Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Celebrity Mum

One of the parents at my daughter’s school is an honest-to-God celebrity.

She co-hosts a highly-rated prime-time talk show. It’s in Finnish, of course, so I don’t understand an awful lot of it, but even my husband (harsh and snide tv critic) watches the show avidly, commenting that it’s clever and funny.

The first time I met Celebrity Mum, I had absolutely no idea she was famous. We were picking our respective children up from a birthday party, and we got chatting. I innocently asked her, “So, what do you do?”

She looked at me with confusion – I guess she doesn’t get that question very often. Suddenly her face softened into understanding. She grinned broadly and with obvious relief, realising that I genuinely had no idea who she was.

CM: “I’m a…journalist.”
Me: “Oh, really? Do you work for a newspaper?”
CM: “Actually, I’m in tv.”

I'm ON tv, to be exact. A few questions later I finally caught on, realising that she was a “journalist” in the same way that Barack Obama is a “public servant”.

I didn’t realize quite how famous she was until one afternoon when my daughter had a few friends over for a playdate. CM came to pick up her little girl right at the same time as another mum friend of mine, S (whose child goes to a different school). I could see an instant glimmer of recognition in S’s eyes, but she said nothing and just chatted warmly with CM. Later, though, she called me.

“Oh my God. Is that who I think it was? You do know, don’t you, that she is about as famous as a person can possibly be in Finland?”

And then, at my daughter’s birthday party, my 13-year-old niece saw CM dropping off her daughter, and literally freaked out. Go and say hello, I said. She’s so nice! But my niece was completely star-struck and overcome, and could only gaze at CM, slack-jawed and in awe, from a safe distance.

I like CM. She is warm and friendly. She is cheerful and funny; self-deprecating and real. At our girls’ recent Christmas concert, she was the mum who landed a seat in the very back row, and with quiet eagerness stood up on her chair for a better view of her daughter. I asked her once, in all seriousness, if she uses some special product to keep her daughter’s hair shiny and tangle-free (no joke, this kid has perfect hair, even at pick-up time, when my own daughter’s is frizzy, bedraggled and hopelessly knotted). CM almost killed herself laughing – big, stomach-grabbing guffaws! – finally exclaiming how funny it was to hear me say that, seeing as it was a miracle if she even brushed F’s hair every day.  

She’s just so genuine and personable.

And yet, at every school concert and every birthday party, CM is the mum sitting by herself, without anyone to talk to. Everyone who knows Who She Is apparently feels too intimidated to approach her, and she seems somehow shy and withdrawn in these big social situations. If I’m the Mum who rushes around waving and hugging people, and talking excitedly (and just that little bit too loudly), CM is the mum who stands by quietly; smiling in a friendly way but remaining on the outer; giving other people the limelight.

It must be strange to be in her position. As a star with a huge fan base to protect and nurture, you would want to be friendly and social wherever you go. At the same time, you would have to be so careful (especially with Finns) not to paint yourself as a show-off who always seeks the limelight. People might behave awkwardly around you, feeling tongue-tied or awestruck because you’re that lady who’s on national tv. People might watch you with intent, waiting for you to do or say something stupid that they could report to the media. People might try to misuse photos they’d taken of you or your daughter.

She is famous and successful and widely loved and admired, and yet she is a virtual outsider within her own peer group.

That must really suck.

I had always thought it would be fantastic to achieve that level of stardom – to be a national figure. And yet, in many ways, wouldn’t it be awful?

I’m an ordinary person; unknown outside my immediate circle of friends and family; just another mum.  I blend comfortably into the crowd. People treat me like one of themselves. 

I never before realized what a great thing that really is.  

I'd really like to hear your opinion, so please leave me a comment. If you're interested in reading more of my posts, please scroll up and subscribe to my blog, or follow me by email to get new posts sent to your inbox. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

In Praise of Nerds

I have lived outside Australia for almost 13 years of my adult life, in two different countries. Both my adopted homes (Japan and Finland) are full of people who speak excellent English, but rarely as a first language.

Over the years I have become so tolerant of quirks in non-native speakers' English pronunciation and grammar that as long as I can understand the intended meaning, I literally don’t notice mistakes any more. I even find myself absorbing errors unconsciously into my own speech (“We’re leaving now. Do you come with us?”),and I’ve started to second-guess myself on basic grammatical points (“If I was rich”? “If I were rich”?)

