Monday, 4 November 2013

Reverting to my inner toddler

At 16 months, my granddaughter still can’t form many words. Her motor skills are still developing and she has only just graduated from crawling to navigating the world on two feet. She may be tentative in her early attempts at balancing, but she doesn't give up. Often she moves hesitatingly, stretching out to grasp someone’s hand or to lean on a piece of furniture for reassurance. Even when she falls, she gets up and tries again. Last week, she managed a zombie-like walk with hands outstretched. It made us laugh, but she didn't let our laughter dampen her resolve. Toddlers get up no matter how many times they fall down, unlike adults who often attempt something once. If it doesn't go our way, we decide never to try again. Toddlers don't do that. If they can’t get at it one way, they find another. They look at things from different angles, testing every practical strategy they can come up with. They have inbuilt determination and persistence. Just ask any parent.

Of course, I need to guide her to be safe while not diminishing her sense of exploration and wonder. It’s sadly we adults who say don’t, stop, watch out and the worst of all, don’t try! We create the budding inner critic that thrives in the wrong environment. I'd hate to be one of the people who puts such a voice into her head, probably because my own critic screams so loudly and I know how limiting its admonitions are.

Recently my granddaughter learned to grasp a pen and relishes making long inconsistent scribble marks on any piece of paper she can. Her expression is always one of great accomplishment, as if she’s written a best seller. It left me with the question as to whether I still have the capacity to treat the world with such confidence.

When I look at my scribbles – disjointed writing, paragraphs that need serious editing, a plot that’s going nowhere, characters that I don't know well enough yet – my inner critic springs into action. It’s all overwhelming. I see only errors, the bits that don’t work. When my work goes into the wider world, each rejection sits me back on my butt with disappointing force, prompting the cry, what’s the point? I'm so tempted to give up. Then I think about the sense of awe that my granddaughter displays. Look what I've done! Yes, it needs development, but it’s on the page with all its faults and all its potential. It’s a point to start. 

I hope wide-eyed wonder is infectious. From now on I'm going to revert to my inner toddler when the challenge seems too big; check all the angles, look for another way to get through. 

I'm keeping a close eye on my granddaughter. We have much to learn from one another.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A strange place to say "Hello”

Funerals are places we expect to say “Goodbye”. Today, I realized that funerals are sometimes a place to say “Hello”; to be introduced to the most unlikely person in the room: the deceased. At the funeral of a friend’s father, whom I’d never had the opportunity to meet, I felt him brought to life through the eulogy and the reflections of one of his lifelong friends. The task of summing up a life of more than eighty years in a few minutes, is a monumental and daunting one. Sometimes it is said that in these final tributes, the rough edges of a person life are polished down. Today I didn't find it so. My friend’s words, delivered through hard-checked tears, painted the main points of her father’s life in a way that let me draw the lines between them; to give me a full picture. The keys, among many others, to this happy life were family, community service, a strong work ethic, participation in the political process, new challenges at any age. It was a tribute filled with sadness, pride, and appreciation of the legacy left by her father to the family and the wider community. 

A reflection from a friend, with whom he’d grown up, followed. The friend spoke, without notes, drawing on his long memory of their lives together. I recalled a time when I accompanied my father to the funeral of a man Dad had been friends with for 75 years. He too was able to eloquently recount anecdotes and events with ease. He spoke to deeply embedded memories, woven together in the fabric of shared lives in ways that can never be undone. When old friends speak, each story connects to another. In this way, the picture painted by my friend’s tribute, was further highlighted with the rich deep colors of her father’s life. Through these collected stories, I could see from where she had drawn her own values, her sense of social justice and her warmth. 

Funerals are mostly the same in terms of the process; we know what to expect, the general order of the service. But, the point at which relatives and friends share insights into the person they knew best is the place we are afforded a unique opportunity to understand the life of someone we never expected to meet. 

It is a strange place to finally say ‘Hello”. 

