The love blog: for Haakon

When Haak and I were first together, I woke up one morning, rolled over and pretended to be surprised to see him.

“You again???!!!” I asked and we dissolved into giggles, drunk on the idea that for the first time, there was someone there who we were happy to see again… and again.

This weekend, we celebrate twelve years of waking up together.

2007Melbourne, 2007. 

Twelve years of comfort, twelve years of chatting late into the night, of tea in bed [which is my favorite thing and which you participate in even though it’s not yours]

Twelve years of stomach bugs and those late night fights where you still sleep side by side but try not to even brush against each other.

Twelve years of one or the other of us crawling into bed late and cold, maybe a little beery, to nestle up against the warm skin of our bedmate.

And seven years of late night and early morning adventures in parenting. Sitting up by the light of a lamp, befuddled, exhausted, fuzzily deciding who would change the nappy, you always there for me to hand the screaming baby to while I took respite in the toilet for a minute.

We were together for the long, hungover days following a wakeful night with a baby. Tired, we snapped at each other and argued over small details.

I accused you of trying to cook the babies when you put piles of blankets on them.

And I discovered new things about you as a parent. Like when you are REALLY tired, you sleep with your lips puckered. Sometimes you do it when you are driving, which worries me.

You are harsh with the kids sometimes – but I’ve never caught you being unfair. You teach them things – thank fuck! because I’ve realized I’m not a great teacher. I’ve learned a lot about the benefits of an explanation from you.

You create a solid world for the kids. A  world that they understand.

I love the way whenever we’re alone you always have some small confession to whisper in my ear [“WHO was that who I was just talking to?”].

And every time we do the moving across the world thing, I’m blown away by the fact that you’d do that, with me.

That you’d live in Australia for years at a time, away from your family and the woods and rivers you love.

I really never thought we’d end up here – our marriage was so tentative and did not include any of the traditional marriage promises.

We just wanted to keep spending time together.

I didn’t know then the detail of the challenges that an across-the-world romance would bring, but I knew that the big picture was doubtful – not just looking at the stats of marriage in general, but with the addition of deciding which country to live in and the strain of someone always being away from their home.

Also, we’ve both been skeptical of having a monogamous, committed relationship, scared about the isolation and about doing all the intimacy with one person.

All our intimacy eggs in one basket.

It wakes me up at night sometimes – the worry that we’ve melted together so much, we’re becoming one person. The further in we go, the deeper the risk of loss.

If we left each other, who would we be?

So I don’t assume for one second that you’ll be with me forever. I try not to take your presence for granted.

If you did leave, I’d spend half my income on plumbers and I’d really miss all the things you just whip up – computer stand, a house, baby bike seat, a tap just where I need it in the garden.

But I know I’d get along alright. I know you’d get along without me too.

This week, you’re passionately into making baskets out of willow. This morning you laughed and said, “I’m going to make you a house out of willow, lady.”

As we come out of the early parenting years and start to reclaim ourselves and our time, I’m delighted to realize that you’re still someone I want to spend time with.

This morning I rolled over and there you were – again! I bit your shoulder gently and said it: you again.

I love waking up with your warm body and your kooky surprised face so close.

Each year we spend together is a triumph. Each year convinces me more that this is worth working for and fighting for.

This morning you suggested I use a coaster to put my tea cup on. I said I spill so much tea I need a bucket. You laughed at me and said, “I love you.”

I love you too Karuzas.

I’m still in it for the giggles.

 

 

 

 

 

More cake! – how we can support each other as parents.

We’ve all been there, as parents.

You tell your child that they have had enough chocolate cake and then, while you are distracted by good company and a second coffee, your toddler climbs onto your lap and starts eating cake from your plate, carefully at first, watchful of your reaction, and then with more confidence.

One of the biggest surprises, to me, in becoming a parent, is how exhausting the constant decision making is. Especially so since all the decisions can seem equally important in a harried world – does your child need to wear a hat today? can they have another cookie? watch another episode of PJ Masks? should you vaccinate/send them to kinder at age five?

So many of the decisions we make every day and every minute mean nothing in isolation but can have a huge impact on how simple our parenting lives are in the future. I don’t care if my child has another cookie today, or skips toothbrushing once a week, but I think that when I’m consistent, it works out in my favour later.

Just as I’ve found myself in the toddler-sneakily-eating-cake zone, I’ve found it painful to watch other parents in similar situations. The firmest “No,” turns into “maybe later,” and finally ‘OK then, just a bit,” all in the space of five minutes.

I must admit, I notice this mostly in women parents [partly because I mostly hang out with mums] and I think it’s probably a really important point to address in terms of bigger issues around women and assault.

Getting clear and committing – even to something as small as “we’re leaving the playground,” or “no more cake,” helps women set up boundaries and tune out social pressure, which provides an example to all kids that women are to be listened to and respected.

I’ve long tried to figure out ways we can help each other stick to our words, especially in social situations when we are distracted and want to enjoy being with our friends.

One way is to physically back each other’s decisions. Say the parent has said no more cake. If the child reaches for the cake, you can, as a supportive co-parent would, reach out and move the cake out of the child’s reach, saying in a friendly way “I’m going to make it easier for you to listen to your mum.”

Maybe you think the child should have more cake. Maybe you don’t care about the cake. It’s not the point. The point is to back each other up, no matter what the issue.

When you know someone really well, or if you are co-parenting, you could offer to remove the child or hold the child so the parent can focus on the goal [eg. getting the car ready to leave]. In this situation, the child may cry and scream. [Read more about listening to kids feelings here].

So often, parents back out of hard decisions in social situations, not wanting to face judgement or be the one dragging a screaming child down the street. We make split-second decisions according to what’s easiest at the moment, but having back up can help us follow through with what we know will pay off in the end.

Strong physical responses in parenting can be seen, beautifully, by watching animals parent.

My darling husband and father to my children has a charmingly animalistic approach to parenting – when our daughter decided to protest walking even short distances by dragging on our arms as we held her hand, he decided that if she dragged, he would let go of her hand. After explaining it to her, they began walking.

Every time she dragged, whack! her tiny two-year-old body would hit the snowpack. I had to look away – no one enjoys seeing their child upset. But she only did it a handful of times before deciding it wasn’t worth it to drag on his hand.

We parents tend to feel that we can’t do anything right. We sometimes fold guilt away into little pockets that remain in the fabric of how we identify as parents.

Having another adult or another parent make it clear that they will back anything we do as parents [obviously if it is safe for the child] is a huge relief.

It confirms what we know in our hearts – that we love our kids and that we’re doing our best.

 

 

 

For roadkilled native animals, the problem is the solution.

It’s an iconic Australian sight – the solid dark mass of a dead wombat on the side of a dusty country road, one stout leg thrown up as if in warning to other animals.

One every now and then, sure, but the sheer number of roadkill deaths hit me as we drove from Canberra to my parents’ place with my brother last week – kangaroos and wombats in various stages of decay were clustered along the roadside in groups of four, five, six.

My family and I have just moved back to my hometown of Bega, NSW from Montana, a US state which has a strong culture of hunting [and has had a hunting season in effect since 1872!] a fact which means the native animal populations of common animals like deer, elk and bighorn sheep there are kept in check.

There are, of course, roadkill deaths in Montana but a new scavenging law introduced a few years ago means that those who are hit are quickly moved off roadways – and eaten.

When we left Montana, the contents of our freezer included white wrapped packages labeled “roadkill buck,” meat that was gifted to us by a friend who saw a deer hit and salvaged it.

[Thanks to our friend Ben’s humor, we also had packages of meat in our freezer labeled “tender meat snake” (instead of the more conventional “backstrap” and “tenderloin”)]

“Were there always this many roadkill animals?” I asked my brother, wondering if three years away had caused me to gloss over the reality of the situation.

“Nah, it’s just really bad at the moment because of the drought,” Laurie answered.

It is dry. It’s not the driest I’ve seen this land, but the grass is shorn down to brown stubble and the creek makes a narrow path through its bed.

The dry is causing animals to roam further to find food and water, crossing more roads in the process.

Looking out the car window at the carnage, I can’t help but wonder: could Australia learn from Montana’s long history of managing its native animal populations?

On the same road we were traveling – the Snowy Mountains Highway – our mate Zac counted 200 dead roos one night this winter driving the 20 minutes between Canberra and Michalago.

“It was the combination of it being a Friday night and there being lots of snow traffic,” Zac said, “I stopped counting when I got to 200.”

Zac also told me that the owner of the Tathra caravan park had mentioned that her international visitors had been distraught at seeing so many roadkilled animals – the very animals they had come to see and hoped to see hopping and fluffy, not smeared on the highway.

Australia’s success as a tourism destination relies, at least in part, on healthy populations of native animals. But historically, white settlers have not been good stewards to native animals – the Tasmanian tiger was declared extinct in the early 1930’s, the result of overzealous hunting and koalas were taken to the brink of extinction, shot for their thick fur.

Australia protects by law the majority of native plants and animals. In my state, NSW, native animals are currently protected under the biodiversity conservation act of 2016.

But have we taken it too far?

Australians eat vast quantities of meat every year, more than any developed country in the world, according to the world economic forum website. Reading this, a gem from a permaculture course I took years ago in New Zealand floats to the top of my mind: the problem is the solution.

Although Aussies have come to terms with the idea of eating native animals [kangaroos are now hunted commercially and roo meat is commonly available in supermarkets and restaurants] the mainstream has yet to embrace the idea of harvesting the meat ourselves.

DSCF3454

Roo meat is very similar to venison – lean and dark – but in recent years, I’ve not heard of anyone eating other Aussie animals.

Wombat, by folklore, is tough and chewy [there’s a song about wombat stew: “ewey gooey yummy chewy wombat stew”] and tales of early white settlers include despondent descriptions of living on nothing but pumpkin and bear [koala].

While we may not be able to do anything to make wombat taste good, a roadkill salvage culture and the associated laws or indeed, a huntings season similar to Montana’s would at least save some kangaroo meat from being wasted.

Meanwhile, good people ease the suffering of animals by doing clean up on our roads, rescuing infant kangaroos and wombats from the pouches of their road killed mothers and euthanizing where necessary.

This morning we went to see an old family friend, Pauline, who is 76 and a very busy volunteer with WIRES, a wildlife rescue organization.

Pauline has five babies in her care, four kangaroos and one wombat, which she keeps in woolly shoulder bags to mimic a pouch.

pauline crop

Pauline’s orphans were rescued out of their mother’s pouches or found wandering on their own but still needing milk to survive. Once they hit the magic weight of six kilos, they will be weaned and released onto the bush property of another WIRES volunteer and eventually into the wild.

E crop

The work that Pauline and her fellow volunteers do is pressing right now [she said WIRES takes in several new animals every day in this region] and her access to these cuddly animals delighted my American tourist children, who, two weeks into our time in Australia, still shriek every time they see a kangaroo or wombat.

 

 

But the work of WIRES doesn’t address the overall problem – which is that the populations of these animals continue to grow in good seasons unchecked, leaving a large population to die slowly when the drought inevitably returns [Australia has a shortage of native predators, with birds of prey and the dingo at the top of the chain].

Native animals are officially protected in Australia, but the way I see it, we’re not doing everything we can to protect them.

But we can – we have hardworking scientists at our disposal who could come up with a sustainable solution for kangaroo and wombat populations which would thrill animal lovers, meat lovers and your car insurance company in equal parts.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

Why having kids or not is the hardest decision you’ll ever make.

I’m at that age [34] where some of my friends have teenagers, some have newborns and some haven’t arrived at the question: should I have kids?

And then everything in between – friends who are decidedly no, friends who tried to conceive but couldn’t [how can I tell you, tenderly, how sorry I am that there won’t be a piece of you, more of you in this world], friends who have lost infants and small children and friends who are in communication with their partner or a fertility clinic about how and when they’ll try to conceive.

It’s an age where many of us end up doing a lot of explaining our choices. I’ve seen one end of this in the subtle reactions to my friend Kat, who is 37 and visiting us with her youngest child, 15-year-old Luka.

Kat is graceful at introducing herself and alleviating the quick, curious glances between mother and daughter. “My son is nineteen,” she’ll explain, “one of the benefits of teen pregnancy is that my kids will both be out of home when I’m 40.”

