How we do it

@careerusinterruptus

Last month, SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket carried an Argentine satellite and two, smaller, ride-sharing satellites into space to drop into orbit. It was F9’s fourth launch, but its first time landing on shore. (Normally it comes down on one of two drone boats – a beautiful sight.) And they caught one of the rocket’s farings in a huge net on their manned boat.

Do you want to know more? I know more! I know the names of all the boats and satellites, what a faring is and does, how far into space each stage goes and what its function is, when SpaceX’s next crewed mission is, who the crew will be… You know how I know all this, right?

NOT because I have any interest in rockets, but because Mr Pixel does. He monitors the launch schedule, watches the videos, absorbs the facts, and loves to share. He can either explain, or instantly check on a pinned tab, any detail a silly old mum has failed to engrave on her grey matter. How much he loves this stuff can be gauged by the fact that all week he’s been checking a live-stream of SpaceX’s Boca Chica site, even though nothing’s happening there. (Exept a digger arriving on Tuesday.)

Meanwhile, CraftyFish decided I needed to learn about Harry Potter. (AFAIK I’m the sole member of the International I Don’t GAF About Harry Club.) Clearly, none of the eleven meta-HP books in the house own were sufficiently informative; CraftyFish had to make her own. So she downloaded a ton of images and pasted them into a document which we had to go get printed, our machine being on the fritz. But – DISASTER! – incompatible file types! Skew-whiff formatting! (ENORMOUS self-restraint mobilised here, tremendous, to avert public tears.)

Home again, where, under great emotional tension, I dredged up 35yo skillz to format 11pp of images in a suitable program. Then back to the print shop. CraftyFish, who had, in the interim, decided to learn Für Elise from sheet music she found online, asked to print that, too.

Then back home. She spent the next three hours happily cutting, gluing, and practising, while I lay down with a cold compress and a g&t.

PLEASE NOTE: ALL OF THIS HAPPENED SIMULTANEOUSLY, UNPLANNED, ON A MONDAY MORNING.

(Okay, not the gin. Even though I DESERVED IT.)

Educating my kids is like herding a dozen Jack Russell-mountain goat crosses while a rogue wildcat stalks the pen. There’s a LOT of yapping and head-butting, with the constant looming threat of unbridled panic. (SO MUCH YAPPING. SO MUCH HEAD-BUTTING. SO MUCH PANIC.)

Today is Wednesday.

As I write – because there’s hell to pay if Mama’s horses don’t get exercised, too – Mr Pixel is following video instructions to build a massive digger in Minecraft; judging from the huffing coming from his corner, it’s rather challenging. CraftyFish is trying a new recipe for coffee-cream sandwich cookies. While batches are in the oven she’s reading Twilight, which was recently the subject of a homeschool class on How Not To Write A Book. She keeps coming to gleefully read excruciating passages aloud to me. We are talking about adjectives, plot, and healthy relationships.

This is how we ‘homeschool’.

Pretty much all I do is hang on, negotiate, figuring out on the fly how much I can say ‘yes’ to, damn the plan, because Pick Your Battles is my first three rules of parenting and sticking to the plan when the interest bug has bitten is not a battle I’d ever win.

For us, interest is a wild thing. It isn’t especially narrow or deep – Mr Pixel, for instance, can get just as excited about Nerf, Lego, snakes, Minecraft, Tesla, or a recipe from Babish, as he does about Space-X – it’s about the intensity of the curiosity that may bite anywhere, at any time, and does not let go. When CraftyFish spotted a book about rocks, one of her current interests, she haggled for three days until I bought it for her – and then she read it, reveling in the strange new words. Learning that there was a name for this, intellectual over-excitability, from Heidi Klass Gable’s Ted Talk, was the first crack in my refusal to hear that my kids were gifted.

I recognised it, you see. I remember being the kid who spent an entire afternoon reading the new dictionary my dad brought home, when I was 12. I remember how bad I wanted a spare brain that could be set to read, while I did all the other things like school and eat and sleep. (That scene in Dr Strange; you know the one? THAT WAS MY FANTASY.) I also remember how utterly, profoundly uninterested I could be, and the resentment that followed being pushed to do irrelevant things when my interest lay elsewhere.

I don’t want to do that to my kids. Discipline comes not from forcing yourself (or being forced) to study things you have no interest in, but from learning to overcome the obstacles to the things you are interested in. Left to their own devices, they do all the heavy lifting of finding motivation, goal-setting, problem-solving, and persistence.

(Heh. Mr Pixel has just groaned, “WHY did I think this was a good idea?!” But he keeps going, and that is all the good things right there.)