Monday, 10 June 2013

Stereo Stories

And now for something lazily different...

Here's a link to the Stereo Stories website that asks people to write about songs that have strong memories for them. My piece was Desperado by The Eagles.  

What's your stereo story?

About Stereo Stories

Every song has at least two stories. There’s the song’s own story, about love or sex or death or whatever it may be. And there’s the story of the fan listening to the song.

You can read about getting sunburnt while hearing, for the first time, XTC's Senses Working Overtime; or about a parent driving to school playing The Beatles’ We Can Work It Out.

You can read about a first-time father playing Massive Attack’s Protection while tending a fragile new-born daughter; or about a teenager discovering disco in the school playground.

Stereo Stories is about what a song means to you over the years. It’s about why a song stays with you.

It is about hits and memories.

Have a read, have a listen. We'll be posting a new story every few weeks. 

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

What I’ve learned from the dung beetle

I've been missing self-imposed blog deadlines. This is usually a sign that there is too much else going on and that I've lost some focus. For me, the stuff that ‘goes on’ is managing health issues, family, working and well…in general… life. When I reflect on this, I realise that not writing, even in small amounts, impacts my mood in a negative way. It’s like there is damming up of ideas, a kind of creative constipation. So when I happened across Entomologist Marcus Bryne’s short video ‘The Dance of the Dung Beetle’, I had an epiphany of sorts. The video is a humorous and fascinating look at this intrepid and persistent creature’s effort to ‘scoop the poop’ in the midst of strong competition and the harsh desert environments.

Most of this bug’s life is conducted in backwards motion (we all know that feeling). But here’s the difference: when he’s thrown off course or disoriented in some way (like by the experimenters who deliberately thwart his route), he climbs to the top of his dung ball, does a little dance using the sun as a point of reference, reorients himself, climbs down and goes on. He knows exactly where he has to go. He keeps the goal in sight even though he’s heading towards it with his butt in the air. It was kind of humbling to realise that here is a creature that lives its whole life in excrement yet it doesn’t sit by bemoaning that fact that life is…well… full of s#*t.

In the video, Byrne explains that the dung beetle uses a complex set of visual clues to keep him life on track. He wonders if it can teach humans how to solve complex visual problems. While I was interested in that aspect, I took a different lesson from the bug's behavior, which was this: it’s possible for life to be full of poop but I can still get on with it. So, I figured that next time I feel like the s#*t is piling up, I can climb to the top of the dung, look to the warmth and nurture of the sun, do a dance (dancing on the inside is acceptable for humans) then push the crap along and just keep going. Persistent pays and every time, the beetle managed to reach his goal regardless of obstructions and distractions.

After that realization, my creative constipation seemed to resolve. I don’t doubt it will come back from time to time but for now I've managed one more blog, which is a start.  

Friday, 22 February 2013


This week I seem to have made an excessive number of calls to 13-numbers. You know: those calls to ‘service’ providers that have you pressing button-after-button on an interminable menu or dealing with the malapropisms of voice recognition systems. 

I'm still twitching and the meds haven’t kicked in yet, but for what it’s worth here’s 10 tips on how to survive the process. 

1.     Try to make the call on a day when on which you have few other life stressors because by the end of the call you will have accumulated more stress points than can be conceived of by the Holmes and Rahe stress scale. That’s enough to be going on with.

2.     Make a strong cup of tea or coffee. If your call is to a call centre that's likely to be off-shore, switch to anything containing over 15% alcohol. Keep fluids handy; humans function best when hydrated or you just may want to drown yourself halfway through the call. 

3.     Don’t dial until you have given yourself a good talking to. Prepare yourself mentally.  Deep breathe, remind yourself the call will be of temporary duration (okay, okay even if it lasts for hours, technically, it’s temporary)

4.     Have all your ID requirements handy (Account name / your name / DOB / password / PIN / underpants size /next week’s tattslotto numbers - get my drift?) Be prepared to repeat these many times. Many, many, many times.

