I’ve been rooting through my grandmother’s recipe collection. Tucked in among the cut-out and handwritten recipes for chicken casserole, ginger fluff, orange cordial, date loaf and all the rest, I’ve found raggedy copies of The Leader Spare Corner Book, published in the 1930s in Melbourne. With ads. Here are a few, just for your enjoyment.
Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside was released 17 February 1978, the same year Carl appeared, mid-term, at my primary school. He was taller than the other boys in Grade 5, and no longer scrawny, if ever he had been. Perhaps he’d been held back a year, or had to start again. He looked lonely, and angry. Handsome, too, with his olive skin and loose, bronze-coloured curls. His eyes were green, or maybe hazel.
He seemed like a man already, with his height and broad shoulders, the way he stood apart from the other boys. Who knows what he was feeling? He was a new kid in a place where I’d always been – someone who’d had to leave somewhere. I saw him as a romantic outsider, emerging from some kind of darkness.
Though I can’t confirm it as historic fact, I have a memory of ‘Wuthering Heights’ airing on Countdown, which I watched with my sister. An aspiring boyfriend had also given her the cassette tape of The Kick Inside. Even I, at ten, couldn’t miss the lush sensuality of Kate Bush’s music.
Did I actually make a link between Carl and Heathcliff, or was there just … something in the air?
Shortly after his arrival, I saw him across the playing field – just standing there by himself, not doing anything. And what was really striking was that his shirt was pink. He was wearing a pink, long-sleeved, button-down shirt.
Many men wear pink shirts these days, but I’d never seen a man or a boy wear pink until then. The people I knew just didn’t dress like that. At school our uniforms were blue and grey, with touches of red. I guess his parents – parent? – hadn’t had time to get him one yet.
Brave boy, burning up in solitude in his pink shirt. Not for a moment did I think the colour was sissy, though I sensed others might. This aching, dangerous possibility drew me to him all the more.
Carl in his pink shirt, at eleven years old or so, was to me the epitome of manly beauty.
* * *
Carl was also the only person to ever properly kick me.
I don’t mean that to be a sinister segue from boys/men to violence. And it wasn’t all that hard, really. As kicks go.
I wasn’t a girly girl. Outside of school, I mostly wore corduroys, T-shirts or skivvies (turtlenecks), desert boots, and ‘woollies’ knitted by grandparents. None of my clothes were pink or feminised in any way.
Though I played with dolls, many of my toys – a farm set, Lego – were what you’d call gender neutral. Books were important. Animals. Just being outside. I don’t remember ever even visiting a toy store, or caring. We had a black-and-white TV, but it wasn’t on all that much. I remember a few ads – such as Palmolive’s ‘You know you’re soaking in it’ – but they tended towards the ludicrous and pannable.
Our house was a place where things didn’t necessarily match. It didn’t matter. But it was fascinating to stay overnight with a friend who had a matching white-and-gold bedroom suite; and to play for an afternoon with another who had a full array of accessories for her Barbie. Come to think of it, every toy she had seemed to come as a complete set. I might have felt a twinge of envy, but it was only theoretical. It wasn’t my world, and I was happy to be just visiting.
At school I threw myself into each subject; considered everything open to me. I was top of the class in maths, along with wiry, black-haired Brian; wrote poetry and stories; drew a reasonably realistic portrait of a fellow student. Mr Esling’s science classes, which took place in different spaces around the school because he wasn’t on staff, actually had a real sense of adventure to them.
The only area where I felt at any kind of a disadvantage was in sports, because with my smaller size I couldn’t compete with my peers who were all both taller and stronger. After I won a white third-place ribbon in an egg-and-spoon race on sports day, admittedly only because someone else fell over, even that didn’t matter all that much. I’d achieved something in sport.
My peers took advantage of my small size in their invention of a game of tag called ‘Witchypoo’, in which I was always ‘It’. I don’t recall minding being It; but I did get very hot at lunchtime, always chasing after others. I’d get home after school with my hair worked halfway out of its ponytails, and my white cotton knee-highs all the way down around my ankles.
Somehow it came about that my physical capacities were challenged in a different way, as if I had to make up for my – hmnmn – shortcoming. Someone had the idea of challenging me to see how hard I could grip their fingers, and for a while that became my thing: proving how strong my grip was. It was quite strong. I did play the violin, after all.
At what point this morphed into something else, I don’t know; or for how long it went on. I’m ashamed to say it involved kicking – showing how hard I could kick. I only remember two incidents: one involving a boy named Stephen, and the other involving Carl.
Stephen, unlike Carl, I found annoying. I have a suspicion others felt like this as well, which may partially explain how things unfolded. We were in our classroom, and somehow Stephen ended up wriggling on the floor at my feet, taunting me in a girly high voice to kick him as hard as I could.
I thought he was contemptible – a worm – baiting me like that for attention. I was not such a fool as to think it was my attention he was after: Stephen knew perfectly well we were in plain view of the teacher. What’s more, it went against the tacit schoolyard code that such things weren’t done in front of adults, or ever discussed with them.
So I kicked him. Perhaps not fully as hard as I could – after all, I could actually have hurt him. But hard enough to feel brutal.
The teacher was appalled, and of course she told me off. An experience to which I was not accustomed.
‘He told me to’, I retorted shakily, though I had enough of a moral compass to be aware that this was no excuse at all. I felt moronic as I said it, as if I’d just morphed into a completely different person. I’d kicked him because hatred had welled up in me, and because he had given me an opportunity to do it. It was deeply shaming.
Some time after this, Carl challenged me to kick him.
He must have had some idea of how I felt. Even if no one had told him that I ‘liked’ him, I had held his hand on the bus all the way back to school from our field trip to the Botanical Gardens. (Why on earth had he let me do that?) I remember being boiling hot and exhausted after a day of running around outside, jumping in piles of leaves. On top of that, I was on fire with happiness. He just looked out the window, his feelings unreadable.
I answered his challenge. I think it was the only time he had ever said anything directly to me. My friend Cathy and I met him down beneath the school building, in a sheltered spot which was often deserted, as it was on that day. I stood opposite him, and I kicked him. The boy I was completely crazy about.
