Monday, October 29, 2007


I have officially lost my cool. I just yelled at F’s teacher.

Actually, I really screamed at her. LOUD. With everything I had.

I’m still trying to work out if I’ve lost my mind, too. I don’t think I have though. I think that everything I did this afternoon, bar the actual moment where I screamed at the teacher that she was talking BULLSHIT, was fair enough.

I sent F and his friend L to the oval to kick the footy and play while I spoke to the teacher. She didn’t look pleased when I walked in.


‘So, how did you go today?’
‘I’ve spoken to the boys involved, and F was at fault, too.’
‘Uh huh.’
‘He snatched the football from the other boy and kicked it.’
‘Yes, he shouldn’t have done that. But W still shouldn’t have hit him.’
‘He hit him with a flat hand.’ She demonstrates, holding up an open palm. ‘Like this.’
‘So? He still shouldn’t have hit him.’
‘Well, maybe F shouldn’t have BULLIED him.’

I am a little shocked. I don’t think a boy snatching the footy from his friend classifies as bullying. I’ve seen those kids on the footy oval (and in my backyard). Yes, F shouldn’t have snatched the footy, but it hardly classifies as bullying.

‘You still don’t hit someone’ I say. ‘You don’t respond with violence no matter what.’
‘He’s a PREP,’ the teacher sneers.
‘So? I don’t care. I don’t want anybody hitting my son, whether they’re a Prep or not.’
She rolls her eyes.
‘I should have been told about this. I spoke to my mother this morning. She’s a teacher. She says that schools are supposed to have policies about what to do when children are hit in the head. That would mean telling the parents.’
She is silent for a moment, obviously taken aback.
‘F and A were interrupting my class, talking about this on Thursday. They were being disruptive. I don’t handle disruption in my class.’ (Freudian slip? I think she meant to say ‘don’t tolerate’.)

‘F has had a very tough week, which is why I’d especially think you should have told me rather than me hear it from him. He’s had a very tough week emotionally.’
She ROLLS HER EYES. I see red.
‘You’re saying he didn’t have an emotionally tough week?’
‘I don’t think so,’ she drawls.

This is where the yelling comes in.

‘You don’t think so?! We have had a tough week! He has just learnt that he has Asperger’s. It has been a very tough week emotionally for both of us. How dare you tell me that MY CHILD has not had an emotional week? What do you know? I have seen him vomit when he got back from the doctor’s, I have seen him cry like I haven’t seen him cry in ages. He has been sick. Don’t you dare tell me ...’
I step backwards towards the doorway.

‘Don’t you yell at me’ she says.
‘You know what? I don’t want to talk to you.’

I turn to leave. At the door, I swing around and scream, really scream:

‘That is BULLSHIT!’

And I storm across the schoolyard, past F’s friend’s mother, talking to a cluster of other parents. I’m not ready to collect the boys. I feel like I am having a nervous breakdown. I still want to yell and scream. I have had enough.


My feet take me to the school office, where I pace up and down in front of the empty principal’s office. A few students loll on the new plastic lounge chairs outside the office. The school secretary’s glass window is empty, too. A young male teacher in a tracksuit is talking to a mother. I hear her say she is waiting for the Deputy Principal (also in charge of ‘special needs’). I start to leave, then return. I pace in front of the staff room, then back to the office. I hover. I am literally shaking with anger.

People are eyeing me cautiously.

‘Are you looking for someone?’
‘Oh, um, yes, but I think she might be looking for her too, so I’ll go.’ I wave at the woman who waiting when I arrived.
‘No, I’ll get her,’ he says. ‘Or maybe [Principal]?’
I eye the open office as I wait. Maybe I can slip out and wait in there, where no one can see me. Just in case I start crying.

The principal arrives and sweeps me away. She gets me a glass of water. The deputy arrives, too. I explain what has happened over the past couple of days.

I explain what I have just done and, lawyer-like, apologise for having yelled (NOT for what I said) and ask them to pass on my apology for having yelled. I tell them that I am appalled that anyone could say what she said to me, and very concerned if that is F’s teacher’s attitude. I tell them I want F to be listened to and that it is not okay for anyone to hit him, Prep or not. I explain that I was particularly annoyed that this last week, when the teacher KNEW what had happened on Monday, she did not tell me what had happened or even look into it. I told them that all I wanted was for the two boys to talk to each other and to be told what they did that was inappropriate.

The two principals say all the right things. (Almost.) They defend the teacher to a fault:

Of course no one should say that, but she wouldn’t have meant that. Not like that.

She’s had lots of special needs kids and knows exactly what she’s doing.

She must not have known what happened that day or of course she would have told you.

But they do seem very understanding and acknowledge that times are tough, that they want to know all about this and approach it as a team, and that F is a wonderful child.


When I leave, F and his friend L are in the corridor, looking for me, football under F’s arm. I walk them to the bikes.

‘Where were you? What were you doing?’

I tell them that I got angry with the teacher, that I lost my temper and yelled at her and that I shouldn’t have done that and I will need to apologise. I figure it’s not a bad lesson – that anyone can lose their temper, but that it’s not right and one should apologise.

