Friday, June 14, 2013

Extracts from a personal letter

I wrote a long and personal letter to an aunt and uncle who have always been close. They looked after me a lot when I was at boarding school, I remain friends with my cousins, who introduced me to underage drinking and heavy rock, amongst other important rites of passage. We have not seen much of them recently, but they have stayed in regular contact with my parents. Because of the particularly close relationship I had with them, and my aunt being my father's sister, one of the only people he might ever listen to in the world, I have struggled not to feel disappointed that they have not given me support as the rift with my father grew. This is selfish, I know, but I also know he feels vindicated by his sister's ongoing friendly relationship with him. And I have even felt some suggestion from my aunt that I should make a better effort to understand him, because of how his own father treated him (more than half a century ago).

I wrote a long letter in chapters. I felt the need to be brief and understated in raising the issues with my parents. I talked about Christmas and this is how it went...

I resolved to keep discussion of my folks brief. I sense you have seen enough tortuous family relationships that you don't want to hear the sounds coming off the strained piano wire between my father and I, or the dischord around it. I will summarise enough that the bits of news and any other updates you hear make some sense, then move on.

We went up for Christmas. My mum has always banged on about wanting a family Christmas and even the father brought it up, so, although they've had a pretty decent share of one-way visits it was something I really wanted to give them. It was hard work, though I believe as pennance for my sins I have done the right thing in not telling them it was so. They had a few nice moments together here and there and I will do my best to let them keep those memories.

It was very hard graft though. There was a lot of harshness towards the kids, and for some reason both of them can be particularly unpleasant towards Mitts. I am not sure where this comes from, no doubt a psychologist could have a field day. Efforts to join in, play, or otherwise interact were modest, so the experience for us is one of carrying the kids over eggshells much of the time, then playing with them while my folks wander off elsewhere, read magazines, and so on. It was similar during the previous visit. Lots of presents, of course, but that doesn't really make up for other things, not when you get to the end of Christmas day and your son looks at you with sad eyes and says 'Christmas is poo poo'.

I know there are thousands of reasons for all this and I acknowledged you don't need to hear much of it. I just want you to know enough to understand that while I know about the past and can try to forgive, for myself, these are not things I like exposing my wife and children to and that this will affect the amount of time we can spend visiting them. We will take a break for a while. Most likely next time, for everyone's sake, we will stay in an apartment nearby, as you did when [cousin] went up there, and organise measured doses of time in which, hopefully, we all make the most of it. Explaining that to my mother without casting aspertions on the last visit will be a tricky exercise in diplomacy…

On a better note, we did have some nice moments on the beaches nearby, or playing around the pool. I noted the father come up and attend to some tasks near where the kids were playing a couple of times, and I know this to be one of his ways of interacting. Things like exploring Mon Repos beach, watching the turtles, or even heading out fishing when they are a bit older may be ways they can bond a little. We took ourselves on to Hervey Bay for a few days afterwards, and it was lovely - the beaches are like landing strips of sand shining with sun on the puddles left by the tide. For the kids, running barefoot and chasing crabs, it was slices of heaven in rainbow sauce.

Friday, May 03, 2013

RIP Jeff Hanneman - and why I still respect one of the heaviest bands on earth

Two random autotrivias :

1) I once did a stint as a blow in DJ on a heavy radio show as 'metal REALNAME'

2) the riff to Slayer's Raining Blood was my best party trick back in 1991-2 (when I could actually play a bit of guitar). I have just unleashed a string of tributes to this band on Tumblr and facebook.

My enduring respect for them may seem incongruous, and I listen to as much jazz as heavy rock these days (and very little true heavy metal). But some of those bands, Slayer in particular, were important for me at a very vulnerable time. Depressed and lost at 18, and reacting a little to having woken up to what the world is really about - coming off the back of 2 years at an exclusive boarding school into which I fitted like a royalist at an IRA convention - this music told me I was not alone and allowed me to vent. And, as the blues, Mahler or Ornette Coleman can also demonstrate, sometimes that sadness or darkness can lift you up. Whereas, if it all seems like shite, some happy chirpy false pretentious halfwit popping out sugar coated lyrics can make you want to reach for the medicine cabinet.

RIP Jeff. You were something real in a world of fake, I respected that and I still do.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Guilty Christmas and the bitter aftertaste

"Christmas is Poo Poo!" was a Boi's summary, at the end of a day with my parents. He was angry and upset. And I was wondering why I did this to him.

