I recently asked a guest whether she'd had a 'normal childhood.'
I was quoting something she'd said herself in a documentary.
People will often tell me they've had a 'normal' childhood.
Or they dispute that their childhood was normal.
But what is normal?
Is it nothing out of the ordinary?
What exactly is ordinary?
Apparently, normal is something between 'typical' and 'ideal'.
I would have said my childhood, growing up in colonial Hong Kong was normal. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to see here.
Yet when I was a child, there were violent protests by Mao's sympathiser's blocking the city centre. Several bombs were set off to cause damage to the colonial government and its officials. Later I remember an apartment building collapsed after days of heavy rain, killing dozens of people and injuring others whom my family knew. The morning newspaper was filled with headlines of people fleeing China across a waterway and getting bitten by sharks in the process.
Or there was the day when I was convinced people on television could look through the TV set and actually see me, so I applied to be part of a children's TV show so that I could be sure of this incredibly phenomenon.
Maybe my childhood wasn't so normal?
I made a note not to ask that question again. But then again, very little seems normal at the moment. Perhaps that in itself is a good conversation starter.
For six months a year, the beach is mine. This is how it looks when it belongs to me; just like this.
The hoards are gone. They mistakenly populate the beach at the least nice time of the year and vacate at the very best time of the year. But perhaps I won’t mention it to the hoards who don't know this.
I was about to enter a stupidly expensive ‘Delicatessen’ when a woman in a tracksuit, sitting on a bench outside, spoke to.
“Can I have some money to buy a coffee at Gusto’s?” she asked.
My brain was misfiring with the following dot-points:
The woman in the tracksuit knows the coffee shop well enough to name it
She did not look like a drug abuser, although that is impossible to tell these days
I do not like giving people on the street money except The Big Issue sellers, the Friday charity days or a few private causes, because I worry the money will be spent on drugs.
The lady in the tracksuit was very polite and I liked her
I said, “No, sorry.” That’s what I usually say.
But I really did want her to have a coffee at Gusto’s so I found $5 in coins and went outside again.
“This is for coffee,” I said smiling sternly, “not for anything else.”
“Oh don’t you worry, that’s what I’m going to get. Thank-you so much darling.”
I went into the stupidly expensive Delicatessen and bought one tin of beetroot, two raw carrots and three bread rolls.
When I came out, the woman in the tracksuit was still there. I looked surprised.
“Don’t worry Miss, I’m going to get a coffee over at Gusto’s, but if I get another $6 I can get a bagel as well!”
I smiled. She’s just wants everyone else to pay for her breakfast.
“I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. I gave up smoking a month and a half ago,” she said.
I wanted to say, “What about drugs?” but I didn’t. She didn’t seem like a drug abuser, although as I’ve said it’s impossible to tell these days. People might think that about me.
I headed home past my beach, thinking about Lily Brett. I met her this week. I got to interview her and spoke with her afterwards about writing.
She thinks journalists can be very hard on themselves when it comes to writing. She was never trained as a journalist. She just started to write.
So I am going home to write and think about Lily Brett.
They both have a tendancy to keep things. Alot of things.
So as I sort through my own belongings after moving house, the biggest question is what to throw and what to keep?
My Dad values books. My Mum values curios; rare, intriguing or unusual objects.
But I think what we are all hoarding are memories, and as I've realised, not just our own.
Some years ago I received a collection of old dolls in national costumes that you bought as travel souvenirs. As I took them from the shoe-box, they were crushed and some of the costumes had faded. Some are better made than others (and I love the blinking eyes). But they belong on a shelf and I have precious little shelf-space.
I have an attachment to old books. So many of these titles have been digitised now, perhaps that's the way to go? But I can't help holding on to the eras they represent.
I have always developed literary 'crushes'. When I lived in London, my Dad introduced me to the writing of Gertrude Bell. (Nicole Kidman has made Queen of the Desert about the life of this amazing woman).
In London, I did a food-writing course and discovered the life Elizabeth David. My collection of her books and books about her are something I cannot let go of.
