Category Archives: Family

Why Rosie Batty has it wrong

Rosie Batty has it wrong. There is no doubt she has endured terrible tragedy and been the victim not only of domestic violence but of a failed system. She’s a strong and resilient woman. However, this doesn’t mean she’s

Domestic violence isn’t a women’s issue, it’s a mental health issue. Now this may seem obvious to most but to some this has seemingly gone over their heads. Furthermore, while women are primarily the victims of domestic violence, it’s overwhelmingly a men’s issue, a drug and alcohol issue and a community issue, not a women’s issue.

And no amount of refuge funding, crisis accommodation or advertising dollars is going to change that.

I can imagine the perpetrator of domestic violence watching a TV add that criticizes his behaviour jumping up, saying he’s sorry to everyone and forevermore changing his ways. Unlikely.couple

The nuclear family, our society’s lynchpin for family relationships is a breeding ground for all types of dysfunctional behaviour. While those more well-off in society may find the nuclear family  tenable, those locked away in three bedroom brick veneer in the ‘risk area’ fringes of our cities and regional centres are doing it tough.  Without extended family help, financial security and a supportive community, these couples exist in a cauldron few cope well with.  The pressure to pay the mortgage – often a pressure falling on the man, is a pressure that is often too much to bear. It didn’t work in the 1950’s and it doesn’t work now.

Men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. In regional and fringe areas, this figure is greater. While women obviously feel the pressure that nuclear family isolation provides, women are more likely to have a social group for sharing and working things out. Men on the other hand are more likely to take refuge in alcohol or other substances in order to quell their depression – a depression they are unlikely to admit to. The crystal meth epidemic has taken hold in Australia. Add this to the availability of alcohol and we have a mental health crisis, a crisis with domestic violence as just one of the by-products.

Rosie Batty’s focus on the court and refuge system is missing the point completely.  Yes, there needs to be consistency in the law and support for victims. Yes, the $400,000 per year to keep an asylum seeker is silly when we have problems on the home front. Yes, saving the lives of woman and children is important.

Yet so is the overall improvement of services that support men as well as women.  As a society we must address the problem at its root cause, not simply provide a band-aid after the cut is made. For then the damage is done and can’t be reversed.

In a civilized society, we’ll stop it happening in the first place.

Dumping romance for the sake of kids

This piece was first published in Online Opinion on 29/9/2011.

Child Protection week saw its noble focus placed heavily on preserving marriage for the sake of children. Numerous pundits, including Patrick Parkinson from the International Society of Family Law urged governments to support programs aimed at helping marriages stay committed ‘for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health’. The intention is admirable and no-one doubts that.

The discussion has managed to place marriage and relationships firmly back on the public agenda. Yet child protection commentators, in pressing for greater commitment from adults within the marriage union are missing the crux of the problem entirely.  The problem for children isn’t their parent’s lagging commitment to marriage, but our very definition of an institution which is outdated, restrictive and increasingly unpopular.

The myth of romantic marriage and the nuclear family ideal that evolves from it has never been in deeper trouble than it is now. Today’s divorce statistics place marriage very much in the high risk basket. If the institution was a bank it would have very few investors. Only the mad would invest in a bank with a 46% failure rate.

Why is marriage, which seemingly worked well for hundreds of years in so much trouble?  Perhaps the simplest reason is that as our knowledge, wealth and life span have increased, we’ve realised that one person cannot possibly meet all our needs for the rest of our lives. Our average age of death since 1790 has moved from 45 to 80 years, and the ‘rest of our lives’ is a bloody long time! As medical science has increased our life expectancy, it has decreased our marital satisfaction. As we’ve become wealthier, we find we don’t ‘need’ our significant other for survival.

Mum and dad cannot possibly mean all things to each other because in our fast-paced, connected world, ‘all things’ means a hell of a lot.  In a small, isolated community it’s far easier to be all things to one’s partner. We possibly even need them to survive. When the world is at our fingertips, our choices are limitless and the ability of one person to address them all has its bounds.

Yet another reason is perhaps the most important. As education levels have increased, the penny has finally dropped that nuclear families do not provide the safest and healthiest way of bringing up children. Far from providing a protective umbrella of care as in extended family or community systems, the nuclear family through the institution of marriage creates a narrow funnel of care; a funnel firmly fixed on mum and dad; a funnel of responsibility too great for any couple to realistically bear.

This toxic nuclear family ideal, and the myth of romantic marriage that gives birth to it, must accept some responsibility for the extent of child abuse in this country.

In an attempt to forge a way out of the divorce mire, the idea of the limited marriage contract is once again on the table. The language used in this discussion is decidedly removed from any ideal of ‘forever love’ and firmly placed in the practical world of 21st century relationships. Yes, any talk of a marriage contract instantly pours cold water on romance just as finding the mortgage payment pours cold water on the ideal of home ownership. Time to grow up.

