Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Pros and Cons of Xmas.

As I write this, the household is slumbering.  Sofia in her big girl's cot (she's 5 months; we moved her out of her bassinet a fortnight ago) and Mark, the tired dad, in our bed where I will join him 'soon' - after I have snatched my internet time, which I get these days in the manner of a drowning person thrusting their heads briefly above the surface.  Not to suggest I am drowning or that parenthood is in any way like drowning.... but the hours do seem to drain away as if I'm living in a strange sort of invisible whirlpool.

Perhaps other parents will recognise this feeling? I really do not know where all the time goes these days.  Every day I get up, do some breastfeeds, nappy changes, grab some food for myself and maybe a shower, gurgle at the baby to make her laugh.... and then it's already 5 pm and I haven't made that phone call I was going to make, or gone to the bank or whatever. Weird. It's like I'm the Time Lord but in reverse or something.

Anyway, I was going to explain why I don't like Xmas, but found my arguments unravelling in the process of construction. 
Here is a list of the things I like:
The special food and that stretched-belly feeling after too much turkey and chocolate.
Designing handmade cards (see above for this year's effort).
Singing old fashioned Xmas carols.
Smelling Xmas trees, even though I'd never buy a dying pine for my own lounge.
Getting excited about Xmas.
Watching others get excited about Xmas.
Xmas mass (occasionally).
Seeing family.

Here is a list of the things I don't like:
Xmas carols on repeat in malls.
Drunk or recently drunk Australians wearing ties with "Kiss me, I'm Santa" and/or flashing Xmas tree earrings. Especially when they are hospital staff at work.
Electronic life-size singing Santas with zombie bobbing heads (I once saw one in a children's ward without a head).
All those presents you 'must give' or 'must receive'.
Advertising that tries to play on people's guilt (what your kid will miss out on if you don't buy him/her X).
Seeing family.

I was assuming my list of 'don't likes' would be longer, but they pretty much balance each other out.  I have a confession to make: for many years I used to deliberately volunteer to work over Xmas, mostly because then I'd miss out on all the present-giving (but be able to catch up on the gluttony with the leftovers the next day.)  Unfortunately my in-laws are one of those families who do focus on the presents and the unwrapping, so that's what I've endured today, along with the gluttony and the lying around telling family stories, which I rather enjoy.

At least they don't make the poor kids do 'items' for an Xmas concert as my Hong Kong family used to do - being made to perform in front of grown ups loses its coolness after about the age of 2, but somehow the adults don't seem to realise this. ("Oh go on sing that cute song/do that little item/play the piano," they coo, then talk all the way through your blushing and self conscious performance. Oh, the scars.)

Anyway, now with a baby, Xmas takes on a new meaning. She's of an age where she doesn't, thankfully, understand that most confusing of constructions, Santa, or care about presents.  She likes to look at the summer flowers in rain. She's fascinated by the flashing lights on the Xmas tree, and the bright baubles she reaches her hand out for. The best part of a present is the wrapping paper. There's new food to taste and textures to feel, everyone around her is just a bit more manic, and she doesn't mind wearing a silly hat so long as she occasionally gets to close her eyes and get away from it all.  It's not so much wonder as a building of yet more experience.  And so, through her, I get to experience Xmas a different way. I think this way is OK.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

New Kiwi Women Write Their Stories

Earlier this year I was invited by Auckland City Council to run a writing workshop series for migrant women. We ran four workshops (Introduction; Poetry; Prose; Performance and Editing) after which we put together a small book of the group's writing and then launched it at an afternoon tea in front of family and friends. It was a marvellous experience and I'm hoping the group will continue on as a writing group, as many of the writers were talented and need to be heard.

This afternoon the workshop series was featured on Radio NZ:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Grandma's interview

My grandmother, Grace Liang, is turning 100 in a few weeks. She barely talks these days: she has advanced senile dementia. But sometimes the sight of a baby or a familiar voice will bring her back from the faraway lands briefly.

She has had an amazing life.  Born into a privileged family in China, she was sent to school, although the servants only carried her brother to school and she and her sister had to walk. Later Grace studied to be a nurse. This period of her life (1930s - she was in her 20s) intersected with the Japanese invasion of China. So, in between her peripatetic studies, my grandmother worked with the student resistance movement, traveling by herself or with friends around China. Through all this she got to know my grandfather, a young academic. As she matter-of-factly explains in the interview, eventually it just made sense to get married. Love matches were starting to be accepted among the educated elite then.

I made a cassette recording of my grandmother in 1993. I was twenty and was just starting to realise the importance of knowing my own family history. I also had a very basic tape recorder. I summoned Grace's four kids - my dad Allen, Aunties Isabella and Evelyna, and Uncle Eddie - and we all crowded into her tiny flat in Hong Kong, along with various grandkids and in-laws. Although I was the 'interviewer', my poor Cantonese meant my aunties, uncles and dad asked most of the questions - not that you could have stopped them.

