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Things of 2017

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A lot changed for me in 2017. I got married. I got my driver’s licence. I moved out of Wellington. I became a father. I had a brush with mortality. Each of these big changes begat dozens more smaller changes, and from the outside, it might seem my life has been upended and rewritten.

My inner life, however, is largely the same. I still like to read, write, and watch movies, albeit with less tolerance for violence and misery. I still dwell on things a bit more than I’d like. Bottle feeds at five a.m. are part of my life now, and the logistics of keeping the roof over our family – going to work, power bills, rubbish collections etc. – fall largely to me, but the piles of books on the floor and incomplete manuscripts on the computer (and dearth of new blog posts) show I am still fundamentally quite lazy.

Still, nothing ever stays exactly the same in your mind. I’m not sure if it was having kids, or just getting older, but I am quicker to anger than ever before. I have become far less tolerant and forgiving of unpleasant behaviour, and I’ve started to speak up more against it. I even began to relish the opportunity to tap into my ire, mostly on other motorists. Actually, this new tendency to anger may be solely attributable to my spending a lot of time – several days if you add it all up – behind the wheel of a car. But, with politics and #metoo and the intersection between them, there was plenty to get angry about in 2017.

It never lasts, though. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away. The constant shrinking and expanding of life abides.

Health

superficial spreading melanoma stage 1a breslow skin cancerAt the back end of 2016, two months before the wedding, I told Tara a mole on my left ankle had become itchy. Increasingly catastrophic discussion of maladies and death followed, at the end of which she set out an ultimatum: there would be no marriage unless I got a mole map before the wedding date. I’d meant to get one for years, but here at last was an effective motivator.

The session began with a quick brief on what the melanographer was looking for: asymmetry, jagged margins, six millimetres or more in diameter, different colours. “Down to your underwear and we’ll get started,” she said. It wasn’t that uncomfortable; I’m a lot less worried about other people seeing my body than I was at 16, when surgeons at Greenlane carved five ugly lumps out of my body and left unsightly scars behind, or at 19, when a consultant and six student doctors poked and prodded at me on a bed in Christchurch Hospital. On both of those occasions, the surgery and the skin check, it was all just a precaution. I assumed this time would be the same.

‘Possible melanoma’, said the words on the report, referring to a lesion on my inner left forearm. Tara used to call it my yin-yang mole because it had a dark part curled around a light part. We were both rather fond of it. Left unchecked, it could have killed me. Out it came: first in a tight excision, then with a 5mm margin, just to make sure it hadn’t spread deeper or wider. (The mole on my ankle — the one that sparked all this — was fine, unremarkable.)

I have a ten-centimetre scar where the yin-yang mole was, much bigger and more obtrusive than the original lesion. The skin around it is numb or hypersensitive depending on how it’s touched. I feel like a fraud even using the ‘c’ word, given how minimally it had invaded my body and how easily it was treated, but I did have cancer. It sat right there on my arm on hot summer days. Please, keep an eye on your skin, and get it checked if you are in any doubt.

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All that was nothing compared to my wife’s pregnancy. She carried two babies (and two placentas and a whole lot of amniotic fluid and double her usual blood volume, a good 15-20 kilograms) for 38 weeks, suffered nausea throughout (don’t believe anyone who says it always stops at 14 weeks), lost all her fitness, and ultimately endured major surgery to bring them into the world. She assimilated knowledge of the many possible disasters that might befall her and the children along the way, and she managed these risks with regular adjustments to her behaviour and routine, even if it meant giving up something she loved.

It’s the most impressive physical feat I’ve ever observed up close. And then came the trials of breastfeeding and sleep deprivation, which she is bearing mostly with aplomb. I am in awe of her and her incredible body — forever changed, still recovering, but incredible above all.

Music

This year, I made an effort to hear a good amount of new music. I have this subscription to Spotify, which gives me access to more music than I could ever possibly listen to, and which includes virtually all new releases, even obscure ones. Keeping up with the latest has never been easier.