Of course, he kicked me back. Just once. Hard. It was perfect justice.
It shocked me and it hurt. I had to wash the deep, gritty scrape on my leg in one of the bathroom sinks afterwards. Cathy and I didn’t discuss it, and I didn’t tell anyone about it.
I didn’t kick anyone after that.
I wonder: did he?
* * *
She says that many claims in popular science writing about the hardwired nature of ‘male brains’ and ‘female brains’ are based on a misunderstanding of the findings of scientific studies.
In some cases, studies have been conducted and/or interpreted from a gender essentialist bias, which assumes from the outset that the differences between the sexes are fixed and natural.
There are sex differences in the brain, but it’s a mistake to assume that certain biological differences necessarily lead to predictable and consistent male or female patterns of behaviour.
Fine talks instead about ‘mosaics’ of male and female characteristics – and a huge amount of overlap in behaviours – resulting from the many factors which work alongside each other to produce gender.
Given what we know of the impact of experience on the brain, and the brain’s plasticity, it is clear that the ‘gender socialisation process’ goes far beyond either biological hardwiring or the role of parental influence – even if parents are determinedly gender neutral in their approach to raising children.
Gender is one of the very first human categories that children learn, along with age. They start to recognise which side of the gender divide they themselves fall on when they’re about two to three years old.
Gender is important to children because it’s one of the few ways, early on, they can assert their identity. It’s through gender socialisation that they learn how, in their culture, male is expressed or rejected, or how female is expressed or rejected.
In other words: pink isn’t just for girls, unless boys and girls learn that it is. And they learn, as we know, like sponges, by absorbing everything around them.
* * *
I have a silk velvet scarf dyed deep pink with cochineal which, if you don’t know and haven’t read A Perfect Red, is an insect from which a brilliant, colour-fast, truly red dye is derived. It produced the crimsons and scarlets worn by kings and queens, merchants and cardinals, and was one of the most valued commodities to come out of Mexico for several hundred years.
The scarf is draped over the back of the chair next to me like a still-living thing. The colour hums. Though pink and not red, it in no sense seems to be less than. It’s as saturated as it gets.
Do I love it because I’m female, because it’s feminine?
Or do I love it as a painter loves the colour in the world?
* * *
In a letter to a man I loved, I told him that his kisses on my cheeks felt like the pink blossoms of a tree in my memory dropping onto my face.
Did this image feminise him? And if it did, would that matter?
I have learned that even tenderness doesn’t always mean what it seems to.
But gentleness in love – that’s to be adored.
© From the desk of a tiny person 2015
I remember during my fortieth birthday party – a dinner at the Republic Bar in North Hobart, in Tasmania – the question arose of the ultimate human experience. Or at least, the ultimate experience for a woman. I remember at least two of my friends (both mothers) expressed the belief that having a child was it; and that you couldn’t know this until you’d had one yourself.
Not everyone expressed a point of view, so I don’t know what others at the table thought. All at the table were women. No one apart from me seemed to think any differently, or at least was prepared to say so then and there.
Perhaps the others viewed the question as being too sensitive, a question for each woman to answer for herself alone. And it is that; but it is also a question for society.
I still, over seven years later, find myself bothered by this silence; this inability to entertain even the possibility of other, equally profound, experiences available to women.
I ask you: Does it diminish novelist Iris Murdoch even the tiniest bit that she chose to have no children with her husband, John Bayley, and that she put her writing first? Was giving expression to her powerful mind somehow less vital, less impactful, in the catalogue of human experiences, than giving birth?
Does it seem a pity that Angela Merkel has merely been Chancellor of Germany for ten years, and before that a research scientist – for whatever reason skipping the opportunity to rise to greater heights and become a mother too?
I don’t mind that individual women consider having a child the peak of their own experience; but I am disturbed by the suggestion that this might casually be applied to all women, and that any other deep commitment – no matter what it is – is seen as second best.
* * *
Discussions in the media around managing work and family – while no doubt simplifying the issues for easy consumption – tend to suggest that career and family are the two fundamental choices to be considered between leaving school and entering retirement.
That the whole of this period of life must be either a precarious balancing of these two, or a choice of one or the other (as in, ‘sacrificing’ the having of a family to one’s career), implies that there is nothing else that could be of equal importance.
Whereas could the options not consist of work and/or family and/or – something else? Your vocation, your passion, your calling?
Even writing those words – ‘your calling’ – sounds so out of touch with the real world, with the realities of managing adult commitments, and with our tacit belief that any ‘calling’ or ‘vocation’ of real merit will or should attract remuneration. (Hence it will not really count until it becomes ‘work’).
Of course, the activity from which you derive your primary income might happen to be your passion. And if it is, lucky you.
Likewise, having and caring for children might be your particular vocation, and if that is what you are actually able to dedicate yourself to, lucky you again.
But many of us are drawn to something beyond our work, and beyond the possibilities of childbearing; something apart.
Trying to articulate the nature of this something apart feels awkward to me even still. Attempting to present it as (at least potentially) of equal value to the fundamental pillars of work/career and family feels like wishful thinking.
Many of us don’t have families of our own, and don’t seek to. We don’t pursue the achievement of our potential through bearing and parenting a child, or through establishing a family dynamic.
And this doesn’t necessarily mean that we wish to mould ourselves to a demanding ‘career’, either; that the not-having of children is to do with the need or willingness to be completely absorbed in work.
It means, we’re looking somewhere else for our fulfilment.
I’m not talking about leisure activities – things that are done for relaxation or to distract from other things.
I’m talking about undertakings such as a sustained dedication to writing; creative exploration; deep political commitment; geekish play and invention. Undertakings which emerge when somebody thinks to ask How? and What if? and decides to pursue these questions for themselves.
While focusing on these sorts of things may be seen as selfish, it’s obvious it can be seen as just the opposite. These kinds of undertakings, which have the potential to change our world, clearly can have significant social value as well.
