Saturday, December 29, 2012

book talk: some of what I read and enjoyed in 2012

A random list of books is about all I have offer at this time of the year. It seems my writer's well has run dry, my ability to focus is shot, and so instead of pushing out a half-hearted post I will offer some of my favourite book and author finds of 2012. I have * books I read on my e-reader.

Short stories

Margaret Atwood, Moral Disorder and Other Stories* (The goddess, say no more)
Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank* (Worth buying for the title story alone; the stories in this book have stayed with me.) (I heard this repeat of an  interview between Englander and my favourite radio host, Michael Krasny, yesterday. Worth a listen if you want to know more about this author and his really interesting insights into short story writing, Israel and more)
Alice Munro, Dear Life (Sublime, last 4 stories as close to autobiographical as Munro has gone)
Nancy Packer, Old Ladies (This is one of those books that will probably remain largely unheard of because of the subject matter - old ladies - but is completely brilliant and deserves acclaim and audience)
Anne Packer, Swim To Me (I blogged about this author here. I highly recommend all of her books but Swim To Me had special resonance as the stories were largely set in our part of the Bay Area)
Jean Thompson, Throw Like a Girl (She sees the extraordinary in the ordinary, writing sharply about suburban life and dysfunctional families. I will be going back for more)


Ayad Akhtar, American Dervish* (I read this after listening to the author interviewed on Fresh Air)
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending* (It won the 2011 Booker. I read it from start to finish on the return trip from Australia to the US last January and loved)
Anne EnrightThe Forgotten Waltz* (Irish author of Booker winning The Gathering. Highly recommend both and am looking forward to reading her observations on motherhood Making Babies: Stumbling into motherhood)
F. Scott FitzgeraldThe Great Gatsby (Finally, a classic!)
Anna Funder, All That I Am (Winner of the Australian 2012 Miles Franklin Award)
Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child (I bought this on impulse and couldn't put it down. Turns out it has been an international bestseller so I'm not the only one. A fairy tale for grown-ups set in Alaska)
Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Booker shortlisted, the book I want everybody to run out and read. It is deeply moving and wise)
Deborah Levy, Swimming Home* (Booker shortlisted, short and brilliant thriller)
Chris Pavone, The Expats* (This was a bit of a romp. A must read for any expats, total page turner)
Tom Perotta, The Leftovers* (A post-apocalyptic world but nothing like The Road)
Kevin PowersThe Yellow Bird (Extraordinary novel about the Iraq war written by a veteran)
Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones (National Book Award winner, devastating story about one family in Hurricane Katrina)


Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (I loved this so much I blogged about it)
Virginia Lloyd, The Young Widow's Book of Home Improvement (Beautiful, sad, tender. It made me weep. It is a love story as much as a book about watching your partner die)
Salman RushdieJoseph Anton (Controversial twitter book club read which I loved despite it being too long and going a little overboard on the name dropping)


Marie Howe, What the living do (I thank NPR Fresh Air for introducing me to this extraordinary poet)

I am currently reading Mary Gordon's The Love Of My Youth and have Lily Tuck's I married you for happiness waiting in the wings (another impulse buy that I am confident was not a mistake).

The pile for 2013 is already sky high, some in paper form, some on my e-reader. I have set myself a goal for 2013 of a book a week or 52 books for the year. I would be thrilled if others want to join me in this quest. And please share your favourite books of 2012 in the comments.

Wishing you all safety, peace and happiness in 2013,

Michelle x

I just discovered I have been added to this list .. a wonderful project by the Large Hearted Boy blogger who has been collating the best of books lists for the past five years. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

The America I Know

The America I know, the one that I arrived in for the first time at the age of 23, is not Fox news and Rush Limbaugh but NPR and Rachel Maddow; it is 'holiday' carols in an Episcopal Church filled with people of all faiths and none with a sign at the altar that reads "Everybody is welome here"; it is my daughter's elementary school teacher telling his class he has a husband not a wife without fear that this will cost him his job or the respect of his peers or parents; it is my son's middle school teachers sending home personal notes to each of their students in the summer break telling them how special they are; it is a kindergarten classroom where parents sit and read aloud to their children every single morning on the rug before saying goodbye.

The America I know is full of people whose earnestness sometimes makes me laugh. The lack of cynicism can at times seem naive and foolish - until you realise that their idealism is more often than not backed by concrete action that includes but often goes beyond simply writing a check.

The America I know is not perfect, but it is so very different from the America that the world sees. It is the reason I cringe a little when I see the world talking about Americans as if they are all gun crazed loons. These people and attitudes are as alien to me in Northern California as they are to a person sitting on the other side of the world.

The America I know is one that I often criticise fiercely for all the usual reasons; but at a time like this I think it is good to be reminded of the bright side of the American experiment; to recognise that in a land of optimistic idealists the forces of darkness that are eating away at this nation from the inside can be defeated. It will take courage, a leap of faith, a rejection of the cynical fear driven politics that the enemies of a peaceful and just society rely on to keep us in our place.

The America I know is not the America that the NRA represented at today's press conference.

The America I know is so much better than that.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A different sort of drill: school safety post-Newtown

These days, school kids are used to drills. My own are regularly put through earthquake and fire drills. Get down low and go go go ... that sort of thing.

Today I heard that they will be learning some new skills in the coming months, a different type of drill that will no doubt be given a euphemistic name to avoid raising already elevated anxiety levels.

If a person were to attack the school with a semiautomatic weapon while the children were outside - at recess or lunch or PE - they will learn to run in random zig zag formations rather than straight lines. Apparently this is the best way to avoid bullets. I cannot fathom how any child will have the presence of mind to remember how to run, let alone breathe, in such circumstances.

Visitor passes will be strictly enforced, windows covered, doors locked from the inside, hiding places planned out in advance. Teachers will be trained to literally flip their classrooms, a reference to the making of barricades out of tables rather than the latest educational pedagogy.

Parents wondered if there were new technologies, perhaps an app (it is Silicon Valley), that could work as a more efficient warning system; security cameras were suggested, an idea that was knocked down with the chilling suggestion that these could be used by a perpetrator to better locate victims; and finally the idea of funding an actual security guard was raised.