So, here’s a playlist of some of the best music I came across in 2017. A real mixture. You should be able to find at least one thing on here that you’ll like.

Particular favourites included:

Bedouine – ethereal, Americana-tinged folk by a Syrian-born Armenian; an effortless listen
Blanck Mass – an old favourite, new album World Eater was billed as harsh and abrasive (and this being Blanck Mass, it often is), but it is less of a punch to the face than his previous record and contains many thrilling, spine-tingling moments of beauty
Charly Bliss – Pixies-esque, harsh-edged, incredibly addictive punk-pop that is rougher than the bubblegum bounce its vocals might initially suggest
Grizzly Bear – a five-year wait since the last album, and was it worth it? Well, they’re as tight as ever, but such perfection can feel cold at first; it took me a while to warm to this and once I did, it wouldn’t get out of my head
H. Hawkline – perhaps my album of the year, certainly my favourite discovery of 2017, catchy guitar pop in a crystal-clear Welsh accent, all sounds trimmed clean
Kendrick Lamar – finally listened to this guy and he is outstanding, a percussive and lyrically complex rap artist, in his element as a strong black voice in a year of necessary protest
Public Service Broadcasting – Every Valley, a concept piece about coal mining in Wales, is their best record yet
Slowdive – shoegaze is back with a dreamy new masterpiece from some old hands, I tended to restart this immediately after it finished

But if I had to pick one song, it would be ‘Big Enough’ by Kirin J. Callinan, featuring Alex Cameron, Molly Lewis, and Jimmy Barnes. Silly, earnest, and ridiculously catchy, with Barnesy delivering a best-ever scream, it’s like they made it just for me.

Finally, I got to see one of my favourite bands live this year, and that was Pixies. My expectations were not high; it’s a long time since their peak, Kim Deal isn’t part of the band any more, and their new songs are fine but have none of the thrill or menace of their old songs. But then they wandered out onto the stage and fired up with Gouge Away, one of my favourites, and blazed through a 30-song set with barely a five-second pause between each song. I was carried away.

Politics

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, stripesA lot happened in politics this year. We got a new government in New Zealand. Donald Trump became president of the United States. Both of these events were dramatic and surprising reversals of the status quo – perhaps not a complete upending of it, but the landscape is undoubtedly changed. And it was all many of us could talk about.

Me, I was personally struck by a couple of political things in 2017. First, during the interregnum, Green Party MP Julie Anne Genter went on Morning Report and explained she was not a party delegate so would not have a vote at the Greens’ conference to determine their approach to coalition negotiations. Genter is a prominent public face of the party; she’s been in Parliament since 2011, is third on the Greens list, speaks for the party on transport and women’s issues (among other portfolios), and has been touted as a potential future co-leader. She comes from a strong professional background in transportation planning. And yet, when the Greens meet behind closed doors, 180-odd delegates unknown to the public have a vote but she does not. This disenfranchisement of MPs within the party might be commonplace across the political spectrum, but that would only make a strange thing even stranger.

Second, I know a few people who refused to vote in this election because they did not feel any of the parties represented their interests. I’ve often defended those who don’t vote because I think it’s undemocratic to compel people to turn out at the polling booth, and I still believe this, but it has started to frustrate me. If you don’t vote because you want bigger change than any of the options on offer, and you aren’t standing for election yourself, how are you going to explain that to those in poverty? To their children? To mine? For all the talk you often hear about NZ politics being mild and samey compared to polarised places like the USA, there are tangible policy differences between parties (and independent candidates) on critical elements of our society: health and education, for example. Do these differences not matter to you? Is the long-term crusade worth some short-term pain?

Sport

I was largely inactive this year, apart from the odd game of beach cricket and a few runs. My appreciation of sport has turned back to the screen: football highlights every Sunday morning, and if there’s cricket happening, it’s on by default, especially if it’s night and Tara thinks she might struggle to get to sleep. “Is there any cricket on?” And if there isn’t, she sometimes asks me to tell her cricket stories, like a spoken word lullaby. “Tell me about Bradman.”

