Dispatches #162: Bathing newborns, walking camels and enrolling friends

in #writing4 years ago

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Welcome to Dispatches, a weekly summary of my writing, listening and reading habits. I'm Andrew McMillen, a freelance journalist and author based in Brisbane, Australia.

No new words or sounds this week, but some happy news to share with you. At the Queensland media awards on Saturday night, I won two categories: freelance journalism and feature writing.

I'm thrilled beyond belief. I work hard, and I care about writing and storytelling more than almost anything else. So to be recognised for my work is an incredible honour.

My freelance journalism entry was composed of five stories, which were published in The Weekend Australian Magazine (Dying Wish and Saving Face), Good Weekend (Shock Tactics), The New York Times (How Australia Bungled Its $36 Billion High-Speed Internet Rollout) and Backchannel (The Troll Taunter).

The Clarions judges' comments for the freelance category as follows:

The quality of the entries in this category was outstanding and showed how vital freelance journalism is in our industry. Freelancers face unique challenges in researching, writing and finally "selling" their work and the top two entries, in the judges' opinion, were fine illustrations of the craft at its best. Andrew McMillen displayed his ability to take readers on a journey with compelling stories, told artfully and comprehensively. The body of work he submitted for this entry shows he can as easily delve into a sensitive human interest story as he can relate a news story to everyday Australians. 

My award-winning feature story is Dying Wish for The Weekend Australian Magazine, which is about the work of in-home palliative care nurses at Karuna, in Brisbane's inner-north. 

The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Dying Wish: In-home Palliative Care Nursing' by Andrew McMillen, February 2017. Photo by Justine Walpole

Reporting for Dying Wish involved a week of shadowing nurses as they help terminally ill people to achieve their goal of dying in an environment of their choosing. About 97% of Karuna's clients manage to achieve this goal.

As well, while reporting, I met a wonderful elderly couple in Samford named Tony and Sandra Huelsmann. They welcomed me into their home every day during the last week of Tony's life. The relationship between that couple and nurse Camille Doyle became a central thread of the story, and it was a privilege to be in the room, watching and taking notes during some of the most challenging moments and discussions of their lives.

This story wouldn't have happened without the participation of these wonderful people, so I'd like to dedicate my award to the memory of Tony Huelsmann, a retired dancer, choreographer and dance instructor who died at his home on Saturday, November 19, 2016, and was a gentleman to the end of his 80 years. Thanks, Tony.

The Clarions judges' comments for the feature writing category as follows:

Judges felt the standard of the features category was outstanding. Andrew McMillen's piece, titled 'Dying Wish', was a remarkable display of empathy. Addressing the important issue of being able to die at home, Andrew told the story of those helping it happen. From the moment he set the scene in the introduction, to the story's heart-wrenching conclusion, Andrew captured the emotional final days of Tony Huelsmann's life. While bringing each judge to tears might not have been the ultimate criteria which helped him win, the trust he gained from Tony and his family played a key role. His writing was of the highest standard, drawing the reader from one carefully-structured sentence to the next. It was as compelling as it was powerful. 


'The Hair Apparent' by Katharine Murphy in Meanjin

The Hair Apparent by Katharine Murphy in Meanjin (2,200 words / 11 minutes). I went deep into Katharine Murphy's essays for Meanjin while preparing for a conversation we recorded at the Canberra Writers Festival on the weekend (and which I'll share here when it is published in a month or two). I can recommend them all, as she is among the sharpest commentators on political reporting and the changing nature of journalism – This Connected Life is excellent, and touches on both of these topics – but I was deeply moved by this piece, which was published in the Summer 2016 edition. It's about motherhood, and Katharine's memories of watching her daughter grow from a baby into a young woman. The middle section, about the nightly routine of bathing her newborn – "the highlight of our day" – is exquisitely written, and practically impossible to read without becoming emotional. A truly wonderful piece of writing, which you should read at once.