These contracts talk about finance and housing; about land entitlement and health; about family responsibilities should the couple separate before a child’s 18th birthday. If as research states, the chance of children reaching the age of 15 without two parents at home has doubled over a generation, what extended family or community links exist to ensure children’s safety?

21st century contracts will realistically appraise marriage as an investment with a 46% failure rate. If couples absolutely need to invest in the marriage ‘bank’, they must understand what it means to be a part of that 46%.

The modern marriage contract will have an expiry date with an option to renew. This expiry date could be shorter should the couple remain childless or longer should children arrive.  The relationship under the contract may change over the years and the individuals may not always live under the same roof. The couple however, maintain a core understanding for the well-being of the children. Mothers will always have important maternal contact. Fathers will always remain involved in their children’s lives.

Interestingly, American researcher Kyle Pruett found that fathers who are significantly involved in the daily physical care of their children are far less likely to be involved in the abuse of their own or anyone else’s children.  In the light of this, perhaps those pressing for more ‘commitment’ within marriage could also press for less industry time demands on dads.

An intelligent society questions the institutions that generate concern. Savvy investors question companies that fail to deliver. Rather than blindly invest in an institution with a 46% failure rate, it’s time to reappraise marriage and the family unit it generates. Perhaps then will children be the focus of a less romantic, yet highly possible relationship platform.

The 2016 HSC: Time for the digital exam

This is a 2016 update of the piece that first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 6, 2011.

In October each year, tens of thousands of teenagers from across NSW sit their first exam of the Higher School Certificate (HSC). After 12 years of formal education and sometimes umpteen hours of private coaching, they will raise their pens and begin the frantic, anxious scrawl that for 50 years has epitomised this rite of passage. As an ex-teacher, I supervised this herd anxiety many times. Thankfully now non-teaching supervisors do the job. It’s horrible to watch.

In 1967, when the first HSC examination was held, students filed solemnly into school halls or double classrooms to write rushed pen-scribbled essays in paper booklets. Their wrists ached from gripping the pen and the booklets were often smudged with sweat. These booklets were then sent to HSC marking centres where markers, teachers who wanted extra cash and supposedly knew their stuff, worked hard and long to read the scrawl and assess whether students had addressed the syllabus. That prehistoric system has clearly changed dramatically in our digital age. Not!

In 2016, students will still file solemnly into school halls or double classrooms. They will still rush their essays using pen and paper booklets. Their wrists will still ache. Their papers will be taken to marking centers, where informed (or not) teachers wanting extra cash will mark to standardised guidelines. Possibly the only difference is that the essay scribble this October will be far less legible due to this generation who’ve been taught to use technology rather than pen and paper. I pity the markers. hsc-stress

In 2016 again, the Board of Studies has given millions of dollars to the advancement of STEM subjects in NSW schools. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. I guess hundreds of years ago, pens and pencils may have been a terrific STEM concept.

Today’s students from the age of three have sculpted their lives around their computers and the websites that frame their social experience. Their school life has revolved around the typing and digital editing of projects.  Often assignments must be submitted electronically through plagiarism programs like ‘Turn it in’ before any hard-copy is given to the teacher. Compulsory technology subjects have been allocated time in the curriculum to prepare them for the world of work or further study where absolutely everything has to be digitally generated.

Why then, after so much technology focus, are these teenagers forced to use pen and paper to get the best marks in a test that largely decides their future? Surely the writing of an impressive essay on Othello requires word processing and editing, a skill taught to these students throughout their school years? School principals are asking the same question. Students are asking the question very loudly indeed.

The NSW Board of Studies however states that “the HSC is a hand-written examination”. Not even students with hand injuries are allowed a computer in case they gain “unfair advantage” over those scribbling with pen.

Yet according to Board of Studies data, some students receive special provision in HSC exams that could well be construed as ‘unfair advantage’. In 2009 for example, 41.7 per cent of HSC candidates from a Sydney Rudolf Steiner school received special provisions largely due to anxiety.  These provisions can mean extra time given as periods of rest in an exam, or a writer to actually write dictated material. The difference between fair and unfair advantage can hang on a drop of sweat.

No-one doubts that the introduction of laptops into the HSC has issues. All web-based research by a candidate needs to be blocked. Keyboards can be noisy and this could disturb others (yet many students find the hush of an exam room very disturbing indeed). The constant back-up of entered material needs to be foolproof.

Yet compared to pen and paper issues, these problems seem small. My recent poll in the popular Facebook page HSC Discussion Group 2016 revealed that 78% of HSC students believe the exams should HSC Survey No 3be a mixture of handwritten and computer based depending on the subject. Only 7.5% believed the HSC should be all computer based while 15% wanted to stay entirely with handwriting. These figures show incredible common sense among year 12 students and a willingness to accept that some subjects do warrant the longhand approach.

