Category Archives: Opinion

The Stories in my Mind

Photo by Lisa Monster.

Photo by Lisa Monster.

I’m sitting at a Fish & Chip place, waiting for my order to be ready. My husband and sons are in the car waiting for me. I won’t be long. A few minutes at most. And they’ve got stories to read and games to play.

I’m playing my own game. I’m playing “Make up the story of the other customers”.

There’s the tired looking woman in the tired-looking long dress. Her hair and make-up are perfect. In my mind, I imagine her coming home from a long day at work and realising she’s got nothing to cook for dinner. But she’s already changed into something comfortable, so she doesn’t want to go to the supermarket. Instead, she pops down the road to the local Fish-O, and figures she won’t see anyone she knows.

Then there’s the muscled, tattooed guy with orange hair and an impressively orange van dyke. He’s got a little girl with him — she can’t be more than 2 1/2 years old — and she stares up at him adoringly. “Daddy, what’s that? Daddy, can I have juice? Daddy, can you lift me up?” And he, in his tough guy jeans and wife-beater, smiles back at her and answers her every question. She’s wearing purple leggings, an embroidered white shirt that’s on backwards, and a pair of slippers. And in my mind, I imagine Mum saying goodbye to her little girl. “Mummy will be home tomorrow. Have a good night with Daddy. I love you, chicken.”

As they all leave, another group of customers arrive. Three boys. Let’s say… 13 years old. Maybe 14, but that would be a stretch. The one in the lead is tall and lanky and has a cocky grin that I want to wipe off his face the moment I see it. He’s wearing a stained singlet that’s too small, and a pair of grubby shorts that are too big — not in that “I’m so cool and gangsta” way. More in the “I don’t have clothes that fit me” way. His socks are orange. His volleys are lime green. He needs a haircut.

With him are two other boys. One is taller than him, the other shorter. One is more muscular than him, the other isn’t. These two are wearing clothes that both fit them and look like they’ve recently been washed. I see designer name brands on one boy’s jeans. They both have good shoes. And they’re walking their scooters.

They have to, because Boy 1 is on foot. And they stay beside or behind him at all times.

“Hey,” says Boy 1. “Go buy us some food.” And then he throws himself languorously into one chair, puts his feet on a second, and wait for his bidding to be done.

And it is. Of course. The other boys order and pay, and then return to Boy 1’s side.

There are no more chairs. So they stand, uncomplaining, while their friend occupies two.

Outside, another group of boys walks by. Without moving his body, Boy 1 raises his voice and shouts to them. “Hey! Fags! What are you faggots doing?”

Every adult in the place turns to look at this boy.

He either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.

“I said,” Boy 1 shouts even louder. “What are you faggots doing?”

The other boys keep walking. And that’s what prompts Boy 1 to move. He leaps from his chairs like he’s been electrocuted, and bolts for the door. His minions — sorry, friends — follow him. I strain my ears, but hear only muffled conversation. And then the second group of boys leaves, and Boy 1 brings his followers back to the Fish-O. As a parting shot he yells, “Hey, JT! You forgot your eye-liner!”

No response.

“And you’re lookin’ a bit fat!”

No response.

“Fags!”

There is silence in the store. The boys pick up their order — or, rather, Boy 1 picks up the order and decrees that they shall eat it while sitting in the parking lot — and they’re gone. And everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

While I make up stories about Boy 1 in my head. Where does he live? Why is he dressed like that? What power does he have over his friends? Where are his parents?

And what is with the language?

Look, I have to be honest. It’s not the worst thing that could be said. I mean, I’ve been called a fag before. Which is crazy, because I thought that kind of random hate-talk died out in the 80’s.

Also, I’m a woman. (Although that seems somehow less relevant.)

But I get their confusion. I mean, I’m almost 6’2″ tall. I’ve got broad shoulders — I have friends who call me an Amazon and others who refer to me as The Viking Chick — and I wear my hair short. At the time, my husband and I were walking home, hand in hand. So I can understand how someone would see the two of us

holding hands

at night

from behind

and instead of seeing a couple in love, they’d see two men (one with incredibly well-developed child-bearing hips) who should obviously be verbally abused for their “crime” — whatever that may be.

At the time, I shrugged and wrote it off as just a few guys who’d escaped from the 80s in their trusty DeLorean, and would no doubt be going home soon.

Well.

Listening to the young men at the Fish & Chip shop today, I have to face the fact that either I was wrong, or there are an awful lot of DeLoreans cruising around out there.

