Professional amateurs everywhere, but most not up to the mark

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 July 2012

The Herald recently reported on an award-winning, 18-metre long kitchen which included a scullery, an outdoor kitchen, two wine fridges and two regular fridges.

”It suited our needs as a family to have dedicated zones, for cooking, food preparation, consumable and non-consumable storage,” the owner was reported as saying.

Two things came to mind. First, I thought, wasn’t this a little bit bonkers? But then I wondered about a link between that story and the one on the next page, part of a series about Sydney’s struggling top-end restaurants (“Hammered chefs tighten belts to stay in kitchen”).

The owners of the awarded kitchen are not chefs, but seem to have acquired their attitudes, and many of their external trappings. They represent a trend you could call the rise of the professional amateur.

You can imagine their dinner parties. Dishes inspired by recipes from Michelin-endorsed restaurants; pictures uploaded on Instagram; someone tweeting a review.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising the restaurant and news media industries are struggling, when putting on a chef’s – or reporter’s – hat can be as simple as hitting the laptop, iPad or smartphone. When we can do it ourselves, the mystique surrounding the professional can start to evaporate like the alcohol in a French sauce.

The internet has brought a world of information into our homes and our hands, fostering a DIY culture for anyone with a bit of time and a desire for knowledge. Clearly there is an upside. If you can Google and have the patience to follow a homemade how-to video, you can fix your own motorbike, lay some tiles, or maybe teach yourself ukulele.

In some fields the professional amateur can now bypass old gatekeepers such as agents, editors and record companies. All you need is a laptop and an X-rated imagination to attract a few million readers for your self-published erotic novel. And in a phenomenon pioneered by bands such as Arctic Monkeys, anyone with a home recording studio, a webcam, a modicum of talent and a dash of dumb luck can sell songs and even concert tickets.

The rise of the professional amateur is celebrated, and positively encouraged, by programs such as MasterChef, The Block and The Voice.

In The Voice, the line between professional and amateur became almost completely blurred. When the show began, contestants frequently professed to be fans of the judges, including singers Seal and Keith Urban. By the end, it was the famous judges declaring themselves fans of their newly famous charges. The duets performed by contestants and coaches in the final show almost dissolved any lingering divisions completely.

There’s something seductive and pleasing about seeing a schoolteacher, or a stay-at-home mum, or a veteran of refuges like The Voice winner Karise Eden, becoming interior stylists or cookbook authors or famous singers almost overnight. After a long era when occupations became increasingly specialised, it harks back to earlier times, when it wasn’t unusual to dabble, and even excel, in a number of trades or skills.

But there’s also a downside. Just because someone can jump in front of a camera doesn’t mean they deserve an audience (Craig Emerson included). And just because someone can set up a Twitter account or blog to send their random thoughts out into the world doesn’t mean we can do away with the traditional news media – editors and publishers with a commitment to old-fashioned values such as, say, accuracy. A self-appointed pundit broadcasting from his or her couch can never replace the time consuming, difficult and costly work of real investigations.

Similarly, just because someone with zero medical expertise can type ”vaccination” into Google and end up surfing out in the scientific fringes to find the one study (now discredited) against childhood inoculation doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for them to set up a professional-looking website advising against potentially lifesaving vaccinations.

Not long ago, the chef Matt Moran was interviewed on radio talking about the 20-odd hour days he worked when still a teenager, developing his now encyclopaedic knowledge of his field. While it might be nice to think during the duller moments of our everyday jobs that we could turn a weekend or evening hobby into a career, it’s the Matt Morans of the world who are busy preserving, and building on, the ocean of knowledge that the professional amateurs are splashing about in. And while it’s pretty safe in the shallows, you ought to know what you’re doing when venturing into deeper waters.

When Julie Powell blogged about her year working her way through the recipes in chef Julia Child’s cookbook, the result made for a good movie. But I would happily bet that the Le Cordon Bleu-trained Child made a much better meal.


