Screen Time Scream Time




Those mental health experts are at it again and considering adding “video game addiction and internet addiction” to the next edition of the globally recognized, ever-expanding Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).


But while most people associate addiction with substances, like drugs or alcohol, we all recognize addictive behavior when we see it.


Last week my 10-and-a-half-year-old son went on a detox camp. Except the camp was inside our house and he wasn’t detoxing from substance abuse; my boy was ‘coming down off computer’. Cold Turkey.


There was to be no computer access for a week and it would be the same deal at his father’s next week, and maybe the week after that depending on how it all went.


Things had just got so out of control for us. I was at my wit’s end and so was my son, he just didn’t know it. Screen time had become scream time.


He’d hang out for his next ‘fix’ while I’d be madly improvising strategies to keep him off the screen. And if he was temporarily distracted from his primary passion and hanging out with a friend – one who wasn’t on line, that is- or swimming, or biking, or reading or Lego, then the cycle of nagging and begging – Mum? Just 20 minutes? I promise I’ll get off when you tell me to. Pleeeeease – would ease off for a bit.


Then once back on the computer he’d be immediately in ‘the zone’ and ‘uncontactable’ again, his dopamine-infused cheeks reddening with pleasure, his body tensing as the game’s stakes soared, his little fingers tapping away with the speed and accuracy of an A+ secretarial graduate.


The lure of a fantasy world made him instantly happy. Did his virtual life make him feel better than his real one?  Was he sad and angry about other stuff in his life and finding refuge the best way he knew how? As social studies professor Sherry Turkle suggests ‘modern technology has become like a phantom limb.’


There are 6 other kids in class at his new school – 5 boys and a girl – who are all on this one server. They get on-line together. It’s a virtual club, a stationary bike-meet; hide and seek without the huffing and puffing.


Is this his generation’s version of hanging out on the phone to the best friend every night, having just spent the whole day at school together? The script is similar.


Get off that phone and go and do your homework!

Just 10 more minutes?

Get off now! I’ve already asked you 20 times.

Just 5 more minutes, okay. It’s really important. I’m in the middle of something.

Go outside and get some fresh air for God’s sake or I’ll throw the bloody thing out the window!


When I’d eventually manage to get my son off the computer after repeated warnings, countdowns and alarm bells, he’d invariably get angry, distressed, disorientated and aggressive. And then the begging and bargaining would start up all over again.


Have our children forgotten how to play? Do our children not get that it’s okay to be bored or idle? Or have we all lost our capacity for ‘solitude that energizes and restores’, to invoke Turkle again? Surely downtime, unstructured-time, technology-absent time is good? And what’s wrong with being bored anyway? Have I let this happen to him? Am I a bad mother? Do we both need help?


There will be those parents who know all too well what it looks like when you remove your child’s screen. But there will also be those of you who have never succumbed to the lure of technology and to you I say, Congratulations. How do you do it? To those of you who have embraced our brave new world, bravely, but have found a way not to have it ambush your home life, to you I say, Good on you. How do you do it?


In the overall scheme of things technology-addictive-behavior is a fairly recent parenting issue.  I’ve read the studies about what computers may or may not be doing to our children’s executive functioning, their social development and real -world perception. I heard the recent talkback on this program about computers and kids. And I felt, in turn, reassured, confused and terrified.


I too am a fast-moving object in our increasingly complex culture of distraction. I too love my phone and my computer. God knows I have just started a blog!


But these are our kids and we need to model reasonable and contained behavior around technology – for their sakes and for the sake of something like a cohesive home life.


The computer thing had got so bad that I had begun to feel ambivalent about my son’s returning after time at his dad’s. I was more than ambivalent I dreaded it. I mean, I’d miss him like a severed arm but it was a relief too.  Respite from the insanity, from the on-going stress. The computer was ruining our lives.


So last week’s detox was bad. There were tantrums and breakages, tears and arguments, recriminations and accusations. I felt hopeless, ashamed, angry but stony-determined.  I felt sorry for my boy, too but I did not surrender.


There is much contention around the notion of computer gaming as a form of addiction because addiction suggests that only if the substance is removed altogether the addict may begin to recover. Not so. Compulsive over-eating is a form of addictive behavior and you’re not expected to give up food altogether in order to get abstinent. So too with technology, it’s all about balance isn’t it? Isn’t it?


At the end of that first technology-free week and on the cusp of calling his father to come over and get him – forever! – I suggested we go play pool at our local pub.


