Archive | October 2010

When clients want a piece of your private life

Making friends with neighbours is only one of the social dilemmas I’ve been pondering. Another is with clients, in my case, the parents of the students I teach. The parents at my school have a tradition of arranging lunches and cocktail parties that staff are invited to. Tonight is the cocktail party for my grade and for the first time, I’ve been able to politely decline the invitation. It came out late and I had already made plans.

Usually, the invitation arrives months in advance, and some organisers refuse to set a date until we have provided one in which we are free – which leaves us with no polite way of declining. They appear so eager to have us there and so disappointed if we can’t attend. Yet when we turn up, few people want to engage in conversation unless it is to grill us about their child’s academic process. Either that or to give us the third degree about our private lives.

Some people seem to love this sort of interaction, but I am one of those who like to compartmentalise life. I have a professional life and a private life. While I really have nothing to be embarrassed about in either, I like to keep them separate and don’t feel comfortable when the lines start to blur.

I’m always surprised at how eager the parents are to have these parties with us. I wonder if it happens in other professions?

I also wish I knew how to make it clear, without being rude, that I do not want to attend.

Sometimes community life is a mini-minefield that has to be navigated so carefully to avoid offense.


Everybody Needs Good Neighbours

I used to have a rather romantic notion of neighborhoods. Neighbours would become great friends who would pop in and out of each others houses to socialize and could always be relied upon in a crisis. Perhaps I gleaned this happy, harmonious notion in early childhood. The Sesame Street jingle, ‘Who are the people in your neighbourhood?’ left a lasting impression on me, and the expectation that the local community should be a friendly place, like in Cheers, where everybody knows your name.

For many years, as an adult, I felt some sadness that real life isn’t like that. I have lived in various apartment complexes for almost 20 years now. It seems that in blocks of flats, where everyone lives in such close proximity to their neighbours, privacy is a highly valued commodity. Therefore in flats, people maintain an even greater separation from their neighbours than they do when they live in houses.

I always try to great my fellow residents with a smile, and to be courteous when it comes to use of shared facilities. I have also harboured a secret hope that one day we could all become friends, and be part of that supportive and close community I imagined as a child. But now that notion has been challenged.

A couple in our building, who we have been saying ‘hello’ to for 5 years seem to want to create that community I’d been hoping for. First, they arranged an early evening barbecue in the courtyard, so we could all meet each other. It was a pleasant, but awkward affair. Everyone was polite and on their best behavior. We all made small talk, largely around the fact that our building is a pleasant place to live – it turns out we all like it here. We all learned each other’s names too.

After the barbecue was a period of awkwardness. Whenever I passed a resident, the usual smile and ‘hello’ did not seem to be enough. It seemed necessary to make further small talk, and at times it was hard to wrap that up without being rude. At other times, attempting small talk felt a little intrusive, and forced. I didn’t want to hold my neighbours up with conversations beyond ‘hello’, but didn’t want to be rude either. It was clear that they were feeling just as awkward. This feeling was compounded by the fact I could not remember some of their names, but, after having socialized at the BBQ it seemed rude to ask. Finally, after some months, we all seemed to have returned to our more comfortable pattern of smiling and saying ‘hello’; although the greetings do feel a little warmer these days.

However a few weeks ago, the same neighbours invited us to dinner. At first I thought it was a lovely invitation, but then the doubts set in. What if we don’t get along? We will feel obliged to invite them back to our place anyway. And why have they invited us? They really have no knowledge of us beyond the friendly greetings each day – what could they possibly want? Friendship? It’s hard to believe that is what they are after when they know so little of us – aside from our address we may have absolutely nothing in common. Are they after baby sitting? Perhaps they are swingers.

And so, beset by these doubts, we joined our neighbours for dinner. There was no hidden agenda and, after a period of rather stiff, polite conversation around very safe topics, we relaxed into a very pleasant and laid back evening. It was a good night, though we all had too much red wine and were worse for it the next day.

And yes, the obligations are there. We should probably send them a card to say thank you, and invite them back to our place. But it doesn’t seem so onerous now. Maybe being part of a little community will be worth it, after all.

The Twilight Saga – It really is a horror story!

I didn’t expect Twilight to be scary, but having read it, I find it truly horrific. I wasn’t expecting great literature; just an entertaining, escapist fantasy about vampires. The saga certainly delivered that. While the story was fairly predictable, I enjoyed it and, at times, found the books difficult to put down. Some of the clichés annoyed me, as did the domestication of one of my favourite monsters, but none of that was unexpected, and putting those irritations aside, it was still an entertaining read and provided the easy escapism I was after.

