Spidey sense

I like Spider-Man.

I like Spider-Man.

SO MY six-year-old daughter Amelia has discovered superheroes. It was bound to happen. She fancies herself a bit of a muscle-bound crime fighter, so I understand the attraction.

I certainly wouldn’t mess with her. I mean, I don’t.

Amelia’s first superhero love is Spider-Man. He of the red and blue suit, the incredible climbing powers, web-shooting wrists, and sixth ‘Spidey’ sense.

She runs around the house pretending to be him, flicking her wrist with sound effects and attempting her own death-defying leaps from couch to couch (or from couch to unsuspecting parent).

Daredevil girls have all the fun.

It’s always exciting when your child finds passion in something new, whatever it is. So, the other day I bought Amelia a Spider-Man figurine and left it for her to find when she arrived home from school.

Rushing in from the bus, she went straight into her room and saw him. Her very own Spider-Man, replete with an arachnid-embossed button on his chest that when pressed would emit a range of on-brand exclamations and quips.

Amelia pressed the button over and over.

“I’m Spider-Man!”

“Like the suit? It comes with the job.”

She held the figure up close to her ear. I realised that despite her hearing aids, she might find it hard to make out what Spider-Man was saying.

Amelia looked at me quizzically for a second then walked over to a set of stray headphones lying on our hall table. She held one headphone to her hearing aid on the left and pressed the other into her new friend’s chest and pressed the button again.

I was fascinated. She was trying to work out how to direct or amplify the sound being received by her aids via the headphones. They weren’t connected to anything, but it was worth a try.

She turned to me with a cheeky little spark in her eyes and said:

“Mum, Spider-Man talks to me through my hearing aid.”


“You’re not deaf, so you can’t.” That last word was the verbal equivalent of a dismissive hair toss over her shoulder.

No I have no such superpower, but I didn’t care. I loved watching her ingenuity at work and the connections she was making with her deafness and what her hearing aids can do.

Spider-Man was for her and her alone. He has a Spidey sense, and she does too. There are no limits here, only possibilities.

And me? I was the boring ol’ third wheel, ordered into the kitchen for some snacks while they got on with the serious business of being superheroes.


Mermaids for merit

MermaidAt the end of one particularly challenging day with our daughter Amelia, in what sometimes feels more like a warzone than family home, my husband turned to me and in true deadpan style said, “they’re going to give us a VC for this”. Not for valour perhaps, but for stamina definitely. Or maybe survival.

Just who might award us the prestigious Victoria Cross for parenting in said domestic warzone, well, I’m not really sure.

And I don’t think the Jacka Boulevard in St. Kilda is in any actual danger of being re-named in our honour, but at that moment a VC seemed like the least “they” could give us.

Decorations, awards or prizes, either real or imagined, are important I think. For me, the reward is being married to someone with a whip-smart sense of humour who can cut through my darkest moods and elicit laughter instead of tears.

For Amelia, coping with deafness and autism in a world that’s not exactly fit for purpose, the opportunities for prizes are slim. Simply making it through the difficult day, the stressful hour, usually takes more than mere gallantry on her part.

Some days I want to pin a medal on her just for making it over new hurdles and managing to be such a wild and wonderful human being into the bargain.

Other days, there are no deeds to be rewarded, no behaviours to be mentioned in dispatches. I close the blinds and wait for the dusk and hope for a better one tomorrow.

But you have to keep a sense of perspective about things like this. I would, for instance, give Amelia a thousand dollars if she would sleep past 7am. Just once. Perspective’s a very individual thing.

I have actually assembled a box of “treasures” (read = toys that cost no more than $2 at K-Mart) that she can dip into if she makes it to 6am each morning without appearing by our bedside. I’m sad to say the box is still filled to the brim with handpicked delights.

Clearly, the lack of treats is not harming our daughter’s psyche too much. One recent morning, when Amelia trotted into our bedroom at her customary wake-up time of 5am, she smiled, stretched like an evil cat and said “Oh well, no present!”. It was the four-year-old’s version of “C’est la vie!”

