Continued from Part One.


The next day we took a tuk-tuk tour around Battambang. We stopped for tea ("Western tea?" asked 'James', our driver. "Local tea," I told him. It's a hobby of mine to go places and ask for caffeinated beverages such as "tea" or "coffee" without giving any further instruction just to see what I end up with. In this case it was hot, sweetened, green tea.) and went straight on to the Bamboo Railway, which (after some initial misgivings on the part of The Master) was a huge hit.

Last time we took the same tour around town by moto. When we got to the end, we took the "small train" - they hadn't yet reached a consensus on the English-language name - back to town. I remember standing beside a cow shed, watching as a few men lifted wheels and a platform onto the track, and joking that this must be the "small train" coming in to our "station". Our moto drivers agreed, but they laughed too, so it took a few minutes to realise they were actually serious. The "small train" - now known as the bamboo train - is a bamboo platform on two sets of wheels, propelled by a little motor. It runs along a single track and can be put together or dismantled in a couple of minutes. Last time, we met a groups of villagers coming in the opposite direction, piled at least a dozen of all ages on to the same platform, and the two "trains" negotiated to see who would have to be removed from the rails to let the other pass. They had more people, including elderly women and children, together with sacks of rice and other food, but we had two motorbikes, which were deemed less moveable. Everyone pitched in together, though, and their train was soon loaded back onto the track behind us. Then we bid each other farewell before puttering away. Last time, that was the only train we passed on our way back.

There are a lot of tourists and (as far as we saw) no locals using the line now, and a tourist policeman is stationed permanently at one end of the line to oversee the operations. Handicraft and drinks stalls mark both ends of the ride. The policeman shook hands and introduced himself, directed our driver to a parking spot, then gave us the run-down whilst our train was being organised. The kids got on famously with the village kids at the far end of the line, and one girl, not more than 50% bigger than the The Young Miss, took Miss onto her hip and carried her all around the village pointing out all the animals and naming them in English and Khmer. Everyone was delighted with the way Miss mimicked either language with equal "proficiency", as one-and-three-quarter-year-olds will do. They showed us their brick factory and invited our kids to climb the pile of rice husks they use to fuel it and jump up and down with them. The pile of rice husks, it turns out, is springy like a trampoline. They made us grass rings and bracelets. They found The Young Miss a dog who was "safe to pat" and made sure she didn't touch any of the others, even though she wanted to. We bought some cool drinks. It was nice.

The Bamboo train may or may not exist in the near future. There is a big project afoot to upgrade the line so it is safe enough for real trains to run across the country once more, and in the meantime, the roads seem to have taken over as the main form of transit for the locals. It's great to see progress being made for the sake of Cambodia and its people, but I hope there is still employment for those who work on the bamboo train in years to come - and fun to be had for us tourists, too. If you get the chance, you should take a ride. It was a highlight of both trips.

The rest of the tour went just as well. We saw a temple, some temple ruins, villages, a winery (that was new...) and The Young Master (much to his delight) had his first ride on a motorbike. The Young Miss did, too, strapped into the ergo, but she seemed to view it as a rather ordinary event, whereas the Master was so excited about his ride that it didn't even bother him when we visited The Killing Caves at the top of the mountain, and he spent the next two hours breathlessly telling every child under ten years old he could find that he had just ridden on a motorbike, which brought some strange looks from the local kids.

Eventually, the Miss and Master started showing signs of having had enough for the day, so we asked our driver to cut it short and take us back to town, where another quick romp back by the river brought us to dinner time. The next day, we ate a hearty breakfast, took one last stroll along the river and through the central market, then piled into a taxi - with seatbelts - and made our way to Siem Reap.

Siem Reap and Surrounds

Last time we went from Siem Reap to Battambang by boat. This service still exists, although the locals who live in fishing villages along the lake and river have started complaining about the speed, noise, frequency, and general disturbance. In any case, it's a long trip in a little dingy, especially in the dry season, and with the improved road situation, it made more sense to take the three hour trip by car. And the car was a much better price!

I was glad the second road trip was the shorter one, as everyone was starting to get a bit scratchy by this stage. Our taxi driver canvassed the local tuk tuk drivers in Siem Reap until he located our hotel, where he dropped us with (no doubt) a sigh of relief. We hit the pool, followed by the hotel restaurant, followed by our beds - all of which helped us feel better, but not better enough. The next day, therefore, we decided it was time to split the party and get out of each other's pockets. The Earl stayed at the hotel with The Young Miss, and they did a bit of swimming, some eating, and some much-needed catching up on sleep. In the afternoon, he took the Young Miss to pick up his bib for the following day's half-marathon around the ancient temples of Angkor.

Wait, did I mention the impulse for the trip originated with The Earl's new-found fascination with running?  Yes, he's into running now. He could probably sit down with Serenity and have a good old chat about it. In any case, the idea of running, at dawn, around the ancient temples of Angkor appealed greatly to him, so he decided to step up his game and do his first half-marathon. But first, he took the day off sightseeing to rest up and eat well. Meanwhile, The Young Master and I grabbed a tuk tuk and headed off to Kampung Pluk, a nearby fishing village.

Kampung Pluk

Much has been said on message boards about boat safety in Cambodia, and most of it is not favourable. But in a country with stricter safety standards, would they let a four-year-old drive the boat? Probably not - and The Young Master loved it. I asked our boat driver if it was usual for the local kids to be driving boats by four years old and he shrugged and said, "Of course." Some of the other tourists didn't seem convinced, however - one woman in particular looked aghast as her boat passed ours, going in the opposite direction. At our speed (walking), depth (waist, on the Young Master), and distance from shore (less than ten paces) I didn't feel especially threatened, however, and our driver sat nearby, offering verbal and physical course corrections as necessary. We puttered like this for quite some time, until we got to the village on the water.

And when I say "on", I don't muck around. Most of the buildings were on stilts, and some were floating. We saw the police station, doctor's clinic, town hall and temple. There was also a school, with kids outside, waist-deep, playing a game of water-soccer, whilst others came or left by canoe. There were houses and houseboats, floating piggeries, and enclosed fisheries. We stopped in the "restaurant district" and swapped into a canoe, which wound through and around the mangroves. Then we returned the way we'd come. On the way home, The Young Master asked to stop and "help" some boys who were fishing in a creek using a net. They let him hang around, but in the end I had to point out that he was half their age or less and that braving the current and trying to wind and cast the net was harder than it looked. He returned to the hotel disappointed that he hadn't been able to go fishing.


We were hoping to watch The Earl run his half-marathon on the Sunday morning, but it was not to be. My plan was to let the kids wake up at their normal time and eat breakfast before heading out to the sidelines. However, for the first year ever, the organisers decided to close off the course to traffic, leaving our tuk tuk driver stranded where he'd dropped The Earl off by the famous Angkor Wat. We were forced to potter around the hotel grounds until he turned back up again, which didn't take long. The Earl not only finished the run (he was afraid he wouldn't be able to) but finished in the top half of the runners, making a time he was happy with.

After a swim to cool off and a spot of lunch, he and The Young Miss took a nap together again, whilst The Young Master and I went into the central market for some souvenir shopping. The Young Master found another friend at the market, and bought a gift for his classmate back home. Then we all joined up next to the river, where The Young Master found a man casting the same type of net as the boys had been using the previous day. He asked if he could have a go, and the guy showed him how to wind the rope around his thumb and gather it in his hands, but he was really too little to hold it all together, much less throw it out. In the end, he accepted that even the local kids don't start using that kind of fishing gear until they are much older, and contented himself with "helping" the man retrieve fish (or debri) from his net after he'd hauled it back in. We bought sandwiches from a street seller for dinner, and returned to our hotel to rest up for our big day at the temples.

Temples of Angkor

Oh, the temples. They are certainly an impressive site, although also a much more cultivated one these days. The first difference we noticed was at the ticket booth. Last time, we found a single booth, manned by two people, beside a dusty road. Now there is a bitumened slip road containing about a dozen booths with staff everywhere. The grass is green and tended, the icecream vans have proliferated, and the whole enterprise has become safety and conservation-conscious. This is all great news, but it didn't impress The Young Master, who immediately decided he wanted to return to the hotel. I must say, I was surprised at this - I thought the temples would have a certain "wow" factor all their own, but I guess he hasn't hit his Indiana Jones phase yet. I thought he'd like hearing the stories told in carvings, like enormous, stone, picture books, but I musn't have been telling them right. Luckily, I had a flash of brilliance and drew up a list for a scavenger hunt*, which seemed to interest him enough to keep us going until lunch time, when he finally worked out how to express what was troubling him: in a nutshell, he found the temples kind of spooky. Once we worked this out, we were able to come up with a simple compromise - he would just stay on the outside. He was happy to do this, and romped around the ruins happily like he would in any old park, whilst The Early and I took turns having a closer look, and occasionally discussing an exterior feature of interest. The Earl and I were glad we'd seen everything in reasonable depth before - it took the pressure off this visit, and we were happier to potter around in a way that suited the kids.

Both of them slept very well that night. The next day we took a swim and then packed our bags for home. Our flight didn't leave til evening, so we took a stroll around the Royal Gardens, a walk along the river, and grabbed a bite to eat before piling into a couple of tuk-tuks for the airport. The Siem Reap International Airport was our last big double-take, having been completely overhauled since its days as a dusty building with a bit of an immigration bench and a handful of moto drivers waiting around outside. (In fact, Siem Reap seems to have relatively few moto drivers these days. The ones who tout for tourists, at least, have all gone and bought trailers for their bikes, thus upgrading themselves to the status of tuk-tuk drivers - a rarity on our last visit.) In any case, it's not so modernised that you can't still stroll across the tarmac to your plane, which we did with that mixture of satisfaction and reluctance which marks the end of a great trip.