What I hadn’t been prepared for was the extraordinarily damaging anti-feminist message.  Due to it’s phenomenal success, this book has power. It also has some very disturbing messages that have the potential to influence the ideas and aspirations of a generation of young women.

Bella Swan is the idealised heroine of the story. She is  a potent role model for young women. When we first meet her, she is a fairly ordinary teenage girl who tries hard to blend in with others at high school. Readers will identify with her easily.  Of course, as the story progresses, it quickly becomes clear that she isn’t ordinary at all. Bella is something special. 

She has many apparently admirable qualities. Bella is modest for a start. She is also clearly intelligent, having studied the advanced level of science at her previous school. She is unselfish and from the very first chapter commences a pattern sacrificing of her own happiness  for the well-being of others. She is mature beyond her years and plays the parent role in many of her interactions with both her mother and father.

With a heavy dose of self-sacrifice, Bella convinces her mother that she wants to leave sunny Phoenix  to live with her father in miserable, wet Forks. She doesn’t want to do this at all, but knows it will free her mother to follow her new husband as he pursues his career.  After the move, Bella’s mother sends her frequent, neurotic emails which Bella responds to with great wisdom and patience. In one email, the mother does not know where her shirt is, but Bella helps her find it. It is clear that she looked after her mother a lot,

Bella’s father also requires looking after. After years of bachelorhood, he still cannot cook anything other than fried eggs. Realising this, Bella quickly takes on the roles of shopping, cooking and cleaning. She prepares food and cleans the kitchen while her father drinks his beer and watches sport. Need I point out what is wrong with this picture? There doesn’t appear to be any problem with that arrangement for either Bella or her father though, because it continues, unchallenged or questioned by either of them, throughout the entire saga. 

Bella is entirely passive in her interactions. This seems to be a virtue. Through absolutely no effort of her own, Bella quickly gains a large group of friends. She displays little interest in them, and behaves indifferently most of the time, but perhaps her friends interpret this as being easy-going, because they all seem to want her to stick around. There is no evidence of assertiveness in Bella, or any ability to be proactive. 

With no effort or encouragement, Bella quickly has a queue of young men anxious to take her out. They are persistent, in spite of her polite and repeated rejections. 

And so the virtues of being modest, self-sacrificing, nurturing and passive are established early on as admirable and desirable in women. 

Perhaps it is these qualities that set her apart from the other teenage girls. Edward is drawn to her, not only because of her remarkable beauty (that of course she is completely unaware of), but also because he can’t predict how she will react to things. She is not like other teenage girls. She has an ‘old mind’ that is a perfect match for his.


The other thing that bothers me about Bella is that, in spite of her obvious potential, intelligence and independence, she gives up everything: her family, friends, education, any possible career and her independence, all for her one true love.

She gives away her independence first. From half-way through the first novel, Bella ceases to even walk. Edward, who is oh-so-strong and fast, picks her up and carries her everywhere. While she was at first delighted with the truck her father gave her, which enabled her a further measure of independence, soon Edward drives her anywhere she needs to go. By the end of the series she is also financially dependent. Gone is her part-time job at the sportswear store. She doesn’t need to work now, because she has married into a wealthy family who provide for her every need. 

She gives away her education. While Edward encourages her to go to college, she gives that up because she just wants to be with him, and raise his daughter.

To become a vampire, Bella has to give up all her friendships, other than with Jacob, the werewolf. This doesn’t seem to even remotely bother her. She also has to give up her mother and her father. She is a little more uncomfortable with this sacrifice, but goes ahead anyway. Happily, Bella is able to continue some sort of relationship with her father, but realises she can’t possibly be around her mother any more. 

Bella’s world contracts from one that includes family in different parts of the country, a diverse group of friends, a job, and the various opportunities that education provides; to a world that is centred entirely upon Edward, and his family. 

And this of course, leads us into the disturbing messages for and about men in the book.

 Edward is portrayed throughout the novel as perfection itself. He is unbearably beautiful to look at, and flawless in character. Like Bella, he proves himself to be noble and unselfish – willing to sacrifice his own happiness for Bella’s well-being. 

So what do I find wrong with Edward? For a start, he is so paternal in his relationship towards Bella. He, and his family, take decisions out of her hands. At first she is uncomfortable with this, but comes to accept it, because she knows they love her and have her best interests at heart. From quite early in the series, Bella ceases to even make choices about what she will wear. Edward’s sister in-law chooses her clothes instead. Could she be any more dis-empowered than this? While Bella has played the adult role in her relationship with her own mother and father, she is reduced to a child in her relationship with Edward and his family.

