Thursday, December 31, 2009

The dog

No one else can see it. Maybe they are looking with sightless eyes, but I sense it’s more than that. The dog is cunning. It doesn’t show itself to just anyone. It prefers to skulk behind a façade – the bare ordinariness of its owner, hiding in his existence, killing slowly. I can feel its presence every where, sense it lurking in the shadow of my loved one, hear its claws scrabbling. Waiting to bite at any shadow of kindness turned its way.

Slashing. Hurting.

Not leaving any visible marks, just tearing away the flesh of my heart as my partner wrestles it, trying to subdue its growing presence.

Strip, by strip, by strip. It chews away the very centre of my life while I watch. Until we are both numb.

The black dog.

On ordinariness

Christmas is just around the corner. I’m sitting in a café in Caloundra at 6am on a Wednesday morning, ostensibly on holidays. It’s absolute beachfront and the surf is rolling in, peppered with swimmers, as the sun peeps through the early morning clouds. Waves break on some distant rocks and the peeping sun shimmers, transforming magically to bold strokes across the ocean. The esplanade is bustling with ordinary people out for their early morning exercise. Ordinary people, in all shapes and sizes, some walking with purpose, some sauntering, the soles of their shoes barely kicking up the sand before them, and some committed individuals jogging. Ipods crank motivational music into unsuspecting eardrums. Children strain to escape from strollers, enticed by the beach and sand.

Nearby a pair of young women play with a new born baby, stroking the as yet unshed downy hair on his back. He attracts the gaze of passers-by of all persuasions, all of whom pass by in my direction with just the hint of a smile on their faces as if just seeing a baby brings a touch of something else special to the day. A tiny puppy is tied to the pram – brave people taking on two babies at once- and he struggles to contain his enthusiasm for the myriad of people walking past, straining on his leash with all his 500 grams, hoping to get a pat on his golden, tousled head.

An old local - Nev, former advertising person now retired - is in the corner, under the shade of a spiky ubiquitous beach tree whose genus escapes me, having his daily coffee and reading the paper, chirping hello to his friends the café staff and to the other locals the conglomerate here.

Ordinary things, everyday life, typical occurrences replicated in any number of places around the world at this very moment. And it strikes me as bizarre that I sit here thinking about my PhD. A book sits next to me - Space Warfare and Defense – in absolute contrast to my surroundings. I imagine that none of the people passing by me through the day give this matter a thought despite the number of satellites whizzing by overhead at any given moment, and despite that they will go home to their satellite tv service and mobile phones. No one else is thinking about parasite satellites, laser weapons and Rods from God.

I alternate between feeling like a caped crusader, single handedly (in this environment at least) trying to save the world from the evils of space weapons, and wondering what I think that I, a suburban Australian housewife think I am playing at in a world inhabited by career soldiers, diplomats, and technology and space nuts.

I am none of those. Yet I have something to say…now I should get on and say it.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Mother nature

Dear Mother Nature,

I am sure you are very lovely, really, I am - after all everyone talks about you so very much. But not me. I have some bones to pick with you. Here are just a few.

Firstly, what is it with insects? Why did you design people to be scared of spiders, but spiders and other bugs to be deeply bothered by rain? Bothered enough that they have to come running into my house at the first sign of a tiny, shimmering drop? Why do black, furry, shiny and crunchy insects alike all enjoy my house and my food so much? Surely you could have saved all that bother and time and just made them people.

Speaking of the weather - you really should be a bit more organised. Most females would provide a little more structure - rain should start after 6 pm so that the washing can be got off the line in time. Hail and other life-stalling phenomenon (floods, tempests, hordes of locusts) should be rostered for Saturday morning - preferably just before women all around the world are going to start the housework, or even just before dinner would suffice - and, while I think about it, roster them again on Monday mornings making a lovely late start to work justifiable.

On a good note, designing cats to be self-cleaning and lick their own fur was a stroke of genius, but I am a bit worried that instead of designing them to digest it, you engineered them to vomit it back up on the most expensive rug they can find. Stomach acid doesn't go well with carpet. It makes me doubt your credentials a little.

