Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Our daughter Evie arrived home from school recently, breathless.  This in itself was not unusual because: A. She’s eight. There’s always something dramatic happening. And B. She’s eight. She runs everywhere.

What was different was the reason. From her school bag, with a flourish and a “ta-daa”, she produced something so extraordinary, so unique, that I instantly had to concede I had no idea what it was.

It was a flat-ish bit of plastic about the size of her hand, with some sort of animal, or Martian, or super hero, or thing, embossed on one side. It could’ve been a medal, or a badge, or, I thought, a wind-up bath toy that had gone onto the road and got run over.

“It’s a smacker!” Evie said, adding the requisite “D’uh!” to illustrate how the world had passed me by.

This having propelled me no closer to enlightenment, Evie elaborated that it was “the latest big thing” at school, that smackers had, in fact, taken over, and that everyone was doing it. As a parent, I innately knew this included the cool kids. I also knew I'd be dispatched to buy some, urgently.

We all remember crazes sweeping our schools. And I don't want to sound like some cranky old bugger who thinks all was better in his day, but the things that grabbed our imaginations were – how would you say it? -- much much better. Crazes are now more crazy. Nostalgia ain't what it used to be either.

After consulting, I was relieved to learn Evie wasn’t using “smackers” in one American slang context, and that the third grade hadn’t been consumed by ecstasy. These smackers were of the weird but benign toy variety. In a quirk of international schools in China, they came from South Korea.

The point of them soon became clear to me. It was to annoy parents, by making as much noise as possible. To achieve this, one player puts their smacker lumpy-side down on the ground (or wooden floor, for maximum volume). The other player then slams their smacker onto it, with the aim of flipping the first one over.

If it's flipped, natural selection would seem to dictate that the thrower wins that smacker, and thus builds their collection. But of course natural selection, like disappointment, is now illegal. The school quickly drafted legislation to ensure smackers could not be played for keeps, lest it be seen as a form of gambling.

Having now studied it, in another unexpected bonus of parenthood, I will admit that learning how to slam bits of plastic onto the ground, properly, is a skill. But as a new-wave dad unmoved by old shibboleths of parenting, I will freely tell the kids it's one of those things they'll never need in real life, like any of the maths homework I can’t help with, or the much-overrated Pythagoras’ theorem.

On this point have I clashed with my doctor wife. She’s more mathy and sciency than me, or to use proper English, a nerd. I’m pretty sure she had a poster of Pythagoras on her wall as a kid. She regards his theorem, which is different to a theory in ways I also don’t understand, as reverentially as most people regard “socks first, then shoes”.  But I’m sorry, in my everyday life I just don’t get confronted by that many triangles, much less fret about how big they are. My mind boggles thinking about what my wife’s patients must look like.

On reflection, it’s clear that smackers are, in fact, better than Pythagoras’ theorem, in that they teach risk and reward. Noone ever lost by miscalculating the sides of a triangle, unless it was once the subject of the world’s most geeky bet.

A smacker, yesterday. As described, the latest craze in
Beijing is a bit of plastic in the shape of a thing.

This is what it would look like when one
lands on another, if the author possessed
one other "thing" -- a high-speed

Pythagoras, the man who invented triangles. He might not
be as good as smackers, but clearly by this picture he does
deserve credit for inventing the Weber barbeque.

At least smackers could teach risk and reward, had the school not banned playing for keeps. My old school was old school. We played marbles, and if we lost, we lost our marbles. Yes, it was a form of gambling, but at least it didn’t involve money. For that, we just used money.

We used to toss coins toward a wall. He who got his coin closest to, but not touching, the wall, won all the coins. I guess you could say this resembled a form of gambling for money, but then, it was a Catholic school after all.

Another craze was a game called “knives”. If you’re thinking we just threw sharp knives at each other, don’t be silly. The winner was in fact the kid who speared his knife into the ground closest to, but not touching, his rival’s foot. For some reason, this game did get banned.

