Barnaby in Love

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As soon as you heard about his alleged affair, the image formed in your mind, intrusive, unbidden. Barnaby Joyce having sex. Now, I don’t know about your imagination, but in mine it wasn’t pretty. And the more you try to push it away, the worse it becomes. There’s only one solution to banish this ugly vision forever. You must face your fear, stare down the HORROR until it relinquishes its grip on your poor battered mind.

To wit, dear reader, I’m about to do you a favour. Picture Barnaby, our lobster incarnate, face craggy and pockmarked like an enormous mutant strawberry, downing a Viagra and breathing heavily as he prepares for congress with his chosen partner, about whom we know absolutely nothing. Given that he, she or they have been veiled from sight by an extraordinarily judicious media, we can take the liberty to pencil in her form (let’s assume for the sake of argument, it’s a her). She looks like a 1920s courtesan in her mid-50s, well past her prime, her eyes droopy from the opium she’s been smoking, make up slightly smudged and with an expression of ennui heavy enough to obliterate any horror that she has seen, or will see. Barnaby of course is oblivious to any of this, clearly concentrating more upon the moist indentations upon her person. Barnaby is close now, his flannelette shirt abandoned on the floor with a pair of too-short shorts and oh Jesus, a pair of what would have been white Y-fronts if it weren’t for those awful, awful stains. Thank God, they disappear out of sight as he tosses his Akubra on top. The socks stay on. Of course.

Barnaby’s lips are pulsing a violent red now as his rock-hard, veiny penis throbs against his chest like the mallet against the bass drum of an enthusiastic high school grindcore band playing way too fast. There’s nowhere left in the red section of the spectrum for his face to flush as it pushes further into the infrared, then full circle into true violet. Sweat streams down his face like a braided river. He leans into his courtesan friend, tugging at the strings of her silk kimono, which falls open allowing a couple of tentacles to escape. They coil languidly around his flabby thighs and draw him close and they fall backwards onto her bed, which incidentally and somewhat incongruously is covered in a 70s  bedspread of ruched nylon. He manoeuvres his phallus into her cloaca and then they’re at it, juddering violently like a turtle with epilepsy or some ungodly coupling of an alien squid being with an unhealthy would-be-pensioner, which of course is exactly what is happening. As he nears climax, his eyes, nose and every vein and capillary on his face bulge. His mouth opens wide and then he screams: “CARP!”

At last, long, long, long, long last, it’s over and they spring apart and lie, heaving and covered in green speckledy slime, on their backs, and for the first time you can see the neon white glow of Barnaby’s underbelly. He lights up a cigarette. She meanwhile has maintained her grip on her cigarette holder throughout.

There you go. You’ve seen all there is to see now. You need never think of Barnaby fucking again.

You are welcome.

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Transports

Morrissey, 28/10/2016. I don’t know the first three songs; they’re new. But the fourth, the jagged staccato chords and Doppler riff, and I’m taken back.

Before children. Before marriage. Before I left Australia. 1986. First year out of home. It’s Steve, Peter and I and we’ve gone into the upstairs smoky gloom of a night club above Garema Place and the Woodstock Pizza. Was it the Private Bin? Would we have been seen dead anywhere near the cordies there? No, it must be another one. I can’t remember…

but I remember the smoke, the light floor and the fact that we pretty much had the place to ourselves, and we requested How Soon Is Now, and I was wearing a tiered skirt my grandmother had made, with strips of alternating plain blue and floral fabric, it wasn’t fashionable-no-one wore anything like it, and I used to do this spin, this Irish 3-step in a whirl with arms swinging to add momentum, and the dress would flare, and the music would fill me and pulse through me, then after twenty seconds or so I’d slow down and come to–and I saw Steve staring at me. Come and dance, I called to him. No, I’m right, he said.

He did dance sometimes, swinging between his crutches, and sometimes balancing on his dodgy legs to lifting the crutches to his full wingspan, the same width as an albatross he joked. His knees were often swollen with bleeds, but he never, ever complained of what must have been excruciating pain. The crutches didn’t slow him down at all; he would swing both legs up and kick a door open, moving fast enough not to be caught as the mechanism pulled it closed. He was clever, arrogant, funny, talented – he played piano like an angel.

Peter wasn’t interested in dancing either. It’s possible he didn’t want to be seen next to me–he said I elevated daggy to an artform, and he was all gay elegance. I think we stayed two or three songs then moved on to somewhere more populated.

It’s fascinating to hear you talk, Steve said to me. You go off on tangent after tangent after tangent.

I don’t know why you’d bother having a 21st birthday party, Steve said. No-one would come. So I didn’t.

I thought we might have been getting close, Steve said. But I knew he had HIV by then, and I was scared. We fell out of contact soon afterwards – I discovered later I was too maudlin and he only wanted positive people in what life he had left. He did later have a girlfriend, so not everyone was as discriminatory as me.