The cassettes were banked in the bottom drawer of my desk. I thought about transcribing them from time to time but of course, life just rushed on and they stayed there in the dark for nearly twenty years. Something must have been niggling at me, because for a new theatre project, I've decided to work with oral histories. Recently I got my sister to transfer them into digital format (thank goodness the quality is still OK) and started listening and translating - perhaps my Cantonese has improved slightly, because I managed this reasonably OK.

This is an extract where Grace talks about how she met my grandfather. (Corrections welcomed from people more fluent in Cantonese than I!)


Recorded in 1993 when Grace Liang (G)was aged 81. Present are her children, Allen (A), Evelyna (E), Eddie (Ed) and Allen’s wife Christina (C) and her younger sister Harriet (H) as well as the interviewer, her granddaughter Renee Liang (R). Evelyna is asking a lot of the questions as Renee is not fluent in Cantonese.

This is a transcript/translation of a 21 minute extract which tells how Grace met her husband during the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s.

E: Tell us again how you came to know Dad.

G: Well, all his brothers and sisters were at Yaochai (a high school in Hong Kong).

E: What brothers and sisters?

G: His brothers and sisters. You know, (names them).

E: So how did you meet him? In Kwunming (city) or Guangzhou (city)?

G: Guangzhou. I was classmates with his siblings. And eventually I met him and his 4th brother. And then we ended up in Nanking (city). I’d passed the high school examinations, so my friend and I, the two of us, we traveled to Nanking. And on the way we passed Santou. So we stopped there to visit him.

E: What? You’re telling me Santou’s on the way to Nanking? It’s such a detour! To get to Nanking you just travel directly north right?

G: Well, we didn’t go there direct. We went to Hawnam (city) and then ended up there…from Hong Kong to Hawnam. Then Hawnam to Kwunming.

A/E: But how could you pass Santou then?

G: Well, the Japanese were coming to Hong Kong… well, I’d known your Dad for many years. So when we became refugees… we weren’t refugees at first, we were just avoiding the Japanese by moving to China for work.  So my friends and I (names them), there were four of us, we took a boat to Hawnam.

E: And then on to Santou. And from Santou to Shanghai, and from Shanghai to Nanking?

G: No….

E: Then what?

G: We just took a boat.

E: (laughs). To visit Santou!

G: Well we were on our way to Kwunming… fleeing the trouble. So the four of us – I’d had to leave (my job at) Sa Ming hospital in Hong Kong – we went to Kwunming.

E: Kwunming. Not Santou.

G: No, not Santou. Santou…. (laughs). Well I’d passed the exams, the second round, and my friend has passed in the first round. So I wanted to go study in Nanking but your grandma wouldn’t let me. There was no chaperone you see. So I waited until the third round and my cousin passed, so I said now tmy cousin can come with me. So we went to Nanking via Shanghai, and on the way we passed Santou, so we stopped to stay with a family friend. But we didn’t see your Dad… only his brother was there. But seeing he was there we decided to stay for a night. We stayed there eating lychees. And several of our other friends were there, so we had a good party. And then we went to Nanking to study nursing.

After we finished our nursing studies, we had to run from the Japanese. It was before we’d finished our final exams.  But I’d already scored highly enough for further studies in Beijing. If you scored over 98 marks you could go. And I achieved this, but hadn’t done everything to graduate. And then the Japanese came and there was a great hurry to leave.

We immediately boarded a boat to Shanghai, then from Shanghai… we returned to Hong Kong. And then I took a job back at my old hospital, Sa Ming. And my friend, she stayed in Shanghai… she completed the nursing diploma. And then she went…. I don’t know where she ended up. I never finished the diploma. I came home. But on the boat home I got to know several airline pilots. And we had a good time together. And when we finished partying…back then it was really complicated.

We were still fleeing from the Japanese. And when our boat got to Shanghai there was a big rush to get on the ferry (to Hong Kong). So many people, we all crowded onto deck, people were sleeping in a big pile of bodies, all the students and so on. And so we all got to know one another, and when we got to Hong Kong, we partied together. Some had returned from America, they were the airline pilots.

E: So who did you like?

G: I didn’t like anyone. We just partied together.


G: It was just our group… and there was (name), he was a doctor, and others… I’d started work at Sa Ming…

E: And you worked there for, was it three years?

G: Sa Ming? Two years. And by then the Japanese were already approaching Guangzhou, so Sa Ming started to look after Allied soldiers. American soldiers, they always brought us good things to eat. Every Saturday they invited us out to eat with them. Myself and another Chinese nurse. And another nurse from Queen Mary (hospital). There were three Chinese, the rest of the staff were Westerners, our hospital was for expats. The whole hospital – 12 patients. It was a posh hospital, fees were very expensive there.

E: So how did you end up in Kwunming?

G: Well after Guangzhou was occupied by the Japanese, things got increasingly tense. The Japanese started demanding more and more territory… so we decided to leave for Kwunming. We went via Hawnam.. from Hawnam to Kwunming.

E: You took the train?

G: No, a boat.

E: So you got off at Hoisuk and transferred to go to Yutlam.