Although I’m grateful that we live in an age when people in the western world mostly get to choose when to conceive [you can read my post about that here: Contraceptives: the real measure of inequality]  – or not to bear children at all, I also think that such a wide window leaves many people reeling.

Kat and I met a couple in their early thirties with no kids last week that I knew a little and she had never met before. After Kat had said her above introduction, the woman cast a pointed, sideways glance at her boyfriend and said firmly “I think 32 is the perfect age to have kids.”

When I asked her why she thought that, she answered that she has really good health insurance right now with her job.

So this is America, where people base when and whether to have kids on how good their health insurance is.

But this woman had a point – when it comes to a big life decision like having kids, the idea that we are making a reasonable, calculated choice is a facade because we can never know what it’s really like to be a parent until we are deep, deep into the swan dive.

So we cling to some vaguely pragmatic reason like “I’m 32” or “I have good health insurance.”

When I asked him later if he wanted kids, on a blue inflatable raft floating lazily down the Kootenai River, the woman’s boyfriend looked around him and said  “I’m not sure. My life is pretty good.”

Five years ago, I would have said something encouraging about having kids but lately I take pause in this conversation: I work hard at saying nothing. Because this guy and everyone who is looking at kids realistically deserves to be listened to: their message is clear.

Why would we have kids?

The next generation of fertile people in the USA is not stupid – according to figures from the CDC in 2017, birth rates have hit an all-time low of 62.0 births per 1000 women aged 15-44.

Americans already work so much, too much, and one thing you can say about having kids is it is work.

Our friend and housemate, Laura, has lived in our basement for the last two years. Laura moved in pretty certain she wanted kids one day, but has since has referred to living below two kids as “excellent birth control.”

Sometimes the contrast between our lives is comically different: while Laura uses her superpower of rolling out of bed five minutes before she has to be at work, I am up and working instantly: called to wipe a bum before I’ve made it to the bathroom myself.

I don’t say this with any bitterness or regret but have kids if you love to work from the minute you get up to the minute you fall asleep.

carry

Parenting work isn’t just the physical labor of hauling our children around and doing the housework and work to bring in money to look after them. It’s also the hundreds of tiny decisions we make about our children every day, which start well before our kids can ask these questions:

Can I watch a show? can I watch another show? can I sleep over with a friend? can I have an apple? can I have an ice cream?

Parents need to become excellent at delegating because a huge part of parenting is taking care of yourself so you can function, which means outsourcing childcare and housework as much as you can.

I’ve noticed there are two camps when it comes to advice about having kids – the 50-60-year-old women who tell you to “cherish every moment” and “relish the little angels” [how did they forget so fast??!] and the realists, of which Kat definitely is.

Kat, a parent herself for 12 years then, told me before I got pregnant: “having kids is like being the designated driver. Your kids are off their faces. You have to guide them across roads and make sure they don’t stop to look at shiny things for hours in the alley. When they throw up, you clean it up and make them food. Then you put them to bed while they cry.”

Asking people whether or not they plan to have kids, and if so, when, is one of those questions that falls into the category of it ain’t my business –  at times I’ve started my enquiries, genuinely interested and Haakon has melted away in a way that tells me “you are being nosy and overstepping the mark.”

I’m convinced asking people about their reproduction plans can be helpful – I want people to know that it is a choice, and they can get out of the riptide of societal expectation that children have to be part of the plan.

That it’s OK to not want to add work to an already full life.

The hard part about parenting is that we don’t get to jump into it fresh every day- our kids may well be angels from heaven but we can’t treat them like that because we are so.damn.tired and emotionally wrung out.

I do see the moments of glee and love between the endless bowls of uneaten oatmeal and tiny decisions and barrages of guilt.

But when you have kids, at some point the exhaustion will catch up and your responsibilities will hit you like a speeding train. The train is coming whether you are 18, 28 or 38.

The train will change your plans, as it did for me last week when a quick dip in the creek on a hot day turned into a counselling session for Atticus, who is six and worried about moving to Australia next week.

As Atty shrieked and kicked the water and trains screeched over our heads in the pool under the railroad trestle, I tried to find a minute to dunk under the water and cool off as planned.

Kids don’t wait until you are in a good mind frame to break down – they do it when everyone is stressed and we have to step up and be there for them, which sometimes feels like the hardest thing in the world.

After three long days of random screaming and being irritable and argumentative, Atticus said to me as we were driving: “I’m just scared.”

“Of what?” I asked.

“I don’t know, just scared,” he replied.

Those three days were rough – thank goodness for Kat, who laughed at me gently while I cried, so confused as to why my kid seemed so angry.

As we work towards our big move back to my hometown [Bega,Australia] next week, we’re doing it with our kids –

Serious, scientific Atticus wants a book about Australian insects as soon as we arrive and Calllie is mildly worried we’ll fall out of the plane and narrates everything with song.

And Haakon, who I loved so much I wanted there to be more of us. I remember vividly telling Haak in bed in the dark that I was pregnant with Atticus and the words hanging in the silence for awhile.

While I waited for his response, I told myself I could do it by myself.

And I heard a slow smile spread across his face and he said “well, that’s exciting.”

Phewwwww.

I wanted to have kids so we could have those moments of exchanging glances because our kids are so cute/infuriating/amazing/hilarious.

We do get those moments, but I never knew how hard we’d work for them.

Maybe if I’d really known I would’ve opted for no kids and weekends in bed with frothy coffee followed by long hikes and hours of uninterrupted netflix.

But the decision is behind us and I’m so very glad because it’s one that humans have not yet been well equipped to make.

It’s just so big.

 

 

 

 

 

Finding home in small town America

Last night I found myself in a bar that’s located just a block from our house in Troy, Montana.  I’ve only been there a few times although it’s our local.

The bar has been there since 1914, on what’s known as Bar Street, a wide street that runs into dust and train tracks on one side. The freight trains that rush by are menacingly close, their horns a scream that shuts down all conversation.

Our friend Kat is visiting from Australia and we were at the bar with some friends to show her Troy nightlife, sitting outside in the heat surrounded by thick smoke from forest fires.

Kat took in the chainsaw carved motorbike, country music, group of Canadian bikers and the wooden sign in the bar which says: This is America: we drink beer, eat meat and speak fuckin’ English. Her mouth made that perfect little O that comics use to illustrate surprise.

The bar is not my scene [although I really dig the penis mural painted in tiny, delicate flowers on the back of the bathroom door], but it’s part of our community here, and Kat’s shock at seeing small-town, racist, conservative America makes me realize how far along the road to becoming American I am.

I’ve clung to being an Australian in America for many years, and clung to the right to ask, as Kat frequently has in her week here: “what is going on here, people? what even is this?”

But after three years in a row in the US and a citizenship ceremony, the split in my identity is happening and it does feel a little like being split in half, a painful but necessary division of cells.

Being American means accepting the shitshow that I see sometimes out my window or at the local bar.

I’m not usually a fan of country music, but a song that played at the bar last night by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow captures a special kind of American self-destruction and a mournful sentimentality that reminds me of life in Troy.

A kid at the high school introduced me to this song years ago, and I could see how he related to the internal fight described in the song: I was headed to church/I was off to drink you away.

In a wider view, I see lots of folks who are finding that the American dream doesn’t live up to its reputation –  I met an upbeat guy from San Diego recently who retired from the oil business and told me that most guys in the business are miserable.

“I can see how they could be unhappy,” I responded and the guy emphasized “not just unhappy. MISERABLE.”

The group of Canadian bikies at the bar last night were as torn as I am about America: they kept asking us if we knew how lucky we were to live in such a beautiful place, but also how could we, how could we, be so impulsive and self-destructive to vote for Trump?

The bar we were at has something of that blend in its generous pours of alcohol. Last night I ordered doubles and regretted it instantly when I saw a full half bottle of vodka go into my glass, followed by a brief baptizing from the soda stream.

In 2003, when I made my first connection to the US through my friend Shawna, who was studying in Melbourne, Bush junior had just enraged the world by sending troops to Iraq, and Shawna copped a lot of anti-Americanism.

With an even more globally unpopular president in power now, Kat told me this week that when she said she was going to America, many of her Australian friends and family asked: “why would you go there?”

Since the glory days after the second world war, the US has slowly slid towards an international reputation as a country which readily foists its culture on other nations but is empty and broken inside.

Growing up, my dad resented the change in Australian English towards the American way – “creeping Americanisms,” he would growl when I used slang as a teenager.

I still don’t know if being American makes me less Australian – if I’m being diluted like my vodka last night wasn’t.

“Will they think you have an American accent when you get back?” our friend Al asked me last night.

“For sure,” I answered “I’ll get so much shit about it.  Don’t you think I sound American?”

Al and his wife Kate giggled at me, warmly amused and so sure of my Australian identity.

Yesterday we took Kat and Luka rafting on the green and roiling Kootenai river and afterwards she confessed to me: “I had no idea what you meant by rafting. I thought maybe we were going to rope some logs together but I figured if you were bringing kids it was probably safe.”

I’m not sure how safe I’d feel about riding logs strung together on the Kootenai, but I’ve grown so accustomed to other things about living here I almost feel I’ll miss them –

The other night I called 911 when a domestic dispute dragged on past 2 am, and was able to get the police to the fight with some very basic directions which didn’t include any street names or house numbers.

We know the guy a bit from passing in the alley behind our house and I feel like I know the couple pretty well after listening to their screaming insults float through our open bedroom window all summer.

The guy seems nice, but fighting with his lady is part and parcel of their existence – is this the “slow hell” Kid Rock describes?

“You’re a crazy bitch!” the guy yelled on that night over the top of her shrill shrieks. Haakon, half asleep, rolled over and put his arm around me, holding tight.

“You’re not a crazy bitch,” he said, rather smugly I thought.

This morning, in a conversation with Kat and Haakon, Kat talked about seeing herself as a New Zealander, although she’s lived in Australia for 12 years. And Haakon said he thinks of himself as “just being me,” although he is a citizen of the US and Australia.

Last night, at the Home bar in Troy, Montana, I listened to Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow crooning “come back home,” and thought about returning home in a few weeks as an Australian – American and one of 325.7 million US citizens with contrasting and dividing identities like mine.


home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Purge is the word

I don’t know quite when it started, but sometime in the last few weeks, without talking about it, Haak and I moved into moving mode – we are getting shit done. Things on the to-do list for months or years are being nailed down [and oh, that only took AN HOUR?].

In five short weeks, we will be moving back to Australia after three years of living in Montana. I have this image of us flying into a Sydney dawn as we have so many times before, pointing out the water to the kids and trembling with the anticipation of hearing Australian accents all around, seeing the vegetation, smelling the air.

But the more times we do this, the more nervous I get. We’re 35 this year. We’re not travelling twentysomethings anymore. There are two kids to consider and shouldn’t we be working on our future security?

It feels now like I’m about to do a huge bell flop when I imagine looking down on Sydney. Here we coooMMMEEEeeee!

In between checking off our to-do list,  Haak and I  pace anxiously and snap at each other. We’re not leaving for over a month, so you could say this was premature. But the desire to beat the clock, to somehow be halfway moved now so we can enjoy some lake time before having to complete the move has overcome us.

It won’t work, of course, but after doing this a few times, I do believe in decision fatigue and getting some of those tiny decisions made before we hit that point makes sense.

There is always that one box when we’re unpacking that has all the things in it we just couldn’t make a decision about and you can tell: it’s stuffed carelessly with all the fucks we didn’t give, about to board the plane.

Moving countries is really the same as moving across one country but somehow produces a higher anxiety level. There is no driving back to get something you forgot and no overnight courier service to Australia.

When we get on the plane in five short weeks, we’ll each have a bag and that’s all. Some clothes, a book, some toiletries. The kids will stuff every available space in their bags with rocks and broken plastic toys and toilet rolls.

Just like we were going on a week-long trip.

In some ways, I love the purge – although I’m not a collector by nature [and Haakon is often firmly rescuing things I’ve put in the thrift store pile or recycling] our moving cycle ensures that all those weird things that add up over the years are eventually looked at, and reconsidered.

When I woke up this morning, it was with a clear idea of looking in our top most kitchen cabinets for items to purge. In the backup tea department, I found iced blueberry green tea powder.

I’m sure I didn’t buy it. It sounds disgusting. So how the heck is it there? Flotsam and jetsom tea that happened to be spinning past and get stuck in our orbit. Space junk.