In 1991 I was walking to a psychology exam and I thought Steve might be sick, and that I might never be able to tell him how much he’d hurt me with his comment about my 21st. I guess he never got to tell me about how much I’d hurt him either.

I later found out he’d died around then. We weren’t a huge part of each other’s lives, but we had been friends and sometimes I miss him.

Cuffs

“It’s mostly magic tricks,” the clown grinned.

“Yeah?” answered Rose, superciliously.

He could read scepticism in the blankness of her face, then let himself be distracted by the slope of her supple, teenage shoulders. She was an attractive kid, even in just tank top and jeans-he found himself following the curve of her clavicle, where the skin clung to the bone. How old, he wondered. 16? 18? Well toned; she obviously exercised. He’d win her over, he knew.

“Don’t worry, I’m good; I do this every day,” he reassured.

“There was these two guys on YouTube and they showed how it’s like all about distraction. Diverting your attention so that you don’t notice what’s going on and like what’s going on is really simple. So you can do stuff with your cards. Won’t impress me.”

“How can you tell that you’re not going to be impressed until you see what I can do?”

He knew his breath was sweet and his manner personable. This was a script he’d followed many times.

“I need something more exciting that a couple of silk hankies, or…” observing the rough bulge in his pocket “a pair of trick handcuffs.”

“These?” he said, fanning out his fingers revealing cold, steel cuffs apparently from nowhere. While she maintained an expression of fixed ennui, her blink betrayed surprise. Out of habit or nerves, he ran his fingers over the cuffs, feeling the pleasing coldness and weight of the metal, clicking the ratchets through his fingers. Involuntarily, he imagined the sting of cold steel on his wrists, the chafing discomfort.

As she watched him clinking the chain through his hands, darting his tongue over his grease-painted lips to clear the droplet of spittle that had appeared at the edge of his mouth, she realised that by letting him in, she’d painted herself into a corner.

There were only two ways out.

She would either live or die. She could let this creepy old paedo with his magic tricks slip those cuffs onto her wrists and let herself be tortured, abused, raped, violated, God-knew what but the images flashed through her mind, by this guy with the freaky clown facepaint. I mean, who the fuck did he think he was, John Wayne Gacy? He was so much bigger than she was, so if she was going to live-

“It’s ‘there were these two guys’, by the way,” he said.

“What?”

“‘There were these two guys,’ not ‘there was’. It’s grammar.”

“You’re shitting me,” she replied, snatching the cuffs out of his hands.

“Hey, you’ll break those if…” but before he could protest further, she whipped them upward into his jaw, smashing first into the underside of his nose and following with a back-handed swipe to his right eye socket. He let out a strange girlish cry (any other time, she would have giggled), and brought his hands to his bleeding face. Thus distracted was unable to defend himself when the inevitable kick to the balls arrived, then a final low tackle to the shins to overbalance him. Crumpling like an aluminium can against the skull of a moron, he was passive as she rolled him face down, sat heavily on his shoulders and using packing tape she produced from heaven knows where had him hogtied before he knew what was happening. She nodded with satisfaction over her handiwork. Luring him in was a good idea after all.

He started screaming for help.

“Shut the fuck up!” she repeated, her foot making contact with his ribs on the word “fuck”.

“No fucking way, mate. No way in fuck I’m going to end up a skeleton in a crawlspace.”

He stopped screaming. “What even is a crawlspace?”

“It’s where you stash your kills, isn’t it paedo. Or do you dissolve them in an acid bath or cut them up and eat them like Jeffrey Dahmer? C’mon paedo, tell me.”

“But I don’t… I’m not…. Please….”

“Yeah? That’s what you would say. What kind of guy goes around with handcuffs and clown makeup offering to show innocent teenagers magic tricks?”

“A party clown! Please, Jenny, let me go. The boss knows exactly where I am, he made the booking, they’ll realise something’s up when I don’t make the 2.30pm at Holland Street.”

“Rose.”

“You ordered a birthday clown just to beat me up?”

Rose had heard enough. She gagged him with the tape, then headed to the front door and walked out. He craned his ears to hear what was going on above his own breathing, rattly with streaming blood. He could just hear voices.

“…yeah, sorry it’s a bit loud, the entertainment hasn’t arrived and the jelly snakes have kicked in. I’ll get them to pipe it down a bit.”

“Thanks Jen. Wish Danny a happy birthday for me.”

Rose walked back in, shut the door, leaning back heavily against it and sighed. She was right–she had painted herself into a corner.

“Well. Um. Sorry.”

 

(first appeared in Printer-Free Zone published by Mock Frog Press, 2012)

The curse of the fedoraed driver, or the pitfalls of false categorisations

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A couple of days ago I was heading down Ginninderra Drive doing the regulation 80 kph, when an 80s Volvo station wagon sped past at probably 90km or so. As soon as he cleared me, he partially pulled back in front, but sat with one hanging over the lane divider, and then proceeded to slow to 75 kph. Every now and then his left wheels would drift over the cat’s eye bumps and then he’d pull over fully into the right lane, but it wouldn’t last and within what seemed like seconds he’d be straddling the white line again. I decided discretion was the better part of valour and gave him a wide berth until I could escape to the right. We came to rest parallel at the lights and I saw it, there on his head.

