hates Andy Griffiths. She says he is inappropriate.’
‘Ah, yes’ I say. ‘Though we could get him The Cat on the Mat is Flat. That’s not rude. It’s just silly.’
‘We’ll get him Maxx Rumble. A is into footy, so he might get into that. And it’s illustrated by Terry Denton. Will he be there? He can sign it!’
‘Oh. I think he is.’
‘Good. That’s settled. Do you know they don’t even get bedtime stories?’ says F, full of seven-year-old scorn. ‘They just get bedtime TOYS.’
‘I’m sure that’s not true. I’m sure they have books. Maybe they’re somewhere else, not in their rooms.’
‘They don’t! I’ve SEEN their house.’
I’m not sure. The Mother is a crazy bitch, but I know she reads.


The children’s buyer at Readings is an old friend. F looks at the table of Terry and Andy books and asks her where the Maxx Rumble books are.
‘You’re so clever!’ she tells him. ‘I forgot about them.’ F fetches them from the shelf, feeling very important, and hands them over, keeping one for himself. He takes a place near the signing table and sits between a couple of 11 and 12 year-old boys. One of the boys clutches a pile of the Just books.
‘Oh. I have them’ says F.
‘I LOVE the Just books’ says the boy. ‘I have the whole series.’
‘Not Just Shocking’ says F. ‘That’s not out yet.’ I don’t know how he knows that. I don’t know that.
‘I KNOW’ breathes the boy. ‘I have the whole series except that one. I HAVE to get it as SOON as it comes out. If I don’t get the whole Just series, if I don’t get Just Shocking, I will DIE. My life WILL NOT be worth LIVING.’
F looks at him in solemn admiration.
‘Me too’ he echoes approvingly. I can barely contain my amusement. This boy is talking exactly like F.
The three boys begin an animated discussion of the ‘bumosaurs’ in the new book and the characters in the Just series. They talk in detail about characters, events and favourite stories. I buy F the new book at the counter and get back just as Andy and Terry arrive.
The boys gaze at them in awe.

F is the star of the show. Or maybe, he's the sideshow. I veer between amused, proud and mortified. I'm not sure how much I should let him be and how much I should urge him to pull his head in. When the kids are asked to demonstrate farts, his is the grossest. He asks questions about ‘the time your sister Jen …’. He suggests Terry add a poo to his picture of a bumosaur. He suggests Terry name a bumosaur after him, inspired after another girl gets the honour. At question time, he shows signs of being one of those incredibly annoying people at writer’s festivals. The ones who make a statement instead of asking a question. ‘I was wondering, the other day I made a new comic about Bum Man. And his power is earthquake farts.’
‘And your question?’ asks Terry.
‘Well, Andy, I wondered if you would write it as a story in Just Shocking?’

When F’s turn comes to have his book sign, Andy greets him by name.
‘This one is for Terry’ F says. ‘It’s for my friend.’ He gets his Bumosaur book signed, then moves over to Terry.
‘Hi F.’
‘Terry, my friend’s mum is NOT IMPRESSED with Andy.’
Terry laughs. A lot.
‘Why is that?’
‘She thinks his books are INAPPROPRIATE.’
Terry laughs more.
‘Tell Andy. Hey Andy.’ He plucks his sleeve. ‘F has something to tell you.’
He repeats his statement. Andy splutters with laughter.
‘I think she sounds inappropriate! No, really, she’s absolutely right. My books ARE inappropriate.’

F goes home happy. So do I.

I tell him many times pre-party NOT to tell The Mother about what Andy Griffiths said about her. And what he said. I can tell he is dying to do it.


Sunday. I remind F as we cross the park not to tell The Mother about Andy. (He is recalling the incident.) I remind him two doors from the house not to tell the Mother about Andy. ‘Yes mum.’ I remind him that there always seems to be trouble here and that he must behave. ‘Yes mum.’