It isn’t always like this, of course. At some point – usually when I say, “Get off your screen/clean up the kitchen/bedtime” – the Jack Russell-mountain goats will morph into wailing floor jellies, because everyday reality is visually overwhelming, organisationally incomprehensible, and paralytically boring, all at once.

So my role is really just admin and coach. Keep the consumables flowing. Remind them they have bodies that need care, too. Get them through the emotional stuff. Help them learn that washing dishes and sweeping the floor are, though boring, necessary corollaries to the fun stuff.

Now if you’ll excuse me, someone has hatched a plan to make sugar from cane they spotted at the grocer’s, and I feel another headache coming on.

A true story from the trenches

Description: close up of a chicken, in profile, in a cage. @careerusinterruptus

(Some hyperbole may apply to the description of nocturnal temperatures in a sub-tropical spring; sadly everything else is fucking true.)

Lying with one of the Kids Who ‘Should’ Be Over This, I fall asleep. Around midnight I wake. Take my chilly ass to my own cold bed. Just generating enough BTUs to melt the ice on the sheets when the other KWSBOT appears, needing a cuddle and a little chat – and wanting me to lie with them, too. That’s cool. Lying with this kid means ‘on the red sofa’, which I loooove. It’s the comfiest thing in the entire house. I conk out immediately.

Well, it turns out that the hip brutally unfucked by the physio 36 hours ago no longer likes the red bloody sofa, so some time later I’m awake with nerve pain down that leg. Bugger.

Move back to my freezing bed. My tummy declares, loudly, its need for filling. Equally forcefully my bladder declares its need for emptying. My sciatic nerve continues swearing. Well, one of those I can ignore, but not the whole damn chorus. I try, of course, but after a while I accept reality, think some unwholesome words of my own, and get up. Go to the loo.

Surprise! Apparently I am still getting periods, despite only having had two this year. Oh, peri-menopause, you unpredictable funster! Now where are my supplies?

Having sorted that, I take two ibuprofen from the bathroom cupboard. Go to the kitchen, at the other end of our long house, for a snack.

By now the over-thinking has kicked in: Toast? Cereal is faster, but milk is cold. Microwave! Oh yeah: WARM MILK. With that amino acid that helps you sleep … … Tryptophan. Yay! I remember!

Boo! I also remember that my children have bat hearing: the microwave buttons’ pips will sound to them like an air raid siren.

I think some more unwholesome words, which is appropriate as this precisely is when I step in the biggest puddle of cold cat sick I’ve ever encountered.

It’s 04:16. I’ve shed my soggy sock and cleaned the cat sick – ish, I mean, just enough that no one else walking through the doorway will encounter similar joy; I’m not completely insane – and by golly now I deserve calories. So I treat myself to peanut-butter-and-banana toast. Swallow the ibuprofen. With (cold) milk.

Then I sit down to read. Not any of the current books – the scholarly work on democracy, power, and digital media (too terrifying), the other scholarly book on contemporary activism (too inspiring), nor the Georgian romance (too scintillating). Instead I settle for the Australian Women’s Weekly, which has recently been donated to feed Mum and CraftyFish’s scrapbooking, and which I never normally read on account of … well, the title. Ugh.

Sky’s lightening when I finally head back to bed. Which is still frigid. And as the entire week’s clean laundry is piled up in baskets in the bedroom, I don’t even bother looking for a replacement sock. What kind of sissy can’t sleep in only one sock? Me, apparently. So I lie awake for a long time, wondering: Do I take the other off and have two cold feet? Try to arrange myself so that sock foot warms up cold foot? And more importantly, if I found that feature about the Country Women’s Association identity struggle interesting, am I now the Australian Women’s Weekly target audience?!

I bet you think that’s enough, right?

NOPE.

This is my once-a-week-designated-writing time, so naturally as soon as I’ve mustered the brain cells to get through breakfast, the kids discover that one of the chooks isn’t opening one eye. I get on the forums to learn what this means. (Answer: a minor irritation caused by dirt/potentially fatal highly contagious respiratory condition, that should/should not be treated by bathing with saltwater/betadine and/or chlorsig/antibiotic cream/oral antibiotics. Useful!)

Having calmed the kids’ hysteria, we’ve isolated the bloody bird. I’ve rung The Skeptic, who’s out, asking him to go spend a fortune on avian antibiotics and texted him the name. When I finish my goddamned writing time, I will bathe the eye with warm salty water, hang the naysayers. Meanwhile, she’s in a crate in here (because a lonely chicken is a screaming chicken) watching me. With both eyes. And the others are out there hollering for her; I can hear them over Bono.