We had other crazes that came and went, like yo-yos, and other, more enduring past-times which you just don’t see any more, like fighting. Now, if kids are going to throw down, that too is meant literally, with smackers.

Evie begged and bugged me daily to get her some of this playground gold, available only, she insisted, on the third floor of a building in the Korean part of town. I finally snapped, saying I wouldn’t pander to such whims, and that I’d get some at our usual toy market when good and ready. That day came and, of course, there were no smackers to be found. I put my tail between my legs, drove to the Korean quarter, and there, in a tiny third-floor shop, found the Holy Grail that was a box of smackers.

Evie took them to school. Once. They’ve sat in a bag at home ever since. I guess the craze had come and gone.

Monday, November 3, 2014


Hi Readers! Here's my special love and romance column which appears in this month's That's Beijing/That's Shanghai/That's Guangzhou magazines just in time for Valentine's Day. Enjoy!

WHEN I became a father of girls two things happened. Half the population laughed and rubbed their hands together, chortling that I’d get my just desserts for how I’d treated their people as a single man.

When I didn’t understand this at all, I asked my wife for an explanation. When I didn’t understand that either, I just dropped it.

The other thing was I had to decide what approach I’d take to parenting. It seemed a simple choice between two sets of values. At the one extreme was Victorian. Way down at the other extreme came Edwardian.

In time, though, I opted for “groovy”. I realised as the girls grew up there’d be no use fighting what the heart wanted and nature demanded. I decreed the two of them could start dating as soon as they turned 30.

But this Valentine’s month I’m reeling in shock. Our eldest, Lani, is only eight but already the heart-tingling idea of love has reared its ugly head. It’s only the third grade but boyfriends and girlfriends are all the rage. In the wonderfully transparent style of that age group, the targets of “crushes” have been firmly decided, and publicly declared in formal announcements.

There’s also a game, a bit like Truth or Dare, in which girls have to nominate boys at school in one of four “categories of the heart”. It’s called Kiss, Marry, Punch, Kill. When I heard about this I felt I had to step in and say something. It baffled our girls a bit but I explained that when we grow up we usually attach ourselves to just one person, and that that person ticks all four boxes. They’ll learn.

I didn’t start with girlfriends until the ripe old age of 10. And contrary to a wealth of public evidence, I treated women very sensitively indeed in the years before I married. And then I stopped. No. You know what I mean.

It all started at a grade five school camp, where everyone acquired a girl/boyfriend as a grown-up thing to do while away from our parents, and with all the grace of piranhas on a carcass.

My best friend was a girl, Kerryn Johnstone. It seemed we were sat next to each other every year. I figured this was fate, that our hearts should beat as one, and that we should soar together like swans. Or maybe lobsters. It wasn’t until years later I fully understood. We were sat together because of alphabetical order.

Kerryn and I decided we should naturally become boyfriend and girlfriend, or "go with each other", in the language of the time. The result, of course, was the immediate cessation of all contact. We could no longer be seen within 50 meters of each other for fear of being teased. This went on for several weeks. It was a huge relief that our relationship finally got back on track when, also in the language of the time, I "dropped" her.

Leanne Miller was next. She’d asked me to go with her four times before I acquiesced, telling her softly that it was her “reward" for having "guts”. After a few weeks of more no-contact I knew this one had also run its course. I respected her, however, and felt it needed to be ended nicely. So I asked my friend Eddie Foster to do it.

Eddie rose to the task without a moment’s hesitation. In hindsight I wish he had hesitated, because at that moment we were a good 20 meters from our class line-up when he screamed: “Hey Miller! You’re DROPPED!”, and the poor girl shrank while everyone laughed, etc etc.

I had my own heart broken in turn a few weeks later by Sonia Favero. I loved her so, and had fantasies about her. Being 10, these consisted mostly of me picturing myself taking out the bins, without complaint, at the home we would share when adults. But that ended abruptly when Sonia done me wrong with an unforgivable act of betrayal. She had her hair cut short.

Nowadays, though, even the third graders are into it. But as lunch with Lani and her friends revealed, even at that age love is a battlefield.

