jessie cole

novelist/writer

Category: journalism

Suiting Himself

I’ve been seeing him now for what must be at least a decade. The first time I caught sight of him, he was sitting outside a café in Mullumbimby jotting in a notebook, midmorning, wearing what appeared to be a Spanish influenced cowboy outfit. Back then he was all in black, replete with a silver-tipped bolo tie, pointy polished shoes and a giant sombrero. Probably somewhere in his mid-thirties, he was extraordinarily handsome. Olive-skinned, with a face like a movie star, sporting a giant but well maintained moustache, before it was trendy. I gawked, trying to work out what could possibly occasion such attire. He didn’t glance my way, but continued writing furiously in his notebook. I’d never seen anyone who dressed so neatly. Everything was ironed perfectly, tucked in, immaculate. This was no costume, this was just him. It was an unusual sight for a Tuesday morning. I ordered my tea and sat down, thinking—well, I’m sure that man has a story.

I don’t know exactly how many years later he embraced colour, but at some stage I came across him walking down the street in an all-pink tuxedo, sans jacket. Again, it was the neatness of his outfit that struck me. The fabric was some kind of luminous synthetic, no lines or creases. It was perfectly tailored for him, the brightest, deepest pink. The sombrero was gone; this time he had a cowboy hat. It’s easy to envisage someone theatrical, someone eager for attention, someone radiating a kind of ‘look at me!’ desperation, but the tuxedo man never seems this way. He doesn’t strut about, looking around to see who’s noticed him. There is something calm and centred in the way he moves through the world. He is unruffled, self-contained. I see people embrace him on the street, and I watch, curious as ever about how he came to be.

There was a period where the tuxedo man would run from Brunswick Heads to Mullumbimby, almost ten kilometres, often in the height of summer, still, of course, in the pink tuxedo. I don’t mean jogging, but full-fledged high-legged sprinting, his sombrero hanging on a string around his neck, flying out behind him. It was a sight to behold. I must confess, at this point I began to worry he might be crazy. Regularly sprinting in thirty degree heat in a pink synthetic tuxedo seemed a dangerous activity. Before the running, I’d seen him simply as a man with a very specific—and decidedly flamboyant—sense of style; after he started the sprinting, I wasn’t so sure. It was always a joy to see him bolting along, but I didn’t want him to get heart stroke and die.

In the end his knees gave out. Instead of running, he now hobbles along the road with a silver walking stick. Sometimes he hitches a ride. My mum picked him up one day with my teenage son in the back. It’s the closest I’ve been to a conversation with him.

‘What was he like?’ I asked my son, who’d chatted with him all the way into town.

‘He gets his suits specially made in Singapore,’ he told me, ‘out of special uncreasable fabric.’

‘Did he seem crazy?’

‘No, he was nice. He showed me all his rings.’

‘Tell me something else he said.’

‘He talked a bit about God and Mother Earth and stuff.’

I was jealous I’d missed it, this ride with the tuxedo man. My town’s icon—a bright flag signalling tolerance for an array of divergences from the norm. Nowadays he’s graduated from pink to a whole host of tuxedo colours. Bold, vibrant shades, but only one colour at once. Orange, blue, green, the occasional fluoro. I saw him recently, dapper from head to toe in blood red, but he’d added a fluorescent yellow cravat to the ensemble. I know I could approach him, gather the facts, but I’m a fiction writer, not a journalist, and perhaps it’s the imagining of who he is that brings the most pleasure. Maybe one day I’ll pick him up hitching and hear his story, but until then I’m bolstered just by the sight of him: the tuxedo man, otherwise known as the pink cowboy, or sometimes—more simply—the running man.

First published in The Saturday Paper, 20th September, 2014.

Words and Music

When pondering inspiration and where it is found, the cross-pollination that occurs amongst artistic genres always comes to mind. Art works that inspire writers, novels that inspire plays, plays that inspire films … the list goes on. Think of novelist Tracy Chevalier and her meditative take on Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. But one of the least talked about of these artist-muse relationships is the interaction between music and writing.

A couple of years ago I read Paul Kelly’s mongrel memoir How to Make Gravy, and what struck me most forcibly about it was the breadth and depth of Kelly’s reading life. At seventeen Kelly was reading Herman Hesse, Arthur Rimbaud, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, by nineteen it was Walt Whitman and Jean Paul Sartre, with a bit of Nietzsche on the side. He spent large chunks of his twenty-fourth year lying on his bed reading Marcel Proust.

The opening line of the memoir alludes to Homer’s Odyssey, and the references to literature just keep coming. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Henry James, Sir Walter Scott, Emile Zola, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver,as well as more contemporary writers like Nick Hornby, Tim Winton, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Ondantje, Robert Drewe, Peter Carey, Jeffery Euguenides and Gao Xingjian. Don’t even get me started on the poets! It seemed to me that Kelly’s book was, among other things, a meditation on the place of reading in an artist’s life. In this case, a songwriter.

Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly talks about the way songwriters continuously ‘borrow’ from one another – “Ever since Homer’s repeated use of ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, ‘ wine dark sea’, and other formulas in The Odyssey, songwriters have been drawing on the communal pool of phrases and images available to anyone with ears.” He follows this up with – “Some people continue to be surprised by this – those who have notions of the artist as some kind of self-dredger, dragging pieces of originality up from the depths of their soul.” And then the somewhat cheeky – “Self expression is overrated, though. There’s so much of it around these days …”

Reading Kelly’s memoir, it was interesting to imagine the young Paul devouring all those literary classics, and how they must have swirled about in his subconscious, coming to light – sometimes years later – in mysterious ways. He wrote the song ‘Everything’s Turning to White’ – a retelling of the Raymond Carver short story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ – five years after reading it. When he got back to checking the story, he was startled by how exactly the details of story and song matched up. Kelly explains how some of the time this borrowing is subconscious – “Writing, though it may involve a lot of thinking, is never entirely under our conscious control.”

