THE TAIL WAGGING THE DOG & INSTAGRAM

You know that thing when you’re aware things are bad, but you had no idea just how bad?

Like when you take your car for a service and you’re reasonably sure it’s $1000+ bad, but it’s actually http://www.carsales.com.au bad?

Or like when you’re worried that you left the front door unlocked bad but actually you left the oven on and your whole house has burned down bad?

Or like when you think you might’ve forgotten to pack your kid’s lunchbox bad but actually you’ve dropped him off at school on a Saturday, alone and with no lunch, bad?

That’s what it was like when I sat down to write this blog post.

I wanted to write a post about how the use of the word “Instagrammable” annoys me, because it’s a brand, not an adjective.

But before I mouthed off about this English-language interloper, I thought I’d better get my facts straight and do a bit of research via Google. (Also a brand, not a verb).

How long have people been saying this? Am I the only one with a problem with it? What does Urban Dictionary have to say about it?

Imagine my horror, when not only did my search yield no such etymological results, but before I even had the chance to execute the search, the following appeared:

See? So much worse than I thought. Am I feeling lucky, Google? No. No I’m not. I’m feeling really quite depressed about the whole thing.

So apparently ‘Instagrammable’ is a thing and we’re not even debating it anymore.

But these ongoing corporate ambushes on the English language are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the social media behemoth’s impact on the way we live our lives.

What’s truly troubling me is the way that life seems to be shaping itself to be appealing for the sake of Instagram, and not the other way around.

New restaurants and cafes are opening seemingly with the express purpose of looking good with the X-Pro II filter. It’s not even clear whether they serve food.

Tourism websites are providing links to the addresses of all the best street art for the masses to ‘stumble on’ during their travels. Meanwhile, the subversive forefathers of the guerilla art form are turning in their graves.

Bars everywhere are going out of business as the cost of glasses broken by patrons trying to capture that elusive perfect drinking/cheers/Boomerang becomes too prohibitive to go on.

And in the ultimate kick in the teeth, just as the world seems to be cottoning on to these troubling trends, the influencers who were wildly culpable in starting it all, are now making bank by creating content that extols the virtues of the ‘social media detox’ and the benefits of being present and not just ‘doing it for the ‘Gram’.

It’s endlessly frustrating.

Riddle me this: you know how generations before us all smoked, and now with the benefit of hindsight and all our new knowledge we can sit in judgment and say, “How can they not have known how bad it was for them? Tut, tut.”

Is that how my kids are going to feel in fifty years time when they scroll through my Instagram feed? All 18,000 pictures worth?

Meanwhile I’m pacing the nursing home, unable to sit still or focus on my knitting for more than thirty seconds because my mind has been conditioned to expect new content every 4.5 seconds, pausing only to post hilarious Boomerangs with my false teeth?

Full disclosure: I love Instagram. I love the window into my friends’ lives it occasionally provides when I don’t get to see them all the time. I love the fashion/art/food inspiration it can provide when it comes from a place of authenticity. I love the voyeurism allowed by peeping into the lives of famous people whose actual bathroom I’ll likely never have the opportunity to use because of actual organic friendship. I love when someone advertises something to me and I really do want said thing and I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise.

(I dislike the inspirational quotes, though. They can beat it.)

The point is, I don’t want Instagram to go away. I do still want to be able to use it to post pictures of me and future my mates at Sherry O’Clock in the nursing home. #nannasgonewild

I just really detest this all-pervasive, existence-altering, manipulation machine it seems to be fast becoming today. The thing that is compelling marketers to engineer unique ‘Instagrammable’ experiences that really only serve to remind us of how nothing is unique and everyone is cynical and also all these things do is create queues and queues are the worst.

Would it be too much to ask Instagram to go back to being that thing we used on the odd occasion when our lives and thoughts were so unique and fabulous that we just couldn’t help but share them?

I want to go back to that time when our actual lives were all the content we needed because frankly, life was pretty good without trying.

Advertisements

I DON’T BELIEVE IN LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT

I was listening to a comedy podcast recently, as I do sometimes to escape my children, when the conversation ironically turned to children.

In this case, the non-parent comedian host enthusiastically imagined what it must be like to meet your child for the first time, that instant you become a parent. They went on to assume that it must be an almost inarticulable, supernatural moment in a person’s life, comparable to nothing.