I find another parent lurking at the gate, looking worried. Kujo throws himself at the bars in a frenzy.
‘I’m not goin’ in there with that dog!’ the parent says. ‘I’ll wait ‘til someone comes out.’
‘Yeah, me too’ I concur. I’m sure Kujo doesn’t bite, but he puts on a pretty convincing show.
The Mother soon arrives and pushes the dog inside and out the back.
‘Hi’ she says.
‘Hi’ says F. ‘I went to see Andy Griffiths yesterday!’
I hold my breath. The Mother actually rolls her eyes at me and makes a disapproving face. It’s as if he told her we went to Sexpo yesterday. I am, as always, gobsmacked by the weird lack of social niceties. Who does she think took him to see Andy Griffiths? Why would I join in the disapproval?
‘Oh DID you?’ she says wryly. ‘And was he RUDE?’
F is off down the hallway, thrusting his present at his friend. Crisis averted. For now.

Another mother, dressed gaily in Bulldogs colours, breezes out the door, after arranging that she will pick her son up when the game finishes.
‘So, what time do I pick him up?’ I ask. I always ask this question when I drop him off anywhere, just to make sure I’ve got it right. But it seems I’m being confronting.
‘Well, B’s mum is coming at the end of the footy, so late in the afternoon. And the other kids … well, some of them are staying later and … The party finishes at three. Pick him up at three.’
She could have just said ‘three’.


I arrive to pick F up at 3pm. There’s no dog at the gate, so I am able to ring the doorbell. The Mother sweeps me down the hallway. A huddle of boys in football jumpers are watching TV. All except F, who is nowhere to be seen. They swing to look at me.
‘F said a bad word’ says A.
‘Okay’ I reply.

I give The Mother a questioning look.
‘I think he might be upstairs’ she says. ‘In A’s room.’ I nod at her and climb the stairs. The door is locked. I knock. No answer. I call his name. The Mother is behind me. She pokes a wire into the lock, as if she’s done it a million times before. F stands glowering at the door, arms crossed.
‘I have had the worst day in my entire life’ he grunts.
‘What’s wrong F?’ asks the Mother, bending to look at him and putting her hand on his arm. ‘Don’t exaggerate.’
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘What’s up?’ I ask, a sinking feeling in my stomach.
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘We can’t help you if you don’t talk,’ she coos.
‘We’ll talk on the way home.’ I take F by the hand and lead him downstairs. He says a grumpy goodbye to his friend, under duress. A waves cheerily back at him. He gets his lolly bag. The Mother follows us to the door, and then the gate. I say as little as I can without being rude.

‘What happened?’ I ask.
They had a fight over footy cards. A said his were lame. He said they weren’t. They shouted at each other.
‘And you said a rude word?’
‘What did you say?’
‘I said B was an idiot.’
‘That’s the rude word?’
‘Did you get sent to time out?’
‘[The Mother] sent you up there?’
‘How long had you been there?’
‘Not that long.’
‘Was [The Mother] very angry?’
‘What did she say?’
‘She told me never to use that word again.’
The Mother has told me that her own mother used to call her stupid and an idiot and that she never wants to hear those words in her house.

I was pissed off. I admit that I have no sense of what’s reasonable where this woman is concerned now. To use a cliché, I’m a lioness with her cub. I know The Mother doesn’t like F and I can’t trust anything she says about him because she is biased. Any other parent, any other house, and F would get a talking to. I have no problem whatsoever, in principle, with any other adult telling F off or putting him in time out. As it is, I brushed it off. I’m sick of the ritual of punishment on the way home from A’s house. I told him I don’t think it’s a big deal. I told him I’m more concerned with how he treats people than the words he uses (I know – not always true) and that though he shouldn’t have fought with B, it sounds like there were a few people at fault. I asked him if anyone else was told off. He said no.

We walked to the supermarket and did some grocery shopping. When we got home, I made him a hot Milo with three marshmallows and cooked roast for dinner, with lots of roast potatoes. We watched The Simpsons together (VERY inappropriate, I’m sure).