* * *
In ‘Here comes the (single) bride’, published on the ABC’s The Drum, Michaelie Clark writes of being ‘[t]ired of being treated with pity and suspicion for being 30 years old and happily single’, and of her resulting decision to hold a mock marriage to ‘Scot Land’ before moving to Glasgow to write.
The first person to comment, Gordon, said something that I found interesting:
Sounds like a kind of secular nun with better clothing options: A life dedicated to something worthwhile, with friends and colleagues presumably, but that doesn’t include a permanent relationship that might take focus away from the chosen path …
I reckon he was onto something there.
Following a calling that takes you beyond the confines of the work and/or baby path: I think it certainly could be comparable to choosing monasticism, in the sense that doing so might lead you into a life ‘whose ideal’, per the Wikipedia entry on Christian monasticism, ‘is different from and largely at variance with that pursued by the majority of humanity’.
The fact that monasticism was once a fact of life in many places suggests that, perhaps even in a society like this one, where we are almost all (within a certain age bracket) categorised as being either workers or nurturers of children (or a combination of both), we might be able, somehow or other, to consciously define another way. Some day.
* * *
Hannah Arendt writes in the prologue to The Human Condition (first published in 1958):
The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society … It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor [i.e. through the ‘advent of automation’], and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won … What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them [my emphasis]. (pp 4–5)
We are more – must be more – than working machines … as challenging as it may be to remember it at a time when the media shouts out our current state of chronic overwork and underemployment. When companies are haemorrhaging jobs – liberating people, that is – like sand from a slashed sack.
Perhaps it’s turning out to feel not quite like liberation.
Still: it seems that the less able we are to lay a claim to time for our own meaningful pursuits, the more employers will expect to absorb our (unvalued, except in work) time from us. Surely a lose/lose situation, both for those who work and for those seeking work. Not to mention, eventually, for employers themselves, who already find themselves dealing with an often splintering and degraded workforce.
* * *
To regard the having of children as being a vocation alongside other vocations – an absurd proposition, perhaps, before the wide availability of birth control, and some time before the world’s population reached seven billion. Much less absurd now.
The question of responsibility – of selfishness – in relation to having children. With seven billion people trying to survive on this planet, can we really continue to countenance the idea that not having children is selfish?
The notion of parenthood as a tremendous sacrifice – not wrong, by any means – it really can be. But often the desire to become a parent is imbued with the urge a parent feels, whether conscious or not, to see themselves reflected in their offspring; to continue themselves; to have another chance. As understandable as it is: this isn’t selfish?
Perhaps those who cry ‘selfish’ are thinking of individuals who choose a hedonistic lifestyle – free of serious commitment to any other person – over the responsibilities of caring for children. I doubt such individuals are the norm for non-parents, however.
In one respect I can see the having of children as developing unselfish behaviour, and this is in the realm of putting one’s children before oneself. Some parents achieve this. Some do not. That experience, of loving another person more than you love yourself, must certainly be life-changing. But is it the stamp of mature, considered unselfishness, or merely a facet of parental behaviour? Are parents naturally less selfish outside of their family as well? Does parenthood actually make you less selfish overall? Are parents better people?
Even if they are: would the world be a better place if everyone had children?
I find it hard to believe it would be. Environmental impact aside, the abuse and neglect of so many children already in our world suggests that perhaps we’d have the capacity (at the level of society) to take better care of them if we felt them to be even more rare, more precious.
While having children is everyone’s right, it might be preferable, for the sake of our children, to move away from a position where it is deemed the natural choice – the ultimate choice – for any and all; to recognise there is another way.
© From the desk of a tiny person 2015
In an interview published in Dumbo Feather, lawyer and human rights activist Julian Burnside says that, to fit in time for his work and his diverse interests, he works ‘a longish day’, sleeps about six hours a night, and makes ‘extra time by filling in the little gaps in the day’.
This approach to time is not uncommon for those who most of us would agree are highly successful people. It works for some; but is trying to emulate this kind of punishing pace damaging for those not suited to it?
Private life is often lived as though it were work – ‘diarised’ and every minute packed with predetermined, socially sanctioned activities. I’ve heard of people who go regularly to the gym at midnight and are up early the next morning for a full and long day of employment; families where the lives of the children are as tightly scheduled as those of their professional parents, and where the parents block out ‘quality time’ to be with them …
Then there are the people who say ‘I haven’t had time to scratch myself’, while their eyes gleam – they look exhausted, but also charged, on a high, as they head doggedly to the next commitment. It’s as if they’re caught up in a secret addiction – and I don’t mean coffee. At the same time there is an aspect to this – how to put it? – as though what they’re doing is for public consumption. As though the having of many commitments is equated with success – looks like success, therefore must be success.
Many workplaces extract everything they possibly can from every minute of their employees’ time. It seems as though many of us have learned to live like this all the time: to be accountable for every aspect of our lives, whether or not there is a boss looming in the next cubby of the open-plan office; whether or not we actually are a boss.
In fact, the term ‘time-poor’ is associated more with affluence than with poverty. The very presence of affluence suggests there is a choice that can be made, to do with making do with less. But somehow many of us go about things as if there were no choice at all. Maybe there often is no choice, especially if work claims more than a reasonable share of our time.
The objective – and what is expected of employees – often seems to be not simply to use time well but to cram it full – in fact, fuller than full, judging by my own observations well as articles such as this one in LifeHacker on chronic overwork. (How about this line: ‘So the load was reset and anyone working at below 150% was told they weren’t pulling their weight.’)
This kind of expectation not only allows no room for anything that is not strictly a task, a getting-done of something; but means also that frenetic doing begins to feel like the only socially validated option for one’s waking hours.
Where is the time to stand back; to assess; to ask questions; to think? Deeply think, I mean, not just problem-solve.
And what of the health effects of chronic overwork, such as migraines, heart attacks, high anxiety and stress levels, breakdowns and near-breakdowns (some call it ‘hitting a wall’), lack of emotional resilience and depression? I don’t mean to be grim, but it is no surprise at all to read this article on death by overwork in Japan – karoshi, they call it – usually by stroke, heart attack or suicide.
* * *
Time heals all.
Well, if it does, we often don’t give it much of a chance.
