Could Do Better

For a perfectionist like me, old age is a minefield. I imagined growing old like a Quentin Bryce or a Ruth Bader Ginsburg or maybe a Miriam Margolyes but it hasn’t turned out like that at all. Not even remotely. Which I suppose, considering my limited gifts of style, wit and intellect, isn’t surprising. Still, I expected more. I feel, in fact, that I am doing it all rather badly, I Have Let Myself Down.

Had I known how hard it would be, I would of course have gone into training years ago; a rigorous course to prepare mind and body for what lay ahead, something with a catchy title like Meaning and Purpose Beyond the Sixth Decade.

Shakespeare was right, in life we each play many parts. For all but a few of us, Old Age is a thankless role, the bit part that nobody wants, that you only get because you’re under contract.  Some make a meal of it and get rave reviews; the rest are quite relieved to finally get off stage. But it’s often a long and arduous performance.

I think what makes it all so difficult is the gradual erosion of one’s identity, which goes with some very big losses, starting with career for many. Speaking personally, I have just hit delete on 56,000 words. At least I’m still sufficiently with it to recognise a bad novel.

Losing your partner hits hardest – well, I speak for myself, but unless you’ve been shopping for arsenic online, I imagine it’s so for most people. It’s not just the personal heartbreak, widowhood doesn’t make you half of a couple, it’s more like about, oh a quarter, I’d say. It’s part of the general invisibility of old age which has come as no shock at all, given the coverage it’s received.

Nevertheless, it’s a little off-putting to find that your opinions are no longer sought and that you are spoken to, as often as not, as if you’ve lost the capacity to think at all. I admit that short-term memory loss can be a problem, but it does not necessarily acquaint with dementia. Young persons should be taught that; they should also learn to appreciate that we may still have a sense of humour. Please do not take us so seriously. Nor is there a need to explain in detail the stuff that we learnt in grade 6, just because we need some help with an iPhone.

But the hardest thing of all, surprisingly, is to accept one’s new role in the close family circle. Especially when you are a grandparent. This includes Handing Over. A stage in life which must be managed with Great Tact, Endless Grace and Quiet Dignity. Got that? Read, mark and learn.

You hand over things like Christmas – yes, Christmas –  and let your children do it their way. Not a word about the lack of linen napkins, or the fact that presents were opened before everyone arrived. It’s still wonderful. New Year’s Eve is not wonderful. The kids ring you – they are away on holidays now, you’re at home, probably with the dog. You watch the fireworks if you can stay awake. You remember the parties you used to have. People don’t do parties like that anymore, you tell yourself. You’re right. They don’t have time. You report that you had a lovely evening.

You learn your place as time goes by. You hop in the back seat of the car. You let others choose the television programme (kids don’t watch television anyway, they have devices.) You know that soup in winter and chocolate brownies and banana bread for school lunches will always make you welcome.

You accept the fact that you may cook food in your kitchen, and bring it in plastic containers, but you are completely banned from their kitchen. You are told to go and sit down, talk to your grandchildren! Which is all very well and good, except that the grandchildren would rather talk to their phones. Another difficult thing, after a lifetime of speaking your mind, is learning to shut up. To shut up before opining once more on the folly of dropping Chinese, for instance; before opining on anything much at all, in fact.  You learn never ever to interfere on matters of discipline and to watch the jokes. Sex, for instance, is tricky.  Your grandchildren tend to think you’re still a virgin, all evidence to the contrary. It’s sometimes a good idea to go along with this myth, they embarrass so very easily.

On top of all that, when you do get to talk to the grandkids, you quite often find them begging, Please don’t tell mum and/or dad!  Quite a quandary. To tell or not to tell, that is the question. To earn the eternal love and trust of the grandchild – or risk a nasty scene if you’re discovered in a conspiracy. Oh, what a tangled web it can be.

So there you have it. Aging is damn hard. Being the perfect parent of grown-up children, not to mention the perfect grandparent, is well-nigh impossible.  You desperately wish they would all stop fussing. You desperately hope they won’t stop fussing. You know the phone calls to check that you’re okay, that you aren’t lonely, that you don’t need anything, that the nice taxi-driver really was nice and got you home safely, are all a sign of love. You’re still making those calls yourself. It might be tough at times, but I know I’m incredibly fortunate to still be part of a family, scattered over two states, there when I need them or – just occasionally – when they (or the dog) need me.



