Friday, February 28, 2014


I bounce out the door of my office at 2:30pm, calling farewells to my workmates as I sprint for the stairs. An hour earlier, I'd noted to a colleague that I always feel a little guilty about leaving so early on Fridays, despite having standing permission to do it, and buying it with two early starts, but here I go, careening down the concrete stairs at a rate of knots regardless.

Outside, it's warm, not hot; the sun is benign on my shoulders as I time my dash across the road to the carpark. On my car stereo, Jeff Buckley sings Hallelujah, and I slip into a not-unpleasant mental fugue, where work slowly slips like broken beads through my mental clutches and falls harmlessly away, to be replaced with a formless awareness of being in my body and how it feels. (This is something I virtually never notice at work, unless extreme pain or illness gives me no choice.)

I arrive at the school assembly as the kids are sitting down, the final strains of the national anthem still lingering in the air. I'm not conscious of it, fully, but my stance has shifted as I hang near the back with my school parent posse; I'm leaning in, not holding myself straight as I do at work. The kids see me, wave one by one; the principal commends the recorder group, and the toddlers play in the sand.

By the time we reach the car, I have absorbed a download of the day from three rapid-fire communicators. Apparently, a classmate of the 8 year old was knocked out cold on the oval at lunchtime today. She can't decide whether she's thrilled or appalled; curiosity wars with sympathy in a teeter-totter that's never quite resolved.

With the weekend afoot, we mark the occasion with a stop at the milk bar for icypoles; a school dad, also in the shop on an icypole mission, says "Oh, it IS you. I didn't recognise you with those clothes. Are you going out dancing or something?" I laugh, say, no, my sparkly pink and silver skirt and black fitted top are just my genuflection to slightly-more-casual Fridays, my one day not to wear suits and dressy dresses to work. We watch the combined seven children in our custody select their treats, and exchange the kind of smalltalk that school parents do - this cohort of people that you see most days for many years, yet may never know beyond the very surface.

Home, we eat our icypoles on the front lawn, dripping sticky drops on clothes and grass. Washing up, the 5 year old cannot wait to divest herself of all clothing but underwear, while the 10 year old opts to shower and the 8 year old and I talk. There is a peace born of tiredness, fullness, the weight of the week and the hope of the weekend, settling around our shoulders. I feel it as the kids drift off in their several directions to discharge the week in quietness - one to a book, one to a Minecraft session, one to a tea party with her dollies.

Borrowing my 10 year old's iPod, I go outside and march up and down my long yard, driven faster by Florence & the Machine and Rhianna, rolling more slowly to Fleet Foxes, Old Crow Medicine Show and the 10-year-old's old guitar teacher, who's an accomplished folk musician. Walking up a sweat makes me feel better once the endorphins start to kick in; half an hour of it has me shiny inside and out.

I stand at my kitchen benchtop cutting pumpkin for risotto and stare at the poem hiding in the garden bed through the window. It's only 5pm; most of my friends are still at work.

Now, dinner afoot, I pour my first and most likely only alcohol of the week - a glass of sauvignon blanc, crisp and bitey, shivering my tongue in pleasure.

Soon my husband will be home and we will eat our family meal, and later I will read to my daughters and tuck them in, then my husband will rub my neck and I will kiss his ear and we will mark the end of the week in the simplest and happiest of ways.

Fridays are my favourite.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Etisalat Prize

I am over at Global Comment today, reviewing the shortlist for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for debut African novellists. Hope to see you there!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Five years old

well, I'll tell you. it was a warm day, yes,
not a dragon-breath day, not that, but -
the hospital was cool though, and smooth,
with floor polish and paper-slippered feet

we walked the long corridor to the theatre,
your father striding, I waddling
like the spherical duck I was. I remember no nerves
(perhaps a few, alright. a fizz of adrenalin
to tickle my toes, no more).

we were excited, you see. excited to meet you
you, you, you
the doves called it on the window ledge

(pigeons, actually. doves just sounds better).

and all through the parts that were strange and the parts that were scary
and all through the parts that hurt even though they weren't supposed to -
I held you as a constant, clear as water in my mind
you, you, you

your first cry a hallelujah; my ears
drank you in, greedy, as they curled you up on my chest
while the surgeons did their thing, and I looked at you
you, you, you
still smudgy with vernix
eyes as old as the world, like all new souls
your tiny puckering mouth, pursing
your little wrinkled fingers on mine

you, you, you

hard times came to us then, but I don't want to speak of that
not today, not now.
today I am looking at a person who is everything - and nothing - like I expected
like I hoped for
on that jade-green day on the year of fire

a person who is so much herself
that there is no room, nor should there be, for the fantasies I spun in my head.
good thing too, my love,
because I could have never have dreamed up anything half so fine
as the person who wraps arms around my neck and whispers to me
you, you, you

my beloved child
my lastborn child
you bring me gardens and sunlight
oceans and the flight of crows
you bring me pieces of myself lost in the sky, and fit them in

you, you, you

you bring me delight.

