Border Mail Columns

My latest Border Mail columns appear as posts on the front page of this blog. All columns which appeared prior to October 20, 2010 are being added to this section.

Death of parents a chance to celebrate life and loved ones

Published August 18, 2010

There are two dates I circle, one in July and one in August, to mark the anniversaries of my parents’ deaths.

I say ‘deaths’, rather than the more palatable ‘passed’ or ‘passed away’ because those terms are too insubstantial to describe their loss; there’s an implication they’ve just drifted off somewhere, perhaps even carelessly.

Death is not the taboo subject it was; even funerals have become greater celebrations of the person’s life, reflecting how they lived, and so it was with my Mum and Dad.

Mum was the oil of our family machine, working full time as a nurse and midwife, always finding time for us and fitting at least 90 years of living into her 62.

She had a premonition that her time was near and called us together to plan her funeral, choosing the songs she wanted – John Farnham’s version of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, and Julian Lennon’s, ‘Salt Water’; a song we didn’t even know she knew; Google the lyrics – they’re incredibly insightful. She asked us to find the minister who had been special in our lives, and to be cremated.

I feared being with her when she died, but it wasn’t frightening. Instead there was comfort in seeing how at peace she was when she took her last breath.

As in many relationships, opposites attract and she fell in love with my Dad. Ever the dreamer, the writer of hundreds of rhyming lines, and with a penchant for travelling, Dad would apply for a new job, get it, uproot us from our lives and friends and move us to a new town where we would start again.

Given our outgoing nature we adapted, but I often wonder about the impact on Mum, who at the time of one move was finishing her training as a registered nurse; no mean feat given she had left school at the equivalent of Year 8.

After Mum died Dad moved here to Albury and through his love of singing met my step mum.

Two years ago they travelled to England for a holiday; his health hadn’t been all that good, but he was expected to return. He never came back.

His death in England (eerily in Farnham  – which bears the same name as the town in New South Wales where his father was born, and where he spent the first few months of his life), meant his wish to be buried in his home town couldn’t be fulfilled.

Practicality took precedence. He was cremated and one of my sisters brought his ashes back.  He flew business class for the first time; the flight staff kindly offering this option so there was no chance of his urn falling out of the overhead locker!

Here in Albury we farewelled him at an amazingly uplifting memorial service and know he would have enjoyed the tributes and especially the songs.

However, in his typical style, he’d left some important things undone including leaving a valid will. Fortunately there wasn’t too much drama to get things sorted which I know isn’t the case for everyone.

I‘m the product of them both: I have Mum’s practical streak and am downright domesticated sometimes. I’ve inherited Dad’s passion for words, written and spoken and my dreams are big.

Even though Mum was the practical one it was her life, illness and death which reignited my fiction writing, and influences so much of who I am.

And Mum, if you’re watching as I write this, which I have no doubt you are, yes, I have completed that important document.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday October 13

Marketing students fail to look past old stereotypes

I’ve learnt something new: women are afraid of mowers and mice.

This startling information came to me via a couple of reports written for a first year marketing assignment.

To demonstrate their knowledge about target markets, positioning, pricing and promotion, key elements of the marketing mix, students were asked to identify a target market for businesses including a home gardening service and a humane and chemical free mouse trap.

Market segmentation can be demographic: age, gender, income, education; geographic: where people live and the more pertinent psychographic: lifestyle, attitudes and beliefs which gives a more realistic picture of a potential customer and how to get them to buy specific products or services.

According to one student women would use a home gardening service because they lack the confidence to operate a lawn mower. There’s even worse news for the over 65’s because they’re not even fit enough to operate one. Also the student put forward that women are neater than men and would want the lawn and garden immaculate to match the perfect state inside their homes.

Maybe I’m being too harsh; typical Baby Boomer having a go at Gen Y.

But, extended reading would have told this student that the latest research into the number of hours Australian women spend on housework shows we’re cutting down on the number of hours we do, including the ironing, but are spending three and a half hours more mowing lawns and in the garden.

It’s a bit of a no brainer really. Who would be inside getting wrinkles out of clothes when you can be out in the fresh air?

But what about the phobia of mice throughout the entire female population?

