Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Place Dreams Go To Die

I may be adjusting to life in a new country, finding a school for the kids, looking for housing, leasing a car, getting a drivers license... but shining like a beacon in the night, there is always IKEA. I may not be able to get my hands on any Vegemite, but at least I can get cheap Swedish meatballs when the mood strikes.

The first problem with Ikea is that the goods always look so great in the catalogue. Those stylists really know what they're doing. I find myself coveting every room. I really want to go there so that my life can start again.

So I loaded the kids in the car, picked Chris up early from work and headed over there. Rookie mistake number one: bringing the kids with us, and after 4pm too. Tired, hungry kids. Before we even get there. It's like we've never been to Ikea before. And some one dropped two small kids on us out of the blue. I mean really, here's where reader sympathy should cease. We brought this shit on ourselves.

We get there, and like an oasis in the desert there is the smaland play centre. Oh yeah, the kids can play happily (and hopefully forget that it's almost dinnertime) while we whip around and calmly agree on what to buy. After all, this is just going to be the table we will sit at several times a day for the next two years. No pressure. Without the kids hanging off us, it should be fine.

Hang on, the kids need socks to enter smaland. No socks, no play. We have no socks. Rookie mistake number 2. So, making decisions about furniture in an over-stimulated flood lit environment WITH two kids hanging off us. Starting to feel slightly less optimistic going in. But we're here now. Let's press on.

To cut a looooong story short, next thing you know Chris is leaning his full body weight on every table and when it buckles slightly muttering "This is shit quality! Look at this! Alex, get out of there! WHERE is Maya?" I don't say that the tables were not exactly designed to be pressed down upon by 6 foot 4 South Africans. I do say, " Remember that giant yellow sign that we walked in under? You know we're in Ikea right? What did you expect? Why did we come here?"

Then I found a cute white daybed for Maya and since she spends so little time in her own bed I thought the foam mattress would do. Plus it has heaps of storage and looks like a lounge. Chris looked mildly interested. Then he gave it the Engineers Quality Control Test - he lifted up the mattress and pointed at a broken slat, looking at me with eyes that were at once accusatory and also said "See! Shit quality!" Sheesh. It's not as if I broke the thing. And I'm pretty sure it won't exist in our house under the same conditions as in the Ikea store, with eleventy billion South African engineers coming in and leaning on it with their full body weight. We remembered that we were down a child and eventually found Maya curled up in one of the display beds while Alex destroyed a nearby kids bedroom with his man-child feet. Chris wondered aloud why all the other children were so well behaved. Although it may have come out something more like "Why don't you kids LISTEN TO ME? Can you see any other kids going on like this??" I reminded him that all the living breathing children were playing merrily in the smaland ball pit, with their socks smugly on their feet. The remaining children were robo-children planted by Ikea, designed to retain the feel of a family store.

We were getting nowhere so it was time to regroup with some meatballs and $1 bottomless cups of loganberry juice. I think the loganberry juice was laced with something just quietly.

The kids were over it and the pressure of trying to make a decision over mediocre furniture was too much. It became clear that we were not going home with multiple flatpacks strapped to our roof racks. But all was not lost. We still had the $2 toilet brushes to collect and if we managed that, the trip would be worth it. The weird thing about Ikea is that although yes, some of it is not the greatest quality, some of it is actually really fantastic value. It's just a bit random. You have to have your wits about you, which we most certainly did not.

The other thing about Ikea that I should have remembered, is that it never ends. You think you have pretty much almost reached the register but no. It just keeps going. We had another "shit quality!" outburst from Chris in the pots and pans section but I managed to get some place mats, a dinner set and plastic kids cutlery into the trolley. We finally made our way to the checkout, where (and this shouldn't have been a surprise, but was - rookie mistake number 321) - the total came to almost $200 despite the fact that we hadn't actually bought any furniture. Good times.

We may be sleeping on the floor for the next few weeks but goddamit, we have a kick-ass cheese grater.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Oh these kids clothes are just so cute!

Gap girls' tees:                                                                     Gap boys' tees:
Baseball, hockey, soccer, skulls.                             Hearts, cats, rainbows, flowers.

Captions:                                                                               Captions:
Choose your weapon                                                            I've got sunshine
This is my costume                                                                    Sweet life
Here to Win                                                                             Tres Chic
                                                                                                    J'aime mon chat
                                                                                                     Ooh la la

Old Navy girls' tees:                                                            Old Navy boys' tees:   
More sport, sharks.                                                           More hearts, more cats.

Captions:                                                                                              Captions:
Class Clown                                                                                          Love Rules
Dark Knight                                                                                          Smile
If it's not broke don't worry I'll break it later                             Love peace laugh
I am who I am your approval is not needed                              BFFs are sweet
This is what awesome looks like                                                      I Heart U.

OH WAIT. It's the other way around. But you already knew that.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The perfect cup of tea and toast

Here's how I make sure my breakfast is just how I like it.

I boil the kettle, put a scoop of tea leaves into the pot (I have a pot with an internal mesh tea-holder that automatically strains the leaves to avoid any fuss at the other end*), pour the boiling water into the pot, and set the microwave timer to exactly four minutes.

Then I take the butter and jam out of the fridge, set up my tea cup with the right amount of sugar and milk, and wait.