My daughter has just finished school. I contest this fact most days, driving her to distraction. I keep prosecuting the point–darling, it can't be over–because I'm almost certain that in her private life, in the life she enjoys precisely because it exists outside the orbit of my benign parental suffocation, there are practical tasks she may have neglected. I also keep prosecuting the point because there is no other avenue for me to articulate my own incredulity. I'm not sure how we got here. I find rage brimming in me as I contemplate the finality of the milestone. For some reason our local preschool cops the weight of my animus. I drive past it most days, conveying my teenagers to school, driving with heart pounding to work, to get to that radio interview, to that panel I'm supposedly hosting, to get in to work before the car park at Parliament House reaches capacity, to run upstairs to be at my desk in time for a news conference; or driving in less harried fashion in the direction of Civic in times of leisure, crawling mulishly past this totem of our collective past, this prosaic suburban sacred site, which is profoundly indifferent to my current pulses of irrationality. When I have passengers in the car I manage not to be furious at the preschool, but when I'm alone it's a different story. I slow the car in meek compliance with the 40-kph school zone, all the better to glower at the squat building and the brightly coloured cubby house. Three mornings a week, when she was three and a half, I walked through the gates of this preschool with my small blonde daughter and her brother, our deeply chilled side kick, then and still, strapped conclusively into a cheap BigW stroller, taking in the world with his large, steady eyes.

Lessons From Camels by Robert Skinner in The Monthly (3,000 words / 15 minutes). I think Robert Skinner is among the funniest essayists in Australia. This piece – whose enticing subtitle reads "A ten-day camel trek through the South Australian outback. With your parents." – is a perfect example of Skinner's skill for storytelling: every line sparkles with humour, or empathy, or both. I laughed many times at his excellent descriptions and turns of phrase. Pure joy to read. Someone give this man a book contract, please.

For reasons that are still unclear to me, I agreed to go on a ten-day camel trek with my parents. When they invited me my initial reaction was I've got a whole LIFE going on here, I can't just take off. I had a pile of junk mail to read and some pretty firm dinner plans. A few weeks later I was at a party where I didn't think much of the people. Or, more accurately, I didn't think the people thought much of me. So I wandered outside, thought, Phooey to you, city living, and texted my parents. "I'm in." A week before departure they called me from Adelaide, huddled together and shouting into the speakerphone. "When you get here, we need you to pick up 30 kilograms of potatoes. We're in charge of the potatoes." "Don't stress him out," said my mum. "You just bring yourself." "Yeah, yeah, but just – and the potatoes." My dad explained where we'd be going: from Orroroo in the Flinders Ranges, east towards Yunta, north to Koonamore, and then south-west along Pipeline Road. "It's a triangle, Bob. We're doing a triangle." I asked how far we'd be riding, all up. There was a moment's silence. "We're not riding, mate. They're wagon camels." We would be walking, said my dad. Next to the camels, and for 25 kilometres a day. He paused. "You have been training, haven't you?" I said yes, in the sense that I'd managed to keep my legs in pretty much mint/unused condition. I started to panic. "I thought I was supposed to be practising sitting down."

The Art Of Dependency by Micheline Lee in The Monthly (4,800 words / 24 minutes). Australia's National Disability Insurance Scheme promised choice and control for people with disabilities, but as this incredible essay by Micheline Lee shows, dealing with the system itself can be humiliating, stressful and time-consuming. "I had hoped that the NDIS would free up some time for me," she writes, "with its promise of more efficient and tailored services. Instead, the bureaucratese and problematic administration of the new system have created greater pressure and made it difficult for me to keep up with my work." I really hope that people in charge of the NDIS read this essay closely, and make changes, because the system that Lee describes here appears to be deeply problematic.