Next Up: Observations about travelling with young kids in Cambodia.

*This is our list for the scavenger hunt. Each of the speaking members of the party contributed to the list. We found everything except the danger sign (I guess they've replaced their danger signs with actual safety measures since our last visit), and it took us the whole day to do that. Even The Young Miss found a couple of items, although I'm not sure she was aware they were part of a game.

Lots of the finds opened up discussions about history, culture, or the local environment. For example, the water wheel provided a lesson in both local agriculture and Buddhist symbolism. The statue with the head (most of them are now headless) provided an opportunity to discuss the history of the temples and ancient kingdoms. And there was an interesting discussion about how the trees grow like that.

  • Working water wheel
  • Statue with its head still on
  • Boat (we saw one being used by a bridal party on their wedding photo tour of the temples)
  • Fishing net 
  • Fishing rod
  • Carving of dancers (apsaras)
  • Tree growing out of ruins
  • Tree that forms a tunnel with its roots
  • Aeroplane (actually seen after we left the temple grounds - they weren't flying over the temples)
  • Carving of wheel
  • Carving of elephant
  • Hot air balloon
  • Flowing river
  • Giant face on gate
  • Big stone lion
  • Danger sign
  • Stone bridge with stone railing

This story has been discussed on Mel's blog. Thanks to Alexicographer, I have a copy of it, which I want to comment on briefly.

Alexicographer suggested (via the comments to the first link, above) that the study would cost about 4 hours' worth of a post-doc's time plus a mac-book (which I assume can be substituted for any kind of equivalent computing device). All I can say to this is, obviously I am not yet a post-doc. I am pretty sure it would take me four hours to work out whether I was supposed to be running a Cox regression or (let's be honest) any other form of statistical analysis you might care to name. As it happens, I'm in the middle of studying up on this as we... well, I should be doing it right now, but this counts, right? In other words, if you are a post-doc, and you have feedback or corrections, please leave them - I would be grateful!

My first comment is that, as suspected, everyone should start using the firefox add-on which redirects every Daily Mail link to pictures of tea and kittens, because honestly - you are not reporting science to the public so much as blatantly trolling. In fact, if your (I'm talking to you again now, not the Daily Mail) Aunt Jane tells you to adopt as a result of having read the Daily Mail article, my recommended response is to give her a sympathetic smile, and gently explain to her that she has been trolled.

The Daily Mail [that is not a link to the Daily Mail, it's a link to Dan and Dan's song about the Daily Mail - I refuse to link to The Daily Mail directly and I thoroughly recommend the song] reports that,

"Scientists say the study throws new light on the age-old question of whether life fulfillment provided by children can actually extend your years. The answer appears to be yes – but only compared with people who want children and are unable to have them. In these circumstances, adoption may reduce the risk of early death, according to Danish scientists."

Bollocks. Wow. They really had to put their best spin-doctors on the job to draw that message out of it. First of all, we don't know whether the differences in mortality are due to "life-fulfillment" - a possibility I would list as number seventy-hundred-and-eighty-seven, under such things as "leading a less adventurous life-style during your forties" or "less likely to have an undiagnosed clotting disorder which prevents successful IVF treatment and at the same time increases the chances of death". As it happens, the scientists specifically state that the study does not provide evidence that having children, even after infertility, extends your life years.

They specifically state that. I guess The Daily Mail reporter got sidetracked looking up big words like "exogenous" and never made it through the whole article.

With regards to the second sentence of the quoted paragraph, it is true that, in this study, adoption was found to be associated with a reduced risk of death amongst those for whom IVF didn't work. However, the authors feel that this is not because adoption "reduces the risk of early death" but because being able and eligible to adopt is associated with a range of other factors which, together, reduce the risk of early death.

Again, they specifically state that, and it is an even stronger statement than the one I described above, which merely tells us that the study is not designed to prove a causal link (although there is a lot of speculation in the statement).

Correlation, you must remember, is not causation. (This reminder is given three times in exactly those terms - once in the abstract, once in the box-summary, and once in the discussion of the results. I can understand how the Daily Mail missed the latter, but honestly... they couldn't read a box summary before writing a newspaper report? Or they did, but they decided it would be more fun to forgo scientific reporting in favour of trolling?)

Mel complained about the division of parents vs non-parents, stating that the idea of being "childless until proven parenting" is noxious. And I don't disagree. The way society divides parents and and non-parents based on whether they are raising or have finished raising living children ignores a wide range of circumstances. This was always a beef of mine (and not just mine) when Mother's Day rolled around (and it still is). Society is yet slightly divided on the question of whether an expectant woman should celebrate or not, but those in the trenches of infertility tend to be more or less excluded - which doesn't seem right, when you consider how much more parenting some infertile men and women have done (both in a physical and emotional sense), when compared to their expectant or newly-minted counterparts. 

However, the scientists make clear that their distinction is between those who registered a birth after IVF treatment and those who did not, during a followup period of three to fourteen years after the start of treatment. They openly admit not only the possibility but the probability of "unobserved comorbidity*" given the available data (which was taken from publicly-available registries) whilst pointing out that adjusting for the factors they could observe had not really altered the results. They do consider number of IVF treatments in their analysis. One could still argue that they should have used different terminology, whilst admitting, to be fair, that the debate over the alternative remains unresolved, even within the community. Possibly, to be accurate, it should have been an acronym such at PRB (parents, or patients, or people registering a birth) vs PNRB. In any case, you can be sure the Daily Mail would still have come out with "mothers" and "childless".

A few things must be brought to and taken away from studies like this. Firstly, note that the outcome under observation is rare. The Daily Mail will tell your Aunt Jane that you are FOUR TIMES MORE LIKELY TO DIE if you don't have kids, at least through adoption, but actually, almost everyone they followed - regardless of category - survived. Put it this way: if one person dies, on average, from cause X in one year and in 2012 you happen to get an extra person, that is a DOUBLING OF DEATHS FROM CAUSE X THIS YEAR according to the Daily Mail, or a single extra death to everyone with an ounce of common sense**. And if your unlucky statistic from 2011 happened to hang on til the first of January 2012, giving no deaths in 2011 and two in 2012, then it is still one death per year according to those with common sense, or an AN INFINITE INCREASE IN DEATHS FROM CAUSE X COMPARED TO LAST YEAR AND POSSIBLY THE BEGINNING OF THE APOCALYPSE according to the Daily Mail. So tell your Aunt Jane that either way, things will probably turn out just fine.

Secondly, these data tell a story about a population. They can't tell you if you are going to die soon (which you are probably not - see above). Statistics, as everyone who has ever sat down at a fertility clinic already realises, is not a crystal ball.

Thirdly, just because science tells you X, doesn't mean the right choice is necessarily Y. We make our decisions against a background not just of medical facts, but of values and circumstances. Context is everything when it comes to forging our onward path. This doesn't devalue scientific research or the input it provides, but we must remember to limit its use to its proper purpose.

This study should be a welcome report to infertility patients - especially those who for whom treatments fail. It may turn out that there are concrete steps which can be taken to improve your chances of surviving into old age - medicating with aspirin, perhaps, or increased screening for certain cancers. However, it should be recognised that this is piece, maybe, twelve of a one-thousand-piece scientific puzzle - and the authors are not only aware of this, but are at pains to emphasise it to their readers. We don't yet know why IVF patients who never end up registering births or adopting have an increased rate of death in the immediate followup period after starting IVF, compared with those who do. The authors claim that "because [their] study is based on a natural experiment, the results are less likely to be due to reverse causation" - an assertion which doesn't impress me much, under the circumstances, based on my limited knowledge of statistics, epidemiology, and reproductive medicine. "Less likely" seems (to me, here) a far cry from "impossible". We - and especially your Aunt Jane - must remain open to the idea that death coinciding with infertility treatment may be a cause of childlessness, rather than the other way around***.

In conclusion: this is an interesting, if somewhat limited study, which has been over-reported in what must have been either a slow news week or a please-distract-them-from-the-real-news week. The authors themselves deserve to be thanked for their efforts and encouraged to dig further. The Daily Mail deserves to be forever transformed into pictures of tea and kittens***.

Part two of our trip to Cambodia is coming.


*I'm not sure exactly what sort of "comorbidities" the authors had in mind here - my assertion is the fairly vague one that they knew they didn't have all the info.

**There are valid statistical techniques for handling rare outcomes. What you learned about small numbers leading to unreliable results is an oversimplification which borders on an outright lie. Note that over twenty-one thousand couples were assessed.

***The authors do raise this point when talking about the group of adoptive parents who, they speculate, may have a decreased death rate owing to "survivor bias" - given that Danish laws do not permit parents to concurrently pursue adoption and IVF treatment. On the other hand, it must be noted that they have adjusted for the number of treatment cycles.

