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Political, personal and sometimes experimental writing from a lawyer, parent, muso and cat wrangler. Critical security; regulation in the era of disruption; public ethics; child rights; anacruses to arpeggios; and, regardless of the subject, beautiful wri

Updated: 2017-11-12T01:42:33.421+11:00


A Bear and a Lion and a brand new school


Our world has fundamentally shifted. We have moved schools halfway through the primary years, and our worlds, especially those of our children, have been ruptured and changed forever.Two posts back I talked of reaching this point. The pain, disappointment and betrayal will have a lasting effect on the way I view public ethics, politics, people and life. There is no softening this. I am also still grappling with twisting mixed feelings about the impact on our children.Beloved and I were deeply worried about this: I read and heard stories of children swapping schools half way through and finding no new friends, becoming excluded, lonely and sad. Neither of us loved our own school experiences and we both knew what changing schools could feel like.As a good start, each of them had a good friend who was also changing between the same schools. Then as I quizzed them after each day, new names started cropping up. The locals, it turned out, were friendly, and our kids were getting along fine. Bear in particular is thriving.I worried the most about her - anyone who has followed this blog over the years would know she's almost ten now and I assumed, with the help of the 'literature' (read: discussion fora and op-eds) that the move would be harder the further we went into primary school. She was becoming a little withdrawn and shy at the previous school and I worried that this might get worse. Our decision to make our move now was partly driven by a decision that any later might be too disruptive.Bear seems to be thriving. She has definitely come out of her partial-shell. We were stunned when she signed up for school council elections, requiring her to give a speech to her new peers, given she was struggling with public speaking the previous year. She gave the speech and got the reserve role, surprising us even more. She runs off a number of names of new friends she is playing with and smiles as she chats about her days.Mr Man is also thriving. Confounding my over-analysed expectations he has had the slightly harder social fit, but not by a big margin. He ran into a couple of minor teasing incidents very early on, and one of his (several) new friends seems to phase in and out of being a bit unpleasant to him and his bestie from the old school. I am not sure what is going on there, and we are keeping an eye on it. But he is loving science and drums and his big surprise was signing himself up for a percussion and woodwind ensemble. He is the youngest child there, and is proud of that along with, of course, his drumming.Coming from a school with significant unresolved wellbeing issues, including low morale in the older years and a noticeable problem with girls not feeling safe, where parents' views were not welcome and where, frankly, a large contingent of parents had accepted a sort of victimhood where energies were pumped into craft wars, to see both kids shining and confidently signing up for new experiences makes me start to feel that maybe we made the right decision.Academics were never the primary consideration, but we have certainly noticed the difference. Both teachers come across as highly engaged professionals - unfortunately this has not always been our experience. And both kids are travelling very well in classes full of bright, engaged children.I feel a little sad and guilt. I know now that while I remain a big supporter of the public schooling idea, there are huge issues with some of the schools in Melbourne's northern suburbs (as I'm sure elsewhere). There is a huge gap between what schools deliver, as there are substantial differences in competence and engagement between teachers.It isn't just funding - if poor quality individuals sit there protected, year after year, that is not funding.It goes without saying, most of all, that a Principal makes, or breaks, a school.For those stuck in a bad school, unable to move for a range of reasons, the system - and the terrible bureaucrats who are still untangling themselves from IBAC - lets them down in a big way. It needs to change. Funding is part of it, but now I know that is[...]

The long tail of a short defriending


Today I went to the facebook of a friend, wife of a former-friend, to leave birthday wishes for their daughter. The former-friend and I go back over 20 years, and although that has been an up-and-down relationship, usually down when he took offence at something I was doing, failing to do, or not doing well enough and let me know, recent times saw us meeting up a couple of times a year with our families.

Our wives and daughters built relationships. It is those I am most disappointed about as I reflect on being defriended.

I have been in other defriendings - both ways - but usually the impact is marginal. Someone I know through a friend, or knew a little years ago, and in nearly every case due to deep divisions over how we engage with the muslim world (or how we, being the friends, engage about how we engage).

This one was about kale, as far as I can tell. After my friend mocked my exercise efforts he showed us how he blends kale into a drink every day. Plainly, that's awful, so later in the afternoon I mocked the kale a couple of times, serving back the dish I'd been greeted with.

These gibes were low level, in both directions, and we also chatted quite genially at other times at what was a larger gathering with friends. Yet I did leave feeling like he was dwelling on something. And then, several weeks later, I was defriended. I can only assume he dwelt on whatever it was for those several weeks.

Facebook is just facebook, yet because this happened without fanfare or explanation, and was not in direct response to, say, one clear shirty altercation on the web, it was immediately slightly uncomfortable, even creepy. These things are different when they happen among groups of friends, in the intersections of many people including partners and children.

Immediately, it became awkward to catch up with our families or in that group of friends. This impact will either have suited, or not been seriously considered by my former-friend, as that is how he lives life. An arc traces back from this to the exercise niggles, an issue on which he's been competitive for some time. We both have small children, but one of us felt free to leave our wives to the household several times per week to go to the gym, then kickboxing classes. As pictures of former-friend started popping up replete with six pack, or posing with his foot lodged in someone's ribs, the 'gentle' digs about me being housebound and comments about how good he feels slipped out each time we met up.

While I complimented him on his efforts (for the most part) and expressed genuine interest, I couldn't help wonder how I would ever make a similar routine work when I wanted more time, not less, with my family. Yet while I might have mocked kale (seriously, kale, ffs), I never returned fire on this issue. The ability to make personal attacks about the most sensitive matters was something that, looking back over 20 years, remained an almost-entirely one-sided affair.

Which made the defriending all the more petulant.

In any event, as he lived his life, centred around himself, so he also made the decision that impacted our wives and children. He did not mention it to his wife, who found out months later when she suggested we all catch up.

And I find that group of friends, in which I was always an 'outer' member, a third or fourth wheel, although we likewise go back decades, now continues on without me. They know (and more than one has privately agreed) it was not my doing. But there are tiers, and mine is more dispensable.

In a year of deep, harsh, lessons, about schools, community, work, people and life, this one must be added: at a certain point, if you have put a lot of time in with people and are still a second-tier participant, it is time to shift your efforts.