The introduction of digital testing centers into universities shows that mass equitable testing is possible. Thousands of students now submit both essays and multiple choice tasks via centers equipped with ID checking and security systems.  In 2009, the Board of Studies set 2012 as a target for testing HSC software. It’s already four years late. According to a spokesman, “The pilot and testing of computer technology will happen but there’s no specific date.”

The Board of Studies, so quick to include technology in the K-12 curriculum yet so slow to actually use it, need to set a firm and realistic target so that both teachers and students know where they stand. Digitization of the HSC is inevitable; just don’t throw away your pens yet!

The end of monogamy

This piece was first published in the US based ‘Third Report’.

As our politicians and sports stars fall from monogamous grace like ninepins, and as the US based adultery website ‘Ashley Madison’ prepares its worldwide launch, it’s time to examine the ideal of monogamy in the light of cold, hard 21st century relationship facts.

Monogamy, that ideal expected of anyone in a ‘stable’ relationship, has become an impossible and unnatural practice for many in modern times. David Barash and Judy Lipton, authors of the The Myth of Monogamy, recently told Australia’s ABC that 50-80 per cent of men and just under half of women cheat on their partners. So what is it about monogamy that makes it so damn difficult?

The most recent evolutionary theory is that infidelity may well be a necessary act to increase genetic diversity and guarantee species survival; that while being impossible for a high proportion of the male population, the institution of monogamous marriage may well have outlived its usefulness – even for women. If, as Darwin stated, our primary evolutionary imperative is to survive and reproduce, monogamous marriage, through partner restriction, may be limiting our survival as a species on this planet.

In ancient times, marriage was merely a contract between families to secure land and guarantee the existence of lawful offspring. Men could have concubines and visit prostitutes, while maintaining a relationship with their wives for procreation. As the Greek orator Demosthenes put it: “We have prostitutes for our pleasure, concubines for our health, and wives to bear us lawful offspring.” Publicly at least, women enjoyed no similar liberty.

The increasing power of the Christian Church in Europe meant marriage evolved into a spiritual state where men and women became ‘one flesh’ with all the assistant responsibilities that ‘one flesh’ involved. Monogamy was written into the contract and the marriage sacrament became a contract between the couple and God; a serious contract indeed!

With average life spans in 17th Century Europe of only 40 years, and with a high infant mortality rate, monogamous marriage helped ensure a ‘stable’ environment for children to survive. Poor couples married young and due to the general uncertainty of life, produced many children. Monogamous marriage therefore, could well have been an evolutionary necessity to maintain our genetic legacy.

It’s also true that in these centuries past, people lived in smaller villages and towns – usually with the church at its highest point. Anonymity was difficult, and individuals were less likely to ‘stray’ because infidelity didn’t remain secret for long – especially if it resulted in offspring. As God looked down on his fearful subjects from the town’s central rise, monogamy, however irritating, was easier than infidelity. Church enforced monogamy, fear of God and the monotonous work produced by the early industrial revolution, created a passive and socially controlled workforce unwilling to venture outside the norm.

But in today’s large towns and enormous cities, and with the decreasing influence of the Church in the lives of many, infidelity is not only simple but often without consequence.

Readily available birth control means offspring can be avoided. Flexible working hours means more workers control their own time – a scenario ripe for infidelity, while people are often anonymous in their own neighborhoods, let alone their cities. The moral influence of a close community is virtually non-existent.

Yet perhaps the major force making monogamy an evolutionary anachronism is the wealth and health created by modern life. When resources are scarce, caring for children resulting from multiple partnering is impossible. When resources are plentiful, this care is, if not simple, easily bought from an army of businesses and nannies all too willing to fill the childcare void.

We now live longer than our ancestors and can enter other relationships once our children grow up. 45 was virtually old age in 1765. Now, it’s scarcely middle age and men can reproduce again to further their genetic legacy. Many women of course will say the evolutionary imperative behind infidelity benefits men, with little or nothing positive for them. If spreading our DNA is our dominant evolutionary call, women are restricted by their reproductive clock.

Remember though, that it’s only been the last 300 years that humans have lived into their 80s. Evolutionists are now saying that as humans live longer, it’s probable that women’s reproductive lives will extend proportionally. Indeed, the evidence is telling us that this is already happening with a 60 year study of 2000 North American women by Yale University’s Stephen Stearns revealing women are definitely evolving to reach menopause later in life, According to Stearns, ‘Natural selection is still operating.’, while according to evolutionary theory, this longer childbearing window will allow for multiple partnering, greater genetic diversity and more choices for women.

Yet what of those who elect to ignore the evolutionary lure of infidelity and travel the monogamous road? Are their genes destined for the DNA scrapheap or is there still some positive evolutionary purpose behind ‘As long as we both shall live’?