One girl had been convinced a particular boy was her soul mate, and that they should be together "4 eva", until she made a shocking discovery. “Was he seen with another girl?” I asked. No. Far worse. He was seen wiping his nose on his sleeve.

Another boy had asked Lani’s friend out on a date. I asked what a “date” could possibly mean at that age, and was told that - “D’uh” - it meant a trip to the movies. This seemed very grown up, but still the plan was scuppered by a problem fairly common to the eight-year-old.

“He hasn’t got any money,” the friend told me. “So he said he couldn’t buy me popcorn. I’m not buying my own!”

Another girl was similarly dismissive of Lani’s crush interest.

“He’s too short,” she huffed.

“He’s only eight!” I said. “Give him a break".

She was unmoved.

This girl was even able to inform the group what sex is, owing to the fact she possesses that most useful of things, a big brother.

“Well, the man lies on his back and the woman gets on top of him,” she said. “And then the man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina, and he stays there for about an hour and then he takes it out.”

Thankfully, for my wife was there, the big brother’s credibility was soon dashed by another revelation. It’s a fair bet he’s the only person alive who knows what sex is - give or take 58 minutes - whilst still believing in Santa.

Then again, they’re learning early these days.

I googled "young love" and got this. I was shocked.
Little kids shouldn't be up to this sort of thing. But
more importantly, where did he get the money for that?

Ban this filth!

Back in my day we had a far different way of
approaching girls.

The author on his first "date".

Pop dickhead Miley Cyrus. I blame
her getting about in her undershirt
and putting her buttocks on men
for inspiring girls to want to fraternise
with the opposite sex far too early
these days. She, too, should be banned,
obviously. There are plenty of other
"cool" female rock stars. 

What's wrong with a bit of this?

Or this?

And if it's racy clothes they want ...

English singer and meerkat lookalike Phil Collins was
wrong  on many levels, but particularly when
he decreed: "You can't hurry love". Kids today are
showing that's exactly what you can do!
Collins did prove, however, that you could hurry
the end of love - by once dumping a wife by
sending her a fax, rather than spend the extra time
telling her face-to-face or getting his mate to do it.


(Hi Readers! Here's my piece published recently in That's Beijing, That's Shanghai and That's Guangzhou magazines. Yours etc, TTF.)

When I was three, and my sister Sandra five, one normal Sunday morning in our small town of Griffith, New South Wales, was interrupted by some terribly exciting events.

Without warning, a car pulled up outside our humble, fibro house and two men got out, one with a fancy camera. They spoke to our parents and soon, with the photographer snapping away, Sandra was striking the very odd pose of standing at an easel painting a painting, in our front yard.
The next Sunday she was in the big city newspaper, Sydney’s Sun Herald. It wasn’t just the most exciting thing to happen to our family - it was the most exciting thing to happen to our town.
The reason was she had won a statewide art prize. A painting of hers had won a local competition, had then been entered at a higher level and was later declared “Best-in-State”.

