The idea of home

Where is home? What is it? Does it convey a house, a city, a country?

The Oxford defines it as ‘the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household’; the Macquarie says it is your ‘fixed residence’. When we’re kids, I think it means ‘where our parents live’. I grew up in Hong Kong. Friends came and went.  We lived in four different houses. It was a transient life but always ‘home.’

The German word ‘heimat’ describes another kind of home. It has no direct English translation but a friend described it as that ‘place of one’s first memories.’ Although Hong Kong will always be home in that sense, I think ‘home’ is inseparable from belonging. I can’t replicate the innocence of my childhood days in Hong Kong. I don’t belong there anymore.

When I came back to live in Australia in June 1986, I marked the immigration entry card as returning ‘permanently’. The time I’d been away was 10 years, one month. I’ll always remember the official at Brisbane airport who stamped my passport. He looked up at me that day, looked at the 16 year old travelling alone who had left her family for the first time. He said ‘Welcome home’.

I had a love-hate relationship with Sydney for years. It’s a bitch of a city to get around. Real estate is prohibitive, public transport is wanting, its fads and fashions shallow. Even after my three children were born here, I felt no strong ties.

A few years ago, I was working in the city and crossed the Anzac Bridge daily on a bus. If I faced west, I could look across Iron Cove and see Glebe’s parks and terrace houses where I spent my student days, Fisher Library at Sydney University, the gothic elegance of its Main Quadrangle, the church spire marking Annandale where we lived as newly-weds, and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital behind the first house we bought.

I could see the passing of those twenty or so years in that view. Sydney felt like home.

What does home mean to you?


3 resources for mental strength – and all from women!

13-Things-Mentally-Strong-People-Dont-Do-Review-2 (1) 41m0N7IIcsL OBC_2.0_M_colorsXplr6_v3_Book

Three books crossed my path recently that share a message, albeit in different ways. They are about the power of resilience and the value of looking inwards for answers.

In 1995, grieving her mother, not knowing what she was doing in life, dabbling in heroin, loving the wrong men, losing the right ones, Cheryl Strayed made a decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She walked 1,100 miles through California and Oregon, mostly alone, carrying a pack she called Monster.

Her book, Wild, subtitled A journey from lost to found, recounts her resourcefulness in going on, increasing the miles she walked each day, finding water and feeding herself, making camp each night. She earned back her own respect through doing something that was hard, that took courage. She fought off a bear, survived her solitude—she saw no one for her first six days—and ran out of water. She lost most of her toenails, and then lost her boots, mid-hike.  She became alive to her own strengths and witnessed her capacity to bring herself to each day.

When we’re adults, we don’t have our parents to push us anymore. Sometimes we have a mentor or a friend who will but it’s rare. We pussyfoot around each other, careful not to overstep boundaries. Giving advice on life and choices can be construed as ‘interfering’. We’re supposed to be able to do this ourselves. But often we can’t. In a world of the ‘individual’, we have to call on our own resources, our mental strength.

Amy Morin’s book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do identifies behaviours that control you. Strayed’s experience is an exemplar of realising, identifying and responding to those behaviours.

For instance, number 3- ‘[Mentally strong people] don’t shy away from change’. Strayed’s realisation that she had to change her life is there, on page 1. ‘My solo three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings. There was the first, flip decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning of [preparation].’ (Strayed, 2007). Morin says that mentally strong people don’t expect immediate results or give up after the first failure. Forty minutes into her hike, ‘the voice inside my head was screaming, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’

Mentally strong people don’t focus on things they can’t control and they don’t dwell on the past. Walking the trail meant living only for that day and ‘each day on the trail was the only possible preparation for the one that followed.’ When she loses her boot, and throws its useless companion over the escarpment to join its mate, she knew there was only one option—to keep walking.

Perhaps, most especially pertinent, mentally strong people don’t fear time alone. ‘They can tolerate being alone and they don’t fear silence.’ (Morin 2016).

And this is what makes me think of another contributor to this discussion who enters from a different angle.