But what about kids? Before you designed them did you bother to ask any mother of teenagers if they would prefer being pregnant for two years if it meant that their progeny left home and were independent at oh, let's say, 13? Especially if they could catch their own groceries and eat raw food? It was good enough for elephants. I'd swap - you should have asked me and I'm pissed that you didn't.

And men. What's doing there? Why did you design men so that they feel an urge to defecate every time there is work to be done? And for that matter, couldn't you have designed their poo tube to close properly when they were finished using it? And why did you design this trait to start so young? While I'm at it why couldn't you have designed them to find their own bloody socks? What's going on - are you really a woman? I can't believe another woman would do anything so cruel.

And, while we are on the subject, what about women? You didn't even get that right. What's all this crap about having to nurture, motherly instinct, caring, sharing and compassion, blah, blah blah? Surely we would have been better off to be more man-like (but not the poo-tube defect), detached with a deep inability to respond to anyone's needs other than our own? Life would be more emotionally efficient that way. We could all just get on with it. And for God's sake, why didn't you design fat to be deposited on boobs, not hips - and while I am on the subject of bodies, what's with the hair thing?

So, there you have it. There's something a bit suspicious going on here. I'd like to see your credentials and I demand that you pull up your socks (and, just an aside, if you can't find them I seriously suggest that you consider a name change - you may have fooled most, but you haven't fooled me for a second).

Yours disrespectfully,


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Some things your mother won't tell you about getting old...

My mother is negligent. To this day, she has never warned me of the pitfalls of aging. Of course, some of it is obvious - you get wrinklier, a little saggier. I know about the aching bones, the difficulties getting up from the chair, and the forgetting of important things - like the difference between an oven and a refrigerator - in fact anyone within a 20 metre radius of someone "getting on" knows these things. We know that our hearing will go, that our bones will hollow out and that, eventually, our urinary tract will give in to the slightest temptation to pee, whether asked or not.

BUT, what I didn't know about, and wasn't warned about, is the hair! Random hair, popping up in all sorts of places where it hasn't hitherto appeared - hair that for all intents and purposes looks like it belongs to someone else, or something else! (a wild boar comes immediately to mind).

I am luckier than most I guess, having blonde hairs, although they are fairly prolific. Thankfully, I am a woman, and my marginally lower testosterone levels mean that I am not as bad as my brother who looks like a relative of the polar bear. But in the few years since I turned 40 I have apparently been working on growing what can only be described as a whiskery white moustache. When I use the work bathroom, the neon lights shine down upon the twinkling galaxy that was once an ordinary upper lip, the wispy antennae lighting up the darkness. I am sure these hairs store enough solar energy that if the lights go out I am guaranteed not to lose my way. And, lately I am sure that I can feel a faint tickle when I talk or eat as the hairs waft together gently in the breeze. Ugh!

I have tried hair removal creams, only to be left with a festering rash for several weeks - alerting even the most casual observers to the danger zone - mmm, cracked and spotty upper lip, or a few hairs? The hairs won a reprieve. I recently tried "threading" - which involved me rubbing twisted cotton up and down my face while contorting my mouth into extremely dangerous positions, watching in the mirror for strips of skin being flailed from my face - well as much as I could between the tears pouring out of my eyes. It was relatively successful - no rash - but I was so worried about the wind changing direction and freezing my face that I haven't been seeking my sewing basket. And like most other parts of my body (with the exception of my eyebrows), there is no way that anything resembling hot wax is going anywhere near it.

I thought that potentially being called "Jo with the mo" was bad - that is until I found a pig bristle growing out of my neck, and a hair that is long enough to be plaited if it had partners, growing randomly from my shoulder. What the...? And that isn't even mentioning the fact that pubic hair does not appear to be immune from the gravitational pull of the earth, and a growing awareness that it is not only men who get nipple hair. I'll save those beauties for another blog.

So there you have it. You have been warned - but most likely not by your mothers. Hopefully (sorry dear readership of none) it's not just me!

Everyone's a critic

My husband just came in (as predicted - no lunches and no coffee) and I shared what I had written. "You sound like you want to jump off a cliff," he said.