The heartbreak of changing schools - part 1, the decision


We have moved both Bear and Mitts to a new school, following a terminal process that commenced when we first met the leadership and wondered whether this was someone we wanted to leave our children with.I have been so careful discussing this on facebook, I do not want to hurt the feelings of the parents where we have been, so this has finally pushed me to come back to this site to unpack thoughts and experiences from what has been an incredibly painful process for beloved and I. I will write this post about the lead up, and a further post about the way this impacted our children and is now impacting our friendships.I will not skewer individuals, that is a fair swap for writing under pseudonym, and besides, I hope to hear their names as little as possible. I share my feelings and opinions, and I know not everyone at the school agrees, As decisions go, this has to be one of the hardest we have made as a couple. It has been a while since I last posted here, and Bear and Mitts had both settled into school and made friends. We have also made friends and felt part of our community. It is less than 10 minutes walk from our house, whereas we are moving to a larger school - still public - around 20 minutes by car, 40 by combined public transport and foot falcon.I already knew rumours the school had problems, especially in the relationship between the leadership and many of the parents, when we signed on. After we had a tour, where my and Beloved's guts said no, I rang around both public and private schools in the area, gauging availability, before we decided to 'go local' and give it a shot.My attitudes to going local, public schools, the education department - even wider beliefs around community, collective action and human nature itself, have all been deeply damaged.I will not list the litany of complaints here, but I would say they span wellbeing, curriculum and other matters. It wasn't just 'a gripe'. I will say, as a foil to the now-dominant 'narrative of the problem parent', which I am now deeply cynical about, that dozens of parents have made formal complaints about similar matters to the Department of Education and Training in recent times as well as in the past. Those parents included teachers, OH&S officers, people working at other government departments and people who give hours of their time to NGOs. They were not some cliched gaggle of helicopter yuppies. They just wanted their kids taught well, and kept safe.It wasn't just us: as I became involved with the small group of parents gently but persistently trying to achieve change (and feeling heavily smashed down at every step) I was approached by parents of older children who had been through the same thing over the years. The Department was well aware there were deep, long-term problems, but chose - chooses to look the other way or characterise the parents, despite the repetitive nature of the complaints, as trouble makers or prosecutors of a vendetta.As they do to parents at numerous troubled schools around Melbourne. I have learned there is far more to the issue than problem parents, and most of the problems never see the light of day.There were plenty of good teachers, but there is no leadership manual in the world that says good workers can make an environment great, on their own, in a steep hierarchy.I spoke to a senior bureaucrat who effectively admitted there was a problem, but said that, essentially, nothing would change. I also got talking to parents from other schools and learned that our school's issues are sadly not uncommon. Some of the tales I've heard about rogue principals are simply awful, beggar belief, and make a mockery of the Department's publicly-stated policies.This would not be sustainable without the consent of many, but sadly, despite being in an issue-aware Greens-voting area, too many people, for various reasons, walk past the standard they would not accept for their own children. I did not. Nothing bad happened to me or to my kids, at least not before I started asking questions an[...]

Extracts from a personal letter


I wrote a long and personal letter to an aunt and uncle who have always been close. They looked after me a lot when I was at boarding school, I remain friends with my cousins, who introduced me to underage drinking and heavy rock, amongst other important rites of passage. We have not seen much of them recently, but they have stayed in regular contact with my parents. Because of the particularly close relationship I had with them, and my aunt being my father's sister, one of the only people he might ever listen to in the world, I have struggled not to feel disappointed that they have not given me support as the rift with my father grew. This is selfish, I know, but I also know he feels vindicated by his sister's ongoing friendly relationship with him. And I have even felt some suggestion from my aunt that I should make a better effort to understand him, because of how his own father treated him (more than half a century ago).I wrote a long letter in chapters. I felt the need to be brief and understated in raising the issues with my parents. I talked about Christmas and this is how it went... I resolved to keep discussion of my folks brief. I sense you have seen enough tortuous family relationships that you don't want to hear the sounds coming off the strained piano wire between my father and I, or the dischord around it. I will summarise enough that the bits of news and any other updates you hear make some sense, then move on.We went up for Christmas. My mum has always banged on about wanting a family Christmas and even the father brought it up, so, although they've had a pretty decent share of one-way visits it was something I really wanted to give them. It was hard work, though I believe as pennance for my sins I have done the right thing in not telling them it was so. They had a few nice moments together here and there and I will do my best to let them keep those memories. It was very hard graft though. There was a lot of harshness towards the kids, and for some reason both of them can be particularly unpleasant towards Mitts. I am not sure where this comes from, no doubt a psychologist could have a field day. Efforts to join in, play, or otherwise interact were modest, so the experience for us is one of carrying the kids over eggshells much of the time, then playing with them while my folks wander off elsewhere, read magazines, and so on. It was similar during the previous visit. Lots of presents, of course, but that doesn't really make up for other things, not when you get to the end of Christmas day and your son looks at you with sad eyes and says 'Christmas is poo poo'. I know there are thousands of reasons for all this and I acknowledged you don't need to hear much of it. I just want you to know enough to understand that while I know about the past and can try to forgive, for myself, these are not things I like exposing my wife and children to and that this will affect the amount of time we can spend visiting them. We will take a break for a while. Most likely next time, for everyone's sake, we will stay in an apartment nearby, as you did when [cousin] went up there, and organise measured doses of time in which, hopefully, we all make the most of it. Explaining that to my mother without casting aspertions on the last visit will be a tricky exercise in diplomacy… On a better note, we did have some nice moments on the beaches nearby, or playing around the pool. I noted the father come up and attend to some tasks near where the kids were playing a couple of times, and I know this to be one of his ways of interacting. Things like exploring Mon Repos beach, watching the turtles, or even heading out fishing when they are a bit older may be ways they can bond a little. We took ourselves on to Hervey Bay for a few days afterwards, and it was lovely - the beaches are like landing strips of sand shining with sun on the puddles left by the tide. For the kids, running barefoot and chasing crabs, it was slices of heaven in rainbo[...]