The Mother has been avoiding me after school since I got back from overseas. Which I have appreciated, actually. Today, she was all over us.
HI F. HI there.’ Some white noise about her after school plans. Me, too pissed off to actually listen. All my conscious attention on not being rude. ‘Have you recovered from yesterday F?’
As we walked down the road from the school, she chattered to our dogs. The Evil One lurched at her, barking. F looked her in the eye.
‘He doesn’t like you,’ he said.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Looking a gifthorse in the mouth

My little boy is unhappy. Really unhappy, I think. And I am angry. I’m not sure who with.

His problem, as I’ve been told by his teachers, his school principal and other well-meaning parents, is that he’s ‘so clever’. He is ‘operating on another plane to the other kids’ and ‘they don’t get him’.

Of course, that’s not his whole problem. He is also remarkably stubborn and incredibly self-centred. He lives inside his head, with the outside world coming a distant second to the rich universe he has created for himself – a source of new ideas and obsessions, or characters to be drawn in to his elaborate games.

F has a football team at school, he tells me. The Melbourne Dinosaurs. He is the captain and they win every game. They are on top of the schoolyard ladder. He describes their games and his goals in minute detail as we walk home through the park.

He also has a band. They were originally called Kids R Cool but now they are called Dimension X. He is the lead singer and the lead guitarist. One of his friends is on keyboards (he plays keyboards at school), another is on bass and another is on drums. ‘We’re counting on S for the drums!’ F tells me in the early stages. ‘He hasn’t signed on yet but he just has to. He’s the ONLY ONE who can do it.’ When I ask his friends about their band, they look confused. They shake their heads, pause and eventually say ‘yeah, okay’.

He brought his football to school earlier in the week. At the end of the day he told me it was the Worst Day Ever. That was probably the third Worst Day Ever in one week of school days. He said that the other kids took his ball and then walked off and wouldn’t let him play with them. They said ‘we don’t want to play with F, he’s boring and stupid’. He also said his team were winning and scored lots of goals. One of his friends was wandering in small circles nearby, waiting to be picked up. I asked him about the game. F was correct about what the other kids said about him. But his team were thrashed. Of course.

No one else is aware of the Melbourne Dinosaurs either, though I hear about their adventures every day.

Two weeks ago, walking home from school, F told me about his terrible day. There were bullies. A kid hit him. Another punched him. Another poked him. I hear this stuff a lot, and I know it’s not all black and white. I know F can be an antagonist. I said ‘that’s terrible’.
‘Yeah’ he continued, dragging his backpack behind him on the bitumen. ‘Then I spent half an hour hiding behind the garbage bins crying.’
‘A teacher found me. She took me to [the principal].’
He was more upset than I’ve seen him in a long time. He was crying, he said, because he realised that he didn’t have any friends and nobody liked him. We had a big talk and I promised to go up to the school the next day and talk to the principal. I told him that he was a great kid and repeated some nice things another mum had said to me about him recently. I hugged him – and he let me, which is becoming rarer these days.

That night, we went out. It was his dad’s night to have him and he picked him up from our destination to take him home. I got a lift to a taxi stand nearer to my house. In the back seat, F begged to come to my house. He sniffled a little and talked about how it would make his bad day a bit better if he could come home with me. We told him that he was going to dad’s and I would see him tomorrow. When his dad pulled up at the taxi stand, F burst into real sobs and clung to me. I got out of the car.
‘He’s really upset’ I whispered to his dad. ‘Please let me take him.’
‘I’m his father and I need to deal with this too.’
I glanced into the back seat, where F’s face was buried in his own lap.
‘Please’ I begged. ‘I can’t tell him he’s not welcome with me when he’s this upset.’ I burst into tears. F’s poor father (who had now driven to pick him up at 8.30pm for nothing) looked at me, standing in the street sobbing into the dark, and his son, now howling on the back seat, and shook his head.
F and I guiltily held hands in the back of the taxi as we crossed the Westgate Bridge, our eyes dry.

