Thursday, April 23, 2009

Stranger danger

"If a parent from school, someone you don't really know, pulled up while you were walking home from the oval and asked if you wanted a lift home, what would you say?" I ask F as we walk to school, feeling confident of his answer.
"I'd say yes please," he says, equally confident that he is right.
"No! No, that's not what you do. You say no thank you."
"Really? Why?"

And I wonder if perhaps the parents up at the school who say 'it's so nice that he's independent, he seems to really enjoy walking home alone' with immovable smiles and disapproving eyes are, after all, right.

"Well, you don't know those people and they might kidnap you," I say, in what I hope are wise tones.
"Why would they do THAT?" He looks up at me with wide eyes, bewildered.

And I remember that I don't want him to be afraid of the world, that I want him to feel confident and to take risks and make friends.

"Well, they probably wouldn't. It's not likely that you'd be kidnapped of course. It's not something that happens very often AT ALL. Hardly ever. But you need to be careful, because you just don't know. You have to be careful when you don't know people."

And I think that he does walk a long way and I would like him to be able to accept a lift if someone is driving into Yarraville village, especially if it's raining.

"You can accept a lift from M or T or S's dad, and THAT'S ALL. Only them."
"What about D's mum?"
I think about it.
"But she wouldn't kidnap me. I've been to her HOUSE."
"I know. Of course she wouldn't. But I don't know her very well."

I am trying to keep it as simple as I can.

"What about A's mum?"
"Yes, that would be fine. But that's ALL."
"And anyone in our family."

We keep walking. He pats the dog. We talk about how much we love the dog. He decides that he and The Husband love the dog up to the moon and back and I only love her to the tree at the end of the road and back. I tell him this sounds about right.

"If you were kicking a footy at the oval with a friend and B came over and said he was playing cricket at the park near our house and asked you to come with him, what would you do?"
"I'd go with him!"
"You'd just go?"
"Straight there?"
"Uh huh." Worry clouds his face. "I'm allowed to go to the park with B, aren't I?"
"Well, yes. But only if I know you're there. If you went with him, if I went looking for you to tell you it's time to come home - which I definitely would - you would be gone and I would be terrified and I'd have no way to find you."
"Oh. I see."
"So, you would come home and ask me if you could go to the park with B, and I would probably say yes."

We are nearly at school now.

"So, what if a kid you know came to the oval and said he's at a house down the road and he has chocolate cake and would you like to come over and get a piece?"
"I go?"
"No. You don't. If you are at the oval, you must stay there and not go anywhere except home."
"Oh. Okay."

I remember that Asperger's kids don't make connections between scenarios as easily as others do, and need the rules for different situations spelled out individually and specifically. I realise I have many, many more conversations like this to come ...


My mum arrives from Adelaide that day. I tell her the story. She gives me another one to try. Foolishly, I am confident.

"F, what if you are walking home or at the park or the oval and someone pulls up in a car and they say, quick, you mum's hurt and she's sent me to get you and take you home?"
"I go with them!"
"No. Only if it is The Husband or family or N or K or M or T. That's it. They are the only people I would ever send to get you. Okay?"


I have a long way to go ...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Unwritten rules: and why they should be written down

Why is it wrong to put your feet up on the train, but perfectly okay to blast the whole train carriage with inane soft rock, throbbing techno, or even - though it's never happened in my experience - really good music?

It might be a sign of ageing, but I am so sick of people (mostly teenagers) sitting on the train and using their mobile phones as if they were ghetto blasters. Recently, F and I had caught a train to the city, and on the way home, between Footscray and Yarraville, a mild-looking thirtysomething passenger filled the carriage with loud, tinny Bollywood music. F and I looked up from our newspaper (me) and Mad magazine (him) to glare at her, and muttered to each other about the interruption to our peaceful reading, previously broken only when F decided to read me lengthy excerpts from Mad.
"I really wanted to take her phone and throw it out the window," I growled once we got off the train and stood waiting at the Anderson Street level crossing.
"Yeah, I reckon," said F.
"I was ready to punch her."
"I mean ... obviously, I would never punch someone. I was just that angry."
"Yeah, of course Mum."
"But I shouldn't have said that."
"No, you shouldn't."
"It was a bad example."
"Yes, it was. A TERRIBLE example." We looked briefly, unexpectedly, into each other's eyes, both caught staring at our reflections in the Chinese takeaway window as we moved down the street towards home.
"Why can't people wear headphones?" I grumbled.
"That's why iPods were invented!" said F, rather cannily, I thought.
"YES! You're so RIGHT! It's why Walkmans were invented before that, anyway. Walkmans, followed by iPods. I'm going to say that next time I see someone doing that. Thanks F."