You guessed, probably from the title. A freaking fedora. A chit-brained semi-conscious huck-knuckle in a freaking hat. Every warning I’d ever had about hat wearers being crap drivers came back – they’re just terrible, they can’t really see what they’re doing, they’re usually old farmers not used to city driving…clearly this was a relatively young guy but the fact that he had a hat on said it all.

Of course that’s nonsense. But it sounds like it might be true, and a lot of people of my generation believe headgear predicts cruddy motoring technique.

So why has this myth formed? As humans, we’re primed to believe bad things of certain people we don’t identify with, and that is down to two human cognitive characteristics: firstly, group dynamics and secondly, categorisation.

Let’s start with group dynamics. How social groups form and share beliefs belongs to the field of social psychology. Social psychology has existed for 200 years, with roots in books like Charles Mackay’s 1841 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and Gustave le Bon’s 1895 The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. It has progressed as a sort of poor relation of psychology, lacking the glamour of abnormal psych but with more scientific rigour and study of structure than sociology.

What has emerged from those two centuries of study is a good description of how social groups form, how members of those groups develop norms and mores in common, how those norms and mores are maintained, and who is able to influence within the group.

Social groups are defined as collectives of people who self-identify as belonging to that group. There are myriad studies demonstrating that people will tend to conform in all kinds of behaviour, from opinion to dress sense, manners and morality, with others within the group. For that reason, people belonging to a group will come to resemble each other in various ways. The most influential members of the group are those identified as leaders–the cool people, the ones everyone looks up to. Or, they can be a prototypical member: a non-existent ideal with every characteristic that that group defines as being the perfect member. The set of beliefs held by the group are known as their norms and mores.

Social groups are tribal: they form enemies of rival communities – be that a rival sports team, or an entire culture. The intergroup hostility can extend to treating members of entire other groups as not human – and that’s basis of racism. Someone from a disliked out-group will find it very difficult to win an argument with an in-group, as their opinions will be dismissed out of hand.

These norms arising from the groups have some interesting properties. There’s very little within the norm itself which needs any external validation, meaning they can be entirely arbitrary, for instance why do we cover our breasts in Australia, while the people of Papua New Guinea see no reason to do so? All humans are capable of rational reasoning, but it is treasured in certain groups more than others.

People can be members of as many social groups as they self-identify with, and humans are entirely capable of holding self-contradictory norms derived from different social groups. The group that is salient in the minds of two people arguing will effect whether the arguments are seen as valid. So if a racist white mother is talking to a muslim woman, also a mother, the shared identity of “mother” may override the racist woman’s prejudice.

But what happens then when the racist woman returns to her racist cohort and reports that she’s had a lovely time with a Muslim woman? Empathising with someone from an enemy group can be seen as traitorous. Depending on how threatened by Islam this group is, she may be brutally ostracised from that group for fraternising with the enemy. (This effect is covered in two case studies from NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast).

It’s a massive subject, but for the purpose of this exercise, concentrate on the idea that in general what produces unanimity within a specific social group is the members self-identifying with that group.

(It is possible that other circumstances may create similarities between members of a group, for instance sharing a physical or mental illness, or being part of a specific cohort sharing life events. In general though, those will be less marked than the effects of self-identifying within a society, and often will overlap with group formation.)

So to the second point, the human cognitive ability that is categorisation affects how we see others. At a fundamental level, “categorisation” is the basic capacity that allows us to distinguish objects. A cup in our culture is something we know will hold liquid for drinking purposes. Other cultures have other categories, but they all have the capacity to name things.

When we see something or someone that annoys us, the natural thing to do is to try to make sense of it and predict future behaviour by creating a category.

It’s bad enough when we create categories of existing groups. Existing groups will have similarities and shared experiences, but if we see them as a rival, we will distort characteristics, at best getting them slightly wrong and at worst creating awful caricatures which insult, degrade or otherwise demean the rival group members.

But what happens if we decide to conjure out of nowhere a group that doesn’t even exist? Well, firstly, it’s usually done to disparage those people. It’s a way of making an enemy who can be wrong, so that you, the definer, can be correct. Being right is an ego boost, a way of making yourself and your peers feel better about themselves by being superior to those who have defined as being bad.

Take the hat-wearing driver of my initial example. They will not self-identify as a group of hat-wearing drivers, so they don’t have a norm that includes bad driving. It’s possible that older or rural men wear hats, and older or rural men are have poorer driving skills, but in reality it’s probably just an old, fairly random stereotype which has never and will never be empirically tested. I don’t know what it was about the aggressively poor driver I encountered, but suspect that the hat was the least of his issues.

Now to take this further, something I have seen a lot of on my carefully curated twitter feed of mostly young, left-wing, lower-middle-class folk is a tendency to berate the attitudes of a specific age group- the baby boomers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disclosure: while I’m not technically a boomer, I did marry one.