When I was 18 and my disability had progressed to the stage where I could no longer push myself in a manual wheelchair, a man in a van brought me an electric wheelchair. Actually, it was more like a bulky three-wheeled scooter. He slapped a sticker with a serial number on the plastic orange bonnet that covered the front wheel. He told me that it was the property of the state and should only be driven on covered surfaces. Oh how I loved it the moment I sat in the chair and pressed Go. All the worry and the million steps between my destination and how I would get there disappeared. I couldn't help laughing, zooming along, starting and stopping with a flick of the lever, taking myself where I wanted. People might have thought I was delirious. I was in first-year law at Monash University and lived in a student college across a seven-lane road from the campus. For the first six months, before I got my electric chair, I was on the constant lookout for people to push me in my manual chair. I had only enough strength in my arms to shift myself a few metres on smooth level ground. At about 8 am, I would position myself outside my room, waiting to nab some student coming down the corridor to push me to the dining hall. After gulping down breakfast, I would do the rounds, asking who was leaving for the university and whether they could push me on their way.

Screen Time, All The Time by Russell Marks in The Monthly (3,500 words / 17 minutes). Do smart devices in classrooms help kids learn? That's the question at the heart of this thoughtful, thought-provoking essay, which I read one night last week... on an iPad while lying in bed. Hmm. Also, this is a good point that I hadn't considered about today's children, who have only ever known the presence of screens in their lives: "Just as parents once had to work out how to regulate their children's TV and Nintendo habits without being able to draw on their own experiences, today's parents have no idea what it's like to have Facebook or Instagram in school, or personalised screens – with their never-ending streams of messages and updates – in the classroom."

"Sometimes it's really difficult to tear their attention away from the screens," says Ruby. In her mid 30s, Ruby is a mother of two preschool children and also teaches prep and first grade at a government school in Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs. I've asked Ruby to talk to me about tablets and other "smart" devices in classrooms. "To be honest it's a bit of a problem," she says. "I really try to limit how much time they're on the tablets, but pack-up time tends to be a bit fraught. And there's always a few who have left theirs at home, and another one whose tablet doesn't work properly." What does she mean by "fraught"? Ruby pauses. "Well, I guess it's different to packing up other activities, like art and craft, or handwriting. With those, some of the kids grumble a bit but everything's pretty smooth." But Ruby says the tablets bring out a lot of aggressive and obsessive behaviour. "I find myself needing to be much firmer, much more often, when it comes to the tablets." I've since spoken to more than a dozen primary and secondary teachers from schools across the country that require tablets in classrooms. Unprompted, most complain of similar problems. Magda teaches in a school that requires students to leave their devices at each classroom door, and says the contrast with the school she used to teach at on Victoria's western coast is stark. "It was almost like kids were addicted to their iPads," she says of her previous school. "They'd get in this weird zone and it was just impossible to get them to put their iPads down." How many students in each class exhibited this kind of behaviour? "About half."

Barry Glib by Darren Hanlon in The Saturday Paper (1,200 words / 6 minutes). Another excellent, unconventional travel story in The Saturday Paper, this time written by songwriter and musician Darren Hanlon as he tours small-town New Zealand. The man has a way with words.

Apparently, Nadia Reid doesn't like the milk in Australia. "It tastes pretty rank to me," she says from the front passenger seat. I've been in this car for a few weeks now, playing shows across New Zealand with Nadia and Anthonie Tonnon, and all pleasantries have fallen away. What's left is a constant barrage of cultural gibing. "What do you mean?" I ask. "You've got rank milk." "What the hell?" I say, the son of a Queensland dairy farmer. "No we don't." "It just doesn't taste fresh. New Zealand does good milk. Fresh. Creamy." "Explain. Is ours watery? Or it's the flavour?" "Horrible flavour," she says. "We milk cows just like you do. Does the rankness come from the cows themselves or the grass, you think?" "Could be the grass. Or maybe there's too much time before bottling. I like minimum time between teat and tummy." Much of this past week has seen us cling to the western edge of the South Island, against a coastline of grey, enraged, sea-churning drama. We've just driven from the village of Okarito, where last night we played unplugged to a sellout crowd of 40. This was a good result, considering the town's population is 43.

