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.

Back on track

Remember a couple weeks ago, when I accidentally created a new project for myself? Well it’s done, and it’s AWESOME, and best of all, it’s WORKING.

My brain, you see, swings dramatically between complete inability to find two neurons to knock together, or firing like the Sydney Harbour Bridge on New Year’s Eve. Some days I have so many ideas, I’m almost paralysed; other days I’m paralysed by having no idea.

While writing that other post, I realised I have two problems with lists: one is overwhelm – all those tasks with their little expectant faces, and a limited window of time/energy/weather – how do you choose? The other problem was keeping track of the lists themselves. Ruined, lost, buried, left behind, scribbled-over, forgotten. And that was just yesterday.

Then there’s the issue of detail. Say the dishwasher needs fixing. Put that on your list. Now find an appliance repair company, preferably this side of town, without a $150 callout fee. Three calls. Two don’t do dishwashers, one’s busy so you leave a message. He calls back while you’re cooking. Eventually you connect, make the appointment. That must go in the calendar – but your phone’s died, so write it down and hope you remember to transcribe it later. At 8:30pm you’ve made five calls, the job’s still staring at you, and you can’t do squat about it, now. But wait, there’s more! When Dishwasher Repair Dude finally arrives, the machine won’t make the grindy noise. But, two visits later (all the foregoing, again, twice over) DWR Dude has identified the problem and leaves, promising to send a quote. When you get that (and hallelujah we can afford it) he has to order the part …

For me, a process like that constitutes approximately 12,496 opportunities to forget where we’re at, to lose the list or the phone number, or to forget to put it in the calendar. As it happened, this time, although I didn’t actually forget, I still managed to let 24 days slide by while waiting for DWR dude to call to say the ordered part had arrived. And that’s just the immediate, today stuff – imagine amorphous long-term projects like trying to write, edit, and sell a novel, or figure out keeping the chooks off the grass. Where and how do you put those on the list? And where is the list, anyway? Someone’s yelling at me because apparently we’re out of ketchup.

My friend Jen calls it, “Adult-Onset Child-Induced ADHD”. I developed it in my 40s and I’m at the point where there is literally not one single habit I can rely on. Let that sink in for a second. Not. One. Habit. (We can talk about the grief of losing one of a central pillar of my identity, another time.)

Yes, I know there are literally millions of memory aids, tips and tricks, but the catch is – after you research and find what works for you, you have to be able to remember where you put them *and*, to use them. And even then, sometimes you’re just so frelling tired, so overwhelmed and fed up, so up to your eyeballs in mini house-fires and tornadoes, that you just don’t give a rat’s, even if you could find the damn bit of paper.

Enter, my new, beautiful, to-do book.

It’s an old gift from my sister, an A5(ish) notebook from what used to be Wyly Art Center (in Colorado, USA). It was hand-made by stitching little booklets into a rubber-flooring cover (cooooool! durable!), so it naturally divided into ‘subjects’. The pages are completely blank – no times or dates, which is fine since I never know what day it is, anyway. All I had to do, was divide my life into domains.

I gave myself a couple of weeks to play around with that – and to create the art. I don’t do a lot of art, but I should because it’s profoundly therapeutic. Besides the flow of creativity (and the freedom of allowing myself off-leash), the visual tickle of colour and texture produces a deep, cortical ecstasy that is better than meditation. Looking at it brings joy, every single time. That’s gotta help, when you’re trying to remember to send the audiologist’s report to the insurer, right?

Now I can flick through and find a job that fits. Sun shining? Look in Out, find something to do in the garden. Raining? Look In, or do some Admin. Got an arthritis care plan from the GP? Put the recommended rheumatologist, hand clinic, and anti-inflammatory in Vita – and make a note to check emails for the scan and X-ray referrals. Got some time online? CareerusInterruptus isn’t just about writing, you know – there are things to read, menus to tweak, connections to make. Word reminds me of each step. But if it’s 8:30pm and the kids are happy, maybe go Create, because there are places I want to go with that, too – and I don’t have to be distracted by a reminder that I still have to call DWR Dude. Making stuff is just as important.

It’s big enough that it’s hard to lose; it’s durable enough to survive living in my bag. I’ve been writing in it using glitter gel pens because why not? But it doesn’t matter; I can write (or draw) in it with any old thing, any old time, and the info’s there whether my phone is dead, pressed against my ear, or it’s post-screen o’clock. I love it.

And now I’m going Out into the garden, so I can cross some things off after yesterday’s rain.

Things Not To Say, episode 1: “Have you tried…?”

This post stemmed from two specific incidents – being irked by unsolicited advice myself, and helping a friend whose heart was broken by ‘expert’, solicited advice, badly offered. As I wrote, trying to unpack why this well-meant question is SO INSANELY INFURIATING – honestly it’s the fastest way to raise my BP – the more scenarios sprang to mind, because the crux lies in the giving and receiving of help.