Childcare cuts will send home those who should be in the workforce

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 16 January 2012

When a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney surveyed students about their plans for the future, the men spoke of careers but the women also factored in families and children. One said she was planning for a life in the diplomatic corps, where built-in domestic help would allow her to combine a family and a career.The future diplomat’s response now looks wise indeed, after a recent call by Cassandra Goldie, the chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service, to cut childcare subsidies to “well-off” households

When I entered university in the late 1980s, not many of us had a clear vision of the future, let alone big-picture plans. Our so-called “slacker” or “options” generation grew up in a world where constant change was the new normal, and the nuclear gloom and doom of the 1980s seemed to suffuse a big cloud over the future.

After passing through university – perhaps taking a year or two off to travel, run a nascent political movement, start up a band – we faced the recession of the early ’90s. Do not worry, the bosses and universities told us – just get one more qualification and you will get a cracker job. By our late 20s, many of us were still working to get any sort of real purchase in the job market.

Even if we did find partners who also wanted children, paying back the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) debts and servicing the huge mortgages in a booming housing market meant children had to be carefully factored into any financial plans. No wonder so many found themselves in their mid- to late-30s in a mad – in many cases desperate – rush to squeeze in the one or two (very occasionally three) children they suddenly realised they wanted.

The lucky ones did not have too many fertility problems, managed to qualify for paid maternity leave, found affordable childcare, had jobs that allowed for some flexibility, partners that shared the load equally and extended families that filled in the financial or childcare gaps. But dropping out of work for long periods was not an option.

In many ways, it is as if Generation X has been through a giant social experiment, where extended education, rapidly changing job markets and fragmented social structures have combined to push our physical, economic and social ability to conceive and raise children to the limit.

I look admiringly at the generation coming up behind us, who seem infinitely wiser to the potential hurdles and pitfalls that await them: collecting two degrees now seems a starting point for many, as is staying home with family for as long as possible to afford their first mortgage. Today’s 20-somethings realise there is very little room for error if they want the career and the children.

Childcare tax rebates are a crucial part of the equation. As Juliet Bourke, the chairwoman of the Taskforce on Care Costs, notes: “It might seem like a large outlay now, but if we can keep women in the workforce during the years of early childhood, it’s much more cost effective than getting them to re-enter after 10 years when their skills have been degraded, their confidence has been eroded and they still have to pay for after-school care.

Women are entering universities in greater numbers than their male peers. Why on earth would we want to see them spending most of their 30s out of the workforce, or working only part-time?

Patricia Apps, a professor at the University of Sydney, has written extensively about how low- and middle-income women bear the highest tax burdens when the combined effect of government subsidies cutting out and higher tax rates cutting in are taken into account.

In my case, with one school-age child and one in childcare, part-time work is almost the only option. When most childcare centres cost $100 a day or more, the tax rebate (capped at $7500 per child) cuts out after day three. When you have two children to care for, and when working more than three days takes you into a higher tax bracket, you are almost at the point of paying to go to work.

If you buy dinner at the end of a working week because you are tired and have no time after the daily commute, working an extra day might net you $20 or $30. If anything, childcare rebates need increasing, not cutting.

This might sound like middle-class whingeing, but childcare subsidies absolutely affect workforce participation decisions (as the academics would say) of the very people you want to keep attached to the modern workforce.

Researchers have been busy for many years showing how children’s outcomes on all sorts of measures are positively correlated to a mother’s educational achievement. It’s an important by-product of education, but surely not the only one.

A friend’s mother used to tell her that the baby boomer generation was luckier than ours. As part of the second wave of feminists, her mother’s generation was more likely to have had traditional mothers themselves to help them with child-rearing. And by having kids younger, they were young enough by the time their children were independent to have second careers if they wished to.

It would be a travesty if we changed the rules yet again to make this the first generation of women whose aspirations and achievements actually went backwards.


When reality bites

A confession. Lately I’ve been listening to Stay (I missed you), Lisa Loeb’s three perfectlyScreen Shot 2015-05-05 at 09.52.01 formed minutes of indie pop from the soundtrack to the 1994 film Reality Bites (opening lines: “You say I only hear what I want to/You say I talk so all the time). The song’s video famously featured a one-take shot of Loeb pacing around an empty New York City apartment, singing about love lost in her knock-out girl/woman voice.