5.     Do not be discouraged when your issue is not covered by the menu options. Pick a number…any number. Chances are the outcome will be the same.

6.     Think of voice recognition, not as a conspiracy against you, but as a source of customer entertainment (although it really is a conspiracy against you but you’ll feel better not nurturing that notion) 

7.     When you eventually get through and the company jingle blares repeatedly in your ear, there is only one thing you can do: grimace and bear it. After listening to the tune ceaselessly, be prepared to experience waves of nausea each time you subsequently hear it on television or radio. It is possible your ears may bleed.

8.     As you are transferred though an endless stream of customer ‘service’ operators, try not to be distracted by all the background chatter of other operators. Be prepared for your jaw to tighten as you repeat yourself again and again. Simple massage of the temporomandibular joint will assist at this stage. Please note that's massage the joint, not smoke a joint (although you might be tempted) 

9.     At some point you may forget what the problem was that you were ringing about. This is a common setback. You are vulnerable at this point. Do not attempt to get the operators to assist. You will end up with a 'friendly sales team member' and before you know it you'll have agreed to a contract for a service you don't need or want. Terminate the call and take a long nap. When you eventually recall the issue, unfortunately you will need to go back to Step 1. Before you do so, ask your friends to send good vibes.

10.  If you find yourself weeping at any stage in the process, hang up immediately and seek psychological assistance. Please be mindful that this step is the trickiest of all: Lifeline is a 13-number.  

Monday, 11 February 2013

Tourist's eyes

When my aunt visited from Italy last year she was enthralled by the uncustomary sights, scents and sounds of our city. Wherever we took her she’d take in all the sensory data and exclaim, ‘Ma, guarda!’ Look at that! Everything to her was new and fresh. I was amused by her enthusiastic reactions over everything, from her awe at kerbside garbage collection (in her town residents carry their garbage to strategically placed collective bins) to her wonder at the Australian landscape.  

As we talked and she explained her perceptions, I realised she had opened my eyes to appreciating the things I took for granted: wide open parks, greenery, the architecture; most of all the sense of personal space. I hadn’t looked at my home city like that for some time, but I was still intrigued by her response. ‘But, you live in Puglia, one of the most beautiful regions in Italy; all those ancient Roman roads, the architecture; the churches!’

‘Bah,’ she said. ‘It’s just old concrete.’

Her perception of her hometown was tempered, blunted by familiarity, as indeed mine had been in my own hometown. We had both been looking at the same thing but one with the jaded view of a long time dweller, the other with the fresh eyes of a tourist.

Cut to present day me, coming to the completion of the first draft of a novel that I’ve been working on for too many years to count. Despite my limitations, I’m determined to finish it one word, one paragraph or one page at a time. It may still take years because I've struggle with tying together the loose ends. The fine tuning to the shape and flow the novel needs eludes me. It feels overwhelming.  The novel and I have a long partnership and like many long relationships, occasionally we fall out; we have words (or lack of them) and we don’t communicate well. How had I arrived at this point?  I realised that I was too close. I’d been holding the work so near my eyes that the words had become indistinct.

It occurred to me that the notion of ‘tourist’s eyes’ could be applied to other areas, such as my writing. I could use this concept as a way to make sense of the story world from another’s perspective. To a certain extent, my writing buddies help me with this perspective by giving me feedback on the work. They look at each page I write with the eyes of those new to an area, having to take in the information to get their bearings—in this case their bearings in the story. A bit like my aunt appreciating what I had taken for granted and pointing out the areas in which she was confused about how things are done and where they are going. I needed to take a step back to look at my novel in a way I haven’t before.

So I opened my eyes and took a new ‘tour’ of my writing. Like the familiar streets I drive through or walk in each day, I'd ceased to see some of the finer details. One of the first things I noticed was that there was so much more to the characters and the plot that I hadn’t committed to paper. Even though I walk around with their lives filling my head, I've forgotten to let the reader in on these. I experienced a bit of culture shock on that tour. The world of the novel was foreign and I was disoriented. If I was lost, how would a reader feel? These discoveries were a starting point.  