G: Yes, via Yutlan to Kwunming. And at Kwunming there was a doctor…a classmate’s friend, he knew me also, we’d studied together. He was from Kwunming. He was a consultant at the local hospital… so he gave me a job there, I taught the students. And another friend went to another city to work, and my girlfriend was preparing for her wedding. So she traveled to Namking, and our friends were there working too. And back then your Dad was in Sainam lecturing (at university). And his sisters were nearby. One of them came to stay with me – I had a spare room. So every Saturday, we went out as a group. And that’s how I got to know him.

E: (quotes a line of classical poetry).

G: What?

A: She doesn’t know what you’re talking about!

E: You know…(requites the line). The boys were always buying you things? Good things to eat?

G: (laughs) Well, they knew I liked eating a certain delicacy, so they always bought it for me…

A: The Wongs and the Liangs, they liked to hang out together.. they already liked one another…

G: (laughs) .. so we got to know one another. Every Saturday we went out. A group of four… three girls..,

E: .. and one guy.

G: There was another guy too who sometimes came. He was a driver, he had his own van. And so we had transport, every Saturday. The driver had a lot of money, freighting all kinds of stuff… he was always shouting us dinner.

A: And back then Dad was pretty charismatic?

G: Oh yes, very charismatic. He never stopped. All day he’d be singing songs, planning this, doing that…

E: Singing songs! Allen…

A: What?

G: So we got to know each other. And eventually his sister went off to get married, then there were only the three of us left… so we decided eventually, let’s get married.  Our friend was keen to leave, he pushed us to leave with him. So then we went… where did we go then?

E: Did you ask for permission from Grandma?

G: Yes, we posted some photos back. And your Grandma got a fright (because Grandpa was bald). She said I was marrying an old man!


E: So you just sent a photo and that was it?

G: Well we were far away, and I was a big girl by then… so we got married where we were. We hired a church and invited our Chinese friends. Your dad had lots of friends in Kunming. Several doctors, one of the seniors stepped in for my father and gave me away. He took the role of the official matchmaker. Back then you had to go through all that hassle. And your father asked all his friends to help. Back then my mother had a friend who was traveling nearby, she was also getting married. She had a special wedding outfit which she lent to me. Back then it was extremely classy, very sophisticated, these days it’s not much.

E: It’s beautiful even now. I’ve seen the photos. But one question… did you have any other reason for staying in Kwunming at that time? Other than as a safe place from the Japanese?

G: No, just the Japanese.  Back then they hadn’t yet reached that city, the city was full of students who went door to door stirrung up resistance, giving speeches – we were courageous and brash, I don’t remember what we said –

A: The resistance grew from Guangdong.

G: Back then there were already informers. But we had enough courage –

A: (explaining, partially in English) To give a speech. Stirring up the public. Against the Japanese. If you were a student, that’s what you did.

R: Wow.

G: I even had enough courage to become a representative. We went to the churches, the small churches, gave speeches.

E: And when did you cut off your braids? Did you have to ask permission?

G: My father loved those braids. He wanted to see me, to touch those braids again…Your Aunty Harriet was denied permission when she asked. He said she was too vain –

H: - so I rang up Senior Uncle instead.

E: You had phones in those days?

C: Back in those days, if you wanted to grow your hair long or get it cut, you had to ask permission from your parents.

E: So was Aunty the first person to cut her hair into bangs?

G: No, we were first.

C: Could you have it permed at that time? Or was it straight?

G: No, we had no perms then. Aunt Harriet was the first to perm her hair. It was to goad her dad – she was very vain.


G: I was obedient. I didn’t perm my hair at first… eventually I did. But I didn’t realise how curly it would be. I came home from the hairdresser, and spent all night soaking my hair in hot water, trying to straighten it again. I wanted to wash it straight.


C: Back then perming was by using electric current, right?

G: Yes.

E: So by then Dad had visited Guangzhou?

G: Yes, he visited a friend of ours.

E: But he hadn’t met Grandma.

(a phone call interrupts).

E: So what did you like about Dad?

G: Like? Well, what did you like about Fred (your husband?)

E: I liked him because he was crazy enough.


G: Well, I liked your Dad because I got to know him…. he was part of our crowd. There wasn’t any ‘like’ about it.

A: But why did you like him over other men? 

E: What about the rich driver? How come you didn’t marry him?

G: Well at the time he had lots of cash, he was always shouting us to meals…but he was a driver.

E: Why did you like Dad and not him?

H: Why would you marry a driver? You have to choose someone with class.

A: But he was cashed-up.

G: Cashed-up, so what? He wasn’t the same class… it’s hard to explain. Back then you wouldn’t –

H: He was a driver!

E: But what good qualities did dad have? he was bald, an academic, with a bad temper –

G: He didn’t have a  bad temper in those days. Not to me. Back then he paid me a lot of attention – he used to take me out to dinner, out on dates, every time he had a break he would come. He came to see his little sisters… but then we’d all go out together.

E: Did he hold hands?

G: No, we didn’t.

E: So how did he propose? How did you date?