In our situation, I think there is a need to sometimes reward behaviours that come quite easily to other children. We’re not dealing with an ordinary person who acts in a predictable way most of the time, so there are occasions when special rewards are bestowed with good reason.

Two weeks ago, Amelia and I went to her regular speech therapy appointment. Suffice to say it was an unmitigated disaster. My daughter did her best impression of Linda Blair from The Exorcist as I, Ellen Burstyn, cowered in a corner to avoid the torrent of screams and kicks aimed in my direction.

There was no pea-coloured vomit and I didn’t see her head spin all the way around, but she hit some serious Mercedes McCambridge high notes in her demonic performance.

On Tuesday we returned, and I admit to being nervous about how the session would go. Amelia assured me she would not be angry or scream or try to hurt me, but inside that room I knew she would have little control over these things if the environmental patterns didn’t align the way she needed them to.

Yet align they must have, because for 40 minutes her angelic face matched the serenity of her demeanour and despite tiny ripples in the pool of her mind, Amelia played well and learnt well too. It was fantastic.

Like me, our speech therapist, PP, understood how impressive Amelia’s calm and cooperative effort that morning was so she decided to give her a merit award. It was only a rudimentary certificate with mermaids on it, but my girl was transfixed, her eyes shining with delight.

Mermaids for merit and every one earned

Mermaids for merit and every one earned

PP spoke out loud as she wrote Amelia’s name on the paper and outlined the reasons for her award, namely, for “playing and for being a good girl”.

It doesn’t sound like much, but when PP handed it over, my dear girl accepted that certificate and pressed it to her little chest with pride.

Because it meant something to her to have her good behaviour acknowledged and enshrined on a personalised artefact that was hers to keep.

I could see it on her face, that happiness as her eyes closed for a second to pause on just how good it felt to win something.

And it was a win. Every time Amelia is able to sit for a while longer and learn a little more, not just about speech and language, but also how to observe the tricky rules of play, she is gaining more of the social skills she needs to cope in the world.

For the rest of the day she showed every man, Nan and her dogs that merit award and it made it onto the fridge next to her animal magnets and her cow drawing with the fur appliqué.

I sent a photo of Amelia holding it to her Dad because I needed to share it with him as much as he needed to see it. Small things, tiny rewards, are enormously significant to us all these days.

Although, I still wouldn’t say no to a VC. Or a thousand dollars. Or even just one decent night’s sleep.

Kindergarten klepto

He's Artful and a total DUDE (Anthony Newley in Oliver Twist)

He’s Artful and a total DUDE (Anthony Newley in Oliver Twist)

One of my favourite movies of all time is David Lean’s masterful version of the literary classic, Oliver Twist, one of two brilliant Dickens adaptations made by the director in the 1940s (the other being Great Expectations).

Lean manages to bring Dickens’ colourful world to life in shades of black and white; from the pitch-perfect performances (Alec Guinness’s unparalleled Fagin) to the way he renders the horror of Nancy’s murder by showing only the distress of Bull’s-Eye the dog, frantic to escape the room and all of that screaming.

But it’s the pickpockets I love the most, led so ably, so charismatically, by Anthony Newley’s splendid Artful Dodger. If you’re going to be poor and homeless in 19th century London, you might as well do it in style.

Little did I know as I watched this film in my childhood, transfixed by the characters on screen, that I would one day grow up to raise an artful little Dodger of my own.

Because my daughter Amelia is a bit of a kindergarten kleptomaniac, prone to cunning sleights of hand that end with her pocketing classroom objects in the ‘secret’ spaces of her kinder bag.

It started with a tiny fish of the plastic variety. It appeared one day in the side pocket of her backpack and I thought, “Oh, maybe it just fell in there by mistake.” You know, the way inanimate fish can sometimes jump into zip-locked pouches.

I quickly learned that there were no mistakes, only carefully-squirrelled triumphs prized by this wily klepto-in-the-making.