I spoke. I tried to be calm but I wanted to scream "It's the guns, stupid".

I left the meeting shaken rather than reassured. While glad that our school district is taking these threats very seriously, all the while pointing out how unlikely such a tragedy is, post-Newtown the illusion of safety has been shattered.

We should all feel ashamed that it has taken the massacre of twenty children from what has been described as an idyllic town - read white and well off - to wake up. But now that we have woken up, now that there is real momentum, there is no turning back.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


I've spent two days tweeting nothing but my thoughts on guns. And I feel a bit embarrassed really, because I know it is getting old already. But then I glance at a newspaper and see the face of a mother running towards the school, the face of a mother who doesn't know if her child is dead or alive, and I don't have room in my head or my heart for anything else.

Victoria Soto, teacher, is dead. She was only twenty-seven. She took a bullet so that sixteen children could live. She is a fucking hero in the civil war that is being waged against Americans by the people who equate freedom with the right to own killing machines.

Twenty beautiful children, children who were still learning to read and tie their shoe laces, who still needed help opening their squeezy yoghurts and tupperware containers at morning tea time, who were still mastering the finer points of speech with a tendency to replace r's with w's and th's with f's, who were still scared that a monster lived under their beds ... those twenty children are gone forever.

An entire community is traumatised. A nation is mourning. A president is deciding whether he has the courage to take on the evil that is the NRA, a gun culture that is the nation's mental illness.

Four teachers are dead. A school principal is dead. A school psychologist is dead. Twenty children are dead. A mother is dead. And her son is dead.

There is nothing we can do to bring back the dead. There is no magic or prayer that can take away a grief as monstrous as having your child slaughtered by a man with a legally obtained killing machine.

We can't bring back the dead, but we can change the future. Starting now.

Call the White House 202-456-1111 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Hug your children tight and then do something

This morning I volunteered in my son's Kindergarten classroom, helping the children glaze their clay gingerbread people. I watched with admiration as the teacher - who in my eyes walks on water - calmly dealt with multiple small crises and somehow got a roomful of energetic five and six-year-old's organised and ready to learn.

And then I returned home to my sick boy (he was home with his dad and the "coughers") to the news that is every American parent's worst nightmare. A 20-year-old man had slain, with a gun, twenty kindergarten children, and six others before killing himself. He did so while wearing a bullet proof vest and with a weapon that is legally available.

I have no words to make this better. Instead I recommend that we all channel our anger, grief, rage, despair and fight back. We need to beat the NRA at their own game, with both dollars and smarts.

To this end today I donated dollars to the Brady Center for Gun Control. Please consider making your own donation to this organisation or another group who is working for sane gun laws (and please share in the comments what other advocacy groups are out there).

I also called the White House (202-456-1111) and tearfully told the volunteer that I am a parent of a kindergarten child, that I was devastated by the news and I will no longer provide dollar support for the Democrats until they get very serious and specific about gun control, starting with the President. I will be conveying the same message to the Congressional campaign workers who call me weekly (or is it daily) asking for money.

Hug your children tight and offer up your prayers. But don't stop there.

Michelle x

Monday, December 10, 2012

Forty years later: "William wants a doll"

Today I heard Marlo Thomas interviewed on NPR (a lovely interview so worth clicking on the link) about her landmark song "William wants a doll" which was based on the 1972 book William's Doll by Charlotte Zolotov.

I showed my boys the Marlo Thomas clip tonight and it started some interesting conversations about bullying and sexism (a term my little guys are very familiar with). They watched it twice and my youngest couldn't stop humming the tune (which means I am going to have to buy the album!).

It is disheartening to fast forward 40 years and realise that while the world has definitely changed for the better in terms of gender equality and expectations, in the area of toys things have in fact gone backwards.

In most stores toys are rigidly divided along gender lines. When they are not actually separated into girls and boys aisles - which may be indicated by explicit signs or colour coding - the way toys are packaged often sends a not too subtle message about who a toy is intended for. And in no section of the toy department is this more true than the packaging and placement of dolls.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

rosanna and craig are getting married

I pass the laminated "Rosanna and Craig are getting married (parking this way)" sign every day on my way to and from school. It has been up for a few days now and I'm not sure if they are already married or perhaps the wedding is next weekend. Either way there is so much hope and joy in those words, even for one like me who eloped at the local courthouse.

On a Sunday, I often find myself getting a little choked up reading through the wedding notices in the New York Times. These aren't the notices that your parents paid for at a rate of $1 a line, found in the Births, Deaths and Marriages column, but full write ups with the back story to how a couple met and fall in love. The people chosen would rarely qualify as 'regular', usually being well known in the arts or politics or even medical fields. The paper now includes same sex couples as well as heterosexual, and mixed race and religion is par for the course.

Of course, what we don't get is a 'what happened next' column which would no doubt be even more interesting, if not nearly as pretty. This reminds me of the lovely book Happily Ever After by my friend Bension O'Reilly, which starts where the fairy tale generally ends.

The couples featured are rarely young and they have usually spent a good deal of time living together. This makes me more, not less, hopeful that these are unions that are likely to have some staying power. Then again, two of my high school girlfriends got married at twenty-one - straight out of university - and are still powering along twenty years later.

It is hard to know what the recipe for success is, or even how to define it. After all, a union ending does not equal failure. It could point to growth rather than stagnation in a relationship that is loveless or even unhealthy. In some instances, a celebration of divorce might be more appropriate than a celebration of marriage.

But still, I can't help it. When I read of the many and varied paths couples have taken to realising that they are (at least for now) the one, cynicism and snark are cast aside and I find myself cheering on the happy couple.

So. Rosanna and Craig, whether you got married last weekend or are embarking on your new life together this weekend, I raise my glass to you. And to all the other Rosanna and Craigs, Rosanna and Roxannes, and Craig and Christophers who will be 'marrying' in the coming months - with or without the stamp of approval of the state or family - I wish you well.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Cut throat decorating: Christmas American style

I passed the woman with the giant hair and all in one purple pantsuit pushing the miniature dog dressed in a Santa suit with barely a blink. I had other things on my mind, namely getting my hands on the last light up Christmas snowman at my local big box store.

