Friday, 22 June 2012

On spoiling other people's fun

I keep spoiling other people's fun.

I have become a po-faced party-crasher: a poo-poo-ing puncturer of other people's pleasure.

I'm not sure how it happened. But I think the answer might have the words 'special needs parent' in it.

I've written before on here about enduring spiky interactions with professional comedians who take offence when their jokes about autism cause offence.

This week I tangled with an amateur humourist, but the symptoms were the same: rising nausea, rage and panic. Familiar despair.

This time the arena was a well-known department store. The children's department of a well-known department store. To be puritannically precise: the toy department of the children's department of a well-known department store. The place, of all places, to which children gravitate for fun.

I was looking for birthday presents for my baby girl, now no longer a baby quite so much but three years old, lively and smart as a whip. I was browsing in the Playmobil section, looking for cars and trucks -- anything with wheels, really, so that it might stand a chance of keeping up with her -- and reflecting on the difference between my baby and Grace, who at three was already drifting, dreaming, obsessing over the fantastical and far-away.

Then the jester spoke.

To my right a cluster of shop-floor staff were gathered around an art table, trying out a new creative device that was on sale, and comparing their efforts amid giggles and murmurs. One of them -- the only man, young and blonde and confident -- surveyed a colleague's efforts and pronounced: "I'm the artistic one. You're just autistic."

His workmates giggled, and elbowed each other. One said softly, "ooh no" and lowered her eyes and smiled. The jester puffed out his chest a bit and beamed.

I kept walking, round and around the displays, but no longer seeing them. First I felt white shock: spots danced in front of my eyes and my head buzzed as though I might faint. Then my senses rushed back in, led by overwhelming relief that Grace was not with me. Then: outrage. I stopped and looked back. The young man was walking smartly away from me and over to the book section, file under his arm, walkie-talkie in hand, passing out brisk, professional courtesies to shoppers along the way.

And I thought: should I say something? And then quickly afterwards I thought: I have to say something. And then just as quickly after that I thought: here we go again.

I'd love to have been able to just laugh it off. I'd love to have been able to roll my eyes and say "oooh, naughty" and dismiss it. I'd also love to stay out dancing and drinking until it's 4.30am and the birds are cooing in response to early dawn -- but those days are over too.

So I took deep breaths and lingered, and when the joker passed back my way again I stepped in front of him and said: "Excuse me, don't take this the wrong way but --"

What a ridiculous thing to say. How mimsy, mumsy, middle-aged mousy of me. But I didn't want to go straight into "How dare you" and I didn't want to say "Look here." I wanted to talk to him as me, just me, not one of the Professionally Outraged. I wanted him to listen. In the event though, I don't think he noticed how I prefaced my complaint. As soon as I got to the bit where I explained that I was the parent of a child with autism and that I'd overheard his joke, and that really, it would be sensible to reconsider such statements because they were liable to cause offence -- his eyes got very wide and fixed on a spot over my left shoulder, and his complexion took on a greenish hue. I left him, then, muttering "sorry madam, so sorry madam" over and over, in tones of mortification, to a spot on the wall in between the wooden building blocks and teething-ring stackers.

As jousts go it was terribly unsatisfactory. But then, there is rarely pleasure in this combat. No-one ever says "You know what? You're absolutely right and I'm an idiot and I can see that you're a very nice, normal person and you probably laugh at other jokes and even play the fool occasionally and I'm so sorry." They just look angry, or shout, or look like they want the floor to swallow them up, or like they might cry. And then I'm back to being the po-faced puncturer again.

In the event the store did issue me with a better, fuller apology. The jester's manager telephoned me and talked for a while, using words like "dignity" and "understanding" and "rebuke" and "regret". He said he would send me vouchers, which I said I would spend on Grace.

I'm still waiting for the vouchers. And for the day when it happens again.

Postscript: I received a letter of apology and £50 worth of vouchers from department store, along with a letter of apology from the manager of the toy department, who hoped the voucers would provide some recompense to me and my 'son'. 

Sunday, 10 June 2012

A Real Princess

When I was a little girl, a princess was defined by her fragility.