It’s not easy work being a tourist. The down side is that it can be tiring and frustrating; the up side being the experience of a new world. That’s what all writers want to ultimately offer their readership—a world that they can escape to and enjoy.

Gradually, I've started to clean up my characters’ world; I’m tweaking the ‘road maps’ and cutting out the bits that don’t serve the story. I might have to take many trips as a tourist but that’s okay. And, luckily for me, there’s a kind of kerbside garbage collection service on my PC via the delete button. Ma guarda!

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Friday, 1 February 2013

Climbing lots of stairs

The other day I was talking to someone who is struggling to find employment. It isn't just the economic climate that’s the problem. It's the attitude of employers; they want experience, preferably gained in someone else’s environment. They want extended hours for less pay. Sometimes candidates are considered ‘overqualified.’ It's very hard to pick yourself up each time you’re knocked back. The sad fact is that often you don't know you knocked back because employers invariably do not bother to respond to applicants. Eventually you get that you’ve been unsuccessful when they don’t respond to your emails or return your calls. Contributing to this has been the system of online applications which has a certain degree of protective anonymity for the employer. They get away with it because they can. People are desperate for work and the employer continues to get applications because of that fact, not because they are ‘employer of choice’.

The most spurious argument for non-reply to candidates is that there are so many applications they don’t have the resources to do so. When I worked in the recruitment industry, the practice was to send letters to every candidate when they were unsuccessful. One occasion, I signed over 500 letters in one sitting. A number of people ridiculed me about this saying it was a waste of my time and resources. From my point of view the applicants had put time and personal resources into his or her application and deserved the courtesy of a reply to show that their application had been received and properly considered. These days email provides flexibility to respond easily as can appropriate wording on the job ad itself about expectation of response times.

One of the first things eroded in a continuous and unfruitful search for employment is the individual's confidence. For many unemployed people the cost of repeated applications is both practically and emotionally wearing. My friend fell into this category. It culminated when the consultant at the employment agency where he is a registered client told him on the last visit that she had not bothered to match him with potential work ‘because it was January’.  

My friend’s reaction was, ‘I'm not climbing the corporate ladder. I'm just climbing lots of stairs.’ At the top there is usually a shut door.  

Why am I ranting about this? Because employers and recruitment service providers often miss the fact that work and the process of seeking it isn’t just about economic considerations. It’s about a sense of purpose and achievement. It’s about establishing and maintaining social networks. It’s about belonging somewhere. And those in a position to offer or advance employment owe each applicant an appreciation of that. 

If nothing else, we owe them the courtesy of a reply. 

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Friday, 18 January 2013

Waste not, want not

As the New Year gets underway I'm thinking about the things I plan to do in 2013. I don't make resolutions; they are usually enthusiastic but unrealistic. Invariably I fail which causes me to be hard on myself. The danger is then that I stop trying because, well…what’s the point? Not a great question to ruminate upon if you want to stay motivated. So, this year as well as making my annual Treasure Map (visual goal setting map), I've been focusing on the idiom waste not, want not which came to mind after spending a few weeks with my visiting aunt who had traveled from Italy to spend Christmas with the family. One of the things I observed in our time together was how frugal she was. Not in a miserly way but she is from the generation that recycled, made or made-do and lived by wasting not, primarily out of necessity. They didn’t call it ‘recycling’ or ‘artisan crafted’, they simply did what was economically and ecologically sound.She did it in small ways but she was consisted and committed to not wasting anything.

It occurred to me that the idea of wasting not could apply to other things as well as general recycling, leftover food, managing money or those items of no longer required clothing. It could also apply to concepts. So this year I'm planning to waste not, want not on key areas: energy, time, creativity and peace.