Half an hour later, F lay still in his bed as I stroked his hair and gave him a goodnight cuddle. Usually, he wriggles and talks in an attempt to keep my attention as long as possible. Tonight, he was so content for me to leave him to sleep that I perversely turned back to sit beside him awhile.
‘Mum’ he murmured eventually, turning on his back to face me with solemn eyes. ‘Today I realised that I was weak.’
‘Because I couldn’t defeat the bullies, no matter how I tried.’
‘What did you do?’
‘Well then’ I scrambled in my mental odds-and-ends basket of homespun wisdom, hoping to come up with something that would fit the occasion. ‘That means you’re strong, actually. They’re the weak ones, because they needed to make you feel bad in order to make themselves feel tough. Cowards do that. By doing nothing, you showed that you’re not like that.’
I kissed him good night and left. Since then, to my surprise, he has twice told kids in the playground that they are weak because they are being mean to him to make themselves feel tough. It’s always surprising what sinks in, and what provides comfort.

I should mention that F has not begged to be left with me (or with his dad) at changeover time for a year or more.

Two days ago:
‘I think the teacher has found out my secret’ he glumly announced over dinner. ‘She announced it to the whole class.’
‘What’s your secret?’
‘That I play alone in the playground because I have no friends.’
‘Oh, darling. What did she say?’
‘She said: if F comes up to you in the playground and wants to play with you, you should let him. Say, ‘hi F, of course.’ Make him welcome.’ He frowned into his bowl of noodles. ‘It was so humiliating.’

I don’t know who I am angry with. I’m angry with the kids who are mean to him. But I’m aware that a lot of it is not that black and white. He has a temper and he can aggravate some of the ‘bullying’ he gets. He likes to be in charge. And other kids, understandably, are less keen on the idea. Especially when he’s one of the less popular kids in the school. He likes to play what he wants to play. I’ve asked him ‘well, why didn’t you play with … ?’ and the answer is often related to the game they’re playing. It’s no fun. He wants other people to play with him, but he wants them to play what he wants. He needs to learn that it’s a choice. Play on your own and be the boss of proceedings, or play with others and learn to compromise. But I also know that he tries to play with other kids and they tell him to get lost. I know that friends of his don’t play with him because their other friends ‘said so’. (I remember that one from my own schoolyard days.) And yes, I know that a lot of the kids ‘don’t get him’ and are ‘not on his wavelength’.

So, what do I do? I want him to learn to compromise, but not to change who he is. I like his wavelength. Where do I find other children who are on his wavelength? Surely there are other bright, eccentric kids out there who like to create their own worlds? (And hopefully, if they exist, they could create shared worlds.)

His first teacher firmly believed that he is ‘very gifted’ and suggested we get him tested. The school principal vetoed the idea and said he was too young and that what he needs is to learn to fit in. That his problems are social, not educational. His subsequent teachers have followed the idea that F needs to do what everyone else does. His first teacher extended him with his own books, educational magazines and a range of activities for him to do when the other kids were doing work that (she said) he knew backwards already. She thought boredom was his problem. When the other kids were chanting the alphabet, he would be sitting at his table with his head in a Horrid Henry book. He was allowed to choose his readers from the library. His current teacher took away the chapter books that he was reading last year (and earlier this year). What will he read next year if he reads the chapter books now?

As you can tell, I am confused. I am confusing the issue. Is it about socialisation or education or both? Are the two linked? Socialisation is definitely the priority. That’s what is making him unhappy. But am I allowed to care about the education, too – or does that make me a crazy stage mother? Right now, my solution of the moment is that we need to find him a school where there are other bright children, which might make it easier for him to make friends. Given my teeny tiny salary, that will be a challenge.

I know I need to work on his social skills. But that’s hard to do when he doesn’t have friends to work on them with. Of the ones he has: the teachers have suggested he should be kept away from one of them as they are a bad influence on each other; another is as dreamy as him, though in a different way, and they only occasionally collide; the Mother of the last has none-too-subtly discouraged her son from playing with F and has stopped their once-regular play dates 'until further notice' because they fight. A month ago.