So what’s happening here? Let’s plug it into the social identity formula above and see what falls out. Firstly “boomers” are being accused of thinking “millenials” are lazy, and this is unfair because “boomers” screwed the economy and now “millenials” can’t afford houses.

First of all, there’s clear evidence of group blame. Boomers are not a homogenous group. It’s likely they will have a million different social identities before they name “boomer” as something they are. It is true that boomers benefited from the post-WWII economic growth. Anyone who owned property outright before the insane boom of the early 2000s lucked out. Anyone who didn’t would find it far more difficult to buy a house, and rent is ridiculously expensive.

But is this the fault of the older generation? In the 1980s, market rationalism became the dominant economic ideology. This was driven by economists and adopted by governments world-wide, no doubt encouraged by business and industry who saw the benefits for them. Sure, the boomers may have voted for these people, but they certainly did not all create the prevailing academic economic theories of the time. Nor can they be held responsible for the house-price boom and subsequent sub-prime crash.

No, what is happening is the same old finger-pointing blame game which solidifies group boundaries and makes enemies where there should be none. When a group is accused of something, however valid that accusation, they will tend to throw up the barricades and return fire. It becomes non-productive exercise that does nothing other than bolster the egos of those who believe they are in the right. The fight feels great! But who does it help?

As a small exercise to the reader: have you seen any other irrational intergroup rivalries? What happens when people start identifying themselves with various idea-based political philosophies? Do those ideas stay rational, or do they begin to morph into group norms? What is the effect of social media on these groups, both helping people to form like-minded cohorts and amplify their norms, and to ostracise?

 

Talking to my daughter about her recent diagnosis

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“Do you still resent me?”

My seventeen-year-old creased her brow and hunched over in the car seat. She doesn’t like me talking feelings in the car; she’s captive and can’t escape. For that moment I’d forgotten and babbled on, as I do.

She answered: “No, I never resented you as such. I used to express my anger at you, because you were the closest person. Also, I knew that you were used to me expressing anger at you, so you could cope. If I expressed anger at my sisters, they might get really upset. When I’m angry, most of that is directed at myself and I’ll be more likely to hurt myself.”

“But you don’t feel that way so much now?”

“No.”

“I feel with you that it’s more frustration than anger.”

“I get frustrated when things don’t go the way I plan or anticipate.”

I pulled into the car park and switched off the engine.

“Because I want to say that I love you. I want you to know that.”

I could see that upset her. She started to pull her knees up to her chest.

I went on: “Okay, to clarify, that means you make me happy when you are around, I want you to be happy and to do well, and when you are sad it makes me sad.” And she is one quarter of my heart and one third of my soul and her pain stings me sharp and should anything happen to her I would be destroyed, but I can’t say that because she won’t understand and it would upset her more. I repressed the words like I repress the urge to draw her into a huge hug.

She went mute, which was when I realised I’d ambushed her with an emotions talk in a confined space. I left her to calm herself down in the car while I shopped.

When I returned, I was surprised that she restarted the conversation. She said: “I think I empathise with fictional characters more than real people.”

“Yes, that’s because their inner thoughts and world are explained,” although it’s probably also that she doesn’t see immediate and confusing contradiction of her assumptions. There’s a structure there and you can predict what will happen. In real life situations with people she often feels like she’s flailing and drowning.

“With real people, there’s a degree of guesswork because everyone assumes people can read their emotions. And when I say ‘read’, it’s not just an interpretation, it’s like literally feeling a little bit of what the other person feels.”

“Oh I do that with physical pain, but not with emotions,” she said.

“So it’s a difference, but there are pluses and minuses to it. On the radio the other day there was a fellow called John Elder Robison, who also has autism, talking about how he had had transcranial magnetic stimulation which had increased his ability to read emotions. His wife was depressive and he and she worked well together because depression makes you interpret things as far worse than they really are. He was able to see the situation rationally and so was able to put that case to his wife and calm her down. In that way they were a good team.”

“That’s what I do with Sally,” she said. Sally is a friend who has just returned from hospital after several suicide attempts.

“Yes. But you see, once Robison had the transcranial magnetic stimulation, he was able to see his wife’s emotions, and it was too much for him. He couldn’t deal with it and he ended up divorcing about a year after the procedure.

“There is a good argument that high-functioning mild autism isn’t so much a disability but a variation. These are our scientists, IT techs, lawyers and intellectuals.”

My daughter nodded: “But the problem is that society isn’t set up to deal with us, so that makes it less of a variation and more of an aberation.”

Indeed, and that’s the subject of Steve Silbermann’s book, which we’re going to have to read now.

Toxic people: further thoughts

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My piece on the toxic people narrative generated more feedback than I’m used to seeing on my little blog, including a few interesting questions I felt it would be good to clarify.

