Thursday, March 28, 2013

Can you struggle on 250k a year?

So today Federal MP Joel Fitzgibbon decided to express reservations about the possibility of taxing the superannuation earnings of the wealthy, by asserting that families earning $250,000 in Sydney's west might still be classed as "struggling" rather than wealthy. He then went on to example his case with stories of miners in his own electorate who earn $100,000 to $140,000, and how not-wealthy they are.

The most obvious thing to be said about Mr Fitzgibbon's assertions is that there would appear to be a bit of a logical leap in his reasoning. After all, 250k a year is not equal to, or in the same stratosphere as, say, 110k a year. especially when you are talking about it as potentially a family income rather than an individual income. It would be perfectly possible to accept that a family on 110k with a mortgage might have some financial challenges, and still endorse the notion that a family on 250k is, in fact, wealthy by any sensible measure.

However, to be fair to him, he nuanced his point by referencing the fact that housing and living afforability costs are wildly variable across the country. This is, of course, quite true - buying or renting a house in inner Sydney is so much more expensive than doing the same in, say, Ballarat, or a regional city in Queensland, that it's a little scary. So it is not untrue to assert that a family living in Sydney or Melbourne might need a higher income to maintain the same standard of living as the same family resident in Albury, outer Adelaide or Albany. Asset levels also make a huge difference - a family on 110k who own their house outright are in a remarkably different position to that same family paying off a 300k mortgage.

That said, the argument is still pretty much rubbish if the core principle is that a family on 250k are, of necessity, struggling with money.

I'm not going to say that no such family has money woes - I'm sure some are badly indebted, some live beyond their means, some have confounding factors that drain resources (addictions and health costs spring to mind). But at the end of the day, I make no apologies for saying this bluntly - 250k for a family per year is not just adequate or ample, it's WEALTH.

Wealth doesn't mean that you never, ever have to decide between buying Thing A and Thing B. Wealth doesn't mean you can live anywhere you want and drive anything you want and holiday wherever you want and DO whatever you want. Wealth doesn't mean you are cocooned from economic circumstances completely. (Those things belong to the possessors of EXTREME wealth, and, let's be honest, very few people who work for a living, and don't start with inherited money, will ever fall into that category).

No, what wealth means is that your choices are all discretionary and tertiary. By this I mean, primary needs (food, shelter, temperature regulation, clothing, basic utilities) are never compromised or even considered, and secondary needs (education, transportation, hobbies / activities, allied health services) are always, as a given, covered. Any choice point comes in at the tertiary level, where it's conceivable that a family might choose, in any given year, between upgrading a car or a holiday in Fiji, between a new TV or a refurbished deck, between designer shoes and jewellery.

Of course people on those incomes can make choices that put them in financially struggling circumstances. They can buy property with mortgages so heinous that they swallow up most of the money. They can opt to send 4 children to extortionately fee-charging private schools and consider family ski holidays to Aspen every year non-negotiable. They can make poor investment decisions and they can pile up debt like everyone else.

The difference - and I don't think it's a subtle one - is that they can also choose NOT to struggle. They have access to enough money, at that income level, to live extremely comfortably, without the merest hint of struggle. This is not a choice available to families living on, say, 60k a year, with both parents working, for 4 people. (I deliberately do not discuss people whose income is from benefit support, because this is an argument about superannuation).

So when the question is whether very high income-earners should pay tax on the earnings of their very high superannuation, as opposed to the Opposition's previously expressed notion that the 15% super tax slug (about $500) for people earning less that 37k a year - 3.7 million of them, in fact -  should be reintroduced, I feel that the discussion needs to be shifted away from "But families on 250k might be struggling toooooooo!" and back to "What is fair and reasonable in the circumstances?"

Families on 250k are not struggling of necessity. To pretend otherwise  is insulting to the many individuals and families working their arses off and managing on less than half - or less than a third! - of that.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Miles Franklin longlist out ... I want to, but I can't :-(

Well, the Miles Franklin longlist was announced yesterday, and it's another interesting selection. The 10 titles are:

Romy Ash – Floundering
Lily Brett – Lola Bensky
Brian Castro – Street to Street
Michelle de Kretser – Questions of Travel
Annah Faulkner – The Beloved
Tom Keneally – The Daughters of Mars
Drusilla Modjeska – The Mountain
M.L.Stedman – The Light Between Oceans
Carrie Tiffany – Mateship with Birds
Jacqueline Wright – Red Dirt Talking

The first thing that's worth noting is that three books overlap with the Stella longlist - Floundering, Questions of Travel and Mateship with Birds. Indeed, two of these - Questions of Travel and Mateship with Birds - also appear on the Stella shortlist, making them illustrious indeed.

It's also worth noting that this list features 8 books by women and 5 debuts, and only one book by a former Miles Franklin winner. I think that is rather refreshing; it's nice to see new(ish) names and books getting a chance for some recognition.