Energy: personal drama hits us all from time-to-time. I'm will aim to keep it contained, do what I can about the elements over which I have control and not get involved if it’s not my business. If I don’t waste energy it will be available to for the things that are important such as my writing, my family and  friends.

Time: do I really need to watch this TV show? That might be an extra half hour of time I can spend in ways that fit with my waste not, want not approach. I will allocate my time in manageable chunks for my writing; a word, a sentence, a paragraph and a page at a time.  

Creativity: while I primarily create through words, I will also employ my other creative skills, such as drawing and painting, which help me to think differently and feed my word output. I will try to harness those elements.

Peace: it’s easy to get caught up in the chaos of the everyday and start to worry about every little thing that is going on in my life and in that of others around me. Again I will focus on what I can act on and let go of what I can’t.  

I'm aware that the above will mean myriad decisions made in the face of every event. But that’s okay. One decision at a time, one day at a time, I can conserve the things I value most and have them available for what is fundamental to my life. I've come to realise that it’s the small things we waste that accumulate into the biggest wanting.

That’s sure to get my wise aunt’s approval.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Not just any birthday

This weekend is one of special celebration. A young man will turn 30. While it’s an everyday event, for me it’s a massive milestone; one that I was terrified might never be reached. The young man in question is my son Daniel, a childhood cancer survivor. His tale is one of the astonishing courage that children summon in the most extraordinary circumstances. I remain in awe of his attitude and clarity throughout his nine-year-old’s two year journey through chemotherapy and invasive interventions and at his capacity to keep smiling despite the pain and discomfort he was experiencing. 

This is a snapshot of that chapter of his life. 

Late January 1992. Dan has just turned nine, his brother seven. The summer holidays have lost their appeal for the children under the strain by my recent marriage breakdown. I’m shedding tears and weight; preoccupied by fear of what the future may hold. One morning, Dan tells me that his arm is sore. Distracted I ask a few questions and Dan reveals the pain is inside his left armpit. ‘I fell off my bike, mum.’ As I poke my fingers into his armpit, they press against a lump, about the size of a blood plum. Dan flinches slightly while my world grinds to a stop. I reach to the other armpit. No lump. An echo of a scrap of medical information comes to mind, something about infections being bilateral. I know something is seriously wrong. We go to the GP. He immediately makes a referral to a paediatric
surgeon who organises a biopsy at the Royal Children’s Hospital. It happens overnight.

I pace the waiting room while Dan recovers from the biopsy when I get word that my grandmother, his great grandmother is dying. I am torn between the two hospitals. Dan is sent home with antibiotics and in pain. The biopsy results will take a few days. I make the poor decision not to let him know about his great grandmother’s funeral. Afterwards, I don’t even have time to change from my funeral black when the call comes from the RCH. The test results indicate that Dan has Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He needs to start immediate staging tests and chemotherapy within the week. Someone takes the phone from me while I scream resistance. But Dan doesn’t flinch. He takes his fate in stride. But when he finds out about the missed funeral his anger is palpable. He only forgives me when I take him to the grave some months later. There, a little bald headed boy sobs for his great-grandmother and I am made small with shame. 

We spend six months in and out of the RCH. Dan’s hair falls out in clumps. His body balloons with steroid treatment. Dan wants all the details from the doctor; the names of the drugs, the amounts being administered, the sequence in which this will be done. Once all his questions are answered he is satisfied to go on. 

In between treatments his white cell count drops, infections set in and raging fever invariably sends us back to hospital, usually in the middle of the night. Admission is via the Emergency Department and depending on their workload we can wait for hours before making it to the ward. There Dan is put on a wide spectrum antibiotic drip, blood tests done to see if the particular infection can be determine. In one instance he presents with massive lumps all over his body. The oncologist explains that it is likely to be an infection originating from a common bacteria that in normal circumstances a healthy immune system would dispose of simply. It had not occurred to me that due to a compromised immune system, infection could be the killer rather than the cancer itself. On most of those days I sleep on the floor next to his bed or in a nearby chair, leaving early in the morning to go home, shower then to work.