And Amelia is quite the crafty customer. She has learned how to purloin a special item during the day and, undetected by adult eyes, find a quiet moment to hide it in her bag for later.

Patience is not a virtue common to Amelia’s waking hours, but when it comes to executing petty acts of larceny, she has more of it than any Saint could claim.

It took me a little while to work out precisely what she was doing – what her racket was – but one day on the way home from a kinder pick-up, I looked over my shoulder at her in the backseat to find her searching her bag for something. It was the loot of the day as it turns out and she held it aloft to me with barely contained glee.

Amelia takes small things like play-dough, toy cars, pencils, marbles – I don’t think she’s that discerning or even interested in the things themselves. Maybe it’s the success of a carefully planned five-finger discount that really excites her.

My (boring) role is to play the anti-Fagin as I collect up all of the stolen artefacts for return to their rightful place.

I had to rat her out to her kinder teachers too. They now know to conduct a little frisk of Amelia’s bag at the end of the day, running a quick hand scan for pilfered products pocketed by my cheeky child.

The teacher holds them up to me one by one through the glass of the kinder door (carefully out of Amelia’s sight) and I nod or shake my head, confirming or denying if she is the legal owner.

In these moments, I wonder at the twists and turns of Amelia’s behaviour and I also recognise the humour she brings home with her too, alongside the pocketed stuff.

The other morning, one of the teachers said to me, “Do these bangles belong to Amelia? They were left behind the last night.” I replied, “Well no, but check her bag at the end of the day and ask me that question again!” We couldn’t stop laughing.

We chuckled because we adore Amelia, our kindergarten klepto, even if we’re not really sure why she does it. It has to be connected in some way to her need for hoarding and the obsessive-compulsive collecting of arbitrary things that are important to her in some way.

Apparently, she’s just got to pick a pocket or two. Or three.

Amelia does the same thing with DVDs, which she loves to watch but equally gets a kick out of gathering into groups and hiding under her bed covers. I never know what I’m going to find when I make the bed each morning.

It’s just another example of the slightly strange acts that pop up in our family soup from time to time and then fade when Amelia doesn’t need to do them anymore. She’s not hurting anyone and the things she ‘steals’ do not belong to other children (thank god).

So while I’m not about to reward or reinforce the dodgy side of her artfulness, I think I can gently guide her to some kind of understanding or awareness without stifling her, well, individuality.

We talk to her about what she’s doing, and then we give the little bits and bobs back each week (when we can find them or separate them out from her own junk).

Once Amelia has developed an obsession with an object or an activity it is very hard to convince her to change course in any way.

Like the orange and black Matchbox car which keeps reappearing in her bag, no matter how many times I restore it to its kindergarten home.

It has struck Amelia’s magpie-fancy for some reason, so I guess I’ll just continue taking it back in this endless loop of secure-steal-stow-reveal-return until she is ready to find a different way of expressing the innermost parts of her self.

Benevolence worked for Oliver Twist, so why shouldn’t it do the trick for Amelia? His time as a nascent thief was short-lived so I’m hoping my resident pickpocket will soon turn over a new leaf instead of stashing it in her bag.

[For you, RJH, with love]

Going the whole hog

Just a girl and her novelty hog

Just a girl and her novelty hog

For a four-year-old with a lust for life, it was love at first sight the moment Amelia clapped her eyes on the bright pink hog mascot who was working the room at her cousin’s birthday party.

She spotted his towering porcine frame from across the restaurant, and a feverish light went on in her eyes as though candle-lit from the inside.

To me, this novelty hog looked like a reject from the puppet cast of Sesame Street – a little too grotesque, too cut-price, to ever really make it ‘where the air is free’.

But who cares what I thought of his polyester charms? Not my daughter.

Amelia careened across the room to meet him and gazed up at his curved, white tusks and incongruous sunglasses (I mean, indoors, I ask you).

She didn’t wait for a sign or a green light, she just leapt into his furry arms and held on tight. It was the embrace of long-lost love, of the hog you’ve waited for your whole life but never dared dream you’d meet on a Sunday night at Highpoint Shopping Centre.