Monogamy, at least during the initial glow of love, serves a definite evolutionary purpose in guaranteeing paternity (and therefore the selected DNA) of offspring. Indeed, this could well be the only evolutionary purpose behind monogamy in a healthy and wealthy society. If he is monogamous, then she knows that all his resources will go towards the care of her offspring. If she is monogamous, then the offspring will certainly be his and he can provide the resources for its survival without waste.

It’s also true that in a society rife with infections, the monogamous pair will not be exposed to the sexually transmitted kind and could well live longer as a result. With the increase in pharmaceutical quick-fixes for sexually transmitted infections, this theory is diminished. Indeed, The Pill and antibiotics could be regarded as monogamy’s greatest enemies.

As the coming northern hemisphere chill makes snuggling a very attractive pastime, and as Ashley Maddison makes infidelity cool, we could succumb to the moral confusion and self flagellate all in the name of monogamy. Preferably though, we could realise that as intelligent mammals in a free and open society, we need no longer be bound by the dictates of 17th Century Europe and enjoy the biological rush that comes from our ancient evolutionary urges. We could also realise that every biological drive has its consequences, and that those consequences are anything but simple.

Reality: the best gift of all

This piece first appeared on ABC Online on 23/12/08

“And what do you want for Christmas young man?” said the Myer Santa to 10-year Steven. “An Ipod? A Nintendo game? Perhaps a remote control car?”

Steven looked decidedly glum, and after some deliberation, spoke with maturity far beyond his years. “I want the financial crisis to end please Santa. I understand these things sometimes take time to resolve, yet Mum and Dad tell me this Christmas will be far leaner than any before, and that our holiday is going to be at home this year. I’m guessing even you are having trouble affording the raw materials to make all our toys.”

Santa smiled. He knew this was no ordinary Christmas for many kids like Steven.

For the first time in many Aussie kid’s lives, they are experiencing a Christmas not defined by the material overflow that has been the trademark of Christmas for the past decade. Dads and Mums (and Santas) around the country have made the conscious decision to spend less and take control of the largesse that has long defined the holiday season. Rudd Christmas bonus or not, families are tightening their belts, and even the retailing gurus are facing reality.

Richard Evans, Executive Director of the Australian Retailers Association, admits that shoppers have opted for less expensive items, and although “the crowds will be the same, their total spend will be less.” For most of us, this is a no-brainer.

Yet for children faced with the promise of a ‘diminished’ Christmas, the reality of it all must be confusing to say the least. Possibly even more confusing is the feeble efforts of parents in trying to explain this change. If the head of General Motors can’t understand it, how can a 10 year old? Mmmm…perhaps that’s a bad question.

One of the biggest gifts a parent can give a child is the ability to face reality and to understand personal limitations. We’re emerging from a decade when every child was capable of everything and every adult could have it all, to a far more reasoned time. For years, school report cards never told it how it was with children always ‘working towards understanding’ rather than simply ‘not understanding’. The post feminist message that women could ‘have it all’ has been proved a myth with both women and men understanding that life is compromise and attempting to have it all often results in obtaining nothing at all.

For children, understanding that years of plenty are usually followed by years of thrift helps them see the world with a seasonal rhythm and prepare them for the cycles of life with all their ups and downs. Continuing the delusion of everlasting wealth is like believing the myth of everlasting health. Everlasting anything is delusional. As human animals, we’re all subject to the beat of the seasons, whether they are environmental, financial or personal.

It’s in the very seasons of difficulty that communities and families often forget trivial personal disagreements and somehow pull together to overcome whatever external problems they face. Australian mateship wasn’t forged through consumer bliss in Christmas shopping malls, but in a spirit of hardship faced and overcome. Far from resulting in societal disintegration, high and low seasonal cycles help cement the relationships that bind society together. Together we can enjoy the highs, because without being united, we can never overcome the lows.

This Christmas season, it’s perhaps timely to give our children not just a gift that needs unwrapping, but the gift of a conversation about the realities of being a human animal on this planet of ours.  Yet rather than the negative conversation of financial woe that many are having, the conversation could be one of harmony, natural order and togetherness reflected through our seasonal and personal cycles. The kids may not say thank you, or give you a hug, but unlike the Ipod or the Nintendo , it’s a gift that will last a lifetime.

Smiling in the gloom

And the Lord said unto the people of the world, “Verily, as the globe warms and the waters rise and the uncontrolled renovation of bathrooms and kitchens continues unabated, I will send a pestilence. This pestilence will be in the form of an Angel, and this Angel will be called the Angel of Financial Turmoil who will drive out the greedy company directors, merchant bankers and uncontrolled mortgage lenders to the land of moderation and frugality.

“And as the supply of credit dries, there will be no more funds for expensive four wheel drives nor the fuel they consume. The people of the world will reduce their consumption of all things, and will begin to walk, ride pushbikes or take public transport. Lo, they will realise that there is little money for regular restaurant meals or a diet of take-away food. They will once again grow vegetables, milk the beast and sustain themselves. The word ‘McDonald’ will once again be a Scottish clan and obesity will be no more. The people will rise and be fruitful and while they will not even think about it, they will be happy.”