Fortunately, she doesn’t only find cricket soporific. Just the other day, she was disappointed there was no Super Smash on for us to watch together while we fed the kids. So, after four years together, my enthusiasm for cricket appears to have taken root in her.

The next thing is to grow my daughters into White Ferns. To live vicariously through the achievements of my children. To go full Sports Dad. I’m sure that’ll go down well.

Film

I didn’t see many new films in 2017, but I did watch on in thrilled, appalled shock as a succession of sacred relics was picked off for their transgressions. First, Harvey Weinstein’s victims; then Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Singer, and more. It was a familiar story, usually ignored, but this time it stuck. It had everyone — every man, at least — trawling their memory for instances of assault or harassment. I hope it means things are never the same again. (See also: my post on whether you can separate the art from the artist.)

Okay, but what new films did I see? Just these ones, with order of preference in brackets. (Connect with me on Letterboxd to follow my film-watching in real time.)

SILENCE (1)
BEYOND THE KNOWN WORLD (7)
GET OUT (2)
LOGAN (8)
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (5)
THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS (9)
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 (6)
WONDER WOMAN (4)
MOTHER! (3)

Tech

2018TechWith every year that passes, I get further behind the tech curve, safe in my Luddite haven. There are four computers in our house but the newest is from 2012. There are two smartphones, both cheap and a couple of years out of date. There is one television and its projection is via cathode ray tube. There are two cars in the driveway: one from 2000, the other from 1991. Still, I sit on Facebook and Twitter a lot more than I’d like to.

Tangentially related: I have finally come to understand that Silicon Valley innovations, and those of startup culture generally, are not necessarily good for society. Sitting on Facebook and Twitter is the obvious one, especially Facebook, with its unholy quest to capture as much of the global population’s attention as it can. If Uber (a company that will never have me as a customer, for the awfully unimaginative name as much as the dodgy business practices and toxic work culture) reaches its goal of a fleet of ultra-safe, self-driving cars, the roads will become a funnel for capital to Uber shareholders, and they will have the power to shut them down any time they like. So, for that matter, will hackers. Such ideas are presented as a logical next step for our species, an evolution; we all need to pay attention and speak out, with words and dollars, when we see that it isn’t as simple as that.

Books

2018BooksThis year, I undertook a new project: prioritise reading books from years ending in 7. I put together a master reading list of books from 1917, 1927, 1937 etc., aiming for a variety of voices (i.e. female, people of colour) in there, and hoped the jumping around in time wouldn’t be too taxing on my rather comfortable reading mind.

I managed 45 books in the end, most from this project. You can browse them here (and please, add me as a friend on Goodreads if you haven’t already!). The highlights:

‘Summer’ by Edith Wharton (1917)
‘Oil!’ by Upton Sinclair (1927)
‘Trout Fishing in America’ by Richard Brautigan (1967)
‘Consider Phlebas’ by Iain M. Banks (1987)
‘Underworld’ by Don DeLillo (1997)
‘Then We Came To The End’ by Joshua Ferris (2007)
‘Rants in the Dark’ by Emily Writes (2017)
‘The Whole Intimate Mess’ by Holly Walker (2017)
‘The New Animals’ by Pip Adam (2017)

And a few major disappointments:

‘Death on the Nile’ by Agatha Christie (1937)
‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac (1957)
‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ by Mitch Albom (1997)

The same project will go for 2018, and 2019, and so on until I get bored of it. It’s the best time travel we’ve got.

Travel

2018TravelOn the fourth day of our honeymoon, Tara and I hired a two-person sailboat and tacked out to the middle of Muri Lagoon. Neither of us had ever sailed before. “It’s not that hard,” said the incredibly laconic, shirtless man who had drawn some basic diagrams in the sand and sent us on our way.

That first leg was tense. If we weren’t shouting half-baked instructions at each other, we were crouching in uncertain silence. Then we came to the buoy we had pointed ourselves at, and I announced I would try to manoeuvre us around it, so I gently leant on the tiller.