As we move towards the final pack up, the concurrent using up and rationing become more intense: Can we live without cinnamon for a month? what about baking soda? a drizzle of maple syrup is all that is left. I’m certainly not going to buy a whole half gallon again, but can you buy the right amount of syrup for four possible pancake weekends?

And how can I use up the full jar of celery salt and half a kilo of coriander seeds I seem to have?

With these questions comes a curiously morbid desire to bequeath things to people I love. While Shawna loaded the cement mixer, I solemnly left her all the good tea I won’t drink in five weeks.

A bottle of oyster sauce will go to someone who raved about my greens with garlic and oyster sauce, our walnuts to Madeline for her delicious walnut bread. The end of a ten-pound bag of split peas to my mother-in-law, who makes excellent soup.

And then, in a flurry of decision fatigue, we’ll stuff all the odds and ends of food in a box and guiltily leave it on Shawna and Ben’s porch, or with Haak’s parents, so they can hold onto that full jar of celery salt, never using it, and give it back to us in three years.

Sometimes the continuity of space junk can be comforting.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

What do you use celery salt for????

Give us today

The first bread I remember well was a huge round white Italian loaf that came in a paper bag and was bought at the Ainslie shops in Canberra, the city where I was born.

On my fourteenth birthday, mum took me to Canberra for a shopping trip and we stayed in a little hotel and I spent all morning toasting slices of bread and eating them with sliced ham.

Yesterday, I needed to make some breadcrumbs for a chicken parmigiana I was making for a catering gig with a local fly fishing outfitter [Kootenai Canyon Anglers]

Good bread like that crusty Italian loaf has been hard to come by in Troy, Montana until recently, with several local bakers at the farmers market now selling excellent loaves.

But the market is only on Fridays, so I went to the store and stared for a while, trying not to breathe in the sweet chemically smell of the bread aisle.

A sea of soft white and brown bread looked back at me, bread I knew would turn to a gummy paste in the food processor.

I needed a dry, open-crumbed bread – the type of bread for which breaded foods were invented to use up, along with the classic old bread dishes like Panzanella, Fattoush, bread pudding and that Spanish soup with bread and almonds.

There’s a casual assumption that such bread can be found in the US – a food mag I subscribe to, Bon Appetit, often ends a recipe with “serve with crusty bread,” as though such a thing is easy to find.

But crusty bread is harder to find than other hard-to-find ingredients. Sumac, leaf gelatin, nigella seeds and Korean chilli can be ordered online, while fresh bread is a purely local delicacy.

Recent trips to Denver, Colorado and Seattle, Washington showed me that finding good bread is not a rural problem.

At the farmer’s market in Arvada, Denver, there were superb fresh peaches and melons whose stems were still dripping from where they had been pulled from the vine. But I knew at first glance that the bakery stall was baking quick yeasted bread – puffy oversized croissants with no visible layers and fat white “French” loaves prevailed.

Trips to two huge supermarkets and a natural grocer also yielded zero loaves of crusty bread, and we were content with an organic, seeded loaf which somehow still had the same texture as soft white bread.

[If you can, support your local bakery or farmers market baker instead of buying supermarket bread – you’ll avoid the chemicals which mean bread can have a best by date three weeks in the future]

Apparently, Christopher Columbus brought sourdough culture [a tangy, tasty wild yeast used exclusively before commercial yeasts overtook] with him on the boat in 1492 – but the American bread situation has gone steadily downhill since then, to arrive at this:

hot dog

What makes Americans so fond of pappy white bread? is it a history of dental problems that make chewing a crust too difficult? a love of commercialisation? or is it just that when Columbus’ sourdough was abandoned, people forgot what good bread tastes like and they’ve never remembered?

It’s ironic that there is at face value so much choice around bread in this country. Visit any diner and order a breakfast plate and the waitress will drill you with options for your accompanying toast:

“We have wheat, white, sourdough, English muffins, bagels, rye, marbled rye …”

But the bread all tastes the same [except when there is a caraway involved].

Rye bread often has a tiny percentage of actual rye flour, and is not even made brown with the traditional sweetener – molasses – but is coloured with caramel dye.

Of course, there is a time and a place for pappy white bread. Soft white bread is popular in Australia too – and sometimes it’s the best bread for the job, as it is in the case of fairy bread [an Australian tradition for birthday parties – heavily buttered white bread covered with sprinkles and cut into triangles].

At home in Australia, at our monthly market in Candelo,  the primary school still sells fat sausages on a stick and hamburgers with grilled onions, sliced tomato and shredded iceberg lettuce sandwiched between buttered white bread, which they’ve done since the early eighties.

No other bread would do for the price, and I still think about how my teeth made drag marks in the thin white bread.

When we first lived the USA, Haakon used to make bread for us – a quick, yeasted half white-half wheat [wholemeal, in Australia] everyday bread that filled the hole and was infinitely better than anything you could get at the store.

I sometimes rolled the loaves in sesame seeds before they baked to add a crunchy coating.

When we ran out, or I was alone for awhile, I bought sourdough English muffins to eat with my breakfast egg. They were white and slightly sour tasting, but not actually sourdough – just another soft, white bread.

I’d toast them to the point of burning, seeking a bit of crunch and chew.

Around that same time, I started playing with a no-knead bread recipe, which relies on an overnight ferment, wet dough and extremely hot bake in a dutch oven to achieve a thick brown crust and nice air pockets.

I found making the recipe for one loaf tiresome, but I took some of the methods of making no-knead bread and applied them to Haak’s yeast bread recipe. I would make the dough very wet, add just a half teaspoon of yeast, and let it sit as long as I wanted – a long, slow ferment made for complex flavour without having to tend to a culture in the fridge.

This method works well for pizza dough and other flatbreads too – just make the dough and let it sit, either at room temperature for a few days, or in the fridge for up to a week.

But without the steam from a lidded dutch oven, achieving a crust was impossible, even when I used a steam bath [a tray of hot water in the oven while the bread bakes, used when making crusty bread like bagettes].

In my quest for breadcrumbs yesterday, I found a plastic bag with something small and hard in it – the end of a good, crusty loaf from my friend Madeline’s Farmer’s Market stall – but it was powdery and blue.

And then! another bag. Another partial loaf. And this one smells as it should: of wheat, salt and sour.

After my catering dinner is made and delivered, the kids are in bed and it’s finally dark, I salvage what’s left of Madeline’s bread and toast it to eat with a slice of leftover prosciutto.

Amazing.

 

 

 

 

 

*** You can find Madeline with Mads Breads and other artisan bakers at the Troy, Montana Farmer’s Market on Fridays between 3:30-6:30 ***

 

 

 

Thank you!

I feel as lucky as a kid in a candy store [or a woman at a birthday party who had just been handed a 4-week old puppy, as above!] when I think about this blog, and I want to thank all of you who have read it, encouraged me, commented on it, followed it, and shared it!

When I first started writing this blog, I very much assumed that no one would read it – a comforting thought, as I could write whatever I wanted!

But now I know people read it because I’ve had emails and letters begging me to correct my grammar [I’m’s so’s sorry’s about the s’s!], the stats show that sometimes 300 people visit this site each day [!!!] and a young woman who I admire commented on facebook that seeing me “find my voice” with writing has inspired her to follow her dreams, too.

This makes me SO happy.

But I’m not comfortable with the word blog – I just don’t like it. I might refer to the blog as the flog or the mog instead.

I really appreciate the feedback I’ve gotten about the flog. I started writing because I wanted to show the subtle [and not so subtle] cultural differences between Australia and the US, because I felt like I spent half my conversations with people I love trying to explain my other life and growing increasingly frustrated that they didn’t get it.

I’ve had so many “ah-ha!” moments already – as I learn to communicate better and realize which knowledge I’m assuming.

So I love to hear what you’re interested in learning more about – I’ve had a request to write more about parenting in rural areas, and lots of requests to write about living with large predators, so I have more bear themed articles coming up for you.

I’m also thinking about all the Australia/Bega Valley things I can write about. I will try to answer questions like: is Bega still on the go? what does the canned cheese produced at Bega cheese factory taste like? and does weeing on a jellyfish sting really help?

Summertime has been crazy, as usual in the land of the 10 p.m sun, and I have a long list of articles I am dying to research and write. But spending time with friends and family before we head back to Aus has taken priority.

Right now we are in Denver, Colorado for ten days, visiting all the Pingels and Karuzas’ we can manage in that time frame.

I’ve grown to love Denver, which somehow reminds me of Canberra – the dry, the heat, the scrubby messy gardens and red brick.

As that aforementioned puppy was placed in my arms, and my face melted into puppy sqqquuueee face, I heard someone say “and she’s not even a dog person.”

Dog person, blog person, I’m decidedly a grateful person!

Thanks again for your support,

with love,

Elka

 

 

 

 

 

 

The homebirth aisle

Way back in 2006, Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein made the documentary “The Business of Being Born,” which details how the US medical model of birth is designed to serve insurance companies, not women or babies.

The film offers the idea that birth in the USA could be different, with more psychological support and continuity of care – factors that have been proven to provide better birth outcomes and lower rates of intervention.

Considering how popular Lake and Epstein’s film was, I’m continually surprised that I keep hearing less-than-fabulous birth stories.

But for ten years, and still, I keep hearing versions of the same story the filmmakers’ outline: “my husband and I were content with the “failure to progress”-Pitocin-epidural-cesarean labor and birth we had. We handed ourselves over to the medical hospital model, saying “I don’t know anything about this, and you guys [hospital staff] do.”

In the end, the surgeon who pulled their healthy baby out was nice, and the woman’s recovery was speedy.

And the best they can say about their child’s birth was: “it all worked out OK.”

Meanwhile, at my local supermarket, cashiers have started asking everyone “did you find everything you needed?” at check out.

It’s a level of customer service I find grating at times [If I hadn’t found everything I needed, I would still be walking around your giant store muttering “salt, salt, wine.”]

But it makes me think about all the things women and their families are missing in our current birth system.

I’ve eagerly asked women I meet to tell me their birth stories for over ten years now, and while I begin with high hopes for each new mom, by the time they’ve told me how they were induced, the shift change, that one nurse who was a bitch and how it all ended: “the baby was in distress, we had to get him out. I couldn’t do it anymore,” the buzz of new life is all but gone.

There is no pride, no glow, not even an it-was-hard-but-good, just a kind of trailing off as they listen to their own stories in the retelling.

I think they, like me, don’t really know whether it was all necessary – or safe. These women suspect what the numbers show: that maternal death in the US has risen along with intervention rates.

In the USA, figures from the Center for Disease Control [CDC] website show that maternal death and average rates of cesarean section have both doubled since 1985.

Maternal mortality figures get thrown around to show how the US is failing as a western nation, but I never took in how fast numbers are rising until I sat down to research this week.

The CDC website reports that in 1985, 7.2 out of every 100,000 women died from complications of pregnancy and birth, and by 2015, [the latest year shown] that figure was 26.4 deaths.

Although changes in reporting may account for some of the increase in maternal deaths, the CDC also notes that: “the reasons for the overall increase in pregnancy-related mortality are unclear.”

This is pretty bad, America. More women are dying in pregnancy and childbirth, despite advances in technology, and we don’t know why.

Some clues can be found in the statistics – the leading cause of maternal death in the USA is disease – cardiovascular [15 per cent] and other diseases [15 per cent] and these figures are likely not linked to medical intervention.

11 per cent of deaths were from haemorrhage, which could be vaginally or during surgery.

But the next highest causes of maternal death is sepsis and infection at 12.7 per cent and thrombotic pulmonary embolism [blood clot], which accounts for 9.2 per cent of all deaths.

Surgery is a risk factor for both infection and blood clots, which means these women likely died after having a cesarean, and the two statistics together would mean that the majority of maternal deaths were post surgery.

Arguing that medical intervention continues to make birth safer for women past the World Health Organization’s recommended 10 per cent surgery rate starts to sound like my three-year-old daughter’s logic this morning:

“When you are sick, you should eat lots of chocolate bunnies. That will help.” [Good try, Callie!]

If we can agree that birth in the US is not where it needs to be, I hope we can agree as well that the fault is systemic, and doesn’t often rest with individuals – I  know medical staff are good people trying to get through another life-and-death shift on half a chocolate doughnut and a string cheese, and that protecting the hospital and themselves from litigation is a priority.