RIP Jeff Hanneman - and why I still respect one of the heaviest bands on earth


Two random autotrivias :

1) I once did a stint as a blow in DJ on a heavy radio show as 'metal REALNAME'

2) the riff to Slayer's Raining Blood was my best party trick back in 1991-2 (when I could actually play a bit of guitar). I have just unleashed a string of tributes to this band on Tumblr and facebook.

My enduring respect for them may seem incongruous, and I listen to as much jazz as heavy rock these days (and very little true heavy metal). But some of those bands, Slayer in particular, were important for me at a very vulnerable time. Depressed and lost at 18, and reacting a little to having woken up to what the world is really about - coming off the back of 2 years at an exclusive boarding school into which I fitted like a royalist at an IRA convention - this music told me I was not alone and allowed me to vent. And, as the blues, Mahler or Ornette Coleman can also demonstrate, sometimes that sadness or darkness can lift you up. Whereas, if it all seems like shite, some happy chirpy false pretentious halfwit popping out sugar coated lyrics can make you want to reach for the medicine cabinet.

RIP Jeff. You were something real in a world of fake, I respected that and I still do.

The Guilty Christmas and the bitter aftertaste


"Christmas is Poo Poo!" was a Boi's summary, at the end of a day with my parents. He was angry and upset. And I was wondering why I did this to him.We spent last christmas with my parents in Queensland. Now this blog, as anyone still following knows, has in the past few years been dominated by, even poisoned by my issues with my father. This escalated after his grand statement that he would never come and visit us (and he hasn't). I unpacked fragments of a life of self-loathing and doubt here, I also took the plunge and spent quite a few hours with a counsellor.I reached a sort of resolved, unilateral settlement: I would simply try not to have any expectations, take what little emotional interaction is given without going on the front foot, avoid any discussions of politics or education or career that have the potential to turn ugly, and continue to potter away at the relationship, largely for my mother's sake. And the sake of black-and-white memories of standing by his side fishing, or grasping his hand to be hauled up on top of the escarpment somewhere in my bush childhood.We remain on speaking terms. He and my mother have both been on-and-off unwell; recently he has successfully fought a round of cancer. Although our previous trip to visit had been more miss than hit, I felt they deserved another, a Christmas, partly on the basis that they might not have many left. Guilt, and some hope.You catch two planes to get to the small, difficult location they moved to well after we started having kids. The bill for the family is well into 4 figures. We allocated one of the small handful of precious, childhood Christmases. And hoped.If expectations were most firmly rooted in actual, recent experience, empirically observed, then the result was exactly as I should have expected.My father ignored us much of the time, reading the paper or pottering. As he did the previous time we went up.He did manage to growl at Boiboi and be rude to Beloved. As well, there were the usual attempts to pick fights with me, although notably heightened and emboldened this time - moving on to the front foot again, probing for that sore spot to open. Now, it's like he's gone into that old man thing where he thinks fuck it, I'm right, I've always been right, fuck him.Tried to hector us on our plans for raising the kids, and when I made plain we will do it our way and do our best to turn them out ok, he sneered: "We'll see..."But, those aside, he was mostly mild (this may give you a sense of what mild means in my family). The real fun was with my mother. I have spent a lot of time blaming my father, who as you can tell is a control freak with some undiagnosed misfire in his neurons that periodically spits out nasty, for my mother's oddities. Yet she was in a league of her own over Christmas. Obviously pleased we were there, yet she spent her time Berating Boi, making perhaps unintended but rude digs about our parenting, favouring Bear, berating Boi, snarling at Boi, taking herself off and not actually doing much with the kids most of the time, berating Boi... Did I mention a bit of a bias against Boi? Still, he was almost 4, who would think he'd not be perfect. And female.In the way they've always been, they were nothing if not generous with presents. Certainly quantity. We asked that the selection be modest, and thoughtful. Instead there was a large pile of plastic - about a foot and a half off the ground - which made our presents and those from Santa look trite. But then how can you not be a loving grandparent (insert 'parent' in my own narrative) if you pile up the presents?Pile up all the presents you want, but if you growl at him through the day your grandson will still conclude that Christmas was poo poo. At the very end, the airport, my mother starts saying to the kids how much she enjoyed their visit and would they please co[...]

School is actually rather crap for working parents


Nuclear family is best, with mum doing 'schooly' stuff along with craft group, dad hard at work leaving all that to the missus.

I mean it. I'm just passing on the sustained message we have received from our first year and a bit at school.

Things are never going to be easy, dealing with fairly demanding careers while wanting to be part of our children's education. I have previously posted about the early, obvious challenges such as picking up at 3.30pm, or not, and a general emotional sense of wanting to be more involved. Not all of that can easily be fixed. But over and over I find decisions and planning take place with a stunning lack of self-consciousness about their effect on working parents.

If you are a working parent at our local state primary school, you will:

- Not be invited when a group of parents decide to set up a 'parents' group' and put the meetings on late Friday morning;

- Be left out of parent-teacher interviews, when they get moved to working hours only;

- Be the overt target of industrial action, costing you hundreds of dollars and shitloads of stress as strike days are wedged between 'pupil free days' and you take more work home, start earlier, miss more parenting time to catch up, while families with stay-at-home parents or a reliable granny around the corner plough on relatively unscathed; and

- Know virtually nothing about what goes on in the classrooms, given no information about schedules and no detail at all is sent out by email or other means.

I am feeling quite a strong sense of loss and detachment around schooling. As a public officer I can't fathom such a huge disconnect between a body and a huge slice of its stakeholders. Most of all, while I know not everything can be changed around to suit my way of life I am stunned at the unselfconscious way so much of this is done.

Beloved feels the same way, and it is hard to see how organising such a crucial institution around a 1950s conception of family really helps progress anything other than a very smug, crossed-armed status quo.

Crosscurrents of the intertubes


I am pulled in different directions, by my love for this blog and the history I have embedded here; by a desire to stretch my writing into prose and poetry that stands (or falls) alone, that I can attempt to foist or at least revisit and re-edit until it is the best that I can do; and by the ease of sharing and networking I have found in other places.

So much of the current of daily life, especially concerning my family, now goes on facebook. Drop me a line at armagny [ATSYMBOL] gmail DOTT com if you want to stay in touch with my real life persona and share such news.

