You know that whole 17-day, 3000km road trip was organised around this, right? The CSIRO radio telescope at Parkes. Very first time I sat down to consider possibilities, I looked it up and it turned out, they were having a rare open weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. They would do tours! Well, there was no way I was missing out on that.
We got there 45 minutes early, I was so scared of missing out – and given that we had a 1.5hr drive to get there, that’s really saying something in our slow-starting household. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited. Quite possibly, never.
I will not pretend the kids gave a damn. The boys stayed on the ground while CraftyFish came on the tour, pulled along somewhat bemusedly by my excitement. And I was completely, ridiculously, viscerally, excited. Nearly a month later and I still thrill to think of it, to see these pictures. It is like an A-list celebrity encounter, multiplied a couple of orders of magnitude. I would’ve gone on the tour three or four times, if they’d let me, except I did also want to share it. With EVERYBODY.
It is not just that I think it is stunningly beautiful. The epic parabolas, the lacework against the sky. It is not just that it’s a hub of brilliant minds from around the world. They had an “Ask the Experts Marquee”, where I would’ve quite happily stayed all day talking to people about gravitational waves and pulsars and the temperatures of merging galaxies and the Square Kilometre Array, except that I was actually a bit too excited to stand there and talk to any one person for more than about ten minutes.
It is not just the stonking engineering: the 1000-ton dish, unattached to its base, still in its sixth decade at the forefront of the science, leading a global network ever forward technologically. It is not just the way this magnet for the curious rises out of the surrounding kilometres of flat red dirt like a massive sunflower, always turning, always searching. Listening.
It is not even the mind-emptying scope of what they do there, probing the farthest reaches of our universe for the birth of the cosmos. It is all of this, all at once, that fires my rockets. It’s like every crevice of my entire brain is being thoroughly, running-round-in-circles gasping-for-breath tickled. Think about all those big ideas for a moment. The hugeness of them. The implications. The burning questions still to come. Can you feel it? Even an inkling? Yeah? Welcome to inside my head.
I known, I know. You’re not supposed to use that word, with all its negative connotations. Positive parents are supposed to frame it as “persistence”, a far more admirable trait.
But I’m going with stubborn. In part, this is because my kids own it; I’ve heard “because I’m a pig-headed little butthead” more times than I can count in recent weeks. And in part because it’s genetic. I know precisely where they get it from and this is one I cannot even begin to blame on the Sceptic. The Stubborn is all my family. It’s Mum and both my sisters and my brother and dear god, my niece and nephew, love ’em.
But mainly I’m going with ‘stubborn’ this week to focus on the bottom line. When they are little, conventional parenting wisdom is that you must show children who is boss. Whatever it takes – losing privileges, time-out, the occasional spanking “to get their attention”, you keep upping the ante until you get compliance. They learn through “consequences” to do what you say.
In our family, though, there is … something. Something that gets in the way of that process. My sister and I call it the “nose-cutting gene”: most of us would rather cut off our own noses than do something your way or (god forbid) ask for help.
So Mum, for example, has refused for thirty years to drink the glass of red wine a night her doctor said would help with her cholesterol. She took herself off any number of medications, continued seeing negligent doctors, ate foods that landed her repeatedly in hospital. She won’t use a walker. Recently, when she was completely crippled with back pain and I had to call an ambulance to take her to hospital, I joked, “No more soccer for you, Mum”, as she lay on the stretcher, just to see the look on the paramedics’ faces when she said, “I can if I want.”
My kids inherited that. Oh, they’re not stupid: they were never compelled to touch a hot thing, or pull free to run in traffic. When it comes to a battle of wills, however, there is no backing down. They will do it their way, not mine, even if it hurts them. If I call their bluff, they up the ante. As a gamer friend put it, if they have to suffer damage 3 to cause me damage 6, it’s worth it. The more I invest in my demand, the more they refuse.
On top of that, it didn’t take me long to learn that this likely to cause them to freak the fuck out, because if damage 3 is scary (and it is), being at war with Mummah is ten thousand times scarier. There’s nothing cold or calculated about it; if they lose the plot it is not about ‘making’ me do/give them what they wanted (ie, a tantrum), it’s because they don’t know how to back down and they are terrified of the consequences. So one of my biggest parenting challenges is to regularly model backing down.