Two or three disagreed vehemently with me that “toxic people” should not be “dumped”. It transpires that they had been in partner relationships with people whose mental health issues had caused them to be too needy for the relationship to thrive. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest anyone stay in a dynamic like that; the best it can ever be is co-dependent, and at worst it can be outright abusive. The most self-protective action a person finding themselves in such a predicament can take would be to leave the relationship. In fact I have  model for that in my story: the boyfriend who had broken up with me, but was still taking advantage of me for sex. The very best thing I did at that time, both for my own sake and his, was to take the advice of my counsellor (thank heavens for her!) and cut off all contact with him. My fixation with him was unhealthy. Being a beautiful and oversexed young woman I did have other relationships afterwards – think manic pixie dream girl with razor blades. One of these lasted three years, the stability of which helped me sort out my life enormously, and then, of course, my current relationship which I have maintained over 20 years has been my saviour.

This brings up an important point: it’s been my experience that a stable, loving relationship can be the best thing for someone with mental health issues. It struck me most strongly reading philosopher Raymond Gaita’s Romulus, My Father when following his extraordinary psychotic break, Gaita’s father remarried and was able to make a comfortable life for himself, while still being deviations away from normality. Again, whether that would be possible today when social services are so much more depleted and house ownership so far out of reach, no-one can say.

The effect of love as a positive force on mental health is real, measurable and has been studied. There’s good evidence that getting married and staying married decreases depression (correlation/causation notwithstanding, but it makes sense).

What on earth would the partner get out of a relationship with someone with mental health issues, you might ask. Well, there is a huge amount more to a human being than the sum of their unusual brain patterns. It’s hard to go past compatible personalities. For my husband and myself, knowledge of our own mental foibles provides great understanding and humour. Let’s face it, neuroses can be freaking hilarious, some comedians have made squintillions out of their neuroses. Learning to laugh at yourself can work well.

Nor do I have any issue with the idea of just letting friendships lapse with people who are otherwise healthy, particularly if you have nothing in common. If you don’t get along, you don’t get along, so move along. End of story.

The narrative of relationship toxicity I object to is more the concept that you should dump inconvenient friends. If this is a person who has become very needy because they are not coping socially, have become depressed or have other mental health issues, then it may be the time they need their friends most. If someone’s behaviour has started to become a drain, then rather than dumping and running, it would be better mention it to them–explain precisely how their behaviour is affecting you. Maybe mention counselling of various types. If you keep doing that, the person may either take your advice, or get sick of your nagging and leave of their own accord. More than anything, be there if a friend falls on hard times. There but for the grace of God, etc.

How I went mad and lost all my friends

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There’s nothing worse than a friend who always brings you down; someone needy, depressing, wanting more of you than you are able to give. Someone who’s a downer, who can make your heart plummet at the first word. A bore. A toxic someone, a someone who is not worth the resources to feed and sure as fuck not worth your time. Someone whose company you are better off without, someone who should be pruned from your life.

According to every womens’ mag and psychopop blog in existence, that’s a truth universally accepted. It’s probably possible to make a living belching out articles about fifteen ways to fuck off your inadequate friends so they don’t inconvenience your life.

toxic

Thanks to Google, you can find 101 ways to fuck off a loser

So who are these toxic people, these dreary humans who bring every conversation down? What happens to them once they’ve been dumped? What’s that experience actually like?

It sucks. It sucks and I know that, because once I was the toxic person. I was not pleasant to be around because I was deeply depressed, anxious, lost, self-medicating with alcohol, awkward, strange, creative but weird, disturbing, maybe even frightening. But for that, I’m pretty sure I didn’t deserve to lose all but one of my social supports in the one fell swoop.

It’s hard to remember exactly what happened, because my state of mind was so different to now and so divorced from reality. The origins of my mental illness were laid fairly early in my life, probably because my difficulty reading social signals left me vulnerable to social abuse. While I was getting straight As and my stories and paintings were good enough to win me the primary school 6-grade award for creativity, at home things were not good. My brother and mother mentally and physically bullied me through my childhood.

I don’t remember each individual punch by my brother because that was an everyday occurrence, the wallpaper of my life. What I remember is the one-off creative abuse: that time he held me under the water in the pool until I was sure I was going to drown, the time he sat on my torso and jumped up and down on my belly – I don’t know how long he did that for, but there was enough time for me to roll over so that my spine was taking the force instead of my belly. That time he attacked me on my bed, my own fucking bed! And I called out, and Mum arrived, and observing my legs splayed as I tried to fight him, went berserk. At meBecause my freaking knickers were showing. 

And then of course there was Mum’s sporadic abuse. If ever I yelled at my brother, I would be the one who took punishment. The time she threw me into my bedroom by the hair. The time, in a Tamworth supermarket, wearing that smocked dress that she had made, that gaped and showed my teenage breasts. Please, I said, can we take it in so that it doesn’t show my boobs, and she swung around and punched me with a closed fist full in the face, and I bled down the cream front of the dress. The time she slapped me hard on the face, then sat on my bed tearfully trying to apologise while turned to the wall I closed my eyes and wished myself invisible.