As with ‘Everything’s Turning to White,’ sometimes these cross-genre inspirations can bear wonderful fruit. Singer songwriter Gyan’s musical interpretation of the poems of Michael Leunig – Billy the Rabbit – is another tantalising example. In this case, Gyan turned to the work of Michael Leunig as solace when she was feeling burnt out. She spent twelve months putting a host of his poems to music. Eventually a friend who had worked with Leunig encouraged her to send the songs to him. She did, and Leunig loved them. And there began an unusual mixed-media collaboration, with the two of them giving performances involving Gyan singing while Leunig drew.

But what about how songs influence other art forms? A fan of the 1999 film by Paul Thomas Anderson – Magnolia, years ago I bought the movie soundtrack, and discovered within the liner notes a rather unusual dedication. It seems the whole movie was inspired by the songs of Aimee Mann. As Anderson explains – “Like one would adapt a book for the screen, I had the concept of adapting Aimee’s songs into a screenplay.” He gives details of how the process worked – “For instance, in my original motion picture screenplay, Claudia says ‘Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?’ I must come clean. I did not write that line. Aimee Mann wrote that line as the opening of her song, ‘Deathly,’ and I wrote backwards from that line. It equals the story of Claudia. It equals the heart of Magnolia. All stories from the movie were written branching off from Claudia, so one could do the math and realise that all stories come from Aimee’s brain, not mine.” Thomas ends the CD liner notes with: “So here it is, the perfect memento to remember the movie – or you can look at the movie as the perfect memento to remember the songs that Aimee has made.”

When I first read this dedication I was a few years out of high school, crazy about music but not a musician, interested in writing but managing nothing more than a few occasional scribbles in my diary. It struck me as wondrous that someone could hear one line of a song and a whole movie might spring from the earth like a blossoming tree. I’d never heard of Aimee Mann, but I was dazzled by the potential in this kind of relationship.

Fast forward ten years or so and I was writing. The idea for my novel Darkness on the Edge of Town hit me late at night like a whack to the back of the head. It wasn’t something I pondered; all of a sudden it was just there. I was more than three quarters through writing it before I realised how distinctly (in my mind at least) it echoed the early work of Bruce Springsteen. His song ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ seemed to hold all the nuances of my main character’s voice, even though I’d never consciously thought about the song at all. At that point I began to consider the influence of songs on the work I was doing. Before I started writing Darkness on the Edge of Town I’d come out of a very bewildering love affair and was obsessively listening to the Lucinda William’s album West. It must be said that listening to the raw and heartrending Lucinda Williams after having your heart broken is not the wisest of musical choices, and in an effort to buoy myself I’d turned to Springsteen, who has the knack of imbibing his music with a kind of hard won optimism. It was as though the work of the two musicians had somehow morphed in my brain. Lucinda’s sorrow and pain with Bruce’s tentative redemption. And the result was a novel, a strange hybrid of musical influences, but somehow all my own.

I’m not the only writer who feels awed by the power of music. When asked about the musical references scattered throughout his novels, Jonathan Franzen answered – “I’m more envious of music than of any other art form – the way a song can take your head over and make you feel so intensely and so immediately. It’s like snorting powder, it goes straight to your brain.”

But I’ll leave the last words to Kelly himself. In his memoir he says – “Writing songs is a magpie business. You build your nest and fetch and carry to it the bright shiny things that catch your eye. You don’t care where they come from just so long as they fit just so … New life begins when strange things connect.”

First Published in the Northerly, July-August, 2103

It’s hard to raise a teenage boy – and even harder to be one

Photograph: Murdo Macleold

Photograph: Murdo Macleold

As a parent, negotiating the road through your children’s adolescence can be harrowing, and often in ways you least expect. Despite all my fears about drugs and alcohol, drink-driving and traffic accidents, the thing my son is statistically most likely to die from is suicide. It’s a baffling fact, and one that surely needs more consideration.

Beyond Blue recently launched a multi-million-dollar campaign to combat the high rate of male suicide around the nation, and it got me pondering the real risks involved in parenting teenage sons.

I have two sons. The oldest is soon to turn sixteen. By fifteen he was 186cms tall and still growing. For some years now he has dwarfed his friends, towering above the other kids like a giant gumtree.

As a baby he was always large. I once had a man approach me on the street and ask – ‘What’s his name? Battle-axe?’ This to a toddler with the biggest toothy grin imaginable. A champion cuddler. A gentle giant. Even then the world weighed in. He was a Viking baby, a warrior-in-the-making. But despite this expectation, gentleness has always been my son’s defining trait. Generous, kind and big-hearted, his final year six report ended with: “He is considerate, forgiving and caring, acknowledging other people’s feelings and offering comfort where needed.”

I admit, on reading those words I cried.

I have long considered myself a feminist mother. I aimed to bring up my sons to be sensitive to the needs of others, to be open-minded and self-aware. To actively champion equal rights and to be conscious of their social responsibilities. We talked about sexism and racism and prejudice and the subtle ways they sometimes worked. I wanted an understanding of these issues to be part of my children’s worldview.

When he was ten, my oldest son developed an interest in hip-hop, a genre I knew little about, and we asked a friend to find him some music. I walked out of the room for a minute and when I came back my friend was staring at him in surprise.

‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Oh,’ my friend answered, ‘It’s just … he asked for songs that don’t have violence against women.’

I almost punched the sky. But she was nonplussed – ‘Ah … I don’t know if I even have any like that.’

