Time and relative dimensions
In America, they say, 200 years is a long time, while in England, 200 miles is a long way. In Australia, I think, neither of those mean very much at all. Time and distance gets swallowed up here. A couple of hundred miles (or kilometres, rather) is a short drive to the grocery store, and 200 years is how old I think my neighbour is, and he still has all his teeth. That’s what it feels like, living in a country town at least. The nearest mall is an hour away, if you drive that entire hour at escape velocity, and there is a pothole on the road that predates human habitation of the Australian continent (but the town council promises to make it a priority next year).
I’m not used to being this far from things. Growing up in a big city, I’m used to everything being a short journey away, and nothing ever counted in time increments of longer than an hour. Yes, since I lived in Pakistan, that short journey was rife with life-threatening danger, and every minute in that hour could be your last, but you’d be surprised how little consideration those issues get on a daily-life basis. Since moving to Northam, however, I’ve become painfully aware of how time and space are a wasted commodity, swallowed whole by West Australian geography.
There is no time when this is more painfully obvious to me than the summer vacations. I have a five-year-old daughter, you see, and since I am self-employed, I work from home. That works fine 10 months of the year, when she is at school and I have the entire morning and half the afternoon in which to get work done. My schedule those days begins with dropping her off to school, then heading to the town library where I’ve occupied one corner and basically turned it into a makeshift office space. There I write, edit, answer emails, plan shows, and generally achieve a great deal. Around noon, I’ll walk down to the park nearby and eat a sandwich while watching ducks and seagulls walk across the shallow mudslide that the Avon River becomes in the summer. Back to the library, more work, then pick her up from school and off to ballet lessons, swimming lessons, or any of the other extracurricular lessons we are paying for so that she doesn’t grow up to become a shut-in like her dad.
None of this is possible during the months of December and January, however. In those months, school is closed, so she is home. Which means she is bored and needs entertaining. My wife has a rule about how television is to be kept to a minimum for our daughter, and that rule is strictly enforced... at least until my wife leaves the house in the mornings for work. The moment that door shuts, I flip on kids’ TV and settle down to do some emails while Play School parents my neglected child. Before you start calling social services, I should point out that this is only done for half an hour or so. My daughter is untrustworthy, and would sell me out for a Kinder egg, so I don’t want to risk her turning informant to her mother. So the TV gets turned off, breakfast is eaten, and we can settle into a day of “I’m bored”.
That phrase is the soundtrack of every parent’s summer holiday. It’s actually a little-known fact, but the words “I’m bored” warp Newtonian physics. Every time a child says them, time bends around them, slowing down immensely so that the day stretches much longer. Sometimes that can result in a few hours added to the day, sometimes more. Last Tuesday, when it was particularly hot and entertainment possibilities were limited to sitting on the sofa or lying on the cool tiled floor, my daughter said “I’m bored” so many times, the day lasted 1000 years. Fact. You can look it up.
All of this, by the way, wouldn’t be so bad if there was stuff to do. But, in country towns there isn’t. These towns were constructed in a time when people had 18 children, because most of them didn’t live long enough to get bored. Nor could you be bored, what with the constantly entertaining dysentery and drought to keep you busy. The towns are, as a result, poorly equipped to deal with the attention span of the 21st century child. The nearest cinema is an hour away, the nearest art class an hour and ten minutes, and toy shops are basically limited to a single aisle at the local Woolies or Coles. On the days when we do drive to civilisation for some luxurious distractions, my daughter falls asleep on the drive down, and then stays up at night because of it, thus taking away what little respite I had to look forward to.
(This article, for example, was commissioned at the start of the summer holidays. It has been written in tiny increments over the course of several weeks, and even now she is standing at my elbow, asking, “When are you finished? I’m bored. Are you finished?” Oh God, if I have to make another Play-Doh dress for Barbie, I’m going to throw myself off the roof of the dollhouse.)
Sometimes the solace and distance provided by country living is a comfort. After all, here we don’t worry about traffic jams or terrorism. You can look at the news and see coverage of destruction, death and misery, then look out your window and see nothing but blue skies and a silent horizon. Some people would say that is a reasonable swap for a few weeks of your child getting bored at home. We call those people ‘non-parents’, and if they ever say that around any of us, they better hope they can run for a long time, and run far. Because chasing them down gives us something to do.