I confess to an aversion to these little critters, but the suggestion that the best market for this new beaut mouse trap would be women was I thought a tad patronising.

While my own experience suggests that men as well as women don’t like them; it was always my sister rather than my brother who would dispose of dead mice during a mouse plague, good marketers know conclusions should never be based just on your own experience.

So I set out to research this further to see if I there indeed was evidence that women as a group are or are not afraid of mice.

The research (there was plenty, but I’m not vouching for its validity) indicates that women are not so much scared as startled by mice. We’re just surprised to see them and don’t like the idea of them scuttling about through the house over food, children or in our underwear drawer.

But this little gem did interest me: it’s quite common for teenage girls to keep mice as pets in preparation for bonding with infants, while boys would rather watch the rodents at play.

Always intrigued by human behaviour I went in search of some research to back this up, but alas this finding seems to be anecdotal.

I put the idea of further research aside to not to take up the time I’m supposed to be spending mowing the lawn. Taking the lead from Gen Y I’m going to shut down the computer, turn off my phone and go outside and experience the real world  to avoid digital overload

What? You haven’t heard?

Recent research shows Gen Y is hitting the pause button on technology to have a life. They’re going to the theatre, having dinner parties, and more than half of them are reading books.

Now that’s a piece of information that has to send the marketers back to the drawing board!

 Wednesday September 1

Did crafty chooks conspire to rid their coop of a rival?

Over the past few weeks we’ve been trying to solve a mystery at our place regarding the whereabouts of one of our chickens.

For the past 15 months we’ve had three girls – Amelia, Thea and Maggie II; Maggie I disappeared after only one day perhaps with an inkling of the nature of her flatmates.

But Maggie II endeared herself to us through her petiteness and the beauty of the shells of her speckled eggs which she laid mostly in the luxurious nesting box, but sometimes in the veggie garden, or even in the compost heap. With her quiet nature she was always happy to be picked up and patted.

Then one night we came home to find there were only two chickens to secure for the evening.  We knew Maggie II couldn’t have flown the coop, but she was nowhere to be found.

However, we were given a clue last week to her sudden disappearance when the 2010 Voiceless Eureka Prize for Research that Contributes to Animal Protection was awarded to two Macquarie University researchers who not only studied social groups of real chickens, but also created a high definition 3-D animated rooster avatar that James Cameron would be proud of.

In the study, the hens in the chook house responded to this avatar in the same way they would a real rooster. The researchers found the chickens could talk and adjust their conversation according to which chicken or rooster they were talking to and that their behaviour could be described as “crafty”.

While this type of behaviour is common among the human species, the fact that chickens can communicate in very complex ways is something they’ve kept to themselves for centuries.  It’s been a secret between them and bees which apparently are also very specific about who they talk to.

To be entirely accurate about the research, it found that the hens only listened to the rooster, real or the 3-D iteration, who told them something they didn’t know. If he told them there was a new place to find food, they’d listen. But if the food was going to come from a place they’d been before they weren’t interested. Fair enough.  A girl likes to be seen in the most fashionable places.

But, whether it was the girls or boys talking to each other, the researchers’ aim was to prove that hens are more than “egg laying” machines, and in proving this further change the thinking toward caged birds and their treatment. According to the researchers chickens need an environment where they can display their natural social behaviour.

The luxurious surrounding our girls have, including Colorbond roofed perch and nesting box, might have been just a bit too conducive to the crafty nature they can display and led to the incumbents hatching a cunning plan to get rid of the newcomer. This way they wouldn’t have to share what was on offer in the food department or their well appointed perch.

Tempted by stories of a beautiful world beyond the boundaries where provisions would be plentiful and there might also be a rooster, luxuriously plumed, who would fend for her Maggie II packed up and left, looking for the rooster that would  “take her out for dinner and a dance” to make it more likely that she would mate with him.

While we may never solve the mystery of our missing girl, we just might have discovered the answer to another age old question regarding this avian species.

Why did the chicken cross the road? Because a couple of crafty chooks told her the grass was greener on the other side.

Wednesday August 18, 2010

Death of parents a chance to celebrate life and loved ones.