I didn’t even register any of this as abuse until this year when she died, and all that repressed anger and confusion rose to the surface.

But I wasn’t a full social leper as a child. I always had a small group of friends and we devised our own fun – music, choreographing dancing, pulling pranks and smoking. By college I found myself drafted into a much larger group of clever young things, my entry mainly via my boyfriend. I was still on the periphery of that group, but I had people to talk to, who would invite me to parties and go to movies or ice-skating.

That all changed in my second year at University. I’d lived the first year in a University hall of residence with my parents paying. In the year before, I’d started to become depressed, and the social and intellectual pressure of Uni became overwhelming. Towards the end of my first year, my parents discovered I was sexually active and they ordered me to move back home, saying they “disapproved of my lifestyle”.

I lasted eight weeks. Things were tense with Mum, who began shouting at me before I even got out of bed in the morning. It came to a head the day my brother caught me taking a photo of the backyard in which he was sunbathing. He thought I’d taken a photo of him in his bathers. He forced me to expose the film at knifepoint, yelling “What else do you want from me, list of everyone I’ve fucked?” He tore down my posters and shredded them, and I knew I had to get out.

A university counselor helped me prepare a statutory declaration that I was no longer able to survive in my parent’s house because it was damaging my mental health, and so I was able to apply for Austudy. Around the same time, I broke up with my boyfriend, and there in my room on the top floor of Burton and Garran Hall, ANU, I was totally and utterly isolated. I became odder and withdrawn, would stay awake all through the night writing and writing and writing, drinking sickly fruity lexia by the cask and daring myself to open a vein. I remember snippets of images from this time only: I would be mesmerised by incense smoke rising slowly in the dim light, or by the swirls of my own blood coiling on thermal currents in the basin of water in the sink. By the sun’s morning rays creeping down Black Mountain. I remember spending an inordinate amount of time doing nothing but pulling faces at myself in the mirror, or using eyeliner to draw a trail of vines up the side of my cheek. All this while I was trying to complete a year of psychology, English, and Maths.

My ex-boyfriend would take the opportunity to sleep with me whenever he felt the urge. I don’t believe he was malicious, just young and stupid and I don’t think he realised how very sick I was. This was confusing, and I took to leaving him notes on his room’s door late at night, begging him to take me back, and later asking him to please kill me, since it would be better for us all if I were dead. (This isn’t true now and it wasn’t true then, but in the depths of despair that can be hard to see.) I once broke into his cupboard in the kitchen and filled his saucepans with dirt. He later told me he would lie awake terrified waiting for the notes to arrive – and yet every week or so he was still sleeping with me. Thank God my counselor convinced me that in order to break the hold, I needed to totally avoid him, to the extent of, if I saw him at the other end of the corridor I should run in the other direction. In my bizarre state of mind, I thought I was punishing him.

Unsurprisingly, my friends who were his friends dropped away. I was blamed for acts of vandalism which were nothing to do with me: as I told people, I’d never do anything that couldn’t be easily reversed (although that’s a distinction that was probably clearer in my mind than others’ and didn’t take into account the psychological damage I had no doubt done to my ex-boyfriend). Someone who met me later, once I had found clerical work. looked me up and down and roared with laughter: “The way *Frank described you I thought you would be ten foot tall with claws and fangs!”

In the communal kitchens one day, I met a young depressive man, a PhD student in emotional free fall like myself. At four o’clock one morning he tapped at my door, lonely and in tears, and I let him in, and he sobbed on my shoulder until the sun broke. We traded stories, and he told me I didn’t deserve to be treated like I had been. Imagine that – the first time anybody had valued me for me, not what I could do. Moreover, I could talk to him like no-one else, and he said he felt happier with me than anywhere else.

We were best friends for 5 years before we started a relationship and eventually married. Our love saved me, I have no doubt of that.

But the thing is, that experience of having lost everything and everyone haunts me to this day. It set up behaviour patterns and assumptions, that I am unlikable, that on some deep level I am not worthy of other people’s time or attention, that I will bore them. And more than anything else, that I will be rejected again.

And actually that happened–when my father-in-law died, he left a compact disk full of his university works which he had instructed be distributed to his entire family. Now, there were files on this disk stored in WordPerfect, an older word processing language no-one had and which no-one in this extremely academic family could access, including some who had worked in IT. Except, as it ironically turns out, me, because I knew how to convert the files, so my husband asked me to make the copies. Some of these files were meticulous diary entries detailing every day since the late eighties. Recall these were supposed to be distributed to the entire family, to whom I foolishly thought I belonged. I decided to look up a few significant happy dates and discovered our wedding date was listed as a tragedy, a huge mistake. The birth of my first daughter was greeted with distress and resignation (and a backward count to the wedding day, just in case I’d entrapped my husband). I was allegedly thick as a plank. Apparently quite a few family members talked of disliking me to the extent of attempting to talk my husband out of marrying me. On reading this I remembered all those awkward times we’d cooked them dinner or visited and eaten their shortbread and made small talk, during which time they were pretending to like me. Each of those social encounters was awkward and left me drained. And at that time I made a decision never to bother trying to make that enormous social effort to like anyone who I didn’t think would like me back. I need to protect myself from rejection because I can’t handle it.