‘So, did you sort it out with W?’
‘He beat up F. He hurt him,’ says L.
‘I know. And you were the only one who stood up for him and helped him, I hear. Thank you. You’re a very good friend.’
‘W lied at first’ says L. ‘But eventually he had to tell the truth. He stood there and cried.’
‘Oh yeah.’ I am unsympathetic. ‘Did he get told off?’
‘Not really. [Teacher] was pretty nice to him because he was crying. She was very mean to F.’
‘Yup. She yelled at him.’

‘What happened?’ I ask F.
‘She told W to apologise and he wouldn’t and she didn’t make him. So I said to her “You’re letting him get away with it just because he’s got a sweet and innocent little face”.’
‘Oh dear.’ I do remember saying something of the sort myself last week.
‘Yes,’ says L. ‘Then she said to F ‘GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!’ And he hid under the table.’

Anyone with any knowledge of Asperger’s or experience with an Asperger’s child would:

a) Not say something so literal – his response was textbook stuff
b) Not bark orders like that – they don’t do any good
c) Realise that he was, in fact, telling the truth – even if he was doing it somewhat rudely – and take that into account when telling him off.

My thoughts? The teacher is a bitch. The school sucks. And I will have to figure out a way to ingratiate myself again so F doesn’t cop it.


Oh, and apparently W and his brother have been banned from playing with F. Which would explain why I ran into their parents on the street yesterday, walked RIGHT PAST THEM, and they pointedly snubbed us – me, F and The Husband. Oh well. That’s a bummer for F, but a blessed relief for me.

It is interesting, though. Why would one ban their child from playing with a boy because their child punched said boy in the face three times and tried to kick him in the stomach?

Another planet

‘Sometimes I feel like I don’t belong on this planet,’ he said as I was tucking him into bed over the weekend.

I immediately recognised it as a line from his book, All Cats Have Aspergers.

I don’t know if he was really thinking that or just trying it on for size.

The lighter side

I was on the couch in the lounge room; he was playing in his room with the boy next door.

‘Oh, M, YOU certainly don’t have Aspergers,’ I heard him say. Pause. ‘I mean, M, you’re NOT Aspergers.’*

Later, I casually asked him why he had said that to M.

‘Because,’ he said, ‘M was reading and when I started talking to him, he stopped reading. He was easily distracted by me. He wasn’t so focused on his book.’**

He’s right, you know.

I think it’s a good sign that he’s working this thing out in his head.

* We tell him he doesn’t HAVE Aspergers; it’s not a disease. He IS Aspergers; it’s a way of thinking.

** We used the example that when he’s focused on reading or Lego, he blocks out the world. He’s in his own world and nothing can get in. That’s a part of it. (I’m like that, too.)

R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (at school)

This morning, I was so incredibly angry with the school that I thought I was going to explode.

I imagined storming into F’s classroom, taking his hand, and leading him out of there (‘I WON’T be bringing him back!’) I imagined storming into the Deputy Principal’s office and redirecting all my anger at F’s teacher at her. I imagined telling her just what I think of the school and their shitty response so far to F’s Aspergers. I thought about telling her (at high volume) just how pissed off I am that she personally blocked the tests he was lined up for in Prep, thus delaying his diagnosis by two years. I idly planned to turn up to the school’s open morning tea in a couple of weeks, where parents are encouraged to come along and share their enthusiasm with prospective parents, and tell all those prospective parents just what I really think of this bloody school.

Instead, I turned on my heel and stormed out of the schoolyard. And when I got home, I phoned F’s father to tell him exactly what happened.

Which was ...

I approached F’s teacher to tell her that I wanted to make sure that the meeting between F and W, where they would talk out Thursday’s punching incident, would still happen.
‘But he was away on Friday’ she said.
‘Yes, he was sick. That’s why I want to make sure it happens today.’
A sour look. Pursed lips. Stony eyes.
‘I’ve had some conversations anyway, and it didn’t happen the way you think it did.’
‘Well’ (I felt my tone become cutting, feel the anger rising in my throat, my chest trembling with the effort to keep it under control) ‘That may be true, but my son was still punched in the head and I want something done about it.’
‘That’s not what happened. There was blame on both sides.’
‘Yes, he made a smart comment and he was punched. That’s still not appropriate and I still want it resolved.’
‘I don’t know that that was it. There was blame on both sides. It’s alright, I’m very fair’
‘LOOK, I know that F can exaggerate. But I know when he’s telling the truth. He was very, VERY upset on Thursday. He cried like I haven’t seen him do in months. I want F to feel like he’s been listened to, and he wasn’t on Friday.’
‘He wasn’t here on Friday.’
‘Okay, on Thursday. He was not listened to on Thursday. He wasn’t listened to by the yard duty teacher, who fobbed him off. And nobody was going to tell me about it. I wouldn’t have known that my son was hit in the head if he didn’t tell me. You weren’t going to tell me.’
‘You have to trust me. I’m very fair.’
‘If my son is hit in the head, I want to know about it. He came home with a splitting headache.’
‘I’m very fair.’

She flounced off to the classroom. I flounced off in the other direction. Meanwhile, I have no idea what apparently happened. All I know is that he was, in fact, hit in the head, and that the school want to fob me off about it.