We spent last christmas with my parents in Queensland. Now this blog, as anyone still following knows, has in the past few years been dominated by, even poisoned by my issues with my father. This escalated after his grand statement that he would never come and visit us (and he hasn't). I unpacked fragments of a life of self-loathing and doubt here, I also took the plunge and spent quite a few hours with a counsellor.

I reached a sort of resolved, unilateral settlement: I would simply try not to have any expectations, take what little emotional interaction is given without going on the front foot, avoid any discussions of politics or education or career that have the potential to turn ugly, and continue to potter away at the relationship, largely for my mother's sake. And the sake of black-and-white memories of standing by his side fishing, or grasping his hand to be hauled up on top of the escarpment somewhere in my bush childhood.

We remain on speaking terms. He and my mother have both been on-and-off unwell; recently he has successfully fought a round of cancer. Although our previous trip to visit had been more miss than hit, I felt they deserved another, a Christmas, partly on the basis that they might not have many left. Guilt, and some hope.

You catch two planes to get to the small, difficult location they moved to well after we started having kids. The bill for the family is well into 4 figures. We allocated one of the small handful of precious, childhood Christmases. And hoped.

If expectations were most firmly rooted in actual, recent experience, empirically observed, then the result was exactly as I should have expected.

My father ignored us much of the time, reading the paper or pottering. As he did the previous time we went up.

He did manage to growl at Boiboi and be rude to Beloved. As well, there were the usual attempts to pick fights with me, although notably heightened and emboldened this time - moving on to the front foot again, probing for that sore spot to open. Now, it's like he's gone into that old man thing where he thinks fuck it, I'm right, I've always been right, fuck him.

Tried to hector us on our plans for raising the kids, and when I made plain we will do it our way and do our best to turn them out ok, he sneered: "We'll see..."

But, those aside, he was mostly mild (this may give you a sense of what mild means in my family). The real fun was with my mother. I have spent a lot of time blaming my father, who as you can tell is a control freak with some undiagnosed misfire in his neurons that periodically spits out nasty, for my mother's oddities. Yet she was in a league of her own over Christmas. Obviously pleased we were there, yet she spent her time Berating Boi, making perhaps unintended but rude digs about our parenting, favouring Bear, berating Boi, snarling at Boi, taking herself off and not actually doing much with the kids most of the time, berating Boi...

Did I mention a bit of a bias against Boi? Still, he was almost 4, who would think he'd not be perfect. And female.

In the way they've always been, they were nothing if not generous with presents. Certainly quantity. We asked that the selection be modest, and thoughtful. Instead there was a large pile of plastic - about a foot and a half off the ground - which made our presents and those from Santa look trite. But then how can you not be a loving grandparent (insert 'parent' in my own narrative) if you pile up the presents?

Pile up all the presents you want, but if you growl at him through the day your grandson will still conclude that Christmas was poo poo.

At the very end, the airport, my mother starts saying to the kids how much she enjoyed their visit and would they please come again? "Daddy" Boi said, "Can we come back, Grandma wants us back!"

It broke my heart.

I know I need to add an uplifting postscript. So. After that we drove to Hervey Bay. It was lovely. The end.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

School is actually rather crap for working parents

Nuclear family is best, with mum doing 'schooly' stuff along with craft group, dad hard at work leaving all that to the missus.

I mean it. I'm just passing on the sustained message we have received from our first year and a bit at school.

Things are never going to be easy, dealing with fairly demanding careers while wanting to be part of our children's education. I have previously posted about the early, obvious challenges such as picking up at 3.30pm, or not, and a general emotional sense of wanting to be more involved. Not all of that can easily be fixed. But over and over I find decisions and planning take place with a stunning lack of self-consciousness about their effect on working parents.

If you are a working parent at our local state primary school, you will:

- Not be invited when a group of parents decide to set up a 'parents' group' and put the meetings on late Friday morning;

- Be left out of parent-teacher interviews, when they get moved to working hours only;

- Be the overt target of industrial action, costing you hundreds of dollars and shitloads of stress as strike days are wedged between 'pupil free days' and you take more work home, start earlier, miss more parenting time to catch up, while families with stay-at-home parents or a reliable granny around the corner plough on relatively unscathed; and

- Know virtually nothing about what goes on in the classrooms, given no information about schedules and no detail at all is sent out by email or other means.

I am feeling quite a strong sense of loss and detachment around schooling. As a public officer I can't fathom such a huge disconnect between a body and a huge slice of its stakeholders. Most of all, while I know not everything can be changed around to suit my way of life I am stunned at the unselfconscious way so much of this is done.

Beloved feels the same way, and it is hard to see how organising such a crucial institution around a 1950s conception of family really helps progress anything other than a very smug, crossed-armed status quo.