****I had to repeat both links again, just to encourage everyone to follow them.

I really enjoyed Mel's recent series on her family's Literary Tour of London and Oxford (I think I missed one there... but that'll get you pointed the right way). I'm a sucker for a travel blog. (If you are too, the other series that comes to mind is Vee and Boo in Thailand. Remind me how old he was then, Vee?) This travelogue is planned in several parts. Parts one and two describe our itinerary. Part three covers some general observations about travelling with kids of this age in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh to Battambang

We recently returned from a trip to Cambodia, with the young Master and Miss, who are now nearly-two and nearly-four-point-five. We last (and first) went to Cambodia in 2002 - a whole ten years ago - and there have certainly been a few changes. The first clue came when, just before the trip, a friend described Phnom Penh as her favourite city in Asia. "Really?" I thought. "Phnom Penh? That dusty little hicksville? Big enough to be mildly unfriendly and noticeably more expensive than the country's more regional areas, but without any more wealth or sophistication to show for it?"

Last time we came to Cambodia, we started out in Siem Reap, travelled across to Battambang, and finished in Phnom Penh. I admit this probably gave Phnom Penh a tough assignment - Cambodia is, without doubt, one of my two all-time favourite travel destinations, the other being Turkey. In both places we were able to rock up with no definite plans except a return air ticket from a different city*, and in both places we found the locals to be genuinely interested in making our journey a pleasure. There was no hassle and no hard sell from those who were also interested in making their money from tourists. Everyone was full of general conversation, and it was also easy to get travel suggestions. Organising stuff was a breeze. So of course, when we got to the less-welcoming big smoke, Phnom Penh, and sensed our return to the status of cashed-up strangers, it was bound to be the kind of let-down that paints an unfair memory.

Our guide-book described Phnom Penh as being "back", and they were right. The place has changed, and I might want to live there. Mind you, we saw it but briefly - we had only an eight-day itinerary, and we had decided we needed to ease The Young Master into it, as he tends to get a bit overwhelmed by new experiences, so we went straight from the airport to the hotel by taxi, hung out by the hotel pool and ate at the hotel restaurant, then packed up our bags fresh and early the next morning for our road trip to Battambang.

Phnom Penh to Battambang

Yes - road trip to Battambang. This was a new one for us. Last time we did the reverse trip, we did it by plane. You could technically get between the two places by road, but it was a fourteen-hour-plus trip - not including the time it would take you to dig the car out of a bog if it had rained recently - and that's if you made it past the land mines and bandits. The train service was worse, if a little safer from land mines. Nowadays, you can accomplish the 300km trip in five or six hours, along a sealed (though somewhat potholed) road. The train service and airline no longer exist.

We piled into our minibus at 9am after a hearty, western-style breakfast. We'd originally ordered a whole taxi since we filled one anyway, but the hotel could only locate a minibus, the exclusive use of which was offered to us at the same price but without most of the seatbelts. We used the one we did have to strap The Young Miss into her car seat, whilst The Young Master experienced the delicious thrill of travelling completely unrestrained. None of us were nervous about this - despite the newly-sealed roads, the traffic meanders. Our bus driver not only had to avoid the potholes, but also motorbikes, some with various trailers and ridiculous loads, bicycles, motorbikes towing bicycles, hand-led horses and cows, usually pulling carts, stray dogs, and people trying to hail minibuses from the middle of the "highway".

The Young Master spent the morning getting used to all of this from the safety of his vantage point behind the windscreen, which was just as well because the first time he actually had to interact with Cambodia directly - when we got out for a lunch stop - an elderly woman carrying a basket on her head bent down in his face, pinched his cheeks, flashed a toothless smile, and offered him some deep-fried tarantulas on a stick. He held up to this well, managed to decline the tarantulas politely, and even started playing with two of the local children whilst we ate lunch. When it all got too much for him, he asked to return to the minibus so he could hide out whilst everyone else finished up. The Young Miss, meanwhile, was in her element, having found a swinging chair, a playmate her own age, and more doting fans than she knew what to do with.

We got back on the road for the next big push, and the kids were just coming to the end of their attention spans when we pulled into Battambang. The hotel of our choice was unfortunately full, but we found a room with three wide, single beds in another one just across the road. We reshuffled our stuff and went out for an aimless walk around town to stretch our legs. The Young Master decided he was going to wave and say hello to all the under-ten-year-olds he saw, and he did. Before long, he'd found a group of them to play with, and he and Miss easily cobbled together a racing game despite the lack of mutual language. When it was finished, we walked on by the river - wow, such a lot of new buildings by the river since last time - where the Young Master was enthralled to discovered a game played with a shuttle-cock-like device, the name of which temporarily escapes me (lakeh? something like lakeh?). By this time, it was getting on for dinner. We grabbed some buttered corn cobs from a street-seller to tide the kids over, found ourselves somewhere to eat, and then headed straight "home" to bed.

Coming in Part Two: Battambang and Siem Reap

*Side note: I think Mel is a great person and everything and I really was interested in reading about her travels, but I have decided to NEVER, NEVER go on holiday with her family. This is for mutual benefit. I like to arrive informed, but thoroughly unscheduled. Mel... likes to arrive scheduled. We would kill each other.

I thought I might try NaBloPoMo - that is, posting a blog post in November. I like to bend the rules to fit my situation.

Serenity wrote a post about her Diego negotiations that really rang true for me. I've got to tell you, the endless whining, pleading, pestering and tantruming kids do over much-desired objects and experiences is one of those things that pushes my buttons enormously. So much so that, as per a sage observation Rachel once made about kids being able to tell when something crosses your personal lines, we hardly ever experience the phenomenon around our house these days.

When we do, I have a protocol. First, I make sure my reply to a request has been a) heard and b) understood. Then I remove the item from the equation - by changing my answer from "maybe" to "no", or by declaring an amnesty of a certain time period during which the thing will not exist within our household. I have this whole lecture that goes along with it. At the beginning of the lecture, I identify with The Young Master's feelings of helpless yearning. I ask him to reflect on how utterly horrible he feels as they consume him. I assure him that these feelings are common to pretty much all of human kind throughout history, and explain the good news that many techniques have been developed so people can quell such horrible feelings when they are not productive.

At this point we have a little musical lesson centred around that well-known prayer - "Lord, grant me the serenity..."

I point out to him that this case falls into the "things I cannot change" basket rather than the "things I can", because he does not yet always have "the wisdom to know the difference". Then I ask if he'd like me to help him achieve that elusive serenity by explaining some of the most widely-practiced techniques, and if I time it right he is too busy trying to work his way towards the practical meaning of that last paragraph to do anything but accept.

Cue geography lesson: pretty soon he is holding his globe, and I am tracing monkey's Journey To The West and giving him Intro to Buddhism 101. He cottons on to this quickly, because we live next door to a Buddhist temple, and we frequently hear bells or chanting, and smell the burn of incense. I explain the practice of eschewing worldly possessions, even to the extent of shaving one's hair and wearing a basic outfit of robes, and of shutting out the experiences of the world in order to spend time in focussed meditation. (Sometimes, if I have given my lecture fairly recently and therefore need to use a different angle, I trot out The Sound Of Music instead, and we discuss Maria and nuns and prayer and get stuck for a while trying to define "flipperty-gibbet".)

By this stage he has forgotten any thoughts of tantrums in both his curiosity over where in the hell I could possibly be going with all this, as well as the simple passage of time. When I bring it all around full circle by suggesting we need to follow the ways of our neighbourly monks by removing the desired item or experience from his world so he can use the time to sit in quiet contemplation - if necessary, in his room - he looks at me sharply, suddenly aware that I have snuck up on him and now have him surrounded.

I give him a wry grin, followed (before he can answer) by a gentler, more serious face, then I tell him that I really do want to give him what he wants, as per my original reply, but I also can't have him whining, pleading, pestering me or throwing fits over the thing because - first of all - it's rude and unpleasant and makes me feel very stressed and angry, and secondly it feeds this horrible feeling of helpless yearning he tells me he doesn't like to experience. So I suggest he could either distract himself with a specified alternative or one of his own choosing or, if he thinks that won't work - or if he demonstrates its unworkableness - we can make like the monks. Mostly, the pestering subsides, but every so often he loses his judgement and crosses the line.

This happened most recently a few months ago. I can't even remember what he wanted, but I had told him I would get it for him as soon as I'd finished my current task, which I estimated would take about ten more minutes. Within that ten minutes, however, I reached my limit and revoked my earlier answer, declaring that the item was obviously causing us all problems and I was removing it (temporarily) from our world in favour of quiet meditation, and was willing to adjust the distance of that removal and the amount of contemplation in direct proportion to the intensity of the negative feelings he had on account of it. The Younger Master drew in an enormous breath and I braced myself inwardly for the drama, whilst trying to present a composed and sympathetic face and casting about for our globe.

His mouth opened. Then he shut it again, and stormed off. I stuck my head around the kitchen door to see where he was going. He took a sketch pad and a set of crayons from his stationary cupboard, sat himself at the coffee table, and began drawing with intense concentration. After ten seconds or so he looked at me angrily and said, "Mum, I am writing a story about a boy whose mum tells him no and he takes that no and gets his cricket bat and he hits the no outside and it gets run over by a car."

"Ok," I said carefully. He returned to his work. After thirty seconds or so, I shook myself from my stunned daze and returned to mine. In five more minutes I finished it, and came to sit next to him on the couch. He drew in silence, and I felt a bit superfluous, so I got out a book, read a chapter, then put it away again and completed some more housework. I prepared lunch, and did the dishes. I read half of another chapter. One and a half hours later, he finally completed his work, and presented it to me as a reading, for my commentary.

And I thought, "Oh my goodness. I've created a blogger."

...drop off the face of the earth? Why yes, I just did. I have been idly pursuing work for a couple of months now and all my paperwork came in at once. I started two part-time jobs last week, and an online course of study yesterday. When I looked back at the blogosphere a lot of stuff had happened including the opening of this year's Creme De La Creme list, which you should add yourself to before December 15th.