But the reason so many women have unsatisfactory births, and why maternal mortality is so high compared to other western nations runs deeper than just litigation.

Birthing women still don’t understand that because giving birth is something that happens uniquely to women, it’s also a unique pocket of sexism which is often unrecognized because it is ubiquitous and disguised as medical assistance.

The sexism that results in many women having an overarching feeling that they failed at giving birth is the same sexism that means women are victims of male violence and lower pay scales.

It is possible to take charge of our births, and yet most people I know do more research leading up to ankle surgery than they do before giving birth, choosing instead to “leave it in the hands of the experts.”

But a woman who is totally in charge of her birth is a woman who comes out the other side knowing how strong she is: a force to be reckoned with, ready to face the trials of parenthood.

A few days ago, I was standing around a hot fire talking with a lively woman who has had four home births. This woman is both tiny and powerful and she told me that in every one of her births, she thought she would die.

“Having that story – the story of feeling like you are close to death and then being so much stronger than you thought and coming out the other side, is the story of birth and it’s what bonds you to your baby. You already feel like you’ve died for your child, so you are prepared to do it again,” she told me.

The women who are rescued from the pain and work of labour unnecessarily – those 16 per cent who are excess to the WHO’s recommended section rate – miss out on knowing their own power.

I had two homebirths, my son in 2011 and my daughter in 2015 [and yes, I also thought I would die, at least at my daughter’s birth!] Both were born in Australia and both births were attended by the same qualified midwife, and each time we were hospital ready in case of an emergency transfer.

I will never forget noticing our midwife tucking her emergency equipment into a corner when she arrived for my son’s birth and covering it with a pretty piece of fabric, a move clearly designed with my physiological well being in mind. She knew she had to give every indication that I could do it, that everything would go well.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my births did go well.

I hope I live to see the day that the US gets its maternal mortality numbers in line with other western nation’s, and indeed, that all women have a birth story they can’t wait to tell.

A story that echoes all the great human stories of triumph in the face of adversity.

And a time paying customers in the business of birth receive customer service at least as good as they do in the supermarket.

So that when your provider asks you after the birth: did you find everything you needed? you can check it off:

Alive/healthy baby/power/dignity.

If your last birth didn’t make the cut, check in the homebirth aisle next time.

**** you can stream “The Business of Being Born” on Netflix ****

 

A little light propaganda

I stayed in a hotel over the weekend and did what I always do in hotels in the US – flip between Fox News [Republican] and MSNBC [Democratic].

Both channels were discussing recent changes in immigration policy, and this is roughly what they were saying:

Fox news anchor: I just don’t understand – democrats wanted Trump to take back his policy of separating children from their parents at the border, and now he has, they’re STILL mad.

Fox then moved on to a brief headline: Economy is growing under Trump administration.

MSNBC anchor: Trump will never admit that he caved after hearing the ProPublica audio of screaming kids and reversed the policy. But Republicans will not return the 2000 kids they have already taken under this policy.

MSNBC then showed clips of screaming kids with arms outstretched and blurred faces.

Same day, same news.

Except that it’s not news, America. None of this bullshit is news.

And yet many, many Americans watch cable news shows for hours a day – if 15 minutes of each makes me mad, imagine how riled up most Americans are every day.

I like to think of myself as a lone wolf, processing information with a clear and logical mind, the master of my own opinions, and I bet most of you do too.

But I see changes in myself when I’m living in the left-leaning Bega Valley in Australia, or here in conservative, economically challenged Montana.

My environment affects how I see the world, at least a little. I’m grateful to have had the experience of living amongst the Americans who voted for Trump, and having some inkling of why. The rest of the world still seems confused.

Here, I can see it’s hard for people to care about refugees – our lives are so uncertain, they seem to say, we don’t have time for this shit. Generations of poverty and hard physical labour have not added up yet for my fellow rural Montanans, and there is so much perceived shame in accepting disability payments, government healthcare or food stamps, which many families rely on.

These are the white, working-class people who voted for Trump – the folks who want their dignity back, a shot at the American dream of  1950 that so many are now competing for.

At home in Australia, people have the time and headspace to fight other people’s battles – to care about refugees and non-violent communication and quality of life. At home, people’s basic needs are always met, and basic needs overflow into a strong pleasure culture.

Just as who we’re surrounded by changes our worldview, what we’re absorbing by way of news is creating our worldview, whether we like it or not.

If you don’t feel like you know where to go for facts anymore, you’re not alone. It could take hours to fact check one person’s daily media consumption.

And it seems the US’ model for news is spreading – when I searched BBC news and two Australian news channels, ABC and SBS, I couldn’t find any news about US immigration like I remember from my childhood: good old put-you-to-sleep factual news.

International news covering the issue tended to be critical of Trump, and emotive, with soft music and lingering images of children crying.

I’m decidedly affected by images of children being taken from their parents – like any parent, my mind immediately jumps to my kids, in a strange country with a strange language, separated from us.

I think we should argue and analyze and debate and protest and take action to stop asylum seeking or immigrant kids being separated from their parents ever again, and then go further in guaranteeing human rights for immigrants.

There but for the grace of God, go I.

But I don’t think we should rely on our news programs to do this arguing and analysing for us – because they are so, so biased, especially in the US, where news channels are actually blatantly affiliated with political parties.

Do the arguing and analyzing yourself, preferably around a table with a mixed group of people and a good attitude.

Because it’s not news if it comes with a political message.

It’s propaganda.

We all like having our beliefs validated – so if you want to watch MSNBC or Fox News, acknowledge what it is you’re doing and tell your friends “I’m off to indulge in a little light propaganda.”

 

What are your favourite news sources? I’d love to hear. Thanks for reading!

 

*** the image I used above is of Lee Lin Chin, a fabulous Australian news anchor ***

 

The glut – morel season

 

One of the things that blows my mind about this part of the world – north-west Montana – is how much food people forage, hunt and preserve.

Australia has wild food too, enough to sustain indigenous people for 60,000 years, but aside from the obvious – seafood and game meat [yes, kangaroo!] – bush food is more subtle than the dripping berry bushes we see here in the summer.

Or maybe bush food is just less in line with modern tastes, so fewer people utilize it.

We went mushroom picking yesterday, and this morning I woke up to the funky, sweet smell of morel mushrooms drying in the dehydrator.

Morels are wild mushrooms that appear mostly in low-intensity fire sites in the spring. I’d never done any serious mushroom picking until yesterday, and my only experience with morels was that some friends gave us some dried morels a few years ago.

Because we had them, I threw a handful in a soup or stew every now and again, not really believing that the grey, dry, unscented pieces of mushroom would contribute anything to the dish.

It took me quite a few stews to realize that the elusive funky flavour was the dried morels.

I don’t actually like the smell of drying morels. It’s pretty cloying. But morels are like fish sauce, or dried shrimp – when I smell them cooking, it’s not good – but the flavour in a finished dish is somehow different, and welcome.

Knowing that it’s not unusual for people to find fields of morels, and come back with gallons of mushrooms, we took plenty of bags, and set off into some dense burn area alongside a creek and beside a logging unit.

Our kids are 3 and 6 now and can hike a few miles, and we also had my mum with us, visiting from Australia.

mum 2

Our area had some widespread wildfire last year, and the Forest Service opened up parts of the burn area to commercial mushroom pickers, so most of the burnt forest had already been canvassed – we could see clusters of hollow white morel stems under trees, cut with a knife.

No wonder the pickers had picked it over – morels are hard, if not impossible, to cultivate, so wild, foraged mushrooms are the bulk of the market, and fresh morels sell for anything between $50 to $150 a pound.

We traipsed on, over fallen, charred trees. The ground, burnt so hard, was down to clay, and after spring rainstorms, was very slippery [In Montana, we would say “slick”].

And then we found one small morel and another. The further from the road we got, the more we found, and the closer we looked, the more we stopped, the more we could spot them, the caps disguised as pinecones.

 

I was actually relieved we didn’t come into a glut of mushrooms, but rather, one or three here and there – this year, we are heading back to Australia in September, just before the major harvest/preserving/hunting season begins, and I’m being careful to whittle away at our food supplies, not build them up.

But it feels strange to go against the grain of the season – to harvest the glut, and put it away to provide a small comfort in February when nothing grows, and it seems like nothing ever will again.

I guess the morel of the story is, use what’s right in front of you.

I know that when we go back to Australia, Haak and I will apply for the permit to kill and eat a kangaroo on my parent’s property, and when mango season comes around, I’ll buy a flat and freeze the cheeks to use in smoothies later.

There is still so much I have to learn about living in my own country and climate, but what I’ve learnt in Montana about freezing, drying, fermenting and canning food has made me see a glut as more than overwhelming – to see it as an opportunity, not to be wasted.

And I’ll be on hand for morel support for any Aussies who want to work the glut more, although we’re spoilt in having a continuous season – fresh lemons and greens in mid-winter!

***I just could not stop myself on the morel puns***

 

 

 

 

 

It’s 2018 – why is female sterilization still performed more than vasectomy?

 

Sterilization [either male or female] is the most widely used birth control in the US [36%], followed closely by female hormone treatments such as the pill [30.6%].

But permanent birth control – sterilization – is vastly different for men and women in terms of cost, risk, and recovery for the patient.

According to come quick research via the Mayo clinic website, the risks of female sterilization [tubal ligation] include: Damage to the bowel, bladder or major blood vessels, reaction to anesthesia, improper wound healing or infection and continued pelvic or abdominal pain.

According to the same website, the risks of vasectomy are very low, and none are potentially life-threatening, unlike damage to the bowel or reaction to anesthesia.

So why is female sterilization [tubal ligation] still performed in the US two thirds more than male sterilization [vasectomy]?

Our family has benefited so much from Haakon’s 2015 vasectomy that I wanted to tell our story as a way to look at some of the reasons vasectomy may not be as popular as it should be.

I can’t remember how the idea that Haakon would have a vasectomy after our second child was born came up, but I know it seemed like a natural progression to me:  I’ve had two babies and lots of genital involvement around birthing [not to mention years of periods and pap tests before the babies, and after], and a vasectomy was an opportunity for something medical to happen in his body.

Although I was mildly concerned about Haakon’s vasectomy – I don’t like the idea of someone cutting into anyone’s junk any more than most people, and there is the risk of permanent complications with vasectomy – I never considered that I would, instead, have tubal ligation.

From Haak’s perspective, as a man who is pragmatic to a fault, his initial research about vasectomy made it clear that to suggest I would have the surgery instead of him would be “foolish,” he told me.

But here in Montana, I hear this all the time from women: “I was in there anyway [hospital, to have a baby] so I told them, just go on and tie my tubes. I wish Tom/Mike etc would get a vasectomy, but he would never do it.”

[About half of female sterilizations occur within 8 hours of giving birth, according to the national center for biotechnology information]

My assessment of how often female sterilization is performed over vasectomy is backed by figures provided by the national center for biotechnology information in 2008. According to their website, 27 per cent of sexually active women in the US rely on female sterilization as birth control, while 9.2 per cent rely on vasectomy.

Although the information I found online is dated, all the US-based reports I found drew from the same study, which also notes that “Overall, the sterilization rates for men and women have remained constant over the past 40 years [since 2008].”

Why is this, I wondered?

The fact that the numbers of female sterilizations are higher than male is probably influenced by the number of babies born via cesarean section – the US center of disease control and prevention website says that in 2017, 31% of all births were cesareans.

When a woman is already having major abdominal surgery and wants a permanent form of birth control, having a tubal ligation performed at the same time makes some sense.

But where sterilization is sought in stand-alone cases, vasectomy is not only faster and cheaper [“best $300 we ever spent,” says Haakon!] than tubal ligation, it is much safer for the person being operated on.

One of Haak’s co worker’s, Shannon, recently had tubal ligation surgery. I spoke to her on the phone 11 days after her surgery, and she was still using a back brace to protect her bruised stomach muscles.

She had also developed anemia and a blood clot near the surgery area which is not life-threatening but is hard and painful.

“I’m still in pain,” Shannon said, “I keep asking the doctor if this is a normal recovery because they told me I would only have to take it easy for a week afterwards.”

Shannon and her husband had been talking about permanent birth control for years, she said, and he had wanted to have a vasectomy but a history of hernia surgery made them both concerned about how suitable vasectomy would be in his case.

