The Perfect Mermaid

Sometimes I feel inadequate. Never more so than at children’s birthday parties, where the mum proudly displays a picture-perfect professional looking birthday cake, saying “I was up until 3am last night, but it was worth it.”

My cakes don’t look like that. I have a feeling that nothing in my kitchen could ever look like that. If I bought the perfect cake, it would surely collapse into a melted, surreal mess long before the candles were ever lit. I am simply not compatible with professional perfection (for proof you need only look at my hair… or my dress sense).

My 7 year old has happily asked for a heart cake every year for the past 4 years. Since I have a heart shaped tin, this is a request I am thrilled to comply with. The icing will be… um… interesting, but the cake will be heart shaped, and usually pink or purple, and everyone is happy.

This year my about-to-be-4 year old sent shivers up my spine when she blithely announced, the day before her party, that she wanted a mermaid cake.  Not a cat cake (two circles for head and body, two triangles for ears, and some creative icing whiskers). Not a teddy bear cake (two circles for head and body, two small circles for ears, lollies for the face). A mermaid. No problem.

I had visions in my head of the perfect Ariel cake.  Like something straight out of “The Little Mermaid”, she was so vivid and beautiful in my head that I almost began to hallucinate that I could do it. I employed my vastly-more-creative husband to draw me a simple, stylized mermaid that I could cut out of a large rectangular cake. He kept shooting me dubious looks and trying to negotiate Miss 4 into a fish, or a heart cake. Miss 4 was only too willing to be swayed, but the voices in my head drowned out every offer of salvation. This was going to be The Perfect Mermaid Cake, or I was going to die trying (and sticky).

First, the cake. Since it needed to be gluten and dairy free, I put in plenty of eggs and some xanthan gum, to make it as solid and coherent as possible. I knew that crumbliness would put an end to my mermaid as soon as I applied the knife, and I was taking no chances.

I cut a reasonable shape out of greaseproof paper – it wasn’t quite Ariel, but I had no doubt that the application of magnificent icing would render it the perfect mermaid cake nonetheless.

Then my girls wanted to help. I was only too happy to let them mix the icing sugar and water, and even add the colours, but I wasn’t about to let them touch that cake. It was going to be perfect. It was also going to be my crowning achievement. The fame of my mermaid cake was going to spread far and wide. No-one was going to get near this cake.

As I started to apply the purple icing, things began to go haywire. I wasn’t concentrating terribly well, because the girls were hovering at my elbow, simply desperate to join in, and I was terrified they would bump me.

Then I looked at Miss 4’s pleading, eager face, and sanity  finally struck. This was going to be the perfect mermaid cake. With Miss 7 doing the hair, Miss 4 doing the surrounding shells and the whale (a happy by product of cutting out the mermaid), and a team effort on the squiggly decoration on her tail.

Mermaid cake
The perfect mermaid

It took us about an hour – a definite record for both girls remaining focused with no bickering. I no longer feel inadequate – I feel triumphant. It may take forever to unstick the girls, and the kitchen, but we now have the perfect mermaid cake, and the world’s happiest children. Now that was worth it.

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The only thing we have to fear…

My 3 year old, Jane,  has a very equivocal relationship with animals. She is obsessed with them,  constantly pretends to be one – some days a bunny, others a pussy cat, a dolphin or a turtle – and she desperately wants us to buy a pet. When she grows up she is apparently going to have a farm, with very definite (but nonetheless changeable) numbers of particular animals – heavy on the horses, cats, and fluffy chicks (who never grow up), with occasional outbreaks of hippos and snow leopards. And no-one ever gets eaten.

At the same time, though, her preferred animal is one who doesn’t actually move. It’s possible that she has spent too much time with soft toys and not enough with real creatures, but even a rabbit can alarm her by hopping unexpectedly, or just sniffing at her toes.

bunny rabbit
Grrr!

Dogs who jump are terrifying, and any moving dog causes her to climb the nearest safe adult until she is safely at the top of Mount Parent, and then she will loudly demand the removal of said monolith to a safer, entirely dog-free location.

There is this incredible tension between her intense interest in – and affection for – animals, and her overwhelming fear of them. Whenever she gets regular contact with an animal, she grows more confident, and gradually removes it from the list of scary things. This fascinates me, because it strikes me as a beautiful parable, even for adults. We all suffer, to some degree, from fear of the unknown. We can try to avoid it and allow the fear to grow in its own dark cave, or we can face our demons, drag them kicking and screaming out into the light of day, and watch them evaporate.

So often when we confront our fears they prove groundless. Although they seem impossibly hard and substantial when they lurk in the darkest recesses of our mind, exposed to the light they can disappear in a moment, like ice cubes on hot bitumen,  leaving barely a sign that they had ever existed.