Bella’s relationship with Edward begins with emotional abuse. One day he acts repulsed by her, the next day he could not be more charming. As the relationship progresses, he stalks her. We learn that right from the start, Edward would silently enter her bedroom at night and watch her. When Bella discovers this, she finds it very romantic, and encourages him to continue. Later, when Edward does not want Bella to visit Jacob, he arranges his family to spy on her, and when he goes hunting, he arranges her abduction. While Bella does not like being prevented from seeing her friend, she puts up with the abduction because she knows Edward only behaves this way because he loves her.

Now if it was pure fantasy, perhaps their relationship would just seem strange. But the relationship Stephenie Meyer describes is just like those abusive relationships that we hear about too often. The obsessive stalkers. The marriages in which a jealous and controlling husband beats his wife one day, but the next day is charming – he couldn’t help himself, and so she forgives him… again. Husbands who actively discourage their wives from seeing their own friends or family and will conspire to keep them isolated – and away from other influences. The husbands who obsessively control every detail of their terrified wives’ lives: what they will eat, wear and do each day. The relationship between Edward and Bella was so reminiscent of these real life horror stories. It is not okay to dress this up in a vampire tale and call it romance. It’s not romance – its abuse.

Through the characters of Edward and Bella, Stephenie Meyer promotes a model of relationship that is deeply troubling. Bella, once full of potential, becomes a passive, child-like creature who exists only to serve her husband and child. She is happy in this service, because no other way of life could possibly bring her as much joy. Edward is the domineering husband who controls every detail of Bella’s life. He has stalked and abducted her, and abused her emotionally. She forgives and accepts his actions, because she know they were done out of love and concern for her well-being. 

Twilight isn’t the light read I expected at all. Instead, it portrays the real life horror stories that many women experience on a daily basis – and dresses them up as romance. Stephenie Meyer, what were you thinking?

Mussels in Tomato Sauce with Oven Baked Potato Chips

Last night I had my parents around for dinner to celebrate Dad’s birthday. As it was a work night dinner, I wanted to keep it simple, but still make it a memorable evening.

I decided on a bistro style meal.  Mussels, with home-made potato chips (fries) to soak up the sauce. I also made a garden salad.

As my mother had never eaten mussels before, I went with a tomato based sauce with plenty of flavour. They took around 10 minutes to prepare and 10 minutes to cook.


Mussels with Tomato and Basil

(From Seafood Kitchen, by Vicki Wild)

9780732257996-The Seafood Kitchen
I’ve adapted this recipe only slightly from the original.


1 kg live mussels
olive oil
1 large onion chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped.
2 tins of chopped tomatoes.
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 tablespoon chopped basil
4 tablespoons chopped parsley



Heat the oil in a wok and saute the onion and garlic. When the onion turns transparent, add the tomatoes, paste, parsley and basil. Simmer gently for around 5 minutes. Add the mussels and continue to simmer until the shells open. Discard any that do not open.

Oven baked potato chips with sea salt.

A lot of people enjoy crusty bread, but I prefer chips as an accompaniment for mussels.  I wasn’t sure how to go about this, but I found a number of recipes on the net with potential. I ended up adapting this.

 My recipe used the same method, but was simpler. I also increased the quantity because while the recipe claimed to serve 4 people, I was fairly sure that we would be wanting more.

8 large Pontiac potatoes
Olive oil
Sea salt.


Preheat the oven to 400F (@210C). Arrange the baking racks to enable you to put two baking sheets at the very top of the oven.
Slice each potato into about 4 planks lengthwise, then cut each plank lengthwise into thirds. (of course you can change this to suit the size and shape chips you want),
Place in a single layer onto two baking sheets, leaving spaces between each chip so they will brown.
Drizzle with olive oil and turn chips to coat them completely.
Bake for 25 minutes.
Remove the trays and turn the chips over. Swap the trays around so the one on the lower rack is now at the top.
Bake for another 25 minutes or until the edges are brown and crispy.
Sprinkle with sea salt and serve.


My parents loved these and they went perfectly with the mussels. They were hot, crisp and delicious.

Of course, serving mussels has its own problems. You need large deep bowls for the mussels, and another large bowl for the shells. I found this set of pasta bowls at David Jones. The pasta bowls were perfect for serving the mussels, and the large serving bowl was a great receptacle for the shells.
Ecology - Pasta Set in Dimple Textured, 5 Pieces