With her sexy-geek look (librarian glasses, little black dress and opaque black tights) Loeb wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Girls, Lena Dunham’s breakthrough hit on HBO last year – and the show which led me to rediscover (in a somewhat convoluted fashion that I’ll explain) Loeb’s addictive tune. Watching Girls and listening to this song has made me think about how some things that seem new are actually kind of old. And about how popular culture does middle age and nostalgia for youth.

When I finally caught up with Girls over the summer break I was expecting, as all the reviews had promised, Sex and the City only younger, poorer, and (in the case of Dunham’s lead character Hannah Horvath) plumper and more tattooed. The superficial comparisons are obvious. Both shows feature four female friends living in New York City. In each the main character is a writer whom we first meet in a seemingly hopeless relationship with an enigmatic, dark haired love interest who calls her ‘kid’. In both shows the friend characters include an uninhibited sexually adventuress one, a naive preppy one and a straight, uptight one.

But as I raced through Girls‘ excellent first season, something familiar about the story made me curious to take another look, almost two decades on, at Reality Bites. The film, starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke, was hailed as one of the first popular portraits of a cynical but still hopeful Generation X. Like Girls, Reality Bites follows a group of relatively privileged, recently graduated 20-somethings eager to set the world on fire with their abundant talents. And just like Girls, they find an economy that’s gone off the boil and barely able to offer them entry level jobs. Girls’ Hannah is writing her memoir. Reality Bites’ Lelaina is making a video documentary about her friends. Over a restaurant dinner Hannah’s parents tell her they are cutting off her allowance. She later pleads with them: “I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation.” Over dinner with her parents, Lelaina’s dad offers her a credit card. Later she plaintively pleads with her mother for a loan: “I was valedictorian of my university.”

Both characters sabotage their internships and argue with their best friend and flatmate (who has a stable but less glamorous job) about unpaid bills. Both girls take jobs they believe are beneath them – Hannah in a cafe and Lelaina in a burger joint. And both girls’ love interests are slacker artist types disdainful of anything with a whiff of commercialism (Hawke’s poet Troy in Reality Bites and Adam Sackler’s aspiring actor Adam in Girls).

Both stories include an STD clinic visit sub-plot, awkward job interview sequences, female characters watching their male friends performing in small clubs, and a gay male character in an otherwise heterosexual cast. Both also feature a love triangle between Hannah/Lelaina, their slacker love interest and a more conservative character – an MTV executive played by Ben Stiller in Reality Bites, and a black republican played by Donald Glover in season two of Girls. (I know, I’ve thought a lot about this.)

While Girls has been hailed as fresh, raw and cutting edge – and admittedly it does darker sex, more obviously flawed characters and more realistic bodies than Reality Bites – it isn’t quite as original as some critics might have us believe. You could say Girls is Reality Bites just with Facebook and more cellulite. But whether the similarities are deliberate (and the placement of Loeb’s tune in a recent Girls’ episode suggest they might be) they shouldn’t be surprising.

The period of life after the dependency of childhood, but before the full suite of adult responsibilities arrive, is ripe for dramatisation. Watching a character trying to figure out who they are going to be, and how they are going to be, for the rest of their life is a classic storyline.

Lelaina and Troy from Reality Bites would now be in their early 40s. If we caught up with them in a sequel we would probably find out they are married (most likely to other people) have one or two children each, and working in jobs that didn’t quite live up to their early hopes. But chances are we won’t see that sequel. Popular stories of the middle age of life, when the nappy changing, career compromising, bill-paying stage is at its peak, are few and far between.

Films and television shows about the mostly mundane world of the middle aged and middle class tend to rely on big dramatic events – a divorce, a dead or dying parent, a kidnapped child, natural disaster, or extreme dysfunction (or sometimes all of the above) – to keep the narrative ball rolling. For recent examples just see the TV series Weeds or Breaking Bad. Or George Clooney losing his wife in last year’s Oscar-winning movie The Descendants. This year Naomi Watts is trying to find her husband and two younger sons, who are swept up in a tsunami in The Impossible.