- Kathy, 23/2/14

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Stella Prize

I'm over at The Shake today, musing on the 12-book longlist for the 2014 Stella Prize. Aspirationally, I'm going to have a crack at it, but given that the shortlist is out on 20 March, which is only 4 weeks 2 days from now ... and I haven't read 11 of them ... and I'll be working fulltime throughout ... and having C's birthday and doing the usual parenting thing ... it's unlikely to be mission accomplished, let's say.

Still, onwards and upwards! I'll review the ones I do get to, either here, at The Shake, or at Global Comment (linked here). It should be a good ride, anyway.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

More money means more happiness?

There was an interesting piece in the Age last week called "Loads of money: it's the route to all happiness."  In it, economics writer Peter Martin contends that new data comparing self assessed measure of happiness with GDP per person shows an extremely high correlation between more dollars and more happiness. Moreover, there doesn't appear to be a satiation point - doubling income doubles happiness, and so on, without surcease. The correlation is reported to be 0.8 (80%), which, in statistical terms, is very, very high.

The first and most obvious thing that struck me in reading this piece, which seems to contradict the established wisdom that, past a certain point of material comfort, extra wealth does not increase happiness, is that it's making a few unverifiable assumptions. GDP is a measure of a country's income, after all; dividing GDP by the number of people in the country (which is how GDP per person is arrived at) does not actually tell you either the median or the mean, nor, importantly, does it tell you how many people are significantly above or below that number. GDP per person doesn't tell you how much actual money any given person has in a society.

Secondly, it's reasonable to suppose that a society with high (and rising) GDP might possess other factors that contribute to happiness aside from how much actual cash individual people have. Rich countries, in GDP terms, tend to have reliable and universal access to clean water and electricity, for instance. They tend to have mass transportation systems of greater or lesser functionality and good quality healthcare (as to how accessible it is is, well, that's a cat of another colour). They strongly tend towards public education systems, and on the whole - I realise there are exceptions here - are not war zones, so the daily mortal danger quotient is substantially reduced.

Whether these things come about because the country is rich, or whether the wealth is enabled by these factors, is one of those unanswerable questions (at least by me), and it's immaterial for the purposes of this argument. The point I'm trying to convey is that high national GDP lines up with a range of social conditions that are likely to make all the individuals within that country happier, irrespective of their personal share of the pie.

Nonetheless, even if this point is conceded, the data does seem to support the notion that individuals assess their personal happiness more highly if they have more money.

I wonder if these means, though, that "money buys you happiness" per se, or, rather, that money removes some of the primary impediments to happiness that affect many people's lives. Not being able to feed yourself or your family will negatively affect your happiness. Having nowhere to live and no relief from extreme climates (ie no access to heating or cooling) will negatively affect your happiness. Being sick or in pain will definitely negatively affect your happiness, especially if your suffering could be relieved but simply isn't being because of lack of money.

At a less basic level, it's true - in my experience - that having access to more money relieves anxieties about resources in a way that does make the day-to-day business of living less stressful. When you don't need to fear the unexpected bill or the exploding appliance, when you can indulge in small material luxuries without considering the consequences, it makes life more relaxed on many levels. And, yes, it does make things more enjoyable, in that surface but not irrelevant way that gives you that tiny little endorphin spike that drives discretionary consumption.

For us, we have only reached this point really in early-mid 2012, since I have been working more hours (once my freelance consultancy really got going, and the past 7 months in my fulltime job). It's not that we can now afford our own Lear jet and mansion in Brighton, but rather that I can get my nails shellacked every 4 weeks if I want to and not count the cost; that we can fix up falling-apart bits of our house without extending credit; that we can plan and take bigger family holidays, etc etc.  In other words, there is more softness in our everyday from a material viewpoint that there was in the past, and this is not, it must be said, a terrible thing.

All of that said, and not denying that our level of incomes has made our lives less financially stressful and replete with small material pleasures, I do not believe that having more money has made us happier in a deeper sense. While we have more money now (and therefore more indulgences, can contribute more to causes that we believe in, and much less anticipatory stress about financial disaster), we have traded this off for the other kinds of stress that come with doing two fairly senior level jobs while raising three children. We are much *more* stressed about logistics, performance and time management than we were when I worked considerably less. I, in particular, worry that we are not making the best decisions all the time for our children, and that they are getting less of us than they should.

These anxieties and stresses do not make me unhappy ALL the time - any more than feeling stressy about bills made me unhappy all the time when I worked 10 hours a week and every envelope in the post was a crapshoot. Some days, though, they do affect my overall happiness negatively, and I'd be lying if I said they didn't.

