Saturday, June 28, 2014


I heard the news the other day
Another gentle soul
Made a devastating exit

He is added to the collection
Of young men whose lives
Are consumed by the black dog

I remember those already gone;
Artists, dreamers, wanderers
Who loved with big hearts

And i try to find a way
To be there, again, be real
When all I feel is numb

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Remembering the days of the old school yard

"You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anyone" ~ Maya Angelou

At my 21st birthday party, I dressed as Romy from "Romy and Michelle's high school reunion". While the movie itself was not exactly cutting edge cinema, it explored a theme that resonates with most of us - mixed feelings about the prospect of facing one's high school peers a factor of ten years after graduation. In the film, Romy and Michelle go to great lengths in an attempt to prove to their former classmates just how successful and happy they now are.

A couple of decades later and I find myself dressing again for a reunion - this time my own. While I wasn't intending to pretend that I had invented post-it notes, it's only natural to worry about being put in a room full of the people one went through adolescence with. They remind us of old insecurities, habits, grievances and labels that we'd rather forget. When thinking of those years, some of the more negative memories have lingered - the emphasis on grades and all that stuff about looks and money that seems to be a focus for people on the north shore, or maybe teenagers generally. It was easy to feel stupid, ugly and poor when surrounded by an above average cohort. So at the reunion I pictured all that stuff re-surfacing and wondered how I would stack up now against a group of highly intelligent and now probably extremely successful women.

Part of our group on Yr 11 "lawn"

But then I decided that reunions don't have to be traumatic events where we re-live old insecurities. They also offer a marker of time against which to reflect on the direction our life has taken thus far. Are we where we thought we'd be? Are we happy with the person we have become? What is our own measure of success? With these questions in mind, I laid out the outfit options on the bed. As I selected an ensemble that seemed to fit the occasion, a small voice inside told me "Just be yourself and it will be fine". And it was.

As we entered the room, our year advisor, who had always been great with names, greeted me. "Aletia, you haven't changed a bit", she declared, which was a very promising start to the evening. As I sought out the people I most wanted to connect with, there were hugs and smiles, and a real sense of comraderie. Everyone, most likely, was just as apprehensive as I was, and we all began by laughing awkwardly about forgetting one another's names. It was incredible to think that we were at high school before facebook, mobile phones and email and yet all these advances had been integral to organising the evening. Basically in our day we wrote assignments by hand, and communicated via note passing by day and the telephone by night. We also seemed to have a preference for large pink lunch boxes, according to one photo that I found.

20 years on and we haven't aged a bit!!!

Apart from being really excited to catch up with members of my friendship group again after so long, it was also lovely to see old classmates and reminisce about particularly odd teachers, memorable conversations on the bus ride from St Leonards station, going to Christian camp just to meet guys and those 1980s French songs whose lyrics are still imprinted into our brains. Discovering that I have a blog fan amongst my former peers (hi Ada) was another highlight. It occurred to me that it was really the competitive system and some teachers that had dampened my memory of high school, not my fellow students. Nobody was there to judge and we were all delighted to see each other...just as we are.

I have to confess that I was intrigued by the news that Madame Pickering, who eventually succeeded in getting two of us out of her class so that her precious average didn't suffer, now serves chips on a beach somewhere up north. I picture her giving those surfies a few lessons in pronunciation! I began to wonder what became of the Latin teacher who enjoyed the pleasure of my company during many a lunchtime detention while I repeatedly re-conjugated the verb to do/make with correct spelling or came to grips with the past imperfect tense as pertaining to the life and times of Caecilius and his family.

My only regret was probably not getting around to talk to some of the girls from Drama. This was one class that crossed all the friendship boundaries and where we had to put those petty differences aside and build a sense of community for a higher cause - love of the theatre (oh, and the other motivator - fear of humiliation on stage in front of family, friends and the rest of the school). I fondly remember playing Nora in "A woman of no importance" and Envy in Dr Faustus' Seven Deadly Sins, and being regularly reminded of the benefits of
Alexander technique by one of the Ms Fitzgeralds. Drama class was what made the rest of high school bearable for me, as well as, oddly enough, Maths. For some reason I loved Algebra...

As our hostess (the girl who two decades ago was deemed most likely to organise the reunion) reminded us, we hadn't really changed all that much. Those from the debating team were now lawyers or appearing on Insight discussing our country's budget. Those who wanted to be Prime Minister were now active in politics. One girl from the nerd group (her term, not mine) was telling me that too many of her friends are predictably in actuarial work, and the party animals were getting rowdy when the night was still young.  The talkative people possibly hadn't drawn breath in twenty years and the comedians still have us rolling on the floor laughing (yep, we spelt it out in full in our day). And of course none of us have aged a bit. :)

Themed cup cakes from Vanilla Whisk

So, another decade over, and what have we done? Our motto means "toward higher things" and I think that's what we've done, in our own individual ways. People have pursued careers, started families, moved state, moved country, gotten in and out of relationships, but mostly just continued on with the business of being ourselves, which is all we can ever do. I reckon I'll go to the next reunion as well, because I want to have the opportunity in another ten years time to mark where I am at, and reflect on how my high school days shaped me into who I became. In the meantime - Ad Altiora!

Monday, June 09, 2014


Like many others, I was horrified to hear that Elliot Rodger, a 22 year old California man killed 6 people, apparently in an act of revenge towards the women he was attracted that wouldn't sleep with him and the men who succeeded where he failed. This incident seemed to touch many of us in a painful place and has led to heated discussions on misogyny, male entitlement, and sexual harassment. Two twitter hashtags gained popularity as a result of this incident - #notallmen for men who say that not all men do these things, and in response to that - #yesallwomen for women to explain how misogyny affects all of us on a daily basis. What follows is my story, and thoughts.