The thing is, Americans are just really good at decorating. And it is a wee bit contagious. If you don't join in you begin to feel like a bit of a Grinch. Or Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Seikh etc.

I didn't just buy the light up snowman. I also purchased the sweet little "Joy" sign, a dog Christmas stocking (yes, as designated by the manufacturer) and snowflake lights. I haven't finished. I now look at the trees in our front yard from a decorating rather than horticultural perspective. And god dammit I am out to impress.

I am going to make a pudding if it kills me (there is a reasonable chance that it will) and might even attempt a Christmas cake. I have my Christmas tree table cloth (it is totally tasteful, promise). The children's monogrammed stockings have been hung. And in the next few days we will visit a Christmas tree "farm" (corner lot) to select a live tree after chucking the plastic tree that we brought with us from Australia. That plastic tree just did not make the grade in the cut throat world of decorating American style.

This Christmas will be our first in our new home. Last year we traveled home, celebrating a traditional Australian hot Christmas with family. I have to find a way to take away that little bit empty feeling I get at these special times of the year, and decorating shall be my therapeutic drug of choice.

Some might call my efforts excessive, but compared to the neighbours they will no doubt be considered an exercise in minimalism.

Friday, November 30, 2012

book talk: behind the beautiful forevers

In behind the beautiful forevers: life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity, Katherine Boo takes the reader inside a makeshift Mumbai slum - the Annawadi -  showing us this world through the eyes of its residents.

There are no saints here, although Abdul - who has been sorting sorting trash for income since he was six years old - comes close under the most extreme circumstances: "He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai's dirty water, he wanted to be ice."

Boo resists the temptation to paint another resident, the endlessly ambitious Asha - who takes the means to an end approach to lifting herself and her family out of the slum and into the middle class to its limits - as a simple villain. While we might not like her, I found myself asking what lengths I might go to in seeking an exit strategy under similar conditions. And Boo is not shy in pointing out the role that corruption plays at all levels of Indian society:

"In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India's modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained."

Throughout, Boo is telling us the extraordinary everyday stories of the residents of just one slum, and in doing so she gives lie to the conservative notion that poverty is the result of a lack of character or work ethic. She asks:

"What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government's economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might that ribby child grow up to be less poor?"

The Author Note answers many of the questions that I carried with me as I read. How did Boo - a white English speaking American - get inside the heads of the residents of the slum, so much so that they appear in the book as characters in a novel rather than subjects of a sociological study? And what were her motivations?

It  turns out that love took her to India, but her interest in what she describes as the "infrustructure of opportunity" in societies, is anything but passing. And given the parallels she sees between the extremes of wealth and poverty in India and the United States, it is no surprise that her work has a similar quality and impact to Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed; both immerse themselves in the lives of people who we rarely encounter as anything more than a statistic.

Questions about foreign aid and how it is used in a country that is riddled with corruption at all levels plagued me as I read of the endless ways that funds for development programs were siphoned off, manipulated and used for anything but helping the people for who it was intended. There are clearly no easy answers to this question, but turning our backs on the real people who fill the pages of this book because of imperfections in the distribution of aid is clearly not an option.

behind the beautiful forevers reads like a great novel, but it is so much more.

NoteI dare not call this a book review. The idea of reviewing somebody else's work, as if it were an essay to  be marked and graded, fills me with dread. I not only believe myself hopelessly unqualified for such a task, but also know that if you want a book review you should head straight to Google or the New York Times Sunday Book Reviews. Instead, my aim here is to simply share books that I have loved and my responses to them. This is my first book talk post and hopefully not my last.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Mum not Mom

I'm still mum. Not that the kids actually call me this, preferring to use my first name, but I am holding onto that "u" for dear life.

When I wrote an email to my son's class today I put in brackets after my name (Mr5's mum). My daughter corrected me. "It is 'mom'", she said.

But it isn't.

I accept that when my kids bring home cards made at school they will be addressed to Mom. And I can almost cope with the fact that they will learn math concepts in inches rather than centimetres. I even find myself thinking in fahrenheit rather than celsius when in California.

But I am still Mum.

It might be silly, or it might be that in that "u" lies my history, the history of who I am and where I'm from, of what I called my mother and what she called her own.

I am holding onto Mum. It is the name that my children have scrawled on homemade cards. It is the name they call out when they are sad and forget to call me Michelle.

For me 'Mom' is a name on a Hallmark card. It isn't me. I am Mum.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Raising Dissident Children

There is not a day that goes by that I do not wish that my children would just do what I say when I say it. No arguments. No dissent. Attention. *blows whistle*

The wish is real. The frustration is real. The endless debates are exhausting. I might sometimes pause and wonder where we went wrong.

Take this weekend. We take the children to a children's movie and the oldest complains. A lot.

Then we go to lunch. More complaining.

I am literally tearing my hair out. But now it is Monday and the dissenters are at school where they are actually pretty obedient. I have yet to get a call from the school complaining that they have incited a riot or formed a Children's Liberation Front.

Now it is Monday I can think. And when I think about it I hate being told what to do. I hate being forced to enjoy things I do not enjoy. I am quietly non-compliant.

I still wish that my kids would consider giving us a day off every now and again, giving us a day without challenges. But if I am to send children out into the world who take on the powers that be, ask questions, don't just blindly accept the way things are, then who better to practice this lifetime of dissent on than me.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A different sort of before baby bucket list

My alternative pre-baby bucket list inspired by the latest at #Mmia ... a more affordable and realistic preparation for the clucky couple:

1. Visit a MacDonalds at around 6pm. Don't sit in the "nice" section. Instead head straight for the tables near the playground. It will be instructive.
2. Rather than testing your relationship with the hardships of international air travel, try this: set an alarm to goes off every 25 minutes and hand your partner ear plugs. See how well you get along in the morning.
3. Cook a meal, nothing too fancy but one that is sure to suit the bland palate of the everychild. Then throw it in the bin and start again. Do this five nights in a row (on the 6th night you may find yourself heading to MacDonalds).
4. Get up at 5am. Spend the day doing something physically and emotionally exhausting while completely isolated from the outside world. At 7:30pm sit down on the couch with your partner and put on a romantic comedy. And set a loud alarm to go off at 7:35pm. Get the alarm a glass of water, lie down in bed with it and fall asleeep. Ask your partner about the movie in the morning. Try not to let your bitterness show.
5. Pick up the contents of your home and tip them all over the floor. Leave it like that for a few weeks.