All this has raised interesting questions inside my head. What is the purpose of the English language in today’s day and age? Has it actually become THE universal language? Given the different versions of English spoken in Australia, America, England, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Africa, India, and countless other communities worldwide, how hard should we try to find and maintain certain basic standards of grammar, usage, and pronunciation? Is it actually possible - or even necessary - to keep the English language pure, and free from errors and laxity and rule-breaking (deliberate or otherwise)?

I have always been a bit of a purist in matters of English language usage. If I’m nonchalant to the point of over-generosity in allowing non-native speakers to make mistakes, I am absolutely the opposite when it comes to my own English and that of my native speaker friends. I cannot help but cringe inwardly when well-educated friends (even people with close to 20 years’ formal education in Australia or America) write things like this, not even realising that they've made an error:

“Your kind words meant a lot to Tom and I.” 

“Here are some photo’s for you!”

Naturally, I’m not going to correct my friends’ usage. My inner purist generally leads a softly-spoken and subdued existence, and is mindful of one friend’s excellent observation: “There’s a fine line between being grammatically correct and being a tosser.”

Besides, it’s not easy to be an English purist in today’s world.

A language used so differently in so many different countries in a fast-moving world is, by definition, going to need to be dynamic; arguably, this is one of those situations where substance is much more important than form. And besides, English speakers have no real equivalent of the “L'Académie française” language police agency that exists in France, telling people definitively what the rules are and how they should be followed. Today, you can consult the Oxford English Dictionary, Webster’s, and the Macquarie Dictionary, only to find three conflicting opinions as to what is correct, what is archaic or literary but not necessarily incorrect, and what is just plain wrong.

I have to ask myself – should I just let it go, and let people use English in whichever way they choose? If I understand what they’re saying, why should it matter if they misplace apostrophes, take liberties with spelling and grammar, write in run-on sentences, or use text-ese in emails? Writers (especially bloggers) write to be heard, and their message is what's important here. And besides, let's face it, many people my age were never actually taught English grammar at school; their teachers very likely didn't even know the rules well enough to correct mistakes effectively.

And yet, I know I’m not alone in my appreciation of solid, well-written English. Last night, in my Facebook status update, I noted idly that suddenly everyone suddenly seemed to be using the word “whilst”, and wondered whether I was alone in my cluelessness about the difference between that word and “while”. There are 20 comments in that thread so far, and while this may merely reflect the fact that I am a nerd who has lots of nerdy friends, when one friend commented gleefully how much she enjoyed this kind of debate, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly.

My conclusion is that the English language today has two very different and distinct existences.

One “English”is the common language we use to get by in the world today. We speak and write to be understood. We tolerate mistakes (both our own and those of others). We become familiar with different “dialects” without insisting that people necessarily conform to our own linguistic idiosyncrasies. This English is the language of the internet, and the default language of the world media. We need this English to bridge divides of language and culture and to bring people closer together. We don’t – can’t –sweat the technicalities.

The other “English” is the English of classic literature; of good, satisfying grammatical debates; of spelling bees; of people who seek elegant turns of phrase and the beautifully correct use of difficult grammatical structures, and who delight in sharing their journey with others. We might break the rules sometimes, but we still want and need to know what those rules are, and we delight in arguing with like-minded people about linguistic grey areas.

My observation is that it’s become socially acceptable (even for native English speakers) to opt out of learning the second kind of English.

And maybe that’s perfectly ok.

Learning any language properly is a difficult, time-consuming task, and it’s arguable that in today’s world it is not strictly necessary to apply oneself to this task – it’s entirely possible to get by, and even do extremely well in life, without perfect grammar or spelling.

On the other hand, those who opt out of mastering their native language to a high level of accuracy will miss out on something - unquestionably. They will miss out on the thrill and satisfaction of mastering a difficult skill, and the sense of quiet pride that comes with the pursuit of accuracy and elegance. Excellence is, by definition, very difficult to attain, but investing time and effort in striving hard for excellence is one of the most fulfilling things a human being can do.

For their own sakes, I hope that in opting out of language mastery, people do not opt out of mastery per se. I sincerely hope that the time and effort that is saved is re-directed into pursuing excellence at something else. There are too many rush-jobs and corners cut and too much “winging it” in the overwhelming busy-ness of today’s world. The English language aside, everyone should know the quiet joy and satisfaction of being a nerd and a purist.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Lately, some of my Mum friends have tried to sell me on the merits of iPad - not for myself, but as a toy for my 2 year old. The perfect, portable, kid-friendly, multi-dimensional entertainment system, that keeps toddlers quiet at the supermarket, at restaurants, while waiting in line, when Mum is busy with a sibling, or when Mum is exhausted and all out of patience and just does not have it in her to engage, patiently and smilingly, for one more second.

