Words are not enough

Well here I am in the first week of my six months long service leave. I’ve made quite a few grand promises (to myself and others) about the things I was planning to do whilst on leave, but when I booked the time off, I had no idea that I would actually be at home full-time, every single day.

My plan was to swim regularly at the pool, pick up some more exercise classes, and meet friends for coffee. Some of these have been put on hold or are happening virtually, but I’m not complaining. I feel lucky to have a comfortable home and a loving husband. So many people are under so much strain and I really feel for them.

Being stuck at home means that some of the other things I was planning to tackle are simply unavoidable. I’ve got no real excuse for not writing more, and I can’t really worm my way out of weeding the horribly overgrown garden. Nor can I avoid sorting through all the paperwork that’s accumulated in my office. There’s old teaching material, tax returns from the last 12 years and hundreds of old photos. It could realistically take me six months just to sort through all these accumulated memories.

I hate sorting through old photos. It makes me unbearably sad to see people (and pets) I’ve loved and lost. Even photos of my children make me feel teary. They look so sweet and innocent and I can’t bear the idea of them being hurt by anyone.

I’m often regarded as unsentimental by my family. Little do they know that this is often just a cover for being overwhelmed with emotion.

My mother (who would have been 91 today) was a master at not showing her emotions but those who knew her realised that this was just a way of covering up feelings that she couldn’t express or deal with very well. Things often went unsaid but we always knew that she cared about us. The fact that she loved us was evident in the food she made, the neatly made bed with a vase of freshly picked flowers, the little note that arrived in the mail just when you were feeling all alone. She would often arrive and do all your ironing, even though she hated ironing.

So in these trying times, perhaps we should use this time to let people know that we care about them. You don’t necessarily need to use words.

Phosphorescence

What to read if you're stuck at home

I’m a person of simple tastes – I just need coffee in the morning, a glass of Rose at sundown, and a nice big pile of books to read and I’m pretty happy. Some chats with friends and family and a bit of light gardening are welcome additions.

But I did have a moment of panic yesterday morning when I got a notice from the library to say that the books I’d reserved were available to be picked up. Should I make an emergency dash to the library in case they decided to close their doors? I briefly considered this, but then decided to take my chances on picking them up on Monday. Also I have a massive pile of books next to the bed so I’m really not going to run out in the next six months. And there’s always digital books. The library has advised that they will be increasing the number of digital books to better serve the needs of the community which is great news.

We did an emergency dash to Aldi yesterday to buy some fresh ginger (??), some curry powder and some of the aforementioned Rose. We saw people coming out with TP and snagged the last four-pack so we were well-pleased with ourselves.

But back to the topic at hand. What should we be reading in this surreal situation? I think there are three options.

Get into the groove with some dystopian fiction.

If you’re up for reading dystopian books, the number one pick for me would be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s about a swine flu pandemic that wipes out most of the world’s population and a group of nomadic actors and musicians who survive and band tother to travel the countryside bringing tiny glimmers of hope and culture to the remaining people. Despite the gloomy storyline, this is actually quite an uplifting book in many ways. It’s been recently been turned into a TV series, so look out for it on your screens. But honestly, I think the writing is beautiful so I would try to read it first.

Another couple of books that come to mind are quite old, but worth seeking out if you haven’t read them. I can recommend Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 (before I was born) but still resonates today. It’s well worth the effort of hunting it down. It should be in your library.

Alternatively, you could try some escapist thrillers.

I’ve got a penchant for Stella Rimington books. She writes books about spies (the type of stories that get made into TV series like Spooks). They are definitely page-turners and not particularly memorable (sorry Stella) but quite well written and easy to consume. Other favourites are police procedurals. Try Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent which is also one of my all time favourite movies.

I recently read Anne Cleve’s new book called The Long Call which I enjoyed very much and my son has offered to lend me Dervla McTiernan’s new book (The Good Turn) which I’m excited about. If you are planning the read this, I would definitely go back to the beginning of the series and read The Ruin first. The books can be read out of order, but I prefer to read them in order of publication.

Lastly, you could read something uplifting!

One of the books that’s waiting for me at the library is The Joy of High Places by Patti Miller. This has been recommended by one of my sisters (both are avid readers) so I’m looking forward to diving into this one. Patti is an excellent writer and teaches memoir writing courses, so this one promises to be a good read.