I return to the present when my number is called. I collect my order and return to the car and my family is waiting, and all I can think is that I do not want my boys to ever talk like that. Ever. Even — no, especially — if they don’t know why those words are so hateful, and how their very usage creates and reinforces a culture where hatred and violence against homosexuals is normalised.

With those thoughts running through my mind, I’m almost surprised when my son speaks to me.

“Mummy, did you see those children?”

I hesitate and then say yes. But it takes me a moment to realise who he’s talking about.

It takes me a moment to equate the word “child” with Boy 1.

“Were those children playing a game?” he asks.

I mutter an affirmative and I drive away.

Quietly.

Because in my mind, I’m watching my boys grow up into kind, brave, noble men. Men who won’t need to follow weak leaders, because they’ll know their own mind and follow their own inner compass. Men who won’t use hate-speak, because they’ll know the value of a human soul. Men who will love and hurt and cry and cheer and fight for what is right and never, ever, ever let the world drag them down.

And I will do whatever it takes to make that story come true.

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Filed under Life With Kids, Opinion

Children, Communication, and No TV

Big Brother's New HaircutBig Brother had his hair cut today. He chose the style he wanted, explained it to the hairdresser, and then proceeded to have a long conversation with her while she cut his hair. They talked about board games (his favourite is chess, hers is backgammon), what books they’re reading at the moment, the pros and cons of grocery shopping, and whether or not school holidays should go forever. Then he told her about his plan to grow up and invent Helper Robots, complete with what they will look like, how they will help people, and how that will change the world.

At the end of this half hour discussion, Big Brother went and sat down quietly on the seat to wait while Little Brother had his turn. And since Little Brother is a lot more shy than his brother, the hairdresser and I talked.

“It’s hard to believe he’s only six,” she said, gesturing to Big Brother. “I’m always happy when I see you come in here. He always has great manners, and I’ve never met another kid his age who talks so well, and who can actually have a conversation with me.”

I thanked her, chuffed by the compliment. Of course. And then she asked me what school he goes to, and what we’ve done to help him get to this point.

Normally I wouldn’t bring it up, but she was interested.

So I talked about being firm on the importance of manners from the time my children started talking. I talked about leading by example — talking to them the way I want them to talk to me. I talked about the importance of reading books and telling stories and playing board games and not dumbing down language when talking to the children. And then I talked about how the children don’t watch any TV (except for our once a week family movie night) or play computer games.

She was on board with everything until I mentioned TV. But she asked, so I explained.

I explained about the latest research that shows the effect TV has on young brains. I told her that I believe TV encourages children to be spectators rather than to fully engage in the world. I talked about how not watching TV gives my boys plenty of time to play outside, read books, and stage elaborate puppet shows with their toys. But, most of all, I said that I’m not anti-TV. It has its place. Nor do I have a problem with people who let their young children watch TV. Every child and every family is different. But this works for us, and I believe it’s one of the contributing factors in the way Master Six interacts with people and the world.

“Yes,” she said. “But aren’t you worried that when your kids get older and learn about TV and advertising and social media, they won’t be able to communicate with people in the real world?”

To which, I referred her back to her original statement.

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To This Day: A Video on Bullying

When I was in school, I was bullied.

I was taunted and teased and called names.

I was pushed and shoved.

They splashed water on my skirt and told everyone I peed myself.

They sat behind me and threw things at me in every. single. class.

For a year.

“Just ignore them and they’ll go away.”

But they didn’t.

Sometimes they’d pretend to be my friend. Just for a little while. They’d sit beside me, and laugh, and talk, and tell me they were sorry they’d been so mean. Sorry they’d call me names, it was just… They’d look me in the eye. It was just… I’d be much more popular if I’d only slit my wrists. Or stop breathing. Or just hurry up and die.

They’d laugh when they went back to their real friends. Laughter. A sound that could shatter my soul at a hundred paces. And I’d just sit there where they left me. Silently. Holding back the tears and wishing it didn’t hurt and I hadn’t believed just a little bit for just a second just believed that they really did want to be my friend. Wishing I didn’t feel betrayed all over again. Wishing. Wishing I couldn’t feel anything. And thinking that maybe just maybe they were right. Maybe just maybe I’d be better off dead.

“Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.”

Tell me again how words will never hurt me.

The words are still there. Way down beneath the surface of my smile. Mostly, they’re still. Silent. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they stab and poke at me from the inside of my heart. Nerd. Loser. Square. Ugly. Four eyes. Freak. Goat. Nobody will love you. You should just die. Don’t touch her, she’s disgusting.Ugly. Nerd. Wrong clothes. Wrong hair. Wrong words. Wrongwrongwrong. Hatehatehate.

But it’s not just me.