When the timer buzzes, I pour the tea and put the toast or bagel into the toaster. When it pops, I leave it for a short while so that the butter doesn't melt too much and make it soggy, but not so long as to end up with cold toast. In the time it takes the toast to be ready, the tea has gotten to the perfect temperature to drink with the buttered, jammed toast.

It's annoying to drink lukewarm tea with a nice piece of toast. And it's just as annoying to have a nice hot cup of tea with cold toast. Hence my system.

I've noticed that I've become more particular about the things I can control as I get older, but concurrently, I'm trying to become more philosophical about the things I can't.

*'the other end' being the spout/teacup end!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The upside of new

A fellow expat described the experience of moving abroad as similar to that of a seesaw: there are ups and downs and they keep coming and going. I'd been warned to expect a rollercoaster of mixed emotions.So I really should have seen it coming yesterday, when, just after the catharsis of venting all my sadness and confusion in a blog post, the fog seemed to lift for a while. Things began to fall into place.

I have some friends who happen to live very close to where we are staying, they are cousins of a close friend but we had met up several times both here and in Australia, they had been very hospitable the last time I was here (10 years ago now) and I had been in contact with one of them, Anita,on Facebook as my moving date approached. Anita had been extremely helpful and offered to do whatever she could to help us settle in. Initially I was waylaid by migraines and sick children, but two days after arriving I picked up the phone.Just hearing her warmth and enthusiasm and that strong Canadian accent lifted my spirits. She provided me with lots of useful information and promised to answer any other questions I might have, and that we would catch up soon. 

Then another Canadian friend Tina (who lives in Australia) put me in contact with a friend of hers who lives locally, via Facebook, and that friend sent me a lovely message offering help settling in too.It's amazing what the realisation that there are people around you can turn to if you need to can do to help you feel less alone. Even if you never actually call on them, it's good to know they're there.

Chris came home from his first afternoon at the office (although still officially on holidays, he'd agreed to go in for a handover) with useful information about setting up bank accounts, good areas to live, and we agreed that we should rent a car within the next couple of days to get out and explore some different areas.I started to think about taking the kids on some trips: Toronto Island, Canada's Wonderland, a baseball game.

Alex was still sick and I worried about being in a new country without a car, with a sick child who seemed ok but could potentially get worse overnight. I didn't want to drag him and Maya to a doctors only to pay a fortune and wait an eternity and be told to just keep an eye on him. A kind tweep whose wife is a doctor offered to ask her for advice when she got home from work, and sent me his phone number. I wondered whether to take him to the walk-in clinic across the road.  It was 5.45 and the clinic closed at 6. I didn't think we'd make it but Chris took him anyway. They arrived back half an hour later with anti-biotics. They'd walked in and been seen immediately. (Australians will understand how shocking that is!). It turned out he had an ear infection.

 As I hadn't left the apartment in 48 hours (basically since we had arrived) Chris suggested I take a walk to the shops to have a look around. It's amazing what a bit of fresh air can do for a person (my grandfather was right!). Sure there were still the luxury cars driving down the freeway to the mall. But on foot I noticed there was also a park across the road from the high rise, and even at 8pm there were people walking their dogs, children riding bikes and playing. The sun was still shining. 

I made my way across the highway and came to a sign: Pedestrians Diverted. The little diversion took me under a canopy of trees and over a little wooden bridge that lay across a creek. I would love to say there was a squirrel munching an acorn to complete this picturesque little Canadian scene but that would be too cliched surely? There was no squirrel.

At the shopping centre I found all the shops open until 9pm each weeknight (convenience!) and a giant bookstore/Starbucks. Heaven.

After a decidedly average first couple of days, things were looking up. I found an upside to the new.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The in-between