Also on my TBR (to be read) list is a new book by Julia Baird, Australian journalist and broadcaster, called Phosphorescence. It’s comes out tomorrow, March 23 and is described as…

A beautiful, intimate and inspiring investigation into how we can find and nurture within ourselves that essential quality of internal happiness – the ‘light within’ that Julia Baird calls ‘phosphorescence’ – which will sustain us even through the darkest times.  

Review from the ‘Readings’ website

It might be a good choice for the current situation.

Lastly, I just want to say that I hope you are all doing ok. I’m deeply aware that not all of you are seeing this crises as an opportunity to read more books. Many of you will be facing an uncertain future in terms of employment and even health outcomes so if that describes your situation, my heart goes out to you. I hope you keep well and keep your cool. I genuinely think that books can bring comfort and maybe just a few hours of distraction when things are getting too much.

If you have books you’d like to recommend, or just want to touch base, do feel free to send me a message via my contact page. I would love to hear from you and will definitely respond.

Love

Marg XXX

Attitudes to money

My father died shortly before my fourth birthday leaving my mother with three young children, a half-finished house, and no income.

He was 33, a newly qualified architect just starting out in his own business when he died. He designed our home and it was very modern for its time. It was largely open plan with a huge kitchen/dining room and a laundry overlooking the front yard. This was very unusual at the time, as most kitchens and laundries were generally located at the back of the house. My mother had insisted that she wanted to have a view of the street when she was in the kitchen or doing the laundry. She disliked housework and menial chores (it runs in the family) and didn’t want to be stuck away somewhere at the back of the house slaving over a hot stove in the kitchen or doing the endless laundry that comes with a growing family.

Our family home designed by my Dad, Les Moon.

We had beautiful polished floorboards in the loungeroom as well as a fireplace. This was a bit odd given that we lived in Perth where the winters aren’t really that cold, but we all loved that fireplace and I have happy memories of sitting on my grandmother’s lap eating hot buttered toast. We’d crouch in front of the roaring fire with long forks trying to get our thick white bread nice and brown without burning the edges, but we secretly loved the burnt bits. They added excitement and texture, elevating the toast to something magical.

We moved into the house before it was really finished so when my Dad became ill, we had many working bees at our house. Friends and people from our church would come around on weekends to build cupboards, paint walls and hang doors. They even made us a cubby in the backyard from leftover building materials. They fashioned a little front doorstep and we pushed our feet into the wet cement and put our initials underneath in a neat row – BJM, in that order, oldest to youngest. As I grew older, I would marvel at how my feet had mysteriously grown large enough to fit into the impressions made by my two big sisters. 

Family photo
Family snap circa 1959 – Jennifer, Les, Beverley, Nola, Margaret (L to R)

When my Dad died my mum survived by cleaning the local hairdressers, taking in ironing and doing whatever she could to make ends meet. Sadly, her father (our grandfather) also died in the same year, so it was a difficult time both emotionally and financially, but we got used to wearing hand-me-down clothes and eating meals that had been stretched out with cheap fillers like pasta, oats, and bread. One of my favourite desserts was made from Weet-bix layered with apples and sultanas and served with hot custard. Years later my mother told me that she used to make this when there wasn’t really enough of the main course to go around.

I’ve got no doubt that all of these experiences have shaped my attitudes towards money and I often struggle to understand how young families can afford to take their young children to the local café where breakfast costs $40 or $50 dollars for a family, and that’s without any smashed avocado!

This isn’t a criticism of young families. I can fully appreciate that times have changed in so many ways, but I find it hard to comprehend that people seem to be able to spend fairly large amounts of money on things that I consider luxuries. I still feel a bit guilty buying take-away coffee even though I can well afford to these days, but I’m also very aware of where these feelings come from and I know they are hard to shake.

Once when my children were toddlers, my mother sent me a five dollar note inside my birthday card with instructions to buy myself a cup of coffee at the shops as a treat. She knew me too well. There was no money to spare and it would have been unthinkable to spend money on coffee when I needed the cash to put petrol in the car so that I could get to playgroup.

Now I’m heading towards retirement and I’m finding it hard to accept the idea that one day soon my income will drop and I’ll have less coming into my bank account. Over my career I’ve transitioned from a well-paid job with the national broadcaster, moving to part-time work with TAFE and back to full-time work when the kids were bigger, but I’m still thrilled when I get paid every fortnight.