All I want is for them to set up the promised meeting between the two boys so they can talk about it and resolve it and so that F knows he has been heard. If he did do something else wrong, then they are free to punish him, too.

But there is no way in hell that it’s okay to decide that the Asperger’s boy exaggerates and is oversensitive, so his story doesn’t need to be heard. And that if there are two competing voices, his is obviously the wrong one.

AND ... why would I trust someone just because they tell me to? Especially when they have quite obviously shown they are NOT fair. It’s my son we’re talking about. As if I’m going to say ‘okay, it’s not my place to question your ways’. It is my place and it will always be my place to know how his problems are dealt with and to see that they are dealt with to my satisfaction.

My parents were/are teachers. My sister is studying primary teaching. The Husband, his brother and I have all completed part (not all) of teaching degrees. I get that it’s a hard job. I get that they’re not social workers. I get that they have a million kids to deal with at once. I get that parents can’t demand the world. But I can ask that problems at school – especially physical violence – are appropriately dealt with.

And maybe ... just maybe ... that on a week when my son has received some very tough news, that he be treated with some small degree of consideration. Even – and I’m pushing it here – that that same consideration be extended to me. Which means? That we are both listened to with respect.

Fat. Bloody. Chance.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A-Day & further schoolyard blues

A-Day was last Monday, actually. We finally had the appointment with the expert psychologist (who cost quite a bit and had a six week waiting list) who gave us our official diagnosis regarding F's Aspergers Syndrome.

And yes. It's an unequivocal yes.

The 'unequivocal' was the greatest shock. She said: 'He's not borderline, there's no doubt about this. He's right in the middle. He's a classic case.'

I'd always figured that if he was Asperger's, he would be on the borderline.

But I trust this woman. She knows what she's doing, she's an expert in the field. And she took us through exactly why she had reached her conclusion, and it made sense.



Telling F about it was the hardest part. Though, I did have to raise it all with him a fortnight ago, so in a way it wasn't as tough as it could have been.

His reaction has been mixed. Not delighted, but not too bad either, considering. Nobody enjoys being told there's a label that fits them.

The explanation was of the 'it's the way your mind works, it's just the kind of personality you have, there's nothing wrong with it' variety. You know: 'These things are harder for you, but these things are easier. You're so interested in the things you really love and you're really good at, and so much of your brain is concentrating on that, that there's not so much room left for the little things in life like remembering where you put your shoes.' And yes, we did 'Albert Einstein had Aspergers and he was the smartest man who ever lived'. (He admires Einstein.)

The next day he got into a fight in the schoolyard over a footy and swore at a kid, in a way he hasn't since first term. And had a fit of perfectionism over a painting, scribbling over it in black and demanding his teacher not hang it.

He said 'It feels weird, being Asperger's. It just feels wrong.' Does it help to talk about it? 'No. It makes me feel worse.' Does it help that other people in the family have it? 'No.' Does it help that kids in your school have it? 'A little.' Does it help that another kid in your class - we don't know who - has it? 'Yes.'

The next day was fine. Dad and I came to school to help with reading, which he loved.


Thursday, he came out of his classroom frowning. 'W punched me in the head five times' he said. 'And now I have a headache. And he tried to kick me here, too.' In the stomach.
(Summary: the football went over a fence, W collected it, F offered - in a cheeky manner no doubt - to kick it over because 'I can kick further than you' - W attacked him with multiple punches to the head and said attempted kick.)
'Did you tell a teacher?'
'What did she say?'
'It was the yard duty teacher. She did nothing.'
F looked miserable. He started to cry.
'That's IT!' Fury is coursing through my veins. I won't lie and pretend that it's all related to the incident at hand. This is complicated, highly nuanced fury. It mixes all this week's tension, all my added worry for F, all my hatred for W (brother of A, son of The Mother, for those in the know) and my knowledge that W will definitely not be punished by his parents for this.

W is in Prep. He has the same teacher, L, who F had for Prep, an absolutely delightful woman who had a special place in her heart for my complicated son. She wanted to have him tested in Prep and the Deputy Principal said no. I am furious when I think of the added understanding that would have informed the last two years if her suggestion had been followed.

'I'm going to find L!' I smoulder. 'Don't worry, F, I'll sort this out.' His sniffles halt. I take his arm and fairly stalk across the yard to L's classroom, walking right past the culprit and his mother. I am far too angry to speak to her. And I can't bear the thought of listening to her verbal diahorrea today. Plus, it will do no good.

L is surprised to see us, but receptive. I explain the problem.
'Who was the yard duty teacher?' she asks F.
'I don't know her name.' F repeats what he told me earlier. He wrinkles his brow. 'She looks like a teenager, though. She's very SHORT.'
'I know who it is,' smiles L. 'I'll talk to her. I tell you what, I'll set up a meeting between you and W tomorrow. Here, I'll write it on the board.'
As she painstakingly writes their two names on the whiteboard, W and his mother enter the room ad sit on a chair behind her. I look at them awkwardly as she continues to talk. W is slumped on his mother's lap.
'Um, here they are!' I say.
'Oh!' says L. 'Speak of the devil!'
'What's going on?' asks the Mother.
L explains.
'Oh' says the Mother. 'We're here because he didn't get his pancake for lunch today and he had no lunch.'
'I'm sure he did.'
'No I didnnnnnnnnnn't' W dissolves into tears, snot running into his mouth.
'We'll talk about this tomorrow?' says L.
'Sure, fine.' F and I leave. I'm a bit pissed off that not getting a pancake takes precedence over punching someone in the head.

