Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Charlie Brown Syndrome

Peter: Wendy? One girl's worth more than 20 boys.
Wendy: You really think so?
Peter: I live with boys, the lost boys, they are well named!
Wendy: Who are they?
Peter: Children who fall out of their prams when the nurse is not looking. If they are not claimed in seven days, they are sent to the Neverland.
Wendy: Are there girls too?
Peter: Girls are much to clever to fall out of their prams.
- Movie script, Peter Pan (2003)

At the beginning of Lisa Genova's excellent novel Still Alice the husband of Alice, the protagonist cannot find his reading glasses. Alice finds them.

"He stood in the doorway, looking at the glasses in her hand but not at her.

'Next time try pretending a you're a woman while you look,' said Alice, smiling.

'I'll wear one of your skirts, Ali, please, I'm really late.'" (Still Alice)

I wonder - is it true that women are innately better at multi-tasking than men? Or is it a learned ability, learned during our child-raising days when we breast feed while reading while working out what to cook for dinner?

Certainly it is the common perception by women, that the females of our species are superior multi-taskers. And along with the idea that male humans can only concentrate on one thing at a time, is the image of the male child as being more innocent and trusting than his sisters. Just look at Charlie Brown. And Linus. And their tormentor, Lucy van Pelt.

The little girl in the photo (above) is one of the many Lucys I've come across. Look at the way she's peering at the small boy, her very stance shouts condescension, it is as if he's not quite human. She regards him as she would a cute puppy.

home depotAre we women responsible for men's comparative naivety? Do men escape to man-places like "Home Depot" and man-caves as places of refuge from the sharp tongues and wily ways of women? Do DIY home renovation supply stores owe their success to the Wendys', the Lucys', the Alices' and Tinkerbells' influences on the Lost Boys, Charlie Browns, Christopher Robins and Peter Pans of this world? I think so.

When my son was very small I tried to see the world from his little boy view. It was a scary place, populated by an older sister ("I'm glad she's not a twin!" he told me when he was barely two), witches and super heroes. Perhaps the real problem with the fantasy creatures that populate a child's imagination, is that the female ones are all too believable, whereas the male ones - the super heros are completely over-the-top and obviously "pretend".

This was brought home when at two and a half my son suddenly took a stand and refused to visit his grandmother. When the car would come to a stop outside her house he'd cling frantically to his car seat and scream. We didn't have the heart to take him inside and we'd turn the car around and leave. It took many weeks before I got to the bottom of his dread. He'd recently heard the story of Snow White and because my mother had been in the habit of giving the grandchildren shiny polished red apples he'd become convinced that she was a witch.

I, of course, took great pleasure in informing her of this discovery. "It is because he thinks you are a witch," I explained straight-faced on the phone.

Ah! The joys of being a grown-up daughter! I smiled my Lucy smile ...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Tot-mom, Octomom and now the Beer Mat Mum

Americans are so creative when it comes to English; they don't have the British hang-ups of grammar and accepted usage. Personally I find it refreshing.

If there isn't an existing single word for something, they just make one up. Take the relatively recent '-mom' suffix for example.

With recent spate of newsworthy mothers or 'moms', the media has taken to circumvent describing the mother in question by her name (too forgettable) or by a clause (too hard), by suffixing "mom" to the object of her notoriety.

So instead of 'Casey Anthony, mother of murdered toddler Caylee', we have "tot-mom". See the Google results for tot mom and Nancy Grace who I think coined the term.

Then there's "Octomom" for Nadia Suleman who recently gave birth to octuplets, giving her a total of 14 children to raise single-handedly.

To have the suffix "-mom" applied is obviously a BAD THING. And until this week it was an AMERICAN BAD THING.

But now Australians have their own suffix of -mom, or -mum to give the Australian spelling.

Suddenly I am a proud Aussie! Australia, land of (and what other country could lay claim to such fame?) the Beer-Mat-Mum.

Crickey! And yes Crickey has hit the nail on the head when it describes Beer-Mat-Mum - Annice Smoel's - publicity seeking over an incident in Thailand. As Crickey put it, the Australian media had a field day with the story of Annice Smoel's arrest in Thailand for allegedly stealing a beer mat in a bar in the tourist resort of Phuket. After she was caught red-handed she tried to bribe the policeman and later verbally abused the local police chief. Or so the story goes ...

Suddenly Ms Smoel was everyone's idea of an Aussie mum. One could almost see her in a Meadow Lea margarine ad, giving her four cute Aussie kids a wholesome after school snack. An innocent abroad, a traumatized Ms Smoel - now identifies with drug-runner Schapelle Corby. I suppose she has a point. After all, they both claimed that the items in question (in Corby's case, Marijuana) were placed in their bags by others.