When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. Some however found an interesting parallel between financial turmoil and the world’s need to consume less. Some understood the sign and saw that God and Nature had fought back in the way that people would best understand; that if reducing consumption to save the planet wouldn’t force change, reducing consumption because they had no money to do otherwise would have to do.

The financial turmoil of the past month has left many looking at ways to save a few dollars. My conversations with local restaurant owners indicate people are eating out less, and when they do, they’re becoming more price conscious.  Radio gardening shows have begun serious talk-back on growing vegetables and raising chickens.

According to media reports, many are taking to the pushbike to save on fuel and parking costs. The world is certainly a different place, and while many mourn the loss of financial freedom the ‘Angel’ has delivered, others see our sudden consumption consciousness as the first step in solving the world’s climate crisis, perhaps a first step they were unable to take by themselves.

According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature, if the demands on our planet continue at the same rate, “by the mid 2030’s, we’d need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.” For the unconscious spender, this simply means two planets to renovate. Great! To others, 2030 is very close indeed.

Yet rather than cry in our double brie about it all, there’s a definite feeling that this change, this new world we’re entering, could be OK. That in delivering the pestilence, the Angel has created a non-negotiable set of rules that we must abide by. Carte Blanch is fine, yet limits created through necessity provide a structure and direction that western society has lacked. Like a tear-away child needing discipline, western consumers ran away with the ball, really wanting someone to give chase and read us the riot act so we could feel safe within fair boundaries.

Capitalism, bless its little heart, has allowed us to do what we want when we want, yet capitalism spinning out of control creates individual greed and community breakdown. The ridiculous salaries paid to some company directors represents capitalism gone mad, especially when these salaries stand alongside declining literacy, underfunded hospital systems and an indigenous problem that we should all be ashamed of.

Yet we’re all responsible. I saw no street protests when the Macquarie Bank chiefs walked away with their zillions. Words of dissent in Australian society have been few and far between, and while we were renovating, many tear-aways ran away with the ball. Indeed, we may have run and hidden the ball ourselves somewhere in our new kitchen!

The structure, direction and limitation imposed through necessity need not spell doom and gloom. Throughout history, it’s the ‘difficult’ periods that create community and a sense of ‘pulling together’. Australian ‘mateship’ wasn’t a product of good times and consumer bliss but the result of hardship and necessary limits. Whatever the advertisers try and spin us, our lasting memories aren’t of lying in the sun sipping margaritas, but of the holiday when we had to overcome something that went drastically wrong. It’s of having something to work for with creativity and flair, not just having something to spend. It’s the memory of crusty bread from an old wood-fired oven, or long seasons without air-conditioning waiting for the southerly buster. It’s of warm bottled milk capped with cream, home without renovation and the romance of old things.

And as the people worked, and as they celebrated the Feast of Weeks with the first fruits of the harvest, they realised what they’d lost in the years between then and now. They laughed and they sung. They ate, drunk and danced and the children danced with them. They made love and made no plans – certainly no renovation plans. And the Lord saw that although the food was plain, and the wine cleanskin, it was all very, very good.

Finding Community: A Christmas or anytime wish

This piece was published in the Melbourne Age in December 2001

Ask anyone what is missing in 21st century life this Christmas and the chances are pretty high that the word ‘community’ will be listed somewhere. Sure, they’ll list the detail like time with the kids and wooden toys, but I’ll bet that somewhere in the top 10 will be that romantic notion of a ‘sense of community’.

Whereas the word ‘community’ once meant a township, or place, ‘community’ is now some ‘feeling’ we long for, and if we can only find this ‘feeling’ the empty hole in our psyche will be filled.

So where if anywhere has our sense of community gone? Many believe it went west with the advent of globalisation or the introduction of internet communities. Others lean towards the work v’s community theory; that the more we work, the less time we have for building a nourishing sense of community.

I don’t subscribe to any of those theories. Many young people talk glowingly of their strong communities formed online. Long, hard work has been around for eons. For many traditional cultures, hard work is so enmeshed with family and indeed survival that our current privilege of separating work and home life doesn’t’ exist.

A more likely answer to our waning sense of community stems from our current fixation with it. I’m convinced that as we become more and more obsessed with finding our lost sense of community, we actually lessen our chances of ever finding it.

Several years ago I joined a commune in order to establish a sense of place. The same motive drove the other participants, and for a while all went well in our consciously created, manufactured community.

But ultimately, our ‘boy band’ of middle class social existence began to crumble. We learnt that trying to consciously create a basic building block of human existence without at least some degree of natural cohesion was disastrous. Our attempt at mapping and manipulating the community genome failed. While we could plan our careers, our holidays and our finances, we simply couldn’t plan and create the thing we desired most.