In no time at all, we were whipped around in the breeze, picking up pace as we turned. I panicked and strained to pull the rudder back to a more neutral position. The boat started to list, Tara screamed, and we plunged into the water.

I thought Tara might be freaked out by this, but instead, she roared with laughter. I was confused and distracted for a moment, then I started laughing too. We righted the boat, hauled ourselves up into it, and headed back in the other direction — with Tara at the tiller this time. “My turn! I want a go!”

We must have capsized another six or seven times in the next two hours as we hurtled back and forth across the lagoon. Every time, Tara’s amusement would ring out across the water, drawing stares from sunbathers on the beach. We got terrifically sunburnt and drank a litre of saltwater each, and there was the food and the snorkelling and the cheery hospitality, but that mad sailing experiment was the most fun we had on our holiday.

People

I was a family of one for many years, intermittently linking with brothers and parents but still very much a loner. And then Tara came along and became my family.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, beard and outdoor

We were married in February on a day that drove us mad in the planning but is increasingly golden in our memories. Friends and family came and smiled with us in the sun, and if we don’t get to see them much now, at least we got to see them that day. It helps that Meeko & Redge captured such perfect images for us: romantic but not idealised, formal but not constrained. Their photos show our best selves, loving and joyous and a bit messy.

Soon after – thank you, Rarotonga – we found out our family was growing inside Tara’s belly. Soon after that, at the 12-week scan, two blobs on the monitor indicated we would be a family of four. Just like that! And so 2017 became, more than anything, the year of pregnancy: bearing it, managing it, supporting it.

Nora and June were born in November. Because they are my babies, and I therefore see them for several hours a day, observing their subtle developments and interacting with them more and more, they are the most interesting babies in the history of the universe. Their enormous eyes, deep blue and alive, stare out at me (or at least the wall behind me) for several hours a day. Their limbs flail about haphazardly when I plonk them on the change table, or under the play gym, or in the bouncer by the window. The work of caring for them is long and repetitive, but never boring: their continuous development and discovery forces us into the moment.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, baby and hat

My dad told me in the lead-up that once they’re out, everything changes. He was right, but not in the way I expected. In Lost In Translation, Bill Murray’s character says at the moment of your child’s birth, “your life as you know it is gone, never to return”. Instead, I feel a great expansion of possibility for all four of us. Easy for me to say as the dad who goes off to work each day and gets barely ten per cent of the social pressure of parenthood, right? But Tara is in the most meaningful ways the same Tara, just like I am the same Barns – valuing the same ideals, preoccupied with the same thoughts, distracted by the same distractions – but with bigger, fuller hearts (and perpetual bags under our eyes). The thought of what lies ahead has never been so exciting.

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“the blog has given me a reason and the freedom to enjoy writing again”

Jill Haszard is the author of Just Bung It In, a blog about being a mum, wife and PhD student. She is also my sister-in-law, married to my DJ brother, and mother to my nephew and one of my nieces. After spending a few years in Sydney in the early part of the 00s, she and her family decided NZ was the place they wanted to be and started making a life in Dunedin; her posts reflect the various aspects of family life in NZ’s deep south – school, work, holidays, the neighbourhood, renovating, househunting etc.

Her words and photographs are obviously very meaningful to me as a close family member, but my enjoyment of them is not merely obligatory. I feel her writing style has just the right amount of detail and is very easy to get lost in – not to mention some charming experiments with the structure of her posts. Seeing my niece and nephew grow through her blog is an important part of my life, and it’s also fascinating and informative to learn more about her PhD study in nutrition.

Like most of my interviewees, Jill is a very busy person, but still found time to answer my questions. I suppose that busy people are much better at getting things done!

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Why did you start blogging?

To connect with friends and family that live far away. To share photos of my children with those that I want to be a part of their lives.

Have you ever kept a personal journal? If so, do you see Just Bung It In as an extension of that journal?