And slowly the floodgates opened. The world encroached on my son, filling his ears with what it means to be a man. Fast forward five years and it’s a whole new ballgame. Since he entered high school I’ve watched him morph. Jeans slung low, he swaggers about like a gangster from the rapper films he so admires. I try to get him talking about the lure of Underbelly and all its subsequent spin offs, but though his eyes sparkle, he doesn’t say much. The glamour of this underworld culture fires his imagination like nothing else, and I am unable to keep any of it at bay.

As the mother of an adolescent boy, how can I compete with a society that actively glorifies this kind of manhood? Where Eminem, despite his rapey lyrics, is a best-selling artist. Where images objectifying women are so ubiquitous they are considered normal. Where mainstream pornography is getting more and more brutal. Where violent video games are increasingly graphic and accessible. Against this cacophonous soundtrack it must be easy for boys to forget that in the real world most men aren’t actually violent. And, if this state of play isn’t depressing enough, add the new WHO report characterising men’s violence against women as a ‘global health problem of epidemic proportions,’and the sad reality that women standing up against sexism often brings out a barrage of hate.

I wonder how my son manages all these messages. How does he balance what he’s learned at home with what the world is teaching him?

A year or so ago I was talking with my son when he wandered towards me, picked me up with one arm and placed me on the other side of the door. Gently, of course. He then waved, smiled his gigantic smile, and said – ‘See ya Mum.’ And that was that. If he didn’t want to hear what I had to say he could effectively remove me. One-handed. It was a joke, obviously. He let me straight back in. But standing on the outside of that door for those few seconds highlighted my powerlessness in a way nothing else previously had.

His largeness has other unforeseen consequences. The mothers of his female friends let them go out at night if he is with them, as though his big body will be enough to protect them all from harm. The world is unsafe for teenage girls, so these mothers think, but my son neutralises the danger by his mere presence. Partly I am proud. They see him as trustworthy and strong. But I also wonder if this is a heavy load for him to carry.

He told me once that at a party a bunch of older boys arrived uninvited in their hotted up cars. He was standing with a female friend who had gone outside to make a call. She lifted her chin to these bigger boys and said – ‘What the f#ck are you looking at?’ Safe in the knowledge of my son’s big body at her back, she was calling them on their intimidating stares. And he worried about how he could possibly protect her.

And, of course, I worry too.

Assault is by far the most common form of violent crime. Males are more likely than females to be violently assaulted across all age groups. Statistically speaking, this could be termed ‘men’s violence against men,’ and those most at risk are young men aged 15–24 years. To add to this, young men are more likely to engage in risky behaviour. They are more likely than girls to be current smokers, drink to levels considered dangerous, use illicit drugs, be involved in dangerous driving, commit violent crime, and be incarcerated.

And, as the Beyond Blue campaign highlights, they are more likely to suicide. How can it be that we live in one of the world’s most prosperous countries but our children are taking their own lives? Our male children, most especially. What is causing such despair? No doubt the answers are complex and multifaceted. But is it at least possible that the status quo is not working for young men either?

 To be the mother of a teenage boy is to be always a little afraid. I used to worry about lots of things: schooling, television hours, junk food, computer games. But now I just worry my son won’t make it home.

‘I’m nearly sixteen,’ he tells me. ‘Soon I’ll be eighteen.’ I look up at his beautiful familiar face. ‘Sometime soon you are just going to have to let go.’

This article was first published at the guardian.uk on the 8th of July 2013, in slightly abridged form.

Our Silent Selves

A few years ago, I went to stay with a friend in the city. The face she greeted me with was not her face. One of her eyelids sagged, giving her a strange lopsided smile. Distress bubbled up inside me. Had she been struck down with Bell’s Palsey? Had a stroke? Why didn’t she tell me?

“What’s happened to your face?” I blurted out, feeling the tears rise in my eyes.

“It’s no big deal,” she said, brushing me off with a wave of the hand. “It’s just a bit of botox gone wrong. It’s not permanent or anything.”

It took me a while to acclimatise myself to this answer. My startlingly confident, formidably intelligent, beautiful thirty-one year old friend was getting botox? And botox had caused her eye to sag as though she’d had a stroke? Of course, I knew movie stars and the like forked out to get this paralysing poison injected into their faces, but it wasn’t something I’d considered when it came to people I knew.

Fast forward a few years and it seems far more common. I have other friends with tell-tale shiny foreheads, though I’ve never again encountered a droopy eye. Botoxed faces all have something in common. A strange vacancy, a peculiar dullness. Despite the glimmering smoothness of the skin – the odd way that light reflects off an unlined surface – there’s a kind of deadness around the eyes. All my botoxed friends look faintly angry, with a touch of indifference. It’s a particular expression, rarely found in an unneedled face, and it takes some getting used to.

Lately, I’ve found myself feeling uneasy after spending time with these shiny-faced friends. The sense of connectedness we’ve always shared seems impeded by their impenetrable faces. In short, I miss their micro-expressions. I feel cut off from them, and come away lonely and disturbed. I worry how these frozen faces serve them in other parts of their lives. How do their partners feel? What about their children?

I know why women feel they need botox. I understand the pressure on us all to maintain a youthful appearance. The relentless bombardment of media images and meta-messages. Our invisibility once past a certain age. The very real ramifications of aging as a woman in our culture. But I can’t help wondering about the costs of botox, and not just to the hip pocket.

There’s no argument that botox paralyses facial muscles. That’s how it works. It minimises micro-expressions. So in a sense, communicating with someone who’s had botox is like communicating with a static image – much of the body-language involved is silenced. Considering body-language, mostly facial expressions, makes up at least half of any message being communicated, this is a significant loss.