I have recently played with Tumblr, I am not sure I like it better than blogger for writing, it is, however, a beast of the networking era in a way blogger is not. As with twitter, the idea that tagged posts go out into the heaving mass of online verbage with the potential to be seen in unexpected places has its attractions. It is also simple to post and to keep things turning over, when one doesn't have the time or inspiration for a big post, by reblogging some of the interesting and beautiful things floating around that space. There I wrote:

As the sun warmed the side of the house the children played, first under the olive tree, then, leaving a trail of dirt and abandoned toys, they moved into the front room. I sat at the dining table as beyond me the room was carefully rearranged. Cushions moved from sofas to floor. Objects were brought in to augment the scene - pillows, soft toys, cups.

‘We are sleeping’ Bear informed me and they both lay side by side giggling and pleased. No angry cars or thumping bass intruded, just gentle light and perhaps, if my memory is not colouring the scene, a bird. Somewhere.

Up against the wall my briefcase sat unopened. Blackberry on the charger and on silent. I sipped my cold Earl Grey and smiled on through the minutes.

Lastly, I started a private writing spot. Free from the considerations of instant sharing and publication, I am hoping to work on some drafts of things that take a bit more time, that maybe I can share on facebook or even send to someone one day. That said, so far my facebook network has proven far less interested in my dubious creative writing efforts than nice photos and glib one-liners. Perhaps the answer is that none of the social networks really suit the type of writing that requires effort - either in the preparation or the enjoyment.

What do you think?

Blogger, are you still working?


Having some issues doing this through my iPad. Let's see... And is anyone still out there?

Driving back on the Hume Highway with road songs


Early Paul Kelly, a surprising amount of noise, I thought; accoustic, low key, folk-country but he gives sax and snares and guitar solos and dirty rock as well.Family can be heartbreaking. Now I am in a better place and my role is to squeeze Beloved's arm and to help her steer through and beyond the broken timber into open highway. We drove for a long, long time, across two borders, for negligible returns measured in thimbles of warmth and cold spaces between hours.I spoke to Beloved's mother. I asked for no more letters that represent the continuing tumble of psychological abuse and mental illness from generation to generation in that family. I heard about how my Beloved is unilaterally wrong, on everything, and how not one such thing could possibly taint the efforts of her mother. I noted the language of favouritism and rejection, the unpacking, in a few minutes of frankness that family never engages in, of years of building resentment and defences based on a false narrative, on a martyr complex, on an obsession with hating the former husband and shifting his ills to one of his daughters. I quietly, carefully (for my oft-assertive personality I was an angel of subtlety and restraint, I promise) pointed these things out. Perhaps the only person to ever do so. A sad, messed up but ultimately abusive person wrung her hands and refused to agree to even trying to meet her daughter half way, to conversation, to any sort of compromise, before walking quickly out.I am glad we had this discussion. I repeated thrice that there be no more correspondence which, coming from such a place, can only be designed, no doubt subconsciously, to manipulate, draw out guilt, and cause continuing pain. She seemed to agree to this, if nothing else. Beloved, exhausted from 36 years of effort, did not complain about my uninvited intervention.The JJJ hottest 100 is eclectic and that is a boon on a road trip. There is no sinking into a mood, an artist's favoured key or time signature, and becoming hypnotised by the gum trees. There is M83, and with that breadth of sound bringing to mind (in this time of 80s revisionism) Tears for Fears, and a ripping, screaming sax solo, I was disappointed to learn 'they' is just a 'he'. Starting to skip Gotye, out of familiarity but not contempt. Appalled at finding Lana Del Rey in my earworm.Beloved lost her Pop, the children's Great Grandfather. For a variety of reasons, perhaps visible in the previous paragraphs, he and his now-deceased wife were quasi-parental figures for her. Dominating her childhood memories, providing a needed bedrock of stability and unconditional love. A sad life that commenced with more than a dozen kids living in a small shack, survived the most brutal battles of Papua and Borneo, lost 2 brothers in a terrible car accident when he got back from war, evolved into that of a successful farmer, husband, parent and, through the prism by which I knew him, much loved and stellar grandparent.Gentle explanations of loss and death, hints of reflective comprehension from a 5 year old Bear. The generations assembled in the park opposite his hospital, in the final hours, and the joy of Bear and Mitts as they played with so much family they see so little of was ironic, but perhaps, as a celebration of continuity and the goodness Pop has left behind him, appropriate.Why does it sometimes take a funeral to bring people together?Beloved likes Emma Louise, Jungle, best of all. It takes her directly to Offspring, to cosy couch evenings stretching back through boxed sets of Secret Life and Love my way. It is strong, but also soft and reassuring. It is all I want to be as we ease in next to our house, back in suburban Melbourne, our children safe, excited cats already talking from behind the door, heater waiting to be fired up and a month's worth of chocolate to be [...]

Bear starts school, and everything suddenly....


Exit bankerworld. It started tugging at my sleeve during transition, and has crystalised during the first few weeks of school. The difference.The difference undermines your settled sense of balance. Sure, it bites that we can't be there more often, leaving the kids with others several days a week, but hey look everyone else's folks are in the same boat.Except they're not.Our mostly professional friends, the members of Beloved's mother's group, and importantly most of those other parents at our lovely, supportive, arty, just-right childcare centre all seemed to share the struggle. It was life, inevitable, we were just part of the flow. And compared to many fellow travellers we had things on a reasonable keel. I had my 4 day week for ages, generally I'm home before bed time, we both do some work at home, but if you're comparing with barristers, bankers and businessy whatnots who hang out for rare quality time when court is cancelled or the deal is done early, and otherwise bond by 'taking the child to swimming classes' on Saturday, it looks fine. Enough. (ignoring that nagging voice in the deepest part of your parental soul).Bankerworld was buried down at the opposite end of our council's jurisdiction. The end where all the streets have speed bumps or signs telling you not to turn between 8 and 9am (in Melbourne this being the surest sign of money and influence). Beemers top and tailed with Lexii.School is at the other end, where we have moved to. Sure there's a banker or two, there are also teachers and nurses, artists who can't afford that other end which abuts so many galleries and bars they ply their trade in. A farmers' market. And people who don't work, some of them men, and others who work nice, soft, genuinely flexible hours, allowing them to spend real time with their children, drop them off, pick them up at 3.30pm, attend those parent morning teas and twilight sports events that are not scheduled to work with Collins Street.Like the one scheduled for 5.30- 7.30pm that I arrived half way through to be told I'd missed almost everything. In my office arriving at 5.30 means leaving at 4.30 which is like taking a half-day off.Like the drop offs and pick ups largely being done by the au paire. Daddy I want you to drop me off said Bear, my little mate, and I can't and I want to. And the frustration of being told we can't afford to live on my income, which is well above the national average, so Beloved won't ditch her job, but she - understandably - doesn't want to go full time either so I'm rather stuck and,, at our friendlier, more corduroy, farmers' market-hosting school, we are now in the minority with our au paire, our expected shift into after school care, our turning up late to things in a suit. There is a community here, and I like it a lot, and I want at least one of us to be able to settle into that community, that pace alongside our children.There are certain types of job that own you. Lawyer, even if part-time, or working for the government, is like that. Everyone is out to take your job, or file that urgent notice to produce documents when they know you're on leave. Two people in jobs that want to own you is a bad recipe.My hours of themselves aren't ridiculous. I could work slightly more, in fact, if it meant Beloved could be there all the time. What I resent now is being trapped in the mid zone where neither of us feels we have room to move, or give. It is, to be technical, plainly shite, and now we can see that there are lots of other people who have rejigged something and made a bit more room in their lives to be human. I am buying The Age again, flicking across pages of community, teaching, local government jobs, for ideas, for either or both of us...[...]