There are two dates I circle, one in July and one in August, to mark the anniversaries of my parents’ deaths.

I say ‘deaths’, rather than the more palatable ‘passed’ or ‘passed away’ because those terms are too insubstantial to describe their loss; there’s an implication they’ve just drifted off somewhere, perhaps even carelessly.

Death is not the taboo subject it was; even funerals have become greater celebrations of the person’s life, reflecting how they lived, and so it was with my Mum and Dad.

Mum was the oil of our family machine, working full time as a nurse and midwife, always finding time for us and fitting at least 90 years of living into her 62.

She had a premonition that her time was near and called us together to plan her funeral, choosing the songs she wanted – John Farnham’s version of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, and Julian Lennon’s, ‘Salt Water’; a song we didn’t even know she knew; Google the lyrics – they’re incredibly insightful. She asked us to find the minister who had been special in our lives, and to be cremated.

I feared being with her when she died, but it wasn’t frightening. Instead there was comfort in seeing how at peace she was when she took her last breath.

As in many relationships, opposites attract and she fell in love with my Dad. Ever the dreamer, the writer of hundreds of rhyming lines, and with a penchant for travelling, Dad would apply for a new job, get it, uproot us from our lives and friends and move us to a new town where we would start again.

Given our outgoing nature we adapted, but I often wonder about the impact on Mum, who at the time of one move was finishing her training as a registered nurse; no mean feat given she had left school at the equivalent of Year 8.

After Mum died Dad moved here to Albury and through his love of singing met my step mum.

Two years ago they travelled to England for a holiday; his health hadn’t been all that good, but he was expected to return. He never came back.

His death in England (eerily in Farnham  – which bears the same name as the town in New South Wales where his father was born, and where he spent the first few months of his life), meant his wish to be buried in his home town couldn’t be fulfilled.

Practicality took precedence. He was cremated and one of my sisters brought his ashes back.  He flew business class for the first time; the flight staff kindly offering this option so there was no chance of his urn falling out of the overhead locker!

Here in Albury we farewelled him at an amazingly uplifting memorial service and know he would have enjoyed the tributes and especially the songs.

However, in his typical style, he’d left some important things undone including leaving a valid will. Fortunately there wasn’t too much drama to get things sorted which I know isn’t the case for everyone.

I‘m the product of them both: I have Mum’s practical streak and am downright domesticated sometimes. I’ve inherited Dad’s passion for words, written and spoken and my dreams are big.

Even though Mum was the practical one it was her life, illness and death which reignited my fiction writing, and influences so much of who I am.

And Mum, if you’re watching as I write this, which I have no doubt you are, yes, I have completed that important document.

Wednesday August 4, 2010

The keys to technology were once on a portable Olivetti

Recently I unearthed my first typewriter – an Olivetti portable my parents bought for me in the mid 70’s when I started uni. Its roller holds the imprint of three years of assignments and other writings of that time including my first job applications.

After graduating, I worked in television news; the more secure option because newspapers were on the way out to make way for the next big thing: Teletext. The tapping of the typewriter keys was the soundtrack to my working day; setting up the paper, six sheets with carbon paper inserted between each page, took almost as long as writing the news story. Interviews were recorded on film, which was processed and edited before the news made its way into people’s living rooms each night at 6.

The same soundtrack continued through my first job in newspapers. Copy was typeset, printed out and then pasted into the layout. If the story was too long it was cut with a blade. The terminology of old technology is now transferred to the new; we cut and paste, copy and paste, and delete at the touch of a couple of keys. I returned to television; the typewriter still ruled and videotapes replaced film. The person being interviewed and the story took centre stage.

After five years of unpaid maternity leave I returned to a newsroom, this time in radio. Computers were beginning to replace typewriters, but interviews were still recorded on reel to reel tape and then transferred to a cartridge. In the studio a turntable had escaped the upgrades, and in one of my few indulgences while presenting a breakfast program, I played Minnie Ripperton’s “Loving You” on vinyl.

Returning to television I found technology was changing the shape of the news. The journalist was moving closer to centre stage and the “stand up” became mandatory, no matter what the story was. It was the start of the packaging of news into smaller and smaller parcels, but still more substantial than the tweets which spread the news today.