When you reject a person for being “toxic”, you reduce their social circle. They may be left without support. Ultimately it could be tragic. It’s basically a really shitty thing to do. I’ve absorbed the belief that I don’t deserve love or friends. At the same time, I think all other human beings deserve love, and so as a human being I probably do, and it’s conceivably a pretty awful to leave other people metaphorically out for the vultures, however unpleasant or weird, or awkward they happen to be. This isn’t to suggest that people should make an effort to be friendly with people they don’t like–I personally just think that’s a pointless waste of effort. But for someone you’ve known for a long time, in the flesh, and have done real world things with and have real history with, just jettisoning them because they become inconvenient seems cruel.

Don’t be perfect: be adequate. A guide to cleaning for the perpetually vague.

My childhood bedroom window had a small hole in the wire screen, which must have allowed the scent of my mosquito-magnet blood out in Summer. Mosquitoes and flies would thrum into my room and circle. Luckily it was never a problem, reason being the entire ceiling down to just above my head, roughly the top third, was filled with very fine, nearly invisible spiders’ webs. I think only daddy longlegs survived up there; while there were huntsmen skulking around they didn’t make webs. In fact, it wasn’t unusual to see the fat huntsmen bodies encased in daddy longlegs’ threads.

So you can picture this room: standard 70’s decor reflecting the tastes of my oddly hippy but concurrently extreme-conservative parents. The bed was a chunky tube shiny yellow metal-framed beast. I remember being sick the day some delivery guys assembled it, and only waking as they lifted the mattress from the old bed to the new with me in situ. Walls, cream. Boards and cupboard doors, a sticky mission brown stain that collected dust and never really set. Curtains, a designer fabric Mum was particularly proud of, with a thick yellow ribbon wave called “Swirl” with a copyright notice in the hem. A small set of bookshelves made with planks and stacked bricks. A desk and a Scandi folding that would collapse and eat your bum if you sat in it at the wrong angle (and most angles were). Carpet, the same burnt orange as through the rest of the house.

Ordinarily there was no chance of ever seeing the carpet. While the top third of the room was occupied by spiders and web, there was a thick bottom layer underfoot of clothes (clean and dirty), bedding, cushions, books, abandoned art projects, knitting wool, cat toys, bags, dolls, toys, a cat or two, random flotsam and jetsam. Never food waste or anything that might rot, but other than that it was as good fun as a rummage through the tip minus risk of tetanus.

I would attempt to put away my detritus, but would stare for half an hour at some random item in my hand – say my beloved plasticraft kit, smelly two-part epoxy resin which you poured into moulds and embedded your goldfish (hopefully already dead) – and wondered where the heck it was supposed to go. Eventually, I’d push it into the too-hard basket – in other words, back onto the floor. Or worse, I’d find a half-written poem or half-finished piece of embroidery, and it would be imperative that I complete it there and then. The room was very rarely clean.

One day when I was about 10, I thought I’d hit on a solution. I was wrong. Mum could have been more diplomatic in her explanation that there was no such thing as a “tidy heap on the floor”.

Being a relatively normal suburban parent, Mum was perpetually aghast at the state of my room. What she didn’t realise is that screaming at me about it was never going to help. I am one of those people who, for whatever reason, has real trouble with organisation. There’s a well-established link between messiness and creativity. I like to imagine myself to be creative, so this provides a lovely, scientifically-demonstrated excuse. In any case it’s something I struggle with. I used to watch Mum clean and tidy in awe – the speed and ease with which she organised the room and left it sparkling looked like domestic wizardry.

It’s probably fair to say that if the much-desired parenting licence were a thing, I’d only just have scraped past. Probably. I hope. What has become clear as I became a mother and became legally responsible for not having my children be crushed under a mountain of omgwtf, is that cleaning requires a number of abilities that I needed to teach myself. These include:

  • Categorisation. What is this X I’ve just found on the floor? Where do all the Xs live?
  • Decision  making. I haven’t got a place for all the Xs. So, I need to define a sensible place for the Xs to live.
  • Attention span. Don’t be distracted by unfinished craft projects or worse, books. It takes some energy and commitment not to run after the proverbial squirrels, particularly when you are trying to categorise, sort and neatly stack those damn rodents somewhere where you may be able to find them again.
  • Cut the corners. The temptation for me now when cleaning is not just to get everything tidy, but to make everything perfect. So utterly perfect the stationery is organised by colour, the books by author and the clothes by season, shade and costume. If I follow this compulsion, I am capable of arranging and rearranging one wardrobe, while the rest of the house looks like vikings ransacked the abode of a chronic hoarder. So, I’ve had to learn: don’t be perfect, be adequate.
  • Be systematic. Start at one end of the room and clean and tidy every single thing in that corner, then work outwards. Make an immediate decision on everything that is touched.