Eat Up and Be Grateful

Food, glorious food. I love the stuff. I’m seduced by photos of it, I convince myself I can reproduce the recipes, I spend hours online hunting down exotic ingredients and I badger and bore producers at fresh-food markets. I take great pleasure in cooking; sometimes I produce a masterpiece, now and then I make shocking contributions to landfill. There are worse hobbies, I tell myself.

I used to watch cooking shows on television, although I think I’ve reached saturation point, and I never did enjoy the ones that resembled blood sports. All the same, they’ve given a new generation an interest in the culinary arts and that’s an excellent thing.

Back in the seventies, when I was living in London, we used to indulge in a blood sport of our own. It was called The Dinner Party. It became a big thing with the publication of a weekly part-work called The Cordon Bleu Cookery Course. My friends and I soon become devoted followers. The Dinner Party was a highly competitive affair. It forced me to expand my skills and encouraged us all to drink large quantities of cheap French and Algerian wine. Back in Australia, we found the game had caught on here, though not the Algerian wine. All those white tablecloths, all those candles, remember?  (And all that damn ironing.)

I think in a world where millions of children go to bed starving or malnourished, we might have become a little bit precious about food. I’d say it happened about the same time that activated almonds came on the scene. Not forgetting kale and quinoa. We’re incredibly fussy, we demand the best. We want the freshest, the cleanest, the greenest; it must all be local, organic, environmentally and ethically beyond reproach. The presentation is all important, any 12-year-old knows that.

Food that reaches these exacting standards is simply not possible. Not every day and not for everyone who is hungry.  I see a lot of it (or something that purports to be like it) on Facebook and read of it in restaurant reviews. Some of the latter would make good comedy sketches. I rarely see it in person these days because fine dining is out of my reach.

What I have seen a lot of lately is the food that is served up in hospitals and nursing homes. With the exception of a very few private establishments, what I have seen and tasted is a disgrace. As you may have guessed, I have now reached the point of this blog. It’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time, ever since my late husband had a two-week stay in one of Melbourne’s finest public hospitals and lived on soup and sandwiches. The soup varied slightly, the sandwiches didn’t. At least they were edible. I took food in for him when I could, I don’t know how other patients managed. The waste was shocking, I saw the barely-touched plates go back to the kitchen.

A friend has recently spent too much time with a broken femur in another public hospital. Her diet was mainly porridge and soup. She isn’t a fussy eater but she couldn’t swallow anything else. In rehab, she is learning little tricks like taking the butter from the inedible bread and putting it on to the “scrambled egg”, which gives the latter a little flavour. I had a text from her yesterday about a dish called “broccoli mornay.” This consisted of two wilted florets of broccoli on a plate. That was it. Mornay? Not exactly. We had a good laugh. She should have cried. Today it was corned beef with mustard sauce. There was a knife but it wouldn’t go through the corned beef. Not at all. A chain saw was not provided.

My point to these little anecdotes and the millions like them is threefold: a) the people to whom this food is offered are patients. They are often in pain, the days are long, they are bored and frequently depressed.  Enjoyable food, prepared with care, will nourish body and spirit and speed their recovery; b) the waste is untenable and c) I am convinced it costs no more to cook food well than to ruin it. Ask any member of the CWA. Any shearer’s cook. (I have known quite a few.)

I am not an expert on mass catering. I do know that hospitals where the food is prepared on the premises feed their patients much better than those where it’s prepared outside and brought in. I think it is totally unfair that people at their most vulnerable should be subjected to food which is often truly disgusting. No one expects gourmet fare or silver service. But a bit of good “home-style” cooking, is that too much to ask?  A bit of ethnic diversity? Instead of roasts that look and taste like the morning’s cereal packets covered in gravy; dried-out fish that left the ocean when Cook was a boy and spag bol made of – no, let’s not go there, I don’t want to make some passing nonna cry.