Sleep in

I've been able to sleep in this morning. Well, actually not really. As usual the sun streams in our window, blazing behind the cracks in the dreadful, transparent vertical blinds (I mean, why bother?), blinding us with its ferocity at 4.50am. Yes, that's right, 4.50am. At the same time the trucks start their journeys on the highway not far from us. Their rumblings join the chorus of birds - crows, mynahs and squawking lorikeets, that start singing the praises of the day at the first glimpse of sun - about 4.30.

Still, its 6.11 and I am still in bed, obviously glued to my computer and typing this blog post. The house is still creaky quiet - the young men are still in bed, where they would quite happily stay ensconced until 12 or 1 pm while the day idled away. My husband is downstairs rustling and bustling, as I lie here hoping that he has decided to make my day by attending to lunches and breakfast. Soon I will wander downstairs pretending as if I have just woken up, instead of lying here wishing the day away before it even begins, in the hope that he has made me a pot of coffee instead of the usual cup of instant.

As of today we have been married for 18 years and one day. So I know this won't happen. Instead he will be up here soon, having finished watching the sports news, annoyed that I am on the computer, checking that I am getting up to make lunches. But the dishes will be done, and the clothes ironed. The normal whirlwind of a day will commence. Last nights crisis - a faulty and sparking light switch - will have to be resolved, washing and cleaning duties will need to be attended to, young men will need to be fed, dressed, organised and dropped off, my daily phd guilt/procrastination/work cycle will begin, and life will go on.

But for now I am enjoying the rustling, chirping, and even the rumbling, as life goes on without me - just for a minute.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Does doing a daily check of my visitor counter on a blog page that I haven't told anyone about make me a masochist? Is the visitor counter more or less masochistic than doing a PhD?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Living with three teenage boys

I have three creatures living in my house. They share my DNA, but I can't understand how I could possibly be related to these other-worldly beings.

Firstly, they smell bad. Very bad. I have always had an aversion to BO - more so than most people who just get crinkly nosed and mildly put-off by the stench of sweaty armpits. It stems from the time that I was teased for being smelly. I don't know if those bullies were being honest or cruel, but to this day I never leave the house without perfume or deodorant in my handbag and have at least two showers a day. It is, therefore, impossible for me to understand how my teenage boys can go two or three days without a shower. They lounge and lope around, their pimples festering, lank, oily hair dragging in their eyes, shrouded in an atomic cloud of BO that oozes from every pore. It's only teenagers that can take a break from doing nothing, and the break is just to grunt, eat and sleep. It seems as if its just too much effort to drag themselves out of the primordial soup.

Secondly, I never liked teenage boys, even when I was a teenage girl. I just couldn't understand them - they were obsessed with sex, girls and food. It took some years for me to realise that this didn't change with age and maturity, the intensity just varied over time.

Besides these things, there are many other things that I have given up hope of ever understanding. How can they sleep comfortably when before they get in to bed they have to restructure the rubbish pile on it in order to make a primate-like cocoon to sleep in? Even more perplexing - how do they make it to the bed in the first place? It's a miracle reminiscent of Jesus walking on water. How do they breathe in a room that hasn't had the windows or curtains open for that long that the mechanisms have long since rusted and where, nightly, you hear the new cockroaches singing and dancing because they have reached the cockroach Holy Land?

What distorts their mind to think that a floor is a rubbish bin, that schoolwork is for dummies, and that everyone around them is wrong, stupid and in their servitude? How can they function when they are permanently bi-polar - snappy, surly and snarly at anything vaguely resembling authority, yet engaging, and funny with their friends and charming to girls? How can they navigate to some far away event without using a map, yet can't manage to locate a laundry basket? How can they have the right to vote when they don't know how to pick up a towel or find a pair of socks? How do they have the energy to drive up the road to buy junk food, but not to make a sandwich?

I don't know if these questions can ever be answered. Maybe the best I can hope for is a sudden maturity spike or hope that I don't have a nervous breakdown before they decide to leave the parental nest. I suppose there is another alternative - this morning after my shower I just dropped my towel on the floor, and when they asked me where their lunches were I just grunted. I must say, it felt slightly liberating...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I'm home again

I have been home in Australia for 1 week and 2 days. In that time I have had to buy a new car, fix an old car, hire a car, return a hire car, buy a scanner to replace one that broke on my trip, get insurance quotes for broken cases, glasses and said scanner, fix the broken computer, go to the doctor, visit a critically ill relative, drop kids off, pick kids up, go to uni, write something, find bills, pay bills, shop, bank, cook, clean and console...and somehow find time to love my husband and think about my PhD.