At this point I waited for the parent-comedian guest to inject a bit of reality into the situation. To set the record straight once and for all. To say something to which I could relate.

Because if you can’t rely on a comedian to tell the gritty, subversive truth then who can you trust?

No one, apparently, because in this case, and time and time again, I find the description of this moment is the same (or some variation thereof):

“I did not know true love until that very moment.”(Presumably with apologies to anyone they had claimed to love before.)

“I knew in that instant that I would die a thousand deaths for that child.” (Needlessly macabre, in my opinion.)

“It was like a black hole opened up in the delivery suite and I had been transported to another dimension where I became a living, but beatific mother-angel whose hair is made of hugs.”

The moments that both my children were born were two of the most significant of my life. But I cannot relate to this effusive and melodramatic sentiment.

When my first was born, I remember hearing him scream for the first time and feeling almost giddy with relief. Pregnancy is basically nine long months of cautionary tales as to what can and will go wrong with the birth of your baby. So when mine came into the world shouting and in full health, I could’ve jumped for joy, were I not numb from the waist down from the spinal block.

I also remember feeling a sort of obligatory, non-negotiable love, but this decision to love him was made long before his actual arrival. I wouldn’t have attempted having a child if I wasn’t prepared to love it unconditionally and so this process started well before his birth, even before his conception.

Finally, I remember being overwhelmed by the biological wonder of it all. Contrary to what my year nine science teacher would have me believe, one cannot fall pregnant simply by thinking about having unprotected sex, and frankly in our case, the birth of our first child felt like the hugely impressive culmination of a very concerted effort. Borderline miraculous, even.

But I do confess, there were definitely no birds singing, harps playing, swirling mists of sparkling fairy-fog or even emoji-esque heart-eyes.

As a result, these proclamations have always made me feel a little alienated. It’s almost like some elaborate, global ruse where the rest of the world feigns wonderment at this particular experience just to pull the wool over my eyes. I suspect the same about cricket, to be honest.

However, the more probable (and less narcissistic) explanation is just that we are all different. And more than that, whilst becoming a parent changes parts of you, I believe your fundamental self is still the same.

If Sex and the City’s Samantha had experienced birth, you can bet she would’ve experienced it in her own Samantha-like way, and not suddenly become all Charlotte about the whole thing.

Personally, I didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with my husband at first sight either. And he took slightly longer than mere minutes to become reliant on me. It was a slow and steady ramping up of emotion over months and then years, which ultimately culminated in the beginning of this process again through our children.

Which is exactly the point. Although the love I felt for my children on the day they were born was somewhat obligatory and decidedly unmagical, I have fallen more deeply in love with them each day since. Which I now realise is my modus operandi – slow and steady wins the race.

Although my heart didn’t explode with cardiovascular manifestations of unearthly adoration, I love those two more and more as time goes by. They are actually the best. With each experience that becomes less like one person facilitating the lives of two others, and more like three people enjoying life together, I edge a little bit more toward what I assume is this giddy elation noted by my fellow new parents. And better yet, I don’t know where it ends. I sincerely hope it doesn’t.

AGEING IS A THING

It’s my birthday today. I’m 36.

I love my birthday. I tend to impose a lot of rules on myself in my day-to-day life and I lift all of them at once on my birthday. It’s the best. So regardless of anything else that happens – dinners, parties, presents – I know that at the very least, I can have carbs for all three meals if I want. Or I can have a wine or two, even if it’s a Tuesday. Or I can watch television during the day. Somebody stop me.

Recently I’ve been trying to be more open about my age. I’ve never been hugely coy about it, but I’ve definitely been going out of my way to say it out loud more and more.

I have two motivations for this:

  • It’s a bit like Dumbledore encouraging people to use Voldemort’s real name – saying it out loud takes the fear away. (Which admittedly, is a reference that probably dates me quite accurately with my having to say my actual age at all); and
  • I’m increasingly aware that it is apparently not okay that I am ageing, and facing up to this reality at every incidental opportunity helps me keep my sanity in a world that seems to insist that I remain youthful at all costs.

Let me give you an example.

At the beginning of 2015, my family and I moved to Auckland and we lived there for three years. One of the most striking things I noticed when we moved back to Melbourne, was how many of my local shops and businesses had been replaced by pseudo-medical skin care clinics.