Enrolling: How We Manipulate Our Friends Into Helping Us Lie To Ourselves by Neil Strauss on his website (1,700 words / 8 minutes). I read this blog post with great interest when it was first published nearly two years ago, and I recently thought of it again. Neil Strauss went into 'enrolling' in greater depth in his 2015 book The Truth, I believe, but I didn't dog-ear the page to be able to easily find where he mentions it. Here's the concept in brief: "Enrolling is an act of prejudice. It is a violation of a person based not on anything they actually did, but based on a bias that you have." I think it's a valuable idea to keep in mind, and it's something I'll continue thinking about.

I'm going to attempt to explain a concept I came up with while writing The Truth, and watching people who were struggling with personal issues–including myself–resist huge opportunities for growth and change. It was almost as if we were holding a bar of gold and saying, "This isn't real gold. It's garbage, right?" And all our friends would look at us, look at the gold in our hands, and decide that they'd rather have a friend than be right and say, "Yes, it's garbage." This is called enrolling. In a way, it's an extension of the "bag of shit" articles posted here a few weeks ago. Because often it's not enough to be carrying a big bag of shit, but sometimes you want to open it, let others get a whiff of it, and recruit them into also believing that it stinks in order to get confirmation of your own false reality. Dr. David Premack of the University of Pennsylvania has proposed a concept called The Theory of Mind, which is the ability to infer the thoughts of others. The notion is that "in any complex society, anyone with the ability to correctly guess the intentions, motives, and plans of other people has a tremendous survival advantage over those who can't," explains Michio Kaku. "The Theory of Mind allows you to form alliances with others, isolate your enemies, and solidify your friendships, which vastly increases your power and chances of survival and mating." The key word here is guess. There is no way of actually knowing what is going on in someone's mind, so we guess and then often assume we are correct. But most of the time, our past experiences get in the way of being accurate. And instead, we form alliances based on "consensus reality."

The Book He Wasn't Supposed To Write by Thomas E. Ricks in The Atlantic (2,000 words / 10 minutes). To end this week, here's an excellent piece about the valuable, honest relationship between an author and his long-time editor. There are many great lessons for writers, but here's just one: "The first draft is for the writer. The second draft is for the editor. The last draft is for the reader."

I had written five books for Scott Moyers, following him as he moved from editing jobs at Scribner's to Random House and then to Penguin Press. We worked well together, and in part thanks to his strong editing hand, my last three books had been bestsellers. So what happened when I finished years of work and sent him the manuscript of my sixth book stunned me. In fact, I was in for a series of surprises. They began about 18 months ago, after I emailed to him that manuscript, a dual appreciation of Winston Churchill and George Orwell. When I had begun work on it, in 2013, some old friends of mine thought the subject was a bit obscure. Why would anyone care how two long-dead Englishmen, a conservative politician and a socialist journalist who never met, had dealt with the polarized political turmoil of the 1930s and the world war that followed? By 2016, as people on both the American left and right increasingly seemed to favor opinion over fact, the book had become more timely. But two weeks after I sent him the manuscript, I received a most unhappy e-mail back from him. "I fear that the disconnect over what this book should be might be fundamental," Scott wrote to me, clearly pained to do so. What I had sent him was exactly the book he had told me not to write. He had warned me, he reminded me, against writing an extended book review that leaned on the weak reed of themes rather than stood on a strong foundation of narrative. I had put the works before the two men, he told me, and that would not do. There was more. But in short, he pissed all over it. It was not that he disliked it. It was that he fucking hated it. I was taken aback–I had enjoyed the process of researching and writing the book. So, I had expected, a reader would too. No, Scott said, the way you've done this doesn't work. Partly, I was crushed. But even more, I was puzzled. How could I have been so off in my perception of my manuscript?

Thanks for reading. If you have feedback on Dispatches, I'd love to hear from you: just reply to this email. Please feel free to share this far and wide with fellow journalism, music, podcast and book lovers.


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