I’m hoping that when I eventually call it quits, I’ll have learnt to be generous with myself (and with others) and not get caught up in the fear of not having enough. I know that I do have enough, as well as a generous and supportive husband, so these fears are totally unfounded, but it helps me to understand that my fears are rooted in experience.

It also helps to remind myself that being relatively poor wasn’t even a bad experience. We never missing out on anything. We had clean clothes, a nice house, a loving mother and plenty to eat. We were satisfied with our lot, so I hope that as I move towards the next phase of my life I’ll be happy knowing that there’s enough of everything, including money for coffee.

Let’s not make this more complicated

I used to have sign over my desk that said “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, but it’s long since fallen off and been cleared away by the cleaners, along with a large number of stray almonds that seem to have a habit of accumulating under my desk.

For years I have struggled to convince people that striving for simplicity is useful and perhaps even ethical. I once told a group of co-workers that it was our moral duty to make safety legislation understandable for business owners and workers. After all, how could we realistically expect people to comply with legislation that they found incomprehensible?

This didn’t always land well. Over the years, many people have accused me of reductionism, of reducing complex ideas to simple one-liners, and whilst I acknowledge that many ideas are complex and nuanced, I still think that when people are being introduced to new ideas and processes you need to start from a point that is simple so that you don’t lose them too early.

I’ve never heard anyone complain that something is too simple.

Much of my current work is centred on building evaluation capability. I think it’s fair to say that many people find evaluation daunting (and sometimes a little boring, although I struggle to see why) and mostly this is because we’ve made it too hard, too complicated, too indecipherable.

We do this by using unfamiliar terminology, and by creating processes, templates and forms that are difficult to understand and hard to use. I’ve seen people going around in circles trying to work out the difference between an outcome and an output, when they should really be focussing on what their program is intended to achieve, and what they might want to know when they’ve finished delivering the program.

I’m not claiming that evaluation isn’t a complex and thoughtful field, I’m just saying that if you want to build capability and confidence, you need to start with the basics. It gets complicated soon enough.

I’m reminded of this every day as I try to mentor my co-worker in the intricacies of evaluation. She wants me to explain (as simply as possible) how things work, and sometimes it’s hard. So much of evaluation revolves around the words “it depends”. I can see the frustration on her face and I’m sure she sometimes thinks I’m trying to be deliberately obtuse, but the reality is that sometimes things are complicated.

Last week we were trying to work through the difference between outcomes and impacts. Much of the literature uses these terms interchangeably, although sometimes they are defined very differently.

In my view, outcomes might be short or medium term, whereas impacts tend to be wide-ranging, long term effects and therefore harder and more expensive to measure. Of course, I’m not an evaluation expert so I could well be wrong, but I remind myself that there are often a wide range of views across the profession and even the experts sometimes disagree.

I discuss this with my colleague. We circle round, we circle back, but rather than getting ourselves into a pickle, we decide that sometimes there’s no right answer.

Sometimes the best you can do is settle on your own definition and go with that. It serves no purpose to tie yourself up in knots by making things more complicated than they need to be.

Things have changed

I was seventeen and living in a tiny basement flat in London when Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973.

My flat was located below a rather grand house in Regents Park, only one block away from London Zoo. At night I could hear strange sounds. Lions roaring, monkeys chattering. The couple who owned the house walked their dog on Primrose Hill on Sunday afternoons and invited me to join them for a pre-dinner drink every now and then. We would sit around awkwardly discussing our respective weeks. The husband wore a three piece suit every day and worked in the city. On Sundays, he affected a black polo neck jumper and slacks.

I was graciously allowed to live in their basement for a very reasonable rent in exchange for some light baby-sitting duties, which suited me just fine. I always felt rather like a country hick in their presence, coming from the colonies and having no experience of the world.

Picture of Margaret at 17
My passport photo

I’d arrived in London with one ten-pound travellers’ cheque and big dreams of a new life away from my home in Perth, West Australia, then a fairly small provincial city. I travelled to England on a huge Italian cruise ship, the Galileo Galilei, setting off from the port of Fremantle with my best friend Helena, a pretty and outgoing blonde woman, a couple of years my senior. It may sound like I was rather brave setting out to travel halfway across the world at that young age, but in those days young people often left home before they were 20. I was eager to escape the confines of my small city. I wanted adventure and a bigger, more interesting life.