Yet in our totally planned and timetabled lives, it’s hard to believe that there are just some things that can’t be obtained through conscious endeavor. We tend to believe there must be a formula for everything. If we learn about money we’ll be rich. If we work hard at marriage we’ll live happily ever after. If we learn the secrets of happy children our kids will lead trouble free lives. Bollocks!

Some things in life tend to happen with very little conscious effort. Falling in love is one of them, and like finding love, community will probably be found where and when we least expect it.

So how do we suddenly stop the search and gather the faith to rely on a happy accident to fill our community vacuum?

Perhaps the best message is to simply forget about it all together. Wipe the phrase ‘sense of community’ from the vocabulary completely.  If we go to church, go to worship God as the only reason. If we buy real estate, buy it because we like the house, not because the agent flogs the ‘community’ angle. Shop, sing more, walk the dog and dig the garden. Eat heartily with friends and family this Christmas. Have a drink or two…just don’t even think about community.

It may be then that this Christmas, we’ll find our lost ‘sense of community’ in the nooks and crannies of our existing ordinary lives; in a space we’ve been all along; in a space we were too busy searching for to find.

When giving isn’t giving

This piece appeared in the Melbourne Age in January 2004

I’ve just had my worst ever day of shopping and it had absolutely nothing to do with the annual post-Christmas sales. The crowds were fine, I managed to find a car park in less than 10 minutes and I even remembered my green carry bag so I wouldn’t destroy the environment.

No, my shocker experience was linked to something far deeper and more troublesome than crowds or parking. The sole cause of my daeus-horribillus was that creeping mug of a Christmas present – the gift voucher.

While there’s no formal research on the emerging popularity of the gift voucher, my highly academic questioning of three shop assistants revealed that this Christmas was, as one put it “a voucher boom Christmas.” In our hectic, self-absorbed world, the voucher makes perfect sense.

Now I don’t know how many others received these pretty bits of cardboard or plastic but I’ll bet you would number in the thousands or even hundreds of thousands. You know the ones, they usually have a line that says ‘From’ where the friend or relative nicely prints their name followed by a “To” where your name appears. Underneath that is a dollar amount that firmly fixes your value to the said relative or friend. I’d guess some vouchers have three figures or even four. Mine only had two, and I received three of ‘em. They were all for the same amount and all from relatives. For a while I was pleased that I’d managed to be consistent in my dealings with family. That feeling didn’t last long.

For what a voucher effectively does is put the effort of gift decision-making and purchase firmly back on the head of the receiver. Rather than taking time and effort to search for the right gift for the right person, the voucher buyer simply says ‘stuff it, I’m not gonna battle these Christmas crowds and search for a gift that shows I’m really thinking of ‘em, I’ll just buy ‘em some credit and they can do the work.” The buyers are actually thinking of themselves!

Now I know I’m male and not that much into shopping. I know going to a mall doesn’t thrill me much, and yes, I’ll admit it, I’ve also been guilty of buying gift vouchers. This Christmas I gave two. Yet my guess is that even the most ardent shoppers go through some anxiety when doing their inevitable voucher ‘dumping’.

My 10 year-old daughter is into shopping big time. She mainly hunts for earrings and clothes, yet is also into shoes, cosmetics and anything else she’s not allowed to buy with her pocket money. As she also had a voucher from a popular CD outlet to ‘dump’ and as she usually has no trouble making decisions, I thought I’d take her along.

We went to the popular CD outlet first. I thought a bit of solid 10 year-old decision making with swift purchase would set us off on the right foot. I was wrong. After 30 minutes browsing the racks I realised she really only knew two acts and both Shania and Missy were delivered by Santa. Faced with 40 thousand CDs and DVDs she went into buyer shock and was frozen by too much choice. I knew how she felt as I go through the same thing every time I go to the video-hire store. I’d rather they gave me a list of five and made me choose from them.

I then made the most crazy business deal I’ve made in 2004. “Would you like me to give you the $30 cash and I’ll use the voucher when I want to buy a CD?” Her decision was instant and now I’ll have to go back to the mall to dump the voucher at some other time. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

We then went to the bookstore to dump two of my vouchers and where I experienced the same decision anxiety as my daughter. Faced with millions of titles, I was bamboozled by choice. There was nothing I particularly wanted and ended up getting some books ‘on sale’ I had only remotely heard about and that added up to my personal two-digit value.

Our final voucher dump was at a large department store where I was determined to buy a new tie. Now I haven’t shopped for ties in years as ‘significant others’ have always given them as gifts. I have no idea what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’ so using the video store idea I collected five reasonable ties in order to narrow down the field. I thought each tie would easily fit my voucher value and was stunned to discover that even at the sales, each tie was worth more than double the value one family member had put on me.

My daughter then came over with a tie she said was really cool. She had recently finished a geometry unit at school and the tie was covered in angular shapes. She pointed out a parallelogram. The best thing though, was that the tie fitted my voucher value. I now own the tie.