Don’t get me wrong - I understand completely why so many people are hooked on iPad-As-Talented-Babysitter. I sympathize absolutely and wholeheartedly with the desire for a quick and easy fix when you’re struggling to entertain your kids, and I don’t deny that iPad certainly does deliver.

This doesn’t mean I agree that giving iPads to small children is a good idea. Not only do I disagree, but in the privacy of my own mind I disagree with a passion that surprises me. Here’s why:

- It’s not a Magna Doodle. It’s a several-hundred-euro piece of high-tech machinery. It’s a bit much to rely on a 2 year old to be consistently “gentle” and “careful”. I would prefer not to see several hundred euros hurled at the floor or drowned in the toilet.

- iPad may be more interactive than a DVD, but it’s still “screen time”, and very attractive screen time at that. How easy is it, really, to restrict a child’s use of this fascinating toy to isolated 10- or 20-minute periods? How quickly does that screen time stretch into an hour or more?  Many of us (myself included) often turn a deaf ear to experts' warnings about screen time. It seems like such
a lot of work - too much work - to keep children occupied without DVDs or iPads. But I've realised over time that, ironically, those wonderful pockets of silence tend to come at a surprisingly high price. Periods of DVD-watching seem to make my children tired, irritable and difficult. The same amount of time spent on craft, puzzles, book-reading, or drawing seems to make them happy and energized. I know which result I prefer.

- iPad is easy for small children to use, and that worries me. The whole idea of things like crayons, puzzles, Duplo, etc., is that they seem simple, but are in fact highly challenging to small children. Trying and trying and finally managing to draw a circle, stick together two legos, or similar, children feel immensely satisfied, not to mention builds their dexterity and intelligence at a rate of knots.

- Small children need and want other human beings (preferably parents) to play with them, or at least to be a nearby, comforting presence who is ready to engage as needed. iPad doesn’t give them this.


I know that many (or most) mums are exhausted, strung out, and operating way beyond the limits of their own resources, and I don’t want to take away their coping mechanisms. At the same time, I know that deep down it’s not just me who senses, uneasily and perhaps without knowing exactly why, that iPads are not the right answer to our stressed-parent dreams.

“All right, Smug Annoying Parent”, I can hear you thinking. “What’s your answer, then? What do I do with my toddler or preschooler when I’m waiting in a 30-minute queue at the post office or at a doctor’s office? Or when we’re eating lunch at a restaurant and I’d like to enjoy even a few minutes’ quiet conversation with my adult friends? Or when we are at Older Sibling’s gym/ballet/music lesson and I have to keep Younger Sibling quiet and entertained in a restricted space?”

I am ready to put my money where my mouth is on this one. Here are a few ideas (personally tried and tested on my own children):

Low-tech, highly portable ways to keep your 2- or 3- year old quietly and happily amused in a small space:

- Plain white paper and crayons

- A 20-piece jigsaw puzzle (kept in a ziplock bag)

- One or more mandarins (make the child peel them by him or herself!)

- A pack of raisins

- A sheet of cheap stickers and paper to stick them onto

- A padlock and keys (try a few different-sized padlocks for added challenge)

- 10 Duplo lego squares and a few lego men/animals

- Maisy Mouse or other compact & light paperback picture books (I like to entertain myself by reading Maisy to my kids in a shockingly terrible imitation of Neil Morrissey)

- A pack of cards (preferably kids’ “memory” or “match” cards) for playing snap or the memory game

- One of those laminated cards with sticky plastic pictures that can be repeatedly stuck on and re-used (airlines often give them out)

- Shoelace-sewing cards, if your child can manage these

- Finger puppets

- I am sure you have lots of other ideas – please share them in the comments section!


I have a small bag pre-packed with several of these items. I’ve found that, on a good day, the first three alone can be enough to last the entire hour of Big Sister’s kung fu class. Obviously, some of these require more adult assistance than others, at least initially, but it’s worth putting in that upfront effort, since often once small children get the hang of something they will happily and proudly and do the same thing all by themselves, over and over again (e.g. my almost-3 year old, having mastered a particular jigsaw puzzle, will usually pull it apart again and re-do it, quietly and with great satisfaction, even 4 or 5 times in a row!)

We CAN keep our children happy and occupied, AND do it without going crazy, AND without relying on iPad. Steve Jobs was a genius and a visionary, but I respectfully decline his help in looking after my children.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Living in HEL

I am getting just the teensiest bit sick of my expat friends’ new nickname for my newest home city. Their tweets and FB status updates are full of it.