Phew!! Things are back to normal.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fail so far!

A whirlwind of interviews has taken over my life here in Washington at the moment, so I have yet to begin my challenge to blog about 100 people.

Someone asked my why I am doing a PhD the other day, because he knew from experience that it is personally challenging and emotionally ridiculous, and my only answer was "because it is difficult". This is precisely the reason why I chose to study Mandarin over Italian or some other language more accessible to English speakers. It's most likely the reason why I decided studying space was a great idea in the first place. So it was no surprise when I mentioned the idea of the challenge to my ever-sensible husband, he quietly asked "Don't you have enough hard-stuff to do?"

Turns out that at the moment I do. I have met lots of wonderful and fascinating people that have great stories but, that's just it, I've met them so it feels like I would be cheating and subverting the challenge. Besides I've heard stories of famous authors who lose friends and families in tell-all books. This theory may seem ridiculous given that I have only had 16 views of my blog thus far (15 of them being me before I worked out how to block my own ISP), but you never know, some day either a: I might get the courage to tell my family and friends about this blog, or b: the random 1 person that has visited it might come back with some friends and I will become viral on Youtube - famous for my singing. So there are, after all that, more reasons to not take up the challenge than there are to do it.

The final decision after all that is I will give myself a break and not beat myself up about something for once. I am going to feel good about making progress on the PhD and less bad about making no progress on other challenges I have set myself for little other reason other than they are difficult. Life is about trade-offs after all.

Having said that I think it is a wonderful idea and one day...

Cheers big ears.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Naked in Capitol Hill...

Today I have been consumed by an unpleasant feeling that I have yet to fully understand but it was related to the personal challenge I set myself - was it only yesterday? I will let you judge the outcome (so flippant - it's easy to be judged by a readership of none!). I was at the park soaking up a day that everyone wishes they could dial up as easily as a pizza - sunny, squirrely and bright - dogs and children lolling about the park - the buzz of the community interrupted only by the constant wail of Washington DC sirens. Perhaps it was that I didn't belong, I was an interloper, external to the essence of the day, that I found myself suddenly naked and vulnerable in a small park in Capitol Hill.

Of course, I am speaking metaphorically, and I am sure that my fellow park-goers would appreciate this - if only they knew! I was working away on my lit review, showering in rays of vitamin D, when a young guy came and sat about two seats away from me and began singing Kanye West - Love Locked Down. It was melodic and haunting, and I found myself thinking of yesterday's blog commitment - 100 blogs of everyday people's stories. I smiled at him several times thinking that I undoubtedly had the perfect subject there for my blog-a-thon - but, guess what happened? (I know, there is no suspense here). I chickened out. Before he had even got through the second refrain he skittered out of the park, and the look on his face betrayed his thought that he was about to be attacked by a rabid

Then I spotted my next victim - an elderly lady shuffling around the park, her socks half-mast and wilted in the summer heat, her face scorched with wrinkles scratched in with the pen of life. If I couldn't catch her with my wit I at least had a pretense under which to offer her a seat. I scrunched my bag and books up to make sure the space was available. She shuffled closer, scrutinising the pot-hole ridden brick pathway for possible obstacles. Here she came. I had the perfect opening..."You have to be careful for the pot-holes!" Okay, so it wasn't particularly creative. But she did talk back. "Yes," she said in a thick accent from I don't know where, "particularly along this bit." "Still," I hear myself saying in my simpering and lisping voice (as opposed to the sexy, strong voice that I used to think I owned before I heard myself sing) "it's nice weather for it." She nodded. She shuffled off. It's nice weather for it???? Another opportunity missed.

