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.