“Our holiday is over, and I’m back in HEL!”

“Made double-choc-fudge brownies. A little slice of heaven here in HEL.”

“8:30 am and it is still pitch black here in HEL.”

And so on, and so on. My teeth are gritted behind my forced smile.

Anywhere as far north as Helsinki is GRIM in November and December, sure. It’s freezing, it’s dark, and it’s the time of year when homesick expats are (quite understandably) thinking longingly of the warmer, brighter cities they left behind them.

All the same, this Helsinki-bashing is really starting to tick me off.

Yes, it’s cold. Yes, daylight is limited to 6+ hours a day, and many of those hours have been dismally cloudy lately. But you know what?


Far from being hell on earth, Helsinki is a seriously great place to live. If you honestly believe this is a shitty place to be, you are a spoiled brat who deserves a stint in some city that truly IS god-forsaken and hellish – somewhere that not only fails to provide you with Crunchy Nut Cornflakes or Hershey’s Kisses, but also forces you to pee into a hole in the ground, drink water that gives you the runs, deny your children the gift of education and put them to work at age 10 instead, and watch as people get sick and die from malaria or cholera.

Things I love about Helsinki:

1. The government takes care of you. Full-time public childcare (staffed by well-trained and competent people) costs 250 euros per month. Medical care is free, or so heavily subsidized that it might as well be free. Recently I had a badly-sliced finger glued miraculously back together at the emergency room. I waited less than 15 minutes to see a doctor. I paid 25 euros.

2. Everything is so easy with kids. If you have a child in a stroller, you and your child can take public transport free of charge. There are parks and kids’ play centres absolutely everywhere. These parks are used heavily by Helsinki families. It was a breeze to make friends when we first moved here.

3. This is the land of educational excellence. School teachers in Finland are required to have the minimum of a Masters’ degree, and Finnish school children are among the best performers world-wide (see HERE for further raving on that subject). Many people speak English to a level of excellence that will blow your mind.

4. Helsinki is not very big, so you can get to know it pretty well in a surprisingly short time. Despite its compact size, it has plenty of decent shopping, Michelin-starred restaurants, and world-class entertainment (U2, Maroon 5 and Britney Spears have all performed here in the past year or so).

5. No matter what people may have told you about Finns being shy/retiring/grumpy/anti-social, it just isn’t true. I have found Finns to be warm and welcoming, with a wry sense of humour. And, despite their (often excellent) fluency in English, they still have endless patience for foreigners’ train-wreck attempts at the Finnish language.

6. In the summer, the sun shines endlessly, and it’s never properly dark, even at 11 pm.

Do I really need to go on?

Helsinki does have a few less-than-lovable sides, but so does every single other fricking city in this world, no exceptions. The longer I live here, though, the more convinced I am that it really might be the world’s most livable city.

To those whining expats among my friends, who apparently have forgotten everything they ever disliked about their home city, and who clearly don’t know when they are onto a good thing, I have only one thing to say:

Stop your whining, or go to hell.

* Since I first posted this, it has been pointed out to me that I was unnecessarily angry/judgmental in my rantings. I tend to agree. See here for something on the same subject, but a tad more thoughtful and empathetic.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Fat and happy?

It is December, and just like last year, suddenly my bathroom scale is insisting that I’ve put on nearly three kilos since the summer ended.

I would pretend that it happened due to forces beyond my control, were it not for certain damning evidence to the contrary.

[The prosecution exhibits to the jury a large pile of crumpled chocolate wrappers and one tiny wedge of brie remaining out of a festive 3-pack of massive cheesy wheels…The jurors recoil in horror, sickened at such gluttony. The defendant jumps to her feet, pleading dramatically “No! Don’t show them any more! I confess! I am guilty as charged!”]

Last year (my first year of living in Finland) I got mildly panicky right about now. I couldn’t stop comfort-eating. I couldn’t stop gaining weight. I could actually feel my fat cells plumping themselves to a round succulence. Long-suffering Nordic-boy husband got a tearful earful.  He listened patiently. He looked genuinely baffled. He finally said, “But…everyone puts on weight in winter.”

No! Why would they? It is unhealthy and unnatural for one’s weight to fluctuate with the seasons, surely. I was convinced that the extra fat was there to stay, and all because of my complete lack of self-control during this season of hot chocolate and over-availability of luscious festive fare.