The good ship Galileo Galilei

The sea journey took three weeks stopping in Cape Town, Majorca and Malta, and finally berthing in Genoa. From there we travelled by train through Italy, Austria, Germany and Holland, and then across to Folkstone on the ferry. A couple of English boys explained that in the UK being ‘knocked up’ meant being woken up in the morning, rather than getting pregnant. We realised that things might be a little different in our adopted country.

As soon as we arrived, we set about finding work.

Employment was easy to find, so all we had to do was survive until we got our first pay cheque.  My mother had secretly packed my yellow sea trunk with supplies of tuna and tinned fruit. There was even a jar of my favourite pickled onions. I was grateful for them in the weeks between starting work as a photographic printer and getting paid. At my first job interview I was informed that juniors (people under 18) were paid less than seniors, so I lied about my age and said I was 19 instead of 17. I looked a lot older than I was, so everyone believed me. It only became a problem when birthdays came around, people wondered why I never turned 21. By the time I actually did turn 21, I was back in Sydney raising my beautiful baby daughter.

I soon learnt that there were certain things that you did and didn’t talk about.

In Australia, it would be unthinkable to ask someone who they voted for. To this day, I would not know who my mother voted for in any election. You could take a wild guess based on someone’s attitudes to social issues, but you would never ask someone outright. It was quite different in the UK, people would not only ask you directly, they also didn’t seem to worry about not bothering to turn up to vote. In Australia, voting is compulsory and always has been, and people take the right to vote very seriously, so 40 years later, when I heard about the whole Brexit saga being brought about by people not bothering to vote, I kind of thought it served them right.

In 1973 I was quite affronted that Britain had chosen to join the Common Market rather than maintaining their strong economic ties with the Commonwealth. In Australia, there were lots of concerns about what we would do with all our sugar. At the time, Australia was a major food supplier to the UK so when they joined the Common Market it effectively closed the British market to many Australian exports, including sugar.

The UK had previously applied to join the EEC in 1963 and 1967 but were refused because the French President, Charles de Gaulle was suspicious about their intentions.

There was never any love lost between the British and the French.

It was rumoured that he feared that English would suddenly become the common language of the community.

In January of 1974 I turned 18, just in time to vote in a general election. I was amazed to find that I was allowed to vote, despite not being a British citizen. Being from a Commonwealth country was still kind of special and Australians and New Zealanders had a privileged status. We had our own queue at the airport and were fast-tracked through immigration along with the locals. We weren’t required to line up in the ‘alien’ queue with all the other non-British people.

I was eager to use my vote and remember being quite interested in the views of a political group who advocated that should Britain retain close ties with “the colonies”. Fortunately, I didn’t vote for the political party that I later discovered was The National Front, a bunch of violent neo-Nazi sympathisers. I still cringe when I think about how naïve I was, but it did give me an understanding of how easily neo-nationalism can lead to darker things. I still hate the mindless flag waving and jingoism that occurs on Australia Day. For me it’s a mere step away from the skinheads and bovver boys smashing windows and painting racist slogans on the sides of buildings.

A poster for the National Front who reached the height of their popularity in the mid-1970s

In the 47 years since Britain joined the European Economic Community, I’ve returned to Australia, gotten married, raised three children, had three careers and travelled the world. I like to think that I’m older and wiser, but I also like to think that I’m still up for new adventures. It’s interesting to reflect on how my history has shaped my views of the world and my place in it. It’s taken a lifetime to get over feeling like I’m not quite cultured enough to hang out with rich people. It’s made me fiercely independent, (sometimes foolishly so), and careful with money (you never know when you might suddenly need to leave the country), but most of all it tells me that when one door closes, another one often opens.

So good luck with brexit Britain. If you need some sugar, just let us know.

words are power

Words are power

I was in the library last week and an older gentleman came in and demanded that the librarian (a young women) look on the reserve shelf to see if his books were there.

The reserve shelf is right in the middle of the library so that patrons can easily look for themselves so I wanted to say “why don’t you look yourself, you lazy bastard” but I was conscious that he might have disability that prevented him leaning over (unlikely) or he was blind (equally unlikely given that we were in a library, but they do have talking books). After it was established that he did have a book waiting for him he said, “check it out for me”. No please or thank you, which I thought was a little rude, but I guess he was just getting to the point very quickly. On the other hand, good manners cost nothing, as my mother used to say.

