The Martian

I’ve just finished reading Andy Weir’s best seller “The Martian”. It’s now a hit movie starring Matt Damon. What a ripping yarn. Classic holiday reading; breezy, humorous, tense, and gripping. It’s hardly what you would call great literature and is a bit cringy in parts but I wasn’t looking for great literature, and the cringe was relatively brief. If you can put aside an afternoon or two you’ll get it read because it will hold you in its grasp. The hammock in the backyard, a beer, and The Martian. Not a bad holiday retreat.


Without giving away the plot it’s about an astronaut called Mark Watney who, due to some catastrophic circumstances, gets stranded on Mars. He needs to find ways to survive until a rescue mission arrives, though he is not even certain if one is coming. His “home” is a pressurised inflatable “tent” called the Hub. If it loses pressure he’ll, well, explode into millions of bits in Mars’ thin atmosphere.


Watney has a multitude of hurdles to overcome. Most seem insurmountable. All are life threatening. He uses his expert training, his human instincts, his tools and equipment, and his raw courage to persist. Its compelling stuff. As I was reading it I wondered how I would react in that situation. Would I give up? Would I persist against the impossible odds? As the chances to survive decrease would my tenacity go in the opposite direction? Or would I crumble? Do I even know what real hardship is?


Over the holidays we’ve been trying to teach Kate to catch public transport to MSAC (Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre), which is located on the opposite side of Melbourne from our house. The only way to teach her is to undertake the trip repeatedly until she gets comfortable. And I really mean repeatedly.


She needs to catch two trams which traverse the familiar streets of our suburb, through little Vietnam in Richmond with its bustling noise, exotic smells, and eclectic characters, through the CBD which must feel like Mordor to a Hobbit like Kate, and across South Melbourne’s multihued streets. The trip is about an hour each way if all goes well and if trams connect (which they never do). She needs to know this trip backwards because in 2016 she is doing a (very rudimentary) sports and administration program as part of her school year. It only takes place at MSAC. She’ll be making the return trip weekly alongside the flotsam and jetsam, and the ill-at-ease, who travel on Melbourne’s trams.


It scares the hell out of me.


She looks so vulnerable. Although she’s now 18, she’s still just a little girl with Down Syndrome (she’s only about 4’10” which I think is less than 150 centimetres), seated on a tram, and counting the tram stops as she goes past them, which we’ve taught her to do,


“That’s stop 118. That’s stop 119………”


She gets stares because she counts the stops out loud. This gives her reassurance. They become more tangible. It’s just her thing.


To add to the confusion she needs to change trams and therefore change tram routes. So the tram stop numbers also vary. They go from 24 at one street, to 106 the next. So we can’t even teach her how to simply follow a numerical order.


Meanwhile Frances or I (whoever is on the roster) seat ourselves away from her so she knows we are there, but she also knows we will offer no assistance unless she becomes overwhelmed. They call it tough love. I call it excruciating.


When this whole process started Kate may as well have been on Mars. It was foreign and frightening. She didn’t want to be there. “Why am I doing this?” she would ask. Frances and I grappled with the same question. We almost relented. Almost.


Try teaching a person with an intellectual disability that her destination lies in one direction on the way there, and the opposite direction on the way home; that when she gets off at this stop upon arrival, she must cross the road and catch a tram going in the opposite direction to return home. Her instincts tell her she should just get back on exactly the same tram.


Try telling her that the purpose of this rigmarole is because she will need these skills in a few months’ time. Kate only thinks as far ahead as her next meal. She lives in the moment. If the present is difficult why waste energy on the future? Teaching Kate things is like assembling a 5,000 piece Lego tower; its hugely time-consuming but the end result is often beautiful.


The other day there was a mechanical problem with the tram. An announcement came over the PA,


“This tram hassuffered a prolem. i wonbegoing any furth. Ploise alight thetram ‘ere”.


Uncertain at first she looked around for motherly assistance. The announcement may as well have been in Swahili. Kate had no understanding. And she probably wasn’t listening anyway as she was diligently counting tram stops like Mum and Dad had taught her. Against all instincts Frances decided not to help. At least initially. Kate was on her own. What would she do?


Well, she left the tram and stood for a few moments on the footpath. She started playing with her pony tail and chewing her tongue. These are sure signs that she is contemplating a serious question. This was a good start. The last thing we want to see is her sitting on the bitumen in a state of helplessness; to see her giving up. It must have been such a struggle for her. There would have been some panic (though Mum was nearby), there would have been enormous confusion, and there was probably profound self-consciousness. Cars and trucks zoomed past, the reactions of her fellow tram travellers offered her no clues; there was no uniform movement, just people departing in all sorts of directions to get themselves home.


A penny for her thoughts.


Finally she looked further up the street. There was another tram waiting, ahead of the broken one. And it was pointing in the right direction! So she calmly walked to that tram, checked it was the right number, and got on. What was all the parental distress about? Problem solved.


I think I know why I loved reading The Martian so much. I think it’s because I watch our own version of it every day. Kate is our Mark Watney. She’s stuck in a difficult place. She hopes for rescue but has no expectation of it. She knows that we can’t go where she must go. I pray that she builds the necessary tenacity and perseverance. I know she would prefer to sit in her own hub and let the world swirl around her, but we need to push her out. We need to see what she’s capable of. She needs to see what she’s capable of. I think her adventures are just beginning, and they’ll last a life time.