Ms. Smoel is out of jail now. She ended up getting a $40 fine and has left Thailand. But that's not enough. She intends to get her revenge. She'll not be eating Thai food at her homecoming dinner. That'll show those nasty Thais. How dare they have their own laws and refuse bribes!

Beer-Mat-Mum obviously thinks it's just fine to travel abroad to a sovereign nation, to disrespect its laws and to attempt to bribe it's police. That the Australian media encourages such bad manners is lamentable.

Does Beer-Mat-Mum really think she behaved well? Would the press have been so sympathetic had she not been white blond and reasonably attractive? Would the Prime Minister of Australia offered comments if the misdemeanor had occurred in the United States?

I've seen ugly Australians abroad in Asian counties. I've seen Australian women boast about going into Balinese temples when they are menstruating. I've seen how Australian oafs treat Asian women. I've also seen ugly Americans and ugly French. And no doubt, ugly Thais. But the fact is that I am Australian and I can't help feeling in some way accountable.

Shame on you Beer-Mat-Mum. You have disgraced your country. Yep Ms Beer Mat, you certainly f*cked up in Phuket.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

On dropping out of trees

About one hundred years ago I knew a young woman in Australia who, amongst other things, used to drop out of trees.

Her name was Zen - well that was the name she called herself - her real name being something traditional like Heather or Susan. Zen did other things apart from dropping out of trees. Like posing on a stage in a deserted RSL hall, a stage empty of all props except for three shiny river stones, and Zen herself of course. Standing next to the rocks Zen would pose, adopting a Japanese Geisha posture, face powdered white with a little red mouth lipsticked over her generous Australian one. Zen had long bright red hair. The effect was unnerving. But then, there'd be only one or two of us in the audience, the rest of the world being blissfully oblivious to Zen's performance art.

The falling-out-of-a-tree thing involved a different costume - that of a Raggedy Anne doll. Zen's hair would be done up in two red plaits tied at the ends with pink and yellow polka-dotted bows. She'd wear a blue dress with a big red sash tied at the pack by another bow. There were bows on her patent leather shoes and bows on the white organdy apron. Zen truly looked like a rag doll.

Zen chose her venues with a caution that was somewhat out of character compared with the persona that she perceived herself to be. She chose university campuses rather than public parks. Undergraduates being more likely to forgive being given the fright of their lives when an apparently lifeless body dressed in ribbons and bows drops from above in front of them.

Because of course, having dropped, Zen would just lie there, perfectly still, limbs akimbo, eyes wide open staring lifelessly straight ahead.

Man leaning on tree, 2nd Avenue
I've lost contact with Zen. I never even hear about her. She appears to have dropped off the face of the earth. Perhaps literally, making one giant Zen-step forward, graduating from trees to our very own planet Earth. These days I rarely think of her, remembering her today for the first time in years, when I passed this sorry fellow on my way to breakfast. I circled him twice, trying to work out what the matter with him was. He didn't seem drunk, and I wondered why he didn't go and lie down on one of the many benches in the square.

Skateboarder with peal necklace, 2nd Avenue
Of course there are many strange sights to be seen in New York. Just a few weeks ago, not one hundred metres from where the man was leaning against the tree this morning, a skateboarder happily posed for me in his happy tshirt. And lest you think ho-hum, what's so odd about that, note that he is wearing a pearl necklace. And last night on my way home from work, a man got on the Second Avenue bus wearing fishnet stockings and shorts made out of gold lurex, a hounds tooth jacket - the sort one imagines being worn by Welsh English professors sitting in armchairs in front of wood fires in stone cottages, and a top hat. Such bizarre sights are commonplace here - and hence the saying, "Only in New York".

But it isn't true. It isn't only in New York. Well maybe it is, but then the people who say that have never been dropped on from above by a girl named Zen.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Three of Us

I'm planning a trip to Sweden.

It's fun. It's been years since I've ventured abroad and this trip has fallen in my lap, so to speak. My friend Alice invited me. Alice in New York.

An apartment-bound Sunday. "Wanna go to Sweden?", asked Alice, "Great", I replied. And we worked it all out. Continental Airlines. Sometime in July.

"Where shall we stay?" I asked Alice. "Oh,with my sister", she answered. Alice's family is Chinese and Alice is Australian, though like me she lives in New York. Her sister is married to a Swede, hence the trip.

Two days later and I'm in my office. The phone rings. I pick up. "It's me, Alice", comes the caller's answer. "Oh hi", I begin, only to be drowned out by Musak. I'm on hold.

Now I've called companies and been put on hold, but I've never had someone call ME and put me on hold.

Intrigued, I wait. At last I hear a sound. But not a sound I expected. The sound of giggling girls. What was this?

"Oh hello", I hear. Two voices in unison. Two Chinese voices. Memories of ... "We are Siamese if you please; we are Siamese if you don't please". But these are Chinese voices - if you please. Images of young Chinese girls giggling behind fans.