So there I was naked in Capitol Hill. I had exposed myself to two people and had baulked both times. They put show-jumping horses down for less. I suddenly lost heart, my uselessness verified. I thought back to my journey to purchase food. I had been stalking to the food court at Pentagon City when I was accosted by a twenty-year old Israeli girl desiring to sell me outrageously priced moisturiser from the Dead Sea. Imprisoned on the make up seat in the full glare of harsh lights and mall pedestrians, the Israeli girl had tried vainly to excoriate my face of its laugh lines. Failing to strip the life from my face she resorted to stripping my self-confidence with her fierce criticism of my wrinkles ("You surely don't use anything on that skin do you? It's in such bad shape!"). After that cruel and unusual punishment I visited the food court three times. All three times I had so little confidence that I was unable to decide what I wanted to eat, and exquisitely conscious that the act of chewing might turn my wrinkles even further into doughy, deep crevasses. Hopeless.

Introspection followed then, as it did today. Today I decided that these were issues of identity. Who am I and who I am trying to be? Being in Washington has stripped me of my strengths, of every important marker that I use to identify myself - as a wife, a mother, a friend. Instead I am left only with the bones of me. I don't have to do anything, I can do what I want, only I'm not entirely comfortable with myself, or by myself. I'm naked. But you know, at the end of a long day of soul searching I've decided - so what? Naked's okay as long as the weather doesn't change.

I'll try again tomorrow.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Everyone has a story

My husband is a wonderful communicator because he is genuinely interested in everyone's story - sometimes with the exception of mine - but to give him a break he has had not only had to live my story alongside me for the past twenty years, but for the same excruciating amount of time he has listened to me complain about it!  

But I digress - his secret is to get people talking about themselves, and importantly his motivation is genuine, so he listens with almost single-minded attentiveness.  This essential skill is part of what makes him a great physio and a great partner.  Sure he can come home and tell me about X's displaced medialus something or rather, but he can also tell me that X is a Muslim Indian who loved his wife from the moment they met at university, and whose second passion is fishing, and that he has an aluminium tinny with a 40hp motor that he takes out to the bay and a myriad of other interesting personal details.  Sure enough, the next time X has an appointment, X brings him in a gift of a small fishing lure that is guaranteed to catch a metre long flathead; Y brings in some Christmas cookies, Q brings in a bottle of red that they had discussed.  Think back in your life - you only do things like that for people that you genuinely feel a connection with.

Me, I am lacking in this department.  I flounder about - my mind ticks over everything so fast that I don't compartmentalise things effectively - so while I am listening to a seminar or someone talk, I am also mentally working out my shopping list, my things to do list, wondering if I have something stuck between my teeth, thinking about the consequences the world could be facing if Bush was legally allowed to run for re-election for a third term, reminding myself how to ask for two beers in Mandarin, trying to work out how I can afford a house cleaner, and battling with the eternal question of whether if I am capable of writing this stupid PhD.  You get the point.  It's hard to search for questions and try to engage others when you are not a genuine listener.

So I have decided to fix this because it's an area for self-improvement that I can work on, unlike my singing, which as you have seen, is an absolute train wreck and beyond hope of redemption.  I am going to challenge myself to tell 100 people's stories on this blog - I want to say in 100 days, but I think that circumstances might conspire against this - so I'll make it just a one part challenge to tell 100 stories of everyday people that I meet during my everyday existence - people who think, like me, that their stories are mundane, uninteresting, boring.  What can their lives tell us?  What lessons can we learn from others?  How similar are we to each other, or how different?  Who will I find...???

Let's see how this goes. 

Have you ever thought you could sing?

I have. For many years my singing has reverberated inside my head with more force than Hurricane Katrina. In my mind I am a combination of Macy Gray, Dido and Norah Jones - albeit a middle-aged, slightly overweight, and many-chinned version. Not for me the leather skirt, no, but I always wondered if I could achieve something with singing lessons. My husband on the other hand has always told me that my singing was really bad. I never believed him. Sure my voice wasn't great for a lot of songs, it's soft and somewhat sexy...I certainly can't belt out a rock tune - but, many friends have told me I have a nice voice, that I am a "good singer".

Of course, the singing dream disappeared under the weight of children, work, the burdens of life and, well...weight. But here in my Washington bedroom, far removed from my reality, I found myself procrastinating instead of working on my PhD. This, by the way, is the normal state of affairs, what wasn't normal was that I was alone - just me and Mac who is my inseparable companion of the last few months. Turns out it is my uncles 70th birthday today, so it occurred to me that Mac could record me singing him a birthday song! "Roll on Iphoto booth," I thought, - "may you remain unscarred by what is about to occur - and watch out Australian Idol."