Possessed by her need to keep him close, Amelia placed his arm over her little shoulders and they took a turn around the restaurant like a King and Queen greeting their subjects with restrained magnanimity.

The hog-King (in reality a jester) was clearly on an hourly retainer to bust some sweet dance moves for the receptive child diners. Amelia joined hands with him and twirled, moonwalked and swivelled her tiny hips in perfect time, a graceful partner in this modern ham-hock jive.

When it was time for the hog’s smoko break, my girl was bereft and sat in the hallway near the kitchen awaiting his eventual return.

I had to find a way to prevent her from searching for him in the off-restaurant space behind the ‘do not enter’ sign.

So, I broke that covenanted rule about not telling a lie, either white or black, to your child and said, “Amelia, your friend’s gone to the toilet but he’ll be back soon so please come and sit down with us at the table”.

For a moment, I thought I had broken through her Pepé Le Pew-style pursuit of the party mascot until she signed to me that she would also like to go to the toilet.

I gave Amelia the benefit of the doubt and escorted her into the cubicles. But I had been hoodwinked by a master because she dashed ahead of me and started beating on the closed toilet doors, looking for her true pig-love, and calling, “Hello? Hello?”

Good one, Mum. Lord knows what the women in the locked cubicles made of it.

I dragged her outside and explained the truth that this time she just had to wait it out. The poor hog was tired from all of his grooving and greeting and needed a well-earned breather.

This story she was prepared to accept but her eyes never left the kitchen corridor, willing him with all her steely might to return.

When the novelty hog finally reappeared, Amelia ran to him for another long hug and bless that person behind the fluffy pink costume, he did not break free until she was done.

And then they danced once more and paused to capture the moment on film, to freeze in time some joy amidst the evening chaos.

The hog lifted his thumb in mute approval and Amelia did the same – they were at one in this as they were on the dance floor and for a moment in her little girl’s heart, filled to the brim with love for a hog with no name.

The strange tale of the doorway and the evil Swiss ball

Ethan the loner, framed in one of Ford's great doorways

Ethan the loner, framed in one of Ford’s great doorways

John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece The Searchers, is a Western bookended by two famous shots looking out from the doorways of connected family homes, nestled in the wilds of West Texas.

In the film, these shots and the points of view they frame represent many things. The opening doorway view captures the staggering scale of a remote frontier land that dominates the family home perched so precariously there.

For the arrival of the film’s central protagonist, Ethan Edwards (brilliantly played by John Wayne), the framing signals his status as an outsider – he emerges from the wild ‘out there’ and is more at home in its harsh environs than the domestic spaces he visits.

In the end, after returning the once lost Debbie to what is left of her family, Ethan stands tentatively within Ford’s final doorway frame (see above), but we understand that he cannot join the others inside.

Some doorways can’t be entered again, not after so many lines have been crossed to get there. For Ethan, there’s nothing to stay for – Debbie is rescued and Martha (his love) is gone.

In my home, the doorway to my bedroom has for the last few months been a barrier to Amelia, my daughter, who has positioned herself as the Ethan to our Aaron and Martha (do yourself a favour and watch it). Her comfort zone is the outer limits of the hallway, not the warmth of her parents’ cosy bedroom.

In the early hours of the morning, Amelia will come and visit us for a short, iPad-induced stay, but during the day she will stand nervously on the threshold and never enter our room.

I didn’t really notice the demarcation at first, except to remark that it was a welcome thing that one room in our house was free from the onslaught of toys and the relentless prying of small hands.

The objects within our room remain safe; precious possessions do not need to be hidden or squirrelled away. I can actually go and get dressed or tidy up without Amelia’s ‘helpful’ assistance.

A small victory, yes, but she’s running the rest of the show, so I’ll take all the privacy I can get.

Lately Amelia has become strangely agitated by our doorway – it looks pretty nonthreatening to me, but for her it clearly looms up and signals something fearful beyond its perimeter. I have puzzled over it for weeks.