Back home, I continued my rave, now aimed at The Husband.
"I am going to start taking those free earphones they offer you on the plane," I said, "and I'm going to carry a supply with me, and when I see people doing that again, I will just go up to them and give them a pair of earphones and tell them to use them. That's what I'll do!"
The Husband glanced up from the football on television, bemused. "You would go to all that trouble?"
"Yes. Yes I would."

I am kind of ashamed that the one time I did tell someone off about this it was a 12-year-old kid, who actually had a ghetto blaster (the size of his skinny torso) balanced across his knees. In my (lame) defence of only targetting the harmless, this was only the second time I'd encountered this trend of imposing your music on everyone, the first being the time I was so engrossed in my book that I accidentally caught the train to Altona instead of Williamstown, where a gang of shirtless tattooed boys, and girls in neon halter tops and alarmingly white hair, were playing a hip-hop version of Richard Marx as we rolled past a flame-topped oil refinery in the midst of a sheaf of bare paddocks. I was too freaked out wondering where this undeveloped space had sprung from and worried that the teenagers might beat me up to ask them to turn Richard Marx off.

Anyway ...

Yesterday it was four teenage girls, squealing and 'oh-mi-GOD-ing' about boys and getting pissed, playing 'More Than Words', a hideous bit of 1990s soft-rock (or 'soft metal ballad'), singing it at the top of their lungs and looking insanely smug and satisfied at successfully dominating the carriage. I may well have done the same thing at their age - I do remember singing 'American Pie' on the back of a few buses with my friends (no musical accompaniment) and thinking we were pretty damn special. I sat there and swore under my breath and glared and looked around the carriage, tryng to gauge my support if I shouted across for them to "shut the fuck up". I tried not to think about taking the phone and throwing it, or smashing it underfoot. I grew a little disturbed about just how violently angry I was about this admittedly trivial matter. I said nothing. And when one of the girls met my glare, I looked away. Damn.

And got irrationally, disproportionately angry again when I went up the Flinders Street Station escalators and nobody moved so I could walk up. Just as I am sure there is an unwritten rule that you use headphones on public transport, there is another that on escalators - especially at the train station - the people on the left stand still and on the right they walk. Like a fast and slow lane. It must be a rule, as so many people obey it unthinkingly so much of the time. Right? But because it's unwritten, it's hard to get mad or say anything when people don't obey.

If Connex wasn't so plagued by more serious problems, I would lobby them to write these rules.

Oh - and the other rule that made me mad when it was broken, as I got off the train - that you wait for the passengers on the train to get off before you get on. That's a rule, right?

Bloody unwritten rules.

Next time someone blasts their mobile phone music down the train carriage, I shall sit or stand next to the offender and proceed to read very loudly from my book at them. Yeah right.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Saturday

I picked up F from the V-Line platforms at Spencer Street Station this morning. He saw me before I saw him.

I had turned to watch another platform, unsure of where his train from Geelong would arrive, when I heard a raucous chorus of my name and “MUM!” There he was in his new striped hoodie, leaning under the weight of his bursting school backpack, flanked by his cousin J and my mother-in-law’s partner E, all of them smiling and waving – the boys beaming, E looking weary.

F had been staying with them at Aireys Inlet for the past few days. The night before, when my mother-in-law rang me to make arrangements for today’s pick-up, I’d heard the boys in the background. They were telling horror stories in the dark, she told me, with neon glow-sticks instead of a campfire. They had planned a rock disco.

E and J caught the train back to Geelong, fortified by fried rice and sushi from the station food court. We caught a tram down Collins Street to the CAE Library, to take back the DVDs we’d had borrowed the week before.

F has recently developed a passionate love of a fast food outlet in a Collins Street food court called Wrapz. When I took him and the boy next door to CAE library last week, I’d popped in there on a desperate impulse on our way home, when I realised it was 3pm and F hadn’t had lunch. F had a beef supreme wrap – basically, a tortilla wrap with bacon, beef, lettuce, tomato and barbecue sauce. Boy next door and I munched through hot chips with chicken salt as F rhapsodised about his wrap and the boys watched the football on a television screen playing silently overhead.

Today, F was ecstatic when I took him back to the food court for another hit. They were giving out mini Easter eggs at the counter, which he gleefully pounced on. He was just as eager about filling out a form to join the Wrapz Club. He asked for a pen and I watched as he carefully filled in his birthday and email address in biro. (“I’m not giving them my phone number though!” he said, a little scornfully, with a teenager’s cynicism.) The woman behind the counter gave a little start when he handed over his form in exchange for his meal.
“Would you like an Easter egg?” she said.
“I’ve already had one,” he admitted, a little sadly.
“You can have more if you like.”
He delicately picked another shiny foil egg from the plastic tub, thanking her immaculately, his face glowing with awe.
“I don’t think they get many people joining their Wrapz club,” he whispered as we sat down at one of the white plastic squares beneath the television. I think he was right.