Susan Cain’s message is about the power of introverts. When we prize extroversion, performance, collaboration, we devalue the contributions of the quiet.  She begs us to ‘stop the madness for group work’ which makes me applaud.  I loathe teamwork. I used to wriggle out of the inevitable interview question with some embroidered half-truths. I’m not a borderline sociopath. I get along with people in the office fine but when left alone, I produce my best work.

Susan says that we need to value the privacy, the autonomy and freedom of working alone: ‘we need to have our own revelations; we need to go to the wilderness.’ Which brings me back to Cheryl Strayed and mental strength.

More please.

Millennial fatigue

I just disappeared down a rabbit hole. Sales, business coaching, marketing, sales, Snap Chat, Zoella, millennials, sales, vlogging.  Anything you can read, you can read to screen. Better. Faster.

I learnt that blogging is passé. If you want to, you can write it down later, from the vlog. There’s your blog. In words. But it’s not as good, is it?

So nobody reads, video content is all but some video content is worse than none. If you’re not onto the next big thing, you’re doomed, it’s too late, you’ll miss it. Don’t miss out.

Vlogging 101: Where to Vlog and Why it Matters: When you write a blog, all you have to consider is the best way to get your message across using good old-fashion words, sentences and paragraphs (Blogging Edge, Vlogging 101: Where to Vlog and Why it Matters, 19 March 2014, UK,

I get change. I love the new media for connecting, for selling, for messages. I consume it. I’m going to make a video or two myself. Stay tuned.

But I feel as though I need to sit in a library for a few minutes.


Who’s with me?

Click here for beauty

Trying to get noticed?

Want to get people to see YOU? To pause their feverish scrolling? The interweb is overrun with how to guarantee clicks!  Wanna go viral? Here’s how! Just this morning ‘7 insane headline ideas that will give you more traffic’ floated into my in-box.

The advice follows a recurring theme—success, speed, effortlessness, winning.

How do we do something or do it better?

How can we become something?

How can we get somewhere (without sacrifice)?

How can we multiply the benefits?

How can we do it fast?

Tell us what to do

Tell us what to do. Tell us how the experts do it, or how the boss does it.  Or at least how a famous person does it. It’s a quest and the holy grail is out there. How can it not be? You just have to find the right titbit.

There’s a place for all this self-improvement. I’m sure it’s valuable sometimes, to some people. There may be a few useful things within. But I’m over it. I’m tired of this rabble of life coaches talking up my insecurities while pretending to be my friend, entreating me to rummage through their tawdry showbags looking for the prize.

The ‘killer headline’ is reducing our gorgeously complex, infinitely magnificent age of information to a tabloid rag.  Crying wolf until we’d rather tune out altogether.

What makes  you pause?

I’d rather read something beautiful, evocative, dream-like. Something that lifts me into the light and hope of a new day than presses me more deeply into the mire of life’s shortcomings and fix-its.

The killer headline for me is different. It’s the opening line in a book that is the perfect pick-up, that meets your eyes and smiles crookedly. That lays itself down and asks for your commitment. That knows you’d follow it anywhere.

I read one recently in The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein. “In the moment after Robert Mason’s condom broke he rolled off me, propped himself on his elbow, and said, “What you do doesn’t help anybody.”

The opening of Run by Ann Patchett still takes my breath away.  ‘Bernadette had been dead two weeks when her sisters showed up in Doyle’s living room asking for the statue back.”

I want to read them. I want you to post your favourite first sentences of novels or stories. Let’s have some new headlines.

Click here for beauty.


What publishers think about the future of books

Last week, I went to Forest for the Trees—a Sydney Writers’ Festival workshop—to hear industry insiders talk about the state of writing and publishing in Australia in 2016. A panel chaired by David Hunt, author of Girt: the unauthorised history of Australia and the podcast Rum, Rebels & Ratbags, talked about the rise of audio books and the spoken word.