But oddly, apart from the fact that I actually needed to go out and buy Fat Jeans in a whole size larger (which was demoralizing and a hugely depressing blow to my vanity) gaining weight actually felt… [scared to admit this]… well, quite good! I felt somehow happier, calmer, more content.

And no one was more surprised at I was when, in the summery warmth of July, I suddenly noticed that this extra fat had miraculously vanished again.

This leads me to propose an outrageous hypothesis. Said outrageous hypothesis assumes the following propositions:

1. In Finland, the summers are as endlessly bright and sunny and glorious; the winters are endlessly dark and gloomy and grim.

2. Summer makes you feel happy and winter makes you feel sad.

3. Summer makes you thinner and winter makes you fatter.

My theory, which links these statements with highly dubious yet somehow irrefutable logic, is:

We get fatter during the winter because the sun is gone, we feel depressed, and extra kilos help us replenish our happiness deficit. In other words, body fat actually promotes feelings of happiness and well-being. A fatter person is a happier person!

“A seriously misguided and laughable theory! You can’t possibly be serious!” you scoff. I see the picture in your mind – of me, a Bridget Jones-esque figure, grasping at fallacious arguments with one hand while using the other to stuff a Mars Bars into her mouth. On one level, I agree with you. I mean, except for those rare people (highly envied by the likes of me) who can eat like a horse and still remain underweight, most of us don’t want to put on extra weight, ever.

Or do we? - maybe not "want" to, but "need" to? Could it be that, physiologically, people with a certain threshold level of body fat are in fact objectively happier than thinner people? Could it be that fighting to keep our fat levels down, in response to societal messages that thinner is better, is actually making us unhappy?

We want to be thin, but actually it’s bad for us -?

This was such a comforting theory that I couldn’t let it go without a fight. I even started feeling mildly curious – what if I’d unintentionally proven some well-known scientific fact, or even (gasp!) innocently made some earth-shattering medical breakthrough, despite having no medical training whatsoever, and only the most tenuous of grasps on basic human biology, chemistry, or well, science in general.

Imagine my elation at discovering, within just a few mouse clicks, that my theory was supported by none other than James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA and Nobel Prize winner!  Watson has apparently been researching how the release of leptin (made in fat cells) simulates the release of melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH), which in turn impacts the body’s production of feel-good endorphins. Watson suggests: “…do people who are fat produce more endorphins? Could this explain why Father Christmas is cheery and fat? And why high profile fashion models may be unhappy and turn to drugs to stimulate their internal endorphins?”

“Content people have weight on them. That is why we hire thin people because they are discontent and will work harder. Heavier people are more mellow and less successful. Thin people, on the other hand, are so driven by the need to find that elusive happiness that they become overachievers. So worldly success may well come more easily to the slender.”

He has also noted that since MSH can also be affected by sun, happiness could depend on either being in the sun or being fat.


[Note: I later discovered that Watson apparently also said the following:

"[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really."

“Stupidity is a disease and the "really stupid" bottom 10% of people should be cured.”

"People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great."

This made me suspect that he is a miserable jerk, which would actually support his own happiness theory, based on the fact that he looks quite thin and gaunt in recent photos!]

Another article noted that, among other things, high levels of leptin increase endorphins and suppress appetite. Low leptin levels cause the opposite effects. The tricky thing is that while leptin is produced in our fat cells, high leptin levels cause the burning of fat cells, which in turn reduces leptin levels. This says to me that one easy way to keep endorphin levels high would be to keep our leptin levels high, i.e., by constantly replacing lost fat cells through voracious eating of delicious food items.

You may be amazed to learn, though, that not all scientists advocate obesity as a sure-fire road to happiness.

"On a short-term basis, a high fat diet makes you pleasant and lethargic. You eat a nice big dessert, you feel good, you want to lie down and go to sleep," says Joseph Dunbar, professor and chairman of the Department of Physiology at Wayne State University School of Medicine, in this article. "But it's very difficult to agree with anyone who is promoting obesity as a way of feeling good. There are so many higher health risks including hypertension and diabetes."

Worse, though, apparently inhaling chocolate religiously and maintaining a high level of body fat does not guarantee you a constant endorphin high: "In obesity, we see an increase in endorphin levels, but also a decrease in sensitivity to endorphins," says Dunbar.


I’m still going to go with my gut feeling on this one. My unfashionably cellulite-y winter coat feels good. Maybe that’s because keeping it on actually is doing me good by making me fatter and happier. Maybe I’ve just let myself become convinced of that. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Nordic winters call for extreme survival techniques, and until someone teaches me how to hibernate, I will continue to reach for my medicinal chocolate instead.