As days become years


As Beloved peeled off to bed, I went out for a walk. Like so many evenings capping days that drag on, circling around the screen, files, briefings and other bureacratic occuclutter. Evenings that fail their promise of something to make the day seem worthwhile. Worth more than merely paying the bills.

We are tired. Everything makes sense. But that doesn't change the wait each day for the third part of life, the one where you are adults with your own agency living your own life, to engage, even if just for an hour.

I told an older relative, with a comfortable looking nuclear family life in Surrey, England, that we are thinking of getting someone in the bungalow out the back, perhaps an au pair. It sits empty, unvisited, and we thought if there was a boarder who could babysit from time-to-time we might be able to do things like go out on occasional dates.

...Beloved and I, to be clear!

And anyway (as Bear says when you pause in a conversation with her) they replied that it sounded like I was pining for the past, going on dates and all that; better to adjust to life as it is now. And not for the first time in recent months I found another person's helpful view of my stage in life almost suicidally depressing. And realised that even a happy-looking twee family in Surrey can be the post-script to some compromise that forever consigned some romantic notion like, well, romance, or affection, to a cold little graveyard in the far corner of the park.

Perhaps going out together is not important to those people. Perhaps all of it became less important. But in the words of a Black Crowes number I've been messing around with a bit on my old, scarred, nylon-string:

She don't know no lover,
No man I've ever seen,
To her that ain't nothin',
But to me it is, it is everything.

I walked along the ridge above Merri Creek, where the street lights are infrequent and muffled by dominating trees. It was dark, quiet. Now and then a house was fantastically lit with Christmas lights. A lone skateboarder peeled off into a driveway. A couple of dogs murmered unconvincingly.

All my closest slept. No war threatened them, no fire or floods approached our suburb. There was food in the cupboard. These things are all good and I am thankful. But we only live once, and if we spend our days apart, grinding our faces into computer screens in giant hives, then at some point surely we need more.

After transition, a transition


We are just weeks from school. Bear tries on her dress, I well up. She is excited. I am, and yet. It is the start of it all.

We went to transitions together, Beloved being in a new job. Daddy daughter mornings of nerves and bouncing excitement (respectively). I milled awkwardly with instant coffee and biscuits, staff room life, chatted to the odd parent. Mostly mums, many knew each other. I shuffled my handouts, listened to the primers about how good it will be. I am sure it will. And yet.

Bear bonded, mostly with her buddy from this year's prep. And a tall girl who can already use the monkey bars. Like me, Bear is quite a bit of work off being able to use monkey bars. She drew, listened, had fun. Then we walked home together, put on the kettle, I made her a hot chocolate, and we sat on the step that edges our back garden, side by side. Questions and anecdotes. She told me about her classes and I asked about friends. We pottered a while there each day before I put on my suit and took her to childcare, an afternoon of obiter, chronology and general administrain waiting in the office.

Work was extra hard those days. I direct my hopes to her fortune. I hope she is happy.

Grandparents in Queensland - a brief (dis)engagement


We went to Queensland. A few months ago now, this blog has lost some of its grasp on chronology.

It was fine. Fine in the sense that nothing catastrophic went down. I avoided the big topics. My parents made a modest effort at times, while hardly making our considerable effort, emotional and logistical, worth it.

With 4 days to share with the kids, neither of them could be bothered hanging out in the play centre when it was raining heavily and there was no-where else to go. It seemed to be too much to just be. With the kids, just be. At the huge playground next to the lake they made fanfare out of feeding the ducks. Always feeding the ducks. They lingered long after the kids moved to the swings and climbing frames, focused on the ducks.

At the gardens they engaged while showing us around. The steam train was a hit. Then we fed the ducks again. My father snarled at Mitts for throwing a large piece of bread to the ducks. Apparently it can harm them. Apparently feeding them bread is otherwise a good idea. Apparently snarling inappropriately at your 2 year old grandson because he failed to correctly apportion bread is less concerning than a duck being overfed. I moved in between, creating distance while commenting on 'grumpy granddad'. I resisted the strong temptation to shove him into the water, a real, visceral temptation derived from a strong sense of my need to protect my son from such unapologetic unpleasantness.

We got to a playground, a perfect context for relaxed engagement, big seats, shade, palms waving overhead, a benign and calming context. They both walked off and sat in the nearby cafe for an hour.

There were some nice moments. Mitts found some pumice on a beach nearby - again we were there sans grandparents, who thought it might be easiest if they just waited at home - and was keen to keep it to show granddad. Look granddad, Pu-misss. Yeeers, says graddad, allowing half a smile. Not many though. So much berating, not sitting on furniture properly (those 2 and 4 year olds are so out of control these days!) was a big one. Our efforts to get them to move dinner forward slightly to have it with the kids were mostly resisted.