Audio has taken us into new territory with new audiences. Instead of cannibalising readership, as some have feared, however, they were optimistic about the power of new technologies to tell stories. Think driving. It’s a no-brainer. An enclosed, climate-controlled space is the perfect environment for audio books. And ironing has never looked so appealing. The phenomenal success of the Harry Potter audio books, even before Stephen Fry’s narration, is testament to the power of a good story.

We’re looking for substance again too. After nearly two decades in thrall to the digital experience, its breadth, colour, movement, we’ve discovered that we have been feasting on junk food. Bedazzled by its sheer volume, we didn’t notice how quickly content had been replaced by snippets, distracting hyperlinks, visual muzak.

But now, we see the long form article appearing more and more, and we are paying for good content. It’s worth it.

Innovators are working on media and platforms that I cannot imagine. Creativity will continue to unfurl through their channels and find new audiences. But for all the bells and whistles of the future, the act of reading continues to be a solitary, introspective activity.  I cannot be alone in savouring it for the freedom it offers in being able to look up, away from the page and into my own thoughts (not ‘enhanced’ by anything), and return in my own time.

The long-form book give that complete immersive experience and as long as we are human, it will be with us.

How to fit martial arts into your life (and stick at it)

The other day my mother noted, surprised, that I’d been doing taekwondo at the Australian Martial Arts Academy in Marrickville for five years and I realised how it’s become a part of my life. With three kids, full-time work and a general disinclination towards exercise, how did I get here? I think it’s a combination of planning, commitment and taking advantage of a few indirect benefits.

I needed to be organised, needed something to push me. Having a sport with a built-in structure of milestones and targets has definitely helped. Why would you stay a white or yellow belt, limited to basic kicks, when you could be blue, or red, or black? Nailing a hard technique is such a buzz. But you don’t need martial arts to set targets. A friend taught herself to run by starting out walking and then running home. She moved the point where she started running further and further back until she left the house running. Now she’s doing 10ks.

My daughter’s aptitude and love for taekwondo was another key driver in keeping me going too. Use your children’s enthusiasm to motivate you.

Logistics can be tricky. I know a few families who all train together, parents and kids, which is a fabulous way to do it. My daughter was introduced to AMA through a friend and I’ve been sharing the driving with her parents from the beginning. I would swing by after work, do an Adults class, then bring the girls home. Find out if any children living locally are interested in coming along. There might be some days you can share pick-ups and drop-offs.

It’s helped that I’ve mostly had some flexibility at work. I negotiated a 10am-6pm day when I went back to work full time years ago. While I now work from home, I still take care of mornings, organising breakfast and school. My husband does afternoons and dinner (he’s a great cook!)

I’m vigilant in keeping Saturday mornings for my sport. Sometimes I know I’m going to be there for a few hours so I pack a towel and use the shower in the changing room. Stretched out on the grassy village green of the Addison Road Community Centre with a good book, or my laptop, it feels like a second backyard.

With trees to climb and plenty of friends, there aren’t any complaints from my daughter either if she has to wait for me.

Sundays we keep for family time and shopping—getting the week’s groceries done in one hit has long been crucial to our household’s collective sanity. Sometimes we give the kids a pass-out, but mostly we do it together. Ok, they might not love it but they don’t complain much either. There’s usually a packet of Tim Tams in it for them.

These are things that worked for us—there isn’t a cookie-cutter answer and everybody will have different routines. The Nike slogan, Just Do It is on the mark. It doesn’t matter what, only that you do. I made the time and then, without really noticing, it became a habit.

And the thing I’ve found about commitment is that it’s bankable. You get to a point where you can draw on it. And I did in the year getting to my black belt. My 6am wakeups to train in the dark and the cold depended on it. And I’d do the afternoon class, drive home, eat quickly, and return for the evening class. Once, I was wondering aloud whether I could manage it that night and my instructor said ‘just come back’. And I knew she was right. All I had to do was pick up my keys and turn around. My training helped me stop thinking how hard it might be, and just set my body to autopilot.

You can too.