Australian stories about contemporary middle aged, middle class parenthood seem to have offered some of the better recent dramatisations of that world. The Slap began with a seemingly inconsequential barbecue incident and unravelled into a multi-faceted story of dramatic tension and multiple themes. The critically acclaimed Love My Way also rang true (although Claudia Karvan’s character, Frankie, seemed to require the death of her daughter before she could develop in interesting new ways).

In popular culture the divorce/death/dysfunction/disaster storyline is so ubiquitous it’s interesting to see a crop of films, either recently released or about to be released, that don’t use these predictable themes. Instead their narrative focus is nostalgia for that particular phase of life celebrated in Girls and Reality Bites.

In Liberal Arts Josh Radnor plays a college admissions advisor in his mid-30s and in a personal and professional funk. An invitation to return to his alma mater gives him a chance to relive his university years, rediscover a passion for art and indulge in a flirtation with a 19-year-old. In Judd Apatow’s This is 40 a mother and wife on the cusp of her fifth decade works out regularly with a trainer, parties with her Gen Y employee (Megan Fox) and flirts with men almost half her age. Meanwhile her husband chases a youthful dream of running a successful record label, all the while fantasising about his wife dying and leaving him a single man again.

In the soon-to-be-released Two Mothers 40-somethings Naomi Watts and Robin Wright will be seen rediscovering their younger selves by having affairs (somewhat incredulously) with each other’s sons. And later this year Hawke will return to our screens – not in Reality Bites 2, but in Before Midnight, a movie that meets up with Hawke and co-star Julie Delpy 18 years after they first met on an overnight train as young backpackers in the movie Before Sunset. According to reviews from Sundance, in Before Midnight the two are now parents after they reunited nine years ago in the second instalment of the story, After Sunrise.

You could argue such stories reflect an immature nostalgia for youth. Life at 40, in particular, has been criticised for its portrayal of characters chasing lost youth and refusing to accept the responsibilities of adulthood. But I think such criticisms are too harsh. If, crudely speaking, it is art’s job to reflect and critique reality and entertainment’s job to offer a temporary escape from reality, then such movies seem to be doing not too badly at the former, and a fairly good job of the latter.

When I first watched the Stay video in my twenties, I probably would have seen the empty apartment as a metaphor for the emptiness of the singer’s life without her lover. Now I can see it as a symbol not of what she doesn’t have, but what she could have. Like the characters from Girls, who are constantly moving their few possessions in and out of each other’s apartments, she has space to fill her life with whatever she fancies. And plenty of time to figure out what kind of woman she’ll be. Who wouldn’t be tempted to feel nostalgic about that?

Heaven forbid we let reality into politics

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 July 2004

Vote for Me, a segment on Channel Seven’s Sunrise program, is a sort of political Australian Idolwhere viewers can vote to choose a candidate to stand as an independent for the federal upper house.

The Labor icon Barry Jones had to back out of his role as a judge because nervous Labor senators thought the show might stop them from nailing the difficult third position on Labor’s senate ticket, says the journalist Matt Price.

The Dicko, Marcia and Mark of VFM are now the former Howard adviser Grahame Morris, journalist Lisa Wilkinson and the former independent MP Phil Cleary. These three have narrowed the applicants to 18 finalists. Viewers will vote to choose one candidate from each state.

Condemnation of this show is bipartisan and runs from the Prime Minister’s office down, the journalist Glenn Milne told Lateline. Political journalists have been asking whether VFM will distort democracy, affect the balance of power in the Senate or create a senator for Channel Seven. The criticisms of the show from the major political parties and political commentators have been predictable. But do they stack up?

Many have cited the $10,000 in campaign funds Seven is giving to successful candidates. But as the Orange Grove retail centre affair demonstrates, corporate donations to political parties are hardly new (the ALP is claiming they have no bearing on policy). Politicians protesting at Seven’s generosity therefore just sound like hardcore cocaine addicts criticising a teenager for inhaling when the joint is passed around.

The criticism that choosing political representatives via a television game show makes a mockery of democracy seems at first to be fairer. But how are our representatives chosen now? As has been noted recently, a talent for stacking branches and sitting through years of dreary party meetings are too often the key talents required of aspiring politicians.