Shane Koyczan was also bullied when he was in school.

He made a video.

It’s like he put a stethoscope to my heart and made a movie of my pain. And then he added hope and a happy ending.

Watch this. Please.

Were you bullied at school?

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You Don’t Need an Audience to Do The Right Thing

awesome

I like stories.

So I’m going to tell you two. These are true stories that happened at different points in my life. The first happened when I was 18. The second when I was 28.

I may have told these stories here before, so please forgive me if you’ve already heard them.

#     #     #

It was Thursday morning and I was working my usual shift at the local library. In between shelving books and answering questions, my job was to check in the returns. Every morning I did this. I’d pick up a book, open to the back cover, scan the barcode, and stack the book on the trolley. This morning was no different to any other.

Until I opened a Large Print edition of a Ruth Rendell mystery and was faced with a mystery of my own.

I flipped open the cover, barcode scanner at the ready.

I flipped the cover closed. Had I just seen… Was the really…

I put down the scanner and carefully opened the book again. Then snapped it closed.

There was money in there. Lots of money.

I was 18 years old, working two jobs, trying to study, and living on ramen noodles slathered in cheap tomato sauce. Money was something that happened to other people. But there I was holding a book that appeared to be full of the stuff.

Gently, carefully, as though the cash would disappear in a puff of dream-stuff if I moved too quickly, I opened the book again. This time I kept it open. I flicked through the $50 notes inside. There were twelve of them. I had six hundred bucks right in front of me.

What I could do with six hundred dollars….

I carefully closed the book again, took a deep breath, and pressed a few keys on the keyboard.

“Excuse me,” I said to the little old lady perusing the Large Print section of the library.

“Yes?”

“Are you Mrs Newman?”

“Yes.” She fingers tightened on the strap of her handbag and she leaned away from me.

I held up the book. “Did you just return this book?”

“Yes,” she said. Her smile was gone. “Is something wrong?”

“No.” I proffered the book. “But I think you left something inside the back cover.”

She cautiously took the book from me and opened it. The colour drained from her face, and she all but collapsed into a nearby chair. “Oh, my. I…”

“Are you alright?” I was eighteen. I thought I’d killed her.

“I’m… Oh. Thank you. I’m always nervous about keeping money in my purse, so when I take my rent money out of the bank I hide it in the back of a book. For safe keeping. I must have forgotten it was in there. I’m so… thank you. So much.”

I smiled, waited for her to take her money, and then took the book back to the counter. She left shortly thereafter, and returned with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of flowers for me. I walked on air for the rest of the day.

#     #     #

It was Friday evening. My husband and I were walking through the mall on the way home, past restaurant after restaurant full of happy, smiling people intent on a good night out. We were heading home to have cheese sandwiches for dinner. We didn’t have enough money for restaurants or take-away food. (But on the plus side, we could afford sandwiches!)

“How about we get some Coke on the way home?” my husband asked.

“Sure,” I said. Because sometimes you just have to splash out.

So we dropped into a 7-11 and while my husband was grabbing the soft drink, I went to the ATM. May as well try my luck and see if I can get $20 out, I thought. (Although I was pretty sure I only had five dollars and some change in my account.) I put in my card, typed in my PIN and looked down.

Sitting in the tray where the money is dispensed was a fifty dollar note.

I picked it up. Fifty bucks. There was no-one around. No sign of who it belonged to. I ran it between my fingers. With fifty bucks, we could buy a piece of steak and some vegies on the way home. Or a bottle of wine. Hey, we could probably even go out to dinner.

Or we could do the responsible thing and use it to pay one of our massively overdue bills.

I flicked the note back and forth between my fingers while I pushed buttons on the ATM.

— TRANSACTION DECLINED. INSUFFICIENT FUNDS. —

We should still have enough in our bank account to just use EFTPOS to pay for the drink. And there was always the fifty dollars…

“Excuse me,” I said to the guy behind the register. “I just went to use the ATM and someone forgot to take their money.”

“Yeah…” the guy said, like he didn’t know why that would have anything to do with him.

“Can I leave it with you in case they come back for it?”

He looked at me like I was an idiot. Then he took the money, wrote a note about it, and put it in a drawer under the counter. My husband came back with the Coke. We paid for it (holding our breaths while we waited to see if the transaction would be approved) and then left.

And as I ate my cheese sandwich and drank my Coke, I was happy.

#     #     #

I’ve told people those two stories a few times over the years. Not to blow my own trumpet, but to illustrate the importance of not hiding money in library books, and to remind people to check they’ve got their money before they leave the ATM. And without fail, I get the same reactions from people.