We went to Hervey Bay, just us, not them too. The beach was long, wide, uncrowded. Sand in toes &c, its a common cliche for a reason. Saw the tails of 2 dolphins or Waloos from the beach. That was nice. More of that please from this day forth.

The unfinished business of repairs


Speaking with my birth mother last night. She is here, finding her space as one of the grandparent constellation.

Closing the circle. That is how I see it: repairs that can never fully be made to the fabric of her and my relationship, just because (because my guilt sets boundaries, there are others, and because of stories she can't fully tell). But with them there is no obstacle, none indeed for any of the grandfolk willing to step forward and have a relationship. Step, adoptive, birth, right pain in the arse or otherwise.

They can take a few giants steps together this week.

Landmark was on TV. The cult, movement, positive thinking self-help whatever. We spoke of repairs, to the past, the complexity of wanting or wanting to give forgiveness. And apology. Someone in her life - nothing to do with me or adoption - went to Landmark, with its clear simplicity and demands for change and movement. They came to her, seeking something. She gave something approaching apology, hoping for something back; acknowledgment, concession, perhaps something approaching apology. She got nothing. They asked for their apology. She gave it, still hopeful.

They went off with their head full of positive thinking, new starts and all of that, Landmark's simplicity directing them to the cool rainforest of Northern Queensland.

Fixing the past doesn't necessarily mean hurling yourself on coals. But no matter how much you clutch assertions, tropes, rhetoric, or other cultish devices, the repairs don't fix themselves. Not completely. People may move on but you shouldn't ask for absolution if you can't roll up your sleeves and fix that tap that has been leaking since 19whenever.

Barbara Ehrenreich nailed it.

Approaching 40 - time to give up?


"If you have not self actualised by 40, isn't it time to give up?"

I had been dealing pretty well with being in my late 30s. I had no 40 issues, really none at all. Until that statement, made by a well-meaning late-20-something.

Perhaps it is time. Perhaps that last rung on the hierarchy of needs is an illusion. Many seem too obsessed with it, with something they haven't yet found. If 'too' is defined by missing the good things right in front of you.

But when I toyed with the notion, not writing that novel or thesis, losing the idea I've been gnawing away on that I might look again at career with the kids in school, consider the possibilities like an undergraduate, when grasped it and peered in, I saw a hard, lightless landscape, I saw slowly lifting one foot, then the other, forwards, towards the same. It was just bleak, a shade of ashen grey about 3 shades short of black.

It was a statement made with the same sense of certaintly I felt at that age, by now I would be everything I am and more, whatever more is, and perhaps most importantly of all I would have 'found it' and would be entirely sated by what it is that I put my energy into. Not only that, but money would be bouncing off my shoulder blades and as I straddled a perfect balance of material sufficiency and ethical purity. Saving the world, then recuperating on a ski field in Japan or a reef off the coast of Manado. As I write it the words are silly, the utopianism self-contradictory and absurd, yet it was a firm belief.

The young person, the sense of certainty, both are easy to put into perspective. But the words pierce my defences against a far broader sweep of pressures that are less passing, less easily ignored. From family, from Beloved, my kids and my own guilt, outwards.

Should I be mourning the 30s as the last time in my life I might have been entitled to do something radically different? Are the unfinished 8,500 word novel, the Masters that never turned into that Phd scholarship, the two writing jobs for which I got to second interview stage, the dream policy role that came at the wrong time, the artefacts of the final period of settlement on the rest of my life?

I have so much I am happy about. I know I should be grateful. I just don't know what I can tell my children, in complete honesty, it is all for. I know some of you have the answers, have passed this date by a while and will find the very notion here perplexing or even offensive. I hope so anyway, as I need to hear something that isn't from the maw of conservative late-30s career-life, a maw that presently has me in its teeth...

The Age of Divorce


There was a time of heightened marrying, and among those unmarried several equivalent partnerships. You know at the time that they can't all last, perhaps, in some cases, you already know they shouldn't.

Then there were children. Parenting is by necessity myopic and distorted, everything appears behind the lens of a world that so completely envelops your time and energy. You mingle by mutual interest: mother's groups switch everyone's attention to a group of others in the same place, and even within existing friends fathers seek each other out to compare notes, reassure, share an understood release over beer-soaked conversation from quarter to quarter.

Now a succession of separations and divorces. I should not overstate it, there are only 3 on my mind although a couple of other unions are clearly on the rocks. They all have small children. In at least 1, probably 2, it is a result I might have predicted if I were forced to lay down money back then. The couples, indeed the children, may be better off, and having brought wonderful children into the world through those unions there must be a caveat on any regret. In one case they are working well together to share responsibilities and avoiding vitriol.

None of which reduces the general melancholy I feel when I look across that landscape of friends and imagine the disappointments, the sense of failure most would feel, perhaps deep down the speculation - no doubt quickly suppressed out of guilt and love for their children - as to how things might have been different.

Happy photos now weigh heavily in albums, threatening to push through pages. Smiles seem strained, sunny beaches a prelude to storms. I want to hold mine close and never leave the afternoon in the back garden, grass, gently-clunking toys, Beloved with a handfull of snippings under the olive tree.

The prodigal son drags his family north


I have blogged about my father. Hit 'personal', go back, it's there. I am now in a better place. He has received the all-clear after an encounter with cancer followed by enough chemicals to kill the Great Barrier Reef. They are both pretty unwell, and against some better judgement we are paying them a visit.

Despite the one-sided nature of the effort involved, I feel I have to give the possibility of a relationship between grandparent and grandchild a chance. A small, guarded, chance. And my poor mother, stranded in a town she never wanted to go to, deserves something.

I have not fought with him for many months. I refuse to talk about work. Or asylum seekers (or anything touching on race, not that he's a racist, but..). We have some ongoing contact and it is tolerable.

As once suggested on this blog, by Zoe I believe, I took a few sessions of counselling directed specifically at our relationship. It was good. Partly from that, and from reflection, I can see things from a slightly removed place. I have additional perspective and it helps. In particular I spend less time fretting about whether our relationship is part of some adoption issue. That may be there, but it is also a lot clearer to me that I am only part of an immovable story of control and inflexibility.