I'm making him do Auskick on Saturdays, which he doesn't much like, in order to teach him team skills and get him socialising. I stand at the sidelines and admonish him to 'pay attention' during the training part, and then watch dejectedly as he mooches around the field during the game, occasionally throwing himself to the ground with frustration when he doesn't get the ball and spending more time frowning at the shouting, jumping, running pack than joining it. It is torture for us both. (Me more than him, I suspect - he does enjoy horsing around with his buddies during the training. And it's incredibly embarassing that he behaves like this.) But I'm sure it's something we should be doing, at least for now. He needs to learn the skills of teamwork before he can decide it's not for him. Right?

If anyone knows anything useful about schools in Melbourne where there are bright children, or where bright children are encouraged, let me know. And thank you, if you have, for reading this far.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


We catch the bus from Harlem to Central Park, passing through the affluent Upper West Side. As we reach the fringes of the Upper West, a gang of schoolkids crashes noisily onto the bus. They are about ten years old, maybe twelve at the most. They carry stainless steel mobile phones; one waves an iPod. The girls are in jeans and fleecy jackets bearing the North Face logo (currently seen on every second New Yorker), their hair tied back in flyaway ponytails. The boys are similarly dressed. The loudest kid, the one with the jauntiest strut, wears a short-sleeved Ralph Lauren polo shirt with his jeans. He stands in the aisle, legs wide apart, balancing precariously as if surfing the wave of the lurching bus. He holds forth about having been pick-pocketed for his iPod.

‘I can’t believe that you won’t all LEARN from my mistake’ he says, in a voice that fills the bus. ‘You’re stupid if you bring your iPod to school.’
Another kid addresses the boy with the iPod.
‘What are you doing flashing your iPod?’
‘Okay then, I’ll put it away.’
‘Well, people could still take it from you.’
‘How, if it’s in my pocket?’
‘They’ll hurt you.’
‘Well, if that happens a crowd will appear, won’t they?’
At this, Polo pipes up again.
‘That won’t matter! No one will help you! No one will care! Remember when [someone] got mugged? There were loads of people there – adults – and no one did anything. THE WORLD IS NOT A GREAT PLACE, LARRY!’

Meanwhile, one of the girls is sending text messages. Polo wrestles the mobile from her to see who she’s calling; obviously a noughties version of pigtail-pulling, because a lot of tugging back and forth, giggling and preening follows.

Soon enough, attention turns to iPod boy again, and what he is listening to. Eminem. They all talk about how much they love Eminem.
‘He’s SO good live’ enthuses Polo. ‘I went to a concert and he was great.’
To my amusement, the five boys burst into a macho rendition of an Eminem hit (the song from the movie 8 Mile). Not only do they rap in unison, but they spontaneously break out their rapper moves, bobbing up and down and chopping at the air with their hands.
‘That’s why [someone] could NEVER be a rapper’ says Polo. ‘He can’t dance. Have you SEEN him? He does THIS.’
‘Look at ME!’ says iPod Larry.
Ohhhh, you look like you’re pointing at your dick. Haha!’

We are halfway to Midtown when the boys gather at the door to leave. One of the girls holds out her arms to hug them goodbye. Polo, of course, is first in line for a squeeze.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Harlem shuffle

Finally typing up some of my New York notes. Feeling nostalgic ...

It’s raining when we emerge from the subway station; a dense, feathery drizzle. I squint through it as we pause on a street corner to get our bearings, huddled over the Lonely Planet. We choose a direction and stride, heads ducked to keep the rain from our eyes.

Fast food restaurants flash by – McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s – and I realise how rare they have been on our New York journey so far. In fact, if it weren’t for the distant view of skyscrapers, I might think we had left Manhattan behind. The buzz of Midtown and the moneyed bohemia of Greenwich Village have given way to grey streets and cheap storefronts. No more tourist kitsch or studied cool.