You might now be ready for parenthood.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Not quite a tiger mother

When my daughter was two, and we had just returned to Australia, my 5-year-old son almost sliced her finger off. Initially we thought it was just a very nasty cut, but a visit to the local Children's Emergency Department soon revealed it to be a far more serious injury requiring extensive surgery from the Chief of Plastics.

It was, to put it mildly, a parenting low. I am proud that we did not unleash a wave of fury at the brother who was obsessively trimming the garden with a too sharp set of shears. But I am not so proud that one of the thoughts that ran through my head in the middle of this crisis was "what if this stops her playing an instrument". And the fact that at the time of the "incident" my daughter had not picked up more than a plastic drum or wooden xylophone doesn't help my case.

Eight years later it seems that my concern was not entirely off the mark. She does play the violin and she loves it even if she does not practice nearly as often as she should. And if that finger had not been repairable something that now gives her great joy would never have been an option.

But that thought revealed something about me as a parent that the mother I was then would not have been entirely happy owning up to. It showed that among all that nurturing and free play, the rejection of flash cards in favour of real stories, the belief in passion and creativity, lurked the makings of a tiger mother.

I don't mind so much now that I have a bit of the tiger in me. Sometimes a little bit of fierce is required in this parenting game, but in my experience that fierce is most usefully employed on behalf of my child with learning differences. The rest will do just fine (or not) regardless of my efforts. And the reality is that while I am not immune to the occasional display of over zealous parenting, with four children my ability to focus is spread very thin.

The result of this less than laser sharp parenting is that if my daughter ever does find herself playing violin in an esteemed concert hall (the ultimate tiger mum dream according to Amy Chua) or my oldest son gets himself into MIT (his very own unrealistic and unaffordable dream) it will be the result of their hunger for that sort of success not mine.

Which is exactly as it should be.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving for beginners

Thanksgiving is a holiday that is so distinctly American that it is hard as newcomers not to feel a little like pretenders.

We have no relatives to welcome into our home - or avoid - and no traditions set in stone. Yet tonight I found myself at the local Trader Joe's two hours before closing time - just as I did last year - filling my trolley with the makings of a Thanksgiving feast.

My husband specifically requested that we skip the turkey altogether and instead cook up the lamb that is currently sitting in the fridge. But I protested, irrationally, that this was a day where only white meat would do and if it wasn't turkey then it would have to be chicken. Somehow a lamb roast felt too quintessentially Australian (never mind that it was imported from New Zealand).

At the supermarket I picked up an organic chicken. And then gently placed it back again, opting for a turkey we have no idea how to cook and are unlikely to ever get through. But arguing over the best way to cook a turkey and complaining about the inferior qualities of turkey meat seems to be about as American as the apple pie that my oldest child is currently carefully preparing for Thanksgiving dessert.

Also placed in the trolley was the cornbread packet mix and (oh the shame) the turkey stuffing mix. And my excuse, which I will no doubt still be touting in twenty years time, is that as first generation Americans we have little choice. There is no family recipe and, seriously, what could be more American than packet mix cooking!

The thought of skipping Thanksgiving altogether, opting instead for some decent Chinese, crossed my mind more than once this week but was relegated to the dustbin the moment my 8-year-old solemnly handed me an envelope marked "Open on Thanksgiving".

I am not sure what that envelope contains, but more than likely there will be a child's reflection on the meaning of Thanksgiving, on all that we have to be thankful for.

My own thoughts on gratitude this year are informed by what I see happening in the wider world, making me grateful that any problems we have are of the most ordinary kind; that while we may at times feel weighed down by the everyday, the mundane aspects of our lives, an ordinary life is no small thing and is indeed something to be most thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 16, 2012

If you don't like it don't read? My take on #fakemamamia

For god's sake, if you don't like it don't read it.


So if I don't like The Australian should I not worry about the impact that its opinion and reporting might have on politics and policy?

And if I don't like Alan Jones, should I not just switch off the radio and stop this ridiculous #destroythejoint 'ing?

And if Vile Kyle or A Current Affair are not my cup of tea should I just keep my radio dial firmly plastered to anything starting with ABC?

No, of course not. If I don't like these media outlets I have every right to voice my concerns, whether that be letters to the editor or corporate sponsors, signing a petition or participating in a satirical hashtag or two. 

Mamamia is a commercial website not a personal blog. It makes money via advertising revenue and it is aimed squarely at women like me. The fact that the brand Mamamia is heavily identified with the founder of this website does not make critiquing Mamamia the same as being mean to Mia Freedman. 

I have been reading through the #fakemamamia tweets and the vast bulk of them are spot on, so much so that it can be hard to tell the difference between what is real and what is fake. They skewer the faux-feminism that is so reminiscent of what mainstream media has always offered women. 

I understand the impulse to wish we would all just "play nice" but don't believe they are justified given the increasingly nasty tone of so many dinner party conversations in Mamamia land. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Off-Off-Broadway Blogging

For those of us who seemed destined to remain the blogging equivalent of an Off-Off-Broadway production,  it is sometimes helpful to look to bloggers we respect whose voice is more whisper than shout.

Today I clicked on a post by a blogger who also happens to be a respected novelist (or novelist who happens to blog?). As I read I was struck not only by the sheer beauty of her writing, but the way she expertly wove political and class analysis into a piece that could easily have remained in the realm of the purely personal.

It was an example of the sort of writing I aspire to produce (emphasis on aspire), and it fully deserved attention for all the right reasons. Yet at the end I saw it had garnered a grand total of 3 comments.

This was a welcome reminder for me that in the world of blogging, mass appeal and attention are not necessarily correlated with quality or worth. This is not to say that being a big name blogger, an on-Broadway style production, is an indication of low quality. Bloggers who have made a name for themselves in a pretty big way are all doing many things very right, and mostly this includes producing regular high quality content.