Counselling helped me see wider patterns. Anything that can't be controlled becomes a threat. The only child he could have raised and never fought badly with would be one who never fully grew up, never pushed out and became an individual. No matter how similar their wiring (to use his phrase), one decent step towards independence and it would be on. My mother's acquiescence in so much of his crap frustrates me, yet I can see that it is a survival mechanism for their relationship. As he gives no room, and offers no mediation between positions, any serious push back would be like a car hitting a wall. No give. A mess.

I know what I would probably do if I were her... well I know because I have effectively done it. I said 'no thanks', 'stop saying that', 'I don't want the same things you do', 'I disagree'. Started saying it at the end of my teens, and have had a turbulent relationship since. The normal adjustment into the adult-adult relationship is not possible, because there can be no adjustment. So where I have learned from those fights at 18, 19, and long since moderated many things that led us there, he has barely changed one iota. He has pulled out insults long since buried, as if we hadn't done the burying by going through a hostile, stressful, awful process of razorblade iteration.

But. Months of carefully circumscribed conversation, the insights of counselling, and my own reflection have brought me to a better place. There are limits to our engagement, and I know I can't improve on that.

Visiting is not ideal. I need to consciously avoid both trigger-topics and opportunities, which usually come in the form of initially-benign conversations, in fact often pleasant, a glass of scotch in front of each of us, with my mother and Beloved wandering off to do other things, and my defences going down, and then the poison comment arriving like a concealed screwdriver through the ribs...

Signature noises and tweety-bird pogues


Mitts has a sound, everyone is impressed and Bear is slightly put out. He raises a warble at the back of his throat, I think it's his tongue flapping away loosely, and can raise it, lower it, pretty much sing tunes with it. I would write rrlrrlrrlrrlrrlrrlrrl or rdlrdlrdlrdlrdlrdl or simply rrrrrrrrrrr, yet none really capture it.

When I sing to him he say "STOP SINGING". However on my looking offended he sometimes relents, "Sing Daddy". He relented for Nature's Boy, a version involving his name every couple of lines and references to sitting in a tree (he and Bear have discovered that it's fun to be stuck up in the fork of the tree out the front by Daddy, who then sits under them fretting and waving his arms around behind them ready to make some attempt at catching).

Bear decided her signature noise would be speaking in a high squeaky voice, which is a bit of a thing she has, perhaps not the one I'd have chosen to show off. I'd have gone for some singing instead. She pulled out a few Coldplay lines the other day, but the best moment came from sitting in the very same tree, telling me she was a bird, then singing:

Tweet tweet tweet tweeeeeet,
Tweety tweet tweet tweeeeeet,
Tweet tweet tweeeeeeeeet,
Tweety tweet, twe-tweet....

and so on, being, OF COURSE, Dirty Old Town by the Pogues. Note for note. Which we had on in the car a few weeks ago.

A Bear likes her music, in her own way. My little brother was with us. He was out the back playing and singing, very nicely, a very talented lad. I was feebly picking along improvising, feeling very outshone. But Bearsy, every time another song started, demanded 'Play your notes Daddy' before she would dance.

Enjoying every moment.

.... Enjoying every moment apart from trying to change Mitts' clothes and apart from being woken violently at 6am...

Back to where Raquel came from...


What this show demonstrated more than anything else is what most refugee advocates have long believed: the hard line reflects a failure to empathise that reflects a failure to imagine.

Raquel copped it, but right from the start others riled me more. Surely those dishing out the vitriol in her direction could see at least some of the causes- a lousy education and modest circumstances (to put it mildly). Her racism was honest and refreshing in one sense; it is plainly not an uncommon view of the 'other' in this country but it is one furiously and aggressively denied. She said it, and said it simply and without malice. And as the show developed she made the most remarkable progress.

A couple of the others made far less sense in my view, having the benefit of more time in and understanding of the world. The homicidal hatred expressed by the ex-disability advocate was astounding.

But all of them improved markedly during the show. All showed capacity to reflect and learn. Which just sadly emphasises how far public opinion might shift if people were able to imagine their plight, and empathise. It casts light on the role of selective reporting as well. If each image of a boatload of Afghanis were accompanied by images of the Taliban hunting down schoolgirls it's not beyond hope to think that many people's reaction would be a little less hateful.

Hard for a boy, it is


Mitts is struggling with life at 2. He has started being physically and verbally assertive (to put it mildly) and I am sure the collective weight of correction from both ourselves and others is getting him down. He can't get away with hitting or shoving. On the other hand with the bulk of his playmates being girls there is a tendency for him to be at the rougher end, noted as such by the parents of girls, without necessarily being the instigator. Part of learning is not to hit, part of learning is not to snatch or boss other kids about. And dare I say being hit by their friends when they try to wrestle a teddy away from them is one of the ways kids learn that they aren't an island. Which is to say that it ain't always his fault.

Still. He can't hit and we will keep making that clear. And there are a few ways he is testing ground, asserting himself, pushing boundaries, most of which need some curbing at the fringes. But perhaps we need to add some other carrot. I think a boy is sad and world-weary.

He held on today, as he now often does, at childcare. His chin slumped on my shoulder, yet his grip around me was firm. The new normal, before which he was better than fine and he'd adjusted well to childcare from the start. As with Bear who hurls herself in, loves her kinder teacher, and currently strikes a nice balance by waving to me from the window but then leaving to return to her friends before I have driven off.

Men have a lot of lessons to learn as they grow up. There are a lot of contradictions in those lessons. He will be baffled many times. My job may be to guide him through those lessons, teach him to be a decent man, but it is also to make sure the weight of contradictions and the size of the task of tackling life itself don't overwhelm him. At first, he needs love and reassurance. While keeping the rules firm, I need to find more ways to give him that love and reassurance.

And hang out throwing mud and stuff.

On writing - starting midpoint of a listless journey?


