Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The little things

I’ve been slack on the blogging front lately.
No excuses.
Just because.

Also, I couldn’t think of anything to blog about.

So here’s something today that made me smile.

I was doing that thing I do before work – loitering angrily outside the station not wanting to go in – when a man walked across the driveway.

“Come on,” he said to the little boy dawdling along behind him.

The kid must have been about three years old. All curls and sandals. But he wasn’t listening to dad, because his attention had been caught by the very tall, very bearded, very tattooed, very intimidating guy standing beside the gleaming Harley parked at the side of the road.

He looked a bit like this.

So there the kid was, walking backwards to keep his eye on the guy and the bike, with his hands held up to his ears in anticipation.

And big scary biker guy got on the bike, and started it. It was one of those engines that just roared.

The little kid clapped his hands to his ears. His jaw dropped and his eyes were suddenly as big as saucers.

The biker pulled out, grinned at the kid, revved the bike twice, and waved as he rode off.

The kid waved back, sheer delight written all over his face, jumping up and down like it was Christmas.

So there you go. Today I saw a random interaction between two strangers and it made me strangely, unaccountably happy.

That one tiny act of kindness – in acknowledging that kid’s reaction and playing up to it – spread further than the kid and the biker. The dad laughed. I laughed. A woman crossing the road laughed.

Such a tiny thing, such a fleeting moment, but sometimes it’s nice to take joy in the little things.

What little things are making you happy this week?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

In Praise of Good Teachers

I went to a lot of different schools when I was growing up. Thanks to my dad's job, we moved about every two years. So I had a lot of teachers. Some were terrible, some were forgettable, but some, just a few, I'm sure made more of an impact on me than I did on them, because they were the ones that believed that these weird little sparks of creativity inside me were valuable. So here are some of the best teachers I ever had:

Mr Krebbs: Grade Six, Walkervale Primary School. 

Mr Krebbs is the first teacher I remember absolutely worshipping. And why? Only for the most shallow of reasons. Because we had to write poems one day. Not even real poems. We got a worksheet with a list of first lines written on them, and we had to write a second line. And yes, even after a gazillion years, I remember mine.

The first line was: The little boy had a cut on his arm. 
And my line was: But the band-aid worked like a charm. 

I read it out when it was my turn, and Mr Krebbs didn't say anything. For a second I sat there and panicked that it was terrible, then Mr Krebbs grinned at me. "That's a gem! An absolute gem!" 

God, I loved that man. 

Mrs Raymond: Grade Eight, Goondiwindi State High School. 

"You'll have books published one day," she told me. 

And I kind of want to send her one to prove her right, but then I wonder how old she is now and whether or not she has a weak heart. 

Mrs O'Sullivan: Grade Ten, Goondiwindi State High School. 

Okay, by this stage I knew I was good at English. And, okay, I was stuck in the second-worst ranking high school in the entire state. (My cousin Tony had the privilege of going to the worst-ranking school at the time. We're a classy family.) It was the sort of school where you were expected to either drop out and become pregnant to a footballer, or the other way around, or concentrate your studies on sheep. No, I'm not kidding. My sister actually took Agriculture for a while. I didn't. I'm quite proud to say I have still never stuck my arm up a cow. Although I have helped stitch one up after a caesarian -- but that was on my terms, dammit. 

Anyway, Goondiwindi SHS. Now, back when I was at school, state schools weren't allowed to "stream" classes, meaning that they couldn't lump all the smart kids together in one class and all the dumb kids in another class. So when a sneaky English teacher wanted to actually teach the kids there was more to life than sheep dips, she took a selection of the smart kids and put them in her English class, and rounded out the numbers with footy players. 

I was not in that class. 

Taking my BFF Kate with me for moral support, I went to the teachers' office at lunch time. "Um, excuse me, Mrs O'Sullivan. I'm Jen Burke, and I'd really like to be in your English class." 

"Oh," the most intimidating teacher in school said, looking down at her piles of paperwork. "I don't know what happened there. You're at the top of my list." 


Mr. R: Grade Eleven, Townsville State High School. 

No, he didn't have a cool name like "Mr R". In fact, I can't remember his name, except it started with an R*. Which is terrible, because he was a great teacher. He loved Shakespeare, and poetry, and theatre. He taught a combination of Year 11 and Year 12 English in a school where English wasn't the first language for a good proportion of the class, and yet he still took the time to listen to one whiny student who didn't want to do the set novel for assessment because it was boring. (In my defence, it really was boring.)

"Well, what are you reading at the moment?" he asked me. 
"A Clockwork Orange," I said. 
"Okay," said Mr R, without even blinking, "I'll set your assignment on that." 

And let me tell you, as someone whose sister is an English teacher, I realise now how much extra work that must have been for him. Not only to set my assignment, but to deal with all the associated crap from the board when it comes to standardised marking across different tests. 

Mr Baguley: Grade Ten, Goondiwindi State High School. 