Normally, I'd be all gung ho to hop into this list, but two things mean that I'm going to hold fire this time:
1. School holidays for the kids, but not work holidays for me, means I'll be even busier than usual in the coming three weeks
2. I'm still reading some of the Nebula award nominated books and I don't feel up to taking on more than one reading challenge at a time.

Of course, I've already read two of these anyway - Floundering and Questions of Travel - and I'd already decided to read Mateship with Birds, which was one of the two books that ended up on the Stella shortlist that I have yet to read. (The other, which is also in my sights, is The Sunlit Zone). And Twitter friends assure me that The Mountain is wonderful, so it's next in the queue.

The Miles Franklin shortlist is out on 30 April, so I'll see how I'm going (and feeling) by then. I might pick this up at that juncture. Or perhaps not, we'll see.

Either way, it does look like a wonderful list ... and a great showcase of Australian literary talent.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

In autumn, for which I greatly yearned (A haiku)

autumn comes gently
a blessing for which I longed,
frost in the morning.

clear air and soft sky
blue days, grey days, and yellow
ripe-tinted palette.

lime trees bear fat fruit,
dresses float on lines, greedy
for modest noon sun.

farewelling summer
we soak our bones in sleep, born
cool, sweet and dreamless.

each day, evening
comes a little sooner, light
dimpling deep purple.

winter edges up
hinted in stormclouds, in wind
with ice in fingers.

a pause, this, between
neon summer and the cold
of silent July.

a time to bake cakes,
eat stone fruit, drink tea and smile
suspended mid-fall.

each time it comes, we
welcome it, open-armed, this
littlest of deaths.

each, forecasting gold
and the end of gold as well
last exhalations.

the year ages, while
we breathe in, out, each tendril
mingling us with stars.

- Kathy, 26/3/13

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Becoming a two car family

This afternoon we are going to pick up our new-to-us Kia Carnival from the car dealer. It's a 2 year old vehicle - we never have bought a new car - but in excellent condition. The Carnival, which is silver, has been christened Thowra by my Silver Brumby obsessed big girls, and is an 8-seater.

To say that we are excited about it would be an epic understatement. We've been talking about getting a people mover for a long time; as a family of 5 involved in lots of activities, and with my MIL getting older, the ability to transport more people than our immediate family at once is getting more acute. I won't lie - another massive drawcard has been the fractiousness of the three girls when crammed up next to each other in the backseat of our Commodore. Part of this is a matter of sheer physical discomfort - my 9yo is a tall girl and doesn't have enough space in the middle seat. Part of it is my 4yo's boundary pushing and seeing how much she can rile her sisters up. Long trips have become agonising and dangerous as sudden shrieks and screams from the backseat shatter driver concentration at critical moments.

So  getting the people mover is not a spur of the moment decision. But what's a bigger departure for us is that we've decided to keep our Commodore as well instead of trading it.

We have been a one-car family since 2000. Over that 13 years, we've had brief stretches of car-sitting for overseas friends, but we've mostly managed by sharing the car, walking a lot and relying on public transport. We deliberately chose a kindergarten and school for the kids that was 1km away, so it is a comfortable walking / bike riding distance. We made our lifestyle fit with sharing a vehicle because we thought it was the right thing to do environmentally, and because it made financial sense too.

However, in the past three years in particular, the bus service that provides my husband's only PT option to work has become less and less reliable. Buses frequently don't turn up at all, or run horrendously late. He misses connections, gets into work late or home after the kids are in bed, and at least twice a week, we end up having to come and get him because he's stranded. Even when everything works, it takes him between 1.5 and 2.5 times as long on the bus as in a car, meaning he misses out on both work and family time.

I realise that we are economically privileged to be able to make this choice. And I still have a little guilt about the environmental consequences. But when public transport is made so unwieldy, unreliable and unpleasant that people who want to use it have to take massive time, convenience and indeed economic hits to do so (husband's lost work time + his Myki fares more than equal the running costs of the fairly fuel efficient Commodore), then, the reality is that people who CAN choose not to use it, will do so.

My message to state transport policy makers is simple - Make it work, or reap the whirlwind in terms of traffic congestion and pollution impact. Put the transport where people actually live and work, not just where it's convenient for you. Hold providers to stricter performance standards, and listen to complaints. Don't make people who can't afford to live in the inner city or the well-served eastern burbs have to be martyrs to use your services, or they won't do it.

We anticipate holding on to two cars now for the foreseeable future. If hubs got a different, city-based job, where train travel was an option, we'd revisit the issue. Otherwise, I have to say, we'll be living the 2-car suburban stereotype for years to come.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The death of telecommuting at Yahoo! and what message it sends

I tweeted this on Sunday afternoon:
So I note that Marissa Mayer has decreed there will be no more telecommuting / cloud working at home for Yahoos. That's GREAT news for the many women and men employed there who rely on working partially at home to make care responsibilities and work integratable, isn't it?
Mayer has reportedly made her decision based partly on an analysis of how often at-home workers log into the central Yahoo! system (the answer, apparently, is "not often enough") . There's also been talk about the beneficial effect of bringing people together in a casual / in office connection that apparently sparks creativity and innovation.