I say pseudo-medical because in my research I looked at a few websites and one of them had a picture of a staff member wearing a lab coat (the definition of science and medicine), paired with some super cute open-toe high heels (not at all science-y – or hygienic – as it happens).

You know the ones I mean, they have white sterile walls, impossibly beautiful front-of-house staff and passive aggressive shop window advertising that makes you feel inadequate and like shit, basically.

For me, this is a terrifying trend.

When I was younger there were already so many expectations on me with regards to the minimum-level of effort I had to put into my appearance: wear clothes (legal requirement, no actual objections here), said clothes should be nice and preferably gender normative (murkier), cleanse, exfoliate, tone, moisturise and make up face, cut, file and polish nails, wash, cut, dye and style hair, remove other offensive hair (where offence is caused solely by natural growth location), tan said hairless skin… the list seemed endless. It was then, and continues to be now, completely overwhelming and takes a financial toll that I have never really been comfortable enduring.

And just when I felt mildly comfortable with my tenuous grasp on meeting all of these requirements, I find I can’t swing a cat without hitting one of these skin care clinics and feeling like I’ve fallen behind, yet again.

I know these places have always existed, my concern is the terrifying normalisation of them. They are in your local Westfield – in multiple quantities. They’re in your neighbourhood strip of shops, in between the dentist and the milk bar. And it is this very relocation of them from the high streets of Toorak and South Yarra, into the mainstream that sends the message that this is what everyone is doing now. It’s not enough to pull the hairs out of your legs with boiling hot strips of wax. You’re meant to be blasting them out from the roots with lasers. It’s not enough to fill your enlarged pores with Spakfilla/make up, you’re meant to be shrinking them away with a patented combination of skin needling and chemical peels.

The presence in our actual lives of these and other services is then underscored by the relentless touting of them in the media (social and otherwise), as well as the very limited representation of women that seem to embrace the natural ageing process. All put together, it’s a powerful subconscious message and a toxic cocktail for anyone trying to live their life with any semblance of self-esteem.

Because all these things that we do, from the simple, to the pseudo-medical, to the actual-medical are aimed at the same objective: stop/slow/disguise/deny the process of ageing. Some of them are actually even marketed in those exact words. Which seems ridiculous to me because WE ALL AGE. It is possibly one of the only truly universal human conditions. Ageing is an actual thing that happens, and it’s nobody’s fault. Can we just say that again? Ageing is not your fault. It’s the way we are designed. I can’t work out at what point we let it become a thing for which we felt the need to apologise.

It got me to thinking about what life would be like for my three-year-old daughter when she grows up and what her list of self-maintenance expectations might look like.

And then I thought, screw her: this is actually a problem for me, right now. In the present.

Because the thing is, although I am aware of the collective effect of all these sub-conscious messages, I’m not immune.

I try to imagine how ridiculous it would be if I saw monkeys in the wild daily disguising their grey patches of fur with sticky leaves or some other such garbage, I use this approach to contextualise the unnecessary complication of it, but to be honest, I’m only partly successful. Some of these ‘beauty’ requirements are so deeply ingrained in me that I’ve given up any hope of ever getting them out of my system so I just carry on with them, to save myself the heartache not only of doing the required beauty maintenance, but of having to berate myself in the process.

So what I do hope for my daughter, is that she grows up to either be better at managing (read: ignoring) these expectations than me, or that she grows up to be one of these people who genuinely enjoy these processes. And I know that these people exist. I know plenty of people personally who get a lot of joy out of the process of self-care and out of finding a way to feel comfortable in their skin. Literally. It just took me until very recently to realise that I am not one of them and that’s okay.

Which brings me back to my birthday. I’ve always loved my birthday but it’s really only this year that I’ve worked out why. I love my birthday because it’s the one opportunity I get to celebrate the ageing process. It’s the one day in 365 when the world congratulates me for ageing, rather than tut-tut-tutting at me for it. My birthday is a day when I call a ceasefire on the warfare between my human-ness (who absolutely ages) and my brain (who is conditioned to be in denial). It is a celebration of an alternative view: that it’s okay to embrace your age. It’s my birthday, I’m 36, and I’m not sorry.

(Also I really like the presents.)