When I tell the first story, I get people saying things like: That’s so sweet! You’re so honest! Not everyone would have returned that money! It’s a good job it was you who found the money and not someone else!

When I tell the second story, I get people saying thinks like: Why would you do that? You know the guy just kept the money, right? You should have just kept it. Anyone else would have.

Maybe people are right. I mean, who knows what happened to that fifty dollar note? Maybe the guy at the 7-11 waited until I’d left the store and then pocketed it and spent the night telling people about the stupid woman who handed it over.

Or maybe it was a couple’s last $50 and they came racing back into the 7-11 five minutes after we left, frantic that they wouldn’t be able to buy any food for their children, and were overwhelmed with relief when the cashier handed them the money.

There’s no way to know.

And here’s the thng: It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter what happened to that fifty dollars. It wasn’t mine to keep any more than the $600 I found at the library was mine to keep. Just because I couldn’t personally hand it back to the person who lost it doesn’t mean I had a right to keep it.

It’s not my responsibility if someone else chooses to do the wrong thing.

It’s my responsibility to make sure I do the right thing.

Even if no one is watching.

When have you been called an idiot for doing the right thing?

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An Extra $15.80 per Week

Money

This week the Australian Fair Work Commission decided on the increase to Australia’s minimum wage. After much debate and to-ing and fro-ing, the figure arrived at was $15.80 per week.

This means that those Australians earning minimum wage (all 1.5 million of them) are due a payrise. Yay!

But it’s only fifteen bucks a week. Boo!

Or… yay?

Depends who you ask.

According to various business-types, it’s an excessive rise and guaranteed to affect job stability and blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda.

According to students, youth councils, and other representative groups, it’s a kick in the teeth for hard-working young Aussies just trying to get ahead and blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda.

So, which is it?

When I heard the news, I felt the familiar stirring of Youth Pride and Teen Angst stirring in my gut. Yeah! F the man! We deserve more! Let’s have us a protest!

But when I tried to stand up in solidarity, my knees locked and I realised that I’m more Creepy Middle Aged Woman Holding On To Lost Youth than Youth Crusader For Justice.

And that got me thinking.

The fact is $15.80 a week isn’t much. You can’t buy a movie ticket for that price. You can’t buy a six-pack of beer. You can’t even pay the cover charge to get into some nightclubs. It’s a paltry amount.

But…

But $15.80 a week is $821.60 per year.

For a small business with three employees, that’s an extra $2500 dollars a year in wages. The unions were asking for twice that amount, which is excessive when you think about it from the small business owner perspective.

So is the raise too low?

The youth radio station I was listening to certainly seemed to think so. They made quite a joke of the whole thing. “I want to hear from you,” the DJ said. “Tell me what you’ll spend your extra $15.80 a week on. Bonus points if you come up with something that costs exactly $15.80.”

And as people called and texted and tweeted in with their answers (Fake dreadlocks! A McDonald’s meal! A bath towel!), I got to thinking.

I’m not on minimum wage. In fact, I’m not on any wage. I’m a Mum who does some freelancing work on occasion, and dreams of selling enough books to buy a chain of deserted islands. So what could I buy with $15.80?

And this is what I came up with:

  • Two loaves of home-brand white bread: $2.00
  • One stick of home-brand butter: $1.90
  • Two dozen home-brand free-range eggs: $7.90
  • Four litres of unsweetened orange juice: $4.00

For $15.80, I can provide breakfast for a family of four for a week.

It’s funny, isn’t it? When you remove the instinctive Disaffected Youth Mentality reaction, the $15.80 pay-rise seems pretty damn reasonable.

Or maybe I’m just getting old.

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Children and Guns

Water Pistol

Last night I dreamed my son was a Sandy Hook victim.

He’s six years old.

In my dream, I’d returned to Sandy Hook Elementary School for the first time since the shooting. I walked in the front, and there were photos of the victims, along with flowers and wreaths and pictures and poems. I approached the shrine set up for my son, and I felt my grief overwhelm my reason for a moment. Then I backed away, and I remembered why I was there.

Outside that front hall, school life had returned to normal. Children were in their lessons, or should have been. I spent some time there, wandering the halls, waiting in vain to see my son’s smile or hear his voice raised in laughter or argument.

I found myself on the grounds of a nearby high school. Much in the way of dreams, I don’t know how I got there. But I approached a young woman sitting at a table on her own. She would have been thirteen, and had dark curly hair and dark eyes. Ear-buds were jammed in both ears. She was reading a magazine.

When I stood next to her, she took out her headphones and looked at me. We exchanged pleasantries, and then I showed her a picture of my son. “This is Big Brother,” I said. “He died just down the road at the elementary school.”