Unlike lots of others things that I note, comment upon on Twitter and then move on from, this one has continued to nag at me ever since. So I thought it was worth a post unpacking exactly what I find problematic about Mayer's edict, because there are several layers to my unease about it.

The first thing that needs to be said is that I understand that Yahoo! is a for-profit business and when businesses lose ground in terms of making money, hard decisions often need to be made to get them back into a profitable trend. I realise, and I'm saying this pre-emptively, that businesses are not charities, and do not owe workers wages and conditions over and above the legally mandated minimums and what the market, at any given time, will bear.

With that genuflect to market theory out of the way, let me elaborate the ways in which I think Mayer's decision is nonetheless not only bad business, but also bad for community and bad for society - the society of which every business, like it or not, is a part, and relies upon to exist.

1. I think Mayer is right in supposing that connection and collaboration (sometimes) build creative solutions, but quite wrong - and, frankly, old-fashioned - in the implication that connections can only "really" happen when people physically are present with each other. I say this as a person who has worked anywhere from primarily to exclusively at home since 2005 - for over 5 of those years as a public servant, within a structure (the state government) somewhat analogous to Yahoo! in terms of size and scope.

In these days of multiple connectivities, people make their connections and build their teams in a multitude of ways. Physical proximity in a workplace setting can promote one kind of connection, but it often destroys others. Being "at work" doesn't promote purposive team building in the way that good at-home workers do it. We seek out and make our own teams based on what we need to achieve rather than organisational structure, and develop the best ways to communicate and collaborate with the team as we find it.

Not to mention that the connections that people need to feed creativity and grow ideas are often found in unlikely places - parents bonding at the kids' gymnastics classes, people on public transport together, sports teammates, social media contacts debating the pros and cons of new technology. I mention all of these advisedly, as every one of them has given rise to work solutions and intuitive leaps within my own experience - sometimes, the sideways glance was exactly what was needed to crack the hardest problems.

2. It seems that Mayer is pushing for or advocating a mindset in which the Company is the most important thing in everyone's life. She says she wants to build a healthy workplace culture, but what she is actually saying with this move is that the culture she wants is one where people's personal obligations and priorities must take a back seat to their commitment to being a Yahoo! employee.

Let's be clear here - she's no longer talking in terms of buying people's time and skill, which is what a fair bargain of employment is about. She believes she is buying, and has the right to buy, their loyalty, their commitment, and their obligation to deprioritise other areas of their lives in order to be a company player.

I probably don't need to spell out how detrimental such an expectation is to society as a whole, in an era when any sense of noblesse oblige that companies may have had in the past to their employees is laughably, permanently, gone. Despite what Mayer and others want to say, WORK IS NOT LIFE and WORK IS NOT HOME. Employers who demand that employees strip-mine their own lives for fuel to feed the company engine are asking for more than they are buying with their dollars, and employees know it.

3. This move smells deeply, deeply cynical to me. It's been suggested by more than one commentator that Mayer might have decided to do this in the expectation that some of those who currently rely of flexibility and telecommuting to work will therefore leave, and that this may be a way to thin out the numbers of a struggling company without a scare-the-horses measure like actual redundancies.

This may or may not be true, but whatever the case, it is hard to swallow the line that the backlash from both within and without Yahoo! was somehow unexpected or shocking. When people have a benefit of any kind and you take it away summarily for vague reasons, it feels like a headkicking, and not, frankly, the sort of thing that is likely to actually foster lots of happy, fizzy creativity and caring and sharing. It reads more like a warning - and a punishment. Work, worker bees! WORK!

4. Forcing people into old-school big-office work styles runs counter to global trends and has negative sociological, infrastructural and environmental effects. The US Federal Government knows this - that's what its Mobility Strategy, to allow government employees to work remotely (including at home) is all about. The Australian Government is open in its expectation that at least 12% of its workforce will be telecommuting within 5 years. Telecommuting is on the rise everywhere, and while studies vary in their assessment of its effectiveness, there is not much argument with the reality that less centralisation of workplaces cuts down on traffic congestion, commuting stress, and "dead" commute time.

5. Like it or not, this is another very real underlining of the idea that people who are carers or have community obligations do not belong in the paid work world, or only in the most tangential of ways. That such people are often (although not always) women with young children is probably not Mayer's direct intention, but how can you argue with the reality of the result? Women who have young children and no private fortune to, say, hire multiple nannies or build a nursery for their own child down the hall from their office (oh yes she did) are being asked to choose one role or the other in the brave new world of Yahoo! - you can be a carer, OK, OR you can be a worker, but you can't be both, because the flexibility that would have made all the difference is not available to you anymore.