I have other stuff, but it will have to wait til I've worked out what I'm doing.

The Young Master is against fighting, unless you're talking about strangers who look at him (he is doing very well with strangers at the moment, by the way). We took him to a kid's karate class and he refused to participate beyond the warm-up. "They're punching and kicking!" he told me indignantly.

"Yes, but... air punching! Air kicking!" I protested. Which brings me to another thing. He doesn't like Kung Fu movies. He refuses to watch Kung Fu movies. I mean, he refuses to watch Kung Fu Panda. More than that, he refuses to watch any movie or TV show where the characters fight each other. I am stunned to discover how violent children's television really is.

He hates pirates "because they fight". He had a nautical theme for his fourth birthday, and when it came time for the "treasure hunt" he kept insistently repeating to everyone, "But we're not pirates. We are marine archeologists."

We made a recent trip to Malaysia for a long weekend, and at one point we were hanging out at a playground with some local kids who only spoke Malaysian, which The Master does not. They were playing with toy guns - something that hasn't worked out at home (by which I mean "home" and also home). Imagine my surprise when I saw Master using a stick as a gun and shooting right back at them, laughing playfully all the while. As I watched, however, things became clearer. Master's gun wasn't your normal gun - it was a special ray-gun which turned "bad guys" into nice, friendly people. I don't speak Malay either, but I'm pretty sure the other kids were playing an entirely different game - something more traditional, like cops and robbers (in the old-school, shoot-em-up style, as opposed to Master's version which focuses more on rehabilitating the criminals into useful and upstanding citizens*). 

In the playground at home, the whole thing would have disintegrated under the strain of competing narratives, but here -  barred from mutual comprehension - they got along just fine. It's funny. We spend our whole lives striving to make ourselves understood, and it turns out that sometimes a little misunderstanding goes a long way.

*You should hear how he plays armies. He brings in diplomats to diffuse the violence and then professionals to repurpose war technologies to civilian ends. Starting with the airforce, which becomes a commerical air fleet offering passenger, mail, cargo, and scenic pleasure flight services. I promise you this isn't a game of our devising.

Many people have defined "home" in their own way. "Home is where the heart is." "Home is where you hang your hat." To me, nothing has ever resonated more strongly than that famous quote by Robert Frost: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." I'm fond of where I grew up, where my relatives are and my earliest memories reside, but more than anything this is what keeps me pinned: the knowledge that if our house of cards gets blown to the seven winds, this is where we'll bolt to, and they'll not only let us through immigration, they'll give us healthcare, education and a basic pension - as applicable. This is why I don't begrudge paying taxes to a nation I don't currently reside in. In the meantime, my heart and my hat will come wandering with me.

We went to a Mid-Autumn Festival celebration recently, and in the expectant silence between one of the magician's tricks and the next, The Young Master asked (in a voice loud enough to carry throughout the entire hall), "Mum, why did he make a flower come out of the cup?" The audience laughed, so the magician called him to the stage.

He asked The Young Master his name, how old he was, and where he came from. "Brisbane," said Master to the last.

"And can you spell Brisbane?" asked the magician.

The Young Master considered this question deeply, his lips moving in silence as he sounded the word out from beginning to end. The audience waited in quiet anticipation of the response of our boy-genius. Finally, he leaned in towards the microphone and said, with clarity and confidence, "No."

Later, The Young Master's fans crowded around. "How old was he when you moved to Singapore?" one of them asked - and I had to explain that he was actually born in Singapore, and had lived most of his life here. "Oh!" she said with a chuckle, "so he's not really from Brisbane at all!" I guess not. But Brisbane (and not Singapore) is the place where, when he has to go there, they have to take him in, and in this sense it is still very much his home.

As to where he comes from - the answer is still in the making.

How do you define "home"? Is it where you came from? Are you living there now?

It's no coincidence I started blogging about this as Master turns four. Previously he was too young to put forward his opinions on much, but nowadays he provides them in great detail whether we like it or not. Melissa asked some great questions on the last post about what happens when the kids don't want to live where the parents do. We often hear certain places being touted as great for specific agegroups. This place is ideal for young families. Another is great for retirees. A third is exciting (yet affordable) for teens and twenty-somethings, and so on and so forth. In some ways we are unique like snowflakes, and in other ways we are products of our generation or the biology and influences inherent to our current stage of life.

What happens when the kids want to live in one place, and the adults another? When I was a child I begged my parents to find a job in an exciting foreign location. I guess it wasn't as easy in those days, but my mother maintained that it would have been possible, except they thought it was "best for us kids" to stay put. No matter how many times I assured her we truly wanted to spend a year or more living in Birmingham or Dallas or Wellington like friend X, Y or Z, they utterly failed to pack us up and move us anywhere. Until I was sixteen. Then they packed us up and moved us to the next suburb, but nobody even had to change schools.

They still live in that same house today. My parents have lived in a total of three houses each their whole lives (the second two being common to both lists) and this is not likely to change. My sisters and I, on the other hand, flew the coop rather magnificently on reaching adulthood, and all of us now have to take planes to get home. I wonder how much of that was a reaction to the extreme geographical stability of our youths? I wonder how my children will react if I provide them with the opposite lifestyle?

Looking back, I don't think it was as simple as my parents deciding to put their nomadic dreams aside on the assumption that us kids wouldn't like moving - or at least that's what I'd like to think because, gosh, what an idiotic situation that would have been. I think there were a complex network of reasons for their choice, from my father's decision to be content with a humble role which allowed him to come home each night for dinner, to thoughts of my grandparents' health and (once my grandfather died) loneliness.

I'm wondering how your childhood experiences of moving - or not moving - affected your adult decisions to move or stay put? And I'm wondering which places are the most welcoming of all agegroups - young and old.

A couple of months ago, The Young Master started asking us why we decided to move back to Singapore. First he asked me, and I answered him as fully as I could. I explained about his father's job, the attractions of Singapore itself, the benefits of experiencing new people and places, and so on and so forth, until at last he seemed satisfied. But then I heard him ask the same question to his father, so obviously he wasn't. After a pause of several weeks, we repeated the process again, and finally, on the third round, I realised it was time for a different response.

"What is it you're really trying to ask?" I said, answering his question with a question. Of course, he didn't know - if he had, he would have asked it already. "Do you think we made a good choice?" I tried again. This seemed to get him thinking properly, so I waited.

And finally, he said it: "I wish you'd decided to stay in Brisbane."

"Why's that?" I responded.

"It's quieter there."

I remember the first time I came back to London. It was the start of November 2011, and I had just spent a month travelling around Egypt, almost completely by myself. (The usual horde of tourists had stayed away that year, for some reason.) The Earl came to meet me at the tube station, wearing a long, black coat he'd acquired, in my absence, off a friend who was leaving, and as I walked towards him I sniffed the cold, crisp air - slightly sooty, a little damp - and all of a sudden it smelled like home. Since then I have learned to savour those subtle signals. London smells like cold, damp soot and sounds like buses and mumbled small talk. Brisbane smells like fresh cut grass and sounds like birdsong and motorised gardening tools. And Singapore smells like humidity and lightly rotting vegetation, and sounds like a bustling expressway. So when Master said it was quieter at home, I knew exactly what he meant, at least about the noise, and discounting, of course, the motarised gardening tools.

Over the next few weeks I asked a series of followup questions, many of them hypothetical. If we moved somewhere quiet, but it wasn't Brisbane, would that be ok? What if we went to live in a ger on the steppes of Mongolia, and we didn't even have broadband? At last I felt as if I had a handle on his perspective, and I let it drop, for a while.


Soon after we moved back to Singapore last year, before we'd unpacked, there was a day when I was trying to organise fifteen things at once, plus a newborn baby and a demanding three year old. On his fiftieth impossible request, I turned to Master in frustration and growled, "That's what you want, is it? Well do you know what I want? I want donuts to fall from the sky!" He giggled. I stopped short. "You thought that was funny?" I asked him, surprised.

"Donuts falling from the sky!" he cackled, and his laughter caused me to step back a little and calm down, and I was able to agree. Nowadays (if I remember to) I use this phrase to let him know his request is unreasonable, and vice versa, and instead of having meldowns and arguments, we have laughter and conversations*.

One day, several weeks after our talk about the quiet virtue of Brisbane, we were having afternoon tea at a toast shop. Singapore has these little coffee, tea and toast shops and I am quite addicted to them. You get the local style of caffeinated beverage or milo, some description of toast - maybe with kaya butter, a slab of icecream or a dusting of pork floss - and two very soft-boiled eggs. "You know," I said wistfully, stirring the condensed milk into my tarry, black drink, "if we move away from Singapore, I am really going to miss this." With appalling table manners, Master deconstructed his kaya butter toast and bit in. A thought occurred to me. "What would you miss about Singapore?"

"My toys," he said promptly.

"Well, we could probably bring those with us. I'm talking about things you can't bring with you. Like toast shops. They don't have toast shops like this in Brisbane, do they? What about the MRT system?" He didn't seem convinced. In fact, he seemed stumped. "Think about being in Brisbane, what you might feel like."

"Ice cream at Grandma's house?" he offered.

"Well, you could have that in Brisbane, though," I explained desperately. "What would you want that you couldn't have?" I was beginning to feel as if the point was lost on him.