Thinking of the drugged footballer hurtling back into the game after suffering a serious injury, and the long-term damage that does to his body …
I wonder if, in our race to get on, which seems to become ever more pressured and condensed (perhaps as we measure our pace to that of our machines?), many of us are suffering from a failure to properly heal.
I’m thinking particularly of organisational change. It is all very well to talk about the necessity to adjust to change: these days corporates make ever more frequent transformations to their structures, their technology, their procedures, their personnel. Logos are adjusted, mission statements revised. No matter how carefully it is done, the effect of these changes can be overwhelming, leaving employees feeling vulnerable, distrustful, detached and abused, while they are called upon to remain calm, credulous and loyal, and most critically of all, to keep working. And all this on top of the existing illnesses – and the burden itself – of overwork.
Do we allow time within organisations, in our conversations about work, for those wounds to heal? Do we check for healing before sending people back out onto the field? Before moving on to the next big change?
Of course we don’t.
* * *
Is it really such a disaster, where we are able to do so, to step out of the life of a worker for a while?
Many parents do it. Admittedly, I’ve seen many women (it’s only ever been women) struggle to re-enter the workforce after taking a substantial period of parental leave. Eventually many have given up their old jobs and taken a new path. I think the reasons for this are complex, and obviously vary from person to person; but among those reasons is the difficulty of becoming again a worker: to accept the rules and pressures of the organisation; to cram one’s identity back into that box.
Time becomes that much more precious; money and status, less so. Identity also grows a different way, and for all the world many a woman cannot force it back, whatever the expectations around work may be; however much she may contort herself to appear to be as she was before.
Though leave entitlements, parental or otherwise, are reasonably generous in Australia, we do not have a culture of taking time … of contemplation. The stages of life are often mapped in economic terms: school, which is a preparation for work; work, which enables (if you’re lucky) the purchase of house, car and other assets, and the supporting of a family; retirement, which is the cessation of (paid) work.
There is long service leave, but I hear it’s being phased out. Sabbaticals exist, but only for academics. The idea of taking real, substantial time out, except perhaps for travel, is really quite foreign.
I sometimes think of the Indian idea of the retreat, in middle age, into the forest for contemplation, following a period of life which focused on material wealth and happiness.
Of course, written into this is the idea that having the material wealth in the first place is what provides one with the freedom to retreat from the world … just as downshifting is only possible when there is a more substantial income or asset situation to step down from.
There is, of course, unemployment – but there is little freedom in the search for a job, or in poverty. In fact, to borrow an idea of Hannah Arendt’s (writing about the ancient Greeks), to have too little work is to be held hostage to the necessities of life, and to the whims of others. It is, more or less, to live as a slave.
We have such a horror of unemployment, that we can’t always see the difference between being out of work against our will, and stepping away from work life to try something new; to think about something else. Just to think.
* * *
To treat time, free time, as a problem – boring – an absence of doing – I think that is a deeply troubling phenomenon.
Then again, we complain about not having enough time, then when we have it, we crassly fill it. The pressure to be doing is enormous. It actually takes guts to do less: to focus on only, and exactly, the thing(s) you really value.
* * *
I suspect that many who feel they do not have enough going on to fill their days fill themselves with substances, with distractions. Much advertising, especially, suggests we should all be living our lives at a heart-thumping pace. When we’re not working, we should no doubt all be off in our Jeeps, careening through the wilderness, hearts in our mouths.
Is this what many of us have come to believe a successful life should feel like? Fast, high, risky and competitive? (Expensive, too.) Is the only alternative doddering around at home in your dressing gown and slippers?
Giving everything to work, allowing our work to shape our aspirations for our lives – is part of the problem. If we do not step back we fail to appreciate how much we are defined by it – how we have come to speak that language – have those beliefs – see ourselves in terms of the space we fill in the workplace, and the events and interactions that happen within it.
The rest of the world and its possibilities become a blur – become almost irrelevant. Not only that – given enough of this, we may soon be lost to ourselves; come to see our own self as a blur.
© From the desk of a tiny person 2015
The board in the café showed that ice cream was available for dessert.
‘What flavour?’ I asked the young guy behind the counter.
‘Chocolate,’ he said, ‘or normal.’
* * *
Didn’t he know that the most popular ice cream is ‘vanilla’? Or was something else going on here?
I play with this for a moment, thinking about what happened to vanilla when it was transformed into ‘normal’ by this guy. Let’s call him … Jack.
How Jack might have been suggesting that vanilla/normal is the standard against which all other flavours are measured. (A gold star to you, Vanilla.) ‘Normal’ doesn’t need to be articulated any further because it is so obvious; it is presumed to be understood.
How, on the other hand, he might have meant that vanilla/normal is boring, run-of-the-mill, predictable. What is ‘normal’ is not named because it is contemptible. To give what is normal its own name would be to neutralise it; whereas it is important to flag awareness of what is contemptible.
One way or another, vanilla – once it had been described by Jack as ‘normal’ – was no longer a flavour like other flavours. It had become something else.
* * *
What is this idea of ‘normal’?
Last week, while out and about, I took a quick survey.
Respondent #1: ‘Everybody’s normal is different. We all grow up with different cultures, religions, etc. that represent our “normal”. Living in a multicultural place, your sense of normal is more fluid; you’re exposed to the idea of a range of different normals.’
Respondent #2: ‘”Normal” is other people; the ideal person.’ She paused for a second. ‘We (teenagers) don’t think of ourselves as normal; we think of ourselves as unique.’
Respondent #3: ‘Abnormal is murdering people; excessive greed. It goes beyond the range of normal need and behaviour. But one has to eat … what falls within that wide range of necessary selfishness is normal.’
Myself, I have been focusing recently on ‘normal’ as it stands against the idea of ‘difference’ – physical or other.
Such varying ideas. It’s striking how ideas about ‘normal’ link, in very specific ways, to our identities and experiences.
* * *
‘Who actually believes they’re “normal”?’ I asked a friend some months ago, thinking of the inner turmoil that so many of us seem to experience about some aspect of ourselves.