Look, working at home when you have young children? It's not easy. It's not for everyone. It has challenges aplenty. But for many women - I'm one of them - the chance to telework when my children were tiny equalled the chance to work at all while parenting. It meant not giving up my career altogether, and losing so much ground that I would never have made it back. For me, leaving my children fulltime when they were preschool aged was never an option, and I don't think I'm alone in this. Had I been at Yahoo! and this edict in place when I had my firstborn, I would have left my job.

So, Marissa Mayer? You might be trying to shed staff, or you might think teleworkers are slackers; you might think people need water cooler chitchat to be creative, or you might be trying to pull a rabbit out of your hat to steady a clunky old sinking ship. But I think what you're really doing is applying old solutions to big problems, not thinking creatively enough yourself about how to make the future work for Yahoo! and let it fly. And along the way, you're selling some pretty important principles - and a fair few people - for the unlikely possibility of a extra buck or two.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Reading Notes: An Opening and Like a House on Fire

This double review forms part of my commitment to complete the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2013 and to read the longlist for the 2013 Stella Prize.

As the shortlist is due to be announced next Wednesday, and I have just started the 7th title now, I concede defeat in my aim to read all 12 before the shortlist comes out.  If I can manage it, I will finish book 7 (Amy Espeseth's Sufficient Grace) and get a review up by Tuesday night. But I won't be doing any shortlist predictions based on just over half the titles read!

These two Stella-nominated books were a delight to read together and in many ways form a natural pair for review, as they are both short-form collections rather than novels or memoirs.

Cate Kennedy's Like a House on Fire is a short story collection of incredible bredth and skill, and I whipped through it at a rapid pace, finding it not only beautiful, meaningful and moving but also, not to put too fine a point on it, a bloody good read.

Stephanie Radok's book is hard to describe as easily - I'd probably call it a collection of 12 reflections or essays on the relationship between art and life, loosely tied together by the thread of Radok's own life and the changing seasons of the year. It is much, much denser than Kennedy's collection, and it does, at times, make you work for it - I read this one much more slowly and there were times when it demanded more concentration than I had to give in my reading zone (typically 10:30-11:30pm, between work and sleep.)

Reacting viscerally, which is something I seem to be doing a lot with this prize list, Kennedy's collection is a heart-gut winner for me - I loved it, and I'll re-read it many times. In fact, in this my 6th book on the shortlist, I found the first serious rival to Sea Hearts in my affections, and, in my opinion, the third book that I'd definitely shortlist, regardless of the strength of the competition (The Burial and Sea Hearts being the other two).

Why? Well, I connected deeply with Kennedy's stories and her characters; I found some of them unbearably moving, some thought-provoking, some peppered with humour (although on the whole, these are not funny stories) but none heavy handed or contrived. There is a special art to writing the stories of everyday people doing everyday things, with no hooks or quirks or bizarrrities, and making those stories feel true and compelling. Kennedy has mastered this art thoroughly in this collection.

Her tales are of things and situations that anonymous people go through every day - a farm wife coming to terms with her husband's disability after an accident; a gay man, closeted to his family, scattering his father's ashes on the river; an underemployed bloke nicking sleepers from a railway project; a 12 year old girl obliquely reflecting her family's dysfunction through the lens of a summer pool; a depressed woman trying to get over a break up. Her particular magic is to draw the stories out of the abstract and into the mind and heart, without the slightest use of purple prose, with only the lightest, gentlest touch of symbolism (and after Questions of Travel, I have had enough symbolism to last me a goodly while!), and without obscure, "clever" dialogue. To realise these characters and their stories with such success in such a short format is in itself a feat, and not one all or even many writers can pull off.

There really isn't a bad story in this book, but I do have two favourites: "Cake", which is the story of a woman returning to work after maternity leave and the pull back to her child that torments her, and "White Spirit", the story of a community worker in a multi ethnic community who has commissioned and opened a mural. My reaction to "Cake" was astonished recognition; in this story, Kennedy has put lucid words around what I felt, but could never express, when I returned to work after my firstborn, and the reason why I chose to work only at home when I returned to work after my secondborn. I think I will just refer anybody who doesn't understand to this story in the future and say, "There. WHAT SHE SAID."

"White Spirit" had less of a personal resonance for me, but I found it an almost perfect example of how to tell something complex with few words and even fewer tricks. I think it's the story that best shows exactly why Kennedy is a better than good practitioner of the genre; she's a great.

As for An opening, to let my gut speak first again, I found it only sporadically engaging. There is no doubting Radok's erudition, both in art and in culture generally, and she is a beautiful writer - her words are as nuanced and colourful as the paintings she describes. It's also not that these essays are pretentious or overly academic in tone (although some of them are quite scholarly, which is not something I object to, being from an academic background myself).