But this facial paralysis also inhibits the ability of the botoxed to mimic the facial expressions of others, which is critical in the formation of empathy. Facial micro-mimicry is the major way we understand others’ emotions. If you are wincing in pain I immediately do a micro-wince which sends a message to my brain about what you are experiencing. By experiencing it myself I understand what you are going through. This suggests that not only do I find my botoxed friends hard to read, but they are also hindered in their capacity to read me. An unfortunate feedback cycle. The possible implications of this are truly frightening.

There has been a study into the effects of botox on the ability to empathise, but nothing which specifically addresses the impacts on friendship, or the mother-infant bond. The absence of discussion around the effect of botox on mothering is troubling considering in that a mother’s display of emotions is how the infant learns to interact with the world. Psychologists have a method for testing infant distress at unresponsive faces called the ‘Still Face paradigm.’ Any alarm bells ringing?

Obviously empathy is a cornerstone of relationship, vital to both building and maintaining positive interactions with others. That many women are prioritising themselves as a still image is disturbing and worthy of consideration. The poker-face, by definition, doesn’t express anything. With the proliferation of selfies and the focus on static representations of women’s faces, are we forgetting how much of who we are is communicated through facial expressions? Are we, in some sense, choosing a form of silence far more insidious than women have ever known in the past? Who benefits from the silencing of women’s faces? And what is the cost?   

 

First published in the guardian – ‘Comment is Free’ – May 22nd, 2013.

Do we teach prejudice?

Prejudice_wide-620x349Racism is not something I’ve had a lot of personal experience with. I’m a brown-skinned, brown-eyed, brown-haired white girl living in a fairly white kind of world. But whenever I venture out beyond my rural homeland the inevitable question comes up.

“So, where are you from?”

To which I answer with a description of my small town. Whereabouts, climate, flora, social milieu.

“No, I mean, originally?”

The ancestry question.

As far as I know, I am of English, possibly Irish descent. Convicts, most probably. This is always a surprise to my listener. Often I am erroneously claimed to be part of some more exotic ethnic group.

“I bet you’re Greek … Italian … Lebanese …”

The list goes on. I’ve even had someone guess half-Thai, which seems a stretch. I’ve been claimed by Aborigines on public transport, “Hey Sister, come sit with me. Tell me, where’s your mob?” And then scoffed at for denying my heritage.

This claiming seems a warm thing to me. A welcoming. A belonging. It is always with regret that I refute it. But it leads me to pondering what preconceptions are being foisted on me without my knowledge. What is contained in other people’s assumptions of my cultural heritage? If I experienced racism based on my assumed ethnicity, would I even notice? And do people think of me differently when they discover, despite appearances, that I am of plain-old Anglo-Celtic heritage?

With the jumble of ethnicities in cities I notice the ancestry question is something sorted out early on. But what quickly becomes clear is how often people guess wrong, and when corrected – how little the truth actually tells you about a person. Can clear deductions about cultural heritage even be made nowadays? Despite attempts to maintain separate ethnic identities, have these markers become diluted in the mishmash that is multicultural Australia? If my Australian mother was of Italian–Croatian heritage, and my Australian father was of French–Malaysian heritage, what would that say about me? Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but the complexity of cultural associations would be a little mind-boggling to decipher from the outside.

Which leads me to questions of perception – what we see in others, and what we rate as important. My mother once told me a story about my first day of school that has always stuck in my mind. I grew up in a small country town. My primary school had sixty kids all up, so maybe twenty in my classroom. There was one black girl in amongst an otherwise white class. She was an Islander of some description, though I never discovered which island. Her skin was not tan, or dark brown, but a lovely near-black. My mother was curious about her. This exotic-looking black-skinned five-year-old girl. When I got home from school she asked:

“And who was the little black girl?”

The question of whether my mother could have used a more sensitive adjective springs to mind, but I guess since I was five, she was trying to keep it simple. The surprising thing is – even though there was only one black-skinned girl in my class, and even though I’d never met a black person before – I didn’t know which girl she meant.

“Who?”

Not yet schooled in this difference between skin colours, it seems I didn’t notice it.

“How did she have her hair?” I asked, perplexed. Hair was something I was minutely interested in.

“It was black and fuzzy, in pigtails.”

“You mean the girl with hair like puff-balls?”

And then I finally got it. I knew who my mother was asking about.

Often it seems as though perceptions of ourselves, each other, and the world around us reflect a reality set in stone, but really we notice what we’ve been taught to notice, and we judge what we’ve been taught to judge. Nowhere does this truism become clearer than in the raising of children.

Again and again I’ve been surprised by what my children don’t see. I once invited a friend who has a disabled child over for lunch. The child was born with only one functioning eye, half an ear missing, and a malformed leg that had been amputated above the knee. Despite these difficulties, she was bright and cheerful. My children were pre-school age and I wondered if I should talk with them about the girl’s disabilities before she arrived. I was alarmed by the prospect of them treating her strangely, or reacting in some way that was hurtful, but I was unsure of how to manage this possibility. What would I say?

“There’s a girl coming. She’s looks a bit different from you, but try not to make a big deal about it. You don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

This kind of sentence sat heavily on the tip of my tongue in the hours before her arrival, inadequate and somewhat patronising. In the end I decided to just see how it went. To let my children make their own deductions.

The friend arrived and the children played. Zalie had a spike like a pirate where her foot should have been, but she was mobile. We had lunch, and the kids rushed around, chatting and squealing and laughing, and there was no mention of the missing eye, ear, or leg. After my friend departed, while sitting quietly in the bath, my five-year-old son said:

“You know Mum, Zalie had a broken foot.”

That was it.

And it got me thinking about how differently the day might have gone if I’d made a point of highlighting Zalie’s difference. Of guiding my children’s perceptions and judgements.

It certainly showed me a lot about my own.

