It was 4:30pm when I saw it.
One of my favourite social commentators was visiting Melbourne (for one night only) to deliver a talk at a prestigious girls’ college in Melbourne. I follow her on Facebook, and this is where I saw the last-minute invitation to come along and see her. It was at 7pm that night.
I had been following this writer and commentator for a while now. In a clumsy way, I have always felt strong concerns about our hyper-sexualised culture and the effects this has on young people, especially girls. I want my daughters to be valued for their brains and their souls and not for how they look. I want my sons to have healthy attitudes towards women and girls. I don’t want my children to ever view another person as a means to an end. I want them to build healthy relationships and have friends without creepy benefits. I don’t think our culture supports me in the way I want to raise my kids. So often, I feel like I’m alone in thinking this. It’s not that I’m prudish, or anti-sex. Sex is truly one of my favourite rainy-day activities. But a pornified culture is toxic (and, in my opinion, anti-sex). I’m just not that good at talking about it.
That’s why it’s a relief to find a social commentator who is good at talking about it. In my tradition of giving pseudonyms, I will refer to her as Athena, not because it’s any great secret who she is, but because I’m rather prone to exaggeration in my writing (I would much rather be entertaining than accurate) and thought it would be a little unfair to use her real name because of this. If you’re curious and want a clue, her organisation’s website is here.
So I called up Mr Knightley and breathlessly filled him in.
“I think you should go.” he said firmly. His calm, decisive nature is one of the many reasons I’m glad I married him. “We have nothing else on tonight. I’ll make sure I’m home on time. If we have a quick dinner, you can just make it there by seven.”
Thus began my frenzy to get ready.
I hate to admit it, but there was a small but very vocal part of me that felt a bit intimidated at the thought of spending an evening at an exclusive private school with wealthy people (I can hear my mother’s voice scolding me for even thinking this. If I were to be invited to dine with the Royal Family, my mum would exclaim over how lucky Her Majesty The Queen would be to meet me). My vanity was working overtime. What was I going to wear? What was I going to wear?
The jeans-and-shirt combo I had on didn’t look too bad, but it felt a little worn and shabby. Pippi always complimented me on this particular top, “Charcoal suits you”, she would enthuse. The only problem was, the top used to be black.
I needed something nicer than my usual school-gate gear, but nothing that made me look like I dressed up for the occasion. It took a lot of time to find something that looked suitably effortless. Dress. Tights. Jewellery. Make up. Sensible Shoes (essential for feminist discussions).
As soon as my husband got home, I served up dinner and attempted to speed-feed myself whilst scrutinising a map of South Yarra on my phone screen. Then I kissed everybody and fled the house. I was barely going to make it on time.
As I battled a confusion of trams and inner-city traffic in the rain, I imagined how it was going to be. I would nod and smile and look intelligent throughout the presentation. When it came time for questions and comments I would astound everybody with my pithy observations. Athena would approach me afterwards, keen to continue the discussion, and I would be all articulate and witty. I might even casually mention my blog and Athena would clamour to whip out her notebook and pen to scribble down the address.
“We really should collaborate,” Athena would confide with a warm smile, “we need a brain like yours on our team!”, and she would nod and I would blush and she would braid my hair and I would paint her nails an empowering shade of pink.
I was twenty minutes (TWENTY MINUTES!) late when I tentatively pushed open the door to the conference room. This was after I accidentally pulled in to the wrong campus of the school, then executed a wonky parallel park on the street and traipsed through a dark and bewildering labyrinth of buildings to reach the secret seminar room. I was too scared to ask directions. I didn’t want anyone to know I didn’t belong there.
There were no obvious seats for me to slink into un-noticed. Everybody seemed to be sitting next to the door and the only way for me to reach a vacant seat was by climbing over a whole row of people. Thankfully, the kindly man near me who was operating the slide-show pulled a chair from beneath his laptop table and beckoned me over. Burning red, I shot him a grateful look and stumbled into my seat.