It's just that, for me, Radok telescopes unevenly between her personal reflections and recollections and the wider, more philosophical musings that she engages in with respect to art (particularly indigenous art). I see what she was trying to do - to tie Life - Art - Philosophy - Nature up with one universally-binding ribbon - but I think it is only a partially successful result. I thought her connections were, at times, heavy handed and a little over-egged, and she has a tendency to floridity in style that isn't my preference. I tend to like drier, more reserved language, or else ironic, humourous or parodic styles; anything that verges on hyperbole (and this does, at times), loses me a little, as my innate mulishness objects to being thwacked repeatedly over the head with The Message, and What I Am Supposed to Think and Feel About It.

That said, there are some very delightful sections in this collection. Radok conveys her enthusiasm and love for art, and the way in which is informs her life, with real passion and grace, and the stories of her childhood are usually interesting and sometimes compelling. I think the book might have been better had it tried to do a little less, and been content to let meaning emerge organically rather than foregrounding every thought.

Shortlist verdict:

Yes for Like a House on Fire
No for An opening.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Dilemma time

I feel like I should be submitting this to a Dear Abbey type column (or better yet, the ever-awesome Captain Awkward), but as I don't want to wait for a response, I'm going to throw it open here instead.

So I have a slightly awkward social dilemma.


1. An event is coming up of a birthday / anniversary type for a person to whom we are close.
2. The person for whom this event is significant has asked that people come to a particular restaurant for a lunch.
3. The particular restaurant is 1.5 hrs from where I live.
4. It is a set price lunch menu.
5. Our whole family is not just invited but expected to be there.
6. The cost for the meal will be slightly more than double what we usually budget for a family meal out.
7. Before I knew the parameters of the function, I had already indicated that the date was free for us, so conflicting timetable is unlikely to fly.
8. The organiser of the event (not the celebratee) is sympathetic to the cost and travel time concerns I have, and would be cool with a decline. The celebratee, however, notsomuch.

I'm not sure what to do. I don't want ongoing awkwardness or resentment over this - either from the celebratee if we don't go, or from us if we do - and I don't know what's a tactful way to say, if we do go, that the celebratee won't also be getting a present from us because hello! budget!

The person in question does not have any dependents to pay for, so I understand that their calculus of cost is different to mine. However, they are also the sort of person who will point out other expenditures that my family has made (ie hubs' and my night at a B&B recently for our 15th wedding anniversary, or our family trip to Sovereign Hill coming up) as evidence for the fact that we *could* afford to do this, if we wanted to. That's completely true, of course, we could afford it if we didn't do something else or had a lean week; we are not really financially challenged, although we do need to live on a budget, even if it's a generous one by many measures.

So the bottom line is - I don't want to go. I don't want the 3hrs travel time, to make the kids behave at an adult-oriented venue, or the cost, which I wasn't expecting nor budgeted for.

But I don't want to upset or alienate the celebratee either.

What to do? How to decline without offence?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Supporting women for International Women's Day: Making a Good Return

Today is International Women's Day, which means a lot of different things to people all over the world.

Some see it as being about increasing the political power and influence of women.

Some are more focused on reproductive rights and the impact that has on women's lives.

There is a lot of work being done on the culture of sexual and family violence in which too many women, in all societies, live and die daily.

Some use IWD as an opportunity to celebrate the many literary, political, social and financial achievements of women over time - achievements that are all the more remarkable for the adverse conditions in which they were often made.

For me, IWD is about all these things, but most of all, it's about imagining a future in which being a woman is a matter of unalloyed and unabashed pride, certainty and wonder. I want a future for my daughters where, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote, "girls regard themselves not as adjectives but as nouns". I want the humanness of women - their full humanity and capacity - to be so natural, so embedded, that we *all*, men and women alike, share the cloak of invisibility that being "the default human" currently bestows primarily only on (straight) men.

One of the things I always think about on IWD is the reality of my high level of privilege, despite my femaleness. Yes, I am a woman - not default-person - but I'm also well-educated, financially secure, in a relatively politically and economically stable country, employed, heterosexual and temporarily reasonably able bodied. I always spend some time on IWD thinking about how much harder life is for women and indeed men who don't have the vectors of privilege that I do, and who may never have access to what are, in reality, the very modest resources needed to start them towards economic self-sufficiency.

Economic power, which starts with the power to not be poor, is a massive signal boost to women's power overall, not to mention the fact that it positively affects the lives of children, communities and men.

Australian micro-finance charity Good Return, which is one of the aid organisations I personally contribute to,  has set a target of funding 300 micro-loans to women in the Asia-Pacific region in March, in celebration of IWD.

Guy Winship, Good Return CEO notes: “In these poor communities, children are growing up in poverty and with little education, yet in these same communities are smart women with business ideas but no resources to make them a reality.
“When we pull one woman out of poverty, she takes four other people with her. We have the power to make a massive difference.”

