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I have a little parenting problem. I need some advice. The other day I was out walking with Finlay (four years old; I know, I can’t believe it either) and an elderly woman stopped to coo over her. This woman was clearly someone’s grandmother. She was matronly. I’m thinking of the word “battleship.” You know what I’m getting at.
“So cute,” said the grandmother. I said thanks and Fin said nothing and the woman began to move away. Then Fin said, “She’s got big boobs.”
Into my stunned silence, Fin added, “Really big boobs.”
A few days later, out with her mother, Fin remarked about a passer-by: “She has large upper arms.”
Before that, on a train: “Look at that little person.”
We’ve tried to raise her to believe there’s nothing wrong with people who look different. That differences are interesting but not shameful. That seems to be working. It’s working a little too well. What do I do now?
I don’t want to tell her that some people are embarrassed about how they look. That starts with “are” and ends with “should be.” I can see a case for not commenting on people’s weight, because being very over- or under-weight is unhealthy, and we’ve talked about health and eating balanced meals. But I know she’s going to spend her life drowning in messages about body size, and she doesn’t need that yet. Also, it only deals with the “large upper arms” comments, not the “Look at that little person” ones.
My feeling is that while there is nothing wrong with being a three-foot-tall grownup, and it is interesting, they probably don’t want to be singled out for it all the time. But maybe this is my hangup. I wouldn’t be offended if a four-year-old pointed at me and said, “That man has no hair,” but if his mother acted embarrassed and tried to shush him, I would. Because she would be making it into a bad thing. Maybe it’s the same with everything.
But that leaves me, what? Smiling at amputees after my kid points out they have no legs? Saying, “Yes, you’re right,” when she remarks on the size of an obese man’s buttocks? This is a minefield. What do I do?
Lately my Google Alert emails have become polluted with other Max Barrys. I guess I knew it had to happen. I couldn’t have the web to myself forever. But all of a sudden there are three of us. The first guy to show up was okay. He writes about NFL. I gather that’s some kind of football. Not the good kind. But still. I was just glad he was doing something. I didn’t want some whiny, self-obsessed blogger Max Barry confusing everybody. I have that base covered.
But now this third guy. I’ve been worried about the wrong thing. Because this Max Barry, he’s better-looking than me. He models. He’s younger. More hair. I guess that goes without saying. But really: tons of hair. He cooks. Plays tennis semi-professionally. Works as a personal trainer. Posts workouts-of-the-day to his website. Workout-of-the-days? Whatever. He’s a god, is my point. A toned, buffed, let-me-whip-you-up-a-filet-mignon god. He makes me look like crap.
At this point I haven’t decided whether to break into his house in the middle of the night and stab him or become fast friends and use him as my body double for TV interviews. That’s a decision for the new year.
Speaking of which! That’s it from me for 2009. Thank you so much to everyone who cared enough to follow what I’m doing this year. Double thanks to everyone who made this the year of Machine Man. Triple—wait, this is getting ridiculous. But thank you, thank you to those who emailed me feedback on the serial, because that is incredibly helpful as I turn this thing into a novel.
I hope your year was a good one, and your next is better. And may I leave you with this: my daughter Finlay’s first ever appearance on stage, at her four-year-old ballet concert. They are dressed as kangaroos, if you’re wondering. This was one of the most terrifyingly beautiful moments of my life. I’m not talking about the dancing. I’m talking about what happened next.
One morning recently I climbed the stairs to my study, coffee in hand, and found a pile of books on the top step. There was a Swedish Jennifer Government, a Polish Company, and four or five others. The front panel of my computer case was missing: I eventually found it inside the roofspace, along with my Richmond Tigers scarf.
I went back downstairs and confronted my daughter. “Have you been moving my things around?”
She grinned, one of those ridiculously beautiful ear-to-ear smiles, and said: “I stranged your room.”
Since then, Fin has stranged my study several more times. Once I heard movement up there, called out, “Are you strangeing my study?” and she giggled and admitted yes. She loves to strange.
Today she turns four. Happy birthday, bunny. Thank you for strangeing my life.
As I write this, my intestines are trying to crawl out of my body. They’re very determined. No, no, I don’t want your sympathy. Well, all right, then. Maybe just a blanket. And my feet are kind of sore. You could rub those.
But I’m not writing to let you know of my gastrointestinal issues. That’s just a bonus. I’m writing because I’m doing stuff:
Me on Australian TV: I’m a panelist on “Jennifer Byrne Presents: Brave New Worlds,” discussing Utopian/dystopian fiction. This is my first ever TV panel, and the more time that’s passed since it was taped, the surer I’ve become that I was A TOTAL DICK. But I’m hoping they edited those parts out. To find out, tune in to ABC TV at 10pm Tuesday.