I see F's teacher and approach her.
'Did you know about what happened in the playground?'
'Um, YES' she says. 'But R says it didn't happen.'
I don't know quite what happens to me next, but I can say that all my pent-up rage and frustration were channelled in my response.
'I'm SORRY' I say, 'But I don't believe a word WB says. He's a liar. That child has ... I've had his mother phone me before and say F has done all sorts of things to him, and when I've finally got to the phone he's said maybe it didn't happen. SO ... I'm sorry, but I place no store by what he says.'
'Well, it was R who said it didn't happen.'
I kneel to zip up F's jacket, not looking at her, and stand again.
'Ok, I'd listen to him, but not to W. Anyway, we saw L and she's sorting it out. It's fine.'

And I sweep out of the classroom, F in hand. As we collect our bikes and pedal through the school gates, I assure F that I will make them take him seriously. Rather unwisely, I splurt: 'W is a passive-aggressive little shit.'
'Sorry, I didn't say that.'
At the bottom of the street, as we pause, side-by side, waiting to cross, F's face crumples a little.
'Do you know what the worst thing is?' he whispers, dissolving into fresh tears, this time erupting from deep within his gut. 'When I was on the ground in pain, they said I was faking. And then ... then ... L was trying to comfort me, and they ... they pulled him off me. They didn't want me to feel better.' He is almost incoherent now. 'It REALLY hurt my feelings.'
I hurriedly pop my bike stand and climb off to hug him close. A dribble of kids in school uniform parts to flow around s and pass on their way home. I fumble in his bag for tissues and blow his nose. I am so sad for him that I want to cry too.
'I'm sure they didn't mean to.'

We gather ourselves and continue on our way home. He streaks ahead, and I can't help saying again, loudly enough to be heard by the mothers with prams behind me, but not loud enough for him to hear me again: 'passive-agressive little shit'.

At home, F goes straight to bed. I make him a hot Milo, but it goes cold on his bedside table as he, amazingly, burrows into sleep. When he wakes up, his forehead and cheeks flame with fever.

He stays home sick the next day, Friday, though I pack him off to his school sleepover that night with a bottle of Panadol for the teachers and instructions. I'm not about to take him away from social situations right now.

I fall assleep on the couch soon after dropping him off and therefore don't check the time I'm to pick him up in the morning before. The Husband and I wake at 8am, the same time we are meant to collect him.

We are late, but he is unfazed, sitting in a corner of the library deep in a book. And he had a great time. Thank god.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

'Oh Christ': Doris Lessing on winning the Nobel

The footage of Doris Lessing finding out she won the Nobel Prize for Literature is comedy gold.

Eighty-seven-year-old Lessing climbs out of a cab and blinks at the swarm of cameramen on her doorstep.

‘Are you photographing something?’
‘We’re photographing you, have you heard the news?’
‘You’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature.’

‘Oh, Christ.’

She closes her eyes for a second, then looks up, seemingly exasperated. She waves a dismissive hand at the camera.

‘So, how are you feeling?’
‘Well, it’s been going on for 30 years now, so one could get more excited about it.’

She turns and walks back towards the cab, getting on with the business of paying the driver.

Her son emerges, a large, shabby man in a plaid shirt and wire-frame glasses. He holds an artichoke in one arm, which is bandaged and in a sling; a clutch of onions in the other.
‘What’s going on?’

Someone tells him. He smiles and says, ‘Well, a certain professor must have died.’

Lessing later says that she has been on the shortlist for the prize for decades. It’s about whether they like you or they don’t, she says. ‘They didn’t like me and now obviously they do.’ She had been told (by ‘a certain professor’, I presume) that she would never win it.

Still, she doesn’t seem particularly fussed now that she has.

As her son pauses in front of the camera, Lessing sighs again and faces the clutch of reporters with a resigned, faintly annoyed, air.

‘Right, well I suppose you’d like me to say something uplifting.’
‘You can say whatever you like.’
‘Well, as I say, this has been going for 30 years, so one could get more excited than one does.’

An American-accented reporter instructs her on what an important prize this is (‘it’s a recognition of your life’s work’), fishing for something more, for the missing excitement. As he rattles on, she watches him with a mixture of annoyance and amusement.
‘Well, there you are,’ she says. ‘You’re saying it all for me. Congratulations.’

And off she goes, heading for the house.

A BBC radio reporter takes her hand to help her onto the pavement, taking the opportunity to ask her if she’ll give him an interview in five minutes.

‘I’m trying to think of something suitable to say,’ she sighs. ‘I tell you what, you tell me what to say and I’ll say it.’ As they are negotiating a doorstep interview, the American reporter interrupts, asking for one last question. Once again, he wants to know what this means to her.