There’s not gonna be any happy braining today. Writing morning has slid through lunch and into gardening, clothes-folding, baking afternoon. It’s the last week of term; CraftyFish has a follow-up appointment at the Children’s Hospital across town; I’m looking after Mum three times; we have overdue library books and more physio on Friday. I will charge at this, all uncharged because what other options are there? This is why #Imissmybrain.

It’s noisy in here and I like it

@careerusinterruptus

Over-thinking is a PITA, no two ways about that.

Analysis paralysis ain’t much fun, either.

As for anxiety – well that’s just Seventh Circle stuff.

And yes, I know that these are all artefactst of a busy, busy brain, and that theoretically I could – with a great deal of patience, practise, and persistence – learn to hush it all down. Breathe. Be still. Achieve calm.

BUT DAMMIT, I LIKE THE RUCKUS!

My brain runs an eight-track mixer. There’s always an earworm (tonight, Zombie.). Alongside writing this I’m chatting online with my cousin and jotting a to-do list for tomorrow. I’m listening to the Skeptic banging around the kitchen, knowing he’ll soon call me in. I’m telling myself to go get my glasses or I’ll have a headache. But, I’m writing fast. Words effervesce; I want to catch and pin them before I have to go; I’m watching the clock and noting that I really need to clean this computer screen.

I call them ‘tracks’ because while they slither up and down in the mix, they’re always, always on. If I wake in the night, there they are: the earworm, softly; the Things-To-Do light blinking; snippets, like whispered conversations, from whatever I’m writing; RL conversations I’ve already had; things I should say. Sometimes other input (temperature, back pain, a wakeful kid) raises the volume to attention-demanding levels, but usually I just drift off again. The buzz is comforting.

Sure, when I’m really tired or stressed, the balance craps out. One track overrides everything else without taking a breath, and that can lead to anxiety.

And, yes, it can be distracting. I’ve learned that when I’m writing I need to occupy a couple slots with music. (Right now they’re cheering to a U2 concert. Zombie’s still there, just quieter.) Without that mental fidget toy, the tracks turn troublesome: like bored kids, getting louder and more quarrelsome til I can’t hear the words I’m trying to capture, sometimes kicking me right off-task.*

Then again, when the words… order … not quite there, yet, briefly attending to another track – channel-hopping, if you like – allows thoughts to emerge and coalesce.

*Sometimes the distraction itself is productive: I’ve just had to open a new document and eject 250 words of a completely different piece. Who knows what that’ll be? Grabbing its beginning creates space for more. And more is fun!

This is my happy place. When I’m well in myself, the chatter in my head isn’t a problem. When I’m really well and have time to indulge it, I can brain like nobody’s business: update the to-do list, sing along, keep an eye on my environment, and work on multiple creative projects, all more or less simultaneously, in an interconnecting, elating flow that I’ve previously described as ‘zinging webs’. Words, questions, and ideas loop around like a gibbon party. It’s entertaining. Exhilarating.

But where Csikszentmihalyi describes flow arising through skilful, practised activity, for me, it comes from letting my brain go, exactly like a horse running just for the sheer joy of it. More funktionslust than flow, perhaps. Freeing my brain to do its thing is energising. All that voluptuous speed and strength: damn what a rush! An hour of that and I’m powered up, ready to face the daily grind.

Most of the time, I have to brain slow. Solve (other people’s) problems, stick to the topic, logic, finish, remember, follow through, and above all, avoid scaring or annoying others with the distant conclusion I’ve already reached. Be present. Dial it down. Prioritise. That’s thinking, man, and it’s exhausting.

It sounds arrogant, I know. It isn’t, though. It’s just biology. While I was privileged to learn a lot from my parents and academia, in truth I’m still a pretty crap thinker. It takes skill and effort to think less fuzzily, more logically, more productively, than I do, and besides not being very good at it, I’ve always been a bit <roll-eye> at the idea. Why think in one direction when eight comes naturally? Bore-ing!

By contrast the track thing has been effortless, forever. It used to bewilder my dad, that I would read in front of the TV, following both stories, while also listening to every word he said to Mum in the next room – but I didn’t do it deliberately. Well, I sort of did; it was relaxing. Mum always tried to make me study in silence, a thing I couldn’t bear. In class I took notes and filled pages with sketches and tapped my foot to the earworm du jour.

At 51 I am just getting to understand and accept that this is how I’m built and not a thing I need to fight. I’m understanding how training for and attaining academic achievement did me no favours, and why cognitivist therapies made the stress worse, akin to asking my kid to only grow freckles on her nose, not everywhere. Because having a racing, flying, trapeze-artist brain is not, in fact, necessarily a bad thing. It is just gifted.