Hold your knickers, there! I do not mean that I model “giving in”. They do not get it all their own way. But if I take the heat out of it – if I say, “Oh, you’re not ready to do that, yet? Well, could you do it later? (After food, or rest, or a tickle?) Or could you do this, instead?” then I am teaching them that their needs matter, that they can say what they need, and that we can both get our needs met. If I lower the bar, I take anxiety out of the equation and we are all free to move.
It’s hard, lemme tell ya. I’ve got the same bloody gene. I see a problem, I assess, I come up with The Best Solution, I have a plan, we’re gonna have this sucker fixed by Tuesday. That’s how I got through my whole life, pre-kids, and it worked. But post-kids, doing things that way has meant arguments, all day, every day, about everysinglebloodything, with meltdowns galore to boot. I tried it, okay? I flogged the You Will Go To School horse for five solid years, and all it did was make Mr Pixel hate school. And cause literally thousands of fights.
And I know that in a few years, backing down is going to be my kids’ biggest challenge (especially my son’s). They need to be able to tell the difference between doing what they want because it’s what they genuinely want, and doing what they want to prove me wrong, hurting themselves in the process. We need to be able to negotiate in a way that will not have an angry young person hurling him- or her-self out the door into a car, or into a bad relationship, or an addiction, or a shitty career, because all I’ve taught them over the years is to dig their heels in.
So this week, my big win was putting sums for CraftyFish on the glass door, and asking Mr Pixel to help with painting the bed. He’d watched his sister scribbling on glass with dry-wipe markers; he’d heard us work through several low levels of sum that weren’t too hard. And to my astonishment, he said he’d rather do that than paint the bed. So, okay! Quickly scrawled some sums for him. Which he took five hours to work up to doing, and then made lots of basic mistakes, which we laughed all the way through.
True, I didn’t get help with the painting. Irrelevant. No, insignificant. Mr Pixel negotiated, a crucial life skill that many adults lack. He voluntarily did something he usually pathologically avoids, and which I deliberately didn’t ask him to do, because I didn’t give him a chance to dig his refusenik heels in. He did it and not only was it not painful, he actually enjoyed himself, and building that experience around something he’s paralytically anxious about – and sharing a laugh with Mummah, to boot – that is priceless.
It won’t work twice, I know that. I know we haven’t ‘solved’ his math anxiety. I will have to find other ways around that and yes, it’s hard fucking work. But that’s okay, because we are both learning, and learning is good. I am proud of both of us.
Well, we’re deep in the “getting worse” phase, before all my crazy planning starts to make things better. So deep.
We got veggie boxes built and I filled them; while I was doing that the chooks got in and tore up both the gardens were already producing veg. Man, those girls can throw dirt a long way. They literally excavated 20cms of soil into an area twice the size of the original beds. On top of the hoeing we’ve been doing to prepare the side yard for turfing. Then Mother Nature got in on the act and dumped something like 15cms of rain on us in one weekend – and kept going. So, the yard looks a bit like Flanders Fields, before the poppies.
The patio, cleaned and cleared for the IWD event last week, is now lavishly strewn with the new parts from Mr Pixel’s bed that we’re painting. Twelve large shelves and 20 bed slats, plus brackets for the new shelves… and a liberal coating of chicken poop, because the girls are still on the loose, rain having prevented me from finishing fencing the side yard.
Meanwhile, indoors, we got busy sanding. We’re converting his loft bed into a fully functioning Lego work-station and repainting it from bright little-kid colours to something more mature. It’s going to be magnificent. But it’s a lot of fiddly sanding. Heat gun shavings just fall to the floor, but neither sander’s bag works particularly well so thick, pale greenish dust coats the entire room, tracked out into the playroom. Where his stuff is.