First published on Daily Life, January 17th 2013

How much is a mother worth?

So far, the debate about cuts in the income of single mothers in Australia has revolved around the question of whether or not it is possible to live on Newstart. This is, of course, a worthy question. But for me it sidesteps some of the larger issues at hand.

At the heart of the matter lies the age old problem of who is responsible for the children and what is the cost of that responsibility.  Women, and not just single mothers, are often left with the lion’s share when it comes to parenting. Mothering undoubtedly has its rewards but it is often a significant encumbrance when it comes to being part of the workforce. There has been a push in recent years for fathers to share the ‘burden’ of this care, but – on the whole – we are not there yet.

Statistics about the discrepancy between men’s and women’s incomes, even when doing the same job, are well established. When I was a teenager understanding how this difference could conceivably exist was impossible. My high school was full of high achieving girls: passionate, dedicated, intelligent creatures who, it seemed, would one day rule the world. How could it be that when these girls made their way out into society they would somehow become the underdogs? I thought about it a lot, but the answer remained elusive. Discrimination? Based on what?

It was only when I reached university that the answer became clear. An introductory Gender Studies subject was all it took. I still remember the bookshelf of the library I was standing in front of when the revelation hit. It was all about mothering. The sudden knowledge came at me sideways, a painful thwack. To build a career and have children I was going to have to do two full-time jobs, only one of them paid, and juggling these two jobs would leave me exhausted and frayed at the edges. And, as the statistics consistently showed, doing these two jobs would mean I’d often be left in the dust.

I must admit, it was not an appealing future.

What is forgotten in debates about parenting payment is that mothering is work. It may not be financially remunerated, or a sure-fire path to the top, but it is work nonetheless. And if mothers didn’t do it, someone else would have to be paid to. Although childcare workers are among the lowest paid in our ranks, we still don’t expect them to work for nothing. There is an annual American survey by Salary.com which attempts to estimate how much the average mother would earn a year if they were actually paid for the work they do. In 2012, the average stay-at-home mum came in at about $113 000 a year, with a working mum adding about $66 000 to their annual income. It would certainly be interesting to see an Australian calculation.

All this brings me to the difficult question – what is the value of mothering? Clearly, our whole society chugs along quite nicely on the unpaid labour of women and has for some time. Perhaps it has been this way since the invention of money, but that doesn’t make it right.

Inarguably, things have improved in our nation for women in the last half century, mothers included. The introduction of the Supporting Mothers Benefit in 1973 could rate as one of the biggest wins for feminism in Australian history. Mothers being paid for mothering. A fiscal value being placed on what is undeniably a vital and worthy labour. But it has never really been seen this way. From a sympathetic vantage point, providing ‘parenting payment single’ is seen as an act of generosity from a caring community; a safety net for abandoned mothers which prevents them and their offspring from slipping irrevocably into poverty. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, it is seen as an easy route for pregnant teenage dropouts to sit pretty whilst contributing nothing to society for the rest of their sorry lives.

Nowhere in either of these mindsets is there room for a real discussion of the value of mothering to our society at large. If we leave aside an attempt to put a monetary value on the labour of mothering, we are left with an entirely different set of parameters. Mothers care for children. Children are our next generation. The quality of care they receive is imperative to our future. Does it not seem palpably obvious that the value of mothering is therefore high?

Gillard’s strategy to move mothers from parenting payment single to Newstart once their last child turns eight will create an estimated savings of $728 million over four years. Right on target for budget surplus come next election. That the government sees single mothers as the easiest target when it comes to revenue-raising, the least likely spending cut to create a voter backlash, says a lot about our country. To suppose this budget cut is an equitable solution is to assume that once children have settled into school it is a fair playing field for single mothers in the workforce. Deep down, we all know this isn’t true.

And to believe that having older children is less of a burden on mothers is to have very little understanding of the issues at play. In the simplest of terms, I am a single mother with two teenage boys. My oldest is fifteen, 6 foot 1, weighs 80kgs, and easily eats as much as two grown women. Feeding him alone is a substantial cost, and that is just the problem of sustenance. Taking into account the varied and multifaceted nature of my children’s demands upon my time and resources, the Newstart allowance is something of a joke. Working part time, as I did previously, will now cost me 40 cents in every dollar I earn over $31 a week. What else is this but a deterrent? I am left with a choice between living in poverty or attempting to join the full-time workforce. ‘Attempting’ being the operative word. Each of these paths is littered with motherhood-related impediments.

I used to be so proud to live in a nation that paid mothers for being mothers. It is disturbing that in order to balance the budget our government is taking money from those of us who give so much and already receive so little in return. If we are to live in a society that considers everything only in terms of a spread sheet, it is time we started to count the cost of parenting, especially for those of us who go it alone.

Mothering is work. Women enter into motherhood at great personal cost, yet the contribution of mothers to society is immense, and – let’s face it – vital to the continuation of our world as we know it.

Pay us what we’re worth.

First Published on Daily Life, 7th January 2013.

Why Is It (Still) the Mother’s Fault?

I live in a small town way out in the country where – it’s true – debates about helicopter parenting are pretty rare. Here packs of sunburned kids ride helmetless around our winding roads, the wind blowing through their sweaty hair, the sun reflecting off their freckled faces. They ride to the local waterholes where they leap from rope swings, flying through the air like amateur circus performers, not a parent in sight.

And yes, excepting the odd hospital admission, usually they are fine.

But despite their general robustness, when I watch my sons ride off into the distance I do worry about their heads, their skin, and their pre-manhood bodies. I worry because I love them, and children, in all manner of ways, are vulnerable.