‘Look, I’ve won all the prizes in Europe. Every bloody one. So I’m delighted to win them all, it’s the whole lot, okay.’ She turns and finally walks towards her front door, where she turns back and waves a disdainful hand at him again. ‘It’s a royal flush.’


Doris Lessing is best known for her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook.

The Swedish academy who awarded the prize wrote: ‘The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work, and it belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship.’

Much of Lessing’s work is autobiographical, and this is no exception. It tells the story of Anna Wulf, a writer who longs to live freely, and to achieve more than just a husband and children.

Of course, Lessing herself has stated that the book is not a feminist work, and has criticised the women’s movement for focussing too much on the sexual revolution over issues like equal rights and equal pay.


Lessing, who was born in Persia (now Iran) is also well known for her writing about racial injustice in post-colonial Africa. She grew up in what is now Zimbabwe, and moved on her own to Southern Rhodesia aged 15, where she lived until she divorced her second husband and moved to London with her son from that marriage (she had two other children from her first marriage, aged 19).

Her first novel, The Grass is Singing, is about the relationship between a married white woman and her black houseboy. ‘Her razor-sharp dissection of the fear and power that she saw as underlying the white colonial experience made the book an instant success,’ writes The Guardian.

She continued the themes of racial injustice and women’s right (and desire) to live their own lives outside the domestic sphere in her ‘Children of Violence’ series, best known as the Martha Quest books. The series spans the twentieth century, ending with an imagined third world war.


More recently, Lessing has been writing science fiction novels. Her two volumes of memoir were critically acclaimed. A third volume was planned, but she has said that she ‘can’t be bothered’ to finish it now and that she doesn’t want to remind certain people of ‘their silliness’.

One person she might think silly is Harold Bloom, the one dissenting voice amidst the otherwise wide acclaim for her win.

After describing the decision as ‘pure political correctness’, he went on to say ‘although Ms Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable ... fourth-rate science fiction.’

I imagine Doris Lessing waving him off with a fly-swatting hand gesture and getting on with her life quite undisturbed – and definitely unexcited.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cool girls in print: a blatantly stolen blog idea

Following a Google link for dreary work reasons, I happened upon this post from April last year:

Last week, I started a list of Cool Girls from Kid Lit. Here is what I specified for "cool" criteria: "they should be smart and strong and independent, people who would make good role-models for girls today."

I love the idea, so I'm starting my own:

1. Jo March, Little Women
My absolute heroine. Feisty, independent, stubborn, romantic and indefagitably loyal and honorable. Cutting off her hair ('your one beauty!') to save her family was such a marvellous gesture. And I liked that she had big fat flaws to balance her virtues. And, of course, she was a writer and loved books.

2. Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables series
All of the above qualities (second sentence). I liked Gilbert a lot more than Jo March's beaux (as they called them in those days).

3. Ramona Quimby, The Ramona series
A spunky little tomboy with a naughty streak who always made her parents and sister laugh with her malpropisms and misadventures. Her heart was in the right place, though.

4. Josie Alibrandi, Looking for Alibrandi
Hmmm ... spunky, smart, feisty (a pattern emerging?) and incredibly likeable.

5. Alice, Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass
As may be obvious from the blog title, I just love Alice to death. Of course, I also love Lewis Carroll's writing and the alternative universes he has created. The way he plays with language! Humpty Dumpty! ('A word means just what I intend it to. No more, no less.') The Red Queen! Richard E. Grant said recently that he read the book as a newcomer to England and immediately saw it as a delightful way of understanding the culture: they all play quite precisely by a set of rigid social rules or conventions, but the rules often don't make sense and the people are actually quite eccentric. But, okay, Alice ... she's adventurous, smart, stubborn and fiercely independent.

6. Judy, Seven Little Australians
It's a VERY long time ago that I read this, but I remember her being a Jo March-ish character, full of rebellion but actually incredibly decent. Pity about that father of hers ...

7. Dicey, Homecoming
Her flaky mother abandoned her and her brothers and sisters in a parking lot and 12 year-old Dicey kept them together and organised them to walk halfway across the country to find the grandmother they'd never met. With no money, no transport, no protection.

BAD role models

1. The Sweet Valley High twins, Jessica and Elizabeth
Every novel started with a description of their blue eyes, blonde hair and perfect bodies and by explaining that Elizabeth was the Good One and Jessica was the Bad One. Talk about madonna/whore syndrome all in one family ... Yes, I read these novels as a kid anyway. I had Barbies, too.

2. Veruca Salt, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
What a revolting little spoilt brat! But in such a melodramatic, pantomime villainess kind of way that I just loved her. Especially in the movie (the old one, that Roald Dahl apparently hated). What a brilliantly bratty song and dance routine she had ('I want it NOW!'). Sigh.

Feel free to add to this or argue ...


Pippi Longstocking (thanks Lucy Tartan and Kirsty - how could I forget this one?!)


Harriet the Spy (I wanted to BE Harriet the Spy - surely the girl grew up to be a killer journo - thanks Eleanor Bloom!)


I've just remembered my favourite Judy Blume book, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. It's set in Miami Beach just after World War II. Sally is ten years old and she lives in a fantasy world in her own head, dreaming of being film star Esther Williams and spying on a man who looks suspiciously like Hitler, who she still fears may come to kill all the Jews in America.