“Now that he’s seen me go through this,” Shannon told me, “he wishes he’d gone ahead with the vasectomy.”

Although Shannon and her husband were well informed and made the best choice for them, its clear that in most cases, tubal ligation carries higher risks than vasectomy.

Despite this fact, I do not want to minimize the risk of chronic pain or long-term implications for a person’s sex life, which is associated with vasectomy in rare cases.

Shannon’s youngest child is now 10, and despite her long and continuing recovery from the surgery, Shannon told me her only regret is that she didn’t do it sooner.

Having access to permanent, relatively safe birth control is indeed a treat – after muddling through ten years of using various temporary contraceptives, like condoms and the pill, Haak and I were both 100% ready to say goodbye to the possibility of pregnancy scares and all the organization required to avoid them.

And so it came to be that one sunny winter’s day in Moruya, NSW, I was waiting at a coffee shop across the street from the doctor’s office where Haak was having his vasectomy done. Callie was almost six months old, and I ordered and sat in the courtyard breastfeeding her.

My parents happened to be passing through, and they arrived at that moment.

“Should I order Haakon coffee?” Dad asked.

I paused to answer, and looked up from my half-finished flat white:

And saw Haakon, bounding down the steps of the doctor’s office. A similar image to my very first memory of him, when he was tanned and 20, and bouncing across a lawn to meet me.

“Couldn’t they do it?” I asked sympathetically, imagining that the doctor was called away or held up in some way.

“It’s done,” he answered, beaming.

And that, my friends, is the kind of after-effect of a life-changing surgery you will almost never get. Haak wasn’t even in the chair for 15 minutes and was enjoying a coffee in the sun 5 minutes later.

He still likes to tell people that the worst part about having a vasectomy was shaving his testicles in preparation for the surgery.

“The chafing from the stubble growing back was intense,” he told me this morning when I asked what he remembered most.

Haakon was “sore for a couple of days,” he recalled. He took no painkillers and was back at work three days later.

Although it’s hard for me to say if Shannon and Haakon’s recoveries are typical of the surgeries they had, it’s clear to me that something deeper than a pragmatic weighing up of the costs and benefits is in effect when heterosexual couples begin to research sterilization – something that culminates in many making the decision for the woman to undergo surgery rather than the man.

Hearing versions of the “I wish Carlos would get a vasectomy, but he would never do it,” conversation over the years has made me realize how our society ensures that the only genital sensations men have are pleasurable – and that women support this idea as much as men do.

It’s certainly been said before, but I’ll say it again – we seem to be stuck, as a society, in a pattern of accepting at face value a woman’s responsibility for all things reproductive, from unintended pregnancies and childcare to buying the condoms.

But it’s 2018 and vasectomy just might be the way forward – a way to revolutionize our relationships and sex lives.

Haak

 

I found information for this post from these sources:

CDC website, stats about cesarean rates: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/delivery.htm

NCBI website, articles about rates of sterilization: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2492586/

Mayo Clinic, basic info about vasectomy and tubal ligation: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/vasectomy/about/pac-20384580

 

Thanks for reading!

Summertime craziness

To understand the deepness of winter in North America, you must also understand the intensity of summer, as the two are always in tension:

For example, this weekend, we have the farmer’s market Friday evening, then we’re hosting a gig and party at our house. Saturday we have a picnic for the annual general meeting of a local non-profit. Sunday friends are arriving, and we already have my mum and another Aussie friend, Michael, visiting.

Just a normal, busy weekend, right? But every single weekend from June- August looks like that. And it’s in stark contrast to a grey, snowy weekend in late January when I am literally pacing our house, wondering if I should sort through our clothes again.

It’s not that you can’t do social things in winter.

It’s just that it’s dark at 4 pm and even if the day has been sunny, if it’s wet at all, the roads start to ice up as soon as darkness falls. Going out for a drink starts to look like less fun when you imagine the slow, nerve-wracking drive home, with a possible detour into a snow bank.

And so all of the big ticket social occasions happen in summer – weddings, family reunions, graduations: even funerals are sometimes put off until the spring for the convenience of travellers.

There’s a wild berry bush here known as serviceberry, which flowers early in the spring and then produces rather tasteless and mealy blue berries, loved by bears but not often eaten by humans.

Apparently, the reason for the name is that the bush flowers when the funeral services are held – when the ground was soft enough to bury those who had died over the winter and were kept frozen in the wash-house until the time came.

Because of the length and depth of winter, there is no growth for six months of the year. None. And so all the growing must happen in summer, and growth is fast, thick and incredibly verdant once it gets going.

Today, the first light was at 5:02 am and last light will be at 10:21 pm. 15 hours of grow time for my baby plants – no wonder the beans will seem to grow an inch overnight.

Three months is not long to fit in all the camping, hiking, gardening, food production, and outdoor projects in our lives, and the end result is a kind of frenetic breathlessness as we cram our days with tasks and try to sit out the yard with a beer at the end of the day as well.

Summer days here are stunning – beginning with cool [no, cold. It was 40 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, which is 4 degrees Celcius!] mornings with the incredible damp smell of cottonwood buds, reaching 80- 100 degrees and ending 15 hours later with the pink glow of sunset on the still snow covered mountains.

We are a few weeks away from summer heaven – when strawberries are still falling from bushes, cherries are reddening on trees and raspberries are abundant. This kind of luxurious, un-netted fruit harvest makes me realize the scale of Australian birds. I miss the noise of Aussie birds, so coarse and constant when I’m in Montana, but what a fight to harvest a berry!

In late August, we will be in full harvest in the garden, but simultaneously start watching the forecast for a frost and scurry around with frost cloth, hoping to ripen just one more pepper on the bush.

Then one day – bam! it’s over.

There’s a line in a Waif’s song [Vermillion] that I always think about at the end of summer: “She got old, she got idle as a picture/she died with the flowers in the fall.”

Seeing bright zinnias in their prime knocked down by an early frost is always sad. This year we’ll leave – maybe before that frost – and head straight into an Aussie summer.

It’s no secret that I don’t love winter in North America, but there is something wonderful about collapsing into a routine of cosy indoor time after a hard working, hot, activity-packed summer.

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Champagne lifestyle on $20,000

Although the title of this post is a bit cheeky, I chose the picture above – taken at Wallagoot beach, NSW in 2015 when we were home to have our daughter – because in that moment, I truly felt like I was living the dream.

The air was warm, the sea was warm and green, baby Callie ate sand with our friend Kat while we swam, and I felt like a dolphin.

[As any woman who has had a baby can tell you, it doesn’t take much to feel like a dolphin in contrast to the lumbering of late pregnancy!]

I recently wrote a post about living below the federal poverty line, and several people have asked me to explain how that works, exactly.

Because Haak and I have decided our marriage wouldn’t survive if one of us got to live in their homeland, and the other only got to visit their’s, we’ve moved a lot in the last ten years.

Moving a lot is not conducive to making money the traditional way – by sticking with a job or industry, seeking promotion, and networking to move up.

Because people in our communities know we are transitory, employer’s have to be willing to hire us short term. The school district here employed me as a teacher’s aid and mental health worker when I first lived here, and some of those jobs I was able to work for two years.

Haak has worked part-time at our local hardware store for the almost three years we’ve been stateside this time.

And we pick up jobs painting, building, child minding, cleaning, cooking …

When we are in Australia, our income has typically been higher, [more like 26,000-30,000] but the dollar is worth less, wages are higher, and things are more expensive, so our quality of life is similar.

[Except we drink waaaayyyy more alcohol here than in Australia – a really good six pack of local craft beer costs $7-$8.]

Especially in the six years since we had kids, working less and keeping our income low has worked with our life – we wanted to be around  when the kids were small, so we’ve chosen to do paid work 2-3 days a week and work which is not paid but adds value to our lives, saving us money, the rest of the time.

[Like how Haakon built/is building our house, so our loan is only $38,000, but the value is something like $100,000, and I make us such delicious food that we don’t even want to spend $10,000 a year eating out. Also, there is nowhere to eat out in Troy!]

Our basic monthly expenses in Montana are:

$650 – mortgage, house insurance, land taxes

$130 – utilities [sewer, electric, water]

$45 – car insurance

$150 – health insurance

$70 – phone/internet

$400 – food

$100 – gas/petrol

$10 – Netflix account.

We rent our basement studio to our friend Laura, who pays us with $200 per month and by delivering sanity playing with and helping our kids.

[An aside: I still find it hard to think in months with finances, not weeks. Australian’s are generally paid weekly, and costs are measured in week’s, or by that uncommon concept in the US: the fortnight]

We do have a credit card, which we pay every month. I think it has an insane limit – $20,000, which is our emergency money.

In the years we travel, we need to buy plane tickets – I typically search online for months and buy the ticket’s that are so insanely cheap I run out of the house screaming: Get me the credit card! NOW! [this year I found Seattle-Sydney, via Hawaii, one way, four people: $1,600]

Some of our monthly payment’s are notably low compared to the national average – it’s because we do live below poverty line*** that our kids have free health insurance, and we have cheap government-subsidized health insurance.

Also missing in our budget, but common for many American’s our age are college loans [Haakon got an amazing scholarship to attend college, and worked summers, coming out debt free] and car payments. As far as I can tell, the combination of these costs can be $300-$500 per month for many people.

Luckily, there is a strong tradition of driving old, quirky and sometimes unreliable cars in both our families, so we’ll never have to worry about car payments or the cost of comprehensive insurance.

In March this year, we lost our first half decent car [a 2007 Subaru Forester], to engine failure in Pocatello, Idaho, on the way back from a trip to Utah.

It was hard to walk away from $5000 of value, but here’s where our real riches are: in the few months we have left before leaving for Australia, we are driving Haakon’s grandma’s 1989 Toyota Camry.

Not having to replace the car because of family generosity means the money in our savings account – $6000, accumulated from our tax return and saving when I was working last year – can be used to finish siding our house, take a trip to Denver to visit relatives, and fund a few days in Hawaii on our way back to Australia.

I once went to a training when I worked for the after school program here at Troy Elementary. It was about poverty and was designed for middle-class teacher’s working in poor area’s like Troy to better understand the actions of their student’s and student’s families.

The presenter talked about social capital – how instead of buying insurance, people living in poverty rely on their community as insurance.

Although I don’t feel poor very often, this part of our reality is true.  Haak and I are so lucky that our family’s back us, not by giving us money, but with grandma car’s, mechanical help, eggs and garden produce, work connections, and the assurance that if we ever really need it, they will loan us money.

I like the way not having lots of money stops me from buying things all the time without thinking about it.

We almost never buy new clothes, except boots and shoes [and my Darling jacket!].

If I had money, I would buy all new bedding, I would buy all new, handmade mugs, I would buy a new couch … I don’t need these things… I already have them.

I like the way being poor makes me appreciate gifts SO MUCH.

A friend gave me a gift voucher to the local plant nursery this spring, and it was pure luxury to just go and get all the plants I wanted. I never would have done that on my own [thanks, Tess!].

So there is some control, some deprivation, to live within our budget.

It’s easier for Haakon than it is for me because he truly prefer’s the free and recycled, whereas I occasionally lust over new stuff, or long to travel more.

The time I most often wish we had more money is when I want to be generous – and my tactic here is usually to use money sitting in savings from the other country [for some reason it doesn’t count???].

 

We’ve had good luck and good health, and I don’t feel poor.

I feel rich.

 

How much do you make? is it too much/too little? how do you budget? save? are you in debt? have you lived below poverty line? I’d love to hear from you!

 

*** in 2017, the US federal poverty line for a family of four was $24,600

 

 

 

Small town color and Love

I have to admit, when I first saw the brightly painted, graffiti style van parked in front of the house on the corner, I thought that whoever drove it must be transitory.

A friend said to me once that there are a collection of people who live in this town only because they broke down here.

Maybe that was the case with the occupant of the little yellow house on the corner, a rental with a historically high turnover.

But I started to notice the house’s occupant – long, burgundy hair, sometimes in pigtails – and they weren’t leaving.

Seasons passed, and a sign went up:  a long, wooden, hand-painted sign that said: “Rock’n’Roll is my religion, and Jesus is my lord.”

I’d see someone chopping wood, or mowing, and once I rode past and saw a figure in thigh-high white leather boots standing by a smoldering fire in the backyard.