Well, his stuff, and CraftyFish’s stuff, because she couldn’t bear that I’m putting in so much time next door while her room looks like someone put Big W’s entire inventory through a shredder and then dumped it on the floor. So she got in on the act. She excavated four loads of laundry from the floor (FOUR!); she’s thrown out more stuff this week than previously in her entire life; she’s moved stuff to the playroom, donated to charity, piled outgrown treasures into a box for storing. She’s sorted some stuff, too, labelled boxes, dragged all four sets of shelves out into the hallway for cleaning. And then she had a costume birthday party to go to (anxiety! costume! anxiety! gift! anxiety!) so it’s all just been left. She can’t even sleep in there right now, there’s so much stuff piled on the bed and floor.
And none of that is as simple as it sounds on the page, is it? ‘Sanding’ required an emergency dash to buy more sheets, jerry-rigging an old-sock bag for the one that broke, and finding protection for hyper-sensitive ears; I worked until past dark yesterday reconstructing one of the excavated garden beds; we’ve driven all over town collecting manure, paint, plant pots, costume, mulch, Mr Pixel’s new bed, donating to charity; I keep having to stop what I’m doing to feed people, sort playdates, and field meltdowns.
I’ve dropped the exercise ball, I’ll be honest. I’m not sleeping well, either. In the face of that much mess, it can be hard to see any progress at all, and I’m pretty sure the Sceptic is considering moving out until I’ve finished everything and put away the broom. I know it’s just stress and that if I breathe deep, hold tight to that vision, reassure everyone that we’re making progress, and keep chipping away, it will eventually get better.
So that’s what I’m going home to do, in yet another day of <30C heat and <70% humidity and not being able to take two steps without standing on or tripping over something. Because in our house, this is what gifted looks like.
On Friday I hosted an IWD event at home, just 14 women, to connect my strong awesome friends with each other. That in itself was a big deal for us; I can’t remember the last time we had more than one family over for dinner, and it required a heap of cleaning and tidying.
But when, on Friday afternoon, I had an hour to sit quietly while CraftyFish did her piano lesson, I took a notebook and spilled out all the other ideas that are crowding my brain these days:
I want a big bash for my 50th in September. LOTS of people. Started working on the guest list and, god help me, food ideas.
There’s no room in the house for that, but that’s okay, I’ve started a major garden makeover. It’ll be in threefour five parts: the front patio, the side yard where the chooks live, the back yard, the back walkway connecting the side and back yards, and the back patio. I’ll do most of the work myself and it’s going to be absolutely freaking ENORMOUS. That’s okay; I’ve got enormous energy for it because I’m so excited by the lush vision I have in my head. So my 50th will be a garden party.
Two weeks before the party, I’m going to run the 10k Bridge2Brisbane. Right now, I can walk barely 2kms – and that’s after a couple of months of physio and exercise physiology unfucking my back and hips. I’ve got a long way to go but I’ve got my war-face on: a little bit, almost every day, working through the stiffness and the pain. Plus, you know, I bloody hate exercise. I’m just starting to hate being unfit more. I want a good old age and exercise is key.
My reward for that is going to be a tattoo, because I’m 49 going on 18.
And I spent yesterday planning a two-week road-trip the Sceptic and I will take with the kids in July. The only thing locked in so far is to be in Parkes for the 50th Moon Landing anniversary celebrations at the CSIRO radio telescope (The Dish). On our way through we’ll visit the Siding Springs Observatory (visitor centre only, alas) and another observatory there in Coonabarabran where you can actually do some observing (squeee!). Oh, and I suppose we’ll do some things for the kids.
And before that, I’ve set myself the task of completely revamping Mr Pixel’s room in time for his twelfth birthday, in mid-April. Painting, new furniture, sorting out a basquillion Lego pieces. With his blessing, if not cooperation.
You might be thinking, whoa, that’s a lot to cram into six months.
You might be thinking, hang on, isn’t she also writing a book?
You might be thinking, isn’t she also also home-schooling those supposedly gifted kids of hers?
I know. I know, I know, I know.
I know I’ve probably bitten off more than I can likely chew. I don’t approach these things remotely pragmatically; it has certainly never occurred to me to start with, say, a budget and work out what can be done within that. I’ve never set a ‘SMART’ goal that worked out. I am no judge of what is realistic or achievable. I really don’t think like that. I’ve tried; I suck at it.