Bottom line - I don't think money is the root and cause of all happiness. I think happiness is a composite of basic material needs being reliably met; sufficient and positive affective bonds to nurture the social being; access to bursts of pleasure-inducing "treats" (be they experiences, goods, or whatever); the ability to pursue fulfilling occupation (whether it be paid or not); safety, stability, health, luck, and the alignment of the stars. I think not having enough money to meet your needs will definitely make you less happy most of the time, because being poor is stressful and socially stigmatised and ruthless in its denial of those tiny starbursts of endorphin that the materially unchallenged can give themselves without thought. But I think that money alone is not enough to make you happy, and that, moreover, everyone will experience unhappiness sometimes, and that is actually OK.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Day (A poem)

the air is thin and grey with smoke,
a memory of a haze, not a blanket
but enough to whisper evil to inflamed lungs
to redden eyes

swollen, affronted, in bloat
an ill treated abdomen rises like the harvest moon

like faraway breaking glass, tiny little bombs
explode in the confines of the inbox
each ping adding a new knot to tension-braided shoulders

little things are difficult
big things, unimaginable
small problems of a child's day magnified, rendered grotesque
through a distortion lens 34 years in the making

wounded, eyes slide down
to heavy-lidded distance
curling away, tail around,
is all desire
(no possibility)

uneasy lies the head -

- Kathy, 13/2/14

Monday, February 10, 2014

On Kate Atkinson as a novelist of family

I'm over at Global Comment today, talking about the very wonderful Kate Atkinson. See what you think!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fat and beautiful

I read an interesting post today on Teen Skepchick, called Modesty, Fat Shaming and Me in a Bikini. In it, Grimalkin, the author (who is very beautiful, which is an aside that isn't quite an aside, as you will shortly see) does a nice hatchet job on the prevailing cultural idea that Fat Wimminz Should Not Expose Teh Flesh, Because it's Just Gross For Everyone. As she so astringently puts it:
my body is not obscene. It is not obscene, particularly not by virtue of being fat... Displaying that body to people is not an attack upon their eyes.
The post is accompanied by a picture of Grimalkin in a very nice bikini, kneeling on a bed, hand on hip, head inclined at a downward angle, looking serious, a bit pissed off, and beautiful.

And fat. The two things - beauty / attractiveness and fat - being neither mutually exclusive nor mutually determinative.

It made me reflect on the cultural messaging around beauty and acceptability as it relates to body shape and size. Elizabeth at Spilt Milk  addressed an aspect of this with her customary wisdom and grace recently with regard to the peculiar pains associated with parenting a girlchild in an environment of panic about obesity. In that post, she affirmed, as a shout:
Yes, I am fat. I am fat and I am beautiful and loved and I have a good life.
Which leads me, meanderingly, into further observations.

I spent a large part of today, which was stinkingly hot here in Melbourne, whiling away time on YouTube. I am violently allergic to most forms of reality TV, but I do get an occasional yen to immerse myself in talent shows, the Got Talent and X Factor franchises being my usual poison of choice.

Watching a lot of clips in a row, it was driven home to me hard exactly how narrow (and I mean narrow in both its literal and metaphorical sense) the prevailing equation of size to beauty, or even acceptability, really is. Every time a contestant who was an in-betweenie or fat appeared, the judges made their ready-to-be-unimpressed faces, and the audience tittered. Every time the contestant turned out to be awesome - funny, a brilliant singer, possessed of a large personality, endearing - the OH MY GOD, WE ARE SO SURPRISED factor was milked so hard.

I get that confected shock is part of the construct of these shows, it's what they thrive on, but it works precisely because the audience - like all of us - is conditioned to accept that fatter people are less attractive, less appealing, and likely to be less good at anything performance oriented than thinner people. This is especially and perniciously true for people who present as female. For women who are not thin - and oh, what a small margin of error there is to be so considered - the cultural imperative to hide our bodies, to not expose other people to the horror of our cellulite and adipose tissue, our bellies that move and our arses that wobble, is immense.

I do believe that being fat is not as much of an impediment these days in professions where performance and visual presentation is not an inherent part of the role. But for jobs where part of the job is tied up with perception of appearance and attractiveness - and for the performing arts this really is the case - it's a huge hurdle to overcome, this notion that fat bodies are repulsive, that fatness equals incapacity, that fat people are not, by definition, beautiful.

God, it's bollocks.

For me, my fatness is the only part of my physical self that I have genuinely come to embrace as not a deficit, not a handicap to be overcome. I have a problematic relationship with my body generally, but it's not the case that I believe myself to be lesser because I am, physically, more than the prevailing ideal. I do not think being fat makes me less attractive. I do not think if I were less fat, I would be more beautiful. I do not think that my profound lack of performance ability is in any way connected to the fact of my weight.

So many fat people are beautiful. So many. Fat bodies are not ridiculous, or deficient, or revolting. Fat bodies are bodies, as intricate, as fearfully and wonderfully made, as any body on the earth.

It saddens me - not just as a fat woman, but as a human being - that this seems to be such a difficult truth to accept.