G: We just went out walking.

H: We weren’t allowed to stay out late then. We all went out together.

C: Not even if you were dating?

H: You had to come home early. It wasn’t like now, morning and night -

G: - and there weren’t that many places to go -

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Magic boobies

For the first time in my life, I have breasts worthy of the title 'hooters'.

They are multifunctional pieces of magic. Let me elaborate on their many miraculous uses:

1. As infant feeders.

I guess this is pretty obvious seeing as I've just had a baby. Breasts are not without their design flaws. Nipples seem to be unnecessarily delicate, for example. Who needs nerve endings anyway? (Sex? what sex?) But really, the positive feedback mechanism - the more they are emptied the more they full up - is nothing short of magical. They belong in fairytales.

2. As alarm clocks.

I always wondered how cows know when it's time to head to the milking shed. Now I know. My boobies swelled up on day 3, a phenomenon known as 'engorgement' (it should have a less ugly name than that). Boobies can learn apparently, and they have learnt my baby's feeding cycle. Now, should she fail to wake less than 3 hourly, my breasts wake me anyway by blowing themselves up like balloons and threatening to burst. Clever boobies.

3. As food catchers.

I know this may not seem like an advantage to you, but I've always wondered what it would be like to have cleavage that attracts food.  It's a novel experience dropping a crumb and watching it gently slide between two twin boulders. By the way, it's a little known scientific fact that being more unco is a side effect of breastfeeding. This is not the only use of enhanced cleavage, by the way - they also function as a receptacle for (tiny) roving hands.

4. As cushions.

Depending on posture, time after feed and swelling, this is either a good idea or bad idea. Why are cushions needed? They can act as baby headrest. Or as extra bolstering for when I suddenly pass out.

5. As decorative accessories.

I've never looked so shapely in a nightie before. The top half, anyway.  Unfortunately the involuting pokey-out belly spoils the effect somewhat. As do the engorged veins on my decotellage (as my husband charmingly points out - see Sex? Who needs sex? note above.)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Little fish has arrived!

(warning - slightly gory birth story follows.)

On Saturday night our daughter, Sofia Grace Glucina, was born.  She needed a bit of a push to arrive - after trying the usual spicy foods and hot baths with no result, I was induced at term because I was an older mum. We'd been told the process was usually slow and I wasn't looking forward to a long day or two - but at least we'd been to the DVD shop and taken out 8 DVDs of the 'romance' and 'general nostalgia' variety (Mark assuring me that this was the one time he'd agree to watch "The Notebook" with me. )

We managed one DVD before my contractions started getting really strong - so they had a look, decided to break my waters and sent me off to delivery suite. At this stage I was only 2 cm dilated and at the average rate of progress for first time mums, had about 8 hours to go. The anaesthetist was called to do an epidural - I've witnessed hundreds of births in my job as paediatrician and believe me, you can tell who's had an epidural and who hasn't.

But while waiting for him to come my contractions got even more intense. 35 minutes down the track I suddenly felt a tremendous urge and shouted out, "I want to do a poo!" (It wasn't my most poetic moment.) But it had the desired effect - the midwife dropped everything and couldn't get my legs open fast enough for a check - sure enough, I was fully dilated and the obstetrician was soon on her way. It was too late to have an epidural - so for me, whose birth plan was to be completely medicalised, avoid pain and have drugs all the way, it was 'natural childbirth' time. Ouchies.

"You're going to have your baby really soon now," the midwife said.  I nodded, but even though I pushed when they said, deep down I still didn't believe that someone wouldn't magically intervene and get the baby out for me.  It wasn't until they put the mirror between my legs and I could see the hair on her head appearing as I pushed that I realised that yep, this time there was no shirking - the only person who could push her out was me (well, with quite a lot of encouragement and an episiotomy, it turned out - though by that stage I really didn't care.) And if you're wondering if I pushed like the serene ladies with an epidural, the answer is no - I believe I shouted the place down and made my poor obstetrician deaf in one ear, while Mark (my wingman) soldiered on beside me with the water and the facecloth and the cold water spray. It was weird though. The pushing part didn't hurt, strangely - it was just damn hard work that only I could do.

But less than 12 hours after we'd checked into hospital, I was holding my newborn in my arms. I think my first emotion was disbelief. Even now I'm still getting used to the idea of having a baby, even though it's something I've hoped for and planned all my life.  Now she's here, and the feeling is so different to how I'd imagined it. I thought there'd be ecstasy - but what I have with my daughter and my husband is so much better.  It's the start of a lifetime relationship.  We're a new three. We're a family.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The cheongsam story

I've been meaning to write this story for ages, but underestimated the procrastinating power of a brain steeped in maternal hormones (well that's my line and I'm sticking to it.)

Way back in April, we went out to the French Cafe for Mark's birthday. I was only 6 months pregnant but was already sporting a respectable bump, one that wouldn't fit into most of the 'posh' clothes in my wardrobe. (The French Cafe is one of the most elegant restaurants in Auckland). Then I found my grandma's vintage cheongsam, which she made for herself out of cool retro fabric (well ok, it wasn't retro then - it was the height of fashion) and which has been hanging in my wardrobe waiting for the waist to be taken in. I zipped myself in and admired the view in my mirror - it fit my new curves with a surgical precision.