In fact it’s probably fair to say, I don’t think much at all. I just dream – huge, starry, vivid dreams – and then make it up as I go along. Believe it or not, that usually works. There’s a huge energy that comes from following that vision. And more importantly, working like that – 97 different projects simultaneously on the go, a budget of ‘as little as possible’, no real plan, just a picture in my head – that makes for a very happy Rebecca. A very, very happy Rebecca.
Yesterday, in his strenuous efforts to avoid writing a story, Mr Pixel found and watched a video on wealth inequality in America.
Ten hours later he still knew all the figures: 15.1% living below the poverty line; 1% who hold 40% of America’s wealth; the vast disparity between what people think is happening and what is actually happening, let alone the ideal that 92% of respondents voted for. He’s outraged.
We are not American; we do not live in America.
There is no reason on God’s green earth why he should have watched that video; he did, he said, because he’s a curious bird. (Mo Willem’s phrase has much life in our house. Or to put it another way – Hello, intellectual over-excitability!)
There are, on the other hand, a stack of reasons why he should’ve been writing a story: he’d had a great time in class, collaborating with other, similarly-humored kids to come up with the four characters they were supposed to write about; a genre he’s more than familiar with; a teacher he adores who in turn adores him; the plan that she’d collect all their stories, type them and bind them, so each kid would see their work ‘in print’ and also see how others had explored the same basic idea. Since he ran out of puff and needed to leave before they’d begun writing, the teacher said she’d look forward to receiving his story by email, any time until late the next night. You really can’t ask for better support than that.
But none of it – not the class craic, the amazing teacher connection, the flexible deadline, the reward of a bound printout – is enough to motivate Mr Pixel over the hill of anxiety that stops him writing. Because that is what it is: he freezes like a rabbit in the spotlight of having to make a choice out of the multitude of possibilities and he just. Can. Not.
We talked about perfectionism and how there’s no wrong answer; we talked about the fact that he’s able, if he’d give it a go. (I’ve read about dysgraphia; I don’t think that’s it, but then last night someone on a forum said something that’s sent me back down that rabbit-hole, so watch this space.) Besides the anxiety, there’s a great deal of genetic stubborn here (which if you ask me, he owns far too proudly): for eight years now, he’s consistently maintained that he doesn’t do writing, and so far nobody’s been able to budge that for more than a sentence or two. Scribing, voice-to-text, story prompts: they’ve all been flat-out rejected. He knows what I’m up to and he’s not having a bar of it.
I can’t tell you how nuts this makes me. The point-blank refusal sends me nuclear. Every time I hear ‘no’, I’ll be honest, there’s a reflexive bit of me that wants to reach for my Momma badge, the one that says DAMMIT, I AM IN CHARGE. There are so many good reasons to try and make him do it. Not least, the insult is galling: I’m smart enough, you’d think I could fix this.
But I’ve learned that that is my problem. Making it a power play turns it into a fight, which means he’s not writing. And writing is the goal, is it not?
So we played a bit with Google docs. We wrote each other questions and answers; he wrote a couple of lines about a fat, dumb gamer who met a Ninja who helped him defeat someone who wanted to win a tournament. Needless to say none of that bore any relevance to the assignment and after about fifteen minutes he was over it and quit.
But you know what? I’m counting it as a win. I’m gonna go ahead and celebrate because in that short process he did plenty of rewriting and self-editing. I am shouting it to the skies because it’s the closest he’s ever come to writing a story and even in two sentences his sense of humour shone through and really, truly, that’s all I want: my kid to learn to overcome his anxiety and learn to express himself.
In fact, since he learned something about wealth inequality in America, too, I’m counting it as two wins. The class about statistics is another thing he wouldn’t do, but left to his own devices he stumbled onto it anyway and the conversations have begun. I’m reading up and ready to talk.
Because this is Mr Pixel’s wiring: anxious and stubborn and avoidant as all hell, and yet burning relentlessly away underneath all that is the insatiable need to know. In our house, this is what gifted looks like.