Everybody likes a system

Everybody likes a system. The smooth operation of our civilisation depends on following rules. Sure, some are ill-designed, some are just stupid and others are unfair. We all flout some rules, sometimes with excellent reasons but, in the main, they stand between us and that other law—the jungle.

I was reminded of this today. Volunteering at my daughter’s school at the ‘kiss and drop’, resplendent in my high-viz vest, I set up traffic cones, directed incoming cars into the designated lane, opened doors, helped the kids with their bags and waved the driver on. If more than four cars lined up, we directed those at the end to drive round the block. Although they had to join a queue and might have to go round again, instead of cutting in further down, the parents loved it. They saw a system that  worked for everybody. Everybody played, everybody understood the rules.

And, recently, stuck on one side of the barricades at the Boston Marathon, our guesthouse on the other side, the air was cooling faster than the runners. The road was long. How would we get across?  Dark mutterings were heard in the crowd. But there was a system! We found a crossing point where security checked the oncoming ‘traffic’ then waved us over in groups of two or three. And the crowd of tired onlookers, thinking about home and dinner, formed a line. The mood lifted.  We danced across, happy to be a part of the whole shebang.

Grammar is a set of rules which lets us discern meaning.

Take apostrophes. They only ever show ownership or indicate a contraction.

If the owner is singular, (the club), the apostrophe come before the s: the club’s soccer ball. If the owner is plural (the girls), the apostrophe comes after the s: the girls’ soccer ball.

With the exception of ‘its’. We don’t use an apostrophe when we show ownership by the pronoun ‘it’: the club won the game playing with its best team.

This distinguishes it from the contraction of ‘it is’ (it’s going to be a hot day). In a contraction, you put the apostrophe exactly where the missing letters belong: where they’d (they would) be, if you’d (you had) written the word in full.

Never use them in plurals and you can skip them when talking about a number of years (1970s). The jury’s out on that one but I think it looks better without it.

Rules helped us cross the marathon’s barricades and will help you sort your soccer balls.


Boston marathon crossing



Setting goals, savouring rewards

I’ve never been sure about ‘Mother’s Day’. It wasn’t a thing where I grew up and my own mother was ambivalent (‘every day is a mother’s day’). But I’ve decided that if the world wants to offer you a day, take it. Use it in whatever way you want. Maybe think about what you want to do and how you’re going to get there. Starting martial arts at 41 was a turning point for me in thinking about my goals and setting my sights high.

I was hardly an exercise junkie. The physical and emotional intensity of parenting small children meant that the couch was usually my preferred surface for spending my downtime. And I just didn’t see the importance of making time available. Hey, I walked everywhere, kicked a ball around the yard, pushed swings… But I wasn’t fit and I was constantly tired. My rational brain knew that exercise would give me more energy instead of drawing on my last resources, but I couldn’t make it happen. Gyms bore me, I’m not big on team sports, yoga was either too intense or too benign.  Fitting a schedule into work, home and commuting was too hard and I resented it taking up my family time.

I started training at 41 and this month makes the fifth year since I started taekwondo at the Australian Martial Arts Academy in Marrickville. My daughter, now ten, had taken to Little Dragons like a duck to water. Her enthusiasm was infectious and I realised, in that parent-induced joy at being able to kill two birds with one stone, I could exercise and spend time with her.

It didn’t take much for me to sign up too. With children and adults training together, or in adjacent timeslots, in an environment where my daughter has always felt safe, it wasn’t hard to fit in a few 40 minute classes each week. We talk about the techniques, train at home, take belt tests together and push each other when we’re not quite coping. We understand each other better because of our shared sport.

I am fitter and stronger than I’ve ever been in my life and as slim as my 25-year-old self. I can do push-ups and land a punch properly. Now that’s something that girls don’t learn by themselves! The self-defence component of martial arts is critical to my enthusiasm, for me and my daughter. Being able to confidently block an attack, fight back and get away safely is an integral part of all our training. Another aspect I love is that every move in taekwondo has a purpose. Thinking about how and when to execute a technique distracts me from the burning in my legs.