These women are people who have no access to traditional finance - and no hope of ever paying back punitive interest schedules even if they did. Providing interest-free loans to finance business ventures is one of the most effective and powerful ways that people with truckloads of economic privilege (like me) can pay it forward to women who just need a hand extended to help them get started.

For me, on IWD, I will:
- sing my heart out to the Indigo Girls
- read and re-read Sojourner Truth
- kiss my daughters and tell them how awesome they really are
- make a contribution to Good Return to help Helena Naufahu, a Tongan farmer aiming to stabilise her business model

Because, women are great. I mean, really great - capable of mighty things - wherever they are, whoever they are. In a world that spends a lot of time celebrating male greatness, I think it's awesome to have a chance to say to another woman, I recognise your greatness, and I support it with my whole heart.

For more information about Good Return's IWD campaign, or to make a contribution, click here. And everyone - have a wonderful International Women's Day - be you a woman, a man, an intersex person, a child, or a teen. Equality is about loving us all, every one.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

15 years (A haiku)

Today is my 15th wedding anniversary, so I thought I would like to mark it in poetry. And as I am currently in love with haiku - have been reading much and writing some too - here is a multi-verse haiku to recognise a milestone day.

autumn, we stood tall
straight-backed and clear-eyed, and said
we would walk in step.

flowers intruded,
a lone wasp caught in the veil
quickly brushed away.

the days grew shorter
cold nights came, hard-breathing time
autumn fire turned low.

embers of summer
held close, warmed our hands and kept
winter lights shining soft.

with mercy, we walked it
a leaven of kindness, yes,
bread to the hungry.

two, not one, we stand
fingers touching, a small link
blooms releasing scent.

through pains and joys, we
put one foot before the next
walking together.

we have seen birth, death,
all that lies quiet between,
and all that shouts out.

each line on a face
a tale, shared, in memory
a filament grown.

each spring remaking
the heart gift of the autumn
the choice to walk joined.

- Kathy, 7/03/13

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Somewhere, beside the sea

We got back from a week away in Warrnambool, a town and regional centre on Victoria's southwest cost ("the Shipwreck Coast"), on Sunday afternoon. It was a fantastic holiday; we enjoyed ourselves immensely and we all came back feeling refreshed and reconnected (which is what family holidays are best for, in my experience).

We're slowly working our way around Victoria in our holidaying - starting with Blairgowrie, on the Mornington Peninsula, in 2007, we've stayed at Phillip Island (2008) and Bendigo (2008), Echuca (2010) and the Yarra Valley (2010), Anglesea on the Great Ocean Road (2011 and 2012) and a farm in Gippsland (2011), and also Mt Hotham for a snow trip (2012). While we've yet to take the kids out of the state, let alone the country, I don't see how we could have had any more fun or any better an experience than what we had a mere a 3.5-hour drive away from home. (We are planning to expand our horizons in the coming years - a north Queensland holiday in Port Douglas, to explore the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree, is planned for sometime next year, and we are toying with Fiji for 2015. Thus far, though, local has been the word and that's been a great thing).

Warrnambool is a beautiful place to holiday. It ticked all our boxes:

a) Beach? Yus, several beautiful ones.

b) Reasonably priced accomodation? Absolutely - we stayed in a lovely 2-bedroom unit with full kitchen, spa bath, full laundry, comfortable beds, and even a small yard with sandpit for the kids, for $120 a night.

Granted, this was partly because we did not go in high season (school holidays and public holidays are more expensive) but I thought the tariff was great for the quality of accomodation and the flexibility to prepare most of our meals at home.

c) Good places to eat? I'm doing a review of gluten free eating in Warrnambool on Thursday, but suffice to say - 5 meals out x NO glutening = Definite win. Warrnambool is big enough to have a nice variety of eating options, while small enough that you can stroll the restaurant strips comfortably.

d) Places to fish? Can't go past the breakwater, where even *I* caught something, and my husband caught a wrasse.

Fishing was a completely unexpected pleasure for us (well, unexpected for the adults - the kids were certain they wanted to go, and turned out to be right, although we did subsequently find out that their motivation actually came from the Sims!)

e) Horsies to ride? Even better - we went horse riding ON THE BEACH.
My 7yo, the natural rider of the bunch, thought this was the best thing she had ever, ever done, and even though my old bones were aching afterwards, I enjoyed it a great deal too.

f) Things to see and do that weren't totally about the beach? Oh yes, there are lots of things to do in and around Warrnambool for non-beach days (and nights).

We took the kids to the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village, which might best be described as a mini sea-town version of Sovereign Hill. It's a historical village, but I hesitate to call it a theme park - it's very non-gimmicky, and feels more like an interactive museum to me.

We all learned many interesting things from the 4 hours we spent happily wandering there.