The statewide judge positively had his beret knocked off in excitement about Sandra’s piece, which may or may not have been called Woman With Triangular Body and Dress. The judge said it showed “a rare level perception, a breathtaking honesty, and an age-defying sense of neo-cubist bravado”. I’m embellishing a little, but he definitely said it was “honest”. Hell, he might have said the painting was truth itself. Good to see my sister hadn’t yet learnt to lie through her paintings aged five.
My two older brothers and I also joined the critiquing, promptly declaring the work “a load of rubbish”. We were brothers. It’s what we do.
Still, we didn’t care. We were just agog that Sandra had clearly become our family’s ticket out of the working classes. There would be no starving in garrets for us. For the rest of her childhood, with our zealous backing, she was encouraged to pursue her rare gift for painting. And then, once she finished school - like so many others whose junior artworks are so heavily lauded - she dropped it like a hot potato.
It’s a funny thing, art. There can be few other pursuits we so eagerly encourage in our kids which are so widely abandoned by adulthood. There’s calculus, of course, and the recorder, but who misses those when they’ve been given up/snapped over your knee?
Kids simply must paint paintings, make sculptures, glue collages, and stick raw pasta onto paper. It’s as if, like dressing yourself or getting food into your mouth, these are skills you can’t get through life without. But how many of us find ourselves as adults saying “Oh I must pick up a new paintbrush”, or “Hey mate – fancy coming round for some beers and papier-mâché”?
It will, however, be slightly sad if our kids join the 99 per cent who stop doing art when they stop being kids. While it’s easy to get carried away with our critiquing, it’s a fun thing to do, even if it comes under my mother’s headline of “Things to occupy your kids until bedtime”.
Of course there is one defining characteristic of children’s art. No, it’s not honesty. It’s mess. The art gets everywhere. Because of this, there is one vital component every spoiled expat parent needs - an ayi, or housemaid.
Other than that we once bought a large shower curtain. It gets spread on the kitchen floor, then the kids put brush to paper on top of that.
Now I’m no art expert, but our kitchen has spawned one unquestionable masterpiece. The shower curtain is now an artistic tour de force to rival anything of Jackson Pollock’s (whose name fittingly lives on in the world of Cockney rhyming slang to describe anything which is “bollocks”). Nomatter how hard he tried, the spills and splodges of a couple of kids put Pollock’s work in the shade. He just couldn’t match their honesty.
The kids’ paintings themselves are a mixed bag, like most children’s. Some have made it onto the wall. Many have made it into the bin – a sad martyrdom for their efforts in filling a rainy afternoon. Many started off well but were abandoned halfway through when something else took the artist’s fancy, like an iPad.
Of course some kids have a natural gift for it. They’ll go on to be famous artists. Others, sadly, will have no talent whatsoever. They may also go on to be famous artists.
I love the absurdity of children’s art. I love huge heads on little bodies, fingerless hands on elbow-less arms - all on 2D people rendered in the pre-Renaissance or “Flat Stanley” style. Some more serious art critics could really go to town with it. And it’s all done without a hint of hallucinogens, save perhaps for red cordial.
There are of course some downsides. Some art makes it onto the wall without the involvement of a piece of paper. And occasionally a child can get worked up and miserable if their painting doesn’t turn out the way they’d hoped.
For this eventuality I have two action plans. First I’ll quote them no less an artist than Salvador Dali: “Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it.”
If this fails I’ll show them a Jackson Pollock and tell them it sold for millions.

Self Portrait, by our daughter Lani. I may have to
check what's in her red cordial.

Another piece of work by daughter Evie,
said to be so good by her teacher it was
worthy of framing. Fortunately, framing
is cheap in China. Unfortunately, the
painting is of a horse.

A load of Jackson Pollocks, yesterday.

Something my daughters did which was just as good
and for half the price. It's been hailed by critics as
"a shower curtain de force".

Something else my kids did. If you look closely you'll
notice it's a beautiful rendered work celebrating the
history of art. But don't look too closely or you'll
also notice it's a jigsaw puzzle.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Hi readers! Happy New Year. Speaking of which, here's my New Year's column running in this month's That's Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou magazines.

*  *  *

I've never been one for the annual round of self-flagellating personal improvement pledges known as New Year's resolutions. I've usually just stuck to one: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

But this year in the parallel universe that is Expatland, China, a freaky celestial event is happening. We get two New Year's Days in one month! The Chinese one comes up on January 31, while the western one this year fell on January the first.

If my memory of school serves me, this could very well be what's called a Blue Moon. And since that fits my schedule for making New year's resolutions exactly, I've turned over a new leaf to make not just one but a whole bunch of them. These I can use, as father figure, to make our family fulfill the slick new motto I’ve decided for us: Go like a well-oiled machine in 2014.

Feel free to cut them out and put them on your fridge to make yourselves better people too. In fact, I'd recommend it.

This year I resolve to:

  • Stomp a full ten paces away from a problematic child before screaming an obscenity, instead of the usual two.

  • Tell the kids their new secret language is “very creative and clever”, and not “a pain in the ass for everyone around them”. 