Since we moved out of our house, we have been in-between. Not here, not there. Four days in an apartment in Newcastle, suddenly tourists in the place we had called home for over five years. And now we're in a similar apartment halfway across the world. But the scenery outside has changed. Gone is the museum, Honeysuckle, the lighthouse, the beach. Instead we see highways and buildings, a strip of green and a sign announcing that Air Supply will be playing at the Markham Civic Theatre in September. Randomly I remember reading in some magazine that Air Supply were Princess Diana's favorite band.
 Alex, who we thought had conquered jet lag quickest, has fallen into a feverish sleep at 2pm, despite insisting he was neither sick nor tired. He developed a cold just before we left which prompted a last-minute dash to the GP for emergency just-in-case prednisone. Luckily the prednisone turned out not to be needed (yet) but the cold dogs him still and appears to have developed into some kind of post-viral infection. For me, jet lag meant being crazy dizzy tired with weird dreams and a headache that took all day to clear.
Waking up the children to leave various hotel rooms and get off flights was like destroying a delicate spider web - you know it's not the end of the world but it seems such a shame. The children handled such rude awakenings with aplomb, obligingly riding their trunkis and standing in line with minimum fuss. Alex even pushed one of the trolleys loaded with suitcases - he could barely see over the top but rose to the task admirably.
 Whilst living in Australia, watching American TV and movies, listening to American music, we took for granted the similarities between the two cultures. But an overnight stop in LA brought with it a new awareness of the differences. A sign in the hotel lobby reads: "WARNING: This facility contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. A brochure with more information on specific exposures is available at the registration desk." I was keen to procure one of these brochures but Chris assured me that the sign was to avoid litigation and was more to do with Californian law than any specific danger. He said the chemicals referred to were regular cleaning chemicals used in most places. All of which, yes, are known carcinogens. (Perhaps a horrifying statement on modern life rather than that specific hotel!)
We took a taxi to Santa Monica Pier, it was more crowded than the Easter Show. We bought the kids ice cream cones, each single scoop seemed almost as big as their heads. The taxi driver had arrived from Iraq 40 years earlier, fleeing from Sadaam Hussein's regime. He had nothing but praise for America. 
The service in America was so unfailingly helpful and polite that I couldn't help but be dazzled. It really shows up the Aussie laid-back attitude which often seems suspiciously like apathy. 
Talking in his sleep that night in the LA hotel, Alex said, "When are we going to get there?" In the morning, breakfast was served on plastic plates, with plastic cups and cutlery. The choice of cereal was fruit loops, frosty o's and frosted flakes. Cinnamon scrolls and lemonade were also on offer. And, of course, 2 per cent milk. (wouldn't want any fat to sneak into the diet). I also noticed the mirror in the lobby was a "skinny mirror". We used to have them at the clothing shop I worked in while I was at uni: they stretch you slightly to give the impression you are slimmer than you are. Not as much as crazy mirrors at a fun fair, but along the same lines. Only in America!
We arrived in Canada after a five-hour  flight from LA and had to wait at immigration for a while as they processed our visa application. We had to take two taxis to the apartment to fit all our luggage, costing us $150.
I know that this transition has been made smooth for us in countless ways, big and small, but that doesn't stop the shock of the new from jarring us, nor does it make the move completely seamless. We are moving to a country where we speak the language, with similar customs, where we have a job and temporary accommodation. Our furniture is on its way to us. We are grateful for all this. But we have left behind a life we loved, a familiar home, dear friends and family, and the emotional reverberations of this move are felt in myriad ways.
 The light switches go up not down. The powerpoints don't have on/off switches. The water pressure in the shower can't be adjusted. The inside of the microwave resembles nothing so much as an aircraft hangar. Everything is wrapped in plastic three times then wrapped again for good measure.
And then there are the petty annoyances that inevitably come with travel. I skinned my knee at Santa Monica beach. A hole turned up inexplicably in my merino wool t shirt. I left my good face cleanser at the hotel. But these things really just served to remind me of how much worse it could have been.
 Maya watched tv the entire first day before falling asleep on Chris' lap at 8pm and waking up at 11am this morning (even more amazing, she did not wet the bed!) and is now watching tv again. At this point, my approach is "whatever works." Chris and Alex took a bus to a mall yesterday. Alex came back and announced that "everything is better in Newcastle." His tone was more matter-of-fact than despondent.
 I've taken care to use the local expressions such as "to go" instead of "take away", "no problem" not "no worries", "elevator" not " lift", "cell phone" not "mobile", "grocery store" not "supermarket".
We don't have a car, which makes it difficult to get our bearings and explore. (Jetlagged kids don't enjoy walking very far, especially down highways!) There is a dearth of good coffee. (Chris: "I would kill for a flat white!")
There are harder things in this world than what we're doing, for sure. I think of people fleeing their countries, in fear for their lives, making the hard choice to leave loved ones behind in search of a better future for their families, not knowing when or if they will see their homeland again. We've left a life we loved in order to have an adventure, but we are missing that life and we haven't found anything to replace it with yet, so we are sad.  We're in a luxury apartment building where people drive in and out in their luxury cars and turn onto the freeway to get to the mall. We need to be in a home with a neighborhood, to walk to the shops and the park. We'll get there. We're just in-between.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

That crazy chicken

The other day I was driving Ms 4 to ballet. We were almost there when she started her usual preamble, "I wonder which side the crazy chicken is going to be on?" She knows which side the chicken will be on but she always asks anyway. The crazy chicken is a giant mascot sitting up high in front of a Toyota dealership near the ballet school. It has huge bulbous eyes that usually roll around inside its head, with the pupils oscillating. Sometimes the eyes get stuck and the chicken is either blind (whites only) or looking in a particular direction. It never fails to make Ms 4 squeal with laughter. Today she said, "Oh! It's stopped! It's playing musical statues!" After ballet, there is more commentary from the back seat as we pass the chicken on the way home.

I don't know what it is about the chicken that appeals to her funny bone. Maybe it's the ridiculousness of a giant chicken. Maybe it's the rolling eyes. Maybe it's the excitement she feels each time we approach her ballet class. Maybe it's just a Thing now and she can't remember why it was so funny to begin with. Maybe it's just the wonder of being four. But damn, I'm going to miss that crazy chicken.

We leave the country to make a new home overseas in just over five weeks. That chicken got me to thinking about all the little (and big) things that I will miss about Newcastle, so I decided to make a list. Self-indulgent? Possibly. But it's been on my mind so here it is.