I arrived at the restaurant feeling ultra chic and sat down at our intimate table opposite my husband, who had shaved for the occasion and therefore was looking particularly hot. We started conversing in the low tones one reserves for such rarefied environments. The waiter glided in with the first course of our degustation menu. It was then that I noticed that the side zip on my grandma's dress was sliding ever-so-subtly southwards. Luckily, the table to my right was unoccupied and the heater was on, meaning I could easily hide the slippage.  I sat up straight and tugged the zip back up.

This started a battle of wills. Each of the nine courses would arrive and be consumed with melting, admiring tenderness by myself and Mark.  (Yes, the food is that good). The zip would sidle south trying not to be noticed; I would, similarly subtly, encourage it north. Unfortunately simple physics was against me. Baby+ food in stomach = bigger waistline, and by course number five the zip simply refused to budge from its position somewhere near my panty line. I grumpily put on my jacket for the remainder of the meal to avoid giving the waiter/other diners an undeserved eyeful. Not that the waiter would have given any sign that he was in the least bothered - it was the French Cafe after all.

Moral of the story? Wear only stretchy things when pregnant. And don't be too vain.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tuesday Poem: After the shower

I am a map

a network
of blue-green

like invisible ink
by heat

tracing lines
to destinations
yet unknown

that push

the small
of a foot

I'm no
at reading


Thursday, June 21, 2012

How to freak out a husband

A few days ago, Mark, having read the graphic book chapter I gave him on birthing, quietly went downstairs, got the roll of industrial-strength plastic that we used to waterproof our garage with, and covered our mattress in a double sheet of it. So now when I roll over in bed (every ten minutes) I make loud crinkly noises, in addition to the other noises which have been a feature of our bedroom for some time now (small grunts followed by satisfied exhalation as the bump overcomes momentum and settles into position as I try to change sides; surprised little 'ahs!' from me as the baby scrapes foot/hand/head along peritoneum; a shuffle-grunt-shuffle acompanying my Olympian efforts to get out of bed for yet another pee.)

It seems Mark's taken seriously the threat of catastrophic flooding, should my waters break. Even though this is much rarer than what the movies/TV would have you believe. He's also learning interesting new vocabulary like 'show', 'epidural', 'episiotomy' and 'engagement' (note to other father to bes: when your wife says "I think she's engaged", saying "really? I didn't think she was old enough," is unlikely to be funny.) And over the past week, I've been getting more and more Braxton-Hicks 'practice' contractions.

Anyway. Today while pottering around the house I felt a gush between my legs, went "Oooo" and looked down. The gush isn't that unusual (I can see all you ever-been-pregnant ladies reading this and nodding sagely). I did the usual thing - went to the loo to check the size and nature of this latest leakage. Looked up to see Mark frozen in the doorway.

"Are you..OK?"
"Yeah.... why wouldn't I be?"
"Ok. Ok."

My bags still aren't packed for the hospital. Maybe I should soon, if only to stave off Murphy's Law.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tuesday Poem: First Ball

three tight coils of baby cheeked freshness, bought for her by her mother. Primped, curled, sprayed with morning dew by the florist and tied with a bow in complementary shades. pinned rose petal against rose satin, ah the picture of innocent loveliness. 

going to the ball in the rain in the rain in the rain

one face, an older man with red hair. two songs by Bryan Adams. four beers, one of them spilt on her dress (but it was an accident). hands on her waist sliding downwards and down. run to the toilet petals still pert on her chest the morning dew long gone the innocence not long after. it was a silly dream. he didn’t kiss her. he’s still dancing with his mates. the petals silent now. the moistness dries.

three tight coils dried upside down and hanging her closet. coiled in embryonic waiting, they hang.


Apologies for my absence in verse. The act of swelling physically makes me swell with words and inspiration, too, but actually getting to the computer to start working on a new poem feels like far too ambitious a proposition in my brain-tired, third trimester state. Especially when there are other deadlines and projects jostling for the times when I don't feel like sleeping/watching zombie TV. But no more excuses!! Baby is imminent (I'm at 36 weeks and getting regular Braxton Hicks "practice" contractions, am convinced it's any day now - all the more so because I've also procrastinated on packing my hospital bag).

Anyway, this week I have posted a prose poem - semi true/semi fictional. As close to flash fiction as I have got so far. For more flash fiction, go to Tuesday Poem.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Transit of Venus forum

 It's been a fairly lazy weekend - visits from friends and family, a rehearsal at TAPAC for Culture Clash, lots of sleeping and procrastination. I'm relieved to be home in Auckland and "staying home" from now until the baby arrives (and I'm presuming that the often-mentioned new mother fatigue will keep me home for a while after!).  I've been reading "new baby" books cover to cover, freaking out over detailed descriptions of labour pain, and collecting lots of compliments about The Belly (common comments:"You've still got that glow", "ooo, you're carrying quite low", "oo, you're big", and conversely, "you're quite compact.") For her part, Little Fish has been doing her bit by growing, so she's not really that little any more. She's also very, very wriggly and likes kicking Mark in the back when we're trying to sleep.

