Monthly Archives: December 2010

Gone bush

I’ll be away for a few days. We’re heading out to the bush. This bush.

Ka kite ano.

A little bit of luck

Cross posted

Chris Trotter’s most recent column is a dispiriting analysis of why cost-cutting, beneficiary-bashing, privilege-defending prime minister John Key somehow remains so popular: it’s because he’s so ordinary, just another Kiwi bloke who is happy to drink his beer from the bottle and weild the tongs at a barbie Even his extraordinary wealth doesn’t upset New Zealanders: being rich is fine provided it’s not inherited wealth, and it’s not flaunted, not displayed in a way that implies that other people are lesser beings. There’s no Remmers snootiness about John Key. He’s pragmatic rather than being a thinker, and it’s a damned fine thing that he doesn’t seem to read great literature, or enjoy Beethoven’s string quartets, or heaven forbid, try to engage in any sort of intellectual life. We don’t want any smart people around here, thank you very much.

I think Trotter is on the money when he says that New Zealanders prefer modest heroes: one of the reasons New Zealanders admired Sir Edmund Hillary so much was his modesty about his achievements. John Key does seem like the chap next door, just an ordinary bloke getting on with the job. Personally, I’d rather that we had some intellectual heft on the 9th floor of the Beehive, and in ministerial offices, along with the nice chap demeanour, and frankly, I’d prefer a country where being smart and well-educated and prepared to talk about policy and ideas isn’t regarded as a social solecism, but evidently, I’m in a minority on that one. (The evidence would be John Key’s continuing popularity.)

Where Trotter nails it is with this sentence about the way New Zealanders regard John Key.

Strangely, we don’t seem to mind if our leaders are richer than we are. Money, after all, is a wonderfully democratic thing. With sufficient hard work (and just a little bit of luck) just about anybody can become rich.

Just a little bit of luck…

It takes more than just a little bit of luck to become very wealthy. It takes a whole damn truck and semi-trailer of luck to become wealthy. Let’s count the little bits of luck that John Key has had.

First of all, there’s the luck of being born with a white skin. John Key has never had to experience walking into a shop and being regarded with suspicion just because his skin is the wrong colour. Then there’s the luck of being born male – he doesn’t have to justify his pursuit of career at the expense of having children, or carefully plan childcare if he wants to do a full-time job. Nor has he constantly had to calculate whether he is phsyically safe when he walks down a street, or has a few too many drinks. He was born able-bodied: no having to negotiate all the barriers that society places in the way of people with physical disabilities, from cars parked over kerbs and pavements, to lack of toilet facilities, to public places that are accessible only through a back door right round the back of the building, to work patterns that demand 10 hours phsyical effort a day, to… the list is endless. He was born with sufficient neural connections across his corpus callosum, so that he is a quick and able thinker, able to grasp difficult concepts quickly and easily. When his family was impoverished during his childhood, because his father died, there was a good quality state house available for him to grow up in, providing him with security. He had the extraordinary good luck to be born to a mother who made it easy for him to get through school and university, who assumed that her children would pursue higher education. He had the good luck to go through university at a time when only a small proportion of New Zealand’s population did so, which meant that the government funded virtually all the tuition and living costs for students – no student loans for him. And so it goes. John Key is an extraordinarily lucky man.

Let me be quite clear: it is not John Key’s “fault” that he was born lucky, any more than for example, it was Kiri Te Kanawa’s “fault” for being born with an extraordinarily beautiful singing voice. It is just a piece of extraordinarily good luck. I do not doubt that John Key has also worked very, very hard. But one person can work hard all his life, putting in extra hours, doing his best to earn a good income and support himself, and still end up at retirement age with not much more than the old age pension to live on. Another will work hard all his life, but because he has been born lucky, because he is in the right place at the right time, he will become incredibly wealthy.

What Trotter points to in this paragraph is the collective delusion that New Zealanders buy into, that being wealthy is a reward for hard work, and that if only the rest of us worked that hard, we too could be wealthy. Far from being a column in praise of John Key (pace the standard cheerleaders on the right), Trotter has given us an exposé of the way we delude ourselves about our prime minister, about the nature of achievement, and about how we regard success in this country. I recommend it.

On saying goodbye

Our last weeks in Adelaide became frantic with effort, and any time I had for recording what was happening was lost in packing and cleaning and chasing the bank and saying goodbye and goodby and goodbye. Even then, I missed seeing some people I had especially wanted to see – Melissa and Jennie L. and Leslie and the wonderful Pavlov’s Cat. But I saw many lovely friends in the week or two before we left. My singing friends met to share a meal, and we had one last singing session together, leading the carols at a service in the church where our formal concerts were held. My husband’s colleagues, and my friend who gave me the wonderful bag, and a very special woman who has become a friend this year over Friday morning coffee and gossip sessions, cooked meals for us. I found all these farewells hard, even harder than the farewells when we left New Zealand three years ago. Back then, I knew that we would come home at least once a year, that I would be sure of seeing people again, but I’m not sure when we will be back in Adelaide again. Sometime in the coming year or two, I hope, but it will depend.