‘Some people do,’ she says, with conviction, but without explaining. She had been telling me how some of her own behaviours were perceived by her sister as being abnormal.
But who, I wonder? Perhaps all of us, sometimes.
In domestic conflict, we childishly accuse: ‘Any normal person would (remember to shut the door … refrain from wearing a T-shirt with that many holes in it … know how to listen to me properly).’
How it grates to have to negotiate in a relationship for behaviours one feels to be normal – effortless – what anyone would do – what should be second nature. As if the negotiation were a waste of time, of breath. As if normal should just happen. As if, what’s more, our own assumptions and expectations were the natural state … as if we ourselves actually lived up to them consistently.
We struggle to see ourselves clearly. We blend in to our own world; hardly see what we are. We proceed as if normal – natural – were somehow embodied within us; as if we held the key to it.
We rarely doubt that our normal exists, is a real thing, but find it hard to articulate. We say – or think – ‘normal’ when it might be more useful to say, for the sake of clarity, ‘vanilla’ – or whatever it might be.
* * *
To be precise, to speak meaningfully, to specify ‘vanilla’ rather than simply saying ‘normal’, is one thing.
Yet when we do try to articulate some kind of a ‘normal’ – especially if we are coming from the position that what we think of as ‘normal’ is also what is desirable and good, both for ourselves and other people – the result is often dogmatic. It can reduce the world to absurdities that do not reflect the plurality of human life and experience.
But in fact I wonder: is it our very diversity – and our modern awareness of that diversity – that creates our need for a term such as ‘normal’? Do we need this word as a way to signal – and to draw in – ‘our group’, whatever that might be?
* * *
Much is said and written about the increasing homogenisation of the world we live in: from the loss of languages and cultures, to the increasingly felt pressures to look and behave in certain ways. There’s an idea that there’s a sort of sameness creeping into all our lives, even afflicting the way that we think.
My father would comment sometimes that in his childhood, expectations around clothing and fashion were far less restrictive than they are now; he thought people looked more different from one another than they do now. Looking back at photos, I have to admit I can’t see what he means, but I’m prepared to believe him, at least conditionally.
But have things really changed that much? The urge to conform seems always to have been very powerful, no matter the place or time, and no matter the exceptions who appear every now and again to shake things up.
One thing that is certainly true of our time: most of us can see others – vastly more others – on a day-to-day basis than ever before, due to the ubiquity of electronic media in our lives. As well as that, more of us than ever before are gathered in cities, thus increasing our chances of coming face-to-face with others who are highly distinct from us.
This might explain how it is that, at the same time as we are forced to become aware of, and to tolerate, many more different ways of living in the world, in many parts of the world we are also becoming more broadly alike – because we are attempting both to blend in with and to live reasonably harmoniously alongside one another.
It might also be said that our attempts to live as we see others living, or as we are led to believe they are living, could be having a profound homogenising effect.
A Philosophy Talk podcast and blog on the topic ‘What is normal?’ notes that it is possible to observe how ‘the common habits and strategies that successful people use … often become social norms to which others are expected to conform.’
In other words, we watch those who (we think) are more successful than us for signs of how to get on in life. After all, we are all competing against one another for our economic survival: these are things we really need to know. And having achieved some kind of success, most of us are not willing to jettison it by stepping noticeably outside the norm we adhered to to get it.
To get on, we might hide our differences in the hope that the qualities we share with others might therefore be more apparent – as in, ‘passing for normal’. Or we might adopt the normative characteristics of others in an attempt to be taken more seriously – as in the wearing of power suits by women attempting to gain entry to the ‘halls of power’ (something I fervently hope is no longer necessary).
By contrast, as an act of political protest, we might accentuate aspects of our identity that present an overt challenge to the ‘norm’, but which assert an affiliation with another group – as in Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade.
Whichever way it goes, ‘normal’ is the pivot around which these expressions of identity slide.
Maybe ‘normal’, however we mean it, is simply an attempt (at times desperate) to locate ourselves and the people we’re connected to among all the possibilities of being.
* * *
Steve Seidman, in his article ‘Defilement and disgust: Theorizing the other’, highlights that use of the word ‘normal’ in its current sense is relatively new. Referring to Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process, he notes: ‘Elias underscores the absence [in late medieval and early modern European cultures] of the medicalization of the body and its ethic of normality and hygiene’.
Normal, Seidman suggests, is an idea that has come into use as the self – and the self in relation to others – has evolved, so that the self has come to be seen as ‘sharply differentiated’ from others. As part of that, the acceptable social self is now required to maintain a high level of emotional and bodily control; to lack this control is to be seen not only as abnormal, but as unwell.
In ‘What Is Normal?’ psychiatrist Peter Kramer examines the way in which the option of being diagnosed as simply ‘normal’ seems to be narrowing in the psychiatry field, as more and more conditions are labelled and described. However, he says: ‘As the experience of mid-century shows, we can hold two forms of normality in mind—normal as free of defect, and normal as sharing the human condition, which always includes variation and vulnerability.’ In fact, he looks to the possibility of ‘an era in which abnormality is universal and unremarkable’.
In the Philosophy Talk podcast and blog referred to earlier, John Kerry and Ken Taylor, in their discussion with Charles Scott, also link the idea of normal to the increasing medicalisation of our lives. Where medical science attempts to establish what is normal through agreed averages and descriptions of typical symptoms, etc., so that it may more effectively identify and treat problems, at the same time it has given us a way in which to characterise ourselves and others as normal or abnormal – well or unwell – that can be as damaging as it is powerful.
Beyond the medical field, as Charles Scott reflects, the value of normalcy is social cohesion, and communal recognition and predictability of standards. The downside is homogenisation and the marginalisation of those who are seen to be abnormal.
* * *
But I can’t help wondering if, in critiquing the homogenisation and conformism of our own times, we are overlooking the realities of past lives. How truly free were people of the past to be what we might now think of as ‘abnormal’ – although in the context (of course) of the values of their time and place – while also being accepted for what they were, even celebrated?