We used to do this once a week when we first moved to the country three years ago. Initially my suggestion rendered him mute with rage and misery but eventually we went. We played pool for 2 hours together. We ate chicken curry together. We shared a massive piece of apple pie and ice cream together. We laughed. He had a go at the way I held the cue. We danced to dumb music. We both pretended we had not been to hell and back.


Later that night, we chatted about all kinds of stuff and he went to sleep at a respectable time for a boy his age. (He’s been getting to sleep later and later recently.) He was back.  My boy was back.









The Man in a Suit on his Bum on the Footpath


I am driving along my usual route to visit a friend in Melbourne when I see something.

A man is shuffling, no hoisting, no dragging himself along the footpath on his bum. I pull up next to him. His suit is dusty from the street and he is wincing and straining as he tries to lug his body along the ground in the direction of the train station. It’s maybe 100 meters away only, but he is like the snail committed to doing the length of his leaf by nightfall and travelling very slowly. It must hurt. So I pull over and unwind the passenger window.


            You okay there, mate? I never call anyone mate but what can I say? Are you okay there, Sir? Mister? Mate just seems right.

            Yeah. Nah. Not really, he says.

I can see his face more easily now and he is younger than I had first thought.

I’m going to the train station. Want to get home, he says.

Where’s home? I ask.  He tells me and it’s a suburb not far away and I used to live in it.  I am thinking I’ll run him back and that it won’t take long.

You need a hand? I could drive you there.

Then a white station wagon stops too and there’s a bloke with a beard and his family in the car – teenage son in the passenger seat and mother and daughter in the back. I get out of my car and walk over to his window.

            Hi, I say. Thanks for stopping. Are you busy for the next half hour? Do you mind  following me while I take this bloke home?

Sure. That’s all he says. We both know what we need to do and nothing else needs to be said.

Somehow I get the bloke on the footpath into my passenger seat and he even manages to belt himself in. Which seems a bit perverse given the risks he’s already taking with his personal safety.

I can smell the alcohol and desperation. I can see the fall from grace.

The bloke with the beard in the station wagon is following close behind.

            So what’s going on? I ask the man sitting next to me now. Why don’t you use a wheel chair? That’d be easier, wouldn’t it?

Yeah. No. Not really. Tried that but it’s harder, not easier. He isn’t slurring exactly, but he is paying extral attention to how he forms the words in his mouth before allowing them to fall out for my benefit.

He tells me some stuff that doesn’t make sense and other stuff that is crystal clear and has the effect of both reducing and summing up a life in a few short sentences.

            I was an accountant. Had my own firm. The wife’s gone. Don’t see my kids. Nah, don’t see my kids. They’re both in their 30’s now. I don’t see my kids. They won’t let me see them. They don’t wanna see me. Had my own firm.

By now we are in the suburb where he reckons he lives but he can’t give me a street name, let alone a number. So we start driving around and around the place searching for something that might jog his memory.

He looks out his window for some point of reference. I am starting to get a bit nervous by now. I am not scared but I am feeling a bit silly. The bloke in the station wagon is still following me on this joy ride;we have both been at it for a good 45 minutes by now.


            There, over there! He calls out. That park! That park looks familiar. I am starting to get a sinking feeling that maybe his home is a nice little split level park bench.

Over there! he calls out again. That street! It’s a home. You know a residence for men.  I’m not a drunk. I’m not a deadbeat drunk or anything. I was an accountant. I’m good with numbers.

Finally we pull up at a corner that is right opposite where I’d lived 15 years ago with Mum for a while after a bad relationship break-up.

The man in the suit refuses my help getting out of the car but he does let the family-man with the beard help him to the front door of what looks like a fairly respectable looking rooming house.

           Hey! Ya dick head! Where ya been? There’s a bloke calling out of an upstairs balcony down to my man in his dusty suit.

This lass drove me back from the station, he calls back, nodding in my direction.  She’s got a boy 11 year old.

It’s all he’d asked me during our 45 minutes together: You got any kids? That’s all he’d wanted to know.

The man in the beard sees him to his front door and the man in the suit waves at us both and almost falls over. When we get back to  the family-man’s  station wagon he says,

            My name’s John. This is my family.

They all smile at me one by one. I was right about the seating arrangements.

Hi, I’m Elly. Thanks. Thanks for that. We shake hands and he heads off.

I’m not some no-hoper drunk, the man in the dusty suit had said to me.

I know you’re not mate. I know you’re not.


You don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around – and why his parents will always wave back. 