Within the treasured, tattered collection of yellow-spined Ladybird fairytale books that lined the shelves in my bedroom, the princesses were all delicate-limbed, blushing, fine-browed beauties. In every tale their lineage was clearly established at the start: beloved child of the king and queen, possessing unparallelled beauty and all-round loveliness and tenderness. Doe eyes mandatory. Tiny waists, too. These were not girls who ran and jumped or asked questions or bickered. Time and again they waited patiently and in mortal peril to be rescued by a strong, brave challenger, who was coming to rescue them primarily because they were a. a princess and b. beautiful.

In case there was any risk of small girls missing the point, one of the stories -- The Princess and the Pea -- clarified that a true princess was so tender that she would feel a pea beneath twenty mattresses and be able to display her pedigree in the purple bruising brought by morning time. (Much to the prince's satisfaction.)

I loved those books. I pored over them for hours and traced the silken dresses and flowing locks with a finger, imagining how I would look in similar apparel. I didn't really clock the significance of the princesses' inaction. Eventually reading led me to more sophisticated tales, through Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis to Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters and A.S. Byatt and Margarets Drabble and Atwood, and a world of heroines and women writers that took me far, far away from Snow White and Rose Red and Rapunzel.

Unless I went to the cinema, where the myth of the real princess still reigned. As an eleven-year-old I shifted with boredom through some of the male-populated blockbusters -- yawning and scratching at the endless men of the Star Wars franchises and pausing during the frantic plots of Back to the Future and Indiana Jones to wonder where the girls like me were. Women in those films were still there just to be kissed and rescued. They might get to throw the odd punch to make the chase more exciting, but eventually according to the rules they'd be caught -- twice, once by the man and then by his enemy, thus setting up a daring rescue mission for the film's hero. They might get the odd sassy line -- but too many wisecracks and their character would be downgraded to the frumpy tom-boy. After these films the playgrounds at school would be full of boys shouting and pretending to shoot and stab and brawl, while the girls stood around in gangs. (I went to the library.) These days the game seems largely unchanged except that the boys now come home and live out their version of the action on computer games, shooting and stabbing online (male) opponents. (Grace makes for her books and drawing paper.)

In between time, 'princess' has become a derogatory word. Alongside the fluttering eyelashes and belling skirts of story heroines -- and their modern-day spin-off, those cringe-inducing Disney characters and costumes for little girls -- it now means a woman who is hard work. A woman who is spoiled, vain and self-centred.

Who would want to be a princess? I find myself wondering, and I keep them well away from my tiny girl, my flaxen-haired three-year-old baby Betty, whose sneakers are perpetually filthy and who can load her big brothers' Nerf guns (tongue sticking out, one eye shut as she sights the barrel) in seconds. (There is another post here on girls and guns, but that's one for next time.)

Then last week Grace and I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman. Grace started the film curled sideways in the seat beside me, head under my arm, her fingers laced in mine, as she anticipated alongside the excitement of seeing the film, some anxiety about loud noises and bloody fight scenes. As the film unravelled, so she also unfurled, gradually straightening, unlinking from me and sitting ramrod upright, her face lit by the glow from the screen, eyes and mouth open wide as though she would drink it in if she could. The princess in this film is indeed beautiful and good (tick, and tick) but she is also strong and bold and ferocious in armour, beneath fluttering pennant. In one scene, she gallops along in slow-motion, at the head of an army, her sword at the ready, determination for vengeance in her eyes.

At this point Grace turned to me and said breathlessly: "That's a real princess, Mummy! Not like those rubbish stories!"

And suddenly the penny dropped. All those boys fighting and playing and shouting and dreaming of battles and winning. What fun! Where were those films for us women when we were growing up? Where were the films where the heroine was a depiction of the character you'd like to be? Where were the films that held possibilities, dreams and ambitions for you? As I watched Grace and watched the film I felt goosebumps. To see her connect with a woman who inspired her in this way was electric. I never thought I'd say it but: thank God for this Snow White. (And, frankly, also for the film's Wicked Queen, whose assault on the Kingdom is the vengeance of a woman who has been told that beauty alone is what gives her her worth and thus plots revenge on the world that created her.)

I watched the credits roll and thought that perhaps it was ok to let my daughter play at being a princess again.

Be good, and be brave, and let it be your armour, I told her silently.

We emerged from the cinema to find that a storm had broken. Outside, the skies swirled with black clouds and rain teemed down. Grace and I looked at the huge, heavy drops and then at each other. We grinned. Then we opened the doors, and ran out, whooping.