When my first baby was 4 months old I was sitting on the grass at the local playgroup – the little guy on my lap – when he stopped breathing and turned blue. It seemed he was choking, but I couldn’t find the offending object by scooping around in his mouth. Patting on the back produced nothing. Seconds passed. Perhaps a minute. My baby wasn’t breathing. A more experienced mother came to my aid, giving him the baby version of the Heimlich Manoeuvre, and he vomited up a piece of leaf smaller than a five cent piece. I cried for an hour, hiccupy and inconsolable. How could I think I could raise a child when I couldn’t even keep him safe from the threat of miniscule leaf segments?

The weight of the responsibility hung heavy about my neck. And, of course, that was just the beginning.

When Catherine Deveny decries helicopter parents and all their associated neuroses, she avoids the very persistent reality for many mothers: that of an oppressive sense of responsibility. Does she really assume this arises in a vacuum? That these ‘competitive’ and ‘annoying’ super-mums are singly playing out their varying degrees of neediness or ‘abandonment issues’ – blindly – to the detriment of their children?

Because that is a very harsh call.

I suspect if we dug a little deeper we’d find that mothers feel responsible for every facet of their child’s development because everyone else thinks they are responsible too.

The bigger question for me is – how – in the giant, multifaceted and complicated society we all inhabit – can everything still be the mother’s fault? No wonder those highly qualified over-achievers are trying so hard to be the best mothers they can when the pressure is so undeniably huge, when their child’s ‘outcomes’ rest squarely on their shoulders.

But the irony is that mothers can never do right. Try too hard and they are creating ‘dysfunctional co-dependence,’ slack off a bit and they are charged with neglect.

And yes, I was a child of the 1970s. I too got driven around in a car with my dad chain-smoking, all the windows up. Heck, I even ate catfood. Didn’t everyone? But nowadays I think we are all a bit more savvy to the effect our childhoods have on the people we become.

I too want my kids to be brave, resilient, optimistic and independent. So by all means let’s discuss it: benevolent neglect, quality boredom, and independence as a result of parental indifference. Funny, yes. A great tagline. And maybe it’s a good starting point. I know that when I imagine my boys flying through the air on that rope swing I am simultaneously terrified and exultant, but the joy of it wins out in the end.I just wish in these discussions we could stop throwing out barbs and get to the heart of it.

In a culture saturated with mixed messages aimed at children, where the average age a child views pornography is 11 and gender stereotypes dog their every move, where making healthy food choices is bamboozling even for the educated adult, where we are force-fed instant gratification as a way of life but becoming good at anything still takes energy and effort, where a lack of resources sets some of us up for significant disadvantage, where fear-mongering is a large part of the political landscape, where environmental destruction looms always on the horizon, where technological addiction and a multiplicity of anxieties are rife among our numbers. Where broken arms, cracked heads, fractured feet, black-eyes, pneumonia, bronchiolitis, school sores, cellulitis, teeth abscesses, asthma, allergies and learning difficulties are all just part of the game. (And, yes, between them my kids have had them all!)

Why – in this confusing and hazardous climate – is everything still the mother’s fault?

When I see those helicopter parents anxiously hovering, I try not to judge them. Instead, I imagine the terrible weight of responsibility our culture hangs about their necks. They are the gatekeepers, and if things go wrong they will be held accountable. And I think of that tiny segment of leaf that nearly blocked my baby’s windpipe.

How can we help mothers be resilient in the face of so much risk?

This Article was first published by The Wheeler Centre on the 10th of December 2012. 

Harvesting camphor – a green solution?

Clear felling of camphor laurel to create ‘renewable energy’ in the local sugar mills leaves Jessie Cole pondering the realities of wood-burning as green power.

Burringbar is my hometown. Turning off the Tweed Valley Way into the main street always does something to my heart. Lifts it in some way. I know I’m lucky to have such a connection to place, to walk a winding road through the greenest hills and think – this is home. It is a luxury of grand proportions. But lately walking through my valley has become something completely different.

Huge double barrelled trucks zoom past at high-speed leaving the overpowering scent of camphor dust in their wake. Giant machines move up the hillsides clamping the camphors at their bases and felling them left, right, and centre. The trees are wood-chipped in the paddocks where they once stood and then carted off to burn. The sound of heavy machinery echoes through the hills, punctuated with the slow cracking of falling trees. The picturesque hillsides have become a site of carnage. I’ve been here thirty years, almost all my life, and never have I seen such devastation.

The harvesting of camphors to burn in the nearby Broadwater and Condong sugar mills is a ‘green initiative’ partly funded by the NSW and Federal governments. The proposal was simply to turn cane waste from the sugar industry into energy, clearly a win-win scenario, eliminating the polluting cane field fires, and topping-up the electricity grid with renewable energy. ‘The reality is,’ says local educator and environmentalist Alison Polistchuck ‘there was never enough cane waste to burn, and camphors are now being clear-felled to fill the gap.’

Foreseeing the reliance on woodchips the NSW Greens Leader, Ian Cohen, rejected the initial proposal in 2003 claiming it was ‘not a green plan at all.’ Though green groups raised questions about the energy required to cut, chop, and transport the wood, the loss of mature trees as a carbon sink, the erosion and silting up of the local creeks, the possible threat to endangered plants and animals, and the basic pollution of wood-burning, these problems were disregarded, and the plan was sold to the public as renewable energy.

On a global level this kind of ‘green power’ is called ‘biomass burning’ – chipping up trees and burning them in power plants to create electricity. This practice was deemed carbon neutral at Kyoto back in 1997, even though burning trees for energy emits 150% of the CO2 that burning coal does, and it takes 30-90 years of new growth to re-capture the CO2 that is released instantly from burning trees for energy. The word loophole springs to mind.