What really touched me was the farewells that my daughters’ friends arranged for them. The day after school ended, the Misses Nine had a farewell party at a school friend’s house. She and her mother had invited all of the girls’ friendship group, of lovely mix of eight and nine and ten year old boys and girls. The children organised their own games, and celebrated their friendship, and made promises to e-mail.

On the following Tuesday, Ms Twelve had been invited to spend the afternoon with a friend from her drama class. When she got there, she wandered into the family room with her friend, and “Surprise!” Her special friendship group from her drama class was there. About six or seven girls had gathered to spend a last few hours with her, outside of drama. It’s a lovely group of kids, all aged about 11 or 12 or 13, but none of them 13 going on 16. She was completely surpirsed by the party, and heartwarmed by their concern for her. The next day, her school friends gathered. Her school friendship group was spread across two years groups and two classrooms. The girls in it are notable for the way they support each other and look after each other. The group is splitting up a little at the end of this year: some of the girls are heading on to secondary school, while others still have a year to go at primary school (the South Australian system is similar to New Zelaand’s system, with eight years at primary school, and five at secndary). So that particular grouping was going to change in any case. But I think that each of the girls has been very lucky to have had that experience of friendship, and I know that each of them has contributed to the group. I never experienced friendship like that as a girls, and I can’t recall all that many instances of it among other girls at the schools I went to. I am so glad that Ms Twelve has been part of this group of friends.

The last farewells came on our last days there. I met my singing teacher for coffee in the morning, then in the evening we were looked after by my lovely friend J. and her daughters, who are friends of my daughters (J.’s elder daughter was part of Ms Twelve’s friendship group). Last of all, as we flew out on Wednesday morning, heavy hearted and rejoicing, my wonderful singing teacher, who nurtured me, and cherished my girls, came to the airport to see us onto the plane.

We’re home in New Zealand now, still in transit, as we will be until late January when our house lot arrives, and we settle into a house in Greenhills, and take the girls to their new schools, and start our new jobs. Sometime around then, I will be saying goodbye to this blog. I started it in part to record our new life in a strange country. Now that I am home again, I don’t need it so much.

But I will continue blogging. At The Hand Mirror, and at a new place which I am starting to get ready now. I’ll keep posting here for the next few weeks, and then towards the end of January, I’ll let you know where my new place is. I hope you will come by there too.

Christmas report

We had a lovely Christmas.

The strangelings are still operating on Adelaide time a little, so I didn’t hear the first stirrings until just after 6am, and even then, I turned over and went back to sleep until 7.30am. The girls danced in and showed me their end-of-bed gifts (a hangover from the days of Santa-belief), and then we made coffee and everyone shifted into my parents’ room to exchange gifts. Mostly books and CDs and DVDs. And chocolate.

Breakfast was warmed croissants filled with peaches and topped with maple syrup, with bubbly wine, follwed by eggs benedict, and more coffee. We had a light lunch, and then, the real celebration began in the evening. My lovely uncle was with us, and my brother and his partner and their children joined us, and so did my brother’s partner’s brother, and his partner, visiting from Melbourne. 15 of us sat down to dinner, all gathered around the long dining table, which had been augmented for the occasion. Mum lit the candelabra, and then lit two more candles, for my absent brothers and their families. The lamb and ham and newly dug potatoes and kumara and salads were delicious, but the real magnificence was the dessert table. This year, Mum had 13 items on offer: chocolate terrine and raspberry semi-freddo and two cheesecakes, and mixed berries, and strawberries, and icecream, and cream, and rhubarb summerfruit pudding, Christmas mince pies and black doris plum spoom and brandied fruit salad and Christmas cake. I had three helpings, and the girls had four helpings each.

What made it all so special was the shining look in the children’s eyes. Mum and Dad, with the assistance of my uncle and I, worked hard to put it all together, but for the children, it was all a magical feast, something to savour and remember. I think that when they are old, they will look back on this Christmas, and say, “When I was a child, my grandparents gathered everyone around the table, and we had a feast, and my grandmother served 13 desserts.”

It was a wonderful occasion.

As for exactly what we gave the strangelings for Christmas – one child got a drum pad and drum sticks (‘though no packet of Jaffas*), another was given a Sylvanian cottage, which she loves, and the third was given a remote controlled toy that she had been coveting for months and months.

This remote controlled toy.

(Description: large, hairy, greebly toy spider, scuttles around the floor, and then comes closer and closer to the camera, until the camerawoman disappears in a scream.)

I spent the day being terrified of that wretched thing. The younger Miss Nine was delighted with it. She tormented us all, but her best ‘gotcha’ was during dinner, when she sat innocently and quietly at one end of the table, and waited for her elder cousin to scream. Which she did, very obligingly, when Miss Nine steered the spider underneath the table and onto her toes. Ms Elder Cousin shrieked, and then laughed, all in very good grace, while Miss Nine laughed and laughed and laughed with glee. What a triumph!

What would you do when your gentle, fine boned, delicate little nine year old asks for a remote controlled Mexican red kneed tarantula for Christmas?