It can be done – because now and then it is done. I think it is time that patients who are able – and the relatives of those that aren’t  – rose up in revolt. An election is upon us, a good time to start. As an issue, it hardly compares with climate change of course. But if you’re stuck in one of our under-staffed hospitals for two or three months, then I think you’d find it mattered quite a lot.  If you can beat the broccoli mornay, I’d love to hear about it.

A Loathsome Custom

“A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.”  

That’s James 1 pontificating on tobacco back in 1604. I wonder what made him so prescient? He did his royal duty and warned the populace and no one listened.

I smoked once. What I really mean is, once I smoked all the time. Two packets a day, a house full of ashtrays, where the walls were stained brown with nicotine, a car that stank of it and I’m sure I did too. You don’t notice these things when you smoke; you especially don’t notice them when most of your friends smoke as well. If anyone complained we thought they were being unreasonable. Yes, you read that correctly: unreasonable.

Considering that I even smoked in the shower, one hand sticking out past the curtain, I think it’s fair to say I was addicted. I really loved smoking. I started when I was a student at NIDA, little packets of twelve Peter Stuyvesants. I tried various other brands, even ghastly menthols, and finally settled on Dunhills, while for special occasions – oh, the sophistication! – there were gorgeous black and gold Sobranis.

Back in the day, if we had a party, I would fill the silver cigarette box, which had no doubt belonged to my beloved aunt – she favoured Temple Bar, I seem to recall – and scatter even more ashtrays throughout the house. One of them I remember fondly was the size of a hubcap. I’d empty the ashtrays several times throughout the evening and open more windows. We were serious smokers. Inhale? Are you joking?

Back then, I would turn up at a script meeting, open my briefcase and drop a carton of Dunhill on the table to see me through the two days. Not a packet, a carton. And I was not alone. Well script meetings could be stressful, they were hard work.  And all the while, as news about the damage I might be doing to my lungs mounted, I refused to believe. (Or chose to ignore.) I was like Tony Abbott on climate change – until one day, the evidence overwhelmed even me. Even my friends.

Heroin addicts have told me it’s easier to give up that drug than nicotine. Yet my husband quit smoking with comparatively little angst, I don’t know how. It took me another seven years and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I got a lot of practice trying. I tried every method known before I succeeded. The breakthrough came with a smooth little green stone my family bought for me at the local market. When I wanted a cigarette – all the time – I played with that stone instead. And gradually I managed to stop.  The other thing that helped was a promise I made myself: if I still wanted to smoke when I was seventy, I could take it up again.

I was forty-nine when I had my last cigarette. I am way past seventy now and I haven’t acted on that promise, I can’t think of anything worse. I have nightmares that I’ve started smoking again and wake up in a sweat. I can pick out the smokers in any queue, in any crowd, if they sit next to me on the train. It’s horrible.

Far, far more horrible, is the loss of many very dear friends to lung cancer; some of the very same ones who laughed with me all those years ago when we slapped our cartons of Dunhill on the script room table. So far I have dodged a bullet. But another friend, someone I love dearly who is now in his eighties, was diagnosed with lung cancer a few weeks ago. He never did find a little green stone.

These days, most of the people I see smoking are young women. And I desperately want to go up to them and say for God’s sake, stop it. Save all that money and use it to travel. Go and get your hair done and get rid of the stink of nicotine. Spend it on new clothes or concert tickets or whatever your heart desires, just please, not on cigarettes. But I know they won’t listen, any more than I did.

My granddaughter, who is fifteen, does not smoke (“Do I look stupid, Anzi?”) but tells me that some of her crowd think smoking is cool. I’m not talking about vaping here, I’m talking about old-fashioned tobacco rolled up in paper. Cool? It’s not advertised, people don’t do it on film and television, I presume the parents of these kids don’t do it – and it’s not even illegal. Just very, very expensive and quite possibly deadly. So what makes them think it’s cool? Perhaps it’s become a status symbol. More likely, I suppose, they imagine it will keep them thin.  Someone should tell these kids that cancer is a high price to pay for a skinny body. Someone should steal the fags and give them a gym membership.