The kids were most taken with the treasure hunt booklet that the reception staff gave them - the elder two really got into finding all the clues, and the little one liked the pictures.

We all enjoyed getting to board the ships and explore their spaces, and I found the 1878 schoolroom and the Historical Society Reading Room particularly enchanting.

The "Rules for Teachers" made me laugh and scratch my head; I wasn't surprised that teachers were forbidden from smoking,drinking and carousing, but getting a haircut at a barber's shop?

The girls all enjoyed feeding the ducks that followed us everywhere too, while two of Australia's best-fed pigs scored apples from our lunch bag.

We brought the kids back in the evening to see the Shipwrecked sound and light show, the story of the ill-fated voyage of the Loch Ard. It's an amazing and moving show, but I'd recommend caution if you have sound-sensitive littles (my 4yo found the noise level difficult) or emotionally sensitive older kids (both my 7 and 9 yos burst into floods of weeping when they realised that most of the passengers and crew were headed for a watery grave).

We also went to Tower Hill, the nature reserve just out of Warrnambool set in a massive extinct volcano crater. My husband and 9yo, who love geological things, found the crater drive absorbing, and we all enjoyed the lavender farm and gardens on the rim of the crater itself. We even got a pretty nice panoramic of the scene - see?

In the end, though, this holiday wasn't even about what we did, even though we did some fun stuff. It was about spending time together away from the pressures and time constraints of the everyday. It was about relaxing and talking (we did lots of both), and finding a family rhythm.

We have yet to have a bad holiday, even though every one comes with its challenges, and I think we need them more than ever as life gets busier and the kids grow bigger.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Reading Notes: Questions of Travel and The Burial

These reviews form part of my commitment to complete the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2013 and to read the longlist for the 2013 Stella Prize.

When the Stella longlist was announced, two titles that I found intriguing were Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel and Courtney Collins' The Burial.

Having read both, I think my instinct was justified, although it must be said, these are two very different books, with distinct strengths and weaknesses.

I wondered whether it was wise to review them together, actually; it's not like they are in any sense narratively or stylistically linked. Where de Kretser's book sprawls, at over 500 pages, Collins' is tight and taut at just on 300.  Where de Kretser pulls off a magic trick with language and plot to engage the reader, almost against their will, with two characters of dubious likeability, Collins' protagonist is attractive enough that I was drawn into her story (and on her side) by page 10. Where Questions of Travel ambles, sometimes apparently without destination (although this, too, is a trick - there is always an endpoint in mind), The Burial charts a remarkably straight course from opening violence to concluding denouement. These are not the same kind of book, and so, in some ways, comparisons are invidious.

Nonetheless, having read them more or less on top of one another, some meta themes did jump out at me. Although boiling complex books down to simple statements is not really a good idea, I will go out on a limb at say that de Kretser's book asks, repeatedly, What is the point of living? What is an authentic life? while Collins' asks, even more reductively, Why do we struggle to live when living hurts so much? The characters, plots and devices that each writer chooses to explore their themes are fascinating, engaging, and in one case entirely successful, in the other mostly so.


Questions of Travel is, it must be said, the absolute slowest starting book I have ever ended up liking. Normally, anything that has me saying "meh" at the quarter-way mark is going to end up consigned to the trash bin of literature for me. (To wit - Will Self's Umbrella. Ugh.) Using two characters as her lenses - Laura Fraser, an unattractive Australian child, then teen, then adult, and Ravi Mendes, a Sri Lankan boy who grows into an early nerd in the dawning of the Internet - de Kretser flipflops between the two in childhood, exposing unwantedness, discomforts and discoveries with a calm, measured, almost somnolent voice. There is no denying that de Kretser writes beautifully - her prose is luminous, it's pleasurable to read - but the lack of discernible plot, and my inability to care one iota about either Laura or Ravi, had me perilously close to giving up on this one at the 25% mark.

However, it started to come together for me once de Kretser (finally!) got Laura overseas and travelling. Her observations about the nature of travel - about what we do when we go places, what we're searching for - unfold slowly, but are all the richer for that. The interweaving of Ravi's story, with his discovery of the early Internet and his relationship to it, started to work very well for me. I particularly liked de Kretser's treatment of the online world and its relationship to meatspace - she manages to say something real without either reifying or decrying the changing ways in which people experience the world and travel.

The murder of Ravi's wife (a political activist) and young son explodes in the middle of this book like a bomb - despite some pretty heavy-handed flagging, I wasn't expecting it, and it shocked me into my first real emotional response to the book. The way in which de Kretser treats Ravi after that - his withdrawal, his asylum seeking time in Australia, his relationships to others - rang utterly and painfully true to me. His wife Malini's ghost, and that of his son, are always with Ravi and the book is unambiguous that they always will be. Some hurts don't heal.