You’ll be relieved to know I can barely imagine how to even begin to answer that, but it does make me think of something I was reading recently: Hannah Arendt’s description in The Human Condition of the ancient Greek polis, the realm of which ‘was the sphere of freedom’. She describes this freedom of the polis – the political/public realm – as being reliant first of all on its members’ ‘wealth and health. To be poor or to be in ill health meant to be subject to physical necessity …’
To be free to participate fully in political life, the male citizen of ancient Greece needed therefore to have wealth and health, and in addition to have ‘mastered the necessities of sheer life, by being freed from labor and work’. Mastering the necessities of life required that he have absolute and complete rule over a household consisting of his family and his slaves, who would entirely take care of those necessities.
She says, ‘To belong to the few “equals” (homoioi) meant to be permitted to live among one’s peers; but the public realm itself, the polis, was permeated by a fiercely agonal spirit, where everybody had constantly to distinguish himself from all others, to show through unique deeds or achievements himself from all others … The public realm, in other words, was reserved for individuality; it was the only place where men could show who they really and inexchangeably were.’
In a way, it sounds ideal, if rather tough … but how very far from ideal sound the lives of everyone else – the majority – the ‘unequals’. For a moment, I find myself wondering if to be abnormal in the polis – especially if one performed there with exceptional courage – might actually have been desirable.
Just a thought …
© From the desk of a tiny person 2015
When Bill was in his 30s, a train locomotive slammed into the rail trolley he was working on. He had the presence of mind to lean forward, out of the direct path of the engine, but he ended up with internal injuries and fractured ribs, a back injury that took time to heal. Somehow he recovered from it. Miraculously, his back hasn’t bothered him since.
But now his legs give way from time to time, like when he’s standing at the sink doing dishes. The doctors say there’s nothing that can be done. It’s his back, and Bill’s 89, and it can’t be fixed. He says it’s not painful, but I can see it’s getting him down. For one thing, he can’t dance any more. And there’s the not-knowing when it will happen again.
Bill mows and rakes the leaves off the nature strip all up and down our street. He does it, just because, as a kind of a service to the street. I’ve never known anyone else who took on such a thing.
‘Top o’ the morning to you, Treasure!’
Our paths cross almost daily, as I head down to the shops, check for mail at the post office box, and he is out there with the rotary mower or the rake. Most days, in this colder weather, he wears a vivid blue jumper and black track pants with a white stripe down the outside of each leg. His hair is pure white, his eyebrows jaunty.
* * *
A few days ago Bill began talking about the importance of having a car. I can’t remember how we got onto it. He said he’d known a number of women who’d relied on their husbands to drive and were left helpless, stranded, when their husbands died. I said I had a licence but didn’t drive – had never been a regular driver. He said that one day, when I grew up, I should do something about that.
‘Bill,’ I said, without rancour, just to set the record straight. ‘I’m 47.’
He said right back, without apology, ‘I wouldn’t have guessed that.’
He offered to drive me anywhere if I needed it.
* * *
From Bill’s perspective, I probably don’t seem very grown up. It’s not just the way I look. He knows I’m single again, and that I’m an apartment-dweller, and I’ve told him enough that he’d have surmised I’m a renter, not an owner. So I’m unmarried and unmortgaged, and because I’m clearly not heading off to work every day, and not accompanied by children, he must also have surmised that my life is relatively free of what most people consider to be normal adult responsibilities. And perhaps that translates into the idea that I don’t have them and never have had them. Not true, but on the other hand, I can understand why it would look like that.
As for the matter of the car – I’ve never had one – not wishing for the expense, even when my income was, shall we say, considerably better than it is at present. I’ve also felt I was making a positive choice, environmentally speaking. Doing without a car is a viable option when you live in a city with good public transport, as long as you are reasonably mobile – especially if you can manage to live in an area that offers almost everything you need close by. I live five minutes from the shops; two minutes from a beach. Having a car under these circumstances does not seem like a necessity; it seems more like luxury.
The thing is, too, I love walking: the slower pace of it – being outside – how getting out there engages all my senses – how good it feels to do it – how much better I feel when I do it regularly. I fear what having a car would do to my life. The thought of replacing walking with driving around in a box makes me feel claustrophobic. Although, of course, it doesn’t have to be like that.
But there’s this, too: I don’t believe the shape of my life has to be the same as anyone else’s. I have resisted the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle pressure to have a car; to treat it as a fundamental rite of passage. Maybe it’s just a thin branch thrown down across the quagmire of (my own) conformity.
My father said more than once that having a car would change my life. He was right, I am sure; but in the end, there have always been other things that mattered more.
* * *
Once I tracked down a woman who’d been a friend in primary school. In her spare time, she raced Porsches; Boxters were a favourite. She said she’d seen a photo of one in a magazine when she was in her teens, and decided that was for her, thank you very much. She stuck the photo up on her bedroom wall. She’d earned enough to buy her first Porsche by the time she was in her early 20s.
We didn’t have too much in common – the fact that I didn’t drive at all was a bit of a kicker – and we soon parted ways again. But I think, sometimes, of her determination, and what surely must have been courage.
In my former friend, I think I may even have detected a streak of ruthlessness.
* * *
Of all the road trips I did with my father in the American West, there is one that reverberates in my memory in a way quite different to the others: Glacier National Park in Montana, just south of the Canadian border. I remember the window of the car wide open as we drove through the woods, me sitting up on my knees in the passenger seat with my face out in the damp rushing air, breathing it in, the fragrance of deep wet earth and green. The absolute ecstasy of it.
* * *
There is a sense of being confined without a car. My world seems very small at times; I’ve seen enough of it to have a sense of what I’m missing. I have to ask myself: is there another reason for not getting a car; for not driving?
In my heart of hearts, I have to admit it: there is fear.
I’m terrified of the major roads in my city – the sometimes enormous and complex intersections; the confusing spaghetti of options in some of the newer areas where even experienced drivers can find themselves tearing out chunks of hair as they go shooting off down the wrong road. The signage is not always all it could be.