I made the switch to the world of PR and marketing, (the dark side as far as some journalistic colleagues were concerned), upped my computer skills and embarked on a Masters. The Internet as a research resource was still limited, but we thought access to extracts of papers and full articles was pretty schmick.  I didn’t completely trust the efficiency of my computer, and backed up my dissertation on floppy disks.

Technology moved apace, and although I didn’t always embrace it, but I gave it more than a tentative hug.  Mobile phones shrunk in size but did more, and for a long time I resisted the offers to upgrade. Finally I gave in and my phone is now my diary, note taker, phonebook (which I have backed up on my computer just in case) and camera.

How I managed before email, I don’t know. I’ve belatedly succumbed to Facebook, and use my laptop to access news, as a recipe book, shopping centre and it’s the place where I do most of my writing.

I don’t own an iPod or iPad, but I have had a brief encounter with a kindle and have to say that the prospect of being able to read a 600 page novel on a plane, as well as taking another two or three on holiday without a lot of weight, is definitely appealing.  And now that I can spray that e-reader or kindle with the smell of books, old or new, it won’t even matter if the book’s a stinker!

Column 1 – Wednesday July 21, 2010

Mums search for answers to deal with competitive urge

Elizabeth Jolley is one of my favourite authors. I have always loved her acute observations of the family and especially of mothers; some of the mothers are far from perfect.

Her insights into the family extended beyond her fiction writing and were recorded in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry and in a talk delivered in 1977 at The First Australian Conference on the Family and Health entitled “The Changing Family – Who Cares?”  Here she repeatedly asked, “Where do I go for help?” reflecting on the difficulties facing families of the day. Her own responses to that question included the family doctor, clinic sister, the wise woman of the village and even thoughts from the author Tolstoy,  famous for his quote about unhappy families, who suggested ‘It is not given to the Mother to know what is right for her child’.

Surely Tolstoy got it wrong. Don’t mothers instinctively know what is best for their child and exactly what to do when that new life is placed into their arms? Or was the Russian right?  Mothering has always involved instinct and learning, but it seems the learning component now has prominence, with every aspect of child rearing researched and dissected.

My baby raising days are long gone, (some of my contemporaries have even entered the world of grandbabies), but as a breastfeeding counsellor I maintained a strong link with mums-to-be and new mums. My continuing interest in families and how they function finds me on sites where new mothers discuss – probably more openly than we ever did – their thoughts and fears about mothering and parenting.

Many of these discussions do still happen in mothers’ groups and with friends and families, but increasingly are taking place on blogs – more than 800,000 of them globally. Some mums describe them as a lifeline; a place they can go without fear of being labelled a failure.

If the latest research from the UK which examines the growing trend of the “Competitive Mum” is anything to go by this fear of failure is rising. The quest for perfection is  going beyond the babies and children, (who’s first to reach their milestones), to the mothers themselves; almost a third of those surveyed exercise vigorously to get their pre-birth figures back in the same way as a celebrity mum. (The research also showed that of the 3,000 mothers interviewed 80 per cent found their competitive nature ‘ridiculous’, but didn’t know what to do about it.) Could the competitiveness be an attempt to cope with the feelings of inadequacy which strike every new mother at some time, or a reflection that the further we move away from Maslow’s first level of needs, our basic life needs, the more we intellectualise about everything we do?

But have things changed that much? Jolley in her 1977 talk cited the clinic sister, the well meaning neighbour and the baby books  – an ocean of information – as adding to the ‘feelings of inadequacy in the mother’.  That ocean appears to have reached almost tsunami proportions where new mums are floundering and reaching for any lifeline – friends, family or a parent blog – they can hang onto to stop them from drowning.

Elizabeth Jolley did find a lifeline, not in the baby books or from the clinic sister but from another writer, Dostoevesky who wrote the following to a young mother almost 130 years ago.  ‘Be kind and let your child understand that you are kind.’  Perhaps kindness, especially to herself, is the only lifeline any mother needs.

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  1. Pingback: Today’s Border Mail Column | Robyne with an 'e'

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