At the same time, there are plenty of hidden treasures out there just waiting to be discovered. Some may consider these bloggers small-timers, but I prefer to think of them as the indy, boutique or Off-Off-Broadway segment of the blogosphere.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

crooked fences

We don't have a fence, crooked or straight. Between our front door and the street lies a garden built with love and care by our home's former owners. It is the garden that I have always wanted but could never have created myself, not being in possession of thumbs that could in anyway be described as green.

Even though I love this garden, I can't take my eyes off the fences. White pickets, stone walls, hedges, all drawing a firm physical line between home and the wider world. Most serve no practical purpose, and even the crooked fences are artfully designed, suggesting whimsy rather than decay.

Across the freeway, the fences are of an entirely different order. Built to keep the world out, there is no room for whimsy here. Along the main road, the fences are industrial grade. Even the dogs are of a different order, pitbulls more common than poodles and their designer offspring.

Each weekday, yellow school buses transport children between these two worlds. Of course, the flow is all one way. We do not see value in asking our own bubble wrapped children, let alone ourselves, to integrate into communities outside our comfort zone.

Our fences are artfully designed, as are the lies we tell ourselves. Letting a few children slip through the court mandated gaps in the fence between our world and theirs is better than nothing. But actually taking down the fences, funding schools equitably, would mean that getting a good education was no longer dependent on the good fortune of being born into a community protected by the impermeable fences of privilege, or the far less certain "luck" of winning a ticket on a yellow school bus to the other side of the freeway.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Gender politics kindergarten style

There is this boy in kindergarten that my son never stops talking about. Every day after school it is "Ben this" and "Ben that" and "when can I have a play date with Ben?" It is as if the other ten boys in his class don't exist.

Ben has white blonde hair and big blue eyes. He is a little on the dramatic side. And going on my own son's personality, and previous friendships he has formed, I would never have picked him as a likely friend. This is not because there is anything wrong with Ben. It just feels like a mismatch.

At the parent teacher meeting we talked about my son's progress, the usual stuff. And then I said "So, my boy really likes Ben."

And the teacher laughed. "It is funny you should say that because all the boys mothers are telling me the same thing. They all love Ben."

Then came the interesting bit. "It is as if he is the Alpha Male."

And it really is. But then I thought about how complimentary the term Alpha Male sounds, like the confident kid, the one who will one day wield power in the board room or on the football field.

Flip the gender and this Alpha Male in a 6-year-old's body would be labelled something far less complimentary. In the form of a girl the Alpha Male is instead a Queen Bee.

When we think Queen Bee we think powerful, but also manipulative and Mean Girl. We think problem more than we think future leader. We think about somebody we really don't like very much at all.

So, does it start as early as Kindergarten or even pre-school? Have we already decided that girls who are socially powerful are problematic whereas boys who exude the same set of qualities are charismatic leaders? Is the whole "Queen Bee" construct sending a message to our daughters that power is pathological?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Turning Points

Moving countries hasn't been easy. I don't think it ever is, although maybe there are stages in life or personalities types that make these sorts of transitions easier. But we are now at the year and a half mark and I am definitely seeing the light.

Our weeks are busy, busier than they have ever been, as my kids glide (and stumble) from one activity to another. And as I drop and collect I can see that they are each individually finding their feet, that this is now truly home. 

This afternoon I collected my daughter and two extras for a play date; my 8-year-old went home with a friend; and my teen walked to Starbucks with a classmate to "chat". Somehow I still ended up with four children but without the usual fights.

There will be at least one more play date this weekend, squeezed in between music lessons, coffee and farmer's markets. And on Sunday we will go on our weekly family adventure, a new ritual which we treat as every bit as sacred as others might consider a weekly religious service.

This morning I was out the door at 5:45am, taking myself and the dog for a walk. Last year, I doubt I would have greeted any day with quite that degree of enthusiasm.

A shot from one of our Sunday adventures

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


As we returned to the car after an unusually happy dinner, I was struck for a moment by how incredibly lucky I am. And then my third child ran into me at top speed, knocking my smart phone out of my hand, up into the air, and smack face down on the road.

That same phone has hit the ground many times before. Sometimes completely naked, this time in the safety vest highly recommended by the *genius* hipster in the blue shirt with fruit insignia.

I picked the phone off the ground and found that my beautiful (dirty) screen was now completely shattered. And I wondered (as did my husband) if anybody else on the planet had a worse track record when it came to killing electronic devices than me. 

It all started in 1999 with the Palm Pilot that I placed carefully on top of the car as I strapped my new baby into his seat. And then drove off. You can guess the rest. 

Tomorrow my new(ish) refurbished smart phone will arrive. I shall dress it lovingly in its safety vest and my husband will make sure that all the paperwork is in order. We now buy the best insurance available every time we get another device and then pray that I break it inside the window. I usually succeed.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Spare me the inspirational thinking

"Life is 10% what happens to you, 90% how you react to it."

Inspirational quotes have their place I guess, but when this one popped up in my Twitter timeline today I couldn't help thinking of the 10-year-old girls in India who spend their days (11-hour days) sewing footballs together for the Australian market rather than attending school. They are forced to give up their education, their only chance of a better future, for less than $1 a day that is then used to help feed their families.

I am not too sure how exactly to react to that? But what I am sure of is that the circumstances these girls find themselves in has nothing to do with their reactions to the world around them and far more to do with the weight and logic of globalisation, extreme poverty, structural inequality, corporate bottom lines, market forces, gender inequality, and willful ignorance and corruption on the part of governments, corporations and consumers.

Believing that life is 90% how you react to it is positive thinking gone mad. It also strikes me that it is a useful lie; useful that is for those who sit at the top of the pile and beyond cruel to those at the bottom, whose lives are weighed down by brutal realities that are completely out of their control.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Building bridges

When my husband worried that our youngest would tear a whole in his pants as he slid down the dirt hill to get to the creek I shushed him, knowing that ripped pants and skinned knees were something to be celebrated rather than worried over. When I saw that our daughter was doing the same thing - in her long white skirt - I had to shush myself.