"Excuse me," I say. "I've been put on hold before but ... " And the giggles increase. Obviously something is extremely hilarious. I picture Chinese girls, eyes peeping out over delicate 'King and I" fans of 50 years ago. "Excuse me", I say again, feeling rather large and Western. "This is me and who are you?"

Shrieks of tinsely laughter. "Hello", they answer in unison. "Can we help you?"

"You called me!!!" I explain - losing it.

And suddenly the conversation takes on a tone of reality.

"You come to Sweden? I am Alice! Yes", one titters - "Alice told me. tee-hee-tee" (memories of Pearl Buck and "The Good Earth" - or ...)

It turns out that both sisters are called Alice.

"This is confusing," I murmur, forgetting where I was and searching for the shiraz.

"Oh no", they chorus. "Please call me Fay". "Which one?" I ask, "The laughter and the giggles stifle any response.

Alice, Fay, whoever. I am sure we'll have a lot of fun in Sweden. I just have to work out my own name.

I'm inclining to "Pearl", but who knows

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Half a Glass of Poison

"You are a cynical crapehanger who always sees the glass half-empty!"
"No, you're wrong. I see the glass half full, but of poison."
- Woody Allen, Scoop 2008

There are few things as annoying to me as the eternal optimist. "She'll grow out of it." "Things are looking up." "Look at the butterflies."

Throughout my life - at every stage, I've had to live with inane comments - from optimists.

When I was young, it didn't really worry me. Things don't really "matter" when one is young. "It'll be better when you have a job," maiden aunts would tell me when I'd had to give up university because my mother couldn't pay the fees and my dad was an alcoholic non wage-earner Trotskyite in New Zealand. Sure. I went with it.

But I was so much older then", as Bob Zimmerman explains. "I'm younger than that now."

And so now, I'm sorry, but I'm not so tolerant when it comes to dealing with optimists. Or ... let me qualify that ... with selective optimists. For it seems to me that the so-called optimists are not optimistic about everything - only about things that effect others.

I have a friend of over one quarter of a century. When I met her I was wandering in a park. The park was not far from where I lived. The locals called it "MacArthur Park". But no one left any cake out in the rain. We were too poor to eat cake and Eddie Izzard of Izzard of "Cake or Death" was merely a future glint in his daddy's eye.

The would-be-friend saw me in the park and invited me to her house for afternoon tea. I accepted and crossed the road to her place, where upon I was led into her dining room. Of sorts. There I saw a number of people (12?) arranged around long table. Visions of da Vinci's "Last Supper". On the table was an impeccably starched and ironed linen table-cloth. Later I was to discover she was Ukrainian.

In the centre of the table-cloth was a very small silver tea-pot. It would have held perhaps, one cup. I didn't turn it over, for obvious reasons. But had I, I am certain it would have read, "Property of Victorian Railways". Seated at the table there were 12 people, 12 cups. And matching saucers..

I sat down and stared. As impractical as I was, and how much more impractical can one be, than an Arts student in 1968 at the University of Melbourne? - I could not imagine how that little silver teacup could serve 12+ people.

My to-be-friend however, was not to be defeated. She, in her Annie Hall clothes (several years before Annie Hall ever walked upon the silver screen), shrugged, looked innocent, held the tiny teapot up, and with a Marilyn Monroe smile, looked convincingly helpless.

It was on that day that I learned how to be a woman.

Decades have passed and we are in another century. The optimism of the tea cup has paled. I think of those dreadful books and films - the YaYa Sisterhood, the Denim Pants Society , the Traveling T-shirt Pumpkin Letter Writers. My god. But at the core of their assinity there's a certain - je ne sais quoi. And I'm not going there.

The teacup. The optimism. The impracticality.

Thing have changed. My friend and I have moved on. But I've not mastered the art of pessimistic optimism. To me the tea-cup is neither full or empty. It's just a tea cup.

But my friend... Well, there's the rub.

"Hello", I'll say on the phone. "How's things?"

"Oh", she'll answer. "My daughter, well blah, blah, blah... She had a headache and dropped a pen What will I do?"

"Half yer luck", I might respond. "Mine's on heroin and ice and has overdosed. She's preggers, has no $$ and her boyfriend is a wife basher. Plus all her teeth were knocked out and she's been arrested".

"Oh, but she's smart and she'll grow out of it I'm sure," says my friend. "But my daughter X my God her boyfriend just won film producer of the year and she's jealous. So neurotic. What shall I do?"

"Have a cup of tea out of that silver teacup", I want to say. But I can't.

Instead I commiserate. "Yes that's SO bad. How long has this been going on?" I ask. "How DO you cope. Blah blah".

And pour myself a cup of tea.

The poison can come later.