Camphor laurels have always been a vexed issue on the North Coast. A declared noxious weed, they are the cane toad of the flora world, colonising spaces where the Big Scrub used to be. The ecological benefit of regenerating camphor trees to native forest is largely unchallenged, but there are bigger questions at hand here. Are camphor laurel trees better than bare pasture in green terms? What is the value of a tree, any tree? And perhaps most pertinently – is burning woodchips ever a green power solution?

In an interesting turn of events, the co-generation plants were placed into receivership early this month. The Executive of NSW Sugar Chris Connors has blamed the financial crisis on the fall in value of Renewable Energy Certificates due to a flooding of the market. But a closer look at NSW Government audit documents reveals a complex mix of factors leading up to the economic problems. Lower than forecast amounts of cane waste and limited availability of alternative fuel sources were both cited. No questions have been raised about the basic unsustainability of harvesting trees to burn for fuel, and it is unclear whether this recent financial crisis will mean an end to the clearing, or an increase as the sugar mill scrambles to stay afloat.

Camphor laurels are a noxious weed and there is a legal objective to control the species. But the irony is – unlike natives these trees thrive in open country so clear-felling them does little to stop their spread. For the practise to be ecologically viable there would need to be staged removal of trees and replanting with native species to protect habitat, prevent erosion and weed infestation, as well as to minimise the loss in carbon stores. Even if wood-burning for electricity was a green power solution, no effort has been made to manage the camphors in a sustainable manner. Walking down the road in my hometown I am left wondering what strolling through my valley will be like when all the bulldozers are finally gone.

This article was first published in The Echo in March 2011

           

Songs of the sea

When our distant ancestors felled the first tree to make the first sea-worthy boat they couldn’t possibly know they were marking the beginning of what would become global travel. For tens of thousands of years the only way to breach the shoreline was by boat, and the only voyages undertaken were sailing across the sea. Think Vikings. Think Traders. Pirates. Explorers. Christopher Columbus, and our very own Captain James Cook.

Sea-shanties were the musical soundtrack to these voyages, and surely must be the earliest examples of the travel-song. Often call and response, rhythmically they matched the activity speed of the men hauling on lines. Work songs, they served to synchronize the movements of the sailors as they toiled. They also often provided an outlet for sailors to express their opinions in a way that would not cause punishment. Many of them were obscene: full of stories of drunkenness, whores, and the clap, but many were very beautiful. The best sea-shanties were those imbibed with a sense of what it was to be rolling on the sea. The adventure, discovery, romance, loneliness, hardship, and homesickness.

Gore Verbinski, Director of Pirates of the Caribbean, summed up the powerful nature of the sea-shanty when he said – “The ocean: it’s all about the vast blue that engulfs two-thirds of the planet. The human being cast against that abyss creates an interesting perspective. I think the sailors of that time were flirting with death, and these were their tunes. They resonate with people on some internal level that is not immediately obvious because it’s not in our memory, it’s in our blood. It operates on a cellular level. It’s what makes us feel so alone.”

Rogue_GallerySea-shanties aren’t sung anymore on ships. Modern day rigging just doesn’t need a lot of people working in the same rhythm for long periods of time. Like a lot of folk songs they had become almost obsolete, lost in the realms of obscure archives and sea-shanty enthusiasts, until music producer Hal Willner was asked to create a modern-day compilation. He spent several years researching and collecting songs, and then assembled a ragtag group of notable musicians to record them. The result was ‘The Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys’, an album performed by an eclectic array of artists, including Sting, Nick Cave, Bryan Ferry, Bono, Lou Reed, Antony, Rufus Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, Eliza Carthy, and Jarvis Cocker.

Many of the songs on the Rogue’s Gallery contain elements traditionally attributed to other types of music, and with the often anarchic lyrics they are sometimes even borderline punk. Nick Cave bellows wildly about the ‘fire down below,’ a mixed up reference to both hell and the clap, while Teddy Thompson sings of rolling all night and rolling all day to spend his money on Sally Brown. Whoever this ‘bright mulatto’ Sally Brown was, she certainly went down in history, turning up in a whole array of different sea-songs. Not bad for a woman of the night!

Place also plays a big part in the songs of the sea. Baby Gramps growls, (in a voice reminiscent of Tuvan throat singing), about the ‘Cape Cod Girls’ – ‘they don’t use no combs … comb their hair with the cod-fish bone, on their way to Australia.’ While the Barbary Coast has a whole song dedicated to it: ‘Look down along the coast of High Barbary…’

Arguably the most lyrically entertaining of the Rogue’s Gallery songs is entitled ‘Baltimore Whores,’ and involves a drawn out competition between four whores. ‘There were four whores from Baltimore, drinking the blood-red wine … and all their conversation was – yours is smaller than mine.’ As the song progresses, the descriptions become more and more inventive, moving from –“You’re a liar said the first whore, mine’s as big as the air. The birds fly in, the birds fly out, and never touch a hair’ to ‘You’re a liar said the last whore, mine’s the biggest of all. The fleet sailed in on the first of June, and didn’t come back till Fall.’ It is not very often that you hear women arguing about the largeness of such private areas!

Bono’s powerful rendition of ‘A Dying Sailor to his Shipmates’ brings us back to the adventurer’s elemental dance with death – ‘Oh, wrap me in my country’s flag, and lay me in the cold blue sea. Let the roaring of the waves, my solemn requiem be …I’m bound above, my course is run. I near the port, my voyage is done …’

Listening to this modern take on sea songs brings up many questions, the most interesting for the traveller being – has anything much really changed in the voyaging game? These songs speak of revelry, sex, discovery, transformation, loss, longing, and the journey into the unknown. All things familiar to the intrepid traveller. Italian writer Cesare Pavese claimed that “travelling forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all the familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off-balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” Sounds somewhat like a sea voyage!