"Do you know what I would want, if I was in Brisbane?" he replied with sudden conviction. "I would want... donuts to fall from the sky!" And he laughed, and he ate some more toast.

They do say wise words can come from the mouths of babes. The thing about living as an expat is you not only see the good things out there that you don't have at home, which is bad enough, but you also get used to them. At the same time, you long for the good things of home that aren't everywhere else. Expat life can easily become a recipe for dissatisfaction. Probably the best thing we can do is simply acknowledge that, though it may be our heart's desire, no place on earth has donuts for hailstones, or rains of chocolate drops. Then, having done so, we should laugh and get on with our toast.

*We still have plenty of meltdowns and arguments, but not on those specific occasions.

"Dad, he reckons powerlines are a reminder of man's ability to generate electricity." (Dale Kerrigan, The Castle)

I've been thinking some more about what's funny. Today, as usual, I dropped the Young Master off at kindy, and walked his sixteen-inch child's bike back down the hill towards home, steering it by the handlebars. Master's school unfortunately does not have a bike rack, but letting him wear his dress-up aviator's cap and ride his bike - sorry, fly his aeroplane - is still the most pleasant way of getting him there. Steering the riderless contraption home and then back again afterwards is a small price to pay for a ten minute journey spent singing Those Magnificent Men versus a thirty minute journey spent moaning, whining, cajoling, threatening and weeping. Nevertheless, I still sometimes garner expressions of friendly sympathy from passersby as I try to stop it running away from me down the hill, and today was such an occasion.

"If only it was expandable!" the Singaporean woman in question said. "Then you could let your son ride it to school, and expand it into a big bike so you can ride it home again."

"That would be useful," I agreed. "Or maybe I could just buy a rainbow wig and some oversized shoes."

She hesitated awkwardly, her friendly smile frozen on her face. So I laughed at my own joke, which kind of made me feel like a dick, but less of a dick than I would have felt just standing there listening to the crickets chirp, punctuated by a lone cough. "Oh!" she resumed. "Because then you'd look like a clown, and you'd match the very small-sized bike!"

"Yes!" I affirmed, and we both laughed together, but more out of relief than anything else.

This happens to me all the time. At home, a joke like that would have been rewarded with an instant laugh. (Actually, a roll of the eyes and a shake of the head is more likely, and yet still more gratifying.) When you move away from where you grew up - even if it's not all that far or all that different, but especially if it is - you do expect to have trouble communicating with those around you. What I didn't expect was how much I'd miss having my jokes understood, most of the time.

"What were his eyes like?"
"They were... melancholy." (Big Train, Police Artist Sketch)
Some things about humour are universal. It is easier to laugh at yourself than at other people. Or rather, it's easier to get other people to laugh at you, than at themselves, or third parties. Or rather, I should say, you are less likely to offend the people who are not laughing if you have made the joke at your own expense. There are no guarantees with this, however, and there are fewer guarantees when you have identified yourself as part of a larger group - people from region X, or thirty-something females; followers of this religion, or infertility patients who have recently experienced miscarriage, and it depends also on how you choose to structure your joke. But there is humour everywhere - yes, everywhere, written here by someone who made a number of jokes about her own miscarriages - if you know how to use it, and I think it is a great gift to be able to. In fact, if I sit down and list off the things I want for Master, as his parent, I would not start with "to be happy" or "to be comfortably well-off" or "to be well educated" but I would write "to be able to laugh. To be able to recognise a joke and make one. To be able to make others laugh with him.

"To be able to laugh together."

And if we were at "home" he would pick up the necessary tools through ordinary observation and maybe another thousand or so incessant questions about why so and so found such and such that darned hilarious. But we are not at home. We are in a place where, when I make witty remarks to locals about rainbow wigs and oversized shoes, I get awkward pauses followed by relieved laughter - if I'm lucky. Often it's just me and the crickets.

 "Look - no cars, no police, also no government. Just walk, okay!"
"Stop! Hands Up!" (Lim/policemen, Just Follow Law)

There is an opportunity here to increase and expand our ability to use humour. To see the funny side of more things, to understand more jokes, to laugh more often at a broader range of circumstances. But there is a danger also of letting our jocularity wither for lack of the right kind of feedback. Of inventing lists of nationalities that "don't have a sense of humour" or "wouldn't know a joke unless it hit them on the head", when nothing could be further from the truth.

So I'm looking for the answer. The universal rules. The right body language, perhaps, or facial expressions. Whatever tools I need to keep the laughter alive. And if you have any suggestions, please leave them!

Humour is tricky. Parody is trickier. I once watched a documentary about a Korean-Dutch comedian who took his show back to his parents' North Korea, where the authorities changed everything "to make it more presentable to a Korean audience". I wasn't entirely sure who was being offended by whom, much of the time, but I'm pretty sure both, and everyone. Comedians will tell you being funny is like that. Jenny Allen has certainly experienced it this week with her piece I'm A Mom, which didn't appeal to Pamela of Silent Sorority, amongst others. This surprised me - not the lack of appeal, per se, but her eventual reaction to it - because the message Jenny and Pamela are trying to convey are so much the same. (Here is what Pam wrote about the infamous Anne Romney mum-speech.)

Humour is tricky. There is a cliche in the world that Americans have no sense of humour, which is, of course, outrageously untrue (example: Jenny Allen), but it is a testament to the delicacy of humour that it can be so hard to deliver across even the most subtle of cultural boundaries. I have a couple of American friends, and both of them insist on suffixing their jokes with "I'm kidding!" which, for me, not only sucks the humour out of it, but almost offends me. Where I come from, not being able to recognise or handle a bit of light-hearted joking around is a social deficiency akin to mean-spirited name-calling, or complaining loudly and repeatedly about your host's roasted pumpkin. When an American friend says, "I'm kidding!" after a joke, I hear, "I am funny, but you are socially deficient. You are probably the sort of person who gets pleasure from mean-spirited name-calling, or thinks it's ok to loudly and repeatedly criticise your host's roasted pumpkin." I have to consciously remind myself that they are actually trying to remove offense from their humour, rather than add it, and that this is probably their response to being misunderstood as expats living in a foreign culture. Then I have to forceably resume what remains of my merriment.

The whole thing is topical for us at the moment. Lately, whenever we laugh, The Young Master wants to know why it's funny. This morning I laughed because when (for the forty-third time) I released the balloon I'd blown up for the purpose of releasing, it flew around and around the room and into the rubbish bin. "Um, it's, well, it's like even the balloon is tired of the game," I explained.

"I'm not tired of the game," Master replied gravely.

"Yes but... no I suppose you're not. Why don't we blow it up again?" But it was too late. I'd laughed, by my laughter and the following explanation I'd inferred that there was something funny about the fact he was still interested in the game long after everyone (including, apparently, the inanimate balloon) had ceased to be interested, and now I was locked into a discussion about the nature and meaning of humour and I had to think fast about what I wanted him to learn. Was I supposed to agree that the joke had been made in error, and promise to never joke about releasing balloons again? Would that teach him to be fearful of making jokes, which can be such a useful tool? Should I, by my example, encourage him to tack a metaphorical or actual "I'm kidding!" on to the end of every joke he makes, to ensure the listener doesn't take it too seriously, knowing that this will offend a lot of people he has to spend Christmas with? Should I demonstrate how to suck it up, push him to laugh at his own quirky determination to watch that balloon fly around the room til both his parents lie passed out on the floor from hyperventilation? Would that send an inappropriate message that I think him foolish, or that he can laugh at anyone over anything and expect them to join in?

I thought Jenny Allen's article was funny. Much funnier than a tired old balloon flying into a bin after its forty-third journey around the room, and more important, too. Through parody, she deftly exhibited not only the offensiveness of recent political speeches to women without children, but to women everywhere, whatever their choices or circumstances. It's a feminist piece, calling on politicians to speak to women as if they have a place outside the assigned role of motherhood - much as you might speak to men, regardless of their current reproductive status. She had a tightrope to walk between the too-subtle and the too-obvious, and I thought she walked it brilliantly, but not everyone agrees. Some, like Pam, think the piece doesn't push hard enough, and is in danger of being taken seriously. Of course, if mother-worship is a hot-button topic for you, it will be harder to recognise or appreciate the parody. Your buttons will have been triggered and your anger will already be high before the writer smirks, metaphorically speaking, and as a result the joke will be lost much more easily.

Humour is tricky, but it is also a powerful tool for facing adversity, making a point, or bridging a gap between people - even across cultural boundaries - so I really do need to know how to explain its nuances to my four year old. If you have any universal rules to throw me, I'd be most grateful.

Here's what we did. We married young, studied hard, began our careers, and went out to see the world - but not for too long. We didn't want to be the couple who "forgot" to have kids, so somewhere in what you could arguably still call our mid-twenties, we headed home and started trying for a baby, and that's when it happened. When what happened? Why, nothing, of course. That's when nothing at all happened.

So we reviewed our options, decided on a path, and went down that path for long enough to think we were running out of options. And that's when the next thing happened - the job opportunity in Singapore, which gave us more options. We discovered that if we built up a year's residency in Singapore, we could pursue adoption - which was not possible at that time back home - and in the meantime we could continue fertility treatments. So we shipped ourselves away again, but a few weeks before that year was up, the treatments worked and we had our first take-home baby. Wherever "home" was, nowadays. We weren't sure.

So we left, we came back, and today we constantly question where we are and where we want to be and how we can get there. We're not unhappy - we like it. It's a blessing to have a future so open with possibility. But it's also a juggling act - fitting everyone's dreams under the one umbrella, and trying to teach our children the lessons they'll need for this type of uncertain future.