From Judy Blume's website:

I was just seven years old when World War II ended, but the war had so colored my early life it was hard to think of anything else. No one I knew had actually experienced the war first hand. No bombs dropped on America; my family and friends weren't starving - we had cozy homes and enough to eat. And yet, as I listened to my parents whispering in the darkness, I couldn't help worrying that it could happen again. War. And this time the bombs could drop on our houses. Nevermind that Adolf Hitler was supposedly dead. I knew that he'd wanted to kill all the Jews in the world. And I was a Jew.

Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself is my most autobiographical novel. When I was nine and ten I was a lot like Sally - curious, imaginative, a worrier. I was always making up stories inside my head. In my stories, which I never wrote down or shared, I was brave and strong. I led a life of drama, adventure and fame. I think the character of Sally explains how and even why I became a writer.

cross-posted at The Paper Drunkards

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


I've been thinking a lot lately about my family history. The picture above is my grandfather. He joined the US air force when he was 17. He lied about his age to get in: he and his brother had been in and out of boys' homes in Chicago and life wasn't so great. The armed forces, then as now, promised a better life for young American boys with no money and no family resources to back them up.

This is my grandmother (centre). She met my grandfather in London when she was 19, at a dance. When he was transferred back to the US soon after, they kept in touch by writing. He asked her to marry him. Her mother was against the match: she didn't want her only daughter to leave her to live on the other side of the world. But she went anyway.

He flew her over to California, where she expected her fiancee to meet her at the airport. He got the times mixed up, and she waited some hours before anyone arrived. It was, of course, in the days before mobile phones, so all she could do was wait. In those hours, she couldn't help but panic that it was all a big mistake, that he wasn't going to come and that she would be stranded here alone in this strange country. But then, to her relief, someone arrived. It wasn't him though - he had sent his sister (or maybe it was his brother?) to collect her.

They got married in Las Vegas, with just a couple of his siblings present.

My mum was born on an air force base in Merced, California. She was the first of six children, most of them born in different states (Florida and Maine among them).

Mum remembers living in Maine the most. She likes to tell stories about sledding and snow and watching the leaves change colour. She has wanted to go back there for many years, and now, next year, she is.

They lived on an air force base in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs affair. It was the very hottest phase of the Cold War. There were drills, when they would have to practice gathering in the air raid shelter. Not that that would help much in the event of a nuclear war.

Mum's favourite stories are about the time she got her head stuck beneath a sled while she was going downhill and the time her dad dared her to beat up the neighbourhood bully (named 'Chuck') and said he'd pay her if she did. She tried, but got punched, and her dad refused to pay up because she got beat up instead of beating up.

When mum was 12, they moved to Australia. She said it was something to do with the Vietnam war. Her dad retired from the US air force.

They first lived in a house on the Esplanade in Henley Beach, then eventually settled in Paradise, in the north-eastern suburbs of Adelaide. That's the house I remember spending a lot of time in as a child.

On one of their first days in Australia, they were left with babysitters while my grandparents househunted. The kids were all horrified when they were given 'black stuff' on bread and the youngest, who was two years old, actually ATE IT! Of course, it was Vegemite.

Mum remembers being teased a lot at school about being American. 'My dad says YOUR DAD started the Vietnam war!'

She's still pretty sensitive about anti-American statements. Understandably, I guess.

(My dad, on the other hand, was once chased by shaven-headed soldiers on leave when they drove past him in his panel van, which was painted on the side with 'VIETNAM WANTS EWE!' and a picture of a sheep.)

My grandfather loved planes. He collected books on air force planes. I worked in a bookstore as a late teenager and he would bring little scraps on paper when he visited with the details of out-of-print or long-disappeared-from-the-shelves books he wanted me to track down. I would get points for finding books - the harder to find the book was, the more points I would get. I was trying to work my way up to 100 points. 'You're getting there' he would say occasionally. I think we both enjoyed the game.

My grandfather was the type of man who made you work for his respect. You didn't automatically get it just by being there. Which is not to say that he wasn't generally kind and polite. I guess it's more that if you worked for it, you got a little something extra. I liked that.

He was a smart man, with a wicked sense of humour. He liked to banter. My parents both say that he got mellower as he got older, so us grandkids got to see the best of him.

He died when I was three weeks away from giving birth to my son, who would have been his first great-grandchild. I really wish they could have met. I think they would have liked each other. F has two middle names, and one of them is my grandfather's first name.

After he died, I remember sitting around my grandparents' lounge room in Gawler, telling stories: my parents and siblings, myriad aunts, uncles and cousins. None of us knew much about him when he was young, not even my grandmother. He never liked to talk about it. His father was an alcoholic, his mother was sent to an asylum when he was young and he never saw her again. They lived in a rough part of Chicago. His brothers and sisters are all dead. Their children now live in California: LA.

My youngest cousin seemed to have more stories about his early days than anyone. Maybe that means that if he'd lived longer, he would have told us more.

She told us a story about him being stabbed in the head in a fight in a Moroccan bar. I wish I'd heard more about that one.