Turns out, it wasn't too bad - that is if you are into a bad, somewhat older, Marilyn Monroe impersonator, who may, or may not, actually be in drag. This inspired me, in a moment of madness, to fish out my iPod touch (my other permanent companion) and video myself doing some rousing renditions of Counting Crow's Big Yellow Cab and Norah Jones "Come Away with Me" (which I am sure is not the title, but is the only line I know).

So here are the results - it turns out that my friends must love me, and they are well-meaning and compassionate, and most-likely all too aware of my fragile sense of self confidence. My husband was right, and I have just had the biggest belly laugh of three weeks. It's too good not to share...excuse the lisp - and my deepest and most sincere apologies to Norah.

It is not fair on Washington DC but...

I don’t know if writing a blog will be cathartic or not – after all it’s not much fun putting your opinions out there in the public if you have as thin a skin as I. But when you are alone the need to express yourself, to rationalise the way you feel, to tell someone – even if you don’t expect anyone to read it – becomes more overwhelming than ever before.

People that choose a singular and isolated existence must have something extraordinary, a way to gain strength that doesn’t require interaction, approval, disproval, or even acknowledgement from others. I don’t think I have that skill, but five weeks in the U.S. amongst over-achieving, extremely assertive American’s will test me to no end. I may end up curled in the foetal position under a bed somewhere, or in a wardrobe being comforted by the dust bunnies, only to be dragged kicking and screaming back to reality. Of course, another alternative is that I consume, by osmosis, the something in the air that makes many American’s just that way, and come back strong, assertive and with pearly white teeth.

But somehow, I think the assertiveness is just as much a façade as some of the beautiful buildings in Capitol Hill. Scratch the surface and you will find assertiveness as a camouflage that masks deep insecurities, and sometimes dark imaginings, that affect everyone in this society. Some of these insecurities come from gender – witness the hyper-adrenalised women in Washington, carefully coiffured, in their haute-couture suits, shoulders padded out, showing deference to womanhood only in their choice of high heels, or their sharply defined, too-bright, and slightly bemusing lipstick. Or race – witness the black or Hispanic shop assistant’s deference – years of prejudice rolled up in a cool assertiveness designed to defend against attacks, serving you coldly but engaging in small talk, warm talk, with their fellow suffering co-workers. The military personnel – uniforms expressing externally set of goals and attitudes, but masking the person inside, so all you see is a walking shell. Stereotypes I know, but to the casual observer, it’s difficult to move past the stereotypes when no one looks you in the eye as they walk hurriedly by.

For the dark underbelly, you only need to watch American TV for five minutes to see how this assertiveness is gained at the misfortune and ridicule of others. Feeling shit about your life? Try watching a reality show about a repossession agent as he repossesses a car from a female teenager driver, leaving her retching on the side of the road, stranded with her friends, sobbing desperately in her despair as he bemoans the fact that the girl had vomited on his shorts. Or there is always “Rehab” which prescribes watching wretched people undergoing withdrawl from drug dependency, as a way to entertain ourselves and unwind from the travails of our day. Let's define our success by defining someone else's failures - adding to our assertiveness because ‘that’s not me’.

So what does all this mean for me? As I contemplate going to a conference tomorrow full of accomplished, strong people, some of who will conform to these stereotypes, and others who, hopefully, will not – will I take the simple advice that my mum gave to me when I was five and try to imagine them in their underwear – not real underwear, like you might imagine Pat Cash in, but long pants with buttons like on a Disney caricature from my childhood? 

It will take some gymnastics – I will be jumping over mental hurdles like an Olympic champion. I’ve never been any good at masks, except when they were provided for me in the guise of a police uniform. It was a relief when I took that mask off and, thankfully, eventually, after years of exposure to real people, I regained my humanity. But while I have never actively looked for a replacement mask, maybe my self-effacing is one that I didn’t realise that I had actually bought. I think it might be time to throw that thing into the lifeline bin and stop hiding behind it – it doesn’t work for me anymore.