I used to blog here as Bea, author of Infertile Fantasies. Today, these are the things I grapple with, and could use some help on. To mark this new phase, I have redecorated, changed my blog title, and given us all new pseudonyms - kind of like an Appalachian Trail Name as once suggested by The Stirrup Queen, if more pronounced. Henceforth, I shall be known as Aerotropolitan Comitissa, although I don't honestly expect anyone to stand on ceremony enough to spit all that out. AC, perhaps. I don't know. I answer to just about any friendly call. Mr Bea will henceforth be known as "The Earl", The Prata Boy as "The Young Master" and Surprise Baby as "The Young Miss" - or Master and Miss or various derivations around those terms for short.

I hope at least a few thoughtful people will keep me company. The issues I face have taken on a new angle because of our chosen lifestyle, but they exist universally. We all grapple with the give and take of our own wants against those immediately affected by our decisions, and with our own viewpoints against the society around us. I hope we can grow richer using collective wisdom gleaned from many walks of life.

Sometimes I feel like I haven't really found my parenting voice.


Once upon a time there was a woman who had no children. She chased their spirits through the forest in vain, for they always eluded her at the last moment. Then one day, whilst she was running, a little voice called out and said, "I'll be your child." And she took the speaker into her arms and cherished him gratefully.

By and by, another child saw her with her son, and wandered out of the forest to join them. But her son was angry and could not control his jealousy. One day, over a petty grievance, he struck his sister hard, and she fell down, broken. The woman tore into a rage, and broke him, too. Then she wept for those two, broken children she had wanted so hard to care for, and cried out to the fairies to let her know what to do. The fairies appeared, their faces long and grim. They only had magic to restore one of her children, and they didn't know which to choose.

On hearing this, the woman wept harder. Her son was so precious to her. He had come to her when none of the others would, and she had loved him for so long. But she loved her daughter, too, and she was innocent, having caused no harm. As she wept, her tears grew thick and black, bitter like a brackish pond.

Then something strange happened. A tiny plant grew from the tear-soaked soil. One shoot, then two - then a whole carpet of yellow flowers, waving with the howling gale of her sobs. The fairies began to talk together, and eventually one came forward. "With these flowers, we have magic enough to restore both your children," she explained. And they did.

As the woman embraced her two children, she cried once again, but this time they were tears of soft crimson, and tasted of the earth. Red flowers grew, and blue, and violet and green. They spread throughout the whole clearing, as far as the eye could see. But the fairies left with solemn faces, because they knew there would never be enough magic to restore the woman herself.


Little Running Bear hurtled through the forest, down one path, then another, until he realised he was lost. "What shall I do?" he asked the air, and the air replied, "Did you take a wrong turn?"

I must have, Little Running Bear thought. Then he asked, "Who will tell me which it was?"

"Talk to the caves," the air said. So Little Running Bear talked to the caves, but he heard only echoes in reply.

"They haven't told me anything I didn't tell them first," Little Running Bear said crossly, and he sighed a deep sigh of despair. "Who will show me where I went wrong?" he wondered aloud, and this time the trees replied.

"Look to the pond," they advised. So Little Running Bear looked into the pond, but he saw only his reflection.

"The pond showed me nothing I didn't show it first," he protested, and he hissed a soft hiss of exasperation. "Who will lead me where I need to go?" he cried out to the hills, and the hills whispered back, as quietly as they could (for hills are very big and very loud), "FOLLOW THE PATH."

So Little Running Bear looked down at his feet and there, on the ground, was the furrow of his own footsteps, leading right up to where he stood. He retraced carefully, circling around and around, until he had explored every inch of where he'd been, and where he'd been headed. "The path took me nowhere I hadn't trodden before," he complained, and he moaned a soft moan of disappointment.

"Everywhere, there is no guide but myself," he concluded, and the leaves murmured assent. So Little Running Bear looked to the skies and to the streams, knowing only that he must leave, to find his way.


I know you "shouldn't" compare your kids, but I'm sure we all do. Hopefully the comparisons we make are constructive and positive at best, or neutral at worst. He responds to this kind of parenting, and she to that. He likes red best, but she likes yellow. And so on. The older Surprise Baby grows, the more I begin to realise how... well, "spirited" The Prata Boy really is and has been. She is just able to roll with what's happening in a way The Prata Boy never has been. And all of a sudden I'm gaining a new perspective into some of the strange looks, comments and advice I've received or overheard in the last four years.

The friend (a parent) who wanted to organise a ski holiday, who blinked at me strangely when I said PB, at nine months or so, probably wasn't "old enough" to be left with his father for several hours whilst I went out on the snow fields (and that therefore I might be more interested next season). I now understand that not all babies display signs of deep traumatisation when separated from their mother for those lengths of time, and that therefore some parents are actually able to enjoy several hours spent apart, instead of spending the whole time feeling as if they're committing some form of child abuse (in this case, at great financial expense, and under conditions of severe sleep deprivation).

The person who tried to convince me that balance bikes were best, full stop, and just couldn't understand my continued belief that a traditional training-wheel version was best for PB. I wanted to buy PB one of those trendy new bikes like all the hip parents buy because I wanted to be a trendy, hip parent, but was forced to admit that the old-fashioned training wheels were probably the go for a boy who was too scared to use a three-wheeled foot scooter. I now understand that some people have kids who love to use foot scooters, even as young as sixteen months, which is when Surprise Baby started using her older brother's. PB loves his training-wheels bike. But he is still freaked out by his foot scooter. At least one of my children is using it.

The person who loftily said she didn't childproof her house, choosing instead to teach her baby not to touch things that weren't meant to be touched. I now understand that some children can be redirected from their goals through the simple act of telling them no and giving them a substitute activity. Who knew?

The woman who told me I should come shopping at the mall with her all day and we could see a movie during nap time, and when I suggested a modified plan in order to avoid all the sleeplessness and screaming meltdowns and the several days of miserable, post-outing recovery (not to mention the wrath of all the other cinema patrons), tutted at me and told me I just had to get PB used to it. I now understand that some people have kids who get used to things like shopping malls and sleeping through movies. True fact!

Oh my goodness: everyone who ever said anything to me about getting kids to sleep. Apparently some kids do respond to sleep techniques. Some kids sleep easily even before you use them! Although neither of mine are in that latter category... or, really, the former - so I mainly believe it these days because I have now witnessed everything else to be true.

The list goes on, but I won't.

Surprise Baby has taught me a lot about other people's advice, looks, and comments. In a nutshell, she has made me believe in my soul what I have long been telling myself in my head - that it is not bad advice on their part, or clueless parenting on my part, but simply a mismatch between patient and medicine. A person saying, "I used aloe vera cream and changed my cleanser and my rash cleared right up!" to a person whose skin is breaking out from peanut allergies. (Which, in one sense, is the very definition of bad advice... but is perfectly reasonable in the sense that aloe vera and a change of cleanser can be a very good treatment in the right circumstances. I assume.)

She has also made me realise I'm not less competent or more highly strung than the next parent (although I'm doubtless less competent and more highly strung than some). I do have a child who demands more parenting than (some) other children. And of course, it's not all him. Some parents aren't as bothered by clinging, or crying, or they don't need their children to adapt to new plans or situations as much as we do. Some people are organised and enjoy organising. Some kids have personalities that don't tax their parents' weaknesses, only their strengths, and vice versa. All I know is that - so far - SB is so much easier for me to deal with than her older brother. And it's not just me - it's Mr Bea, too.

I have to stop Mr Bea making unfair comparisons. "C [who lives nearby] is ten times more socially adjusted than PB," he says.

"Yes, C is nine months older, and is the younger sibling of a highly charismatic family of extraverts," I counter. PB doesn't have to be the most popular kid in school, he just has to get along and have friends. And in terms of the social development of a four year old, nine months is a long time. Anyway, you're on a different curve if you were born with an older sibling.

Recently, I read Raising Your Spirited Child and I wished I had read it sooner. There is a fine balance between accepting your child as they are, and encouraging them to fit in with the society around them. It seems, sometimes, there are two competing camps, both too extreme to be the wise choice. One group is so keen to use therapeutic interventions that their definition of "normal behaviour" seems dangerously narrow. When I was in my final year of university, about a week before the oral exams which would be the end-all of our academic careers to date, I was studying with a group of about six of my friends. After a couple of hours, I sat back in my chair, put my hands over my face, and sighed deeply. Within thirty seconds I had been offered valium, prozac, prescription amphetamines, and professional counselling.

So, ok, feeling stressed and/or fed up is a normal part of the human experience - especially for a university student about a week before final exams. And sighing about it is a normal reaction. You need therapeutic intervention if you are having trouble coping, functioning, or recovering (for reasonable periods of time between episodes) from your stress or fed-uppedness. You do not need therapeutic intervention because you sighed deeply and covered your face with your hands. Society has no right to demand that everyone is super-dapper-happy about everything all the time. Society should be able to deal with the fact that people's moods oscillate up and down, and that people have different likes, dislikes, and ways of relating - otherwise it is just a little too Brave New World for my comfort. 

On the other hand is the person who believes so hard in respecting the feelings and individuality of others that they leave absolutely no responsibility in the lap of the person in question. People do have a responsibility to use tools - therapeutic or otherwise - to manage their emotional reactions in order to fit in with others. Else we give ourselves nervous breakdowns walking over all the eggshells, or we spend all day sitting around picking the metaphorical lint out of our metaphorical navels and giving each other hugs instead of putting our backs into it and getting the job done. And I say this as someone who is obviously a big fan of metaphorical navel lint, as evidenced by this post alone. (Perhaps I should get to the point.)