“Can we go to Haighs?” he asked as we ascended the escalators back to the street. Last week, I’d taken him and Boy Next Door to Haighs and bought them each a small white chocolate Easter Duck. As we strolled back through the arcade towards Collins Street, each of us nibbling on our chocolate, Boy Next Door had ruminated, “When I grow up, I want to be a chocolate taster.”
“I know someone who’s a chocolate reviewer,” I said.
Wowwwww,” they breathed in unison. “Cooooool.”
“You know, my mum worked at Haighs in Adelaide when she was a girl. And so did her mum, my nana. They got to eat as much chocolate as they wanted while they were in the shop.”
This was even more impressive.

I’d actually been planning to take him back to Haighs, to get him a small something as an Easter present, as he went to his dad’s house tonight.
“Mum, you go look around,” he said. “I’ll look at the bars, I think.”
He lined up behind the considerable queue at the counter, with its glass display case of finger-sized bars and delicate dollops of filled chocolates, while I mooched around the edges deciding what I would buy myself for Easter. (The Husband doesn’t eat chocolate, and doesn’t do Easter presents, but it’s a great excuse for eating chocolate guilt-free and I refuse to miss out.)
“Mum, do you mind if I do this alone?” F asked firmly but politely as I crept up on him in the line. A two dollar coin shone in his open palm.
“Of course. I’ll go to the back of the line.” I figured he was spending his pocket money and wanted to do it independently.
“I’ll have a dark chocolate peppermint frog,” I heard him say. He doesn’t eat dark chocolate. I realised that he had a plan, and what it was. The small paper bag passed seamlessly from his hand to me, leaning past the people between us in the line. “Happy Easter Mum,” he said solemnly. “I know it’s your favourite.”
“Thank you so much darling.” I hugged him tight, and he let me. “I am so surprised. Hey, you’ve got a dollar left.”
“I do too!”
“Will you get yourself something? You could buy yourself a frog.”
“Oh! I can too!”
And he bought himself a milk chocolate peppermint frog. Outside in the arcade, I showed him the egg and the palm-sized bilby I’d bought as his Easter present.
“For later.”
We unwrapped our chocolate frogs and ate them walking back down Collins Street.
“This is pretty good, Mum. You’re right.”
“I know.” And I thanked him again, enthusing carefully (and genuinely) over how wonderful my frog was and how it’s my absolute favourite.
“I wanted to get you something,” he said. “Because you won’t be with your family over Easter.” I was so pleased that I took a detour by tram to Carlton to pick up a special order book that had come in for him. (A book which he had announced he planned to take out from the school library and keep until it was marked lost, so he could read it whenever he wanted. I ordered it instead, telling him this was a better way to keep the book.)

When we got home, some hours later, he trotted down the hallway to deposit his things and stopped dead in the doorway of his bedroom, gaping at his bare mattress, the bedclothes piled on the floor, and the stale whiff of urine.
“Are you wondering what’s going on with your room?” I asked.
“Yes. I am.” He had spent a whole morning cleaning it up before he last left it.
“Um ... I’m really sorry but ... J wet your bed and we couldn’t get rid of the smell.”
There had been an overlap where my mother-in-law, J and E had stayed at our house while we stayed at theirs in Aireys Inlet, then we’d all met up there before The Husband and I came home, leaving F behind. During their stay, the accident had happened.
“It was an accident,” said The Husband, appearing behind us.
“He didn’t mean it,” I echoed.
F sighed. “I know,” he said. “He has a problem with that.” He seemed to accept it. The Husband and I looked at each other, relieved.
“We’re buying you a new mattress before you come back next week,” I assured him.
“Yeah, when I was there he had an accident,” F continued.
“Oh yeah?”
“Yeah, he pooed in the bath.”
“What?” J’s problems, as far as we know, only happen at night. He’s school age.
“While you were in there?” asked The Husband.
“Yeah. I just looked and there was this big brown thing floating in the bath.”
“Oh. Did M and E know?”
“Yeah. They weren’t impressed.”
“It was pretty big.”
“That was a bit naughty.”
“I know.” And he sat down on the couch to watch the football. The Husband clutched my arm as I moved to follow him into the lounge.
“You know, I did that when I was his age,” he whispered, giggling.
“Don’t tell him that.”
“Of course not.”