Giving a gift means caring about someone. It involves knowing what they like and taking the time to find the gift that will in some way add to their life, or at least not diminish it. My new-year resolution then, is to avoid the gift voucher completely during 2005. As hard as it may be in our fast-paced, news hardened world, I’m going to try to find the time and energy to choose meaningful gifts that are symbols of care, rather than symbols of my own self-focused busy-ness. By doing so, the ritual of gift giving for me at least, will hold so much more.

My Father’s Comb

This piece appeared in the Melbourne Age in January 2003

Of all the paraphernalia that hung around my father’s bedroom thirty years ago, the item I remember most is his comb. It was tortoiseshell, and had an amazing amount of ‘stuff’ wedged between each tooth…just where the teeth met the jaw.

Months of accumulated Bryllcream, ‘Bardsley’s Tonic, dandruff and whatever else had formed a sort of grey sludge that never seemed to shift. My sister and I would look at the comb and marvel. How could anyone use such a thing? Didn’t he ever wash it? Was it alive?

Yet every New Years Day, without fail, the comb would be washed. Dad would perch over the concrete laundry tub with a small nail-brush and scrub the thing. In our childhood memories, the ‘cleansing’ seemed to take the best part of half an hour, yet childhood memories aren’t always accurate.

As we prepare to enter another year, little benchmarks about the past 12 months tend to spring to mind for us all. These are the little memories that help us mark the passage of time. My father’s cleansing of the comb was a benchmark for my sister and I; a pivotal memory we can’t forget. My daughter’s first school play was an enormous benchmark for her this year. My friend talks about his retrenchment as if it was his coming of age; his rite of passage. For another friend, it was her son moving out of home and living with his girlfriend. Little boy no more.

For me, this new year marks the sixth year of my father’s dementia…a disease that not only robs sufferers of their history, but of any small landmarks that helps them distinguish the years, celebrate or lament their passing and prepare them for the coming year. For dementia patients, there are few memories and few benchmarks.

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia generally are on the rise in Australia. The experts tell us that these conditions of old age are expected to rise by up to 250% over the next 40 years. Unfortunately it seems that being able to live longer and possess stronger physical health doesn’t always mean that our mental health will keep pace.

We first noticed dad having trouble driving. The Chrysler Sigma would suffer immensely from having both the accelerator and the brake pedal pushed at the same time. He’d forget to indicate and at one stage, completely forgot where he was going and needed to ask me why we were driving. God knows how many times that happened when he was driving alone.

Then were the fits of anger…anger yelled to the world after years of suppression; anger desperate for a voice. The voices were always inappropriate and misdirected. Sometimes at his wife, sometimes at me, sometimes at my young daughter, sometimes at the garden. On thinking about it, perhaps they were appropriately directed after all. It was the vitriolic expression that shocked us.

After a year it was the constant ticks, the incessant scratching of an imaginary piece of dust or crumb on his clothing. He’d also relate stories about this man or that who’d come through the house the night before. He’d always laugh at their boldness, and he’d always comment on their physical appearance. They were always fat.

Later on, through several bouts of bronchitis and an episode of pneumonia, he lost his ability to walk and talk. He hasn’t spoken for a year now. He sits, head down, dressed in his grey work pants as if he just stepped out of his shift at Grace Bros. His wife, desperate for normality, often props the newspaper on his lap as if he’s reading. Dad looks down for a while and then begins to scratch at the letters. It’s anything but normality.

As 2003 dawns, perhaps it’s time to consider our own benchmarks a little more. To reflect on the important personal events that marked the passing of the last 12 months. To ‘measure out our lives’ while we still can.

Reflection on the pros and cons of the year gives us a template for the next, yet while reflection is important, it’s also the documenting of these benchmarks that is necessary.

The onset of my father’s dementia meant that our family lost an individual’s memory; a resource we all desperately need as we approach curious middle age. This memory contained much of our family story; a story important to us all and a story we’d only dipped into a few times.

Questions my family would now dearly love answered can never be answered. We have some photographs, a few medals, sports awards and our own childhood memories. Yet our story begins at chapter seven, not at chapter one as my father would have told it.

So rather than settling down on New Year’s Day to a good book, it’s perhaps the best time of all to begin our own book; to record even briefly the events and lessons that made 2003 great or disastrous for us as individuals or collectively as families.

The grammar need not be brilliant and the spelling can be lousy. It’s the documentation that’s important; the action of making our memory accessible by all at a time when our memories are still lucid. On thinking about it, perhaps the hangovers of New Year’s Day make it a bad choice for many. Thursday may be a better day to start.

Contemporary fashion has spelt the end of the comb. Its popularity went west with Brylcreme and Bardsley’s tonic. Instead my modern bathroom cabinet boasts a number of brushes…several of my partners and one of mine.