I feel like my own mother spent her parenting days swinging wildly between the belief that she should be the giving, accepting mother, loving us for who we are and making all the necessary allowances to do so, and the knowledge that she'd pretty much had it up to here with everyone's "quirks". To me, Raising Your Spirited Child hits the balance better. We celebrate our children's character traits, but we are allowed - in fact, encouraged - to shape and channel them for good instead of exasperation and tears. The two ideas do not exist in direct opposition to each other.

But I am hanging out for the time when PB can meet me half way. Today, we managed to get ready for kindy without a fight, but it was a draining experience for me - one highly-distractible parent trying to keep one highly-distractible child on track. I was just celebrating our achievements, when PB asked me to go a different route to school on his bike. "Sure," I said chirpily. "We can do that." But of course, once we'd gone half way the other way, he decided all this newness was too upsetting, and he now wanted to go back and re-start, this time going the usual way. "You can go back to the usual way tomorrow," I assured him. "We'll run late if we go back now. Besides, we only went this way because it was what you wanted, so I don't think it's fair that I should have do it all over again when I was actually trying to give you what you asked for in the first place."

PB pouted. "Come on," I said firmly, "let's keep going." That's when he rode his training-wheeled bike right smack into the back of me. Having been pushed to the full length of my tether just trying to get peacefully out of the door, and now with a painful calf, I officially snapped. I ordered him off his bike, put it aside in a nearby bike rack, and informed him that he had just lost the privilege of riding to school.

Wow. Just wow. His response defies description.

All I can cling to (in the face of all the looks I got) is the knowledge that I did, in fact, get him to walk there in the end, and we weren't even that late. A year ago (thanks so very much to Mel for the meme that reminded me, just when I needed it) I sometimes resorted to carrying him kicking and screaming at times like these. As it happened, I was able to get everyone calmed down using breathing techniques, followed by a short jog. After that, we were able to discuss things sensibly as we walked, although I am still not convinced we understand each other. Maybe he's just tired or restless because it's the end of term. Maybe the novelty of the upcoming holidays will do the trick. As long as I'm careful not to make it too novel. You know.

Wish me luck.

Recently, I decided to bite the bullet and update my wardrobe before my mother-in-law could. Bless the woman, she is just nuts about buying people gifts, especially clothes. For the kids, it's great - we have spent an average of about $6 per child, ever, out of our own money, putting coverings on their little bodies. For me? Well, hm.

Here is the problem, and I have faced it all my life. People who know me know that I am quiet, shy, a bit scatty, fairly laid back, and firmly unromantic under most definitions of the word. They have a tendency, therefore, to assume I like clothes that are neutral, practical, and casual. In fact, I do not. In fact, I am attracted to clothes that act as a counterpoint to my personality. I like bold patterns and colours. I like trim, tailored elegance. I like floaty, feminine pieces. I like cartoon shoes. You know - shoes that look like they were designed for the set of a live-action adaptation of a children's cartoon. I want my clothes to say the things I struggle to show in other ways. When it comes to "quiet"? I pretty much have that angle covered. When it comes to "zany" I need to be wearing it on my feet.

But as a child, my mother used to take me on the most colossally awful, traumatic, clothes-shopping expeditions which would result, without fail, in a wardrobe which was neutral, practical, and casual. Such was her incredulity that I would actually wear anything bold, bright, feminine or elegant that she would refuse outright to spend the money on it, writing it off as a waste ahead of time, despite my being pushed to actual tears in the fitting rooms on most of our trips. I just "wasn't that person". Correction - we just "weren't that person". My mother is a frugal sort, and aside from her fear that I would never wear such "unsuitable" clothes, practical, casual and neutral has a tendency to be cost-effective.

In my late teens, I resorted to pilfering my sister's dance costumes for outfits to wear to university and out on the town. Sparkly. But by that stage the damage had been done. One of the downsides of marrying your high school sweetheart is having a mother-in-law who formed her opinion of you (and what sort of clothes you like) when your own mother was still torturing you into wearing items that were neutral, practical and casual. Every year, for my birthday, my mother-in-law buys me enough neutral, practical and casual clothes to make my own shopping expeditions more or less unjustifiable. Here's the thing, though: I am getting old.

No, I mean, really people: I am getting old. I have lately been struck with the fact of my own aging. I can no longer ignore it or brush it off. I might not literally feel it in my ovaries, but all the fertility research in the world assures me it's there. I am of advanced maternal age. My chances of conception are taking a nosedive from here, not to mention the statistics on miscarriage, pregnancy complications, and congenital abnormalities. Old, people. If I don't buy a pair of luridly-coloured, MC-Hammer-style pants right now, I never will. Although mentioning MC Hammer during the process will probably only serve to highlight the problem, leading some to conclude it's already too late. I suppose this might be your typical, low-level midlife crisis, in which case, I'm not sure why they call it a "crisis". In a lot of ways, it's fun! Break it down!

We had a long weekend here for Hari Raya, which gave us non-Muslims some spare time for shopping. The Prata Boy turned out to be a surprisingly good companion. In one fitting room, he tried on a black, collared, A-line dress - backwards - and was quite taken with the way he looked in it (like a little Jesuit priest). "I want to get this one for me!" he said in that tone of voice he uses when he's not going to be easily deterred.

"We... can't," I informed him regretfully, wondering how I was going to walk the delicate walk of "don't let cultural stereotypes tell you who to be but by the way you're a boy so you might not want to wear a dress", especially on a trip set to overturn the lingering after-effects of my own, painful conditioning. As I frantically considered my options in the face of the inevitable demand for an explanation, a young Muslim boy in traditional dress popped out from behind a clothes stand. He and PB grinned at each other, silently admired the other's flowing threads (do we still say "threads"?), grinned again, and disappeared into another rack of clothing.

"Because you have enough clothes at the moment," I responded firmly, at the same time realising that, but for this excuse, I was totally going to be buying him the dress. Anyway, it's good enough for Jesuit priests, right? Aren't they manly?

I bought a floaty, pink, feminine top, and an elegantly-tailored black one. And I bought a pair of luridly-coloured, MC-Hammer-style pants, and yes I have spent a lot of time since then trying to perform the Hammer-slide, and I also somehow promised to (learn to) sew some "matching" shorts in patchwork for PB. My biggest problem is the practical neutral-ness of my former wardrobe. If I want luridly-coloured scraps for my patchwork, I am going to have to mine the throw-out pile of my more outwardly-zany friends.

But the real reward came the next day, when I was wandering around in my new 'robe. (Yeah, the kids are totally using "'robe".) "I like you in bright colours," PB told me reflectively, out of nowhere. And I think that's all the excuse I need to order a pair of cartoon-shoes.


I had the conversation I wrote about in my last post about a week before I wrote the post. The Prata Boy had been following the plan rather reluctantly, with a great deal of effort on my part in the form of constant reminders and daily reiterations of the entire train of logic from the top down. Then, a couple of days ago, he appeared at the door wearing his bike helmet.

"You're wearing your bike helmet," I observed casually.

"Yes," he agreed. "I'm wearing it to defend myself against people who want to take me away. When they look at it they will see the fire and they will stay away so they don't get burned into tiny little shrivelled pieces."

I nodded, simultaneously feeling a) dubious that many strangers would fear the cheerful sun motif which now adorned his head, b) stupid at not having thought of the idea myself when similar techniques have worked with PB so many times before, c) overjoyed that he'd independently worked out a way to manage his stress and keep with the program, and d) uneasy at the continued, if now latent, violence of his theme.

Once we were safely seated on our bus, I had a go at tweaking the concept. "PB," I started, "you know how you're a pilot?" (A little background: The Prata Boy has not actually been The Prata Boy since he was about two years old. Instead, he has expressed a variety of personas, both human and non-human, the latest of which is Captain Prata Boy - a pilot who flies with Emirates Airlines on their passenger routes in and out of Tokyo. It's a fairly specific fantasy.)

"Yes," he replied, fiddling with his chin strap. "This is my helmet." (More background: he has not yet ironed out all the subtle differences between military and commercial aircraft operations. But he will.)

"A great helmet it is, too," I enthused. "I was just wondering, though, what you think is the best way of greeting your passengers." I cast my hand around the bus to indicate 'his passengers'. "You know, as the pilot of a commercial aircraft, with paying guests on board."A look of realisation spread across his face, and he stared thoughtfully into the middle distance. After a long pause I continued. "I mean, you'd have to treat them politely, wouldn't you? Otherwise they wouldn't fly with your airline any more. And if nobody flies on your airline, well, pretty soon they won't need a pilot any more. You'll be out of a job and instead of flying planes you'll have to... well, I don't know what you'd do. Do you have a backup plan?"

"No! I'm a pilot!" he insisted.

"Well then." We sat in silence for a while.

"How do pilots greet their passengers?" I prompted at length.

"Very nicely," he replied. I nodded silently. We rode along, looking out the window.

Later that day, he started blowing kisses to everyone who met eyes with him. ("Is he piloting The Love Plane?" Mr Bea asked, when I recounted events to him later that night. "The pendulum may have swung a little far on the first stroke," I agreed.) And you know, though part of me still feels I should have thought of it sooner - way sooner - there's this growing gladness he was forced to put some of the work in himself. I can't always be on hand to write his life's screenplay, or cast everyone into their correct roles.