“That’s sad,” the girl said. Then she shrugged. “But at least it wasn’t me.”

“No, you’re right,” I said. “It wasn’t you. You’re safe. But wouldn’t you rather it hadn’t been anyone?”

Her look turned guarded. “You’re one of those anti-gun crazies,” she said. “My Dad told me about you people. But guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Then she put her earbuds back in and turned away.

——————–

Last week in Kentucky, USA, a 5-year-old boy was playing with a child-friendly rifle he’d been given as a gift. He pulled the trigger. And in that simple action, he killed his 2-year-old sister.

When I read the story, my children were 5 and 2 years old. I tried to imagine handing my eldest boy a rifle. But I couldn’t do it.

I tried to imagine letting my eldest boy play, unsupervised, with a rifle. But I couldn’t do it.

I tried to imagine the grief of losing not just my youngest child, but both my children in a moment of negligent parenting. Because make no mistake, the little girl may be the one who died, but the 5-year-old is at least as much as victim in all this, if not more. But in this case, I didn’t want to do it.

Whether that poor boy is physically removed from the care of his parents or not, he will never be the same joyful, innocent child again. He’s too young to have understood what he was doing, and what it would mean, when he shot his sister, but exactly old enough to remember and regret it for the rest of his life.

——————–

I was driving Big Brother home from school two weeks ago when he asked me a question out of the blue. “Mummy,” he said. “If guns are so bad, why do policemen have them?”

A pause. A moment to gather my thoughts. And then, “Why do you think guns are bad, sweetie?”

“Because today at school I drew a picture of a hero shooting a bad guy, but my teacher told me we’re not allowed to draw pictures of guns at school.* And we’re not allowed to pretend sticks are guns and shoot at each other either.* So guns are bad.”

(* This is not uncommon in Australia, where most schools and child-care facilities won’t allow toy guns, and discourage gun-based pretend play. The majority of urban households won’t have toy guns at home for young children either.)

“Guns themselves aren’t bad,” I said carefully. “Guns are just pieces of wood and plastic and metal that have been turned into a tool. In some places, guns are very important and do a lot of good: like in the country where farmers need to protect their cows and sheep from predators.”

“Then why aren’t we allowed to play with them?”

“Well, you tell me what guns are used for.”

He thought for a few seconds. “Shooting people.”

“Absolutely,” I said. “And what happens if you shoot someone with a gun?”

He thought again. “They fall down.”

“Yes. And what else?”

“They die.”

“Yes,” I said. “Guns are used to shoot people or animals so that they die.”

There was silence for a good few minutes. “But, Mummy. After they die, do they get back up and be alive again?”

“No, Sweetie,” I said. “I’m afraid that when you shoot someone and they die, they stay dead.”

“Forever?” he asked in a tremulous tone.

“Forever.”

Another moment of silence. “But… But we don’t have real guns at school. It’s only pretend guns. And it was only a picture of a gun.”

“I know,” I said. “But do you think pointing a gun at someone is a very friendly thing to do?”

“No.”

“And it’s very important that we’re nice to our friends, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“So that’s why there’s a rule about guns. Because it’s not nice to pretend to kill someone.”

“Okay,” he said. And then, “But why do policemen have guns?”

That was a trickier question to answer simply, especially on the spur of the moment. But I did the best I could. “Well,” I said. “Policemen have guns because it’s their job to protect people from criminals. Sometimes criminals have guns, so policemen have to have guns, too. But they don’t like having to carrying a gun and they really, really, really, really don’t like having to shoot at someone.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“But if it’s a bad guy, then it’s okay.” Pause. A little less confidence in his voice. “Because it’s a bad guy. And you’re allowed to kill bad guys.”

“No, Sweetie. Policemen don’t even like to kill bad guys. Bad guys are still people.”

A long pause. “So… Are guns bad or not?”

“No, Big Brother, guns aren’t bad. But the only thing they can be used for is hurting and killing. They’re good for farmers to protect their animals from dingoes and other wild animals, but guns aren’t toys. And it’s never okay to point a gun at someone, even if it’s only a pretend one.”

——————–

I woke up this morning shaky and trembling all over. The dream left me feeling traumatised. Not, strangely, because of the death of my son. Rather, I was traumatised by the uncaring and dismissive reaction of the young lady I encountered. By the way she shrugged off an entire tragedy because someone else told her not to listen to the crazies. By the way that maintaining the status quo was more important than even acknowledging that lives had been lost.

Because she’s right: Guns don’t kill people without someone to pull the trigger.

But killing is the only thing guns are good for.

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