The faces we pass are increasingly Hispanic; taco vendors stand in the drizzle. Shop signs are in Spanish. We are walking in the wrong direction, now deep in so-called Spanish Harlem, rather than the traditional African American district we are heading for, where we hope to see Malcolm Shabbazz Mosque (where Malcolm X preached) and eat home-style Southern food. Time is short and we’ve just come from Mexico – we don’t need to linger here.

Back past the subway station, and over the invisible border to Harlem proper. Harlem is in the process of being gentrified; in New York as in Sydney, real estate prices and hot new neighbourhoods are the talk of the town. Our New York friend, D, tells us that a couple of years ago you could pick up a Harlem brownstone for $200,000-$300,000. Now, you’d be lucky to pay a million.

So, the general shabbiness of this million-dollar New Neighbourhood comes as a shock. The Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market is the first stop on our Lonely Planet tour, described as a popular marketplace and recommended for ‘alfresco shopping’. Rainbow-painted, flag-topped twin domes rise above green and yellow columns at either side of the entrance, bordering a yellow plastic sign adorned with an Islamic star. High-rise commission flats tower in the background; immediately next door, a grey brick building is sheathed in scaffolding, scraps of plastic sheeting flapping in empty windows. The market is shielded by wire mesh gates; the aisles rooved with metal frames slathered with blue plastic and hung with fluorescent lighting. The stallholders huddle in their alcoves behind card tables piled with the woollen caps, scarves and beanies we’ve browsed on Manhattan street corners, or folded African tunics in cheerful colours. There is gaudy jewellery and hanging racks lined with more tunics. The ‘alfresco’ atmosphere is sombre, to match the weather perhaps. The stallholders offer us the guarded smiles I recognise from the more touristy parts of Mexico; not friendly, but ready to pretend, in order to make a sale. They’re not delighted by our presence in their neighbourhood, but tolerant.

We browse quickly, sparsely, and move to the corner of Lenox Street, simultaneously known as Malcolm X Boulevard. We are looking for the mosque where he preached; both The Husband and I devoured his autobiography some years ago, and both of us it count it among our favourite books. (In fact, I used to tease The Husband mercilessly that he was ‘pretty fly for a white guy’, given his intense interest in African American culture.)

The mosque should be ‘next door’ to the market, according to the Lonely Planet, but we don’t see it anywhere. There is a fish market, an apartment building and a giant food market (actually a supermarket), but no sign of a mosque. We cross the street, in the direction of a grey and red brick building topped with bulbous green plaster domes. It doesn’t really look like a mosque, but we’re getting desperate. It’s not a mosque; it’s a community centre and a row of businesses: a shoe repair store, a business outreach centre, a school.

Starving and soaking wet, with the rain increasing in density overhead, we give up and head for a nearby ‘soul food’ restaurant, Amy Ruth’s. Yes, it’s listed in the Lonely Planet. And, for the first time since we’ve left the subway station, the Lonely Planet doesn’t disappoint. As I sink into my chair and wipe my glasses clear, I feel the gloom of the morning melt away. The walls are hung with glossy framed photographs of Oprah in South Africa. In one picture, her arm is casually hooked around Nelson Mandela’s neck. The power relationship suggested by the gesture makes me slightly uncomfortable.

The waitress brings us menus decorated with a sepia photograph of the eponymous Amy Ruth – and thumbnail happy snaps of the owner with all the famous customers who have passed through these doors, from Alicia Keys to a satisfied-looking Bill Clinton (who has an office in Harlem). The menu features a lot of fried chicken, a delectable-looking line of waffles, and a variety of foods I’ve read about but never eaten, like collard greens and cheesy grits. Our orders are taken with an air of polite servitude by a determinedly surly waitress. I don’t know if she’s having a bad day, if she hates her job, or if she doesn’t like tourists (or all of the above), but it’s plain that she is determined to fulfil her job description nonetheless. The waitress at the next time is warmer, more genuine.