All that is probably intuitively obvious for most people. For me, in order not to end up in a dreadful confused heap on the floor, I need to follow those rules consciously and strictly.  If all else fails, there is always the tidy heaps on the floor method. If anyone complains, the hygiene hypothesis is your excuse and stick to it.

Class-googles and feelpinion – What’s wrong with Mark Latham.

Another day, another spray. Mark Latham continues to be published for his intelligent, articulate justifications of his own knee-jerk reflexes.  Latham’s native responses resemble the sort of bitterness you might expect when a proud if slightly violent man has been rejected by his party. The party he’d emotionally invested in, thrown flowers at and adored. Like a spurned lover, he seems to be stewing in bile.

37 women have been murdered this year. This is a horrific figure. Rosy Batty has called for an emergency summit to discuss means of reducing violence, but also more money to put put towards combating what she calls family terrorism.

Latham wouldn’t have a bar of it. For him, all roads lead to class differences, and class differences cause all social ills, including family violence.  It’s worth unpacking this specific article, if only for the insight into his thinking and assumptions.

Tim Watts – said to be one of the rising stars of Bill Shorten’s opposition – declared himself to be part of a group called ‘Parliamentarians Against Family’.

I thought: here’s a new brand of commonsense in Labor’s ranks, an MP willing to wind back government intervention in the private affairs of families. Watts must be cut from the same cloth as the late Peter Walsh, a real Labor man with zero tolerance of middle-class family welfare. […] He must be hostile to the bulging army of academics, social workers, inner-city feminists and cultural dietitians constantly telling Australian families how to live their lives.

“Parliamentarians Against Family”. I can not think of any current ideology or political discourse that would declare itself to be anti-family. Latham’s not that stupid. He is attempting humour here, but does it with such a bludgeon that he comes across as unhinged. Who on earth would declare themselves anti-family? Latham apparently is comfortable with it.

In doing so, he reveals a bias against “the bulging army of academics, social workers, inner-city feminists and cultural dietitians constantly telling Australian families how to live their lives”. The “Nanny State” peddlers, who would tell him specifically how to live his life – because this is personal. He has a grudge against these people and refuses to engage with them or their arguments in any way. I mean, what on earth would ivory tower academics who base their opinions on rigorous evidence-based science know that you couldn’t get with a knee-jerk Marxist assumption?

This is what every good government needs: an Attila the Hun figure winding back the excesses of the welfare state. Watts was my man, the founding president and spiritual leader of Parliamentarians Against Family (PAF).

How does Attila the Hun feel about his being sidelined? Not good. It’s not much of a stretch to see that Latham fantasises himself in that mould. Attila the Hun is a decidedly odd hero to pick, but I guess he didn’t want to go the full Godwin.

Latham goes on to express his dismay upon recognising the true name of the group: Parliamentarians Against Family Violence. He notes a clunky sentence in the group’s description and suggests that Watts’ inability to even get the name of the group right demonstrates Watts’ intellectual deficiencies. Perhaps, perhaps not – I haven’t read that material so can’t comment.

The rest of the article is a flimsy construction of straw women and barely veiled assumption.

Somewhere in the 1990s the party abandoned class-based analysis in favour of identity politics. Instead of judging people on the basis of socio-economic need, Australia was subdivided along the lines of ethnicity, gender, sexuality and culture.

“Class-based analysis” contains within it the presumption that salary differences are the only basis of discrimination worth doing anything about and cause all other social ills. For Latham, it is a given; one of those basic building blocks of his analysis that he refuses to question. This limits his ability to see complexities and interactions that exist – the much maligned “intersectionality” described by women of colour, single parents and victims of violence is too subtle for him to comprehend with his categorical system based on income inequality, which trumps everything else.

Someone can be wealthy and well-connected, but if they are also non-Anglo, non-male, non-heterosexual – or, better still, The Artist Formerly Known As Malcolm McGregor – they are said to be doing it tough.

Regrettably, Watts has fallen for the feminist line on domestic violence: that most men are inherently bad and require re-education through “awareness campaigns” and “national summits”.

Foolish feminists, always calling for awareness campaigns without further action – except they’re not. They’re calling for urgent intervention: funding of women’s shelters, beefing up domestic violence laws, educating police and the law, etc etc. Part of that does start with emergency summits and educating children (perhaps teaching them to deal with the frustrations of being in a lower-socioeconomic strata in some other way than beating the crap out of their partners. Like, I don’t know, sport, blogging, trainspotting.) If Latham is correct, and poverty is the sole cause of all domestic violence, then why are the sexes not equally represented in the figures?

But it’s really not worth attempting to engage with Latham. His blinkers are too thick, and the admirable rhetorical skills which he uses to justify them will ensure that he’ll continue to be published, because everyone loves a good hate read.