I have kept journals in the past but I think the blog is quite different because it has that immediate audience. However, I do see my blog as a diary of sorts. It is a record of bits of my life and I really enjoy reading over past blogs and looking at the photos, as I would a photo album or a scrapbook.

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

When I was 5 years old I wrote a story that was at least a whole page long. I drew a picture to go with it and I felt that I had written this epic masterpiece. Mum sent it into the local newspaper and they printed it – I was so proud but it was a reality check to see my story printed in only two lines…. I guess my hand-writing was quite large when I was 5.

I’ve always enjoyed writing to some extent. What I’ve lacked is the confidence that I’m any good at it and I eventually came to the conclusion that it will never be a great skill of mine. However, the blog has given me a reason and the freedom to enjoy writing again.

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

There are only two things in this world that actually make my tummy flip with their beauty: my children. Sorry to be such a cliché Mum!

My daughter’s smattering of freckles; my son’s brown eyes; their knees; their necks; their skin; their lips; all the little parts that amaze me. When they are busy and lost in their own little worlds I don’t want to take my eyes off them because they are absolutely stunning to me and perfect in that moment. Nothing in this beautiful world even comes close to the beauty that I see in my kids.

You maintain a posting frequency of about once or twice a week, despite being very busy. Do you set specific time aside in your weekly routine to write, or is it whenever you get a chance?

If I go for longer than a week without posting a blog Mum rings me up and complains. I write for my Mum!

I do prioritise blogging because it is something that is important to me. I also know that if I left it three weeks, or more, it would become this massive task to catch up and I don’t have the time to do that. So even if it is just a small story, a thought or a stack of photos, I keep it chugging along so that things don’t get away from me. I don’t put too much pressure on myself to make it perfect, I just do it (hence ‘That’ll do’) and that works for me. Usually a Saturday night offers itself to blogging.

Has your blog helped you in other areas of your life?

Interesting question. I’m going to say yes to that one because it helps to form my ideas and thoughts more. When I’m mulling over something I want it to develop and mature a bit before it becomes a blog topic. Also, having a blog about my life helps me to see the good side of things. It helps me to see myself as worthwhile. Oh, and I can’t forget that the regular writing will probably have been a good thing when I come to write my thesis – eek!

Do you feel that you have complete control over ‘Just Bung It In’, that it has a life of its own and evolves on its own, or somewhere in-between?

I feel I have total control over it. It’s my life story really and I pick what goes in there!

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

No I don’t think so. The blog posts that I enjoy rereading the most are the ones with pictures of holidays and the little stories of things that my kids and husband do. In the end, this blog is for me.

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

At this time in my life I have no pressing urge to travel the world. I love New Zealand. My dream holiday is the one that we take every Summer: camping on a classic NZ beach with friends and family. If I won Lotto I wouldn’t change the destination, I would only buy a bigger tent and a flasher beach lounger.

Ask me this question in 10 years and it may be a different answer!

Do you believe in God?

I believe that every individual has their own reality so God does exist for some. I don’t deny the existence of God for others. However, my reality does not have a God. I believe in nature and the wonder of the world. I believe that there is more. But I don’t believe in a God.

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This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click here.

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“Inaie the blogger is the one who cannot keep her mouth shut, and she tells on all other Inaies”

At Yosemite, California

Inaie Ramalho is the author of Inaie – out and about, a blog about her life and travels as a serial expat. Her homeland is Brazil but she has lived in Australia, New Zealand and the UAE, and is currently based in Bahrain with her husband and two daughters. She writes mostly about her and her family’s travels and lives, with plenty of accompanying photos, but also about all the people close to her in her life.

‘Out and about’ is certainly true, then, but one realises that she has her eyes wide open with curiosity as she goes from place to place, person to person, experience to experience. Her writing is typically open-hearted and direct – she has little use for self-censorship – but a sense of what really matters to her shines through, as well as a desire to learn and understand more about herself and the world around her.