  • When a child says they are sick and can not go to school I will believe them. I will not demand to see evidence of a ruptured organ or severed limb.

  • I will also not tell them "Worse things happen at sea" and tell a gut-wrenching tale of scurvy-ravaged sailors having their heads blown off.

  • I will stick as close as possible to the “three-second rule” when forcing one of my children to eat food they have dropped. This replaces the old “three minutes and what about the starving kids in India” rule.

  • I will listen, and smile, whenever one of my children wants to play me something on the recorder. And say it sounds "terrific". Every time. And not fake my own death.

  • This I vow even though our house has entered into the state of having not one but TWO recorders, or "Armageddon".

  • Whenever my kids start a physical fight I will not merely stand there and watch, just to see who wins.

  • Whenever one child complains of preferential treatment lavished on her sibling, I will no longer give the explanation "because she's my favorite".

  • Nor will I say “because you’re my favourite”, just to mess with her head.

  • I will only engage in positive parenting, and will not try to motivate a child with a threat.

  • But if I do, it will be a threat I can actually carry out, and not “Eat the food or I’m never giving you food again”, which may or may not have happened during one particularly desperate dinner time. 

  • I will not treat the kids to any more three-hour lectures with titles like "On the importance of David Bowie" (unless faced with a sudden outbreak of Justin Bieber).

  • I will engage patiently and pleasantly in all conversations, no matter how inane. Even “Why it makes sense to go for a nap between dinner and bath”. Or “It is right to wear a tutu and chat with my friends in a soccer match.”

I found this photo on a parenting website. As a
parent myself, I can look at it and make one or two
inferences about what the mother depicted here has
done in this situation. The main one is that she's
put money on the son in black.

A sight to send shivers down any parent's
spine. I think we all remember exactly
what we were doing when we first
noticed there was a recorder in our homes.

It's an instrument of the devil if ever
there was one. All efforts to make it
more appealing have failed, including
this attempt to "sex it up" during the

But it could be worse ...

A friend's kid brought home a recorder like this once.
Bloody nightmare.

Or this could be your husband.

This guy also sucks.
It must take a lot of preparation to
look this worried.

This is obviously a far better
role model for one's kids.

Under the Chinese zodiac, this will be the year of the horse.
It's easily the best animal of the dozen in the rotation.
For starters, I am a horse, which I think means I'll turn
12 years older this year.
And what's more, who ever won money on a rabbit?
Or a dragon?

In regard to my children's mother mother, I vow:

  • To keep the romance alive, in a marriage beset by parenthood, I shall institute spontaneous bouts of "couple time". These will only sometimes involve drinking beer in the pub with my mates, sitting on the couch watching sport, and demanding my wife acknowledge the toughness of my ear hair.

  • However, if sport watching does occur, I will not get mad on any of the three or four occasions my wife will undoubtedly walk across the front of the TV at a crucial moment during any given match. I will say something nice.

  • And I will engage patiently and pleasantly in all conversations, no matter how inane. Even “Why didn’t the captain of the team that lost the final prepare a loser’s speech?” and “Why do teams always look like that when they’re celebrating on a podium?”

  • When asked "How do I look?" before we go out, I will not trot out the usual clichés like "Alright I suppose", "Better than nothing" or "No opinion". I will say something nice.

  • I will listen when my wife is saying words. And when given a list of 10 things to do I will not forget any more than 10 of them.

  • I will strictly limit all greenhouse and personal gas emissions (to occasions when they are really, really funny, or to when at least one of us is asleep).

  • I accept that the following conditions may not be life-threatening: 1. Meeting new people. 2. Trying new things. 3. Going to new places.

So there it is - a fairly comprehensive list, I’m sure you’d agree.

Come to think of it, it's very comprehensive. That’s a lot of change for one man in one year. I mean, my wife married me for a reason, right?

Maybe I’d better procrastinate on it a bit longer. We don’t want to go overboard.

After all, “well-oiled machine” also rhymes with 2015.

And 2019!