Dragonfly

Jane’s fear of animals extends to almost anything that moves. She’s terrified of flies,  the tiniest of ants, and moths. She’s fairly happy about butterflies, but I suspect that’s because none have ever tried to land on or near her.  Her perception of the animals bears no relationship to actual facts about them. You can argue endlessly that possums only eat fruit, for example.

Jane: “The possums might eat me!!”

Me: “Possums only eat fruit. Are you a banana?”

Jane (scornfully): “Of course not!”

Me: “Then you’re fine.”

Jane: “But they might eat me!!”

(repeat ad nauseam)

We can scoff, but how many of our own fears are even less logical than that? I think we could all learn something from Jane’s example, and start facing our fears. Sure, she needs someone to hold her hand when the bunny twitches his terrifying nose, but we all need someone to hold our hand sometimes. What’s the bet that many of our own fears will turn out to be fluffy and harmless too?

It’s a kind of magic

Over the last few weeks I’ve been practising magic. Not black magic. There were no chicken entrails, eyes of newt or tongues of bat involved at all, I promise. In fact, you could really argue that it’s psychology rather than magic – or what Terry Pratchett calls “headology”. But it certainly seems like magic.

Regular readers will know that we have issues with sleep in our house. By most people’s standards I think they could be called severe issues, but I am too sleep deprived to make an objective assessment of the wstfglzzzzzzz….snort. ahem. Sorry.

Our 3 year old, Jane, has had pretty bad reflux for most of her life, and reflux kids tend to be terrible sleepers. It makes sense – they’re used to having their sleep disturbed by regular incidents of extreme heartburn, so they wind up in a pattern of very light, easily disrupted sleep, even when their reflux is under control.

This means, among other things, that Jane has a habit of climbing into our bed in the middle of the night, as a means of coping with her distress. She is a wriggle beast of the highest order, so that usually means that our own sleep is massively disrupted for the rest of the night. In fact, my husband usually gives up when Jane joins us, and banishes himself to the couch.

Permanent sleep deprivation makes life incredibly difficult to manage – there’s a reason it’s used for torture. After months of regular night time invasions, I had tried everything – bribery, threats, and even begging.  Eventually a light dawned on me and I asked her why she needed to come in to our bed, and the answer was illuminating: “Because otherwise I have dreams!”

Vivid, distressing dreams are another feature of many reflux kids’ lives. Of course, it wasn’t that she didn’t dream in our bed, but she felt more secure in dealing with the dreams. What we needed to do was give her that security in her own bed. She shares a room with her older sister, so it wasn’t the loneliness that was an issue – she just didn’t have the confidence to cope without her mum or dad.

One dream, one soul,
One prize, one goal,
One golden glance,
Of what should be.

In the grip of desperate inspiration, I made great ceremony of presenting her with my own personal teddy bear, Fred.  I made much of his protective, reassuring qualities, and assured her that Fred would be there to look after her if she ever had a bad dream. I told her how he had looked after me wonderfully well for many years, so he was a very experienced and highly qualified bear.

Jane took it very seriously, and went to bed clutching Fred tightly. And then, miracle of miracles – she slept. Not only that night, but for many nights afterwards, she slept through. Those nights when she did wake, she didn’t come into our bed, and only needed a brief kiss-and-doona-restoration routine. It was magic.

(At first we exchanged bears. I was to sleep with Jane’s bear, Poogy, to look after me. Poogy was no good at dealing with dreams, I was told. But soon Fred wasn’t enough, and Poogy was apparently now well trained, so he went back to Jane’s bed. It seems I can add “experienced teddy bear trainer” to my resume.)

After a while, with a depressing inevitability, something triggered her reflux again and we were back to square one. Once we had banished the reflux monster, Fred and Poogy were no longer enough – they had stopped working (although I did not get Fred back, naturally).  She wasn’t coming into our bed anymore, but she was crying a lot in the night, and calling us in to her room repeatedly. So this time I collected a bunch of lavender from a friend’s garden. (With permission, mind you. Stolen lavender would never work.).

Once again employing great ceremony, we made a lavender pouch together. We pulled the lavender leaves and flowers off the twigs, arranged them nicely on some soft fabric, and tied it up into a bundle. We talked with great enthusiasm about how good lavender was at chasing away bad dreams and bring good ones, and soothing people to sleep. It became her magic lavender pouch, and was indispensable.

Sure enough, that night she slept. This time I was prepared for the onset of a new reflux episode, and a soon as we were out the other side of it I produced a new bunch of lavender, and announced that we had to keep it fresh so that it would keep working.

It’s a kind of magic. One dream, one soul. One prize, one goal.