I discovered her blog after she left a comment on mine, and was immediately intrigued by the fact that she double-blogs in English and in Portuguese (which she clarifies further below). Having looked into her archives and found them at times hilarious, at other times moving, I asked if she would answer a few questions, and she responded in record time. All photos used with permission.

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Why did you start blogging?

When I left Brazil I started writing  emails with “my stories” to friends back home. They were emails with my feelings, my discoveries and a bit about everything. A way to stay connected. 10 years later, I was still sending the same emails, but my “receivers” list was much larger and incorporated friends from all countries where I lived. I was writing my emails twice. In English and in Portuguese.
If I were tired, fed up, or just had nothing to say and did not write frequently enough, these friends would send me angry emails, complaining about my absence.
Because of it, I made a point of writing regularly, but Yahoo was blocking my account every other day, calling me a “spammer”. Every time I was blocked I felt so p’off, I would promise I would start blogging. But then Yahoo would unblock me, and I would forget all about it.
I also had several friends asking me to start blogging. BLOG! BLOG! BLOG! they would say…
Recently I met a FAB lady who is a professional blogger, she translates blogs from several languages, she does a pretty serious job with this blogging business. When she told me I should blog, I thought: Well, maybe I should. ‘A’ is someone who knows what she is doing… she has not been my friend for long and has no reason to say things just to please me.
I started the blog, thanked her for “making me do it” and received furious emails from all those friends who have been saying the same thing for ages, with no result.

Bridge near San Simeon, California

Do you keep a journal? If so, what relationship do your blog and your journal have with each other?

Nah. No journal. My mother used to break the lockers to read my teenager journals. Initially I would make up these horrible stories, about unthinkable things, just to terrify her. After a while I just lost interest. If I could not be true to my journal because my darling mother would read it, what was the point? I never went back to journal writing, unfortunately. Today, my revenge is to write things she would not want to know in an open forum – and I know she still reads it.

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

I always enjoyed writing, I remember being 8 or 9, and spending hours making up stories… As I grew up, I realized real stories are far more fun!

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

This is going to sound so tacky, but my girls’ smiles are the most amazing sight. When they look at me and smile, the whole world changes colors, all sounds seem far more clear and beautiful. It is just amazing!

I have pictures of them on my phone; when things get rough, I just look at them and smile too.

Ramalho girls in Santa Barbara

You blog in both English and Portuguese. Do you try to convey the same feeling in both languages, or do you attempt to express yourself with the difference nuances of meaning to which each language lends itself?

You are mistaken. My blog is both in BAD Portuguese and Pidgin English, as I explain in the first line of the blog, but your question has its merit. Initially, my idea was to write in one language and then translate to the other – but as I started doing it, I found it just impossible. I write one story, then when I tell the other one, I remember different facts, I use other visuals; I just write all over again instead of just translating it. Sometimes the texts are completely different, although they talk about the same thing and they are both true.

Have your experiences living and travelling in various different countries changed your belief system(s)?

They sure have. This lifestyle taught me to be more tolerant with the world and see people under a different light. I used to think WE were right (whoever we were) and THEY were wrong. Now I don’t believe in us and them. People are just submitted to different stimuli, grow up under different circumstances and form their values based on these experiences.
People behave different because they see things different. In most cases, there is no right or wrong, in my opinion.
All this traveling made me want to travel more, want to know more, to learn more… life is a fascinating journey!

On the road in California

In your Blogger profile, you mention ‘several Inaies living together under one identity’. Would you say the ‘blogger Inaie’ is distinct from the others, or more an attempt at representing all of them?