I'll bet you guys are surprised to see a maths teacher made my list, right? Me too. I hated Advanced Maths. I hated it so bad that I failed it in Year Nine, failed it in the first semester of Year Ten, panicked, and my mum forced me to go to tutoring on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons with Mr Baguley. And let's think for a moment here about the sort of teachers who give up their free time to help unwilling kids like I was pass their classes. 

But something weird happened in those few months of tutoring. What started off as a small group of maths-challenged failures like myself (and my BFF Kate who, despite being some sort of maths savant, was there, again, for moral support) dropped away sharply as interest waned, and pretty soon it was just me. And Kate, who I cannot stress enough did not have to be there. And then something even weirder happened: I found myself trying very, very hard to wrap my head around something I didn't understand. I wanted to pass. And this never happened to me in English. Hell, I could do English in my sleep. But Mr Baguley promised me that if I worked hard, I would pass his maths class. And, holy crap, I did. I have never been more proud of a pass before in my life. I'd also never worked harder just to scrape by. 

"Is it just maths you have problems with?" Mr Baguley asked me one day. "How do you go in your other subjects?" 
"I dunno, sir," I mumbled. "Okay, I guess." 
I can still remember the look on his face on Speech Night when he saw me sitting at the end of a row. 
"Jennifer, what are you doing here?" 
"I got the book prize for English," I said. 
He stared at me in jaw-dropping surprise for a long moment, and then laughed, which I like to think was due to his his overwhelming relief that I wasn't a total academic write-off. 

And, you know, I still sometimes think of him when I ponder two trains that leave the station at the same time, one heading west and the other heading east, and know that the westbound train travels 18 kilometres per hour slower than the eastbound train. If the two trains are 570 kilometres apart after 3 hours, what is the rate of the westbound train?

Which teachers would you go back and thank? 

* Mr Rowntree! I phoned my Mum to ask. Apparently she has a better memory of my many teachers than I do. Must be all those awkward Parent-Teacher interviews she had to sit through. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Picture Book Waiting To Happen

Okay, so this story is just waiting to be illustrated for children, I'm sure. 

Last night at work we had to give a broadcast for a missing goat. 
(It gets better.) 

A missing goat, with a white stripe down his back, and a red collar. 
(It gets better.) 

A missing CIRCUS GOAT. 

A missing circus goat that was last seen tethered to a second goat, an alpaca...and A MONKEY. 

(How can it possibly get any better? I'll tell you how.) 

Scouring the vicinity for the missing goat were five French jugglers. 

Oh god. Life is sometimes so good to me. 

P.S. If you're reading this, Wal, come home. We all love you. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Slut Shaming

So there’s this thing in YA – well, it’s this thing everywhere, really, but let’s talk about it in YA – called slut shaming. What’s slut shaming? It’s where a female character is hated, or has bad things happen to her, for the crime of being sexually active (or being presumed to be so.)

Let’s just make it clear. Boys who are sexually active are lauded. Girls? Sluts.

You will never hear it said of a boy, “God, he’s slept with heaps of girls. He’s such a slut!” At least, not in a demeaning manner. Because when a boy gets laid, he gets a pat on the back. A girl gets a reputation.

And when it comes to slut shaming, girls can be the biggest offenders. Ask any teenager.

I have no issues with slut shaming in books when there is a point to it. When we see consequences for the characters involved, or when we’re challenged to recognise the prejudice and think about it. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

How often is the alpha female in YA fiction (you know the one: the cheerleader. The one in the popular clique. The one with the hottest boyfriend in school) hated by the other girl (the unpopular one. The one no clique will have. The one who wants to be with the hottest boy in school, if only he’d notice her)? And how often does that unpopular girl (who’s usually the heroine) think of the cheerleader as a slut?

Because maybe she dresses in short skirts. Maybe she flirts with boys. Maybe she gets drunk sometimes... 

I don’t like this. It’s unnecessary. It’s also insidious.

Because often it’s more subtle than that. Often it’s a case of a writer making sure that bad things happen to bad people. Except, I’m sorry, it takes more than a teenage girl being perceived as sexually active to be deserving of punishment.

In a genre where most of the readers and writers are female, it would be nice to see an end to casual slut shaming.

Oh, and don't think this shit doesn't have real-world consequences. Just ask that girl in Stubenville if she was asking for it. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Exciting Job Opportunities in Fictionland

Okay, so why do so many people in Fiction have exciting jobs? Or jobs that are exciting in Fictionland, but probably aren't at all that exciting in the real world. 

The Lawyer 

Every lawyer in Fictionland is gorgeous, immaculately dressed in expensive suits, and invariably ends up exposing a conspiracy that goes ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP. Well of course. You'd hardly bother with one that went all the way to the bottom, would you? 

I did work experience at a law firm once. It was all child custody and traffic offences, and boring as hell. Maybe things get a bit more interesting when you're prosecuting war criminals at The Hague, but I'm pretty sure that for the majority of lawyers in the world, work is a dull place. 