I used to have twenty ashtrays; now I have one sitting forlornly on the outside table, filled with autumn leaves. I don’t know anyone who smokes. The message was hammered home constantly to our generation and finally we got it. But clearly, some of the gorgeous young things of Gen Z have missed the message altogether or are no longer listening. I think it would be a great kindness if we nagged them until they do.

Crying Over Spilt Milk

“Je ne regrette rien,” sang Edith Piaf.

Sinatra was in similar vein: “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

Lots of people seem to agree with them, professing as they near the end of their lives to have no regrets, nothing at all to lament or repent of or strive for, they wouldn’t change a thing.

I find it hard to believe.

Regret, both noun and verb, covers so much: sins large and small, perhaps mostly of omission; thoughtlessness and unkind words and roads not taken, and dreams left to wither when courage and effort might have saved them.

Regrets? I’ve got plenty. Starting with the day in grade one when a friend and I filled our mouths with water from the bubbler (remember bubblers?) and squirted it all over a classmate who’d done nothing whatsoever to hurt us. Why? I have no idea or I have blocked it out of my memory in shame. I don’t know what turned us into two revolting little bullies but nearly seventy years later, that act haunts me still. I wish I could find that small girl, now old like me, and tell her so and offer her the most heartfelt apology.

Regrets of a different kind came later, much later, when I entered the work force. Twice I missed out on a job because of my sex; I was actually told that was the reason. I should have rattled the bars; I should have complained and fought and cried out for justice. There weren’t any laws back then to protect me but I deeply regret not trying. I regret that I just rolled over and shut up and gave in, fearful of losing the job I already had – which in one case, I did anyway. I was very young; I had a lot of toughening up to do, but of course I regret the way that, on both occasions, I handled the situation.

I think the hard one, as you age, is coming to terms with regret: accepting the hand you’ve been dealt and counting your blessings, rather than dwelling on what might have been. We all know people who spend their lives looking at someone more successful and thinking “that could have been me.” In some cases, with even more resentment, “that should have been me.”  Well no it shouldn’t, actually; I’ve learnt that’s not how it works at all.

I wanted to be a writer – what I thought of as a proper writer – from a very young age; a proper writer who produced books with hard covers and dustjackets which were read by thousands of people and made the author, me, famous. (I was too young to understand that rich was more fun than famous.) Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Maybe it could have, if I had been prepared to starve for several years and put in the hard and lonely work necessary. Instead, I took a somewhat easier path – a few years learning how the world turns and then scriptwriting. Regrets? Just now and then but honestly, not that many or that often. I met the most amazing people; I made some wonderful friends, I delved into so many esoteric subjects and learnt a great deal, and above all, there was so much fun and laughter, such a feeling of support and shared creative purpose at those hundreds of script meetings that most were a joy to attend. We ate a lot of chocolate, drank a lot of coffee and wine and on top of all that, I got paid. Of course there were bad times, some very, very bad times – but aren’t there always?

I did get a novel published at last. I was 71. Hard covers and dustjackets were things of the past. The book took three years of my life, was read by very few and earned me virtually nothing. It did give me a lot of satisfaction. Regrets? No. It was something I’d promised myself I would do and I did it. Mission accomplished.

My biggest regrets are failures of empathy and understanding; not realising that someone’s unusual behaviour was due to depression; putting off the “difficult” phone calls; not bothering to make a hospital visit because I was too busy (oh dear God, how busy we all are!); losing the chance to say goodbye.

All the same, I think regret needs to be handled with caution. Like a brand-new bottle of Bombay Sapphire, it’s not something we should over-indulge in. Learn and move on is perhaps the message. I never went back to uni and got a degree; Proust is on my Kindle but I haven’t read him yet and my passport is out of date and I doubt it’ll be renewed. Too late for regretting any of it, though maybe I can still squeeze Proust in.

I don’t say “I wish I’d done such and such” any more. I try to remember what we did do instead and rejoice in so many brilliant memories. Who wants to be a famous author anyway?  Well possibly J K Rowling, come to think of it.