Laura's (presumed) death at the end of the book, caught in the tsunami, affected me much less, because I still did not feel engaged with her as a character or as a person, even then. Much more than Ravi, I thought Laura was de Kretser's mouthpiece to say all the things she wanted to say. Her relationships with others - with her art professor / lover Charlie, her gay friend in London, her co-worker and friend Robyn at the travel publisher she ends up working at, her married lover Paul, her brother Cameron, her father, her landlord Carlo - are all Symbols of Something, in my mind. Each relationship, each travel experience, is used to underline the point: Laura's life is meaningless, but so is everyone's, so why do we bother? That sounds very grim, but actually de Kretser approaches it with real curiosity. Because clearly we *do* bother, and unpicking that is at the heart of her book.

The Burial is a much, much less crowded stage in terms of characters, even adjusted for length - it's basically the story of horse thief, abused wife and cattle rustler Jessie (based on a historical figure called Jessie Hickman), stockman Jack Brown (who is also Jessie's lover), police sergeant and dope addict Andrew Barlow, and, as a lesser but still present malevolent presence, Jessie's husband Fitz Henry, who she murders at the opening of the book.

The central narrative device of this book is one that utterly broke my heart but also connected me firmly to the story from the start. The text is narrated by Jessie's dead child, born prematurely after Jessie kills her husband and buried by her in a shallow grave because she thinks the little one cannot live. The child tells Jessie's story, and Jack Brown's, and Andrew Barlow's, but she tells more than that - she tells the story of the bones of the earth, of the tragedy of wanting to live even when life is pain, of the bush and the struggles it holds.

Unlike de Kretser's book, this one struck me as very Australian in its aesthetic, and not just because it's set in the bush (although that doesn't hurt, of course). Collins uses many turns of phrase, and patterns of speech, that mark the book as from here without being stiffly contrived about it. The plot is so simple - a dead run that goes Murder - Burial - Escape - Pursuit - Theft - More Pursuit - Capture - Escape? But it works and is very, very strong; a vision completely achieved, in my view.

So, bottom line, are they worth reading? YES, undoubtedly. I would recommend both to most readers, although I would caution people that Questions of Travel requires a commitment to pushing past a very, very slow start.

Shortlist verdict:

Yes for The Burial;
Maybe for Questions of Travel, depending on the strength of the rest of the list.

*UPDATE 27/3: Questions of Travel and The Burial were both shortlisted for the Stella, and Questions of Travel has also just been named on the longlist for the 2013 Miles Franklin Award. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Fishy fishy fishy!

I have never been much of a fisher person, although did go a few times with my family as a kid, but my own girls decided that ALL they wanted to do on our family holiday in Warrnambool, from which we'll get home today, was to:

a) Swim
b) Ride horses, and
c) Fish.

So we went to a bait & tackle shop and got kitted out with a few cheap handlines, a bag of bluebait and a bag of pippies, fishing licenses and the free fish guide from DPI, and headed down on Monday to try our luck off the breakwater.

Well, we had a fun two hours - and the kids loved it - but we caught nothing, as we had, honestly, expected. We promised we'd go again, so Wednesday we headed back down. That time, we'd only been there 15 minutes when my husband hooked a wrasse; quite a little tacker, although just over the limit, and we cooked him up and ate him as part of that night's dinner (we got two morsels each :-)

Friday the kids were keen to fish again, so we went back to the breakwater. As an aside, recreational fishing people are one of the nicest crowds I've ever met - we got heaps of help and tips, friendly fisherpersons with rods who were catching stuff called the kids over to have a look at what they were getting, and the atmosphere was generally friendly and relaxed.

So we'd been there 2 hours again, diligently feeding the delighted fish with our bait (how many empty hooks did we drag up!) and hooking masses of seaweed, when I thought I felt a snag on my line so I started bouncing it to get it loose. Then - YOWIE ZOWIE BATMAN - my line went tight and I was nearly pulled in. I called out for the kids and played the line in slowly, and on the end was A FISH!

My first fish ever!

And I had hooked it, not by the mouth - oh no, that would be too easy - but by the side!

I think what happened is that a few were nibbling at the bait, and as I bounced the line to get it free, I must've inadvertently snagged this one (hereafter known as Lunch) just under the gills. There was no skill in it, but oh boy, there was excitement :-)

We couldn't conclusively identify it - anyone who can, please chip in! - but I can tell you this - I cooked it whole with lemon and made home-made wedges and salad to go with it, and we each got a portion and it was a delicious meal.

The kids are keen to go fishing again once we get home and I think we will go with it. It's very relaxing, together-time and it's more fun than I expected it to be.

I am planning a post on Tuesday about our Warrnambool holiday as a whole, including how I liked it as a family holiday destination, and one on Thursday about eating gluten free on the Shipwreck Coast (my experiences). If other people's holiday stories and gluten free diets are not your thing, look away now. Regular book blogging will resume shortly :-)