  • The Merewether Surfhouse corn fritters (oh and the amazing view) - I've only eaten them once but it was love at first bite. You know when you just KNOW.
  • The simplicity and elegance of the Fernleigh Track - a disused rail corridor that runs for 17km through people's backyards and bushland. I'll miss riding my bike under (mostly) shade while listening to podcasts of This American Life. Even the ride back uphill isn't that steep - if a cargo train can make it, you know you can do it on a bike.  The nod of recognition from fellow cyclists even though most of them have passed me, have turned around and are now on their way back. I'll miss the long walks and talks on the track that I've done with my dear friend Jayne - discussing everything from the mysteries of the universe to the problem with apostrophe situations (which may well be one and the same thing).  Newcastle Council really got something right with the Fernleigh.
  • Movies at the most dilapidated cinema in town - I'd wager in the country actually. The seats are the original seats from when it opened in the early 70s. You sit back and the whole row lurches. The bins are covered in rust. The roof leaks. The whole place has seen better days. But there is an inexplicably large powder room before you go into the main (brown-tiled) bathroom. And it has a licensed bar. And it shows the only arthouse movies in town. I'll miss my Tuesday-night $11 tickets with Curly and Curly. (I'm the third Curly, we're like the three stooges only we're all called Curly).
  • The proliferation of Portlandia-like "put a bird on it" boutiques that have sprung up around the tattoo parlours and brothels in town. You go hipsters.
  • The fact that three wedding shops next to each other are called the "wedding precinct." It's even written in the banners flying outside the shops. How cute is that? 
  • My little patch of backyard, my little 90-year-old house, with it's original fireplaces and ornate ceilings. 
  • Walking my son across the road to school every day, being able to hear the first bell go and yell "Come on! The bell's gone!" and still make it for the second bell. Being able to do the reverse in the afternoons.
  • Being two blocks from the little local shops - banks, post office, the best bakery in Newcastle, newsagent, hairdressers, supermarket, butcher, fruit shop. Knowing the shopkeepers. Being able to run to the shops while my husband is cooking beef stroganoff and be back in time to add the mushrooms I've just bought.
  • Living five minutes drive from a world-class hospital - even though I hope we won't need it as much as we have over the past five years - yes, I will miss that.
  • The theatre. Local productions - being in them, seeing them, every one I  know knowing at least one person in the cast.
  • Winning stuff on the radio - it's easier in rural locations! You can actually get through sometimes! I've been on a Hunter Valley Feast (lunch) through a competition won by Newy twitter friends, won tickets to Elmo (although possibly the lines were clear that day  because no one else wanted to impersonate Elmo live on air!); and won tickets to the (aforementioned) cinema.
  • Talking on the radio - I interviewed my son on his first day of school and they played it on air, I debated Bettina Arndt about her views - both on local abc radio. Not to mention the number of times I've called in just to have a chat/espouse my view on this or that.
  • ABC Newcastle  - it deserves its own dot points - just being so connected to the local community through the radio, it's something I've never experienced before. They know what they're doing over there. 
  • Having all my friends within a 10 (15 max) minute drive. 
  • The beaches - oh, the beaches! And I am not a beach person. The canoe pool at dusk, the baths (Merewether and Newcastle), the vistas. The art deco beach houses. The fact that you can get a park within easy walking distance (sometimes even right in front!) and it doesn't cost you an arm and a  leg.
  • Lambton pool. Even when it's packed and I am trying not to think about the number of kids weeing in it and how many molecules of bacteria there would be per square millimetre. The kids love it so much.
  • The parks - Lambton park, Gregson with its gigantic trees so you are always in shade, Centennial -  my kids grew up playing in these parks. 
  • The cafes - Goldbergs is the reason my husband wanted to move to Newcastle! - Darby St, Honeysuckle, Peaberrys, Sprout, Estebar, there's no shortage of good food.
  • The culture - the fab museum, the art gallery, the libraries. All free, all easy to take kids to, all welcoming.
  • The fact that I can still go to great events like Tedx because some one in Newcastle (Siobhan Curran to be exact) has had the vision and the heart to stage it in Newy. 
  • The community - the two degrees of separation that Newcastle seems to operate from.
  • The Hunter Valley Gardens at Christmas.
  • The vibe of the place.
  • And of course that damn crazy chicken.
Oh god. I just read through the list again. Do we really have to go?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Beauty Myth is alive and well

My almost-four-year-old daughter often tells me she wishes she had "flat hair". What she means is she wishes her curly hair was straight. Some might put it down to the early adoption of a lament from women throughout the ages - wanting the opposite of what we have. But it's more than that. For a while I was concerned that it was some kind of self-loathing at the ripe old age of three. But it's not that. For my daughter, I realised the reason she was keen on "flat hair" was because she was bothered by the number of comments her curly hair attracts. She told me she doesn't like people talking about her hair all the time. And especially doesn't like being called "cute", which she associates with babies. And she is not a baby, she is a three-year-old girl. 

Maya gets attention pretty much wherever we go. Most outings include one or two or sometimes several instances of well-meaning friends or passers-by telling her how cute, beautiful, gorgeous she is, specifically in relation to her hair, eyes, eyelashes, skin. She's over it. My son, who's six, used to get similar comments up until around the age of 4, but they were never as frequent. Now that he's a bit older and his hair is not as curly and not as blonde, he escapes the running commentary. My fear for my daughter is that she will never escape it. Well, maybe when she's about 40 it will start to drop off. At which point hopefully she will feel liberated rather than disappointed that her social currency is waning.

So what's the big deal? I know people are well-intentioned, why can't she (we) just take a compliment and get on with life? Is my 3-year-old ungrateful or just shy? Or is it something else? I don't blame her for being uncomfortable with having her looks scrutinised. While I can see it's in some ways a natural inclination to comment on something that is pleasing to the eye - aesthetic beauty is and always will be important to humans - I also think there's something else at play. Girls are socialised to be as beautiful as they can be - and to bask in the glory of said beauty. Beauty is the ultimate aim and the ultimate prize.