The overthinking is a PITA post

©careerusinterruptus.com

Of course, over-thinking does happen.

Like, what’s for breakfast?

We have some leftover sausages, but I’ve planned pork for dinner.

Okay, so no bacon, either.

Or baked beans, cheese, and bread, because dinner is meat-and-beans in tortillas, with cheese, and nobody needs four serves of pork, beans, or cheese, in one day. (Portion math for teens, y’all.)

Okay. Given that dinner veg includes pulses and capsicum, ideally breakfast should include other veggies to get our five-a-day. Maybe fried rice, with broccoli, carrot, and green beans? And egg, for protein?

Wait. What options does that leave me for lunch?

I can go on like this for half an hour or more, making useless, dithery movements around the kitchen, before I finally figure out peanut-butter-and-banana toast, ticking boxes for filling, protein, and potassium, while squashing down the anxiety about giving them gluten at breakfast and dinner and lunch.

This is overthinking.

I can tell it’s overthinking, rather than analysis paralysis, because it doesn’t matter.

(Hush, you and your ‘does anything really matter?’ Trying to function, here!)

Getting the right fridge, mattered. Choosing badly would have annoyed us all (mostly me, it must be said), countless times a day, for many years, and could well have cost us hundreds in higher power bills and/or premature replacement.

Getting the right breakfast, doesn’t. Yes, I’m obliged to balance our diet, but that doesn’t mean getting every meal right, or even every day. My kids eat pretty widely, thankfully, and even more thankfully, we can buy a wide range of healthy foods. Over the course of the week, it evens out.

That’s why today’s breakfast doesn’t matter. Like it doesn’t matter whether I stop at the shop near me (nightmare carpark, busy store, preferred bread) or the one near Mum (better carpark, smaller store, ‘wrong’ bread), whether that idiot on news.com thought he’d won the argument when I went to cook dinner (AARGH), whether hubby buys the expensive carrots, or whether a teabag went into the bin rather than the compost.

Fretting about the insignificant stuff is really just anxiety that I’m not performing at a sufficiently high level, a hangover from an achievement-oriented upbringing. I know mindfulness and meditation can hush that mental noise. I’ve always sucked at them, though, and these days I’ve abandoned that fight. It’s just a losing battle against an old, unhelpful habit, that is far, far louder, when I’m already carrying a load.

That is, overthinking breakfast happens when I’ve lain awake in the night and have nine thousand things to do while feeling like something scraped off the chook-house floor. Or when I forget to take some meds. Maybe I have a big, real problem to solve, and some of the necessary neural revs are spilling over into the unnecessary stuff. Maybe I’ve eaten too much gluten lately. (I seem to be the only one who feels it.) Let any one of those go on for more than a day or so, and I’m heading for an anxiety spike that will have me overthinking everyfuckingthing.

So I don’t see the overthinking as the problem. It’s just a big red flag telling me I’ve goofed. I let it be there, try not to let it stop me functioning, and put my energy into fixing the goof, stat, because it’s almost always a small, physical fix: sleep, regular meds, diet, exercise. Fix that and I can go back to enjoying the racket in my head. After all, that’s the source of my power.

Biology before psychology. Always.

Birth of a writer

Description: poor-condition black-and-white photograph of a beaming, dark-haired man (my dad) in a checked shirt, holding a fat baby with a lot of hair (me) ©careerusinterruptus

I got the writing gene from my dad. Growing up, his writing was part of our household apparatus. We always had typewriters: first a little cast-iron manual, then an electric, then a bigger electric, then computers and a dot-matrix printer. Our paper supply was the backside of cut-down maps he used as an Air Force navigator, mixed with draft pages of his MBA.

After the MBA, Dad wrote a little bit freelance alongside his job – reports on his Fun Run Club for the base paper, that sort of thing – and his post-military career as a sugar industry lobbyist involved regular press releases and editing together a fortnightly news digest, which he loved.

But what I recall most was the novel. Dad pecked at it throughout my teens and 20s, around his full-time job, a fair share of the housework, the yardwork, and driving us kids all around town. I know the premise – a father, involved in some kind of accident, having to choose which of his children to rescue – although I don’t recall ever reading a single sentence.

From about 1982 on, we had Writers’ Digests and Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbooks on the shelves, too, so I guess Dad wanted to publish his novel. I don’t know whether he ever got that far; I suspect he never even finished it. He died suddenly, aged 56.

Dad didn’t exactly encourage me. In fairness, not many parents would encourage a kid writing her first ‘novel’ during her last year of school. And I understand that his own impoverished childhood underpinned Dad’s over-riding concern for me to get a stable job first, and write later. But that need to be banging away at something? That’s 100% him, in me. It’s why the only thing of his that I wanted to inherit, was his desk.