* My brothers and I have long had a ritual threat, to give the other’s child a drum and a packet of Jaffas.

Friday Christmas Eve beauty

Cross posted

As you probably know, I am not a believer, but I do sing religious music, because so much of it is so very beautiful. Here is a small piece of exquisite singing for Christmas Eve – Gounod’s Ave Maria sung by Kiri Te Kanawa.

Ave Maria, a setting by Gounod of Bach’s Prelude in C, sung by Kiri Te Kanawa

Mary occupies a difficult place in feminist thought, especially for someone like me who was reared in the Catholic tradition. She is pedastalized, set above women as someone we should aspire to be like, holy and pure and eternally giving, with no thought of herself. Yet these magnificent words of social justice are placed in her mouth in the gospel of Luke, in what we know as the Magnificat.

He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy

I know that some of my readers celebrate Christmas as Christians, some as a secular festival of family, some don’t celebrate it at all. Whoever you are, wherever you may be, however you mark 25 December, may your day be happy.

The treacle

We lived in Adelaide for nearly a year, back in 1998 / 1999. It was a lovely town, full of parks and museums and beaches and galleries and good food and good wine. The pace of life seemed slow, pleasantly so.

We moved back at the start of 2008, nearly 10 years later. In the decade of our absence, it seemed that nothing had changed. At all. The only developments that I noticed was the extension of the tram line from its former terminus in Victoria Square, to West Terrace, and the building of the freeway from the south eastern corner of Adelaide, up to the hills. Nothing else. And during the three years we have been here, the only development has been a further extension of the tram line.

The pace of life is not just slow in Adelaide. As friends of ours described it, living in Adelaide is like swimming in treacle. The sun is shining, the food and wine are good, life is easy, and if there is a problem to be solved, well, it can wait, can’t it?

I have met some dynamic individuals during my time here, impressive people who are working hard, with vision, and making a large contribution to Adelaide and South Australia and its institutions. A tax partner in one of the large accounting firms, a senior manager in the public service, the principal of my children’s school, some academics doing world class work. But there are plenty of people who are just pottering along, looking for someone else to solve their problems, saying it’s not my fault, not my problem, who can I divert you to so that I don’t have to do anything.

I’m not sure that this is such a bad thing. A relaxed and easy life sounds pretty good to me, and perhaps we shouldn’t be so concerned about getting ahead and getting things done. On the other hand, I have heard that federal politicians complain that whenever they meet with a state pollie from South Australia, the state pollie has her or his hand out, asking for something. They never fly to Canberra with a great idea, a plan for something that would benefit the whole country, a vision to be shared. Perhaps relaxed-and-easy slips over into lassitude. Yet South Australia has a tremendous reputation as a reforming state: first in Australia to give women the vote, and the state that coped and found a whole lot of tolerance and even celebration of Don Dunstan and his pink shorts. But then there’s the whole private school scene, which seems to be about buying privilege rather than trying to get a good education for your children. All the more so when the top state schools are level pegging with the top private schools when it comes to educational achievement. For example, until very recently the upper echelons of the legal establishment in South Australia was reserved for boys from St Peter’s, or perhaps St Ignatius. Where you went to school, where you send your children to school, matters in South Australia. One of the things I found disturbing was some academic colleagues who were determined to send their children to private schools, even though they could read the statistics perfectly well for themselves. The contortions they went into about character and extra-curricular activities, and the type of children they wanted their children to associate with, astonished me. Anything to justify the purchasing of privilege. I’m fine with people sending their children to a church school because they are church people, or with sending a child to a particular school because of a particular programme that is available there that suits that particular child, but worrying about a child’s associates, as though the kids in your local neighbourhood aren’t quite good enough for you, makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. And it seems to me to be a manifestation of the treacle: this is the way things are done around here and really it’s too difficult to change and let’s have another glass of wine and chat about the weather.

I’m curious to know what other Adelaide people think about the treacle.

And for all that, let me stress how much I liked Adelaide. It really is a very pleasant place to live, and I will miss many, many aspects of it very much. It could well be that what I am perceiving as treacle had more to do with the institutions where I was working, and the area in which I was living, instead of a being a particular thing about Adelaide. The naming of “the treacle” made sense to me: it aptly described parts of my experience in Adelaide. But I’m well aware that it could be just my experience. Thoughts?

Don’t do a PhD

I know, easy for me to say, given that my fancy-schmanzy degree is firmly clutched in my hands. And even easier given my recent appointment to a continuing academic job (not in the area of my PhD, but I do have expertise and qualifications in the field). But should you be contemplating doing a PhD, with the aim of getting an academic job, you might like to read this first.

The disposable academic: why doing a PhD is often a waste of time

H/T: The Witty Knitter

Habitués of universities will know that academic salaires, good though they are, have been losing ground relative to other professions, and that there are many more contract positions, often poorly paid, driving academic pay, on average, down even further. I’ve often wondered if this is linked to the increasing number of women in the profession, another manifestation of the Russian doctors social mobility issue.

In short, my advice to people planning to start on a PhD in order to get a union ticket for an academic career: Don’t.