If she is the director of her own story – and she most definitely is – then the open space of our bedroom doorway is certainly not the frame Amelia would choose to make romantic or mythical points about belonging and unrequited love.

No sirree. From the moment we break ranks with sleep in the morning, she starts barking orders at me in a dictatorial tone I’m sure Ford would have used with his film crew: “Shut the door!! Shut the door!!!!”

And what do I do? I shut the damn door and I keep it shut. All day.

One day I absentmindedly opened it while I was on the phone. I forgot to close it on my way out and walked into the kitchen, still talking to the person on the end of the line.

The next thing I knew, Amelia was sitting on the floor in front of me in tears of distress as she began hitting herself on the head with the flat palm of her hand while yelling, “Shut the door, shut the door!!”

Okay, I thought, this door business has got to stop. I tried talking to her about it, asking her what she was afraid of or didn’t like about the interior of our room during the daylight hours. But she wouldn’t tell me or didn’t know how.

Then I remembered something from her younger days, when I used to use a Swiss ball to do some crazy home exercise program. She really hated that ball, and it now resides permanently in the corner of my bedroom.

I wondered, ‘is it the Swiss ball, so innocuous to me (and a reminder of a long-abandoned fitness regime) that she fears so much? Is that ball like a sleeping giant to her, ready to pounce unless the door is closed?’

I’m not above pondering the evil properties of a Swiss ball if it helps to calm down my agitated child.

So on Tuesday this week I experimented with a little acting of my own. I took the dust-covered ball and brought it out into the lounge room.

Amelia bolted like Lord Voldemort himself had swept through the door (actually she would have liked that a lot more). I discovered her cowering in the toilet. My instinct about her terror of the ball had been on the money.

There's no such thing as a victimless crime...

There’s no such thing as a victimless crime…

Then I commenced my pre-meditated pantomime of hunting down that poor unsuspecting Swiss ball and committing cold-blooded murder. In the kitchen. With my foot.

Yes, with my sock-covered foot I did slay that good-for-nothing ball. I took out its pin stopper and invited Amelia to peek out from her toilet hidey-hole to witness its painful demise.

To hasten the death throes of the ball, I pushed my foot down repeatedly onto its once shiny, silver skin. I watched Amelia’s eyes widen in awe at her mother’s unbelievable bravery, as the life-giving air hissed out of the Swiss ball’s body for the last time.

That ball now knows never to mess with a red-haired woman with murder on her mind.

The sordid affair ended with the ceremonial carriage of the deflated ball-corpse from our house to the garage.

I shouted “Be gone, foul beast!” (or something to that embarrassing effect) into the suburban air, to mark the end of a once mighty (cough) foe.

But did my theatre of the absurd exorcise imaginary demons and convince Amelia to stop being so frightened of our doorway and the bedroom space behind it?

Well, so far, so good. In the mornings since my crime, she has looked anxiously at the door and asked me the vital question with her eyes, “is it okay?” Yes, dear one, that big, nasty ball is gone and the room is ‘good’ now. You have nothing to fear.

She now performs my act of brutality for anyone who asks about the story of the doorway and the evil Swiss ball. “Go away big ball! Mummy’s room good now”. She signs ‘good’ with a generous thumbs-up.

Her gleeful rendering of my ridiculously overacted (think Ward Bond) stomping  makes me laugh and laugh every time I see it. But she is deadly serious when she acts it and tells it, just as she was serious about never coming into our room while the ball ‘lay in wait’ for her.

While she remains somewhat wary of coming into our bedroom during the day, that’s fine with me. I was running out of places in the house to safely hide a stash of chocolate or presents bought for her cousins.

But the incessant yelling and anxiety about shutting the door has ceased for now. Calm has been restored, at least on that score.

I’m no superhero – I can only slay the fears that are identifiable, that I can see. Some Amelia will have to fight on her own, like the loner Ethan Edwards, out in the wilds of West Texas and beyond.

So I guess what I’m really trying to say is that you just HAVE to go and watch The Searchers. Like, right now.