WHITE LEATHER BOOTS? THIGH HIGH? dressing up in Troy means putting on a pair of clean jeans, so who was this person, and what the heck were they doing here?

Small towns like the one we live in [Troy, Montana, population 900] often have a reputation for being small minded, and less progressive and tolerant than urban areas.

But are they really? There is certainly not much in the way of diversity here, but those who are different from the majority [white, working class, heterosexual, Republican] are often tolerated with a surprising amount of loyalty and love.

I believe I’m one of those who are different but accepted. People will tell me about those damned Californian’s who come up here with their money, and all those foreigners’ coming to take our jobs …and then look at me and say “but not you. I’m not talking about you. You get it.”

People here are sometimes racist and homophobic because they don’t know any different. When I was working at the high school I had to patiently explain to a white student that saying racist things about our then president Obama while sitting next to their African-American friend is hurtful.

The white student looked at me, confused.

It became clear that the black friend was not thought of as black. They were part of the community, accepted, the ‘otherness’ put aside, the color of their skin forgotten.

So I’m not “a foreigner,” or “an immigrant,” to my fellow townspeople, although technically I am both in this country. I am their Australian, someone whose motive’s they understand, someone familiar.

I think the same is true for our bright-van owning, leather boot wearing, lace loving friend.

I’m going to tell you the story of Michaela Love, who was born Michael in Massachusetts in 1959.

“I’ve been here for two years now, I can’t believe it,” said Michaela with a laugh after I finally asked if I could interview her, and she had invited me in and offered coffee.

What do you like about being here? I asked.

Michaela answered that although she misses the city for the music scene, the boutiques, and restaurants, “I like the people [here], there are lots of really good people in this town.”

Michaela’s home is cozy, the walls of the living room lined with her extensive record collection, and crocheted afghan’s on comfortable looking chairs.  This little cottage in Troy feels a long way from her previous home in West Hollywood, where, she said, there was a big transgender and queer community.

Michaela has one whole room devoted to her clothing collection: rows of ruffled, frilly blouses and dresses hanging from every vertical surface.

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Michaela said that coming in with confidence and openness has helped her find a place in the community.

“There is so much hate in the world …I will never contribute to that,” she said, sipping coffee “I try to live up to my name.” Born to Irish Catholic parent’s, Michaela Love is proud of her name and that her relatives carried it when they arrived on the Mayflower [the ship that transported English adventurers to what is now New England, in 1620].

So how did her Catholic parent’s respond when, at age four, Michaela began to ask for soft nightgowns like her sister had?

“My mom is the best kind of Christian,” Michaela explained “she would say ‘it’s not our place to judge.’ It’s Christianity 101. She has always been very accepting of who I am. She still sends me blouses!”

While her father apparently struggled more than her mother with accepting Michaela’s gender identity, and took her to see a therapist [who said: “the harder Michael tries not to be a girl, the more he will be a girl”] he backed her up after she was raped at age 16 by a male neighbor.

“I finally told my father what had happened,” Michaela said “and it was too late to report it, but my father went next door and told the man ‘if you ever go near any of my children again, I will kill you.'”

Sexual harassment is an unfortunately common experience in Michaela’s life, and she has had plenty of practice with comebacks and retorts.

“A man called me a prissy little bitch recently,” she said, ” and I just said to him: well, I may be, but I’m not your bitch.”

Another incident in a nearby Montana town, bigger than Troy, was harder to come back from:

“A real red neck man in Kalispell pushed me up against a car last year,” Michaela said. “I was scared. He said ‘I bet you like that, don’t you?'” and then his girlfriend, who was there, actually slapped him. Women are protective of me. They won’t let men hurt me, and they explain that hurting me is just the same as hurting a woman.”

Even within her community, my community, Michaela is bearing the brunt of other people’s confusion and prejudice.

“I was at the bowling alley in Troy, and a man who often goes there came up and grabbed my breasts [Michaela began hormone therapy about 8 years ago, but is not currently taking hormones, because of the high cost]. The girls who work there threw him out.”

Michaela has been married and divorced twice, and her second wife was a Russian/Norwegian Victoria’s Secret model [I saw the wedding photos!].

“I would love to meet the right person, and it could be anyone,” Michaela told me “but I want to meet someone face to face, I don’t have the internet or a computer, I’m a dinosaur in a modern age!”

Although she said that “being a glamour girl is hard when there’s snow on the ground,” Michaela has no plans to leave Troy or Montana, and part of her reasoning is to help small town folks see that she is no threat.

“I’m not ashamed of who I am,” she explained “I’m not going to sneak around. And I hope that at least one kid in Troy can see me and think ‘I can be what I am too,'”

Michaela’s  life has spanned years as a glam rocker in the 80’s in LA [she was in several local bands: Black lace, Lipstick Traces, and Danger Dolls] to now: a small town retiree who spends time playing guitar and touching up the artwork on her van and making trips to Arizona to visit her parents.

I saw her painting the fence of the local biker bar next to the train tracks this spring, and she is on a first name basis with our chief of police, along with everyone else in town. She is clearly part of our town, and tells me “I bring a little color to Troy.”

van

As I hop on my bike to ride away from the little yellow house on the corner, Michaela leaves me with a final thought:

“If you don’t express who you are, you are robbing yourself of life. To thine own self be true.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All we have to do is nothing

Last night, at about 4:45 am, I woke to the sound of a child crying and calling out.

It took a minute to realize it wasn’t one of my children, who slept in a tangled pile of sheets and limbs.

‘Haak? do you hear that child crying?” I asked and we both got up to stare blearily out of the open window.

A family with two young boys recently moved in across the street. The kids are about five and six years old, and the older one is in Atticus’ class.

It was one of those boys crying for his mom in the very early morning, and there was clearly nothing we could do to help.

As I settled back to sleep I had a strange thought about parenting, and kid’s emotions:

It’s gonna get ya in the end.

It sounds ominous, but I don’t feel ominous about it, really.

It is a truth that is still sinking in for me, though: that on some level, we, as parents, will be exposed to our kid’s emotional lives for the rest of their lives in a way we’re not with anyone else.

If our kids feel safe with us, they will show us how they feel. And when they are little, it’s very much a show.

It’s a powerful kick, a high pitched scream, a frantic fit.

Both of my kids, when they are really upset, often yell at the top of their lungs “you’re hurting me! Oweeeee! get off! I hate you!.

We can put a lot of energy into stopping their feelings – we can, if necessary, put a sucker [lollipop] or pacifier, or breast, into their tiny screaming mouths.

We can coax, cajole, bribe or beg our kids to please stop, not now, not here.

We can make it so our feelings are bigger than their’s, and our anger quietens them.

There are times I’ve done everything I possibly can to stop my kids having strong emotional expression – at the dentist, or during the vows of a wedding, and sometimes, a fact I’m not proud of, because I just couldn’t listen.

I think it’s fine to let our kids know, especially as they get older, that sometimes they have to hold it in.

But giving up the fight is sweet relief. I try to find a comfortable place to sit with them, take their boots off [weapons!] and surrender to minutes, even hours, of being there.

All we have to do is nothing.

When I hold my three year old daughter while she screams it feels like forever. Sometimes it’s 45 minutes, but mostly it’s seven, or three.

When I hold my six year old son, he is pure muscle. It takes more engagement to be with him as he gets older, and it happens less and less. Sometimes he flips me. Sometimes he comes in and out of fury and a little smile creeps across his face and we laugh and then he lashes out again, not wanting to indicate it’s over before it really is.

Lately, an image of a card some friends have always had on their fridge pops into my mind while the kids are screaming. It is a small white, business style card that has written on it, in red typewriter print: LOVE IS ALWAYS THE APPROPRIATE REACTION.

So I try to meet fury with love, and hard, fighting little bodies with softness. But I do not let them hurt me.

Here is Callie, really, really really wanting to wear a different dress, and carry the bag, and not wear a hat right before we left the house this morning.

I did not give in to her demands. But I did let her cry.

 

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When it is over, it’s as clear as the sun coming out from behind storm clouds.

My daughter, red and sweaty from fighting so hard, will snuggle in, her wet face on my chest.

And then, as if nothing had happened, she will say “can my baby come to the post office?” and we get on with the day.

Sometimes it takes me awhile to get to that sunny place. I’m irritated that the need to cry interrupted my plans and I feel drained.

Ideally, I would be able to do what they do so well, but in the absence, I try to be gentle with myself for the rest of that day.

If you put off listening to your kids, they will fight for the right to be heard. When they are young, if there is no time in the day, they will, like our neighbor’s child, cry through the night.

The repercussions in adult relationships can be much more devastating, and long lasting – I saw an acquaintance’s mom in the parking lot across the street, who said she had not heard from her daughter for three months and has no idea why. Her daughter has a family.

If we cannot hear the ways we are doing our children wrong and if we cannot tolerate their deepest feelings when the feelings are about not getting to take a toy on a bike ride, how will we hear their adult concerns? how can we remain impartial while they fuck up?

A woman with two daughters’s in their 50’s, who has good relationships with them both, was telling me a story and ended with “I’d prefer if they didn’t feel that way [her daughter’s] but, you know, as parents, we just have to cop it sometimes, don’t we? we just have to say nothing.”

As I watch my adult friend’s struggle with parental relationships, I’m ever grateful for the times I’ve watched my parents close their mouths, a conscious physical act to protect our relationship.

I hope like heck that as my children grow, and ‘do nothing’ turns into ‘say nothing’, that I have the power to follow through and be a good listener when the words may be more cutting than a generic and humorous “I hate you!”

 

 

 

Many of my thoughts expressed in this post spring from the theory of  Re-Evaluation Co-Counseling

 

 

 

Homesickness

I used to feel homesick a lot when I was first living in Montana.

I would kind of dive into the feeling, longing so hard to just feel fine sand beneath my feet and smell fishy, minerally sea air.

To walk across dry, crackling good smelling eucalyptus leaves and be in the harsh Australian sun, mildly wary of snakes and feeling the skin on my neck crisp.

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Now the homesick feelings have tapered off, partly because I’m pretty used to coming and going, and partly because I have two kids and a lot less time to think!

But it still sneaks up on me sometimes …

We were in Missoula visiting friends and picking my father in law up from the airport last weekend and I walked down to the Good Food Store, a huge organic grocer down the street.

It took me long seconds to figure out that the cashier was Australian. She just sounded funny – I thought maybe she was deaf.

When I realized, I asked her “are you Australian?” and she said, without looking up, and in a tired voice “yep, good guess.”

And then I said something, a simple communication: “I have some bags” and her head bolted up and she said “are YOU Australian?” and we looked at each other for a second. I was so happy in that moment. To see yourself in someone else – a stranger. What a powerful force national identity is.

I wanted to hang around and listen to her talk to people, but that would have been weird, so we quickly established that she was from Tassie and I from the South Coast of NSW and I loaded my bags and walked away.

I do, of course, talk to my family sometimes. And every year, we have had at least two visitors from Australia, so I hear the accent. But it’s different when it’s people you know, and know well.

So sometimes I call our Australian bank or the mortgage company. Usually, there is a reason, like a blocked bank card, but sometimes I call for an account balance I can access online in two seconds.

And when the recorded ad reel begins in a broad Aussie accent, I relax. When the sales rep answers, I melt further, allowing my voice to flatten, the ends of words to run into one another.

I cut my words in half and relish it. I say ‘dodgy’ and ‘I reckon’, try to work in ‘shed’, ‘ute’, ‘relo’s’ and ‘veranda’. For a five minute conversation with Kirsty from St George, I am so Australian it hurts.

Then I hang up and step out into early spring.

Sleet/snow/rain is falling – what the weather stations quaintly call “a wintry mix.”

Thin slashes of icy slush hit my face and I breathe in the grey light. I am here, I am choosing to be here with Haak and our Montana family and I know now that even this wintry weather will soon bring spring.

 

 

 

Darling jacket

I’ve never had a relationship with an item of clothing quite like my love affair with the down jacket I bought two years ago.

I’ve worn this navy blue jacket ten months of each year I’ve owned it, and when I’m not wearing it, its presence is upsetting Haakon because I slither out of it like a second skin:

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[I also hang it up sometimes, because I love him]

Back home in Australia, there is no clothing item that I wear so much – and that could save my life. [OK, maybe sun protection is on par!]

I spent the first few winters in Montana muddling through the unfamiliar cold with borrowed, old style down jackets, and layers of wool jumpers.