About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Cat from the Country says

    It is so hard watching our young spread their wings and Kate has special needs as well.
    Wonderful that Kate sorted her own problem this time.
    You will be feeling that it all helps Kate’s development.
    Happy 2016 to you all

  2. G’Day Dips and all the best for the New Year. It is always heart lifting to hear of Kate’s adventures and achievements. Your young girl is making strides once again and mastering the Melbourne public transport system is something that anyone would be chuffed about. I take it that Kate is still involved with her swimming and the sports admin course will open up some further options I’m sure. Thanks for sharing your daughter’s victories once again. We are in town for the first week of the tennis so hopefully I might be able catch up with a few nackers while I’m there.

  3. Neil Anderson says

    I can empathize with your 18 year journey with your daughter and not just about the recent tram rides.
    When my son who has Aspergers was nine, we took the ‘easy’ way out and shifted to the country to a ten-kid school, no noisy traffic and definitely no public transport to navigate.
    When those breakthrough achievements occur, such as your daughter finding the right tram, you really do want to shout about it from the rooftops. Unfortunately, most people who aren’t on full-time caring duties don’t always understand your celebrations.
    Just another reason to praise the Almanac where we can talk about our home-life and not just how well the Cats and Dogs are going to go in 2016.

  4. Luke Reynolds says

    Great work Dips. I’m sure Kate will be fine with all the effort you are putting in. All the best to Kate for her studies in 2016!

  5. Neil you are spot on. The little victories are the sweetest.
    Tony I’ll be at Rod Laver Arena on Jan 28 for the day session. Will be in Yarrawonga for the start of the tournament so will be watching on TV.
    Cheers Cat and Luke. All the best for 2016. Hope we can cross paths aplenty.

  6. Peter Fuller says

    Congrats to Kate – and to Frances and you – for this brave step into the unknown (unknowable).
    My son, whose prior experience was walking or cycling to local school, prior to a year 9 cadet camp at his new school, found himself at a distant train station at the end of the weekend, with no idea how to make it home. He had no excuses of the kind that Kate has, but we were troubled (to put it mildly) at the casual way in which the teachers in charge seemed to just leave the kids to make their own way home. However, the Principal dismissively told my wife that “he needed to grow up” when she made a mild complaint.
    I’m sure that every new challenge Kate surmounts will strengthen her and provide her with rewards. The program she is taking on is daunting, but I’m sure that she will ultimately succeed, just as she has done with her swimming. Good luck, the whole Almanac community is barracking hard; go Kate!

  7. Beautifully done with the Martian and the self and Kate’s performances under pressure, Dips.
    It’s a great question to ponder…
    How will I go?
    How will my loved ones go? …when it matters.

    Why are some players good Finals players?
    Who knows?

    But surely preparation helps.
    Hope it goes well for you all. Brilliant.

  8. Good luck to Kate as she embarks upon this new adventure.

    And best of luck to Frances and yourself, Dips, as you partake in the adventure also.

  9. Trucker Slim says

    Terrific piece Dips. Apt metaphor. Love that Kate figured things out but also understand that it is a long hard road for Kate. With parents like Frances and you Kate will find her way!


  10. It’s fantastic that Kate has so many people in her corner, even if she doesn’t know it! Great comments here. We made the journey again this morning without a hitch. Thanks for everyone’s thoughts.

  11. Peter Flynn says

    Kate handling the bread and jam curve ball with aplomb was uplifting.

    Well done Kate and superb parents.

    Dips, you might have a book in you.

  12. She is lucky to have you. You are lucky to have her. We are all lucky to share a little of her journey and what she teaches us about fortune and perseverance and being in the moment.
    None of us know what we are capable of until we are tested.
    Kate – our favourite martian.
    Flynny is right, as an accountant you make a bloody good writer. The Snake piece was superb, and I have no interest in surfing. Like your Stawell Gift opus, you know how to capture a moment. Did Kate teach you that?

  13. CHeers Lads.

    PF – a book? That would require skill, hard work and resilience!!
    PB – Kind words, thanks. But Kate has taught me a lot more than I have taught her. One day, when she was particularly prickly, she described me as “a very unpleasant man”. Brilliant.

  14. Lovely Story Dips. It’s always good to hear of people helping, supporting others to achieve their potential, and enjoy the good things in life.

    In this increasingly competitive, individualistic world, it’s important recalling that we are all social beings. no human exists in isolation from others., and we treat others the way we wish to be treated

    Wishing you a great 2016 to Kate, you, and the rest of the clan.


  15. ILuvHawkThugs says

    Excellent piece Dips – public transport training is such a key ingredient of active participation for Kate and other individuals with Down syndrome.
    I look forward to our beer or three so I can pick your brain as Lewis continues to, as you stated, teach me more than I can teach him.

  16. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Dips I missed this I love reading your stories about,Kate and agree with comments above I definitely think you have a book in you.I send your articles on to various people and trust me you help more than you can possibly no,gun daughter gun parenting

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