I understand the urge to praise beauty aloud - I certainly feel it in relation to my daughter, and my son for that matter. They are so beautiful to me. I do occasionally indulge my urge to tell my children (and other people's children!)  how amazing they look, but most of the time I bite my tongue, or I try to re-frame it with emphasis on how clever they are or how hard they tried, because it's not all there is, and it will fade as other qualities go from strength to strength. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A different perspective

Last weekend I took the train to Sydney with my children to meet up with my husband who was staying in a hotel in the city for business. I decided to take the train to save money, and hopefully arrive less stressed. Besides saving petrol costs we would be pocketing the $40 a day that the hotel charges for car parking, and avoid the Friday night traffic snarl on the  Harbour Bridge . At the last minute I remembered the large pram travel bag that I had sold on eBay and agreed to deliver to Sydney for the buyer to pick up.  Oh well, the hotel was only a few blocks from the train station so we could catch a cab there. (I’m a thinker).
So as it happened I arrived at Central with two small children, a medium-sized suitcase, a handbag, an extra bag with train-entertainment-related paraphernalia, and a large pram travel case (minus the pram). We three waddled over to the taxi rank and the driver helped us load our things and ourselves into his cab. Off we set; after two and a half hours on the train plus a full day of school and preschool, the children were tired and hungry, but also interested in this novel way of travel.
As soon as we got out of the train station car park, we saw that the traffic was bumper to bumper. The taxi driver sighed. I remained calm. Surely it was worse than it looked. But no. Ten minutes later we had moved what seemed like only a few metres and had no way of getting out. The meter ticked over. I felt myself tense up. At this rate the cab fare would be a fortune and completely negate the money saved on parking. 

The taxi driver apologised for the traffic and said he would try a detour. It turned out to be just as bad, and he apologised again. I told him there was no need to apologise - he was hardly in control of the traffic. While we sat in traffic, we started to chat. I told him I'd come down on the train from Newcastle. He said he'd been there with his kids on the cheap Sunday family fare. I asked whether his kids, who he told me were 9 and 11, had enjoyed it. He said "They like any chance we get to spend time together as a family. I work 70 to 80 hours a week and my wife works too." He said it in a very matter-of-fact manner but his words shocked me.  He told me he was lucky he had bought a house 15 years ago because these days he would not have a chance. He said his wife worked as a cashier at Aldi. He had come from India 20 years ago and saved every cent to put a deposit down on his home. Since then he's been working twice the normal number of hours in a working week, driving cabs to pay his mortgage. 

So often we hear about stressed families with parents in high-pressure jobs, working to pay for family holidays, extracurricular activities, school fees. We read sage advice about how these families just need to "slow down", to find a "work/life balance", to "choose to live with less." I wonder how this advice would apply to my friend the taxi driver.I also thought back to my own childhood - my mother raised three children on her own whilst working as a nurse, and "choosing to live with less" was not an option for us.  The taxi driver told me business was not very good these days, but he had no choice as he was not qualified to do anything else. He proudly told me the names of his children and the schools they attended. He complimented me on my daughter's name, which is popular in India.  The trip of a few blocks took 45 minutes. When I got out of the cab with my kids, he reluctantly told me the fare had come to $40 and apologised again for the bad traffic. I was more than happy to pay the fare, aware that it would have otherwise only gone to a faceless corporation who did nothing to earn it other than own the building where I had parked my car.  When I told my husband that the cab fare was $40, he remarked "so it wasn't really worth it to catch the train then." I reassured him that yes, it had been worth it. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Why Are Men Hell Bent on Destroying Each Other?*

Why do men always have to knock each other down? Frankly, I'm sick of it. It's the reason they don't get ahead in the world - they're too busy having a go at each other.

Men find it difficult to succeed in the workplace, because they are forever taking credit for work that's not theirs, making people redundant, overlooking others for promotions, and all manner of unkind behaviour.

They are aggressive, taking their frustrations out on other men with their fists, and if they're not physically fighting then they're backstabbing their mates by sleeping with their partners. They don't call their mates on their birthdays, they don't organise get-togethers, and the competition on the sporting field is not friendly. Is it any wonder they struggle? Men are their own worst enemies.

In the gym, if a guy sees another guy fitter than him he will suck in his gut and think bad thoughts about his rival. He will never congratulate another guy on a job well done. He will leave a bro for dead if he sees a woman they both like in a nightclub. They mock each other all the time, making jokes at other guys' expense. Case in point: any bucks night -  ritual humiliation at its best. Why are men so hell bent on destroying each other?

Politics, that male-dominated sphere, is full of backstabbers, liars and egomaniacs. Men spend the first third of their lives competing in the playground only to tear each other down in the public arena too.

Sure, men are occasionally able to enjoy a beer together or even lend a supportive ear, but pubs and football fields should come with a warning that not every one plays nicely.

Do women brawl with each other after too much to drink? No. Do women call each other charming names like "pussy-whipped" when their friends are willing to compromise with their partners? No. Do women fart in each other's general direction and then laugh? No.

The macho posturing, the aggressive threats, the dick-swinging competitions, the merciless mocking, the disloyalty - dudes, the dogfighting has got to stop. You've got to band together, or you've only got yourselves to blame for your problems.