That desk is now buried under far too much crap for me to actually work there. But, I still write. I do some housework, but I’ve also learned to tolerate mess (mega mess, el grande supremo mess), because otherwise I’d never get to write. This way I do a little nearly every day. Fortunately the current task is editing back a completed MS, which I can tackle even when my brain’s fried after a day driving my own kids all around town. Prioritising writing over the housework is a way of sticking two fingers up to the little voice whispering how pointless it is, how insignificant the things I have to say. (Well hello again, Imposter Syndrome, y’old cow!)

Photograph of an open laptop, showing a document screen, on a table surrounded by craft materials, papers, the other photograph, and a sewing machine.

Next month I turn 51. I’ve set myself the goal of finishing the edit by then, and I have an agent in mind to approach. I’m still walking towards my mountain. I’m not thinking about whether the MS is ‘good’ or ‘important’, or anything else; I’m certainly not trying to be clever or literary. It’s just a story. It still makes me smile and sad where it should, and all I’m asking myself is to give it a chance.

Wish me luck.

Leaving Muggledom

It took several readings about masking before I began noticing how often someone says something that shows they Don’t Get It so profoundly, I don’t know where to start. I’ve started thinking of these folks as muggles.

Some muggles are friends. While not Getting It, they like and respect us enough to keep their ears open. (These are the best people on earth, by the way.) And some friends who think they’re muggles, actually Get It. They’ve just never noticed, because they’re living it, and our tribe is our ‘normal’.

For instance, long before I heard of ‘emotional over-excitability’, I gathered people who, like me, are infuriated by injustice. We rant, rave, and are regularly moved to tears by others’ suffering, whether those ‘others’ are humans or not, whether they’re known to us or not. So many of us are so overwhelmed by anger and grief at what’s happening in the world right now – the protests; the virus; the climate – that we can barely breathe, and we forget that others don’t feel the same.

Similarly, ‘intellectual over-excitability’ explains the friends whose wide-ranging curiosity matches mine. Recently I was thrilled when approached by a new friend, a theoretical physicist (cooooool!) who also wrote a fictional, Arthurian ‘original source’. How cool is THAT?! On top of THEORETICAL PHYSICS?! I was so excited, I was running around in little circles squealing – though only in my head, obviously. Ahem. He’s gonna fit right in with the martial-artist-sword-collector-writer-of-speculative-fiction, the dude who re-enacted a Viking voyage in a genuine knarr and later wrote a history of plumbing, the mathematician-silversmith, the social justice warriors. Oh, and my husband, who after 27 years still regularly surprises me with the breadth of his knowledge.

And because these are my people, I never queried my kids’ Need To Know. It never occurred to me that it was unusual, for instance, when I shared a titbit about Richard I with my husband – who doesn’t do medieval but does military – for our then-9yo to demand a detailed explanation of the battle of Jaffa, just as he’s always demanded the background to every political or current-events comment we’ve ever made.

It never occurred to me not to answer these questions because I know all too well the mental tantrum I’d throw – the agony I’d be in – if I asked and someone didn’t answer fully. Yes, we have anxiety, and yes, knowing what’s going on out there can be awful. And of course I don’t believe my kids can handle anything and everything. But when they ask, answering isn’t just about my commitment to honesty. It’s also about respecting them as fully-fledged, albeit young, members of my tribe.

Someone called me on it, this week. She doesn’t think kids should know about current affairs, believes that parents who share such information are prioritising their values rather than their child’s (mental) health, and declared that parents aren’t experts, especially about children with ‘special considerations’ like anxiety. After closing my mouth, I bowed out of the conversation because – yeah. Muggles.

Parenting these kids – balancing their hard-wired Need To Know against their equally hard-wired anxiety, knowing that a slip either way leads invariably to late-night grief – is quite tricky enough, TYVM, without trying to explain precisely how much I’ve had to learn and how hard I work at it. I’m a long, long freaking way from being an expert on giftedness (or indeed, parenting), but I know who can help – and it ain’t gonna be muggles. It will be those who Get It, either because they’re living it, or because they trust that I am, actually, the expert on my family.

Getting It isn’t about intelligence, necessarily. It’s about listening. Others’ experience is one of the hardest things for anyone to grasp. People are complicated, contradictory, and WEIRD, and often the greatest thing we can do for someone, is simply believe that they know more about their life than we do. Get that right, and you’re on the road away from muggledom.

Things That Keep Me Awake: An Incomplete List

©careerusinterruptus

One of my parenting groups asked, “What keeps you awake at night?” I found writing it all down to be rather cathartic, if only because it made me laugh at the theme park going on in my head. Sleep is for the weak! I mean, how else am I going to solve the universe?