It’s household legend that on F’s fifth birthday, The Husband (then The Boyfriend) told him a story about how he had pooed in the backyard when he was four years old. We were out to dinner at the time and I was not amused. Later on, when he got home, The Husband came back from a visit to the outside toilet, doubled over with laughter, to find an example of the saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. (I was still not amused. Then again, I have told F some pretty stupid stories about my own childhood, and was just lucky enough not to be flattered with imitation.)


During the brief period at Aireys Inlet when we were all there together, a motley jumble of family in a two-bedroom house, I reversed tradition by taking the boys to play football in the park while The Husband read on the couch inside. I'd been reading with him when I'd got the call to help get the football out of the tree.
"She'll never get it," I heard F say as I followed J down the hall and out the back door. "It's hopeless."
Of course, this made me determined to get it down. I had to climb halfway up the tree while one boy passed me the tallest household object they could find (a mop) and the other shouted directions at me from the middle of the lawn. Eventually, the ball spilled down the branches in jerky stages, to much cheering, and the boys began to kick again while I extracted myself and jumped down. At the laundry door, after I put the mop away, I looked back.
"Come play with us!" said J.
"Maybe later. I'm reading, you see."
"Come ON, Mum!"
"See you guys. Later." I watched the ball soar across the yard and just escape the clutches of the tree. I winced.
"Okay," I relented, figuring I'd be back climbing the tree again soon anyway. "Why don't I take you to the park for a kick?"
"Put something warm on first."

"Really? YOU'RE taking them for a kick?" said my mother-in-law as I explained the plan and the boys yelled and yanked jumpers over their heads.
"Wow," said The Husband.
"Have fun!" said E, a smile playing at the corners of her lips.

I held the ball as we ambled down the dirt road, past the playground and along the inlet, past the beach. The boys directed the game.
"Markers up! Markers up!" they shouted. It's a game The Husband invented, I think, where one player kicks the ball into the middle of two others, who fight to mark it and kick it back. Once a player marks the ball without dropping it, they become the kicker. I started off as the kicker, and then each of the boys roundly beat me, each in their own way. F and I tackled fiercely - he's one of those kids who doesn't feel a thing when he's in the thick of a game, and loves to plunge himself into it. (Though I yelled to him "Be careful of my kidney! You know I'm not SUPPOSED to tackle!" - I have one kidney and was in fact told by my doctor aged five that I'm not allowed to play football. This made me very happy in years to come.) J, who is tiny for his age, surprised me by simply outrunning me, ducking and weaving with an admirable nimbleness. And each of them conspired to kick to each other rather than me when it was their turn to be kicker.

I surprised myself by having fun - though I was the first to quit, pleading exhaustion. We'd played doggedly through a gauze of grey rain, oddly shimmering in the sunlight that bled from the clouds. After the pinprick haze faded, a great rainbow stretched overhead, seeming to rise out of the sea to arch over the tiny J on his carpet of green and the murky inlet with its leggy white birds and driftwood.
"Look!" I said, and we all stopped to marvel at it before playing on.
Then I hunched into my damp hoodie while the boys ran up and down the skate ramp, squeaking and sliding on the metal in their wet sneakers. They shouted and took turns at being Wrestlemania heroes until the cold took over and I rounded them up for home. We took turns at telling horror stories on the way back to the house, and got so engrossed in them that instead of going inside for baths and showers as planned, we crouched in a corner of the garden in a circle and kept going. My mother-in-law leisurely circled the clothesline, taking down the washing, as I reached into the depths of my memory to retrieve the threads of a gruesome story I'd once told F that he'd asked me to tell over breakfast a few days earlier. I'd sleepily refused, telling him I was too tired to remember it. Now, F graciously steered me back the many times I veered off track. Next it was J's turn to tell another story.
"You tell good stories," he breathed, his blue eyes shining Disney-big in the descending darkness. "You tell another one."
"I think we all tell good stories," I said. "But maybe we should finish them inside."

My mother-in-law followed at our backs, the last of the washing in her basket. Inside, the small house was wreathed in the aroma of E's roast chicken. That night, the three of us football players and storytellers sat at the dinner table in our flanelette pyjamas, while a fire crackled and spit in the corner of the room (courtesy of The Husband) and the floor rocked gently below us with the sea winds.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Post-9/11, pre-GFC

Re-reading Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, a post-9/11 novel about cricket and migration in New York (with self-conscious echoes of The Great Gatsby), I came across this passage, a reflection by stock analyst narrator Hans:

Perhaps as a result of my work, corporations - even those with electrified screens flaming over Times Square - strike me as vulnerable, needy creatures, entitled to their displays of vigour. Then again, as Rachel has pointed out, I'm liable to misplace my sensitivities.

I lingered on that passage when the book was first published, mid-last year, and I admired its elegance, but it has a new resonance now.