* In case you didn't pick it up, the above is a satire based on this post that trots out the old chestnut that women are our own worst enemies. I'd love to see a considered piece on internalised misogyny and how when we blame an entire gender for things that both genders do and are responsible for, we are reinforcing that misogyny. Instead, I wrote this piece. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Controlled crying: the great debate

This piece was originally published in Sunny Days magazine and it never gets old. I thought it was time to talk about it again.

Controlled crying. For many parents, these two words will conjure up a variety of thoughts and emotions. As with other parenting-related issues, the topic can be a minefield from the definition through to the practice and every conversation in between. There are so many articles and blogs devoted to the efficacy and/or cruelty of the practice, it's clear this issue can be divisive.

When my children were babies I hated the idea of letting them cry, for any length of time, for any reason. With my first child, there was a point at which I attempted to wrap, pat, leave the room, wait it out, then go back in and start the whole process again. But for me it didn’t work. My heart was not in it, and if anything the attempt to 'train' him only made him more distressed. So I went back to my original plan of settling him by rocking, patting, feeding and cuddling. I believe that going with my gut instinct helped me be a more relaxed mother and helped nourish the bond between me and my baby.

Many parents say that the benefits of controlled crying outweigh the negatives. Sure, no one likes to listen to their baby crying, but in the interests of teaching them to sleep independently - and hopefully having a happier, better-rested baby in the morning - it's a price that many argue has to be paid, albeit reluctantly.

Modern-day sleep 'gurus' such as Gina Ford and Tizzie Hall advocate variations on a routine-based childcare technique that includes the use of controlled crying to help baby 'settle'. These two popular authors have no formal qualifications or scientific research to back up their claims; instead they rely on their years of experience and a 'commonsense' approach that delivers the results many parents want. Their ideas can be traced back to Dr Truby King, a physician with an interest in child development who founded the Karitane mothercraft hospitals and established the Australian Mothercraft Society. American paediatrician Dr Richard Ferber also popularised a similar technique in the 1980s.

Opponents of controlled crying have concerns about the impact of the practice on a child's emotional security and brain development. The Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (AAIMHI) states that, “the widely practiced technique of controlled crying is not consistent with what infants need for their optimal emotional and psychological health, and may have unintended negative consequences.” They go on to say that, “infants are more likely to form secure attachments when their distress is responded to promptly, consistently and appropriately.”

Neurobiologist Dr Bruce Perry says that, “touch and comfort is as essential a nutrient for infant brain development and healthy growth as mother’s milk.” He acknowledges that parents who practice controlled crying are attempting to help a child build self-regulation skills but argues that, “this technique is not going to lead to the desired result.”

Paediatrician Dr William Sears also argues that by training a baby to sleep without crying, you are producing a learned helplessness, the baby has 'given up' on crying out for help.

Popular childcare authors, American Elizabeth Pantley and Australian Pinky McKay, have written books about how to help your child sleep without the use of controlled crying.

Dr Perry is quick to avoid any alarmist tendencies. “I’m not saying that if you’ve done controlled crying your child is going to have profound dysregulation (poor or inappropriate emotional response) or have brain damage. But if the goal is to have a child who is able to self-regulate and be curious and less anxious in new situations then that’s not the best way of getting to that point.” And this is where I think he makes the most sense. We shouldn’t feel guilty about our parenting choices if they have been made taking the overall picture of a family’s health into account. It seems the ‘outcome’ that controlled crying sometimes produces, that is, a baby who sleeps independently, comes at a neurological, and possibly developmental and emotional cost to a child. But a stressed, anxious and potentially depressed parent exact a cost too.

Dr Perry agrees that if the desired outcome is for babies to stop crying, controlled crying does ‘work’. “Absolutely, babies will stop crying,” he says. However he also says that the more you respond to a crying baby when they’re young, the less they’ll cry when they get older, the less demanding they will be, the more curious and the more open to exploring new situations.

Personally I have found the cries of my babies (and children, as they have grown older) like the mythical sirens' call – I am unable to resist responding as quickly as I can, particularly when it comes to helping them sleep well. I have found that hopping into bed with them when they wake is the best way to maximise their levels of security - and my time asleep. I have always reasoned that we help our children do most things during the day - you would not expect a two-year-old to make themselves a meal, for instance, without asking for help or expecting a level of supervision - so why do we demand more of them at night? And to me, it’s such a short time in our lives - they’ll be grown and independent before we know it - I want it to be as harmonious a time as possible.

What it comes down to for me is the old 'cost vs benefits' analysis, which varies for each family. Armed with as much factual information, resources and support as possible, no one can expect us to do more than our best.

What is controlled crying? The Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (AAIMHI) describes controlled crying as a technique that involves leaving the infant or child to cry for increasingly longer periods of time before

providing comfort. The intention of controlled crying is to let babies put themselves to sleep and to stop them from crying or calling out during the night.

How is this different to 'controlled comforting', 'self-settling' or ‘crying it out’? There is some confusion as to the exact definitions of each phrase as they are used widely in different contexts by different groups. There are variations between these techniques but, ultimately, they have the same aim. Some involve waiting a specific number of minutes before going back in to re-settle baby, others involve focussing more specifically on the type of cry (ie whether distressed or grizzly, etc).

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bettina Arndt you're busted!