On one such occasion I come back to the hospital to find him standing at the cot of another patient; a toddler of about 18-months of age. Dan is singing him a nursery rhyme. Dan explains that he at nine can cope with cancer but this little boy is too small to understand and ‘we need to help him feel better’. Just then the electric pump that is pumping chemo drugs into Dan’s veins sounds. ‘It’s time to change my bag,’ he says to the nurse when she responds. He wants her to hurry so he can get back to his young neighbour.

Every few months we get the Challenge Cancer Support Network magazine. The list of the kids who didn’t make it is printed on the back page. Some editions I can’t bear to pick up.

After six months Dan is in remission. It is around August and he looks forward to his hair returning. Little did we know that before the coming Christmas he would be in an even more aggressive protocol of treatment when the cancer returns; this time it grows in muscle tissue and has spread into other lymph cells.

Fortnightly he has chemotherapy and a lumbar puncture which requires Ketamin as the anesthetic. Each time he comes out of it hallucinating and tells me I'm a monster with several heads. I feel like one too; distraught that I can’t stop this horror in his life. Again his hair falls out; this time overnight while he is at a fishing camp with Challenge. ‘I left it all on the pillow,’ he says. ‘And I left a trout in Mathew’s (a volunteer) backpack.’ In spite of everything he hadn’t lost his sense of humour.

A ‘port-a-cath’ is inserted though an incision in his neck and sits just above his breast bone. It will make access to his blood stream easier than finding his veins which are already scarring. The drugs affect his balance. He can’t walk long distances and constantly suffers sprained ankles. After treatment sessions he is ill and exhausted for days. One day, Dan talks about his possible death, a conversation no parent wants to have with a nine year old. He is realistic and stoic and I can’t imagine from where his strength comes. I don't feel that I have any. I struggle to keep his distressed little brother buoyant as well as to care for Dan. My parents and close friends are there with practical support and attentive ears. Somehow we limp to the end of the treatment regime.

The doctors determine that Dan is in remission again but hope has taken a beating and I sob for hours, torn between joy and fear that this may be only a short respite like last time. Dan continues to have check-ups once a month then six-weekly, three-monthly until finally it extends out for year. Years later he has his last check up which I don’t attend as I await heart surgery and can’t walk for any distance. Shortly afterwards, Dan takes on a chef’s apprenticeship and looks after the family cooking while I have surgery and recover. At this stage, my mother has terminal cancer and Dan becomes her ally. The understanding between them did not need words.

Doctors tell Dan that the weight he gained as result of treatment is unlikely to be shifted. Dan’s stubborn streak comes to the fore. Quietly he begins a regime of exercise and manages his food intake, studying up on what works and what doesn’t. He drops thirty kilos on his own. Eventually he quits working in hospitality and becomes a fitness trainer. Yet, when I look at the tall, fit man he has become, I still see a brave little boy with no hair and a massive smile.

His cancer story is not something he shares with many but in secondary school his class is given an assignment: a short talk on a significant event in your life. Most of the boys have dramatic stories but when Dan speaks he shocks even the teacher. She tells me later that a hush fell over the class and most students dropped their chins to their desks. The ability to stun a group of Year 9 boys into silence can’t be underestimated. If ever he speaks of cancer these days he refers to it simply as ‘my treatment’ and jokes about the many related scars on his body. 

So when its time for the speeches at Dan’s 30th, he won’t say anything about his ‘treatment’ he won’t see the significance in the same way a mum fearing loss of a child does. For him, it’s just something that is the backdrop to a few years of his life. Dan is too modest recognise his bravery. But I do. I’ll be celebrating that he’s here with us. I’ll be celebrating all that he has taught about acceptance, courage and the capacity of a child's heart.

I’ll be celebrating my hero. Happy Birthday, son.