Isn’t democracy already imperfect when so many of our representatives are the sons (and increasingly daughters, wives or sisters) of former government ministers, deputy PMs or MPs? Are Simon Crean, Larry Anthony, Alexander Downer, George Bush and even Kim Beazley really the best talent we have?

When Laurie Brereton announced his retirement media reports automatically mentioned a son, Anthony, as a potential candidate – his surname seemingly his most salient qualification.

What about the argument that VFM trivialises politics and turns it into showbiz and entertainment? Again, this is hardly a shocking new development: it’s a safe bet the spin doctors had showbiz and entertainment on their minds when Mark Latham visited the Big Brother house and Peter Costello tangoed with a python and Kerri-Anne Kennerley.

But while professional politicians see virtue in acting the fool or showing their Average Joe side, look out when Average Joe steps into the professional politicians’ domain. When Big Brotherdetainee Merlin protested against detention centres, Amanda Vanstone questioned his facts and his right to enter into the debate. Big Brother‘s host, Gretel Killeen, was outraged because he deviated from the scripted questions and the show’s running order.

When journalists express concerns about VFM, they too seem to be displaying a nervousness about the unpredictable, unruly element the untrained politician introduces into the reporting process. Journalists and politicians rely on each other for a relatively predictable and steady flow of leaks, exclusives, quotable quotes and suppressed angles more or less in time for each day’s deadline.

In her book about her experience on the Pauline Hanson campaign, the Herald journalist Margo Kingston’s frustrations with Hanson were often about her inability to play this political game, rather than the content of her policies.

Although Kingston worried about journalists in modern politics being reduced to theatre reviewers for an uninterested public, she ended up relishing the role of political game show host. She and her sister staged a meeting between Hanson and the then Victorian premier, Jeff Kennett, in a shopping centre; at times she was Hanson’s unofficial media adviser; and she had a sleepover at the Hanson house that she banned her sister from reporting in The Age.

Politicians condemn VFM because it means real people and amateurs intruding on their turf, threatening the factional deals divvying up the seats of power even before an election is held.

Reality TV hosts dislike disobedient and political contestants taking over their turf and interfering with program running orders. Political journalists are wary of VFM because it means unpredictable real people entering their turf, threatening the relatively predictable process of putting together a story.

VFM may be flawed and crucial Senate seats are at stake. But when criticising the show, let’s not pretend our system is perfect. VFM could add a bit of colour and an element of surprise to the mostly established scripts of politics, reality TV and news reports. Worse things have happened.

Straight line on marriage

First published by The Drum, 7 August 2009

On the way to work on a busy stretch of inner city Sydney road I can count 23 wedding-themed shops offering photography, bridesmaids frocks and bridal accessories, but mostly wedding dresses – from synthetic bright white powder puffs, to edgy and sexy designer gowns.

Like paparazzi light bulbs lining the red carpet, the window displays are so luminous that even in winter they practically demand sunglasses.

They’ve also left me spending some time pondering why I’ve never been tempted to be covered in confetti. It has something to do with coming to adulthood when a particular feminist version of the Gen X grunge aesthetic was in vogue. The wedding dress, if it was worn at all, was worn ironically and at dress-up parties, after a lustful, writhing Madonna in the video clip Like a Virgin.

In more recent years my no-wedding stance has had more to do with the fact that I’m not sure how I could invite my gay and lesbian friends and family members to an event they can’t themselves hold.

I expect many will find this hard to believe. When Brad Pitt declared he was boycotting marriage until same-sex couples could wed, men everywhere metaphorically back slapped Pitt for coming up with possibly the world’s best excuse to avoid getting hitched.

I just wondered what was so difficult to understand (besides, would any straight bloke, even Brad Pitt, seriously invent a reason to avoid marrying Ange?).

What we should be asking is why we heterosexually-coupled are so intent on keeping the marriage business to ourselves – even while we’ve broken almost every other wedding rule going. Without blinking we routinely attend weddings where first husbands give away ex-wives to the next husband. Or weddings between straight couples where the best man is a woman, or where couples marry underwater or naked (or both simultaneously) to demonstrate how they are, like, straight but not straight.