As I repeatedly (almost compulsively) called out "be careful", I remembered the countless hours I had spent exploring the bush and creek that ran behind my childhood home without the  prying eyes of adults monitoring my every move. I also recalled the one time I had slid into a river fully clothed. 

Just when I thought we were finally ready to leave, I saw my youngest heading back down the dirt slope leading to the creek bed. Following closely behind was his 8-year-old brother, responding to yet another of my pitiful wails to "be careful". Big brother hovered as little brother added his final touch to the bridge and then pulled him back up the slope to safety with the aid of a large stick.

Watching my four children today, as they went from collecting sticks to deciding that they would use those sticks to build a bridge across a creek, I knew that what they were learning here was every bit as valuable as anything they would ever learn in a classroom: they cooperated, looked out for each other, tested theories, and eventually left with a deep sense of satisfaction of the sort that does not require the stamp of adult approval in the form of a grade, gold star or chocolate chip cookie.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Hey, somebody has been saying bad things about you ....

"Hey, somebody has been saying bad things about you..."

This charming message appears in my DM column on a fairly regular basis, and I have learned to read it as nothing more than irritating spam. But the strategy of the spammers, appealing to our most paranoid selves, obviously works or they'd come up with something new.

No doubt, somebody somewhere in the world is saying bad things about me; but worse would be the DM that read "nobody has thought of you at all, not in a very long time".

This is the fear, and even the reality, of the elderly person who sits at home waiting for the phone to ring; the same person who gives their credit card details to an unscrupulous telemarketer who in turn is simply trying to keep up, meeting sales targets anyway they can.

Or the teen who sits alone in her bedroom on a Saturday night, unable to shake the fear that her friends have made plans that do not include her. She picks a fight with her brother because it is better than sitting with the jealousy and hurt that is eating away at her; anything is better than that.

Today, that teen will have their fear ameliorated or confirmed the minute they log onto Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. But she will also be able to find comfort in the world of social media, confiding in online friends who are every bit as real as the ones who stood her up.

I write this as I sit at home alone on a Saturday night. I flick through my email and see that my sister on the other side of the world has been thinking about me; a friend on Twitter has left an @mention that is beyond kind at just the right moment; and my DM stream is full of reassuring words from a person I have known for literally my whole life, a person who believes in me even when I don't.

But still, whenever I read that message "somebody has been saying bad things about you" my stomach lurches in spite of myself. For just a moment I am that teenage girl, sitting at home alone on a Saturday night, imagining that somebody is saying bad things about me, or worse, that nobody is saying anything about me at all.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


She edges slowly towards my table, her long thin face framed by wispy white hair that has escaped her ponytail; her body is supported by two long poles designed with mountains in mind rather than the uneven sidewalks and other perils of a trip to the shops. Those sticks are a poor stand-in for the walking frame she clearly needs.

I don't know if the plastic gloves she wears are a sympton of an unhealthy obsession with germs or a necessary measure to protect a compromised immune system. 

As she slowly lowers herself into the seat beside mine I offer to help, hoping this doesn't cause offense. She allows me to balance the hiking sticks against the wall behind us and after that we sit in silence, an occasional glance met with a small smile. I find it hard to concentrate on my reading, and am unsure if some light conversation would be welcomed or considered an intrusion.

As she readies herself to leave, she anxiously surveys the distance from her seat to the door and seems intent on making sure she doesn't leave anything of herself behind.

"Don't worry about the coffee cup," I say. "I'll pop it in the bin."

She accepts my offer but refuses anything more. I make sure her hiking sticks are ready for her to grab once she is in an upright position but leave her to make the epic journey alone from chair to door and beyond.

She makes it safely outside but is confronted by a ramp with a slight incline that to her represents a challenge of monumental proportions.

I breathe a sigh of relief after she leaves, settling back into my reading, constantly checking the clock to make sure I make the most of my final minutes before school pickup. And then I notice that the coffee cup she left behind has her name inscribed in clear black marker on its side. Marcelle.

A beautiful name. I read more into this new piece of information than is reasonable, but it somehow comforts me to think that this proud woman, with her hiking sticks and plastic gloves, has gone through life with such a distinctive moniker.

I  pick up my phone and take a photo of the cup bearing her name before returning to my book.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Reality check: class and parenting

Today we learned that Mitt Romney's definition of middle class is an income below $250,000. And we collectively shake our heads at his tenuous grip on reality.

It reminds me of the undiplomatic arguments my daughter has with classmates when they declare that they are middle class when they are clearly not (unless you subscribe to Romney logic).

I don't need to see anybody's tax returns. Observing the cars lined up at kiss n drop is information enough. And then there are stories, like the family who buys a new home every time they go on vacation in the same way others pick up a small souvenir, perhaps a tea towel, to mark their adventure.

My daughter tells me that her classmates often make jokes about "hobos", the common term for the homeless here. I am more shocked by this than anything else, knowing how the people in this solidly liberal town take such pride in being good. I despair at the notion that mocking a person for their poverty is somehow acceptable; that seeing a person in such circumstances would provoke anything other than a feeling of compassion.

At dinner, my 8th grader renews his campaign to get his own laptop. He reminds us that everybody else in his grade has one and no doubt they do. I watch the food server clearing tables and tell my son to cut it out, appalled at his sense of entitlement.

I think that rather than encouraging my kids to sign up to work for a charity or overseas aid organisation in their summer breaks - a common activity for teens around here who are shaping their Ivy League applications - they should instead work in minimum wage service industry jobs. This might not look as impressive to college recruiters but will give them far more understanding of how the world looks from the other side of the counter, the side where an income of $250,000 is more impossible dream than middle class. 

My son rolls his eyes. He knows that another lecture is headed his way. I won't stop because I never want to hear a child of mine look down on a person for having less, let alone make a homeless person  their punch line.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Conversations with my daughter: beyond cheerleading

My daughter has an audition on Monday for a local youth orchestra and, not surprisingly, she is nervous.

"You are playing your pieces beautifully," I tell her after a particularly trying practice that ended in hot angry tears.

"No I'm not. I sound terrible." Yes she is looking for reassurance but it is more than that.