  1. fear that I am failing my kids on any number of measures, take your pick;
  2. a child having a nightmare;
  3. hard decisions looming about Mum’s care;
  4. a different child – or possibly the same one – needing rescue from the möbius strip they’ve made of their blankets;
  5. unmet needs;
  6. well-meaning people telling me stuff I “need” to do which I already know but am not managing (see #1, #3, #5, and #19);
  7. things well-meaning people said about #1, #3, #4, and #5 that I strongly disagree with, but … maybe they’re right???
  8. processing – it’s the only time nobody’s in my face;
  9. climate emergency and guilt that I’m not doing anything to help;
  10. some of the other measures on which I’m failing my kids;
  11. wishing for a helpful professional;
  12. anxiety about having to admit my many failures to said professional;
  13. was that a noise?
  14. fear of my financial future;
  15. fear of my future health;
  16. PLANS. Plans to fix it ALL!
  17. Right. This isn’t helping. You can’t fix all that if you’re tired; better get some sleep now.
  18. BUT… The State of The World!
  19. hip and/or back pain;
  20. injustice;
  21. worries for family and friends going through hard times;
  22. words. Ohhhh allll the WORDS
  23. I should really get more exercise (see #5, #15, #19)
  24. I said, Go to sleep now, please.
  25. that thing I said in 1985 that was really fucking embarrassing;
  26. hormones (turns out not sleeping is a symptom of peri-menopause; who knew? And why doesn’t anyone tell you this stuff?!)
  27. I quite like making lists; this is fun!
  28. boy there sure is a lot of stuff on my to-do list. Don’t forget…
  29. trying to balance budget vs dreams vs practicalities; Being Sensible does not, ah, come naturally to me. Maybe we could …
  30. did I mention fear that I am failing my kids? Yeah? Pick another couple of measures. Haven’t aired them for a while!
  31. SLEEP! NOW!!
  32. the Great Undone – not the stuff I didn’t cross off the list, so much as the stuff I forgot to put on there in the first place which only surfaces when I’m driving or in bed;
  33. Oh, FINE – and the stuff on the list that I didn’t cross off;
  34. Great Ideas!
  35. that thing somebody I don’t even know any more said in 1993 that REALLY PISSED ME OFF BECAUSE HOW COULD THEY BE SO WRONG?!? AND YES I KNOW IT’S IN THE PAST LET IT GO BUT SERIOUSLY SO WRONG!!
  36. Excuse me? I can’t help noticing that we’re still awake. Listen. You’ll feel awful, if you don’t stop this now. Take some deep breaths… that’s right… Concentrate on relaxing your toes. Ahhh. Good. Now, relax your feet…
  37. No, but, seriously – THE STATE OF THE WORLD. I mean have you SEEN what’s going ON OUT THERE?!
  38. hungry;
  39. fat;
  40. maybe … maybe my whole life is wrong, and we should go start again from scratch on a remote island OH NO WAIT #9 SOON THERE WON’T BE ANY REMOTE BLOODY ISLANDS!
  41. c’mon Rebecca, don’t be over-dramatic, this is all just because you’re really tired. Sure your life isn’t perfect but nothing is, it’s fine, just make a list of what you can fix and start there – wait, no! Not now, Jesus, go to sleep! (Wait, where have I heard that before?)
  42. being too hot or cold and too whatever to realise/fix it before HELLO I’M AWAKE LET’S DO THINKING!

Sound familiar?

Screen time? Okay.

©careerusinterruptus

I was never going to be a parent who fretted about screen time. After a decade working in various university Media Studies departments, I was pretty jaded about the dire warnings regularly dripping into the public domain.

For a start, media consumption has always worried someone. In the 1700s, novels were supposed to inflame the senses; newspapers fed ‘lurid tastes’; movies would terrify gullible people; Batman made boys gay; rock’n’roll was lewd; my generation’s brains were ‘rotted’ by television. Et cetera.

Such fears help powerful groups justify controlling access to media: authorities (doctors, aristocrats, teachers, parents) are forever condemning some dreadful text adored by weak-minded ‘subordinates’ (workers, women, POC, children) and calling for restrictions.

And children are the worst. For 200 years, adults have painted them as our opposites in every way: Vulnerable, tasteless, irresponsible, parents were morally obliged to protect them by controlling – well, everything, because whatever they like is harmful. Especially screens. Doctors said so.