It's been a very busy 6 weeks before this. I was more or less doing back to back locums and conferences which meant lots of uncomfortable plane and car trips. Luckily it's all over now, although I'm still having to do stuff in Auckland.

Last weekend Mark and I returned from a trip to Gisborne (a meandering 7 hours' drive southeast) for the Transit of Venus Forum, a 4-day event which aimed to start conversations about how science could drive NZ forward.  It was a lovely event - a mix of community engagement events and more traditional 'conference' style proceedings, all run with idea of getting maximal input from/between attendees, the local East Coast community (who hosted us in Tolaga Bay on the day of the actual Transit, then attended the forum itself), and people watching the live webcast. I guess it remains to be seen whether the lofty goal of not only having the conversations, but getting the NZ public/policymakers to listen, will actually happen. But it was such a positive thing to be involved in and I felt entirely comfortable and in my element. I really hope the conversations will continue!

Here's the video of our day in Tolaga Bay observing the Transit and then taking part in local celebrations (including a hangi, yum) : you'll notice a cameo from Little Fish towards the end!

I was lucky enough to be asked to be a speaker at the forum and my session, the final one of the forum, focussed on "The People". Our speeches were kept short and to the point so as to encourage discussion rather than didactic speechmaking. Much harder for people to fall asleep that way!

Here's the text of my talk: (7 minutes!)

As you can see, I have a little private science project on the go, and I hope the results won’t be delivered before I get back to Auckland. 

As a mum-to-be, I have a lot of questions – what will my child be like? Will she have her father’s nose? And the big question, what will she be able to achieve?  I can tell you that being a paediatrician does not lessen all those hopes and fears – if anything, it makes me a little more paranoid.

So what are the things that influence a child as it grows up?  Each one of us is a complex tapestry - an interplay of genetics, physical and social environments – but it’s possible to tease out the common strands.

And that’s my subtle segue into talking about how we can use science to understand NZ’s greatest resource – ourselves, the people. I’m going to talk about longitudinal studies. What is a longitudinal study?

I like to use something called the onion model.

Here’s the individual with his or her cocktail of genes, cocooned in their whanau and immediate physical environment, interacting with their community, and then influenced by the layers of the wider environment – cultural, social, education, policy, environment and so on, at a national and then international level.  These influences change over time as a baby grows into an adult (so now the onion looks more like a wobbly leek), and you could use the same model to look at changes over generations or even whole populations.

It’s this change over time in a population that longitudinal studies are good at looking at. It’s complex, it takes patience and it’s expensive, but gives us incredible depth and the potential to search out those patterns which can then be applied to answer questions like:

What are the factors before birth that influence health in adulthood?
How do we make sure children achieve their full potential?
What factors give families the resilience and the ability to cope with adversity?

This is a type of science NZ is already very good at. Data from the pioneering Otago and Dunedin longitudinal studies, now nearly 40 years old, influences health and policy around the world. 

Growing Up in NZ, where I’ve been involved as a core researcher, is following approximately 7000 NZ children and their families from before birth to when they are adults – the kids are between two and three years old now, so we’ve got a way to go. It has several very unique qualities. One is that we are one of very few longitudinal studies in the world to study fathers as an essential part of the family unit.

Another is that our families reflect the diversity of New Zealanders today – socioeconomic, urban and rural dwellers, and most importantly, cultural. Our cohort is broadly generalisable to the NZ population and proportionally represents Maori, Pakeha, Pacific, Asian and other ethnic families. Excitingly, and appropriately, there are many mixed-ethnicity kids.

NZ is unique in that it sits on a faultline where many traditions and cultures are colliding and changing each other, but (if you’ll forgive the earthquake analogy) we’re stable enough to study the aftershocks. Further, our research team is diverse - coming from across many disciplines – health, social sciences, education, culture and humanities, and includes different NZ universities and centres of excellence, so we can use ideas and links from as wide a base as possible.

Finally, and most importantly, Growing Up in NZ operates under a kaitiaki principle – of guardianship of the data we collect, for the benefit of all New Zealanders. From the beginning, we’ve seen ourselves as being in collaboration with families and communities, with a responsibility to report back to those groups, as well as to the wider research community, and to government. A key aim for Growing Up in NZ is for important findings to translate into real action. 

Growing Up in NZ is part of an international network of longitudinal studies and we’re actively collaborating and exchanging skills (and, I can tell you that people overseas are excited about our study.)
So how can a study like this contribute to the conversation about making NZ a better place for all? Well, we’re only just out of nappies, but already we have a few things to say.  The data generated is enormous, and we’re still working our way through it, so I’ll just give you a taster.