The result are abstracted ‘I’ and ‘you’. Some ‘I’ is me, my experience; some is a deep empathy for others with similarly intractable problems. The ‘you’ could be the friend who said it to me this morning, or anyone else – acquaintance; teacher, doctor, psychologist, social worker – who assumes I’m here because I haven’t tried that one idea they just had.

Just don’t say it. Ever. That question is a communication disaster, relationship TNT. It will damage things between us, possibly irreparably.

“Wait, what?” you cry. “I’m just trying to help!”

Well, yes.

That’s the problem.

And here’s why, as someone who has tried.

First and foremost, I didn’t ask for your help.

Sure, I’m complaining. My situation sucks. That does not mean, though, that I want or need you to fix it. I might just need to complain. Complaining helps. It lets off pressure – the pressure of performing ‘fine’ for society. We, as a culture, are so allergic to ‘uncomfortable’ that the only accepted answer to “How are you?” is “fine”; anything else, we shut down. We don’t let people be sad, frustrated, angry, scared, or exhausted. Maintaining that face for your viewing pleasure, is exhausting.

I also think it’s bullshit. So sometimes I whinge because it makes me feel better, and sometimes I whinge because to smilingly gloss over troubles is just plain wrong.

If you try to help, you deny me both the chance to feel better and the chance to feel heard.

More importantly, offering unsought help shifts the balance of the relationship. You take power, since you presume to have something (insight) that, by implication, I lack.

Now, you may have a friend who’s been through something similar; you may have read about it; you may have the certificate, a long CV, and an office proving your expertise; you may even have helped scores of people.

But unless I’m in your office, paying for your help, then you have to knock that shit off. Actually, you should knock it off even if I am in your office, paying for your help.

Because whatever you know, I’ll wager my next two years’ sleep that I’ve spent more time in the ring with this issue than you. It’s been in my face, on my case, days, nights, weeks, months, years, decades. I know its contours, its fluctuating weight, the fetid smell of its morning breath. I’ve spent nights thinking about it and days reading and talking about it. Then I’ve read and talked and thought some more.

Above all, I have tried.

Yes, I tried that.

And that.

I have tried every fucking thing I possibly could.

It didn’t work, okay? I’ve dealt with frustration, backlash, fallout, side-effects, the side-effects of withdrawal, and crushing disappointments.

Then I’ve picked myself up and done more searching and reading, talking and thinking, because while this is one ornery, complicated thicket of an issue, I’m pretty ornery myself.

That won’t all come across the first time we chat. It won’t come across in a 15-minute consult or in the first hour. Hell, it might not come fully across in the first year we’re talking.

But assuming that that means I haven’t tried that thing you just thought of, devalues the sheer bloody effort I’ve already put in. I’m not stupid and I’m perfectly capable of using a search engine and a telephone. If it was simple as your first answer – your first ten answers – then I guarantee I would not be complaining now.

Which is why a knee-jerk, “have you tried …?” lights my fuse. On a good day, I might just think, “OF COURSE I BLOODY HAVE, THAT WAS 2010!” On a bad day, I might say it. Or worse.

That doesn’t mean I’m wallowing, refusing help, self-sabotaging, or complaining just for funskis. It means, you’re reminding me of failure. I know very well what I’ve tried, what I wish I could change but can’t, where I draw the line (yes, I’m allowed values, even if they make it harder).

I probably have a solution in mind. If I’m not doing it, I have reasons. Maybe, right now, I just can’t bring myself to try again.

Or maybe I’ve realised, all I can do right now is wait. Wait for the pain to pass, the panic to subside. Wait til this phase is outgrown, the therapy/medication/new routine takes effect. Wait til I get my strength back for another round. Wait til things change. They will.

All you have to do is let me get there.

You can help, by listening. Yep, that’s it. Remember, complaining may simply release enough pressure to let me breathe again.

Listen and acknowledge that this is hard for me (even if it doesn’t seem like it should be hard, to you). Remember, feeling heard and connected may be all I need.

Listen and respect and trust that I’m doing my best. Respect and trust that I’ve worked at least as long on this issue as you, and with, likely, a great deal more investment in solving it. Respect and trust that if I could do differently, I would. Respect and trust that if I want help, I will ask for it. This is how you let me keep my power.

If I do ask, remember that whatever I’ve said – whatever you’ve heard or read – you don’t know the whole story. At best your knowledge is vicarious, abstract, general. Mine is intimate, minute, painful.

If you must offer something, start by asking if I want your help. Ask what I’ve tried. (I’ll do my best to give you the short version.) Ask what I need. Ask what you can do to help. Offer chocolate, cake, alcohol, and/or hugs.

Just don’t – don’t – ask me if I’ve tried…

Oops.

©careerusinterruptus.com

Reasons why my post is late #1:

On Designated Post-Writing Day I wrote a long, rambling post about – well. Not to fall into that trap again, I shall just say, ‘projects’.

As I wandered through my thoughts on this vast matter, it occurred to me that I needed a high-school style ‘subject notebook’, so I could organise my to-do lists by domain.

Damn! That’s actually a REALLY GREAT IDEA!