Someone else told the story about how he was captured by the Russians during the Berlin airlift of 1948. The Russians stopped to refuel (or something) and one of the prisoners managed to get away and make a phone call because his wife was very pregnant and he wanted to find out if she'd had the baby and if it was a boy or a girl. He told her where they were and they were all rescued as a result.


I think part of the reason I've been thinking about all this is that when I travelled to the US earlier this year, I felt a real connection to the place that surprised me. I kept wishing my mother was with me to experience it and to tell me more stories, to show me the places that are part of my history. I had really not expected that. I was as anti-American as the next typical lefty (though I have, paradoxically, always been interested in American politics and history, so ...)

Anyway, there are so many stories that are lost to me, and to all of us, forever. My grandfather is dead and so are all his brothers and sisters, and I will never know anything much about his parents or his childhood. It's kinda sad.

But on the other hand, he had a tough life and he made it through a lot of dicey situations I know about and probably many more that I don't. So, maybe I'm just lucky to have known him at all.

* By the way, in the unlikely event that anyone in my family ever reads this and notices any facts here that I'm wrong about (I didn't, after all, write them down when they were told to me), please email me and set me straight.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Roll up, roll up ... The Royal Melbourne Show

F and I have gone to the Show together every year since he was three.

That is, except last year, when he was banned from going for pulling his pants down in the schoolyard (or something like that). He was so furious, so inconsolably upset, that he lay on his bed and alternately sobbed, kicked and squealed for a Very Long Time. He would cry or run out of the room every time an ad for the show came on television. Every time he saw a kid on the train platform with showbags and fairy floss, he would hang his head, determinedly squeeze out a little tear and say, ‘it makes me too sad to think about it’.

So, this year, a year in which he has been very good and not pulled down his pants in the schoolyard even once, F was very happy to be back in the game.

This year was special for a couple of reasons.

This year, my sister was visiting from Adelaide, managing one of the showbag stands. So, F felt the puffed-up pride of having his AUNTY actually WORKING at the show. According to F, she gets all the good jobs. (She used to work at a newsagent, where he would visit her and marvel at the comics – and rejoice in the free stuff she managed to throw his way.)

And this year The Husband had grudgingly agreed to come with us, even though he hates the idea of wasting all that money on the rip-off admission price (from memory: $27 for adults, $19 for concession and $12 for kids).


Last time we went to the show, F was six. In the ticket line, I warned him I was going to tell them he was five so I could get a free ticket and made him promise not to say anything. He agreed. Two minutes later, I brightly informed the girl behind the counter that he was five. She began to put through the sale.
‘I’m not FIVE!’ piped up F. ‘I’m SIX!’
I looked at the girl. She looked at me. Behind me, the line erupted into giggles. So did the girl and I.
‘I’m really sorry’ she said. ‘That’ll be [however much it was then].’
‘Fair enough. I’m sorry, too.’
‘I’m sorry Mum’ said F, as we moved away. ‘I couldn’t help it.’
‘That’s okay. Mum shouldn’t have lied.’


F kitted up to ride the mini-motorbike course

At eight years old, the jig is well and truly up. F could probably lie more convincingly now, but I don’t think anyone would believe it.

Our first stop is the showbag stand, where my sister is already at work.

L had kept F and I entertained the night before with stories of the showbag hall. Her stand was run and staffed by a promotions company she does casual work for. This particular arm of the company specialises in hiring nightclub dancers. The main requirement in hiring people was that they be ‘pretty’ or ‘hot’. (So, yes, my sister is what you might call hot. Luckily for the people running the stand, she also has a lot of management experience and is damned smart to boot.)

Apparently, when my sister L arrived at work the day before, the girls at the showbag stand opposite were singing the song Barbie Girl. L initially thought nothing of it. Until the girls began to call across ‘where’s Barbie?’

One of the girls working for L, unsurprisingly given the hiring criteria, was blonde with fake boobs, fake nails and a passing resemblance to the plastic doll. She’s also a friend of my sister’s. So, my sister said ‘she’s sick and she has a name and it’s [whatever it is] and you should use it’. Anyway, the girls kept on chanting and singing across the hall.

This is when L’s co-manager arrived. She’s a cheerleader. So, she made up a chant about the girls at the other stand and she and L began to teach it to the troops on their side. I can’t remember the whole thing, but there was a line that went: ‘we’re pretty, we’re hot, the jealous ones are not’.

They were inspired by the cheerleading movie Bring it On.

Sadly, before the showbag hall erupted into cartwheels and catfights, the punters began to arrive and the War of the Chants was put on ice.


F had listened to all this with great interest on the couch the night before.

‘What you should do’ he advised L, ‘is add a bit about how they’re mean’.
‘Okay then.’
And he composed her a line ( ‘the other girls are REALLY MEAN’) and told her where she should put it. I wondered whether I really wanted him learning how to get involved in bitch fights.
‘You KNOW what you should do!’ he exclaimed, inspired. ‘There are two things you can always say, not matter what someone says to you. You say “I know you are but what am I?” or “are not fat snot”. Just say that back to them, no matter WHAT. It always works.’
‘Hmmm. Okay then.’
He thinks for a moment.
‘You KNOW what you should do. You should make STINK BOMBS. You should make TROJAN HORSE stink bombs. Put something really stinky in a nice showbag and go over and give it to them. Like stinky socks. That will be a Trojan horse.’
‘Yes. I learned that from reading Greek mythology.’
‘That’s a great idea, but I really don’t know if I should do that.’
He thinks again.
‘ACTUALLY what I think you should do is just ignore them. Don’t pay them any attention. Then you’ll be MORE MATURE than them.’
‘YES!’ My sister and I seize on this gratefully. This, we realise, is a good lesson for F. Pity he had to teach it to us.