So if you're wandering around Singapore and you see a woman whose four-year-old is wearing a bike helmet for no discernible reason, you'll know it's me. You can wave hi, but maybe leave the little guy alone. His air kisses are much sweeter than his air kicks, but he still finds the interactions exhausting.

The Prata Boy has long had a problem with strangers. When he was a baby, it manifested itself in screaming when someone took him from me - even, at times, his own father. As a preschooler it manifests in shrieking at people whenever they glance his way.

"Don't look at me!" he screams, pointing an accusing finger at the offender. Then he supplies them - at similar volume - with an exhaustive list of the people who are allowed to look at him. It's quite embarrassing.

When he was younger, I tried to supportively acknowledge his feelings, and give him alternative ways to react. "You could cover your eyes and look away," I suggested once, to his apparent agreement.Ten seconds later someone looked at him and he screamed, "Hey! Cover your eyes and look away!"


Also? Sometimes he hits or kicks at them. (He doesn't tend to connect - it is a warning only, like a dog baring his teeth.) And? He has the same reaction when somebody looks at his sister, even though she, herself, doesn't mind. Woe betide anybody touch her.


I've got to admit, it is tough for him. He gets looked at way more than a lot of four-year-olds. For a start, people coo over young children in this country more than they do in The Old one. And although caucasians aren't exactly rare around here, we're definitely not the majority, so there's a touch of novelty about him. Then there's the old Chinese superstition that rubbing "golden" hair will bring wealth and prosperity. It persists amongst the older generation. ("Don't pat my head! I am not a dog!" he screamed at a kindly old grandmother when he was three years old. The woman didn't speak English, but she sure spoke Angry Toddler and she was definitely taken aback with what she heard.) So I feel for him, because it's tough enough being a shy kid without being in the spotlight every time you leave the house.

As he grows older, however, his actions not only become less excusable, but my tactics begin to look more and more futile. Lately, his ability to decode and express his feelings has become more sophisticated, so I decided to take it right back to square one to see if there was anything new he could tell me.

"Why do you yell at people to stop looking at you?" I asked, once again.

"Because I don't like it," he answered, as usual. But I persisted (again), hoping for something more.

"Why don't you like it?"

"Because I only want you and Dad and..."

"Yes, I know, but why only those people? How do you feel when people look at you?"

"Not good."

"Not good how? In what way? Describe the feeling to me." This time he paused, and I could tell he was digging as deep as he could, trying to explain himself so I could finally understand. I hoped, this time, he could find the words.

"I feel threatened."

"You feel threatened?" I wasn't expecting that. "Why threatened?"

"I think they're going to take me away from you."

I was stunned. "Why?"

"Because they're looking at me."

"Well, yes, but... where did you get the idea that people who look at you might take you away?" He paused again, and I let him think.

"I don't know," he said finally.

"You can't remember? Not at all?" He thought again.


"I think I do. Want to hear my idea?" He did. In addition to patting golden-haired children on the head, locals like to joke that they're going to steal your offspring. 'Oh, so cute!' they'll gush. 'Come, I bring you my house. Say, 'Bye bye, Mummy!' You come stay with me.' It's supposed to be a compliment. Sometimes, with SB, they offer PB an exchange - a lolly, maybe, or a small toy. 'I give you candy, you give me your baby sister, can?' Apparently PB has never seen the humour in this.

And you know, up til now I've been basing my actions on this idea that what he feels is completely ok to feel. It's a popular assumption in Western culture, after all - almost heretical to infer otherwise. But as I digested this new information, it struck me: I am totally not ok with him feeling like this. I don't just want to change the way he expresses himself - I want to change what he has to express. The trouble is, I'm pretty certain this fear of being stolen is just the skin of the bogeyman. He's shy - social interaction wears him out, causes him stress - and he's (presumably) taken this joke and constructed a fear of kidnapping around it. How do you make a shy person un-shy?

Conventional wisdom tells us this sort of change can only come from within. People say, "He has to want to change," as if that dismisses the responsibility from anyone around him, and places it squarely within his power. My experiences with infertility have taught me otherwise. I now know that wanting to change is simply one step on the path to healing - one you can be guided towards, though not via a shortcut. One you may have trouble finding on your own.

I thought hard. What comes before wanting to heal? According to this post, it is whining, and moaning, and crying, and getting depressed, and feeding a highly-developed ability to stress over things which are a) unlikely to happen and b) not under one's control anyway. What brought me from there forward? Well - it was you. It was the type of useful, constructive validation that allows one to take stock and gather perspective.

"Well, you know," I found myself saying to PB, "there really are nasty people out there who steal kids away." I've got to admit - from a certain angle, confirming to a kid who is afraid of being stolen that this kind of thing actually really happens seemed a bit counter-intuitive. PB looked at me seriously.

"What do they do with them?" he wanted to know. And I spared the goriest details, but there was certainly enough left to keep any four-year-old up at night. Eventually, I felt I'd answered all his questions to the best of my abilities, and we sat for a moment in silence.

"Maybe what we need," I suggested eventually, "is a plan to reduce your risk of getting taken by strangers." PB readily agreed. "Well, let's look at what we know about kids who get kidnapped by strangers, and kids who almost get kidnapped, but get away." And we examined the two groups closely, looking for commonalities and differences. And what we decided, in the end, is that PB should spend as much time as possible interacting with strangers (under my supervision, of course) because this way he will build up the kind of tacit knowledge about normal social interactions that you need before you can get that "funny feeling" when someone is acting suspiciously, but you can't quite put your finger on how.

He agreed to the plan. I don't believe it's going to change him from an introvert into an extrovert, but I'm hoping it'll motivate him to overcome his fear of strangers (starting with the aggressive displays) and allow him to practice to the point where he no longer finds interactions hugely stressful. And at that point, the bogeyman will finally be dispelled.

The curiosity of preschoolers is wonderful, in many senses of the word. Certainly, they are, themselves, full of wonder, and it is marvellous to behold. Frequently, however, it is a wonder where The Prata Boy gets the things he comes out with, and I wonder how to respond.

Maybe nine months ago, PB was paddling in a wading pool when a woman stepped in to join us. She would have been around forty years old. She'd seen me struggling to divide my attention between a toddler and a baby in the water, and had come to entertain the toddler on my behalf. Imagine how I felt when The Prata Boy piped up to ask her where her children were.

"I don't have any children," she answered mildly. "None at all!"

"PB..." I cautioned, but she gave me a smile and a shake of the head to let me know it was ok.

"I'm married," she continued, "but I don't have any kids. But I like kids. Very much. I like to play with kids like you in the pool. Shall we sail your boat?"

"Yes," PB affirmed, but his attention hadn't been completely redirected, because about twenty seconds later he piped up and said, "Don't worry. You might start growing a baby soon."

I died. But the woman just said, "Well, we'll see, won't we?" And that was that.

It is hard to explain to him that these questions can cause offense, when they never seem to cause any offense.

"Why do you have that stick?" he asked a visually impaired man at the bus stop, and the man smiled warmly, explained his situation, and demonstrated his use of the stick.

"Why are you using that wheelchair?" he asked a woman at the supermarket, and she, likewise, gave a warm smile, and explanation, a demonstration, and a sweetie.

"Why do you have darker skin than us?" he asked a friend, who laughed and called him cute and turned into an enthusiastic tourism advertisement for her country of birth, right there on the spot. "Why does she have the same colour skin as you?" he asked in followup, loudly pointing out a random passer-by, and the two waved a cheery hello in their native language before my friend explained that they came from the same country.

"But you shouldn't really go around asking people that kind of thing," I tell him. He wants to know what kind of thing, and why not? Both questions prove more difficult to answer than they seem.

Last week I emailed backwards and forwards with Mel, she (whether she knew it or not) playing the mother and me channelling my inner preschooler. What is it about calling something "kosher" in the colloquial sense (as opposed to the religious sense) that offends some people? What about using the words "God" and "Jesus" as exclamations? Where is the line between those who are allowed to use a word or make a joke and those who are not? Why do Mel and a stranger dance around the fact of their Jewishness? And when does it become not ok for a little boy to innocently break these types of taboos, which, to him, don't yet exist at all?

When do they start existing? And how... no - why am I helping to bring them into existence?

My experience of infertility tells me that, whilst it can be awkward (especially in the initial stages) to broach problems and differences, in the long run, it is more awkward to let them sit between people as an unspeakable divide - the metaphorical white elephant, to whom we often refer. Moreso, perhaps, for the obvious differences - if you use a stick, or a wheelchair, or have a certain colour skin, it's hardly a secret, so what's the use of being coy? What message does it send when we are? Is there something wrong with being unable to see or move like the average person that makes us hush up, as if it's a shameful non-secret? Is there something wrong with having a certain colour skin, or being married, without children? The important thing, surely, is not whether we observe that somebody has one trait or another, but how we let this change our perception and treatment of them afterwards.

The Prata Boy gets away with it because, at four, he observes these traits completely without judgement - either perceived or actual. Over dinner he asks Mr Bea what country he comes from. "Australia! You know that," Mr Bea replies with surprise.

"Well, but, how come you have darker hair and skin and eyes than the rest of our family?" PB wants to know. He wants to know, but he doesn't care, as such. Dad is still Dad, even if he goes to the hairdresser and comes back hot pink. In which instance, the wonder would be mostly mine. "Who is this man I thought I knew?" I would be asking myself. "Suddenly I have no idea what to say to him."

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