Then there's the China and Middle-East period and the carpets and furniture I have lovingly bought in markets and souks and lugged with me all over the world. Sigh.
I've concluded that one should keep very few things and to let our treasures go quickly, preferably to good homes and people.
It's supposed to feel good to give to the Salvos or Vinnies, but leaving bags of memories alongside the other over-stuffed donations at the op-shops doesn't feel right.
Recently, I was asked for some advice by a young man who’s about to finish a politics degree and is keen to be a journalist.
He wanted to know about insights, regrets and aspirations I had as a young journalist and the expectations I had at the outset of my career.
He asked whether a master’s degree in journalism from a good institution was more important than building a profile and a portfolio.
He also asked whether being gay and not ‘blokey’ was something he’d have to grapple with. After pondering the questions, I decided to write a kind of 'this is what I know now.'
If you want a career badly enough, persistence is the only option. Persistence, practice, feedback (criticism) and life experience leads to mastery of the craft.
There has never been enough feedback in my career. Some organisations are surprisingly poor at this and I used to be too frightened to ask. My bad.
Always ask for a position, a role, a project that you want. Don’t wait for the invitation. If you ask and you don’t get it, ask why not and take note.
Challenge yourself, even when others don’t.
Don’t fear being outside the pack but more relevant perhaps, why define yourself by what others think?
The thing that stops people the most is self-sabotage. “I can’t do that or be that,” says the internal voice rather than “What do they want and how do I give it to them?"
Networking, building a profile and a portfolio or studying for an MA: further study is great once you’ve had a bit of experience. Mid-career, an MA - or fellowship - is a great opportunity to down tools, take stock, absorb and grow new branches.
Looking back over the year after recording fifty or so interviews for One Plus One, I noticed a frequent discussion I had with guests was the matter of being an outsider.
Conservative columnist Andrew Bolt, for example, said this about his arrival in Australia as the son of Dutch migrants.
"Having that Dutch background … made me embrace the outsider status...I find I can take a step back and look on and not feel that I have to accept everything." he said.
In the family-friendly film Paddington (released December 2014) the small bear remarks at the movie's happy conclusion that his desire to belong came with the realisation that London was full of outsiders, including, though this was more implied than verbalised, members of his adopting, quirky family the Brown's.
On a more sombre note in The Battle to BelongNew York Times columnist Roger Cohen reveals his family’s story of immigration and assimilation and his mother’s battle with suicide and depression.
"The one story I had to tell was hers — and through hers that of a far-flung Jewish family, tied by the pain of forgetting, the strain of assimilation, the curse of mental illness and the ever-renewed consolation of love," Cohen wrote.
Being an outsider is something many of us contemplate. Do we fit it? Is it important to belong? What does it mean to be part of an in crowd?
There have been times when I've been part of an in crowd.
My husband Michael and I met as cameraman and correspondent during Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's funeral in Ramallah in 2003. We were part of a huge media contingent covering a key moment in Middle East history. We were part of the International Media and I felt comfortable in the nest; living in Jerusalem and Jordan - travelling to the West Bank and Gaza on a weekly basis - covering the Middle East region for two years.
While Arafat lay mysteriously ill in a French hospital, the international media gathered. Around us, makeshift studios and camera points popped up as they do whenever big news breaks in a particular area, transforming it into a miniature broadcast suburb overnight. All of the international networks set up their own mini bureaux and had plenty of support staff. With our driver and translator, ABC Australia as we are known in most places, haggled with a local family to rent rooms in a house behind the wall of Arafat’s compound, the Muqata.
So, in the middle of this vast story, we were insiders and yet glancing sideways, seeing what the big guns of the American networks, the BBC and CNN were operating with were we truly insiders? Did being an insider serve a useful purpose?
Reflecting on the individuals I’ve interviewed, being an outsider is about discomfort initially. Then a breeze of acceptance followed by resilience rolls in. It feels comforting to have a sense of being apart from the rest.
Outside the circle. A little uncomfortable. There is solace in being an outsider. (Photo credit: Top - Paddington the Movie. The photo below is mine)