It’s a ticklish subject, regret; as well as caution, it calls for absolute honesty and that’s hard. Especially for politicians, have you noticed?  Being generally incapable of regret themselves, they find it hard to believe that other people might, just might have it in them.

Regret is most often a sigh, a whisper on the wind. But at its most heartfelt, it does invoke those saddest of words, “if only,” and is just a step from redemption. I try to remember that when I find myself at my most judgemental.

So how then do you feel about those young women in black, camped with their children behind the barbed wire in Syria? Would you allow them to have regrets?

Do you perhaps have any regrets of your own? Or are you one of those people I mentioned earlier who “wouldn’t change a thing.”


Let The Good Times Roll

I think we are all agreed by now that old age is not for wimps. I’d go further and say that it’s often an absolute bitch. Often – but maybe not always. Yes, you did read that correctly. After months of research I have to admit – very faint drum roll, please – that there are some good things about it.

I can hear the cries already: “Name one!” And I intend to. Possibly several. If not good exactly, at least okay. Definitely okay.

This thought first occurred to me lying in bed one morning. I’ve always been an early riser. The idea of breakfast in bed – spilt coffee and toast crumbs in the sheets – is anathema to me. Anyway, I am – I was – a morning person. When my children were small I did most of my writing between 2.0 am and breakfast. I guess that’s more night than morning, but you get the drift. It was after I had been to bed. The pleasure had worn off by the time I hit seventy but old habits die hard. Year after year, I went on getting up at six. Until this particular chilly morning, some months after my husband died, when a subversive thought hit me: I could pull the doona over my head and stay in bed. I didn’t have to get up at six. I could get up when I damn well pleased. So that’s what I do. (Though if it’s after 7.30 I still feel a bit sinful. I’m working on that.)

You can Pursue New Interests when you’re old. Latin or philosophy or the ukulele or North American Indian flat beadwork. You don’t have to pass exams and you don’t have to be brilliant, you can do it for – radical idea – fun and relaxation. Then there’s Daytime Television. Talk about a guilty pleasure. I don’t mean what is actually shown on television in the daytime, though there’s the odd little gem to be found if you search very diligently. I mean bingeing on G.O.T. on Netflix, or some Nordic noir on SBS-on-demand. You have to be old to get away with that – especially if you do it in your dressing gown and uggs. Otherwise you’re a neglectful parent or you’re taking a sickie.

The mention of ugg boots – what a blessed invention they were! – brings me to clothes. It’s a lovely thing to get all dressed up: hair, nails, high heels and everything in between. I remember it well. But honestly, can anything beat the bliss of a day spent slopping around in trakky daks and a thirty-year-old cashmere sweater, full of moth holes but soft as a cloud. I mean, who’s going to see you, the postman? And does he care? Hardly.

I never thought the time would come, but these days, I’m known to leave home now and then without wearing make-up. I don’t go far, just to the park when I have grand-dog for a couple of weeks in the summer. But it’s a start. Old people, as we know, are invisible anyway, so what does it matter how I look? Nor is it any longer a sin to be comfortable. Apart from the aforementioned tracksuit, I even have one or two pairs of pants with elastic waists. There, I’ve confessed.

There are other, more subtle, joys to be found when you’re old. Have you ever tried to negotiate the My Gov website? If not, something to look forward to. I know people half my age who work in IT who’ve been defeated by it. I have a little conspiracy theory about this: it’s deliberate. By “My Gov”, they mean theirs, it’s the Government’s site – and they don’t want you to get on to it. If you did, they might have to help you or give you money. So I don’t even try any more. I just ring the seniors’ phone number. I cast my pride aside and play the helpless old lady who simply can’t cope with modern technology, let alone that thing called the internet. And some kind person takes care of everything. I am always lavish with my gratitude.

Naturally, being old, you’re expected to be stubborn. Maybe even a tiny bit “difficult.” (Don’t overdo it or you’ll end up in a dementia ward.) You’re allowed to air your opinions, even if they are out of date. You don’t have to take advice. You can eat what you like, kale is not compulsory. You can drink what you like too, if you want another glass of wine or three, have them. Just bear in mind that if you fall over, this is not a good outcome.