When I was in my early 20s, I went out at night a lot more than I do now. Almost weekly I could be found at some bar, nightclub, rave or dance party. I liked to dress up to go out - to a bar I might wear heels and short skirt, to a rave I once wore sneakers and a cheongsam (a high-necked Chinese dress), to a beach party I wore sneakers, a short skirt and singlet top (it was summer). Each time I went out, I could expect men to ogle me, pinch me on the bottom, make lewd gestures, stick their tongues out at me, call at me from passing cars, outright proposition me or any combination of the above. It was an inevitable but unwelcome and uncomfortable part of the evening's proceedings. Interestingly, I noticed that wherever I went, decent men were respectful, and boorish men were not. It didn't matter what I was wearing, or how I reacted. They were going to either be charming and friendly or uncouth and rude. I didn't suddenly enjoy being pinched on the bum uninvited just because the guy was good-looking. Those entitled arrogant jerks were still jerks, Armani suit or not, and the moron leaning out of his friend's hotted up Holden Barina was still a jerk too. Jerks come in all packages. As do intelligent, wonderful men. I would sometimes go out with male friends and if they looked at me, I either didn't notice or didn't mind as they were doing just that: simply looking. If an acquaintance leant over me with leery, beery breath and held his gaze on my chest for too long, I would steer clear of that guy as he was clearly overstepping the boundaries of good taste with no regard for my comfort level. So far so normal.

Except last weekend I read a piece by Bettina Arndt which seemed to completely contradict my experience. Arndt claims that by "dressing sluttishly" women are "flaunting" (she uses this word a lot) their sexual power in an "UP YOURS gesture of the most provocative kind". And here I thought I was simply wearing whatever I choose to wear and expecting decent people to be respectful. What was I thinking?

Of course, if you dress for attention, then attention you will get. Some of it negative. That goes for men and women. But due to society's double standards, I would suggest it goes far more often for women than men. By putting the onus back on women to take responsibility for men's reactions to the way they look, we are stepping away from gender equality. And terms like "women flaunting themselves publicly" belong in the dark ages. The argument is that if you don't want them to look at you, don't wear a low-cut top/short skirt etc. Arndt accuses these women of double standards and says they dress provocatively to secure the appreciative glances of 'alpha men', or of men they are interested in, and then deride the 'beta men' - the ones they reject - for looking too. She implies that you can't expect one group of men to look and another not to. I would argue that if a man were to glance or even look with appreciation at a woman's body and nothing more, many women would either not notice or not mind. It's the definition of 'looking' that we may have a problem with, if by 'looking' you mean ogling, staring, commenting, and touching. I would also argue that the poor deprived beta men are not the only ones perpetrating these acts. So-called 'alpha' males with their sense of entitlement are just as likely to go a step too far when commenting or reacting to a woman's body. The issue here is consent and power - the woman is disempowered when the way she is dressed becomes the basis for unwanted and unwelcome comment and actions by others - to put the onus on the woman to take responsibility for the man's actions because, well, the man is in a permanent state of sexual red-alert is just ridiculous. The message seems to be that women should check themselves because of men's desires and the related actions that they 'just can't help' - this is too close to the argument that 'she shouldn't have walked down that alleyway/ been drunk/ worn that skirt' and would have kept out of 'trouble' as a form of rape apologism for my liking.

I find Arndt's argument so appallingly illogical that I can't help but break it down line by ridiculous line. Firstly, the language used throughout the piece is problematic. Accusing women of dressing sluttishly, provocatively, of flaunting their 'goodies' and displaying their 'assets' is inflammatory and reductive. It reads as though she is looking for a reaction rather than trying to put forward a reasoned argument.

And then there are the broad sweeping generalisations such as this pearler: "Everywhere you look, women are stepping out dressed provocatively but bristling if the wrong man shows he enjoys the display."

There are so many things wrong with this statement. Firstly, it is lumping all women in together, with not a shred of compelling evidence. It is simply an observation that she has made about some women that she has then used individual examples to back up. Secondly, is Arndt being deliberately disingenuous with her use of vague terminology like "enjoys the display."? What does 'showing he enjoys the display' entail exactly? It's kind of left to the reader to conclude, and some may take it to mean a man who simply acknowledges with a look or a nod the aforementioned 'provocatively dressed' woman, whereas others may assume a whole raft of behaviour such as ogling, pawing, commenting, and who knows what else.

Arndt has thought of this and later on insists that "Of course there is no excuse for sexual violence or for men to paw or harrass women" and then starts the next sentence with "but..." and goes on to criticise women who over-expose their bodies. To me this is akin to saying "I'm not racist, but... [insert racist comment here]." Issuing a disclaimer prior to an offensive statement does not make it any less offensive.

Arndt bemoans the fate of the so-called 'beta males' who are angry that the 'goodies are not on display for them'. She writes: "These men are more likely to behave badly, blatantly leering, grabbing and sneering. For them, the whole thing is a tease. They know it and they resent it." Not that she's promoting that sort of behaviour, of course.