From blogs, to where? How many of us want to write more, to connect with the enduring power of a novel, or even that rare poem or short story that hooks in?For the 140,045th time in my life I am pondering the writing ideal. It could be worse, having whinged much about my jobs at least I sometimes get to hone the craft here, albeit through the distended language of policy or law. I write this in my belated lunch break. I can do that now I have belated lunch breaks.How do you simply sit down and write something good? Ask a bunch of writers and you get the sprawl you deserve I guess, but reading this article, printed off and stapled, on the train, one of the scattering of suggestions was keeping a diary. I thought 'well I have a blog', then realised, perhaps embarrassed at the realisation that most of us out here probably want to write a wonderful novel (and more than one visitor to this site is a published, seasoned writer), that I have barely put words down on this quest.At times I have written as I would always want to, but there are at least 3 voices I have been happy with. A brooding, emotional language where pain and happiness are drawn out with raw imagery (a little perhaps in the preceding post...). Funny - I love doing funny but it is so hard to hit the spot, it just seems to come out right from time to time. And dry, political analyst. I also do a pretty good academic essay but you don't really see that here.As well as voice confusion, and genre/fiction v non-fiction/purpose confusion, there is also the simple reality that as often as not I don't hit the spot at all. I know it, readers show it. The blog is, at least, a great place to test this. With posts such as this- navel gazing, rambling, and self-serving! Still, a diary the writer said so here is the first jot on the epage. I will start by collecting a history in a dozen lines or so...Writing great little horror stories at age 11, until told to desist or get expelled from thick-skulled catholic school. Hardly wrote again until adulthood.Random efforts in poetry and short stories from the end of school into university, a play somewhere that I submitted for drama but have since lost.The real trigger was a series of long emails I wrote to friends from the end of Uni, some of which were quite experimental as a way of breaking the 'travel email' tedium, on topics from Andalucia to skiing to the emotional experience of winning a welfare appeal. Then I started to get a few responses suggesting more than polite flattery, a friend or two really did seem to think this was something I should explore. No doubt at this point I am not alone among the triptillion would-be writers out there.Under the blanket of rain in London I started a novel. Got about 3 pages in. Read Stephen King On Writing and -inspired- ditched the excess description, looked around, saw a beggar with a dog and started again. Attempting to meld something close to horror or the magical with rambling, observant depression. A bit over 8000 words later I had lost momentum, mostly because the colourful detail drawn from expatriate life in London was threatened by my move to Melbourne. Also, the underlying theme of loss of sanity from the circular relentlessness of single life was polaxed at first base by the arrival of Beloved.King says don't plan, just write, but this did make it hard when the inspirations became distant. Where exactly was this going? I have no idea, it still sits in a draw somewhere. Subsequent attempts involve a lawyer going [...]

With a sick boy at midnight


Not that bad the Doctor said, but by 5pm sheer tiredness overwhelmed him and he slept. Until 11pm.

A succession of thumps announced his awakening. He stood in the dining room squinting, thrown by the lack of routine and order. Saw us approaching and smiled.

Beloved was wrecked and left me to put him to bed. He was awake and needed to adjust before sleep might come again. Clutched a bottle of water and asked to sit with me. I hugged him close, flicked over the channels but realised nothing was suitable, least of all the biker violence I had drifted into. This late I wanted a compromise, no Fireman Sam or In the Night Garden DVDs with my remaining Shiraz. We settled on A River Somewhere and sank deep into the couch.

"Car", "House", "Moo Daddy Moo" were pointed out to me. He leaned his head back on my shoulder and I told him I'd missed him that day. As Rob Sitch and Tom Gleisner waded up the Howqua River, water spraying off their airborne fly lines, he asked: "Daddy and Mitts did it?"

Perhaps one day little man- if you aren't a vegetarian. But it still made a small warm place in me. After the episode he asked for "read it?" and we snuggled through a couple of short kids' books. It was midnight. He wanted more. We stood together, he wrapped his arms around the back of my shoulder, and I went into the bay behind the curtains. Outside it was dark, cold and still, the world on pause.

"Sleep time". He still wanted another book but the protests were weaker. I tucked him in and kissed his forehead. Bear snored peacefully beside us. He smiled and blew kisses with an audible smack as I walked out of the room.

Eva Cassidy, Clare Bowditch, and the Fields of Melbourne


Beloved came home from the Eva tribute breathless with excitement, almost teary with emotion and told me firmly I was to go see the final show Sunday afternoon. She would mind the kids and it would be done. I simply could not miss it.

Eva Cassidy has perhaps the most beautiful voice I've heard. Her story is told elsewhere, but it is short and tragic, and reflects not only the essential unfairness of life but also the cold, anti-creative machine that is the music industry. I discovered her posthumously, like almost everyone, at the tail end of my time in London.

I am a closet singer. Correct that, there is nothing closet about it, I've had lessons and sang a song I had written at my wedding. But closet in the sense that if I had half Eva's (or Clare's) voice I would be weaving tales of woe through the venues of northern Melbourne on a regular basis.

My version of crooning was wrapped up in my early romantic haze with Beloved. The first night we got it together, I asked if I could get her something, she joked 'sing me a lullaby', and I picked up the guitar in the dark and warbled out 'Van Deimen's Land'. She wrote home about that effort! The night before she was to leave, on a separate journey to our chosen home in Melbourne, we huddled together and rocked on the step of the bathroom, and it was 'Waltzing Matilda' (the sad, reflective version not the rugby cheer squad version!).

As she left she handed me a present, Songbird, and told me that when we met she expected me to have learned, and to sing to her, Eva's version of Fields of Gold. And I did. And we are married with Bear and Mitts. So there is back story...

I couldn't help tearing up in that song, beautifully rendered. Clare did a wonderful job. The show intersperses songs with anecdotes about Eva, and some from Clare's life that are a bit like the one above, symbolic encounters that give subjective response to the narrative. The musicians were exceptional- you could hate the songs and Clare's voice (well you would be a robot, but anyway...) and still enjoy seeing several incredible musicians. This was perhaps the only time I can remember when I had an emotional - in the soulful, balladic sense- response to drumming!

When I bought Clare's album afterwards, and asked her to dedicate it to Bear and Mitts, she added 'Top Dad'. I was rather chuffed. I decided to spare her the story about how she got the last 2 car seats in Darebin right in front of Bear in the queue.

I came home and picked up the guitar. I was still singing in the car this morning. Dreams and all that. Although the conclusion I reached is that with musicianship like that around I would do better to put my creative energies into bonsai.

Bashing reffos, now bashing the miserable


What a miserable, self serving policy-free zone the Gillard government is in.