Firstly, the study confirms that NZ society and family structure are changing very fast. 1 in 3 NZ children have at least one parent not born in NZ. The traditional nuclear family model is less and less the case – nearly 24% of mothers live with extended family, and as you might expect this varies depending on the cultural environment. Most mums now work before and after their babies are born, and only half the families own their own home.

But despite their diversity, NZ parents share similar hopes and dreams for their children.  Most parents want their children to grow up happy and healthy, to learn to value their own culture and that of others, and be able to realise their own dreams as well as contribute to their community.  Many recognise NZ as a good place to nurture all these things, and if they succeed, then NZ will be well placed for the future.

What next?  I’ve mentioned the value of a scientifically robust study which recognizes complexity over time; of working across disciplines, skillsets and borders, drawing knowledge links between science, economy and humanities.  I’ve mentioned those words we’ve heard a lot this week, communication, collaboration and community.

The final word I want to mention is translation. Translation into policy, but also importantly translation into general knowledge so that our greatest resource – our people – you, me, my baby - can take the future into their own hands.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

I was on TV today...

I still get excited about being on TV or radio. Although nervous in case I don't come across how I meant to.... luckily the journalists who cover arts stories all seem to be lovely, and in most cases passionate about the arts themselves.

So....I was on a new local show called Neighbourhood, where they showcase different suburbs by focussing on what various (ethnic) people are doing.  I happened to be rehearsing my play The First Asian AB for its Hamilton season at the time they filmed this episode, so here are myself and friends Robbie Ellis, Sam Mence, Paul Fagamalo and Ben Teh. Love how my boobs look bigger due to pregnancy, but they frame the shot so the bump doesn't show.

This link will only be up for a few weeks, and I think can only be viewed within NZ:  (start at 9:33)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tuesday Poem: Christina


the eldest sister
she raised
her brothers
showed her sister

how to cook
for others first
but now she’s far
from those crowded streets

instead she’s on
an unfamiliar island

her wedding ring
still shiny
her husband
holding her at night.


cartoon dogs
on flannel sheets
wag at the rain
challenge grass clippings

she vacuums
broken porcelain
from the new orange carpet

finds a discarded bib
in the corner

for the first cry
from the
small bedroom.


she measures
the rice
three cups
for five mouths

slices meat
from chicken bones
to stir-fry
with choy sum

lays chopsticks
on white plates

says not to worry
she's last
to sit down
at table.


he works at the hospital
until 10 pm
wants dinner hot
when he gets home

they have two girls
and one on the way
he asks her to learn
to drive

her words boil
like soup

she swallows
picks up
the swat
to kill flies instead.


From the new house
she can see the school
she's learning the names
of the friends' parents

her children
come home
with words
she’s never heard

she wonders whether
to ask them to explain

pays for music lessons
buys a cake to take
to the school stall
learns to make party jelly.


after thirty seven years
the last daughter
leaves the house

three empty beds
faded floral curtains
a wardrobe still full
of teenage dresses

a car arrives
small feet patter

she runs past
the new high chair
opens the door
to the sound of “Por-por”.

The latest in a series of sonnet sequences I am writing about people close to me, exploring cultural beliefs to do with organ systems.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

New Kiwi Women Write Their Stories

This week I started a workshop series for migrant women in Albany - it's an idea started by Matt Blomeley at Auckland City Council, and I was lucky enough to be approached as convenor. Due to Matt's hard work in promotion the course has been enthusiastically received and we started with not only a fully subscribed course, but a waiting list! You can keep track of how the workshops are going here.

Tim Jones - a virtual book tour

Tim is a friend, fellow poet and one of the most enthusiastic people I know - when I started blogging about poetry many years ago he was one of the first people to welcome me, and it's my pleasure to catch up with him whenever I'm in Wellington. Tim has recently released his third collection of poetry, Men Briefly Explained. Following his 'physical' book tour, Tim has now done a 'virtual' book tour - this blog being his final stop. So without further ado:

Renee: This is the first time I've heard of a "virtual book tour". How is it going and is it succeeding in terms of sales and getting people to read your book?

Tim: Well, I know I sold at least one book yesterday due to a recent blog interview – but I don’t think the sales benefits have been huge. There have been considerable benefits, though, in terms of getting to know the interviewers and their work – and even (fingers crossed) to maybe getting to work on a joint project with one of them. (Got to keep the details under wraps for now, though.)

Renee: For many women writers, finding time to write - in between the demands of family, paying job and housework - is a hot topic. Yet it isn't so much discussed between men - or is it?

Tim: We still live in a sexist society where women are expected to carry more of the burden of child-rearing and housework, while men are expected to carry more of the burden of generating income – and the way our social arrangements are set up reflects this. Due to changes in employment patterns, we also live in a society where women are increasingly the ones generating the income, as well as having to do those ‘traditional’ tasks. That doesn’t leave a lot of time or mental space for writing.

Having said that, in my experience, finding the time to write is a perpetual struggle for most writers.

In my case, I’m trying to find a balance between family life, my part-time job, housework (if you saw our house, you would conclude that I don’t give this much attention, yet the vacuuming and washing seems endless), and the environmental campaigns I’m involved in.