"I'm glad to hear you say that. It means that you have high standards and are not easily pleased with yourself. That means you will always be aiming higher, striving to do better."

We talk about writing, and how often the worst writers have the highest opinion of themselves and the best are riddled with self-doubt. I want her to recognise that her doubt is in fact a strength, that rather than crippling her it can be the engine that drives her forward.

"You know if you don't get in you can try again in a few months." I say. "You can figure out where you went wrong, where you need to improve."

It would have been easier to pull out a cliche, to act as my daughter's dutiful cheerleader. But our kids are excellent detectors of parental bullshit, knowing how prone we are to well intentioned hyperbole when it comes to their talents. Indeed, more than once my daughter has met outright praise with "You are just saying that because you are my mum. You have to."

So instead of drowning her in praise I have chosen a different path. Of course I will whisper words of encouragement in her ear on the way to the audition, and I will feel at least as nervous as she does as she starts to play. And if she gets in I will jump around the house like a madwoman until she tells me to stop.

But if she doesn't, I want her to view it as a setback rather than a catastrophe, a challenge to work harder rather than a signal to give up.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Feminism and the power of social media #destroythejoint

In the past week much has been written about the trolls of social media, cowards who hide behind their keyboards spewing out hate. But yesterday we were given a startling reminder of just how hateful traditional media can be; and how social media can be a source of empowerment rather than victimisation.

It is no great surprise that the reminder came from shock jock Alan Jones, who sitting safely behind his microphone, viciously attacked Australia's Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and a string of other women in positions of political power. He not only said "women are destroying the joint" but added "There's no chaff bag big enough for these people".

It was more of the same from a man who is famous for wearing his hate, rather than his heart, on his sleeve; a man who doesn't need to hide behind a keyboard but is instead paid a fortune for his particularly ugly brand of broadcasting. And a man who is not alone. Just think Kyle Sandilands and the companies who are more than happy to attach their products to the politics of hate that they both peddle.

Rather than lie down and take it, the women of twitter rose up. With the hashtag #destroythejoint cleverly coined by Jane Caro, the fun began. Before long Jane and the hashtag were trending and #destroythejoint merchandise was on sale thanks to the fast work of @yvettevignando. In a beautiful twist funds raised from the sale of this merchandise will go to supporting refugees, another target of Jones’ hate.

Words that were meant to degrade and undermine women instead became a clarion call to action. The women of twitter became keyboard warriors of the best sort, using social media to mock (and dare I say it, destroy) one of the most arrogant and politically powerful voices of MSM.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Wait and see

"Just tell me if you see anything that is of concern," I say to my son's new teacher. "Don't try to spare my feelings. I want to know."

I sound so self-assured, reasonable, like a mother whose heart is impermeable, encased inside a bullet proof vest.

Then at school pick-up a parent makes an off-hand comment about my child, and in that comment I hear a thousand judgments wrapped up in layer upon layer of kindness and concern; and I picture a teacher contemplating whether now is the right time to approach me or if she should give it a few more weeks to settle, time to wait and see.

Before long my boy is beside me, handing over his backpack in exchange for the scooter he insists I bring with me each day at pickup time.

"Let's go," he barks. And with that we are off, racing around the park, negotiating how we will fill in the hours before it is time to collect the big kids.

At the car I call my husband, hoping he can meet us for lunch, knowing that he will let me talk for as long as it takes to work loose the hard knot of anxiety that has formed inside me. But he is out of the office and without his cell phone.

We go to lunch anyway and on the way my son draws a bird with his new markers. He is so proud of himself, declaring that with his latest drawing he is now an artist. Another cafe dweller shows him how to draw a different type of bird and my son replicates it with great precision. I beam, unable to disguise my pride.

I let my him talk me into buying a chocolate brownie. We split it in half and the overwhelming sweetness proves to be a welcome distraction.

Friday, August 17, 2012

On being 'good'

We often wish that our children would just 'be good'. And in the classroom context our children will often find themselves subject to disciplinary regimes whose goal is to produce desirable or 'good' behaviour, schemes where being 'good' is interchangeable with being obedient and compliant.

But do we really want to raise children to be 'good'? Is this compatible with raising engaged learners, critical thinkers, active citizens in a democratic state?

Last year all the teachers in my daughter's grade used a 'carrot and stick' system to reward and punish classroom behaviour. Once students acquired a certain number of tickets they could claim a small prize but if they broke a rule they lost tickets and their chance to collect a prize.

My daughter refused, point blank, to participate. In fact, she regularly tore up her tickets. She is in most respects a 'good' student, but in her own quiet and determined way she staged a one person rebellion. And while I would appreciate a little less rebellion on the home front I am proud of her resolve, her refusal to submit to a manipulative scheme that to her felt like an insult.

Today, Sister Megan Rice, an 82-year-old American nun with a long history of activism, is on trial (along with two male accomplices) for taking part in a break in at a top US nuclear weapons facility. She faces a possible 16-year prison term. And in Russia, Pussy Riot have been sentenced to two years imprisonment for refusing to just shut up and submit to an unjust regime.

Brave, fierce and free in the truest sense of the word, these are women who I will hold up to my children - and especially my daughter - as role models. They show that to be truly good means being willing to question and actively defy authority when necessary, take risks, and even give up the privileges (small and large) that we benefit from when we meekly submit to the prevailing order.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Blogging is a waste of time

"Blogging is a waste of time" said the taxi driver, as he delivered me from JFK to NYC for BlogHer12.

I laughed a little nervously, unsure how to respond. Truth be told, it is not as if I haven't had the same thought myself.

There were many sessions at BlogHer12 focusing on the nuts and bolts of blogging and maybe I will make room for some of these in my schedule next year. But this year, more than anything, I was looking to be inspired and even reassured that blogging matters, that it is about more than the statistics and brands and revenue streams; that giveaways and sponsored posts and ads are a sidenote, that they haven't taken over to such an extent that blogging is just another way for 'brands' to reach consumers. 

Attending panels such as #blogging4change and #IntActivists put any such thoughts firmly to rest. These bloggers showed how blogging can be a radical act, especially for those that belong to groups whose voices and perspectives are often ignored or marginalised.