Something else I’m increasingly grateful for is time. Most of us – not all, I know – can stop rushing at last. A close friend called in recently for what was supposed to be “a quick coffee.” Several hours later we’d covered everything from Trump to the state of our bowels, perhaps not such a long journey, come to think of it. We had other things to do but not necessarily that afternoon. We just kept talking and laughing. And of course we discussed our grandchildren because we’re both lucky enough to have them and they are without doubt the best thing of all about old age. If you like kids, that is.

So it’s grim, yes – but not that grim. Silver linings everywhere if you look hard enough. Have you found any lately?


Part of the Family

I have always found it interesting that the RSPCA, both in the UK and here, was not only founded many decades before any society for the prevention of cruelty to children, but it alone got royal patronage. Well, I suppose it’s not so strange when you think about it, since Victoria and her descendants were and remain besotted with animals but have often been, at best, somewhat haphazard parents.

In Australia, the RSPCA also operates on a massively larger budget than the Children’s Protection Society though, to be fair, the government has accepted some responsibility for young people. These little anomalies have frequently got me thinking about the Anglo relationship with the animals we invite to share our lives and how far it has come and how widely it has been copied, e.g. fifty million registered dog owners in China, a country where “dog” generally used to equate with “food”, and whether it has perhaps gone just a little bit too far. Maybe even a lot too far.

I am about to enter a minefield, I know that. I am possibly going to offend and/or enrage some people who are close to me and whom I admire and respect. But obviously, this is just a personal opinion, so here goes …

I love animals but I have to accept that I may not love them like other people do.

While the horse I longed for never arrived, I have owned and felt great affection for dogs and cats and white mice and a budgerigar and some guinea pigs. It is hard to tell one white mouse from the next but I did try. I’ve done my best to keep a cat alive with hourly drops through two long nights and said a tearful farewell at the vet’s when it all failed. I hope I gave them all a good life. We had a lot of fun together.

I don’t own pets anymore but the grand-dog often comes to stay. I think she’d rather be at home but she doesn’t mind too much. She’s a perfect house-guest, very good company and just wants to be loved. Constantly. Like a child. That’s easy. She doesn’t come with a wardrobe of designer outfits and I wouldn’t insult her dignity by dressing her in them if she did. I find the whole idea of spending $50 on a pair of pyjamas for a dog about as ridiculous as it gets. A dog does not need sleepwear and the Children’s Protection Society could do with the money.

But it gets more serious when we begin to play God with our animals; that’s a different game entirely.  Of course you try to keep them healthy. But how far do you go? How many interventions, treatments, surgeries, amputations? How much agony and indignity do you let them suffer because you can’t bear to part with them?

I know pet owners will say they are acting out if love – but are they really? Is it love or selfishness? I cannot find true kindness in, for example, putting an animal through months of painful treatment for cancer which then ends up with an amputation. What would animals in this sort of situation say if they could speak? Would they opt for letting nature take its course? Ask for a ticket on the first plane to Switzerland?  We don’t know; we can only do what our heart and our head tell us. And our vet, of course, hoping that the vet has the best interests of the animal at heart and is not letting his bottom line cloud his judgement.

I’ve come to the conclusion that we perform so many of these interventions on animals – and, as I’ve written before, on people – not because we should but because we can. And the vast amounts of money we spend on them could be better used elsewhere; like preventing torture and abuse and cruelty wherever it’s found.

I don’t watch cute kittens on YouTube, or fluffy puppies behaving like puppies. It simply doesn’t strike a chord.  The images that do affect me are different and usually darker. The one that continues to haunt me and will forever, is that of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, dead on a beach near Bodrum, fleeing a war that up until then most of the world was ignoring.  There are others, like cattle being beaten to death, blow by mindless blow, in an Indonesian abattoir. That was unforgettably revolting. It also got more publicity here, a greater response, than little Alan. Well, they were animals, and Australian.

I guess it is all a matter of how you see the world. I know we have lived with dogs, in particular, for thousands of years, and they have served us well and continue to do so, even while we have used them and our other pets to create a multi-billion-dollar industry. But I can’t help feeling that in coming to regard them as “part of the family”, we have crossed a line; we have in fact elevated them to a place that is not rightfully theirs.