PS In the words of Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, although more-widely publicized by Baz Luhrmann: wear sunscreen. Obviously, I am not railing against those things we do that stop us from dying prematurely. K?

BARBED-WIRE HEAD TATTOO

One day, post-grocery shop, safe in the knowledge that my free-range chicken breasts were tucked into a freezer bag and presumably salmonella-proof, I veered off my usual path back to the car and instead went to get a coffee.

The young woman who served me was lovely (as most Melbournian baristas are – they know they are doing God’s work). But more interestingly, she had a big tattoo of barbed wire across the middle of her forehead.

Now as a general rule, I love tattoos. Not that I have any. I love looking at other people’s tattoos. I love asking people what they mean, and I generally do feel that they make people seem 87% more cool. Which I assume, at least in some small part, is the point.

But this particular tattoo threw me for a loop. Partly because it would absolutely not have been appropriate to ask her what it meant, partly because it was a spectacularly bold choice of subject matter and placement, and partly because she had a very sweet face. Even though she had multiple tattoos on and around her facial region, the whole effect for me was still akin to a ragdoll kitten wearing knuckle-dusters.

But there was something else about it that gnawed away at me, well after my skinny cappuccino was gone. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I thought about that classic anti-tattoo argument (frequently made by my own parents): it’s all well and good for now but what’s it going to look like when she’s eighty?

Droopier, probably. But surely a person who is ballsy enough to commit to a barbed-wire facial tattoo cares not for the ongoing elasticity of said barbed-wire facial tattoo?

And it was during this train of thought that it hit me: she actually may not care what it will look like when she is eighty. She may not even assume she is even going to make it to eighty. Simply put, in the unending boredom of unpacking my groceries, I hypothesised that she probably got the barbed-wire head tattoo because that’s what she wanted to do in that moment and she had very little regard for how she may or may not feel about it in 25+ years time.

The whole thing was a very timely revelation.

This took place a couple of months ago when Hoff (significant other) was in full swing of winding up a 16-year professional rugby league career. It was then and continues to be a huge transition for our family, and a time of serious contemplation of our future.

We were both struggling for what seemed like different reasons but actually turned out to be almost exactly the same.

Hoff was struggling because he wanted to make absolutely sure that he was done, in the emotional sense of the word. As he had been told many times, “you’re a long time retired.” He wanted to know that he’d done enough of the thing that he’d been sublimely happy doing for the last 16 years, and the thing that he’d dreamed of doing since he was five. He was terrified of waking up in the weeks, months or years following retirement and of being overwhelmed by the urge to go back and have another go, with absolutely no recourse to do so.

Meanwhile, I was struggling with the concept of ‘enough’ for a completely different reason.

The thing to understand here is that for many professional athletes, Hoff included, playing retirement represents an inevitable drop in income as well.

So for my relentlessly practical mind, the question was, have we done enough, financially? Have we done enough to set ourselves up and to see us through the minefield of this start-over, and still achieve the financial goals we have for our family?

As uncool as it is for someone of my level of privilege to admit, these kinds of anxieties plagued me no-end once Ryan actually decided to retire from playing. It was so finite. We finally had an answer to that omnipresent question, when is it all going to end? And the answer was, now. There is no more scrambling for that last contract; it was back to a square one of sorts.

And the odd flow-on effect of this realisation was that I seemed to lose all ability to make future-related decisions. Everything felt so unknown. What would life be like post-footy? What am I doing buying a coffee? I can have instant at home! Also why did I buy free-range chicken breasts!? Screw the chickens, I want my kids to go to private school! And so on.

Obviously, the decisions to be made were mildly more life altering than random chicken welfare but the effect remained the same – I had become completely hamstrung in making decisions in my day-to-day life because of my oppressive fear of making the wrong decision and screwing up our future. I had absolutely no regard for what I wanted to do in the present, or what might be best for our family right now. Or for the chickens. I like to think I’m not the only one who has ever faced a period of life-transition and been impacted this way. The future can be a universally troubling subject, whatever your circumstances.

But the day I crossed paths with barbed-wire head tattoo lady and it very nearly changed my life. Well, that and some very useful counseling, if I’m being honest.

Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t completely thrown caution to the wind. I’m aware there’s a balance between living for the moment and planning for the future. If I weren’t, I’d be putting Scotch in my smoothie every morning and cancelling my gym membership with very happy abandon.