Working through the ten tests to get to black in June 2015 took a focus and discipline I had shelved for too long.

Don’t think it’s too late.


A day at the Boston Marathon

It wasn’t the day we’d envisaged. Arriving at breakfast, too early to check in, we dumped our bags and went for a walk. Boston in the spring was nude—the shutters and lace skirts of the grand old ladies sweeping the boulevards visible through the bare branches of the trees. Taking in the old city, walking the riverfront, eating in style at a restaurant with tablecloths, and perhaps a sommelier, were on my list.

Within a few minutes, at virtually the end of our street, we almost fell over the stations at Mile 21. In that indulgent, touristy way of needing to be nowhere else, we embedded ourselves in a kerbside position, warmed by strengthening sunshine and coffee. It was to be one of the most exhilarating days I’ve experienced. Raw emotion was laid out before us in a tableau of pain, pride, humour, strength and vulnerability. It was a privilege being there.

The first through are the leads in the chair races who are a blur of angled spokes and elbows. They’ve just climbed Heartbreak Hill and glide a few metres down an infinitesimal decline before thrusting forward again. The crowd goes wild.

Then the runners appear. We are standing near a support crew, friends, compatriots of the Ethiopian runners. They wave flags and cheer ecstatically when the male and female leads appear, Ethiopians both.  On our other side is Team Japan waving a poster, friends of a runner who streaks past in an early wave, sweat-slicked, smooth. We cheer them all.

I could have reached out and touched those who hugged the barricades, sticking close to the shade as the sun rose high. Could they could even hear us over their interior machine? Foot over foot over foot. Some people did reach out, holding out for a high five.

It seemed borderline voyeuristic at times but, later, some talked of how grateful they were to the crowds, that it did help them, even expressing astonishment that we could go on for hours! Us? And how, with the slightest encouragement, even a smile, we would get louder! Sometimes a runner would whoop up their arms, revving the crowd, and we responded joyously.

If a runner was in distress, we became anxious, heads turned to the nearest aid station. When a man stumbles towards the barricades near us, cramping badly, he is supported, fed a banana, continues to a chorus of: ‘Yeah! You got this! Nearly home!’ Gestures of shared humanity brought the tears; we were with them.

We can’t get close to the finish line, security is tight, the barricades close. This is where the bombs went off in 2013 which changed the marathon for ever. But you don’t need to see the finish to feel it. The vibe is all around. Runners sit, draped in their space blankets, children and partners nearby. In the subway, we offer seats.

Writing is another endurance sport—unforgiving hours with only one’s thoughts and a manuscript for company. Cheer them all.

Plain English — the search for meaning goes on

I’m old enough now to see convoluted language for what it is—a waste of my time. It took a few decades before the uncertainties of youth were overridden by the weariness of having to make sense of just too many words. Yes, I can do it, but why are you asking me to?

It’s a formidable ego that expects me to read 100 word sentences with multiple clauses, parentheses and ideas (unless written in lyrical prose that soothes and transports.) Sometimes I’ve been so bewildered by sentence constructions, I’ve almost given up, thinking maybe I can ignore that bit—what does that one clause matter anyway? But they do matter. It’s not always the vibe.

If we have to read it, we trudge on, befuddled.  If we don’t need the information, we just turn away.

I know about writing to dominate, to intimidate, or just to keep at bay. I cut my teeth professionally writing letters from executive officials to the public.  We called one template the ‘stuff-off’. That’s a different woe.

But if your material is there to be read, if you want it to do something, give your complex ideas space to let the reader reflect.  With technical, operational, or business writing, banish anything that makes the reader work too hard deciphering your sentences—they need their energy to understand the topic.  Let them see what lies ahead. Don’t trigger anxiety.

Mix in some short sentences, connect your ideas. Let your readers form meaning from your words. It’s not treating them like idiots. It’s not talking down to them. And it doesn’t diminish your expertise.

Here’s a beautifully written article on why clarity matters and jargon is such an impediment.