So is Arndt purporting to stand up for men who are merely having an innocent 'look' and get told off for doing so by women who would accept the same kind of behaviour from men they were interested in? Does she think that a woman should not pick and choose who she feels comfortable engaging? As one of her interviewees clumsily says, "sometimes it feels sleazy when I'm way out of the observer's league like if they're really old or fat or ugly." Arndt claims this double standard is unfair to the poor men. I disagree. I have a friend whose father never fails to look at me just a little bit too long, and to comment on the way I look. I suspect it is just his unfortunate style of communication with women and I don't imagine I'm the only target, but his manner makes me uncomfortable. If my husband, on the other hand, looks at me that way and comments on my body, I enjoy it. Do I have double standards? Or am I simply at liberty to feel valid reactions to the way I am treated by others depending on my (real or potential) relationship with them? What if I was wearing a low-cut top? Would I then have to just put up with my friend's father's attitude? How low would it have to be? What if I was wearing a swimsuit in a restaurant? Or if we were at the beach? Would I have a responsibility to tolerate certain behaviour in certain situations but not in others? What if I were wearing a tracksuit? Then is it not ok? I wonder if Arndt can see how arbitrary her distinctions over womens dress are. There are nudist colonies and tribes in Africa and the Amazon where men routinely see women either fully or partially naked. Somehow the majority seem to be able to control themselves. Arndt might want to have a think about why that is.

"While there are women who claim they dress sluttishly just to make themselves feel good, the fact remains that... the main message sent is about flaunting women's sexual power." While Arndt may claim to understand that there's never an excuse for gross behaviour, the fact remains that the main message sent is that if they do, they can't help it and it's actually the woman's fault.

Halfway through the article Arndt quotes a "men's advocate" and Perth psychotherapist who believes many men are confused about what's going on. At this point I am also confused. "We do want to be respectful but it's not always easy with a neon pink g-string staring up at us!" Hmmm. Is it because it's neon pink? Or was that just to illustrate a point? What if it was a greyish g-string? Would that be less distracting? What about tight jeans? What about loose jeans? Who's going to tell the woman when she's gone too far? Who's going to tell her when she's dressed suitably enough to decide how she reacts to unwanted attention? What happened to ownership of our actions?

The next cab off the rank claims that "provocative female attire is an assault against men" - best he moves to Saudi Arabia then so he can feel less assaulted. Makes me feel for all those beta males running home from the newsagents to be oppressed by their copies of Maxim magazine.

Then a political philosopher chimes in. Apparently beta males get the message that what women instinctively want is for "99 per cent of the men they run into to leave them alone... while the one to whom they are attracted makes their dreams come true." You mean women want to be able to choose who they give their time and attention to and not be forced to accept all takers? Outrageous! They don't want to feel pressured into smiling politely when some buffoon makes them feel uncomfortable?? They're not gracious enough you say? Bad women. Poor, poor men.

Arndt argues that men have a right to "show what it's like to be on the receiving end." Again this is dangerously vague. What does this even mean? She goes on to illustrate the point with a description of a tv comedy wherein a character, after watching Lindsay Lohan "putting on little outfits and jumping around on stage" laments that "no woman anywhere wants to have sex with anyone and to titillate us with any thoughts otherwise is just bogus." So really it's all about him. And you know what? Lindsay Lohan probably does not want to have sex with him. He's spot on there. So why should he have to see her throwing "those things" in front of his face? From a stage on a screen you mean? And you really scratch your head and wonder why guys like this struggle to get girlfriends!?

And what of all the 'beta females' out there, are there no women who are stung by rejection? What happens when they look too closely for too long at a man who will have nothing to do with them? Do the men lap up the attention and respond graciously or do they label them stalkers, desperate, and all manner of unattractive adjectives?

It seems like Arndt would have us all living in a perpetual Adam Sandler movie if she had her way. A world where hot chicks put their money where their mouths are and wise-cracking slobs in oversized t-shirts got to pick and choose from a bevy of female delights, where women exist purely for the gratification of the beta male gaze.

The nub of the piece comes towards the end, and if there is any sense at all contained within, it's this: "Of course men are going to want to look... but there are men struggling with how to do this in a respectful way." BINGO! So why not write an entire piece helping these dudes out? Why blame their behaviour on women? I would argue that it's not just men who want to look, that looking is actually an inherently human thing to do - it's not as though women go about with downcast eyes - but in the case of this argument I will focus on men. Firstly I wonder why it is so hard to look without offending. Why is a subtle glance so hard to master? We have eyes. We see things. Take a mental picture and move on. Because when your gaze lingers and you start to make the other person uncomfortable, you need to do something about that, not them. It's not that hard. And despite what Arndt would have us believe, I think that most women are complaining about the looks and actions that make them acutely uncomfortable, not the 3-second glance. If there were no leering, groping, lascivious responses then we wouldn't have a problem.

Towards the end of this ungainly article (yes, we're getting there, three cheers for you if you've stuck it out this far!), Arndt completely contradicts her whole argument by stating "Young people caught up in all the titillation rarely see any harm in what's going on." What? Does she mean young women or young men? She goes on to talk about women and their 'flaunting' again so I can only imagine she means the women can't see any harm. But then, the kicker, in the final paragraph, is that we really can see the damage we are doing to the already "tragic" situation that is the male sex drive: only now does the 43-year-old woman think about the confused young men she left in her wake and the mixed messages she'd sent them [by virtue of her revealing clothing]. "Deep down I was much more aware of my power than I actually let on." Replace 'power' with 'responsibility' and you have one of the oldest tricks in the book: trying to make women feel responsible and take the blame for the way men behave towards them. Shame on you Bettina Arndt.