Inaie the blogger is the one who cannot keep her mouth shut, and she tells on all other Inaies. She is the gossiper. She would get in trouble, but would not lose the opportunity to tell her story. With my life story, I do live many different realities in one. I am an only child, but I live far, far away from my parents. I love my dad desperately, but I have not seen him in four years. If you ask how I would feel if I did not see my children for a year, I would say it would just not happen. I could not survive without them. Both of them. I am Brazilian, but I am not your “regular” Brazilian. I am a workaholic who is in a huge crisis because I just found out there is life beyond the office desk (but don’t give me an office desk, I will get stuck in it), I am all for equality and sometimes catch myself being so totalitarian. I am a walking contradiction. I have always been told I am different, but no one ever managed to explain “different” how – and it haunts me. I would really like to know who I am. Sometimes I have no idea what I want or how to get it…

Michael, a friend of mine, once gave this close definition about me:

‘I want it all – and I want it now…’

That sounds pretty real.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

To be honest, my blog is a window into my soul. It is not supposed to be pretty, fun or anything specifically. It is just meant to be a piece of me, to tell my story, my thoughts, my feelings. And to register my journey… I am not afraid to show my ugly sides. I have plenty of them. I guess I am proud of having my blog, and I am sooo grateful (and surprised) people actually read it.

Sunset in San Simeon

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

I would love to visit Iran. And Morocco. And India. I also would like to visit Oman and see sea turtles. Mexico too. I would like to go to Turkey and fly over Capadoccia. Ireland is in my list of countries to visit, so are Vietnam and Lebanon… oh, sorry – you said ONE! But there are so many other places I would like to experience…

A country I would revisit? To be honest, I am not ito revisiting places. Given the opportunity, I will always choose the one I have not been to. In saying that, I would like to take my teenage girls to Egypt and to Jordan, to share the beauty of these places with them, especially because we are so close and these destinations are so magic…
I would not consider going to these places again if it were not to show them to Anita and Lia.

Do you believe in God?

I sure do. I just feel very sad for all the atrocities men do in name of Him. I am sure it pisses him off too.

***

This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click here.

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NOW THAT YOU’RE GONE IT HIT US

I’m having to get this out slowly over a long period of time, as computers in India’s cyber cafes aren’t quite as cooperative as one might hope. Here’s what happened around the 24th of August.

On Friday (the 23rd) I said goodbye to my landlords Tetsuko and Kotaro, the sweetest folks one could hope for. The other housemate cooked an incredible Mexican dinner and T & K gave me a Japanese-style bandana, which was a wonderful gesture. A wise person said that once you’ve gotten past the surface of Japanese people and spent enough time with them, they will do anything for you, like they’re investing something emotional in you that they so rarely do.

I was to see this on an even greater level the next day. Mika, fellow teacher mentioned a couple of posts earlier, had said she would come to the airport to see me off, so I thought we’d have lunch or something and then say our sad goodbyes… instead, the whole family turned up – Mika & her husband, Koji, her mother, sister and sister’s 4 kids (2 of which I taught). At this point I understood what people mean when they say ‘my Japanese family’, because really, I felt completely accepted as if I had the same blood.

As if that wasn’t enough, the kids handed me a stack of 6 envelopes and inside each was a letter from a student in the class with a special message for me. “Do your best in India and please come back to teach us again.” “Enjoy eating curry!” “Please write to me and tell me about India.” There were drawings, too, and some more photographs from the party, plus an incredible moving card from Mika. After I went off through security and out of sight, I thought about what had just happened and the cards that were now wedged in my bursting laptop bag, and shed a few tears in the immigration queue. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better send-off, a better final memory of a country I’d come to believe I no longer wanted to function in. I’ve still got my shit to say about Japan and I think it’s valid, but every moment of the experience was worth it just for those last minutes in the country.

One last remarkable thing was to happen. I had intended to call someone just before getting on the plane, and was literally striding towards a payphone and reaching for my wallet when my phone rang for the last time. It was her; she’d had no idea when my plane was leaving, nor obviously did she know that I was, at that moment, about to pick up the phone myself. An extraordinary coincidence. More than a coincidence. I stepped onto the plane confident that Japan had been good for me, I’d been good for Japan and that the universe was aligning especially for me.