We treat them like pampered children while other people’s children die of starvation or grow up under-nourished in sub-Saharan Africa, in south-central Asia and South America and many other places, even in parts of Australia. While other people’s children flee war zones in leaky boats.

This country spends $12.2 billion annually on its pets.

It spends $4 billion on foreign aid.

I find this disturbing.






Oliver Twist, Where Are You?

I recently read Joan Didion’s extraordinary book, The Year of Magical Thinking. Basically, it’s about loss and grief and I guess it is always interesting to see how other people have dealt with something which you yourself are experiencing.

The book is beautifully written. It is moving, disturbing, surprising. What Didion went through was tragedy on a somewhat Shakespearean scale (well, being Didion, it would have to be): daughter in ICU with brain injury, husband drops dead suddenly at the dinner table after they have been to see her. It in no way replicates my own experience.

What I learnt about grief from reading her book is what I suspected already, which is that it’s completely different for every person and we each have to experience it, and hopefully get through it in some sort of shape, in our own way; and that time heals nothing but acceptance comes.

What I found interesting, reflecting on the book some weeks after I’d finished it, was something I had felt after reading other memoirs by the rich and/or famous and/or influential. Especially works that covered times of great personal loss or chaos. It is about the ultimate difference between those people and the rest of us and in the end it has little to do with the actual size of your bank account. It has everything to do with access. It’s all about who you know. That is what makes life bearable when it is crumbling away around you.

Didion had rich and powerful friends in show-biz, in politics, in academia. She could access the help of the best neurosurgeons in the country for her daughter; transfers from one hospital to another were organised with a phone call; emergency flights from New York to L.A. were facilitated on the private planes of acquaintances with accommodation waiting; medical records denied to others were made available. And so on. None of this eased her grief or cured her daughter but it allowed her to do what had to be done as quickly and simply as possible, to know that everything was in the very best of hands, to get the answers she needed. It smoothed the awful journey a little.

The rest of us should be so lucky. Should be, but aren’t.

The media and the courts are daily filled with the stories of people who couldn’t get access to information or services they desperately needed. Like the ridiculous case of the woman who couldn’t get access to her own frozen embryos because her dead husband was unable to give consent. There are the people hounded by Centrelink over debts they never incurred in the first place. There are the people who daily have trouble dealing with that awful My Gov website and miss out on what is due to them, and many, many people with poor English skills too overwhelmed or intimidated to stand up for decent wages or working conditions. I know people who blindly accept what every doctor tells them; never query anything, never ask for a second opinion.  And then there are the kids, starting out and full of hope, who apply for hundreds of jobs and never even get an interview. And never ask why not.

Some of these people are savvy enough – desperate enough? – to go to the media. Most have nowhere to turn. They can’t afford lawyers, or interpreters, they don’t know the right people, they haven’t the right references. They never had any assertiveness training.

It’s not easy to assert yourself. Well, clearly some people find it very easy indeed. They throw tantrums and build walls and bomb the shit out of whole countries. Look at me, look at me, look at me! But that’s not the sort of assertiveness I mean.

I am referring to the Oliver sort, the Please, may I have some more? sort. Not more than my share, but enough so that I am not hungry or working ridiculous hours for peanuts or whatever the problem is. It isn’t easy but I think we have to start teaching our kids to truly believe that they are as good as anyone else and that they will have to fight harder and harder, it seems, to make this world fair, not only for themselves but for the person next to them. We need to build self-confidence into them from birth, we need to make them assertive in the best possible way, so they will feel comfortable enough in their own skin to stand up and say, I want this because it’s equitable and it’s right. Not because my father owns the company or my sister’s on the board or I happen to have a letter from my close friend, the president.

I think the more people we have in our society who can do that – and the more people at the top who accept its validity and respond accordingly – the less call we might have for Royal Commissions into behaviour that causes untold damage, is often criminal and always totally unacceptable. I think we must each learn to be our own advocate because, heaven knows, those that do it professionally, in every field, are already overwhelmed. Any thoughts?  Or do we just throw it all at our poor teachers again.