It made me think about how frequently we use modifiers in our everyday speech. Modifiers are words that dilute declarative statements and include softeners like “sort of”, “kind of” and “a little bit”. Instead of saying, “I’m hungry” we say “I’m a little bit hungry” or “I’m kind of hungry”. It weakens our language.

In the workplace we rarely we hear women make declarative statements unless they are members of the Executive and I suspect that’s because women on the fast track have done a course called something like Women in Leadership and have been told to be bold and forthright. The rest of us say things like “if that makes sense?” at the end of our sentences or “I’m no expert, but…” at the beginning of our sentences. We think we are being polite, but often we just end up sounding uncertain. It’s not just women who do this, but the fact is that I mostly hear women talking like this which is kind of weird in this day and age.

I work with some brilliant woman who constantly deflect any praise they receive. This is sad because they really deserve to be recognised. Instead they say “it was nothing” (not true it WAS something) or “I couldn’t have done it without my team” when really the team couldn’t have done it without their leadership.

I’m also conscious that people with an academic background are prone to using modifiers. After all, you can lose marks in an essay by neglecting to say “the research says” or “it seems that” before you make an assertion of fact.

For many of us, it’s hard to work out how to sound assertive without being rude and without sounding like a pompous ass.

One suggestion is to be on the look-out for unnecessarily apologetic language. Being simple and clear is helpful. For example, if you are writing an email to someone you don’t know very well, don’t start your sentence with “I’m sorry to bother you”. Just explain who you are and what you want. Don’t waste their time fawning or telling them your life story, just make your writing simple and direct and don’t forget your manners. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

My reading year

It’s my favourite time of the year. It’s not the Christmas festivities that thrill me although I do love catching up with family and friends and of course I love eating left-over Christmas pudding with lots of custard AND ice-cream.

No, what I really hang out for is reading about people’s favourite books. I love finding out what everyone else has been reading – there’s always a chance that there’s a little gem that I’ve missed.

A lot of people think that I read all the time but that’s not true. Like most people, I’ve got other responsibilities but to be honest, reading is probably my favourite activity.

This year I read about 28 books, mostly fiction and mainly written by women. I think this is more than last year but perhaps I just kept better records this year. So here are my top picks for 2019.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I was a bit reluctant to read this book because the review said that it was a reworking of the play Antigone by Sophocles. Not having a classical education, I had no idea what this meant so I thought it might be too sophisticated for me. Apparently the play is about a teenage girl who is forced to choose between obeying the law of the land and religious laws but I’m happy to say that it doesn’t matter one whit if you aren’t familiar with the storyline, it’s a great book. Lots to think about and beautifully written. It’s written by a Pakistani writer and covers many themes around family, loyalty and love.

Ask again, yes by Mary Beth Keane.

This book gets my award for the weirdest title. It’s very hard to recommend a book with a weird title, don’t you think? Having said that, this was a great multi-generational read about love, redemption and messy families. If you like Celeste Ng you will probably enjoy this book which is set in New York. This review describes it as a gripping and compassionate family drama and I think that’s a pretty accurate description.

The Children's House by Alice Nelson
The Children’s House by Alice Nelson

The Children’s House was recommended to me by one my sisters. Both are keen readers and a great source of reading recommendations. Lots of people in my family read a lot, so I’m lucky there. It’s written by an Australian author and tells the story of a woman in New York who befriends a refugee with a small child. It’s a beautifully written book that would be a great choice for book groups. Lots of themes around belonging, motherhood and what it means to be part of a community.

The Long Call by Ann Cleeves
The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

I finished reading this one about 10 minutes ago. Couldn’t put it down, so it’s just as well I’m on holiday! Well plotted, fast-moving and an all round great read. Really enjoyed the descriptions of Devon and can’t wait for the next book in the series. This is a new series for Ann Cleeves, famous for the Shetland and Vera books (which I haven’t actually read although I’ve watched and enjoyed both of these as TV shows). She introduces a new detective called Matthew Venn who is both slightly troubled but principled in the time-worn tradition.

If you’re after something for a holiday or a plane trip and you enjoy mysteries, I really don’t think you can go past this one. It’s a satisfying read.

So there’s my round up of top picks for the year. I also enjoyed the much lauded “Where the Crawdad Sings” which didn’t disappoint.

I would love to know what you read during the year and what you would recommend? Do share…