I’m now in Bangalore, it’s been kind of an odyssey to get here, worth it for every moment. That’ll be the next post…

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ALL YOUR MEMORIES ARE AS PRECIOUS AS GOLD

In February of this year, I was visiting my friends Mika & Koji in Chiba, which is about an hour and a half away east of Tokyo. The traditional Japanese way is for the family unit to remain very tight throughout the lifespan; it’s common for newly married couples to live with one set of parents for a good while, and for their respective families to spend a lot of time together as a unit. So, when I visit them, I also visit their parents, siblings, nieces, nephews and in-laws. It’s always a delight. They’re all such open, honest, loving people.

I was thinking to myself, why don’t I come here more often? Mika telepathically understood this, and suggested we start an informal English class for her two school-age nieces and their friends. Great idea, I said. The class would be held every Friday, but I would only teach every second week because it would be a bit expensive paying my costs all the time. And so it was, from March up until last Friday when we held our final class & party.

Now, the job I worked in until June was fine, but it was for a big corporation and that makes it harder to connect with students. I met a lot of really wonderful people there, and did forge some pretty good connections, but apart from rare cases I was always the ‘Teacher’ and they were always the ‘student’. These pre-defined roles were hard to get around for both them and I, so we didn’t put as much effort into actually genuinely caring as we could’ve. (Be warned, mashed , mushy bananas ahead.)

This Friday class (or classes, as we had two groups of six children), however, has been the highlight of my fortnight for just this reason. The kids were all brilliant (and impossibly cute), I was ‘Barnaby-sensei’ but as much their mate as their teacher, and Mika was a wonderful person to teach with and just generally be around. When it came to that farewell deal last week, I was really sad that it was ending. These kids, these people, really meant something to me and I would miss them. Still, it was rowdy fun like it always is – plenty of laughter and a good amount of craziness.

Most of their parents had turned up to see how I’d indoctrinated their precious little ones. Each one of the children stood up and did their little self-presentation, something they’d studied for pretty hard by the sounds, and they all nailed it as though it was second nature. Mika said they’d struggled the week before. Not this time. I couldn’t stop grinning, they did so well. Then we set up a table with food and drinks – typically unhealthy kids’ party fare, That’ll do would probably keel over at the sight of it – and Mika’s sister came over to us and gave us both a bag, saying ‘arigatou’.

We’d been doing it for our own pleasure (and, let’s be honest, a bit of money in my case), but gifts? Well, thank you, OK. Inside were the items I will treasure for my entire life: a t-shirt with all the kids’ hands stretched out into a circle, and a huge card with a photo of each class and a handwritten message from each child (in Japanese). “Thank you for teaching me English.” “It was a lot of fun.” “Please come to Japan and teach us again.” “You’re always cheerful.” I sat there for about five minutes looking at the pictures and their messages, and had a quiet moment of reflection: if this is where your life has led you, this point here, this feeling, then you are doing something right and everything has been worth it. This soon-to-end time in Japan (more on that soon) has been challenging in many ways, and I’ve done my fair share of bitching about the place to friends and family and basically anyone who’ll listen, but even if there was nothing else to be pleased about – which there is in spades – I’d have this, and it would all be worthwhile.

Then I realized I was being rude not talking to anyone, and played some games with the kids who had long since finished stuffing their faces with crisps and were tearing about like… well, like kids. One girl from the younger class came running up to me, hugged my legs tightly, looked up at me with a huge smile on her face and said, “Daisuki!” (“I love you.”) Usually I’d laugh such declarations of affection from children as either attention-seeking or just being playful, but at the age she was, I could see she was pure in the moment and genuinely meant it. There’s a wonderful lack of pretence about Japanese children up to the age of about 8 or 9, before they’re aware of themselves and how badly they need to be exactly the same as everybody else their age, immediately. They just do and say what they feel. Needless to say, I was touched.

When it was all over, I went and had sushi with the family, and played loads with M & K’s nephew who was too young to join the class. At the end of the day I made the long(ish) trip home, tired and very happy. Mika sent me a text saying she thought we’d had a good experience. I sent her back a slightly overdone essay about it being my best memory of Japan and a group of people I’ll never forget. Not unlike this, I suppose.

Thank you, everybody.

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