I frantically tried to capture the words of these bloggers and send them out into my tweetstream. And over and over again, this diverse group of women conveyed a similar message:

That taxi driver, the one who informed me with great certainty that blogging is a waste of time, wanted to know if people make money blogging. I sensed that if I could show him that blogging had economic value then I may have been able to change his mind. And after the conference I could have shown him some pretty impressive numbers, the sort that bring the brands to events like BlogHer in droves, the sort that are necessary but leave me cold.

I am proud that I could have just as easily introduced him to a diverse group of women for whom blogging is about something bigger than numbers; women who challenge the rest of us to strive to make sure that our blogs actually do matter.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Packing Purgatory

There is a suitcase next to my bed that reminds me of the proverbial glass of milk. For the past year this suitcase has been either half packed or half unpacked, but never for a moment approaching empty, as if permanently stuck in a state of packing purgatory.

There are in fact four suitcases standing upright in a corner of our bedroom and I predict they will still be standing in that same position for a long time to come, as will the baskets of clean washing and the department store bags full of items I never quite got around to returning.

Tomorrow morning I will probably finish packing that halfway house of a suitcase thirty minutes before it is time to race to the airport. I will pack badly, indecisively, full of just-in-cases and maybes. And for this I will pay a price, in both dollars and time, for being one of the fools who has failed to travel light.

At the airport I will wave goodbye to my four children, leaving them for the first time in thirteen years. I am hoping that my baby, who is now five, doesn't fall apart as I head to the gates. I have little doubt that saying goodbye to my own children will bring me more than a little undone but knowing we will be able to talk and give each other virtual hugs through a screen may finally cure me of my Skype-phobic ways.

When people ask me why I am going to New York I am not entirely sure what my answer should be. I am hoping that on my return I will know why I made the journey to Blogher12, beyond the obvious "It was in New York".

I am thrilled that POTUS will be speaking to "us" but less excited about what I fear will be a fixation on monetization and brands. But the fact I am traveling with my dear friend Sarah aka @Maya_Abeille, and that people I admire in the bloggersphere will be both attending and speaking, gives me reason to think that I would have been a fool to turn down this opportunity.

When I wrote my very first blog post, almost three years ago, I never imagined that I would again be living in California or that blogging would give me the best excuse ever to visit New York city. Nor did I envision that blogging, hand in hand with twitter, would lead to both amazing friendships and professional writing opportunities.

It is true I will be arriving in New York with some heavy baggage, not to mention nerves, but hopefully I will leave with a mindset that is not just half full but overflowing with new ideas and perspectives. And if all else fails, I will have spent a few days with a great friend in one of my favourite cities in the world.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A taste of home

I miss the cracks. The imperfections. The new holds little charm. I miss the tumbledown terraces and uneven sidewalks that my own grandmother trod when these inner city streets were still solidly working class.

I drive down Marion Street towards Annandale and see a group of women gathered in a narrow doorway, sharing a cigarette and the sort of easy intimacy that I hunger after in my new home. I imagine that they not only share secrets but bloodlines that stretch all the way back to Europe. Their faces are untouched, more interesting than beautiful, and it is their imperfections that make me want to let go of the steering wheel and take a photo.

On the streets of Annandale, outside the family run supermarket, I run into a dad from our old school. I am surprised he remembers me, let alone knows my name, and as he fills me in on the local gossip the children's moods shift to match the darkening sky. They are less than impressed that I can't seem to walk more than a few metres on this block without striking up a conversation.

Before we return to the hotel, I force the children to pose for yet another picture. I am behaving more like a tourist than a local, seeking to capture the essence of a stretch of road that used to represent nothing more to me than tight parking and last minute grocery runs.

We are home again, in a faraway place full of people who are also hungry for a taste of home. We get on with it, spreading Vegemite on our substandard toast each morning, knowing that in a years time we will happily exchange a perfect Californian summer for the imperfections of home.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Only the gaps

"If you run away again I'll get one of those dog leashes" I screeched, all exasperation and empty threats. He knew I would never follow through, and I knew it would take something far stronger than a child restraint dressed up as a monkey back pack to rein him in.

I recalled other children I had come across, the sort who did not need to be chased and wrestled to the ground in order to execute a nappy change; the sort who stood stock still, without even a whisper of protest, while mothers applied sunscreen and tied hat ribbons firmly under chins before heading to the park.

I wondered what karmic force I had offended to end up with a tribe of such endlessly disagreeable children. On a better day or when sharing a coffee with another mother of wayward children, I would feel compelled to trot out some tired old speech about not wanting to raise robo-kids, talk of celebrating and even cultivating such rebellious spirits, but at that moment an even-tempered moderately obedient child held great appeal.

I held his arm a little more firmly than required on the walk down the hill, as he wailed "I'll stop, I'll remember now. I promise I won't do it again."

The moment I relented and let go he was off again, weaving his small body between adult legs, hiding behind poles, oblivious to the terror that consumed me each time he disappeared from my line of sight.

And then he returned, and thoughts of my boy crashing three floors to his death or being abducted by the most determined of kidnappers were replaced by a desire to unleash my pent up fury while simultaneously wrapping him tightly in my arms and never letting go.

A few days later, as I walked back to the hotel - alone for the first time in a week - another small boy shot past me, no parent in sight. I watched him go, racing to be first, not caring that with each frantic step he was moving closer to a different sort of finish line.

I called out to the adults coming up behind me. "Is he yours? Does that boy belong to you?" And they looked away, only half wrong in their presumption that the wild eyed woman standing before them was what we called mad in less polite times.

Then I spotted her, a mother holding a tired child, keeping her eyes fixed firmly on the small figure in the distance.

"He'll get himself run over," she said a little too matter-of-factly. I wished there was some wood I could quickly reach out and touch to undo her words but I was surrounded by nothing but cold hard metal and concrete, materials chosen solely for their utility.

The boy kept running, four-year-old legs carrying him swiftly up the ramp to the fifth floor. A metal railing stood between the boy and the railway tracks that ran beneath the car park. But I couldn't see the railing - only the gaps in between - gaps sized just right for a small body to slip through in an effort to see what lay on the other side.