Trouble is, screen-effects studies often mistake correlation for causation, and they medicalise social issues. Consider, for instance, a finding that kids who spend more than X hours a day on their screens do less homework, have fewer friends, are more overweight, and are more depressed. Do the kids struggle because they watch ‘too much’ (or play too many computer games, or listen to death metal) or, do they watch/play/listen because they’re already struggling in our deeply flawed school and social systems? Like other ‘addictions’, the vice itself is never the whole problem; simply taking it away won’t solve anything.

Meanwhile, media studies researchers who actually interviewed kids, found that far from mindlessly absorbing the messages drilled into their putty-like brains, children were discerning viewers, critiquing characters, stories, production values, and themes. Some screen consumption facilitates social interaction; some improves spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination; studies of older youth and adult fans show gloriously creative communities.

With all that under my belt, articles like this made perfect sense, because rather than controlling access, Baranoski created connections pulling the childrens’ interest into other realms. When I read about radical unschoolers allowing their young son unlimited screen time – which he gorged for three months before moving on – I thought, yes. Enplace basic safety precautions, talk talk talk about content, but let them figure it out themselves. So many of us rebel, the minute we can, against parental controls, and it can take years (and damage) to find our own balance. If I could spare my kids that detour, I would.

I did not decide, ‘no limits’ from the off, you understand.

I had my fears, like all parents, about doing The Right Thing. I know we all need to move, our bodies need sunlight, and that screens’ restricted worlds don’t really teach us how to deal with hot, crowded, loud, smelly, reality.

But for many years, my and my son’s shitty health (on top of our particularly hot, humid, and buggy environment, and a lack of close friends) meant we were frequently not up for all that.

But as our screen time expanded, whenever I felt “OMIGOD WE’RE DESTROYING THEIR BRAINS”, my professional background called for calm observation.

And sure enough, I could see that my kids’ engagements vary widely – just like mine. Sometimes we’re learning from content; sometimes we’re learning from activity – and what we learn might be content, or it might be how to follow instructions, correct, plan, and persevere, yea, even through failure and boredom. Sometimes – gasp – it’s boring, and we switch off voluntarily! Sometimes we are creating. Sometimes they’re in the middle of something, and ‘screen time’ doesn’t end when we planned. (Sometimes I’m in the middle of something, and they’re on my case.) Sometimes the screen is a background to other activities. Sometimes screen time is social time. Sometimes we’re vegging out, recovering from outings or meltdowns, waiting for bedtime. Sometimes it’s all that in the one day. Sometimes it’s a refuge; simply knowing that it’s there for later, helps us keep calm and carry on. Dropping that battle means we’re all more relaxed about the other ones.

I know some families for whom the opposite is true: their battles begin and end with screen control (hint: it isn’t always the kids’ problem). I absolutely respect their choices: control here isn’t for the sake of it, it’s about wiring, and recognising their own needs and abilities.

And that, I think, is the crux of it. Every family is different. Wiring, health, mental health, and circumstances (not to mention socio-economic factors) vary so widely – not just within and between families, but also over time – that blanket guidelines need to be taken with a giant pinch of salt. So often, the issue is not what and how much is watched/played, it’s about what else is going on: is the space outside the screen – home, school, outdoors – safe and welcoming, where the kids’ interests and needs are met, valued, and managed in a way that works for them? Because if it isn’t, the environment’s hostile push compounds the screen’s beguiling pull, and that battle’s lost.

Oh, my wordy lordy, it’s been hard to write this post without turning it into another phd. Both the question of screens’ impact, and the question of management are really complicated. But they are unnecessarily complicated by discourses that foster parents’ fears and the urge to control. Reality is more nuanced than that. Children are more nuanced than that. Give them – and yourself – credit. We are all doing the best we can where we are.

There. Soapbox stowed. Enjoy your weekend.

As this is a blog post, I’ve left off the references a scholarly paper would require. If something I’ve said tweaks your interest, do ask. I’ll try to unpack the ideas or see if I can retrieve a reference from the hard drive for you. R.

Dementia: another e

© careerusinterruptus

Once I started reading about giftedness, it quickly became obvious that although I’m the only one who’s been confirmed , Mum, like my kids, ticks all the boxes. As a child playing the organ for church services, performing as a concert pianist in her teens before (and while) studying medicine and working in hospitals in Australia, Canada, and Denmark (as well as a stint studying Italian, in Italy), her asynchronous development, intelligence, and emotional sensitivity were always clear. She’s a perfectionist who loved and admired education. And we’ve long known Mum as the source of the AF-level stubbornness we all share.