The Doctor 

In Fictionland, a doctor is never just a GP. No, a Fictionland doctor works in a busy inner-city ER, and, although frequently gorgeous, has very little time to worry about that since every time they turn around there is some child with a gunshot wound lying on a gurney in front of them. It's drama! It's tears! It's DON'T YOU DIE ON ME, DAMMIT! 

I had to go to an ER once when I had a bad reaction to some antibiotics and turned bright red. I was also unconscious, but, you know, after the sensation of burning ants suddenly swarming over my skull, the unconsciousness came as something of a relief. On one side of me in the ER was a lady who had a migraine -- seriously, she looked terrible -- and on the other side was an old woman having an asthma attack. And you know what? By the time you realise you're not going to die and you've played around trying to make the Machine That Goes Ping go ping more quickly, a hospital ER is a very boring place to spend a few hours. And surprisingly cold. 

Sure, it's life and death in there. But not always, right? 

The Police Officer 

A Fictionland cop spends more time in car chases alone than on completing his paperwork. And don't get me started on shootouts. Okay, so maybe that sort of thing happens in some places, but not where I'm from. Hell, where I'm from if a cop so much as draws their firearm, that's a report. And actually fire it? I can count on one hand the number of times that's happened when I've been working, and I've been in my job for a lot of years now. 

Most cops spend their time doing paperwork. Seriously. 

The Teacher

Oh, Fictionland teachers! They'll change your life! They're full of inspiration and hope. They'll turn a class full of ghetto ganstas into Rhodes Scholars, simply because they BELIEVE IN THE KIDS. It's heartwarming stuff. 

Except try this out: how many teachers did you have in your school life? And how many were just like the guy from The Dead Poets' Society? None, I'll bet, because standing on your desk and saying "Oh Captain, my Captain" does not actually qualify you to undertake standardised testing. You might be inspired, but you won't get into university. 

And, as a sister to a high school teacher, what with all the crap they have to make sure the kids learn, and all the crap they have to stop the kids doing while they're learning it, there's not a lot of time left over for inspirational speeches. 

What other Fictionland professions don't translate to the real world? 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Best Amazon Reviews Ever

I'm sure most of you have seen this already, but in case you haven't, here it is: 

The book is called How To Avoid Huge Ships, and if you have a couple of hours to kill on the internet, you must read the Amazon reviews. So much fun! 

Here are some highlights: 

From Citizen Fitz: 

I bought How to Avoid Huge Ships as a companion to Captain Trimmer's other excellent titles: How to Avoid a Train, and How to Avoid the Empire State Building. These books are fast paced, well written and the hard won knowledge found in them is as inspirational as it is informational. After reading them I haven't been hit by anything bigger than a diesel bus. Thanks captain!

From Law Student: 

I'm a little annoyed with the sarcastic, hate-filled 'reviewers' of this book. You all seem to think it's funny that some people would honestly like some expert advice on ways to avoid huge ships. What, you've never been traveling at a very, very slow speed straight toward something really, really big that you could see for miles and miles away, and wished you'd known what steps you could take to avoid crashing into it?

From ThisDude: 

After reading this and setting out for a day at the harbor, my entire family was killed by a tiny boat. My attention was only on the huge ships. All in all though, would recommend.

And my absolute favourite, from Dan: 

Read this book before going on vacation and I couldn't find my cruise liner in the port. Vacation ruined.

Kind of restores your faith in humanity, right? 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

How do YOU write?

A friend from work asked me the other day, "How do you write?" 

"Um," I said, while a range of words raced through my head: Sporadically. Chaotically. Desperately. 

"I mean, how do you go from an idea to a book. Does it play like a movie in you head?" 

What an awesome idea. There's a movie fully-formed -- edited, beautifully framed shots, a soundtrack and everything -- in my head, and all I have to do is transcribe it. That sounds like Muse-territory to me, and I don't think I have a Muse. And as much as I love the idea that I'm just a conduit in this process, like an angel  has descended from heaven and ordered me to take down its holy words (and why can't angels write their own stuff down? What if I've got herds to tend or fish to catch, or a sandal emporium to run?), it just isn't true. 

Not for me, at least. I build from the ground up. 

"Well, I start with a vague idea," I told her. "Maybe for a plot, maybe for a character, or maybe just a scene, and I build it from there." 

I write like I have a floor full of Lego. 

I have a vague idea what I want to make, and I have all the blocks to do it, but I've lost the instructions. 

So I put a few pieces together and see what I have. 

And then I rip it apart and start again. 

Over and over again. 

Building it and tearing it down, and building it up again. 

Until I've got something I like, something that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Something that might even be so different from that first vague idea that even I don't quite know how I got there. Hopefully something wonderful.  

Only then, when I'm finished, do I get to sit back and see the big picture. Only then does that movie start playing in my head. And only then do I know if I like it or not. 

How about you? 


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