There is also the complicated fear of negotiating the buying of a car … finding, without unduly calling attention to my small size, a car in which I can feel comfortable; in which I am able to see properly out the windows in all directions without sitting on pillows; in which I am able to go for longer drives without developing an aching back from stretching and craning to control a vehicle that is in all crucial ways just a little too large for me. And how to sort this out while navigating sales pitches and all the rest of it … and to somehow do all this when I have not ever been a regular driver, so that merely getting in a car and turning the key feels unfamiliar, highly deliberate and thought-filled. Driving has never been second nature to me.
Intellectually, I’ve half tackled the problems already. Plenty of cars now have highly adjustable driver’s seats, and features well suited to a smaller person, like a lower dashboard. There are services where they do your car shopping for you, too. Plus, I can get a few driving lessons to build my confidence. So that all sounds good.
But then, I imagine I’ve got the car and it’s all sorted: there I’ll be, out on the road. Exposed. My mind fills with images of terrible accidents; bodies mashed, torn apart.
How does everyone else who drives overcome this terror? I’m full of admiration for anyone who just gets out there and does it.
Until I grapple with this, I know I will not truly have taken full responsibility for my life. I will have let fear overcome the practical desirability of being able to drive – and the desire, I must admit it, to be able to move more freely in a wider world.
* * *
But there’s a conundrum there.
What if my fear is helping me: helping me to live by my principles, in relation to not having a car? In other words, providing the emotional underpinning to the living-out of my ideals? And shouldn’t I be guided by those, first and foremost?
But the fear – my consciousness of it – is a sign that I have yet to genuinely and whole-heartedly make the decision: whether to re-commit to not driving; or whether to commit to re-learning how to, and to getting a car. At least trying it.
What of the environment, living life my own way, etc., etc.?
I can see that driving might allow me to be more effective in the world, and to enact other ideals that matter to me: like being useful to others; like knowing and experiencing this country for myself; like being willing to change, to try things another way.
I don’t have to betray my ideals. I just need to find another way to live them.
* * *
Facing fear … deciding … committing … and tenaciously, ferociously, trying and trying again for the things that matter.
* * *
Bill has lent me the book his three daughters prepared for his 80th birthday, celebrating his life. He says bashfully that it might be a bit on the rosy side, but I want to see it.
After I look through it, I wonder about the nature of courage. It’s clear Bill has it. He encourages and emboldens others, like the new ones who’ve come to be part of the Thursday dances which he MCs. He keeps his family gathered close, without suffocating them.
In the book, several people who attend the dances write of that thing Bill does at the end, when they’re all gathered round in a circle singing ‘Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye.’
How he cries ‘Can’t hear you!’, drawing even the shy ones out, into the light.
* * *
I can’t help feeling that Bill divined in me, not so much a person young and irresponsible, since I’m anything but, but a person who has not quite tackled all the fears that have shaped and limited her life.
He’s right. I still have some growing up to do.
© From the desk of a tiny person 2015
I don’t know what it is with me. I can take a perfectly good experience and turn it into … something else.
It could be that I’m a little hard of hearing. Or that, as a writer friend once remarked to me with a biting sort of affection, ‘You live in your head.’ (Yes, a writer friend said this to me. Did she mean I live in my head even more than other writer people?)
Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that, at a management conference for work a few years ago, we did an exercise on styles of conflict management which involved physically moving to the quadrant in the room assigned to our preferred style, and I ended up in a corner all by myself, the only deep green with a touch of blue (red was a last resort). All the other managers, moving confidently and en masse to their corners, tended towards blue or red with touches of green.
Maybe I just mooch around on the sea bottom just a bit too much of the time.
* * *
Whatever the case, there I was two days ago, on my first hike in six years, in a group of about sixteen, half an hour or so in, when I began to hear mutterings up ahead that sounded like ‘human hovel’. And then I heard ‘monument’ tacked on there somewhere. What the hell?
I couldn’t help picturing what awaited us at the Monument to a Human Hovel: a ruin, enshrined, of a small, lean-to shack, dishes still undone after 154 years, yard an absolute disgrace, and an actual decrepit human draped over a dingy sofa on the front porch …
At last we arrive, taggle-wise, and gather around an obelisk made of rocks, with an almost illegible plaque stuck on the front. Highish. I can just make out, peering up at it from near the back of the group, the names ‘Hume’ and then ‘Hovell’. A-ha – the famous Australian explorer Hume after whom the Hume Highway was named. And Hovell, after whom … I will check that later, I think, trudging after the disappearing group.
Not long after, we stop for morning tea by some actual ruins. (The Cumberland ruins, if you’re actually looking at a map … but how can you be? I haven’t told you where we are yet. It’s coming.) I give the tumbling bluestone walls behind the fence a cursory glance, then find a spot on a low-hanging branch in the sun to eat my banana. As I turn to zip open my backpack, a rabbit dashes out from underneath the bushy end of the branch, skitters off across the grass.
About ten minutes later, as we begin on that part of the walk that stretches from morning tea to lunch, our leader points left towards the grass and says ‘Rabbit.’
Squinting across the yellowish, waving expanse but not spotting anything but grass and a tree, I say, ‘Might be my rabbit.’
‘I think a fox might have got it,’ she says.
* * *
What I hate about hiking:
- aching back from lugging water, thermos, morning tea, lunch, raincoat in case it rains even though it won’t this time, whistle, money, phone, map with pen in plastic sleeve just in case, all the clothes I’ve shed on the way, and that’s not even half the things I’m supposed to have in there according to the list (crap, I forgot to pack Band-Aids)
- peeing under/behind trees (how do other women do it? I’ve never dared ask)
- when there are no trees to pee under/behind
- not drinking enough because I don’t want to have to pee too often
- drinking anyway and having to pee and not being able to.
But if there’s one thing that absolutely gives me the screaming irrits, it’s the sound of someone’s hiking pole tick-tick-ticking on the trail right behind me. That, or getting a hiking pole in my eye.
* * *
At one point, a very experienced member of the group does a double take when she sees that I have unzipped the bottoms of my walking pants and am now walking in shorts.
‘I see you’ve gone legless,’ she says, amused about something. Huge, ancient hiking boots? Baggy shorts? Skinny legs?