Essentially, I try to carve out one day a week for actual writing, and at least another half-day to do writing-related tasks – submitting work, and so forth.

Most of the writers I know have this struggle to balance writing, time and money, and even those who are in financial position to write full-time still have the challenge of the workload required to keep doing that. I do discuss it with my male writer friends, but almost all the writers – and especially, the great majority of the poets – I know are female. I’ve mentioned before Janis Freegard’s research that shows plenty of male poets are publishing collections – see - but I don’t know who or where all these male poets are.

Renee: My favourite poem in the collection is The Problem of Descendants. What spurred you to write this poem?

Tim: The collection begins with me – or a character like me – emigrating with his family to New Zealand at age 2, in the poem “Impertinent to Sailors”. While many of the poems in the book are about other men, or about men in general, the poems that are about that character show him ageing, so it makes sense that the final poem in the book is a post-mortem. Plus, at the end of a sequence of increasingly gloomy poems about ageing, I wanted to end on a little bit of a lighter note, as this poem does. The really scary line, at least for a writer, is “file formats are rendered obsolete”.

Renee: You seem a little worried about your own transience - poems like Inheritance, and prose poems like As You Know, Bob. Is this because you've hit 'middle age', or is it because of the wider things that are happening in the world?

Tim:The state of the world worries me a great deal, but there is more of that in my two previous collections (and possibly in my next one as well, gloom fans!) Men Briefly Explained is definitely my “middle aged” collection – I have now entered that golden era in which it’s plausible to start sentences with the words “In my day…”.

Actually, I used to worry a lot more about my own transience when I was a teenager — “Aargh, I’m going to die! To die before I’ve written my masterpiece!” Even though that is probably more true than ever, it bothers me less – but, as I’d started Men Briefly Explained with poems of childhood and youth, it seemed fitting to end it with poems of age.

Renee: Do you think poetry can change thinking and make a difference?

Tim: It can, but I think it would be going too far to claim that it often does, at least in this country, at least recently. For me, New Zealand examples would include the impact of James K. Baxter’s mix of poetry and political/spiritual activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the impact of feminist poets, especially in the 1970s.

In a more extreme environment such as the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, though, poetry had tremendous political impact – it’s no accident that Stalin’s regime killed, imprisoned and generally repressed so many poets.

Renee: How's the new short story collection going?

Tim: It’s taken a while, but at last I can say that it’s going well, and that I’m getting some stories drafted that (at least at the first-draft stage) I’m happy with.

Having been concentrating on poetry – both writing and editing – for the past couple of years, it has taken much mental shifting of gears to get back into short story mode. I think the turning point was actually a short-short I wrote for the first issue of Flash Frontier [], the new New Zealand magazine of flash fiction.

It’s as though there is a stile across the fence that divides poetry from prose. When you approach from the poetry side, the stile presents itself as flash fiction. When you approach from the prose side, the stile presents itself as the prose poem. I have decisively crossed the stile now – or is it more accurate to say that I have decisively jumped the shark?


For more on Men Briefly explained and how to get your hands on a copy, click here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tuesday poem: bedroom renovations

the new carpet
smells like warm ewe
you take my hand
lead me over its spine

to our bed moored
in the small
of the back

now we are riding a raft
the sky is golden cream
the sheep gently arches

outside the buses
arrive, unload, reload, depart
there’s light rain

inside we make our own weather

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tuesday poem: little fish

my astonished belly
has lately become
a fishbowl
and you, little fish

winged mermaid
dancing citizen
of my inner seas
you sang to me

long before
your 17 weeks
long before I first saw
your tiny arms

doing freestyle
on the screen
your feet waving
in gentle currents

little fish, as I feel you
blowing bubbles
in my belly
I can’t help but smile.

Yes. This is my biggest 'creative' project for the year!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Dragon year

So in a few hours it's going to be the Year of the Dragon. A big year for me, with many personal 'projects' (the biggest of which I can't yet divulge), and if you believe such things as Zodiac predictions, it's going to be a year bursting with creativity, innovation and unpredictability. I can believe it!

Good thing I'm well stocked up on sleep. Since late November, when The Bone Feeder wrapped, I've been lounging in a pleasurable creative limbo - sleeping, reading (comics and newspapers mostly, though other books have crept in) and, I admit it, sampling the various crappy programmes that passes for TV these days (I now know all I really wanted to know about Gypsy Weddings, the inner workings of the restaurant industry and old antiques. I draw the line at spending any time on the X Factor, though. Just the adverts are cringeworthy.) I've caught up with a few excellent films on DVD too, spent lots of 'couple time' with my lovely squeeze, and we've done a bit of travelling around the South Island where I've been based for the summer. (I should mention that my creative laziness contrasts with my work in the medical realm, as I've had locums right through Xmas and January).

So. That's why there's been no movement on this blog (or my other blog on The Big Idea)... nothing's been happening! But we're back to the big smoke tomorrow, and I see the creative crowd are cranking up for the year, and a few deadlines are looming for me...