My daughter, who seems to collect brushes and hide them in her bedroom, never touches my tatty thing. My partner avoids touching my brush at all. If she ever does its to put it way below in the cabinet so others can’t see it.

So this New Year, after writing a few lines of the family story, I think I’ll reinstate a 30 year-old benchmark and give my brush a rinse. It may be hidden forever among fluffy toys and tweeny cosmetics, but it will probably make us all very happy.

Lessons from the Mongoose

This article first appeared in ‘My Child’ magazine in 2006

New parents tend to be a fairly blinkered lot. For most of us, our world is so firmly fixed on our beautiful new addition that the outside world doesn’t exist. This outside world strangely enough, is a place where life marches on without talk of nappies, breastfeeding or wind. It contains people who incomprehensibly don’t see our child as the very center of their universe. Good heavens!

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s a very solid reason why new parents are so single-mindedly child-absorbed. Biologically, new parents are programmed to do their best to guarantee the survival of their child and thus the continuation of their genetic stuff. I know it sounds harsh but it’s true. It’s the same with all animals, yet unlike the mongoose or the funnel web, out young are fairly hopeless in the fighting, hunting and gathering departments for several years. They rely on us to ensure they at least get to the hunting and gathering stage in one piece. I suppose we call it love. I don’t know what mongooses call it. Mongoose

Now in this stable, wealthy country of ours, this should be an easy task. We don’t have the threat of saber-toothed tigers, malaria or rat plague to worry about. NSW isn’t in a civil war with Queensland and unlike certain types of monkey we don’t need to guard against cannibal raids from the neighboring troop. So what do we worry about? What do we need to protect out children from so we can put our natural biological urges to good use? There’s gotta be something!

On asking a couple of new mums this question up at my local café, one came up with a frightening response. It was definitely a threat that no other generation of kids would have been exposed to and I’m not talking bird flu or reality TV here. She reckoned that the main concern with many new parents was that dreaded ‘I’ word…Imperfection. Most parents wanted their child to be not only safe from any form of harm, but they’d do just about anything to maximise their child’s chance of winning in the perfection stakes. From pre-school education to fashion to creative play, today’s toddlers have the expectation that ‘middle of the pack’ just isn’t good enough. If little Amy isn’t interested in reading at three there’s a problem. Ug!

Now this made me think. My grandmother was the second in a family of six kids. My grandfather was the fifth of five. If, as the statistics show, parents these days are having less children than their ancestors, then the biological pressure to ensure the survival of our smaller families is far more intense.

Indeed, if we choose to only have one child, then we’d better make pretty damn sure that child is 100% cocooned until they reach the hunting and gathering stage and can fend for themselves. Not only that, we’d better guarantee they are 100% equipped to deal with whatever nasty forces he or she confronts in adulthood or our genetic line is well and truly stuffed!

Perhaps the one way to make sure our smaller ‘flock’ survives is to make them perfect, or at least as perfect as they can be. This would pretty much comply with Darwin’s ‘Survival of the fittest’ theory. If our child looks better than others, is healthier than others, more intelligent than others, wiser than most, consistent in action and in all ways the brightest star in our local sky, then according to the theory, he or she should survive hands down. A no-brainer really.

Wrong! We here in parent-land have forgotten that in trying to make any creature more perfect, we actually put them at greater risk. Think about it for a sec. If as human animals we cocoon our young in blankets of safety and perfection, don’t we in some ways maximise the chance that when a negative force does hit, it will hit a damn sight harder than it would if our young been just that little bit rough around the edges?

Molecular biology tells us that if a cell is exposed to and survives threats in the form of viruses, bacteria and harsh conditions, that cell will be more robust in enduring future similar attacks. Many pediatricians are now urging parents to let their child eat the occasional bit of slime off the floor or be exposed to the cold more often; that doing so makes the child’s immune system robust and able to fend off other nasties when they attack.

My daughter ate a snail once. The frothy stuff coming from the side of her mouth didn’t seem to worry her but it sure as hell worried me. I then discovered seven of the buggers in her pocket ready to be snacked on when the mood took her. While I didn’t endorse her choice of snack food, I often wonder whether her time running around naked on the farm in Kangaroo Valley, getting filthy, kissing sheep, swimming in damns and having to dig holes in the ground because we didn’t have a toilet, has helped her be one of the healthiest and more robust kids around.

Even when Rambo, our demented black sheep butted her painfully on the bum, she learned a pretty useful life lesson. Not everyone or everything is nice…all of the time. Like Rambo, we’re all imperfect creatures, and imperfection is simply a facet of life we adjust to and even embrace, not avoid.

So perhaps we have found our equivalent of the sabre-tooth tiger after all. Maybe, just maybe, we can put our protective urges to good use by safeguarding our children from the insidious 21st century disease of suffocating safety, impossible perfection and Everest-like expectation. Maybe by doing that for our kids, we’ll also protect ourselves from the same disease. Now there’s a thought.