I was cold and hot a lot, because I didn’t understand the different types of cold yet – that the common cold here is between 30-40 F, which is cold, but not that cold.

I always wore leggings under pants in winter, no matter the temperature, and when I stepped into heated buildings, waves of sweat would wash over me, a feeling not unlike stepping out of an airplane into a tropical climate still wearing jeans because when you left, it was cold.

Now I step out in just jeans when it’s in the 30’s, feeling naked and so tough.

But there’s also the cold I had never experienced that hits in January or February- dry, windy 10 F, cold that makes your face hurt, which is almost impossible to comprehend on this fine spring day.

Cold that makes you realize your hair is not quite dry when you hear cracking as each hair freezes.

Cold that makes you run to try to get away from it, cold that makes your heart vibrate.

After hearing a story from a friend who is on the search and rescue team, I started throwing a lighter in my pocket when I went walking in winter.

This friend had searched all day for a teenage boy who had gotten lost while hunting.

It was early fall and the temperature was around freezing and the kid was disoriented when he was found, a sign of hypothermia.

The kids jeans were wet and he was wearing cotton socks and sneakers, and I remember my friend saying over and over “wool [which is warm when wet] could have saved his life if we didn’t find him. Having matches or a lighter would have saved him. He was totally unprepared.”

Well, I didn’t want to be un prepared.

I had chosen to live in this ridiculous climate, so I better learn how to survive it. I started noticing that when women went out in winter in fancy shoes, they put insulated snow boots in their cars in case they broke down and had to walk.

I realized I could not be prepared for winter by shopping at thrift stores, which is where all my other clothes come from.

I bought some tall neoprene boots, which are supposedly protective down to -30F. They are certainly cosy, and completely waterproof.

And then I bought the jacket. Extremely expensive, it is also light as a feather and seems like it wouldn’t insulate at all.

I wore it all winter with a sweater or two under it and was warm, even on the coldest days.

I wore it in the fall and spring over a light shirt or T-shirt, because in the mountains, the cold is always there, waiting, and the second the sun slips behind a cloud, a brisk and icy breeze makes you wonder why you were wearing a T-shirt at all.

I’m still wearing it in May, although daytime temps are in the 60’s and 70’s [20’s in Celsius] throwing the jacket in my bike basket when we ride to the park to pack up the ice skating rink and wearing it on cool nights around a campfire.

The companies that make these jackets always have advertising showing people out in the elements, rock climbing, running, cycling.

I reckon they should have an advertising campaign about how their gear helps transplants from hot countries just survive a north American winter.

Bugger cycling, I’m using my hard core performance wear to walk to the store and to dash from car to house.

I’m not the only one.

Pascal moved here from Cameroon to be with his wife, Heather, and their daughter Madeline [below, with Pascal]

 

Pascal

Pascal just got done with his first winter here. His wife, Heather, told me that he didn’t like having cold hands and feet and that he won’t admit it, but he spent most of the winter sitting in a rocking chair beside the wood stove.

Like I did, Pascal will have to figure out how to dress to be able to enjoy winters here.

I’ve passed Pascal working his job as part of the school maintenance crew over the winter, both of us hunched against the cold, both looking, I imagine, at the falling snow with the same combination of wonder and disgust.

When I pass him at the school, Pascal is wearing a big, puffy black jacket, and he waves, smiles, and gets back to flag raising.

Our jackets hold us down, despite their lightness. They keep us with our families.

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The USA’s love of fake cream, and why it has me beat.

I love a good creamy dessert. Custard. Mousse. Trifle [What is a Trifle?]. Creme Brulee. Plain old whipped cream dolloped on warm cake.

But every now and again while we’re in Montana I’ll greedily load my plate with creamy dessert at a potluck or work lunch and after the first bite realize that the “cream” in a dessert is too thick, too greasy and too white to actually be cream.

Americans love whipped topping. And they love to share recipes using whipped topping like this chocolate and marshmallow pie which involves opening a package, a tub, a box, and mixing stuff together.

Made from a hydrogenated blend of vegetable oil and sugar or corn syrup,  whipped topping was invented by New York dairy farmer Robert Rich, in 1945, when world war two rationing affected the availability of dairy foods.

But it was actually the automobile maker Henry Ford whose company was the first to begin experimenting with making cream and milk substitutes from soybeans. Ford was apparently a soybean enthusiast and shared what he knew with Rich, who based his recipe on soybean oil.

Although neither Ford nor Rich were associated with the Seventh Day Adventists, who believe in eating a high fiber, vegetarian diet [John Harvey Kellog, of cornflakes fame, was a member of the church], the religion seems to be at least partly responsible for the early success of Rich’s soybean products.

One of the religions founders, Ellen White, wrote in 1873: “We have always used a little milk and some sugar. This we have never denounced, either in our writings or in our preaching. We believe cattle will become so much diseased that these things will yet be discarded, but the time has not yet come.”

White was onto something – milk and cream, in a time before refrigeration and sanitation, were a bit like Russian roulette. A bad batch could cause serious illness, or death. A person could even contract bovine tuberculosis through contaminated milk.

But not so much sweet whipped vegetable oil: I left this container of whipped topping on my counter overnight and it looked pretty similar in the morning [this is, of course, thanks to preservatives as well as a lack of bacterial contamination from not being an animal product].

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But why has fake cream stayed in the market in the US, while other countries, like the UK and Australia, also suffered food rationing during the war and returned to dairy cream?

The answer partly lies in the US’s historically low wages and the insane cost of private health insurance, which leaves low to middle income households with not much of a budget for food [several friends I’ve talked to pay around $10,000 a year for family of four, and that is considered “good” insurance, where the employer also contributes $10,000-20, 000 annually. I think I’d rather pay a little more in taxes and have universal health care].

As well as being cheaper than cream, whipped topping is convenient because it can be frozen and holds its shape for much longer than whipped cream [it’s often why the slices of cream pie in the revolving pie stands you see in diners here stand up so well, even after hours of display.]

Along with his whipped topping, Rich created a non dairy coffee creamer in 1945 and sensitively called it “coffee whitener” to avoid lawsuits by the dairy industry.

Coffee has been the hot drink of choice in the US since tea was thrown into the sea in Boston in 1773 – a pivotal moment in the American revolution and separation from Britain.

Here in the north west, people still drink lots of drip coffee [much weaker than your average Aussie coffee], and if they’re not drinking it black, they top it off with cream.

But an American is talking about putting cream in coffee, it’s usually a product called Half and Half that they’re talking about, which is half whole/full cream milk and half cream.

But even in the time I’ve been living the states, pre sweetened and flavored non dairy creamer has become a more common addition to coffee.

The picture below shows the scope of brand and flavor of creamer at our tiny IGA supermarket in our town of 900 – french vanilla, hazelnut, caramel, peppermint mocha …

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Some creamers do contain milk, and some are entirely dairy based but sweetened. Some, like Rich’s original, are based entirely on vegetable oils.

The comparison of dairy foods versus hydrogenated vegetable oil foods is not clear cut, except to my taste buds. Many fake dairy products are vegan, and could arguably be a better choice for the environment and animal welfare.

While I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I was lucky to grow up on fresh goats milk.

Our goats – cared for then by Pauline and Jenny, were fussed over.

I remember them being given spoonfuls of molasses on whole organic oats, sweet chaff, seaweed meal and, when a goat showed any signs of illness, garlic and bunches of parsley and other herbs were added to their food tubs.

Their milk was delicious [and not garlicky at all!] and my love of dairy foods remains pure because of my early experience of respectful animal husbandry.

I hope that the move towards smaller, more animal friendly dairy’s can continue, and spread even to low income areas like our home in Montana.

Just before we left Australia last time, in late 2015, the coffee shops around my home in the Bega Valley [Red cafe and Evolve cafe were two I noticed] started using rich Jersey milk from Tilba Real Dairy to make their lattes and cappuccino’s.

Using fresh, non – homogenized milk makes a delicious difference to a latte, creating thick foam, which is pretty hard to do with 2% milk fat, as is commonly used in coffee shops here.

When we were in Missoula a few weeks ago, I noticed a jug of Kalispell Kreamery milk in the fridge where we were staying.

Pasteurized but not homogenized, the milk had the same sweet taste and thick cream on top as Tilba milk [and the dairy says on it’s website that if a cow has mastitis, they dry her up to allow recovery instead of using antibiotics].

Kalispell is two hours drive from us, and Missoula three hours – a bit far to go for milk, but I hope local suppliers will want to stock this excellent local product soon.

In the meantime, if you are  searching for the fluffy and creamy texture that whipped topping offers, please try my chocolate mousse recipe: it only requires opening a few packages [a carton of cream, some eggs, and chocolate] and the flavor and texture are off the scale.

Chocolate Mousse

4 eggs, separated

10-12 oz/ 300 grams of bittersweet or 60% chocolate chips [or a mixture]

1 small carton whipping cream [half pint, or about 235 ml – I think small cartons of cream are the same size in Aus and US]

 

Melt chocolate in a heat proof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Whip cream and mix in yolks.

Add melted chocolate to cream and yolks mixture and mix well.

In a separate bowl, with clean beaters, beat egg whites until soft peaks form.

Then – carefully fold the egg whites into chocolate mixture. You want to incorporate the whites, but not deflate them – they are what gives your mousse its ethereal texture.

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Spoon mousse into pretty little cups, glasses or ramekins and chill at least 4 hours. The texture continues to improve if left overnight, but do eat it within 24 hours.

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I recently tried sandwiching thin layers of chocolate cake with the mousse and chilling the whole four layer cake for 8 hours and it turned out beautifully. 

 

 

I found information about Robert Rich, Henry Ford, Seventh Day Adventists, Ellen White and milk contaminants at these sites.

Ministry, international journal of pastors: https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1989/02/milk-has-the-time-come

Soy Info Center: http://www.soyinfocenter.com/books/170

Obit of Robert Rich: http://articles.latimes.com/2006/feb/17/local/me-passing17

Bovine Tuberculosis factsheet: http://www.cfsph.iastate.edu/Factsheets/pdfs/bovine_tuberculosis.pdf

 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are disabling our girls

I found the last few months of each of my pregnancies frustrating because I couldn’t pick up a box of groceries on my own, or carry my three year old very far, or even pull on my own shoes naturally.

Pregnancy has been the closest I’ve come to being disabled, and it was obviously temporary and ended in a pretty terrific way. But I was thinking about disability, and self inflicted disability this morning as I walked with Callie and her friend to the store.

The two were a magnificent sight – they had each tied ratty-haired dolls on to their fronts with scarves to mimic baby carriers. Callie was also wearing a pink tiered dress that used to belong to her older brother.

Callie tried to put on her shoes, but couldn’t see over the tulle. She tried to balance on the kerb, and couldn’t see over the tiers to put one foot in front of the other –  temporarily disabled by the dress.

We live in rapidly changing times for women. Thanks to Google’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, Google headquarters has priority parking for pregnant employees [but what about the rest of the world?]. I have friends who tell me that Disney has come a long way since my brief forays into its media in the early 90’s. I’m sure it has, and yet –

Callie’s friend brought over a favorite toy to play with today, a pony called Princess Cadence. Princess Cadence has a recording that says “today is my wedding day,” and “my dress is SO pretty.”

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I’m looking at this bloody pony [and no, it is not wearing a dress, so it’s a lying pony too] now and wondering how I’m going to stop Callie from consuming too much of this girly crap.

Over lunch, I told Haakon about the pony.

“It could say anything, any neutral statement, like ‘I can fly so fast,” I said.

“Yeah, or it could say ‘I have wings but no cloaca,” he answered.

The pony also giggles. This reminds me that a few weeks ago, Atticus’ best friend, a six year old girl, was at our house for a sleepover. In the morning, over pancakes and a conversation about water vapor, she turned to him and said to him in an unnaturally high voice “you’re so smart, I will NEVER be as smart as you!”

The bombshell was followed by a high giggle which ended in a question.

Kids are always testing out new ways of being. So I tried not to over react [but I probably did] and explained to her that there are different kinds of smart and to never let anyone tell her she wasn’t smart. 

I told my friend about what her daughter had said, and she commented that no one at the school had ever told her that her daughter was smart.

“What do they say?” I asked.

Staff apparently tell my friend that her daughter is cute, and distracted.