A puffy white couple sit before fried chicken sandwiches, chewing expressionlessly. The woman wears square wire-frame glasses and a red parka vest over a white turtleneck. A greying mullet laps the nape of her neck. She knocks her drink over the table, liquid dripping from the table’s edge and onto her jeans. She dabs at her knees with a napkin as their waitress materialises and inspects the woman’s sandwich, bobbing in a lake of water.
Ohhhhhhhhh no, I’ll get you another one’ she clucks.
‘No, it’s fine.’ The woman is obviously keen to be free of the attention.
The waitress soon brings out enormous slices of pie and the pair continue their meal.

Wedges of steaming yellow cake are laid before us as we await our orders. Corn bread, compliments of the house. Something else I’ve read about, but never seen, let alone tried. It is unbelievably good, made better by the cold outside and our breakfast-free stomachs. It is 1pm. The Husband and I have been money-conscious and ordered fried chicken sandwiches, This, too, is fantastic – crispy, succulent, nothing whatsoever like the ‘southern fried’ chicken exported around the world. Curiosity has driven me to order cheesy grits as a side. It looks like couscous floating in liquid, and tastes something like that, too. Only with cheese. Fluorescent yellow, sticky processed cheese. The whole thing is curiously tasteless. It’s my least favourite thing, and I only manage a few lacklustre mouthfuls.

Out on the street, we are refuelled and ready to find the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque. We walk in a small circle, from the restaurant, past the domed building, back to the market and back again. Not a sign of a mosque, though we do spy a few churches nearby. (There’s a saying: in Harlem, there’s a bar on every corner and a church on every block.) Eventually, in desperation, we enter a nearby pharmacy to ask for help. The shelves are sparsely stocked, the aisles deserted. Nobody behind the counter either. We stand by the till and shout tentatively into the back room. A small, white-haired white man shuffles to our aid. We explain our dilemma and ask if he knows where the mosque is. He squints and shakes his head.
‘I drive my car here every day from Queens, I park my car across the street, I go home. I’m sorry, I don’t know the area at all.’
We ask at the supermarket next door, where we meet a knowing look and step-by-step instructions.

Strangely, we still can’t find it. We walk up and down the stretch of road where the mosque should be – in front of the green-domed building. Only the businesses, and the school. We walk to Amy Ruth’s and back. A string of passers by wear traditional African dress – floor-length robes and pillbox turbans. Some of them turn and enter the school.
‘The mosque MUST be here,’ says The Husband.
And suddenly, we see it. Or rather, he does. The small white sign over the school: ‘Malcolm Shabbazz Masjid. Sister Clara Muhammad Elementary & Secondary Schools.’ Masjid is mosque in Arabic. It was right in front of us all this time.

Look at the sign on the far right: that's it!

A few men mill around the entrance, talking. They look hard-edged, serious, huddled into parkas and beanies. We don’t go in. We cross the road and take photos instead. From the unprepossessing shopfront, it doesn’t seem that the people who live here are particularly keen on attracting tourists to the site.

We pass a discount department store as we round the corner onto Malcolm X Boulevard and head for the next site, The Liberation Bookstore, a well-known independent community bookstore specialising in African American culture. I duck backwards, past the woman selling newspapers outside who didn’t know where the Malcolm Shabazz mosque was (we asked around a bit) and zip past the armed security guard and into the store. The Husband follows. I want an umbrella. There is no umbrella in sight, but I do see $10 hooded parkas. I squeeze between the clothing racks and a mirror and peel off my own damp jacket to inspect myself. The parka is fleecy on the inside; fake fur lines the hood. I am warm and dry. Even if I can’t fit this in my bag and have to leave it behind, it will be worth it for the afternoon. Other customers eye me with a blend of curiosity and suspicion as I queue and pay. We are the only white faces in the semi-crowded store. I guess even the tourists who do make it here don’t generally detour to buy clothes. At the doorway, as we leave, a small crowd has gathered. The security guard, the woman selling newspapers and one of the shop assistants are confronting a shoplifter. They are offering to not call the police if he gives back the stolen goods they are convinced he has hidden. The shop assistant is dominating proceedings, shouting at him as if she's a Jerry Springer guest.