(One good night’s sleep)

I won’t pretend that Jane now sleeps perfectly. We still have more than our share of bad nights, given that she is nearly 4. But she is much happier in her own bed, and more confident of coping on her own. (As long as she has Fred, Poogy, and her magic lavender pouch to hand. And the favourite toy of the day. And the other favourite toy of the day. And possibly the moon in the right phase.)

It is a kind of magic. A way of working with her fears and building her a personalised toolkit for handling them. It’s a lesson I need to remember. To twist the words of Arthur C Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced parenting is indistinguishable from magic.” And magic is much better than screaming and sleep deprivation.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go and devise a spell for getting my teddy bear back.

Getting Some Perspective

I have lost count of the number of people in my life who have recently uttered the words:

“I shouldn’t really complain. At least we don’t live in Queensland.”

There is nothing like a dramatic natural disaster to give you a sense of perspective, especially if it’s close to home. Bushfires, tsunamis, floods, mudslides, earthquakes, and mining disasters can all make you realise that however overwhelming your problems may seem, they could nearly always be worse. It is useful to be grateful for what we do have, in the midst of stressing over what we don’t.

And yet, while a sense of perspective is a fine thing to have, in some ways this kind of thinking can add to the distress, instead of relieving it. It becomes a sort of survivor guilt.

“How can I stress over my job when people have lost everything?”

“I can’t believe I’m shouting at my kids over their behaviour when kids have died in Queensland.”

flood

These thoughts, and many others like them, all have the sub-text: “People are coping with much worse stuff. I must be a selfish, hopeless, useless person if I can’t cope with my relatively minor crises.”

So now, as well as coping with whatever is stressful in your life, you are also beating yourself up over feeling stressed at all. Pretty soon it gets recursive – you are stressed about feeling stressed, which makes you stressed… etc etc ad nauseam (literally).

But here’s the thing. Life is stressful. There will always be people undergoing worse things, but that doesn’t make the day to day traumas of life any easier to handle. Our kids will drive us to the point of screaming. Our cars will break down. Our air conditioners will conk out in the middle of a heat wave. Our jobs will be stressful in hundreds of different ways. We’ll be sick. We’ll be sleep deprived. We’ll be cranky. Sometimes it will all pile up, as it has for me recently, into a mountain of stress that seems utterly insurmountable. Then we will scream. Or cry. Or throw things. Or shout at the people we love.

Sometimes all of the above.

And this is the important bit: our stress, be it large or small, does not add to the distress of all those people suffering worse torments. Getting upset about smaller stuff does not change our compassion and empathy for those coping with disasters. We can’t help them by pretending our lives are smooth and trouble free, even as we are mentally climbing the walls.

Sometimes the small stuff bites (think mozzies, or head lice!). And sometimes screaming is the best relief you can find. It’s ok if others are screaming about bigger stuff. We can all scream together – think of it as group therapy.


The good, the bad and the ugly of Facebook

My post about traumatic defriending prompted some very strong responses on the subject of facebook. Many people who were once staunch fans loathe facebook now – and that’s even without considering the privacy concerns (which most of us seem content to sweep under the carpet). Facebook was a leech on their lives, was the overall message. They were much happier without it. Or they had never signed up, because of various inherent flaws in the whole idea.

It has prompted me to examine my own attitudes to facebook. I was highly resistant to it at first – adamant that I would not be a part of it. I am a bit paranoid about privacy, and I’m still not comfortable with facebook’s attitude to that – but then, I have my entire electronic life on gmail, and I’m not convinced I can trust them either, so blackballing facebook on privacy grounds would be a little arbitrary for me.

I eventually created myself a facebook account in order to look at a friend’s photos. In no time a long-lost friend had found me there, and the rest is history. I don’t play games or enable any facebook apps, mostly for privacy reasons – using any facebook applications gives the application writer access to all of your facebook data. You can’t set any restrictions. And even if I trusted facebook itself (hah!), how do I even know who wrote these apps, and what they are going to do with the data?

You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

It is certainly true that facebook is a time leech. A friend of mine used to have a fascinating screen saver (back when screen savers, and indeed computers, were relatively rare and primitive) that he called “soul sucker”, because anyone in the room when it came on would find themselves staring at it blankly. Facebook is definitely a candidate for soul sucker status, even if you don’t play games. I have to exercise considerable self control to keep myself from being sucked into the psychological equivalent of a black hole, updating my status, looking at the status of others, looking at photos, and trawling people’s friend lists for someone I might know.

But, like most technology, the good, the bad and the ugly are all in the way you use it. For instance, when I first signed up I had a tendency to leave birthday messages on it for people I would once have called. Now I generally choose to make the call instead. Facebook is no substitute for face to face or at least voice to voice contact. The ugly, I think, is when you use facebook as a substitute for real life interaction.

Out there things can happen, and frequently do
To people as brainy and footsy as you.