It’s not that I believe that schools are ultimately responsible for how a child sees themselves, but they are a place for equalizing. In our small, rural community, not every kid goes home to food in the fridge, but at school, all kids qualify for free lunch.

Atticus and his friend have an advantage when it comes to gender equalizing – a strong and positive female principal, and a kindergarten teacher who, in her mid twenties, has already partially lost nine toes to frostbite after a grueling ascent in Nepal.

And yet – when my husband and I go in on alternating Wednesday to help with math groups in the kinder classroom, I can’t help but notice that the girls are distracted.

They are distracted by silky blue sashes, scratchy lace shoulders and ribbons in braids.

Are we really here already, in kindergarten?

At 14, I picked up a copy of Naomi Wolf’s ‘The Beauty Myth’ and read it in one sitting. 

A recent re reading showed Atty’s friend in new light – shivering in leggings, pretty in red velvet, stopping to cry and dump snow out of her boots while Atticus, snug in snow pants, clambered happily over snow banks on the way to school. 

“The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance,” Wolf writes.

After reading Wolf’s book the first time as a teenager, I went right back to rubbing weird smelling fake tan on my legs and being concerned about looking hot at school. I occasionally took detentions instead of wearing our school uniform, and convinced my parents to write me notes excusing me from wearing it.

But I was a teenager.

My parents had already gifted me a childhood with very little emphasis on looks. Until I went to school I wore track pants and dirty ugh boots and skirts with no undies so I could easily pee outside.

I had a heart to heart with my friend in which she argued that dictating her daughters clothing choices would stifle her creativity, and I argued there was a time and place for creative dressing and it was not school or physical activity.

Or – dress as creatively as you like, as long as it’s weather appropriate and won’t stop you from joining in on an activity. So long as you can still embody the ditty the kids sing on the way home from school: “a verb is a word, it’s an action word!”

Soon after our discussion,  I watched both kids one afternoon after school. It was cold out, because we live in Montana and the school year fits neatly into the nine months of  cold. 

Atty suggested climbing a big tree in the neighborhood they had never climbed before.

His friend, wearing stretchy jeans, a sweater and a warm hat, agreed and as I glimpsed them out the window, I saw her – a glorious pink and blue monkey, climbing higher and higher and leaving Atticus far behind.

So next time she asks I will tell Callie she can not wear fluffy dresses to the store. She might cry, and I will explain that I want her to be able to move her body naturally and climb on stuff if she wants to.

There can be times in a woman’s life when femininity presents some form of disability, but there is no reason for that to happen during childhood.

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Wandering folk/mind the gap

“The train on platform two goes to central station. Please mind the gap.”

The familiar droll announcement on the Sydney train network greets us when we first arrive back in Australia. I stand at the station, jetlagged, exhausted and with tears in my eyes, letting the routine, dependable noise wash over me.

After a flat white and a lamington under a winding fig tree, we’re off and away to my brother’s house in Canberra, but the gap is ahead of us:

A strange by-product of moving between the US and Australia every few years is the period we’re living right now – when work, housing, cars and all the routines that keep us grounded are not [yet] secured.

It’s either an empty space, a gap in our lives, or a long holiday – depending on how you think about it.

Although I now have more time to lie in bed with the kids, rock hop on big granite boulders at the creek and breathe in the sweet smell of flowering pittosporum, I can’t shake the feeling that life gaps are associated with negative events.

It seems we take gaps only when we are forced to, and that these times are often thought of as setbacks or gaps in the resume. We take time off because we are caring for a loved one, caring for our own health or in a period of unemployment.

Although we’ve chosen our current situation, and planned for it financially, I feel the absence of routine – every day is wide open, a Wednesday just as good as a Saturday for hours spent reading the paper over coffee.

Haak and I find ourselves having regular meeting-chats to narrow our focus and cocoon our goals.

Not having a job title, project or business to identify with feels a little raw in our society which values economically productive work above all else.

Wanting to find out more about how to thrive outside the bounds of 9-5, I talked to Sharnee Thorpe of Wandering Folk [who happens to be a family friend] to find out how someone who has designed a [gorgeous!] range of waterproof outdoor picnic rugs, pillows and coolers and shaped her life around the idea of freedom and travel deals with the ups and downs of being on the move.

Sharnee laughed when I suggested she was an expert traveller. “I’d like to think I’m an expert on wandering,” she said, “my family was always travelling and I knew from a young age that I wanted to work hard so I could travel more.”

There’s a well-known phenomenon in Australia, known as a gap year, often taken between high school and uni [college], when young people are excused from having a proper job and encouraged to travel, work seasonal or temporary jobs and explore the world.

Australians have worked at least this bit of socially-sanctioned free time into our culture, while Americans tend to jump straight from high school to college to a full-time job to cover the higher costs of health insurance and student loans.

Sharnee echoes the Australian ethos when she says: ” travelling is more important than university. Travel first then go to uni. Travel teaches you everything you need to know in life – how to live on a tight budget and make your money last, how to make new friends, learn a new language and learn about new cultures.”

Her 33,000 Instagram followers show that Sharnee’s life is appealing to many people – something to fantasize about when they are deep in the humdrum of work, gym, latte, meeting.

But having a business means never being away from work and Sharnee said she checks emails daily when in service. “As a freelance print designer and with running Wandering Folk, I always have to work when I’m travelling,” Sharnee told me, “it’s a blessing …and a curse at times.”

Sharnee has worked gaps into her working life, but not everyone is comfortable with so much change and lack of routine.

I’ve talked to two people in their 20’s since I’ve been back who are about to accept promotions and change jobs and both of them looked confused when I asked if they would take a few weeks or months off in between.

It’s not the done thing, but there’s good reason to pursue big changes and breaks in our lives, especially for encouraging creativity.

Sharnee says she tries to keep her work commitments to one day a week while she’s travelling, and saves big projects for when she is settled in her Northern NSW studio – but scrolling through Wandering Folk’s expansive Instagram feed, it’s clear that travel brings inspiration to Sharnee’s design work.22708792_132988623959006_8074818904829984768_n

Our friend Michael Menager, an American musician and songwriter who has lived in Australia for thirty years asked me last week how I was going with moving back.

We were doing some digging to level out Michael’s new deck area, and when I answered that it was a bit gappy but going well, he squinted at me in the bright Aussie sun, kicking up dust with his shovel, and said in his Aussiemerican accent “well, you know what I think? having these spaces in our lives is a good time to be creative. So get into your writing.”

So maybe I’ve been confusing a life-gap with emptiness and doing nothing. Wandering Folk functions because Sharnee works as hard as she plays, the beach picnics in her Instagram feed a well-earned reward for balancing work and play.

Finding small routines within a period of travel or uncertainty is helpful too. “Most of the places I travel now have yoga, which helps me keep in a vague routine and maintain my health while on the road,” Sharnee said, “but I do miss being able to cook my own meals while travelling – especially being vegetarian.”

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There are only a few reasons people don’t feel like they, too, could become wandering folk. Money is one reason [re-structuring your financial commitments is possible barring unusual circumstances, check out my $20,000 annual budget here] identity and fear another.  But habit might be the most common reason.

Once we’re in the habit of a 9-5 routine, it feels impossible to imagine anything else.

If you threw it all in and took a sabbatical, what would bloom in the sweet panic of empty time and space?

It’s important to remember that you belong on the magic picnic rug as much as I do and Sharnee does. If you’d rather be dancing on an empty road and experience days stretched out ahead of you, or just think you might like to try it, go ahead.

This world is yours. [but pack speakers, Sharnee’s most-often used item when travelling].

Wandering folk don’t mind a gap. We just jump.

climb [Haakon climbing at Tantawanglo river. September 2018]

Special thanks to Sharnee Thorpe, who provided me with stunning pictures and the quote below.  Please buy one of Sharnee’s stunning weatherproof picnic rugs before you quit your job and can’t afford to anymore!

And check out the Wandering Folk website, Instagram and Facebook page for inspiration as to what your gap might look like …

 

“Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” ― Ibn Battut

 

 

Smoke gets in our lives

When we left Montana in early September, smoke from local and regional forest fires was thick, for the second summer in a row.

My tomatoes hung, unripe, on their bushes, a disappointing reminder of how little direct sun we had received this year. Dips in the lake were always accompanied by the throb of helicopters and light aircraft overhead.

The sorrow of losing the last bluebird days of summer to smog was nothing compared to the suffering of those who couldn’t go outside because of compromised lung function [there’s a few of them in Lincoln County because of a vermiculite mine that operated in Libby in the 70’s and 80’s].

When we returned to Australia a few weeks ago, we returned to smoke from bushfires. The Yankees Gap fire – a highly unusual winter fire which started last month and has burnt for over 30 days, flared up again on the day of our welcome-back picnic at Kianninny bay, driven by strong warm winds.

It’s unsurprising, given how dry it is, especially for this time of year [you can read my first impressions of arriving home to drought here]

When my brother drove us from Canberra to my parent’s place in rural NSW for the first time, the dry was evident, especially after living in the relatively wet and green forests of northwestern Montana.

As Laurie drove us closer to mum and dad’s house, along their dirt track driveway, and saw the bush full of tall, dead wattles draped in long strands of crackly bark, I said: “you know what this place needs?”.

My brother and I looked at each other and at the tinderbox out the car windows and said in unison “a good fire.”

Despite summer after summer of preparation for the inevitable, for over 30 years the bush around my parent’s place has never burnt. Perhaps this will be the year.

In many ways, in Montana and in the Bega Valley, it’s the same story. A noticeable increase in the frequency of wildfires year by year. An increase in how hot each fire burns, and in how long it’s out of control for – and in how many structures are lost.

But the narrative I hear about wildfire is vastly different in each country, in each place. Here on the far south coast of NSW, a dominant narrative is about human-induced climate change – words that are never spoken in rural Montana.

Instead, the narrative in conservative Montana is that because environmentalists [often presumed to live elsewhere/in California] have held up logging operations with litigation, causing economic decline, the loss of a beloved timber industry and now ever-worsening wildfires.

A Facebook post that circulated a month ago showed the rage felt by some rural Montanans towards this “other”: “…. all you environmentalists that wanted to save our forests up here, I’m inviting you to live in what we have to now, you think air pollution is bad right now where you are? Let me tell you, when you can smell smoke from your basement, and you have ash raining down on you on a daily basis, then we can talk. I invite you to our state of Montana, so you can see what your responsible for. You might think lightning is responsible, but in all reality it’s your ignorant thought processes that hold up timber sales and logging in litigation that leads to disasters like this.”

Ironically, the environmentalists living in California and trying to stop logging in the north-west are living in a state that has had a hell of a fire season for the last few years, so it’s safe to say that smoke gets in their eyes too.

In the last few days, firefighters have finally contained the Mendocino fire, the largest and longest burning fire in California’s history. The blaze has killed a firefighter, destroyed 280 structures and covered an area about the same the size as California’s beloved sprawling city, Los Angles.

While everyone looks for someone to blame for the increase out-of-control wildfires, one thing is clear: the fires affect everyone, rich and poor. While money, to some extent, can provide an escape, our recent global trip showed a sameness about this year’s extreme heat and dry that is unavoidable.

A quick peek in the Guardian this morning confirmed the global nature of this year’s heat – Africa recorded it’s hottest ever temperature [of 51. 3C! that’s 123 F] at a weather station in the Sahara desert, and Sweden, a country which usually experiences an average of three wildfires in a summer, has had over 50 this year.

While global warming is certainly implicated, other weather factors, such as a weak jet stream [a core wind pattern that moves weather around the globe] and changes to sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic [known as the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation] are at play as well.

[Thanks to Simon at simonsweather.org who first explained these concepts to me].

The Facebook post which circulated this summer in Montana ends cheerfully and with an admirable maturity level: “We as Montanan’s, and I as well, think I can say this for the entire state to personally hold you responsible for what our living conditions are. And you wonder why we don’t like you!

On the subject of heat and fire, it’s clear that my Montana community is not alone in searching for someone or something to blame.

But we must think globally on this one – humans don’t like extreme heat and dry and we don’t like how accustomed to the milky blue haze we are becoming.

Smoke is in our lives and it makes us all anxious, searching for an escape route, or an escape goat, or a scapegoat.  Like the animals we are.

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Smoky goodbye party at beautiful Milnor Lake, Troy, Montana. Late August 2018.