We pass beauty and hair braiding salons, greasy spoons specialising in fried chicken and a soul food catering service. There really IS a church on every corner. A sign outside on one them reads: ‘It’s More Than a Symbol, It’s the Solution. Bring Your Family Back to God.’ Obviously, gentrification is in its early stages; there are still plenty of non-millionaires here. It’s obvious from the people walking by, from the 99 cent stores, and from the lack of polished-wood coffee shops. We pass buildings in various stages of disrepair: tired-looking red-brick buildings, boarded-up brownstones, and other brownstones elegantly restored (or preserved). Sometimes, we peer down side streets lined with gorgeous Queen Anne brownstones, bare-branched trees and – inevitably - parked SUVs. These pockets of full-blown gentrification are mirror images of Brooklyn’s Park Slope.

When we eventually reach the Liberation Bookstore, after pausing to glimpse the Apollo Theatre (famous for hosting the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and the Jackson Five early in their careers), it is well and truly shut.* Iron bars cover the windows and door. We look mournfully through the windows and read the sign on the door that confirms, according to the hours displayed, that it SHOULD be open. The windows are plastered with political pamphlets and stickers. One declares against the war in Iraq, following up with (something alone the lines of): ‘the only terrorists OUR community has ever known are the NYPD’. It’s interesting, and sobering, after spotting the NYPD t-shirts and coffee mugs all over Midtown and the spontaneous declarations of love scribbled on the streets of Brooklyn and much of Manhattan. Like the vast painted wall in Park Slope given over to: ‘God bless the NYPD and FDNY’, with an American flag flying in the background.

We are tired and somewhat despondent. We walk a few blocks further, before pausing in front of another flowering of commission flats behind a supermarket.
‘Shall we hail a bus and go?’ asks The Husband. I agree. It’s entirely likely that we missed the best of Harlem by not continuing on. But two disappointing cultural landmarks were enough for one day.

* As an anonymous commenter kindly pointed out, the Liberation Bookstore has been shut for several years. (I did wonder after googling and finding some articles about the fight against its impending closure, but as these were dated 2003 and the Lonely Planet was published last year, I figured it must have somehow survived. Apparently not.)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Why I'm glad I don't have a girl

They don't look very nice to me.

Because I'd LOVE my pre-teen to list her three top activities as beautifying, shopping and hanging with the girls. (The last one is just fine, of course.)

Once again: sleeping (fine), doing her nails (?!), gossiping on the phone (at least she's not TXTing - joke).

Where are these gems of pre-teen wisdom to be found? The Bratz Door-Hanger Book. Honestly: what high school girl would be caught dead playing with Bratz, let alone proudly hanging Bratz on her door? Meaning this stuff is aimed at little girls. Probably aimed squarely at girls my son's age (seven, nearly eight).

My son made a sign for his door earlier this year. It said 'Science Boys Only. Experiments in Progress.' Later, he added: 'NO GIRLS ALLOWED.'

If my son is out, he's probably playing some kind of Lego or footy. He might be making posters or comic books or footy cards. He might be in the shed listening to Wolfmother or playing his guitar or reading Andy Griffiths books. We might be at the beach or the playground or in the park. At worst (if it's a weekend - no electronic media during the week), he might be playing Play Station or surfing the Lego Club website.

If I had a little girl instead of a little boy, I'd hope that her 'nice' friends would not be wearing fishnet stockings and tutus with crop-tops and stilettos laced over their ankles.

I'd hope that if she was out, she would be in the park or drawing pictures or playing with dolls or reading books. Or just something, anything, that KIDS do - rather than anorexic Paris and (no-knickers era) Britney clones.

I hate this shit.