‘At least no alcohol was involved,’ I shoot right back.
* * *
Speaking of being a bit deaf. Someone kindly speaks to me at one point, only he does it from behind me and from a reasonable height, so I really just get ‘Mrbbrrbng mbrrrss’. Somehow I detect from the sound quality it is actually directed at me. (Amazing how you can do that.)
I turn and ask him to repeat.
‘They’re living legends,’ he says, nodding across the fields at the racehorses in their enclosure. I know they are racehorses, because of the conversation in the car on the way to the meeting point. Within the parkland is a place, the place in Australia, where champion racehorses are brought to live out their retirement. Also, they look pretty racehorsey.
‘Mmm,’ I say, brimming with interesting information.
‘Living Legends’ is what he meant. With Capitals. Of course. Doriemus lives here somewhere. Saintly. Fields of Omagh … On the drive in, J. said that groups of school children are sometimes brought here so that they can draw them.
* * *
One thing I can’t fail to hear are the planes passing overhead on their way into, and out of, Tullamarine airport. It’s a little surreal, walking through bushland, troops of kangaroos visible and watching us through the trees, while jets heave in and out of view, quite close.
We all continue to go about our business – the hikers hiking, the kangaroos lounging and watching, the planeloads of people heading to wherever they’re heading. For a moment we’re all aware of each other except, perhaps, the people in the planes.
On the way back to the city after the walk, we pass the aircraft viewing area, where there are quite a few people gathered, mostly standing beside their cars and looking up in the direction of the main flight paths. I’d never noticed them before, though I’ve flown in and out of the airport often enough.
They instantly remind me of the people who gather in the parking lot near Uluru to catch it in its best light, either at sunrise or sunset. They fill in the time sipping champagne.
* * *
We don’t see any Eastern Barred Bandicoots, though we pass through a number of gates in fences designed to protect their habitat. The fact that we don’t see them makes sense, because they’re nocturnal. Also, what kind of shy, furry, endangered animal worth its salt would be sitting around waiting for a herd of humans to pay it a visit?
We see some birds. But not many. Magpies. Crows (little ravens, actually). Sulphur-crested cockatoos. Rainbow lorikeets. Fairy wrens. Something I think is a hawk but might be a falcon or an eagle.
I read later there are a lot of bird species to be seen at the park, if you know what you’re doing. (Here’s a site with lots of photographs of birds from some people who knew what they were doing.)
People have stopped to look off to the side of the path where a small black-and-white bird with a coy dance is twitching from branch to branch. I hear someone say something about robins. I throw in my two cents as I trudge past, not thinking, because by that time the blisters and backache have well and truly kicked in (or so I tell myself comfortingly later), ‘That’s a willy wagtail, isn’t it?’
It comes out of my mouth sounding mildly scornful.
Let’s see now. What could be the quickest, most effective way to really get up the noses of a bunch of people I have only just met?
Later, when I find out more about the park (see above link to the Birding Lovers site), I discover there are five species of robin to be seen In the Woodlands Historic Park. In fact, the park is ‘famous’ for them.
* * *
We stop for lunch on Gellibrand Hill, which is flattish on top and planted with a radar tower. We gaze back at Melbourne, from whence we’ve fled only that morning.
Tops of hills are fairly traditional for hiking lunch stops. You can understand why. They’re the reward for going up hills. Not only is there the view, but there might not even be any more going-up of hills after lunch, even though you could actually probably manage it after lunch and a decent pee.
Though that can be a problem, on a hill, if there aren’t a lot of trees. And in this case, once the cleared, sloping group hit undergrowth and trees, there is a fence. All the way around.
Individuals can be seen skulking off in a southerly direction … Because we’re on a hill, they can actually be seen quite easily.
The trick is to determine, without staring, whether they are engaged in scoping out a decent, obviously private, stand of trees, or whether they are genuinely striking out on their own to check out the second set of actual ruins: the Dundonald ruins, which consist of a stone stable and a patch of ground with some wooden stakes in it, still vertical, where the homestead and gardens once were.
Obviously if it is the former situation, if they’re scoping, it is not kosher to be following them; whereas if it is the latter, it is OK, in fact it is quite pleasantly sociable, once you’ve finished your cheese and chutney sandwiches, to tag along for a bit of ruin-gawking.
I manage to kill two birds with one stone: I find my particular spot in the trees, speedily unkit (only partially, of course), dangle from a branch for a moment like a hapless chimpanzee, rekit, and manage to then tag along behind someone else (correctly identified as a view hunter) to see the ruins.
Thank my granny’s knickers, I am going to be able to make it through the afternoon.
Just as well, too, as our fearless leader announces that the afternoon walk will be a little longer than she’s anticipated.
* * *
Did we notice the carefully cultivated Aboriginal burial ground we passed, or that we might have passed, on the way back? J. asks us later, on the drive back to Melbourne. I did not.
The rest of the walk passes in an achy blur. Me unaware that the sunscreen I slathered on at about six in the morning is no longer doing its job.
* * *
Afternoon tea, when we finally reach the end of the walk and stagger back to the cars, then to the toilets and across to the picnic benches, is a feast. Every single person has brought enough to share with every other person; everyone except me has seemingly erred on the generous side in their interpretation of ‘Bring something small to share for afternoon tea.’ My pathetic block of luxury chocolate remains unopened and untouched, as homebaked muffins are passed around.
* * *
On the way home, I manage to clearly and unequivocally mix up the names of the driver and her friend of thirty years, the second passenger, both of whom have single-syllable names beginning with ‘J.’, which I had instantly and irreversibly managed to join together in my mind as ‘J. and J.’
* * *
On reflection, the question isn’t really ‘Why do I bother hiking?’ It is: Is there is anyone left in Sunday’s group who could bear to be on a walk with that new person, the self-absorbed twerp who never seems to properly listen to anyone else?
Once I crawl out from under this rock, I might sign up for the next one – under a pseudonym, though, I think.
Say … Em Barr-East? Or Kip N. Kwyett? Or perhaps, in hope, Betton X. Thyme.
© From the desk of a tiny person 2015