I was about 8 or 9 when I was first experienced discomfort around the opposite sex. It was an incident that was innocent enough. A boy in my class had a crush on me. He had made this clear a couple of times, and I guess I hadn't responded positively enough for him, so he decided to change tactic. I was walking home from school when suddenly I hear somebody calling out my name. It was his brother warning me "Aletia, look out, [boy's name] is coming to kiss you". The two of them were racing towards me at an alarming rate. I ran the rest of the way home with those two boys tearing after me, and left it to my father to explain why I didn't want to come out of my room and be his girlfriend.

In his article entitled "Your Princess is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement and Nerds", blogger and self confessed nerd Arthur Chu describes how video games like Mario and movies like "Revenge of the Nerds" contribute to a belief amongst nerds that if you are persistent enough, try a different tactic, or pretend to be somebody you are not, you will eventually "get the girl". This sense of entitlement (to a beautiful girlfriend) is a strong theme in Elliot Rodger's manifesto and his video. (Yes, I watched and read). The problem with this thinking is that it ignores the right of a woman as a human being to have a say in who she dates, and when.

A few years later, as a young teenager, also on the walk home, an older man followed me and when he got close enough, asked me out. I didn't know what to say, because I didn't know him, and thought I was maybe too old for getting kidnapped, but too young for dating. In the end, I declined and nothing else happened, but it was odd, and left me a bit warier than I had previously been of strange men. Since then there have been the usual wolf whistles, persistent asker-outer-ers, and other awkward moments that I won't go into. In my late twenties, I was accused of having an affair with a much older man, and this really shook me. One rumour was that the man had fantasised about having a relationship with me, based on what I had thought was a positive, platonic, mentoring relationship.

These encounters have left me very hesitant about friendships with older men. They also tap into another emerging theme: that, yes, all women have experienced incidents that make them wary of men. Some of the stories on the #yesallwomen hash tag are far more disturbing than mine, but the point is that overwhelmingly it is men who rape and sexually harass, and it is mainly women (although young men too) who are the victims. Society tells women how to avoid rape, placing a sense of blame incorrectly onto women, while very rarely telling men to take responsibility for their actions. The idea that we need to be raising young men who respect women and understand what they go through is hardly on anyone's radar.

In the article "Lessons from #Notallmen / #Yesallwomen", by Devin McHutchin, the idea of male privilege is explored. The reality is that, while not all men will rape or murder, all men do benefit from being male and the privileged position men hold in society. Centuries of positive reinforcement mean that men on average are more confident than women, earn more, and are treated with more respect for the simple reason that they were born male. I remember feeling a strong sense of injustice because my father let my boyfriend  drive his car but not me, despite the fact I am still the only one out of the three of us with a completely clean driving record. My boyfriend at the time had no qualms about benefiting from this priveleged, boys club mentality. And, just as I benefit from being white, and know that I can be unintentionally racist from time to time, I am wary of men who claim not to be sexist. Even my gentlest, most gender-aware male friends have been known to make occasional assumptions or comments that perpetuate patriarchal norms, and cause offence.

So, I do feel that #yesallwomen have stories of harassment, discrimination and worse. Our past experience does influence how we respond to new men that we meet. And yes all men benefit from society's bias towards them. What we as men and women need to do is to change the way we all view the coupling process. The only sense of entitlement anybody should feel is entitled to say no. Also, we should be brave enough to stand up and question the most harmful beliefs that lead to violence against women, and encourage the men in our lives to listen, openly and humbly, to our stories, as that is always the first step to healing.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Those bullies

One of my favourite episodes of the IT Crowd is the one where Moss has to deal with a group of bullies on a park bench. Eventually, after some role playing of likely scenarios with his colleague (a technique that also helped him learn how to buy sandwiches), and a surprising turn of events where he finds himself in possession of a weapon, he overcomes the fear of those bullies picking on him.

I can relate to dear old Moss. There are some people in my life who, possibly due to their own insecurities, like to ever so subtly undermine my confidence. It's sometimes only after years of silently suffering and tears in the toilet that I realise it is not ok to feel this way. And what's more, it's not just happening to me. Others have noticed it too, or also been victim to the behaviour and are just better than me at responding.

I do think I need to take responsibility for enabling people to treat me badly. At this age, I have *almost* mastered surrounding myself with positive, affirming people. But we can't control who we interact with all the time. Sometimes we just have to find ways to live with somebody.

I am grateful, in a weird way, to these difficult people, as their behaviour allows me to grow. Sometimes there are hard-to-hear truths to be found amongst the put downs, even if the delivery leaves a lot to be desired. It takes courage to accept one's shortcomings with grace, and it requires a certain wisdom to differentiate between what is useful feedback and what is, well, just plain meanness. It also is a reminder for me to find more constructive ways to voice my frustrations with others, knowing that being constructive and encouraging is more effective in changing people's behaviour and getting the outcome we want than criticism or aggression.

Like Moss, I use role play, although mainly inside my head, to rehearse ways to respond to the mean stuff that show greater respect for myself and that name the behaviour as inappropriate. Some people say you have to kill the other person with kindness, others say it's best to ignore. Many are able to model assertiveness with ease. And then there's always those who are able to employ the clever use of humour to disarm or surprise the other person.

Whichever way I respond, the trick is to do so in the moment, and not a week later when the perfect comeback finally occurs to me. On the rare occasions that I do respond assertively, creatively and respectfully, I feel good - just like Moss at the end of the episode as he confidently strides past those bullies on the bench in the park. I, however, am not brandishing a gun!