It took me longer to understand that besides her belief in fairies, Mum’s anxiety (often dressed as control) also stemmed from a busy, undisciplined imagination, and that the physical sensitivities to smells and flavours, foods, metals, and unguents, are due to that same wiring. The hardest thing for me to see was that we share the typical giftie need for justice, albeit at different scales: I lose sleep over capitalism, for instance, while Mum remained angry over a classmate cheating on a test, for oh, 75 years. Like I said, all the boxes.

Now, Mum also has dementia. Just as a gifted child’s intelligence masks learning difficulties, Mum’s great big brain compensated for crumbling cognitive capacity for a long time. There was that time she phoned to ask whether she’d left her house keys at my place earlier, completely forgetting that she’d come to my place in a panic because she’d lost them, and that I’d given her tea and biscuits before escorting her home and let her in using my spare. But such incidents were so rare and so anomalous, and her other behaviour so normal (for her), that in retrospect it’s utterly impossible to guess when the disease started.

The second time a geriatrician tested her, about six months after diagnosis, Mum got a perfect, healthy score – and sassed him into the bargain, asking at the end of the consult whether she still had to remember the answers to the second question on the test. So it was just as well that she’d also asked him a different question twelve times during the hour, because as with any other 2e, the test alone would have returned a ‘normal’ result.

The other reason for seeing dementia as a second e, is that it helps both patient and carers understand what they are dealing with. Typically for dementia patients, Mum rejected the diagnosis, not only because she couldn’t remember the evidence we were observing, but because she felt patronised by the doctor. “How can she say I’m ‘highly intelligent’ and have dementia?” she demanded, angrily. “She’s treating me like I’m stupid.” I likened it to saying, “You are a marathon runner, and you have a broken leg.” It’s not the same, of course, because while a leg with appropriate supports will mend, Mum’s brain will continue breaking down, a chunk at a time, no matter how many supports we put in place.

The explanation worked, ish, although the combination of stubbornness, emotional pain, and the newly acquired learning difficulty, meant Mum still refused the diagnosis, pulling out her medical dictionary to dispute every one of the diagnostic criteria.

Since then, the things she’s lost are heartbreaking: we took her car away when she could no longer navigate the suburbs where she’s lived for 17 years; the tune for Amazing Grace is gone; she can only read short stories; when cool weather came, she didn’t know she had jumpers or slippers to wear; she can’t use the washing machine; she can make tea but not coffee, she can only cook chops, can only make ham sandwiches for lunch.

But when she determined to write her brother a birthday letter, he replied saying it sounded like she had all her marbles. She still plays the piano every day, and her Italian accent is so perfect, it makes the local deli owner tearful. When I mentioned someone who had lung cancer, she explained the anatomy (I never knew that lungs aren’t symmetrical, did you?) using correct terminology, though she hasn’t worked in a hospital since 1968. Then we debated dissecting toads vs frogs.

And this is the key, I think, the reason we have to see dementia in gifted people as another exceptionality rather than ‘just’ a disease. It recognises that the typical traits of persistence and intelligence can mask like nobody’s business, so testing needs to be nuanced and holistic. It recognises that we may have to educate and advocate for our parents in precisely the same way we do for our kids: for both ability and disability. Above all, it recognises that the intelligence – the need to interrogate, to ponder, to learn – remains, even when decades’ worth of skills, tastes, and memory are lost; that even when literacy has dropped to gossip-mag level and small talk falters, intellectual connection can still be made. Must be made, in fact, in order to meet our 2e elders where they are: gifted, with dementia.

Are you caring for someone who is gifted, with dementia? Would you like to share your story? I’d love to hear it!

Random Reviews: non-fiction

I thought this book was going to be fiction, when my sister described it, but no: Louisa Deasey is a freelance journalist who one night fell in love with a comedian, Jim, whose humour had seen him blacklisted by most big-city venues. The disdain was mutual, though, because Jim’s great gift lies in his understanding and acceptance of the battered souls on the outermost fringes of Australian society: desert bikies, toothless miners, sex-workers, and the heartbroken Indigenous peoples dispossessed by these desperadoes and the big businesses they work for. Beloved by the hardest of men, he tours the great Australian landscape, hundreds of kilometres a day, in a packed Mazda. It’s a brutal side of our country that most of us never see, violently segregated by race and gender, and Deasey, in the passenger seat, records all of it – the fights, alcoholism, and vast beauty – with a journalist’s dispassionate eye. She is in love with Jim, and for the most part, that’s all that matters; her great gift lies in her willingness to strip her life down to its barest bones, to emulate Jim’s utter lack of preconceptions, and to absorb every lesson the wild landscape and their even wilder ride through it have to teach her, about who she is and what she really needs for happiness. It’s an especially poignant read now, when BLM and Climate Action protests demand each of us ask ourselves that very question, and so many are too scared to do so.