Yet when it’s two women, or two men, we draw (a very straight) line.

Straight people, it seems, prefer gays take a supporting role in our wedding fantasies – like the Rupert Everett character who plays Julia Roberts’ faux fiancé in My Best Friend’s Wedding, or the ubiquitous gay wedding planner, most recently seen organising Carrie’s nuptials in the movie of Sex and the City.

Perhaps deep down many heterosexuals feel there’s too much to be gained from marriage – whether family approval and favourable inheritance plans, or added status in the workplace or society – to let non-straights in on the act.

The very same people who would abhor the idea of, say, a bar that said “whites only” will nevertheless gladly jump into the heterosexuals-only marriage club without a moment’s thought.

It’s true that some traditionalists argue same-sex marriage should never be allowed because matrimony is for producing children. But on that thinking we should ban weddings between the old, the infertile, or the avowedly childless – and force the rest to sign solemn declarations of their reproductive intentions.

It’s also true that many gays and lesbians don’t want to be married. But many heterosexuals don’t either – yet they are still free to marry, should their feelings and circumstances change.

To argue for same-sex marriage isn’t an argument in favour of marriage per se. It’s simply an argument for equality. And just as most minority battles have depended on the enlightened portion of the majority getting behind them, same-sex marriage isn’t ever going to get to the altar until its straight supporters vocally come out in support.

Like Sean Penn, who said when accepting his best actor Oscar for his portrayal of gay politician Harvey Milk: “We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone”.

The Australian federal government recently removed many laws that discriminated against gays and lesbians in superannuation and many other areas, but Kevin Rudd has refused to budge on same-sex marriage, more than once affirming his conservative religious stance that marriage is something “between a man and a woman”.

Similarly in the US Obama has described marriage as “something sanctified between a man and a woman”.

But the tide seems to be turning. In the US, states such as New Hampshire, Iowa, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine either currently allow, or are about to introduce, same sex marriage, with New York set to follow.

Recently two close friends flew to the US and took a train to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls to marry. The only way to take part in their ceremony was to wake up at 2am and watch the live video stream they’d organised on the internet.

Instead of sharing the moment with family and friends in Australia, they celebrated with sausage rolls and lamingtons in their rented New York apartment with gay friends they’d made online.

So I’m proposing straights stop proposing. Call it the “I won”t say I do until you can too” boycott.

If it works, Kevin Rudd may find out that same-sex marriage is just the stimulus package he is looking for. The boarded up shop fronts on my work route would come alive with names like Marrying Men and Lesbian Love for Life.

If the Sydney Mardi Gras is any guide, I’ll be in investing in some extra dark sunglasses.

Time this journey was cut short

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 19 October 2004

At the Coalition’s campaign launch John Howard spoke about his “journey to reinforce my values as an Australian”. In his National Press Club speech Mark Latham described the election as “a long journey for the Australian people”.

Every time another finalist on Australian Idol is voted off, the show’s hosts introduce video highlights of their “incredible journey”. Staff bulletins talk about “journeys” to become best practice employers, wedding guests can expect the couple to thank them for joining them on their “life journey”, and TV finance journalists describe a stock price as going on a “journey”. Even one of the questions in an HSC English question yesterday was “The journey not the destination matters”.

The word “journey” has never been so ubiquitous, yet the irony is we are living in an era when we’re supposed to be shunning travelling and staying put.

The nesting trend has often been attributed to our fears about an unsafe world – if we’re not renovating, we’re all supposed to be bunkering down at home and embalming our frequent flyer cards. So why are we all so keen to sound like self-help gurus with training wheels by throwing around the word journey with such earnest abandon?

In an evermore complex, fragmented and secular world, it no doubt helps to think there’s an overarching logic governing everything that happens to us – it’s all about your personal journey. No doubt the pervasiveness of the word “journey” at least partly stems from the popularity of a generally narcissistic new age self-help language.