Perhaps at the heart of all travel is the seeking of a new story. A new adventure, a new start. Sea shanties tell stories of long forgotten loves, famous battles, pirates, a longing for home (or the freedom from it), and the inescapable drive for adventure. An old roving sailor once said to me – ‘There are only three kinds of people: the living, the dead, and those who go to sea.’ But I think the American novelist Catherynne M. Valente says it best in her book The Orphan’s Tales: “It is not the sea that calls us back. What calls is stronger and more inexorable than any current. I long for the sea, yes, my skin is always dry, and I am always thirsty, and I miss the crash and swell of the black waves, but more, I long for the leaving. I am restless, I am ready, and the leaving whispers to me at night. It says that I will breathe easier when I am at the start of a story, rather than at the end.”

First published in get lost magazine, September 2010.

 

Born in the USA

Alongside the American flag, fast food, fundamentalist Christianity, and giant-sized SUVs, Bruce Springsteen is a name synonymous with the USA. If we each searched our memories we’d probably all have a vision somewhere of the man himself – bandana-clad, belting out the chorus to ‘Born in the USA’ while punching in the air, big drums pounding in the background. For a long time now Springsteen has been held up as the USA’s patriotic man of the hour. But what does The Boss really have to say about his homeland?

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The album Born in the USA came out in 1984. Widely read as a piece of nationalistic sloganeering, it made Bruce as big as Coca-Cola, but closer inspection of the lyrics reveals a much more complex picture. The title track begins “Born down in a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground. You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much, and spend your whole life just a-covering up.” Cut to the bombastic chorus – “I was…born in the USA…” Though the rocked up delivery might be somewhat misleading, the overall tone of the song is borderline desolate. A Vietnam veteran returning to a country that has very little place for him. The last verse ends with “I’m ten years down the road. Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.” Bruce himself describes the song as about a “spiritual crisis, in which man is left lost…It’s like he has nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He’s isolated from the government. Isolated from his family…to the point where nothing makes sense.” It’s a far cry from the patriotic anthem that many of us remember.

So, if Bruce Springsteen’s USA is not a macho gun-slinging, flag-waving, republican heartland, what is it? It turns out that this is rather a large question. Much of Bruce’s earlier work centred on his native New Jersey, but with a recording career that includes 16 albums in 37 years, he has covered a lot of ground. Springsteen specialises in stepping inside a character to tell a story. Empathy is his signal gift, and he describes the process of song writing as – “that old job of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, while you’ve got a foot in your own shoe. And that’s how it works. I’m grounding this song in something I’ve experienced myself, that I believe I can write about.” Listening to Bruce’s albums is like travelling across the USA from the inside, and it is a surprisingly poignant journey.

Born to Run

Early in his career Springsteen seemed obsessed with cars, the road, and the need to escape. ‘Born to Run’, released in 1975, speaks of wholesale disenchantment – “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream. At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.” Turnpikes, highways, and freeways all feature strongly in Bruce’s USA. The automotive imagery is potent – “Just wrap your legs ‘round these velvet rims, and strap your arms across my engines”. The song pleads with the audience to get out while they’re young. Destination unknown, it is the freedom of leaving that matters.

The River

This song seems to encapsulate Springsteen’s vision of working class America. The narrator has married young, he is ‘working construction’ but jobs are scarce. All the things that seemed important have vanished right into the air. He is drawn again and again to the river where he remembers what it was like to be young, free, and bright with hope. Filled with an aching need to live up to the future’s promise, but tinged with the knowledge of dreams already lost, he asks the question – “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”

Nebraska

An acoustic album, Nebraska is Springsteen’s starkest ever recording. He inhabits the voices of some of America’s most marginalised: petty criminals, disillusioned gunmen, and the rural poor. “Down here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” Originally supposed to be just a demo, it was first recorded straight onto a tape-cassette. Bruce later admitted he carried the tape around in his pocket for a couple of weeks before realising that it was going to be the album. Bleak in tone, Nebraska could be seen as a road trip through the more isolated parts of the US. Nebraska, Wyoming, Michigan County, New Jersey, and Atlantic City all get a mention.

The Ghost of Tom Joad

Largely concerned with the plight of Mexican’s trying to cross the border into the US, it covers entirely new territory for Bruce. California, Texas, Ohio, San Diego, Sinaloa, Galveston Bay. Highway patrolmen and Mexicans; border crossing, drug running, and fruit picking. The complexity of illegal immigration is explored from many different angles. The drive to escape still haunts the album, but this time around Bruce’s not so sure it’s where salvation lies – “The highway is alive tonight, but nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes …”

The Rising

A response to the 9/11 attacks in the US, The Rising deals with grief and loss, but also with the resurrection of hope. Reportedly, Springsteen got the inspiration for the album a few days after the 9/11 attacks when a stranger in a car stopped next to him, wound down his window, and said – “We need you now.” The title track beseeches the audience to “come on up for the rising”, and was later used in several Democratic political campaigns. It was also the first song performed at Barack Obama’s Inaugural Celebration. Springsteen himself remarked on the distance the song had travelled – “If someone had told me in 2001 that ‘you’re going to sing the song at the inaugural concert for the first African-American president’, I’d have said, ‘Huh?’ But eight years go by, and that’s where you find yourself. You’re in there, you’re swimming in the current of history, and your music is doing the same thing.”

Travelling through Bruce’s America is travelling the back roads of a nation whose forefront as the world’s economic superpower is only just now on shaky ground. The song’s settings – dead-end small towns, blue-collar workers, discharged soldiers, unwanted immigrants, and vast stretches of highway – highlight a place reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s America. It is the underbelly of the American dream that Bruce Springsteen lovingly lays bare.

First published in get lost magazine, December 2010.

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