(William D. Tammeus)

Before and After Baillieu

It’s the atmosphere that’s changed.

Since Baillieu’s 300 million dollar slashes to TAFE, it’s the cultural shift that gets to me most. My colleagues and I have had to invent a little joke to alleviate the palpable fall in morale. “So are you talking before or after Baillieu?” “Did you read that book before or after Baillieu?” “Yeah, she’s started seeing a shrink after Baillieu.” You get the idea.

I’ve taught in a Professional Writing and Editing course for six years. All of us permanents are part-time because before Baillieu it was appreciated that as so-called “practicing experts in our field” we actually needed time outside work to practice what we preach.

These days, and after Baillieu, we are so inundated by the ever-increasing adminsitrivia, accountability paper work and extra preparation (for subjects we have never taught before but now have to, because it’s cheaper than employing expert sessionals), that doing any freelance work to maintain professional credibility is almost impossible.

Before Baillieu, poor people with a dream in their heart and a few bucks and a health care card in their pocket could access our course. Post Baillieu, it aint so easy. Fees have skyrocketed and competition from greedy short-sighted unis with uncapped spaces means our cohort has shrivelled.

Before Baillieu, a 40-year-old who wanted to return to the workforce or change jobs, and needed to retrain or brush up, could. After Baillieu, if this some person had already acquired a qualification higher than a Certificate 4 in anything from floristry to fitness, she will be up for a fortune.

It’s crazy. It’s a travesty. It’s miserable.

Still, it’s the students who keep you going. Even when you’re feeling angry and tired about the compromised course delivery and cuts to staffing, it’s the students who keep you hanging in there. Few of them harbour illusions of grandeur or dreams of being rich and famous. But all of them want to learn how to write well and to a professional standard.

Anywhere you look, there’s been a writer at work. Everything you read on a tram or on a sign, in a brochure or in a real estate window has used a writer. Well, maybe not a real estate window.

We teach people to respond expertly to a job brief — any job brief. What could be more vocationally relevant than that?

Before Baillieu, I looked passable in a swimsuit. After Baillieu, there have been interminable farewell morning teas. Teachers are great cooks too.


Hate by Stephen Sewell

Malthouse HATE photo Jeff Busby_1080There had been some pretty crook reviews of this latest production of Sewell’s 25-year-old family melodrama so I was trepidatious. I also felt damned sorry for the actors who having just had a couple of scorchers in the press on the day were having to face the music that night. (I was an actor and know what it’s like to receive a god-awful review and then have to draw on every little bit of craft and camaraderie to get out up there again.) But as soon as the 5 actors in Hate appeared, I knew they were going to be fine, more than fine.

I first saw Sewell’s stringent expose of a mega-rich-political family in the throes of its final  meltdown, years ago when I was fresh out of drama school and was struck by its relentlessness and intelligence. It remains relentless and intelligent and it’s first half, although staged in a peculiarly unfocused and vague kind of way with no sense of place at all, is arresting. But it does eventually lose its grip.

Wealthy patriarch and politician (William Zappa is acid itself and someone should give him Lear sometime soon) has summoned his family to their country estate. Wife (Glenda Linscott’s  brittle and off-balance portrayal of the ‘good wife’ is excellent) and their three children, Ben Geurens, the disaffected outsider, Grant Piro, the edgy, ambitious stockbroker and Sara Wiseman, the favourite child who is all mixed up and appears to have gone off the rails.

All kids are in one way or another falling apart, furiously ambivalent about their dividing and conquering father and oddly unconcerned about their desperately sad mother.

There is a massive amount of talking in this play. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I remain, perhaps, one of the few reviewers around who still digs a good old-fashioned well-made-text-based play. And Sewell has proven pretty good at the form – The Blind Giant is Dancing, Myth, Propaganda and Disaster. Hate too is characteristically shot through with black humor, high-flame political rhetoric and a lot of pretty awful archetypes. It’s all compelling enough but by its second act Hate loses touch and becomes just too repetitive, didactic and overwrought for its own good.

Director Marion Potts has chosen a minimalist and metaphoric approach to this production and initially I thought she just wasn’t placing sufficient trust in the play. However, I did  come to appreciate her motives finally.

All the actors do a sterling job but the play’s denouement is just too big and messy, over stuffed with themes and implausible.

Still, Sewell always deserves a look. Even if it’s all pretty nasty stuff this is better than half the shows I saw last year and he is an Australian classic after all.

At The Malthouse Theatre Melbourne until 8 March