Me speaking: I’m delivering two talks on “Risk” as part of the PEN Lecture Series, in Sydney (Wed 15th July, with The Chaser’s Julian Morrow) and Canberra (Tue 21st July, with Genevieve Jacobs). This will eventually be available on the web somewhere too, possibly here. Relatedly, here is me being interviewed about the upcoming lecture. Notice how carefully I speak while trying to hold my bowels together. That’s professionalism.
It happened at an indoor play center, one of those technicolor places with dizzying heights and terrifying drops, trampolines that launch children through the air like patriot missiles and treacherous plastic balls that sneak out of pits to slip beneath tiny sneakers. Naturally, Fin navigated these with contemptuous ease, then tripped over her own feet on a stretch of flat carpet. Exactly how you break an arm falling two and a half feet onto shag pile, I don’t know. But she wailed like… well, like she’d just broken her arm. When this didn’t abate, and I noticed her arm dangling at her side like a wet noodle, I began to suspect something was wrong. I sprang into action, demanding a refund from the play center. Well, it was five bucks. And we’d only just arrived. I don’t see why I should have to pay five bucks for eight minutes of fun, followed by a broken bone. They gave it to me, too, plus a voucher for a free coffee my next visit, in 4-6 weeks.
As soon as that was taken care of, I carried my screaming three-year-old daughter straight out of there. I didn’t have a car, so I bore her in my arms to the nearest hospital. I don’t want to claim I was a hero, but if anyone wants to make a movie of my life, that would be a really moving scene. I think there could be an operatic sound track at that point. That’s just a thought.
Fin stopped crying the second we stepped into the Emergency Room, which was a shame, because they decided she wasn’t urgent and told us to go to another hospital. I was tempted to pinch her, in the interests of securing prompt medical attention. But that might have been a difficult moment to explain in the movie. So off we went to the Royal Children’s Hospital, where they X-rayed her, pulled her bones straight, and encased her arm in plaster.
Let me tell you about this process. I’ll tell you the same way Dr. Elliot explained it to me, right before he began to inflict excruciating pain on my daughter: “We’ll give her some gas. It’s not for pain relief. What it does is block the formation of short-term memory, so when it’s over, she won’t remember what it was like.”
Now, I don’t want to criticize Dr. Elliot. He is a smarter, better-educated guy than me, and no doubt across the many excellent medical reasons why this is the optimum course of action for children. But if they suggested this idea to an adult patient, that person would PUNCH THE DOCTOR RIGHT IN THE MOUTH. Is this not the most horrible concept you have ever heard? “We won’t block your pain. We’ll just make you forget it afterward. It’s basically the same thing.” NO IT’S NOT. Option A: no pain. Option B: TONS OF PAIN. That’s the difference.
Fin sucked on that gas like she was drinking it. Dr. Elliot pulled her bones straight. “Daddy,” she cried out. “Daddy, I want you.” I squeezed her free hand and told her it was all right, and a few seconds later she had forgotten all about it. When they were finished, she smiled and said, “I like this hospital.”
I hope that creeps you out as much as it did me.
I got into big trouble with my brother for that anti-ginger blog. “You’re just like Hitler,” he said, or might as well have. “It’s not 1935, you know. Demonizing people for aspects of their appearance they can’t control: we’re not doing that any more.”
“Steady on,” I protested. “It was just harmless good fun. Besides, the point was I’m a ginger when I grow a moustache. That’s what made it funny.”
“I suppose you think Auschwitz would have been fine, if only Hitler was Jewish,” my brother argued, more or less. “I suppose you think it would have been hilarious.”
I suspected that my brother, or at least this version of him I was exagerating for comic effect, was getting carried away. But he did have a point. “Redheads are one of the few remaining groups it’s still socially acceptable to ridicule,” he said, and dammit, he was right. I had been so enraptured with the possibilities for jokes when I started sprouting gingers, I didn’t stop and think. My moustache was gone, but the dark moustache on my soul would not be shaved so easily.
“History is full of red-headed achievers,” he said. “You just never hear about them. Thomas Jefferson. James Joyce. Galileo. Malcolm X.”
“Malcolm X!? Are you sure?”
“Check it out for yourself.”
“Wow,” I said. “Maybe that’s why he was so angry.”
“You’re doing it again.”
“But I’m a ginger.”
“Let me explain this to you one more time.”
But seriously. Redheads rock. I love you guys. If I could grow long, amber locks, I’d be all over that. I’d let my beautiful red hair flow down to my shoulders and smell it every night before I went to sleep. Right now, I’ve got nothing. The difference between a red-haired guy and me is that he has options.