So I went looking to buy online, but (ahem, here I am, reining myself in again) not liking anything much, I went rummaging through the big box of notebooks we’ve collected over the decades, and there was one that was okay, I guess, if only …

… long story short, I’ve, erm, started a new project. But only a teeny-weeny little one. Honest.

I don’t know anything about imposter syndrome

©careerusinterruptus.com

Really. What could I possibly have to say about it? Nothing, obviously. Many people, smarter and better-researched, have written far better posts and probably books about imposter syndrome, than I ever could.

Although, I can tell you that academia is an excellent place to contract it. Brains are the name of the game, and it’s easy to feel like an idiot when you’re surrounded by smart people, with faster processing and/or better memories, who have read more and/or who just happened to have read that one crucial item that undermines your whole idea.

And in my experience, the vast majority of scholars are combative as all get-out. They’re dying to show that they know something you don’t, to challenge both the content of what you have to say and your right to say it. They’d much rather be right, than kind. Whether this stems from a terrier-like commitment to intellectual rigor, love of battle, competition fostered by a shrinking sector, plain old insecurity, or all of the above, is hard to say, but meeting the rare scholar who lifts rather than digs really highlights how keen everyone else is to put you in your intellectual place.

If you have even a skerrick of intellectual OE – that burning desire to know – this culture kicks you pretty regularly in what’s already a sore spot: the painful awareness that you will never learn all that you want to. That realisation, when I was about six, was my first true grief. Like any proper grief, the pain has never completely gone, so every time someone bopped me with something I didn’t know, it throbbed. That happens often enough, you start to wonder what, if anything, you do know, and what the hell you’re doing there. When my office-mate even challenged my sadness over a colleague’s death (“Did you really know him, though?”), I began to feel that perhaps my entire existence needed peer-reviewing to be legit. Okay, I didn’t really feel that. I just felt an enormous disconnect, a terrific sense that I was not a real academic. I did not belong there.

Of course, I knew that was imposter syndrome speaking, but everyone has that, don’t they? Heck, I even read an interview where Michelle Obama talked about it. She said, you get over imposter syndrome when you realise that those people aren’t that smart, after all. Hm, maybe — IF YOU’RE MICHELLE FREAKING OBAMA! I’m not that smart. Obviously.

But a funny thing happened after I left academia: Parenthood. I definitely knew nothing about that, so like a proper swot I researched my arse off, becoming more and more confused as book after book failed to describe anything remotely like what was going on in my house. Not how I saw the world, not my values, not how my kids behaved. (Free tip: don’t ever get me started on reward charts.)

Eventually, though, through reading, I found my way to teh gifted. (‘Back’ to teh gifted, I should say, since I was identified as a kid.) And these people! Oh, my goodness. Smart. Funny. Sensitive. Snarky. Passionate. Ambivalent. Crusading. And wrestling with the same issues: the screaming, the kids who’d happily die (DIE, I tell you!) before giving in to any authority they perceive as arbitrary, the anxiety, the perfectionism, the stubborn, the under-achievement, the big, tender hearts, the burning thirst for knowledge (STRICTLY on their own terms), the … imposter syndrome. Oh, yeah. I’d found my tribe.

I still don’t think I’m that smart. I’m pretty much always convinced that everyone is smarter than I am. Everyone has achieved more, done more, read more, and for sure, knows more about just about everything, than I do. I frequently wonder whether perhaps we’re not gifted, just, you know, really emotionally dysregulated, over-thinky, and a bit useless. There are 6yos out there who do calculus for fun, for goodness sake, while my kids at 11 and 13 spuriously insist they can’t tell time – and will hold their breath to prove it!

The lovely thing about the gifted/2e tribe is, they get that. There’s no pissing contest about whose kid is more gifted or whether you’ve read Silverman, Tolan or Merrill. We all know we are learning on a job where there’s no union, no OH&S, and no damn tea-breaks. We don’t really have a clue what’s going on (because these kids mix signals like nobody’s business) or if we do have a clue, we remember all too well the bruises from our own days of seeking.

So we tootle along, sharing, laughing, and crying, and when someone wobbles, wondering what the hell they’re doing there when their 13yo has read nothing but the same two book series over and over for the past TWO YEARS, they all just laugh, empathise, proffer gin and if you’re after it, advice. It’s that recognition that saves my sanity, every time. The knowing laughs when I complained about starting this very column two months early and twelve different times, the women offering the balm of their likeness, rather than a reference to fix that.

Sure, I have a long way to go to guru-dom. I should definitely read more University Press books, especially about giftedness, homeschooling, and being a good human, instead of books with curly embossed titles and drawings of teapots and frocks on the front. But I don’t, because my brain hurts from living it, and because I’ve come to realise that actually, that’s all the expertise I need, to write about what happens in my house. I do get us. And as long as I’m sharing something that might give you a glimmer of recognition, of connection, of feeling less alone in your confusion, then I’m on the right track. Perfectly entitled to my position and right to speak it.

Just don’t look to me as any sort of authority.