The good is in the renewed contact with people I had otherwise lost touch with. Some of that contact drops off again, as it turns out there was a reason we had drifted apart, but sometimes it actually brings us closer together. I can post a query to facebook (like “where do I find a purple fairy broach for my 3 year old???”) and get a host of useful answers within minutes. I learn things about the lives of work colleagues that I didn’t already know, and when I am in a slump for some reason, I can often find entertainment and sympathy through facebook, when I might otherwise be too deeply slumped to lift the phone.

And when you’re in a slump, you’re not in for much fun
Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

With facebook, unslumping yourself can sometimes be a little easier – like yesterday, when I posted just two words (“Bloody reflux”), and quickly got a host of sympathetic responses that made me feel much happier, despite having had no sleep due to my 3 year old’s reflux the night before.

Sometimes I find common ground through status updates, where friends share hobbies or concerns that I didn’t expect. Facebook is also a most effective way to advertise my blog – I suspect that over 50% of my readers find out about new posts via facebook (Hi there! :-).

Sadly, the bad of facebook is legion. Privacy concerns, people posting way too much information, surreptitious defriending, cyber-stalking – these are all serious issues. Or, at least, they can be. By and large the positives for me still outweigh the negatives. I have fairly paranoid security settings (only friends can see my stuff, not friends of friends, who could be anyone!), and there are new ways of creating groups so that not all of your “friends” can see everything you post. I don’t usually bother with those, though – these days I understand that facebook is not private at all, so I don’t post anything I wouldn’t want publicly visible.

Overall I think that the problem is that we have not developed sensible, compassionate etiquette around the relatively new technology of social networking. When you get right down to it, whatever the technology, we always need to remember to treat each other with respect, compassion and kindness. New technologies offer us new ways to be inconsiderate and cruel – but we can see, and hence avoid them if we try.

You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact
And remember that life’s a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

Facebook can be a positive force, but only if we consciously and deliberately use it positively. In that respect we are somewhat at the mercy of our facebook friends. One person using it unpleasantly can sour the experience for everyone. But that’s life itself, isn’t it?

*All quotes in this piece come from Dr Seuss’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”

Traumatic defriending

I have just experienced my first traumatic facebook defriending. I have, of course, been defriended before, but it was neither unexpected nor traumatic in those cases – at least, the ones I have noticed. And that’s the strange thing about defriending. You don’t get notified. There is nothing to alert you to it, particularly if that friend was never a prolific poster. There is no gap left in your friend list. No placeholder where that friend should be. Nothing can be a little hard to spot.

In this case I noticed when I happened to be browsing the profile of a mutual friend, and noticed that my ex-friend – let’s call him DF, for De Friender – DF’s name was missing under “mutual friends”. Disbelieving at first, I searched for him, hoping that perhaps it was facebook itself that he had defriended, as some of my friends have in the past. But no. He was still there. With lots of friends. But I was no longer one of them.

It came as a shock. After the first few moments of denial, I had to face the fact that it was no accident. Someone I cared about had declared himself, albeit silently and surreptitiously, no longer my friend. It was like a surreal, slow motion punch to the solar plexus. It may have been weeks before I noticed. He was never online a lot, and I am not sufficiently paranoid to spend hours searching my friends list for any sign of someone who is not there.

I don’t know what the etiquette is now. In some ways I would like to simply click on the “add as a friend” button next to his name, but that feels rather feeble and pathetic. If I were brave I would call him and ask why he did it – my preference is always for open and direct communication – but defriending is surely a way of saying that communication with me is no longer welcome, so perhaps I should respect that.

heart crossed out

The difficulty I have is with the silence of it all. Some might see it as a relatively painless way of being disconnected. There is no direct assault. No barbed words. Not even a nasty letter, or a stinging text. But in an odd sort of way I think I would handle those better. At least they might give me some clue as to why.

As it is, I can’t help puzzling over it. Was I too this? Not enough that? Horrifyingly something else? Silence tends to bring out my worst paranoia, and this is no exception. There is no closure. No explanation. Just a gap where a relationship used to be.

Of course it’s important to remember that facebook is not the real world. There is no telling how DF would react if we were to meet in the street. But having been defriended I am reluctant to try any direct contact. I imagine he would be polite and distantly friendly, as he was whenever we chatted online. But what would he be thinking? Perhaps it’s better not to know.

Facebook, twitter, and even sms, are changing the way we interact in fairly radical ways. Sometimes they make it possible to get back in touch with old friends, but they have also created new ways to hurt us. Ways that we really haven’t understood yet, let alone developed any real etiquette for. They provide apparently remote, impersonal and painless ways to detach ourselves from people, but without regard for the consequences. In the world of social networking, consequences happen to other people – and we never see their faces.