At the showbag hall, F wants to see who the girls are who were mean to his aunty. Luckily, he is content with just glancing at them.

These 'good food' signs hung over deep-fried mounds of food poisoning waiting to happen were everywhere and gave me a laugh.

Outside the hall, my sister joins us for her break. We sit in the sun, on a patch of lawn bordered by caravans selling hot dogs, hot chips and coffee. We empty our bags and examine our loot.

F sits with his small pile of K-Zones and blocks out the world as he devours them. I have got the Darrell Lea showbag and am now afraid that my Rocky Road and multiple bars of chocolate will melt in the spring sunshine. The Husband does not stoop to showbags.

My sister tells me about her hopeless staff. The two girls her boss hired from myspace (their photos were hot) are not turning out well.


F took this photo of a Monster Truck with the old camera I handed down to him

In the Coca-Cola arena, we sit in the front row and wait for the Monster Trucks and the motorbike stuntsmen. F sucks on a straw full of honey I bought for 20 cents while The Husband shakes his head and thinks of the sugar content. In the arena, a man with a microphone interviews a presenter from Foxtel’s weather channel about climate change and the drought. Behind us, a teenage girl oozing out of her rainbow shoestring tank top grumbles aloud. (‘What the hell is this shit?’) A small boy and his dad battling melting ice creams on my left wonder the same thing. I go in search of drinks. When I get back, I find The Husband and F grinning back at me from beneath shirts tied over their heads as protection against the sun.

When the Monster Trucks roll into the arena, accompanied by loud cock-rock and a guttural announcer, the rainbow-striped girl starts yelling her approval. F gets very angry as the first truck roars past, sending dust billowing up into our rows of plastic seats.
‘I HATE that yellow truck! That yellow truck is IN TROUBLE!’
‘Yeah! WOO!’ yells Rainbow Girl, punching the air.

He likes the motorbike stuntsmen better, especially when Wolfmother’s The Joker and the Thief, one of his very favourite songs, comes over the loudspeakers synchronised with one of the jumps.

Later, when we get home, my sister tells me that the motorbike stuntsmen shared a dressing room with her at the Adelaide Show, where she wore rollerskates and danced with a cow while giving out free yoghurt. (Okay, it was a girl in a cow suit. L even got to wear the cow suit one day.)

The motorbike stuntsmen quite deliberately didn’t leave the room when the girls were in there getting changed. They liked to play a game they called ‘Shock Ball’. It was a bit like a cross between Hot Potato and Russian Roulette. They threw around a ball that was programmed to occasionally deliver an electric shock. The electric shocks were severe enough that the motorbike stuntsmen yelped in pain when they were unlucky enough to get one. They threw the Shock Ball at the girls a couple of times, then asked them to come to the pub with them for a drink. The girls didn’t go to the pub.


F and I go on two rides. I try to make The Husband accompany him on one of them, but he refuses.

The first ride is a mini rollercoaster that goes forwards and then backwards at 120kmph. F shouts with joy as we spin around. I scream, like I used to going through train tunnels as a kid. F leaps out of our painted sled at the end. I wobble a little, my stomach churning and my head spinning.
‘Did I look like I was having fun?’ I ask, half-sarcastically.
‘Yes, you did’ says the Husband.


F does the following activities:

• Rides a mini motorbike around a course on the oval. This is VERY popular.
• Kicks a footy through a net and wins a Fit for Life drinkbottle
• Skips a lot and wins a Fit for Life wristband
• Sits in a Victoria Police fibreglass helicopter and plays with the controls
• Explores a fire engine and sees a presentation on fire safety. He gets a laminated placemat with a picture of a fire engine and a message about smoke alarms. I read it and wonder whether our smoke alarm is working or if we took the batteries out because it kept going off when I burnt the toast.
• Buys an entire set of Herald Sun football cards (over 300) from 2003, with their own album, for $5.


The Husband buys F a Sheridan football. F is delighted. Almost as much as The Husband is.

I eat seafood paella from a caravan and feel sharp stomach pangs immediately after.

My sister meets us at 4pm. She is cranky, and snaps at me not to take her picture.

As we walk to the bus stop, F and The Husband scamper along behind us, stopping to kick the footy between them several times as my sister and I stand aside and watch. (In front of the ticket booth, on the footpath by the tram stop, in a park they find along the way, on the footpath in front of the bus stop.)

‘This was the best Show EVER’ says F.


My sister has to fire the myspace girls after they brag to her boss (not knowing who he is) that on their lunch breaks, they go around the Show and sell drugs. They make heaps of money. L is relieved to let them go, not least because two items of her clothing and a suspicious amount of money from the till have recently gone missing.