Athena spoke well, but even so, the talk was hard to listen to. It was very hard-hitting and by the end of it I was reeling a little and feeling a bit depressed by the state of the world and the state of our advertising industry.
I really wanted to talk to Athena afterwards, but so, it seemed, did everyone. So I did that thing where you hover expectantly. I stood there with an eager look on my face that said I’m waiting to talk to Athena. Unfortunately, I didn’t perform this ritual within Athena’s line of sight, so after the man who butted in ahead of me had finished talking, Athena swept away without noticing me. I was left standing by myself in the middle of a room, the pleasantly expectant expression slowly fading from my face whilst Athena busied herself in a suitcase of equipment behind a screen.
What was I going to do? What was the correct etiquette here? Athena had placed herself in a confined space. I didn’t really want to go in there and climb on top of her and gush everywhere when I quietly suspected she had positioned herself strategically to get away from people. Meanwhile, I was starting to feel more and more awkward. When Athena had been visible in the room, I could stand by myself without looking strange because I was obviously waiting to talk to her. Now that Athena had disappeared from sight, I was just some lost person in the middle of the room. Would she never emerge?
I tried to hover by the book stand and feign interest despite the fact that I already owned half the books for sale there already and had no interest in purchasing the other half. Unfortunately, there is a limit to the amount of time you can hover at a book stand without actually making a purchase, and, once you do, there’s no longer a reason to hover. What on earth was she doing back there?
I suppose I could have wandered over to the food table (they served wine), but I felt I’d already done enough freeloading by turning up to another school’s information night without nicking their food as well. I was becoming increasingly aware of my interloper status. Why would she not come out?
So I struck up a conversation with the nice man who had been operating the laptop. He was taking photos as well. I figured he must be part of Athena’s entourage and. like a naïve groupie, I thought that conversation with him might lead to conversation with my elusive idol. I was pretty sure by now she was avoiding me on purpose.
It was with horror that I realised that this man was not with Athena but with the school. I shamefacedly confessed that I was a gatecrasher to this event and he gallantly exclaimed “Good! You are most welcome!”. We chatted about Athena’s talk for a bit until Athena herself finally emerged and I launched myself upon her.
But my tongue had swollen to twice its size in my mouth. It would seem I used up all my clever conversation on the kindly camera man. I realised I wasn’t going to astound Athena with my intellect, which must have gone down for a nanna-nap, so I decided instead to try for a gold-star-for-effort.
“I’m so happy to be here! I force-fed my family fish fingers and rushed right over!” Oh cringe. Why did I have to go for the alliterative and – you know – honest description of events? I could have said I fed them ethically-sourced, free-range quinoa in an organic kale jus – how would she have known the difference?
Athena distractedly handed me a brochure for her organisation. I handed it back and breathlessly assured her that I was already a member. I am one of your people, I wanted to shriek, I am your disciple.
I could smell my own nervous sweat.
As I jabbered on, and Athena nodded politely (I heard myself exclaiming “I homeschool my daughter!” and “I boycott Spotlight because of you!”), a small thought cloud appeared above her head. Inside it, I could see a cup of tea and a soft, warm bed. Athena tried hard not to look longingly at her thought cloud, but I could tell it was a heroic struggle. Instead, she smiled and thanked me and went to talk to the lady selling the books. It was over.
It was only after I had left the building and was driving home that my brain decided to wake up and helpfully started providing me with suggestions of what I should have said. I told my brain that it was too late now, but it would seem that once it had started, it couldn’t stop, so I continued to be regaled by these suggestions the whole way home.
Here is a picture to commemorate this event. Note the tights and the three-dimensional bed. That’s as impressive as my drawing skills get.
When I logged onto Facebook yesterday, there was an update from Athena. She was sharing a video from an American speaker whom she greatly admired. Athena commented that she’d had the privilege of hearing this woman speak when she (the speaker) visited Australia a few years ago and that she (Athena) “was like one of those pathetic groupie girls who makes fools of themselves”.
My heart gave a little dance in my chest. Even Athena had fangirl moments. It’s true: I was awkward and eager and gushing. But at least I was in good company.