On an episode of Big Brother, one contestant seriously pondered whether another contestant should leave the house because, hey, “maybe it’s part of her journey?” Spending a few weeks going from the spa to the fridge and to the Freedom couch and back again is not a journey: it’s a few weeks going from the spa to the fridge and to the Freedom couch and back again.

Another explanation for the word’s popularity may be the way in which corporate language has started sidelining terms associated with ends, such as “goals” and “targets”, in favour of what might be described as a more feminised speech. New management speak prefers words describing processes and relationships: “continuous improvements”, “client relationship management” – and workplace “journeys”.

A media and cinema literate generation is also increasingly familiar with scriptwriting terms such as “character arc”, so perhaps it’s only natural that we will cast ourselves as the main character on a journey in our movie.

It’s just one small word, but words are important to us – as the recent best-selling books about language by Lynne Truss and Don Watson have demonstrated. And it’s a word that seems indicative of a growing inward-looking self-obsession – one that seems to be taking over from real journeys that bring us into contact with others.

We will continue to overuse and misuse the word journey until we regain a better sense of proportion and the relative weight of things. A journey is not what happens when a major bank changes its interest rate, despite what the ad claims: it’s better used to describe, say, an escape from a dictatorial regime and a life-threatening trip on a leaky boat.

The new agers who helped popularise the j-word often borrow their ideas from a mish-mash of religions and cultures in a crude and superficial fashion.

So let’s not add to this pseudo-religious and pompously earnest approach by using the word for every single thing we do. As one of the characters in the now defunct TV show The Secret Life of Us noted: “There is no journey. Shit just happens.”

Grimm tales of a city obsessed with turning all into gold

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 August 2003

It has almost become a cliche for TV reviewers to criticise the reality gap in popular dramas. The Secret Life of Us, for example, was criticised by Geoff Munro, director of the Centre for Youth Drug Studies, for failing to include any characters who don’t drink.

And political types roll their eyes when one of the show’s characters, Gabby – a former political staffer, union boss and now Labor Party candidate – comes across as uncomfortably naive, with her inability to understand game playing in local politics.

Perhaps the real naivety is in expecting shows based on escapism or fantasy to mirror real life. If we wanted this, we’d all be stalking doctors, lawyers and police officers to catch every excruciatingly dull second. Or we’d hire an Andy Warhol film.

But while we are so quick to criticise the lack of realism in these fantasy worlds, we seem very willing to buy into the fantasy of home renovating reality TV.

We seem quick to forget that reality TV producers – just like drama screenwriters – are naturally going to edit out the boring bits, simplify the complicated bits, and fast forward the time-consuming bits. No one was ever going to tune in to two years of The Block: Getting the Development Application Through Council.

And after the recent debate about real estate prices, perhaps it’s time to ask just how much these are caused by our willingness to believe fairytale stories of magic makeovers.

In real life, our desire to emulate these shows creates a market where the ante is constantly being upped: better homes, more expensive furnishings and builders who raise their prices as demand goes through the roof.

In these fairytales, Jamie Durie is little Rumpelstiltskin. He helps contestants locked in small rooms by King Packer to spin termite-infested floors and decorative straw artworks into real estate and ratings gold. Johanna Griggs is the fairy godmother whose magic wand can turn a horrendous pumpkin patch into an urban paradise.

Catherine Orenstein, the author of Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, says the obsession in fairytales with the perfect home has its origins in the early 20th century, “when Americans began to glorify marriage and domesticity”. It started in Disney’s first full-length animated feature, the 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which has the cartoon heroine “whistling and singing with rabbits and deer while she cooks and scrubs the dwarfs’ pad”.

While Jamie and Johanna are righting wrongs, some of us are getting a little carried away with the fortune part of the tale. If the great Australian dream was once to buy your own home, it now seems to be to sell it for $100,000 above the reserve.

Now even children who haven’t yet learnt to read Little Red Riding Hood are getting caught up in the renovating frenzy. One real estate writer recounted being phoned by a four-year-old who demanded to know which was the “best apartment in The Block and how much it will sell for”. It wasn’t so long ago when 24-year-olds who showed even a passing interest in real estate were considered prematurely aged freaks.

With house prices the way they are, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that, for kids, owning your own home has become a fairytale story.

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