But still, every time I find myself catastrophizing the flow-on effect of my day-to-day, routine decisions, I think of tattoo woman. And I think if she can tattoo barbed wire on her present –day head with happy disregard for her elderly forehead, then I can make the decision that is best for the right now too. And I must say, I am much happier for it. Also chickens of the world rejoice.

HALLO-WEIGHIN’ IN

When I was almost two years old, we spent a Halloween in Canada with friends. We went trick or treating and apparently at one of the very first houses, a man opened the door with a gorilla mask on and I spent the remainder of the exercise in a fit of inconsolable, terrified tears.

I’ve had a fraught relationship with Halloween ever since.

This year, my son is five and in his newfound independence, he planned a trick or treating expedition with his kindy mates. He was most put out to find that such expeditions require parental sanctions and promises of supervision and unfortunately, he had neither.

Predictably, a blazing row ensued.

As I generally do when detailing complicated situations to my children, I resorted to explaining the whole Australian Halloween predicament in my own, rambling manner, with rampant disregard for the use of terms and concepts that they may or may not understand.

“Because, mate, Halloween is technically a North-American celebration and it’s not something we’ve traditionally celebrated in Australia. Although it does seem to be catching on and nobody is really sure whether this is a result of cynical retailers cashing in on every opportunity to make a buck or a slow recognition that the whole thing is a bit of fun and doesn’t really do any harm. Except to your teeth, bank balance and insulin levels. Regardless, as a society we are all sitting on the proverbial fake cobweb-covered fence and there hasn’t really been a ruling on whether we’re doing this thing or not and in the meantime, the simple truth is, I don’t feel comfortable marching you through the neighbourhood, dressed like a crazy person, demanding candy from people who may or may not be happy to give it to you. And anyway we call them lollies. Okay?”

On the one hand, I understand it’s fun and kids seem to get a real kick out of the dressing up as well as the lollies. Plus I am very pro-sequins and tulle.

On the other hand, I do recognise that we need to be mindful of the infiltration of American culture into our own, which is already so widespread and perhaps a direct contributor to our habit of cultural cringe.

And do we really need another junk-food-based celebration? I’ve often wondered whether our US friends’ quick succession of Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas provides some clue as to the incidence of obesity in the US.

(If we did do Thanksgiving here, I’d be thankful for the fact that we only have one holiday-related junk food blow-out in the second half of the year, because even that takes me until March to undo the damage.)

Regardless, my main issue with the whole thing is that I’m well aware there are some people firmly in the anti-Halloween camp and I have no interest in interrupting their peaceful twilight on October 31 by knocking on their door demanding treats for my unruly, sugar-hyped kids. In my experience people are generally a little anti-door-knockers on the whole, let alone ones who revel in costumed anonymity and demand stuff from your pantry.

And we all know that these anti-Halloweeners absolutely exist (hah, weeners), because they write predictable columns in the paper each year – one of the more mundane fixtures of the seasonal news cycle, in my humble opinion.

Nevertheless, come 31 October, my pathological people-pleasing tendencies tend to win out, and I err on the side of caution by leaving the whole trick or treating business alone. Much to the chagrin of my children.

I’m not proud of my fence-sitting, safety-first approach. I opened up Instagram last night and was instantly plunged into a slack-parenting-shame-spiral. Post after post of enthusiastic parents not only taking their costumed offspring trick or treating, but getting into the swing of dressing up themselves! I had this overwhelming desire to ask earnest questions like, did everyone in your neighbourhood get together and decide this was okay? Do you have a secret sign so you know which houses to hit for the free gear? Are Halloween costumes and decorations a line-item in your annual household budget? What the hell people? Did I miss the referendum when we decided we are doing this now? I remember the one about becoming a republic…

In any case, unless I get some concrete answers or actual legislation on the topic, I am doomed to err on the side of caution for the rest of my days. It’s not all bad though. Our son has inherited his mother’s ability to negotiate so he suggested that next we go to America to celebrate Halloween. I’m actually more comfortable with that approach, although it’s probably a false economy in the grand scheme of things. Also, is anyone reading this in the US and can we please come and do trick or treating in your neighbourhood next year? I don’t feel comfortable banging on hotel room doors, demanding candy from fellow holidaymakers…