Thursday, March 25, 2010

The heroic Hausfrau

The Passion of the Hausfrau: Motherhood, Illuminated

Years ago, when my six-year-old was not quite two, my husband stubbed his toe. Being a mild-mannered bloke, he shouted "ouch" and hopped around a little. And my angelic-looking daughter hopped beside him yelling, "Fuckit! Fuckit! Fuckit!". "That's an interesting word," he said, deadpan. "Who says that?". My disloyal daughter beamed at him and drawled, "Mama!".

Naturally, I was in disgrace – and since then, I have drastically cleaned up my act. But it's one of those stories that live on, told over dessert when the kids have gone to bed. It's also one of those stories that, even as it makes me laugh, embarrasses me somewhat, along with the time I stepped in a turd deposited by one of my children; the time I realised the baby had head lice nesting under the cradle cap; the time we all had worms, and so on.

So it was with enormous pleasure that I recently read Nicole Chaison's The Passion of the Hausfrau: Motherhood, Illuminated. It's an autobiographical work recounting her experience as mother, shaped around the classic hero's tale. Chapters address A.D. (After Dilation), the LabOrinth, The Fourteen Labors of the Hausfrau, Tales, Atonement, Resurrection and so on. My favourite labour was 'Home Renovation, or How It Came to Be that I Sat in Cat Diarrhoea' – I laughed so hard I cried.

Chaison's labours feel all too familiar: cleaning maggots out of a car seat, dealing with head lice, accidentally letting kids see an R-rated movie and wincing as they practice the expletives, and realising one is tragically and forever unhip. She describes her self-medication regime – coffee all day, wine all evening – and writes openly about things many of us keep under wraps: she drinks too much, she had head lice, she screams at her husband when he suggests they get a cleaner, her libido has been MIA for years, PMS turns her into a psychotic bitch from hell, and her pelvic floor has never recovered from childbirth: whenever she coughs she wets herself. Chortling away, I read out great chunks to my husband, no doubt terribly annoying as he was reading the very sombre In Cold Blood at the time.

Yet it's not all fun and games. Chaison also reflects on the frustrations and humiliations of motherhood. She is humble enough to let her children teach her, such as whether an eight year old needs a note in his lunchbox saying I Love You!, and she writes achingly about the small crucifixions she experiences as she endures the cutting pain of self-knowledge. Small children, after all, are the masters of slicing through illusions and leaving us laid bare.

Like a true hero's journey, moving through the labours and stages reflects her journey to self-knowledge. Chaison comes to realise not only that she is a writer, but that she has already written a book: her journal, which forms the foundation of The Passion. And like any true hero, she has a guide: her beloved grandmother, Grammy Mil, who gives her three gifts: the journal, a quote, and a destination.

Each page of the book has a cartoon panel down the side. I am not a great fan of the current cartoon fad, and these are pretty rough. Despite this, I have to say that they add to the book; they embellish and extend the text. If you skip the cartoons, you miss the punch lines – and her husband's suggestions for a male parenting magazine which really made my partner laugh.

It's not often that a book makes me guffaw with laughter, or wipe away a heartfelt tear. But this one did. It's a book for people in the thick of it; adults without children would be appalled. Witty and confessional and outrageous and wry, it reminds me that I am not alone. Others live this messy life with kids, and also find it good.

> Nicole Chaison The Passion of the Hausfrau: Motherhood, Illuminated (New York: Villard, 2009).

Friday, March 19, 2010

Think you ought to run the country?

The theologian Karl Barth advised Christians to carry a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. That is all very well, but for years my city's two newspapers have vied to pack in the most celebrity gossip and I'm not sure that's what he meant. One cannot turn a page without being confronted with images from Fashion Week, or a quote from the latest vacuous stick insect who hasn't eaten a sandwich since 1993. For a while I told myself just to ignore those articles and concentrate on the real news. But like a dog fascinated by its own vomit, again and again I found myself reading celebrity drivel. I was fascinated and appalled at their doings, and horrified that their excesses and fad diets and inane comments ever made it into print, let alone into something calling itself a broadsheet.

Some years ago, we became so sick of the fluff and the paucity of other news that we cancelled the paper. We went online, but in between articles found ourselves being barraged by flashing ads featuring busty women and shiny cars (many on the website of what purports to be Melbourne's serious newspaper). So we soon gave up on that, too, and looked for another option. We took out a trial subscription to The Guardian Weekly (first four editions free!) and never looked back.

Having just worked my way through the eight editions that were delivered while we were away, I feel the need to rave. There is a whole world out there! Every edition has news and reviews from all over the world: Africa, Asia, South and Central America, Europe, as well as the more usual sources of news, the US and the Middle East. Although the paper has an understandably British bias, it features lengthy articles from areas often overlooked by slimmer papers. One recent edition alone included news from Bangladesh, the Congo, Costa Rica, Iceland and Finland. As well as more traditional news stories, the paper regularly reports on the myriad challenges facing the developing world.

The Guardian Weekly has reported on issues in Australia which barely made it into Australian papers, including a case which was placed under a super-injunction. I find it fascinating (and horrifying) that we initially heard about it in an overseas newspaper. The paper also broke the story of Trafigura's dumping of toxic waste on Ivory Coast, despite that case also being placed under a super-injunction and a related question from Parliamentary Question Time being suppressed. Although the paper was initially prevented from running the story, when details were released to Twitter and Wikileaks the cover blew off.

Its editorial stance is staunch left, somewhat progressive and deeply middle class. I find this comforting in a world where many press organs are far-right to the point of compromise. While I certainly do not hold with all its editorial opinions, the paper regularly challenges me to consider my own stance on an issue.

Each edition includes extracts from and reviews of up and coming books, plays, music, movies and exhibitions; reviews are often long and thoughtful.

On a lighter note, the paper is not above ending a piece with a small joke or wry comment, making it not only informative but a delight to read. The Diversions pages include the famous Notes and Queries, where readers pose and answer pressing questions such as 'Why does one scratch the side of one's head when one is confused?' and 'Why do men's and women's clothing button on opposite sides?', as well as a set of dastardly puzzles and word games. The cryptic crossword is always a killer.

I am one of those people who think I ought to run the country; at least, I have a jolly good idea of what the government should be doing, and isn't. Funnily enough, many years ago in Yes, Prime Minister, Jim Hacker observed that The Guardian is read by exactly those people; and it, or at least its international weekly digest, is certainly the paper for me. And best of all, apart from a few of the more publicity-seeking artists and their shows, celebrities don't get a look in.


From Yes, Prime Minister

Hacker: Don't tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: the Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; and The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it already is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?

Bernard: Sun readers don't care who runs the country, as long as she's got big tits.