‘Murica, you’re not all bad

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America, I got you quite wrong. 

I’ve had a lifetime being force fed a culture by the entertainment industry, and I thought I knew you. Then I landed here as a temporary resident.

Big, boisterous America has a stage presence that’s both a gift and curse.

Its reputation for obsession of self, stuff and shallow stardom doesn’t often fare well in the eyes of others.

To the world I say, don’t be quick to judge a country you’ve only seen from afar, or visited for just a little.

From the very first “Welcome Ma’am” at the border, I’ve been embraced with a friendliness that’s disarming in its generosity. I’ve been moved by a thousand everyday kindnesses that Americans happily throw my way.

Packing up a life and moving it across the other side of the world is daunting. My home, beautiful New Zealand, is a galaxy away. Getting anywhere from there requires a big plane and lots of time zones. Moving to America has been exciting, tempered with my share of loneliness and confusion.

It’s been made so much easier by America’s deep history of embracing strangers from afar. That very trait is the lifeblood that makes America the best kind of place, a great place of freedom, opportunity and invention.

In America, a person can be anything.

This land welcomes the dreamers and thinkers, right alongside the movers, shakers and doers.

These shores are a beacon for people escaping their own country’s limitations. The iconic American Dream isn’t mere fable, for Lady Liberty welcomes newcomers with the promise that hard work and good intention will bring health and wealth and bright futures for generations to come.

My kind of America now, not the one I grew up viewing from a distance, is a place of open minds and thoughtful actions, of endless optimism and plenty of choices.

I’ve discovered that America is not scared to do things big, and it’s also excellent at the many little things, and it’s those little things that make up a big part of my daily life here.

Those times when new friends offer me a ride, because they recognise that having me drive on the opposite side of busy roads is challenging, and possibly a heath hazard to them.

It’s the times when they’ve helped me with the peculiarities of tipping, not customary where I come from. Figuring out the who, when and how is a blur and it only takes a slight hesitation for my friends to whip the check out of my hand and write in the figure for me. Apparently, I’m a good tipper.

It’s telling me when I use a word, commonplace in my home country, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Words, and there are more than you’d think, that have completely different, sometimes inappropriate meanings in this new land, all tangled up in accent and pace.

My kind of America is new friends showing patience when I repeatedly get life mixed up: the pennies, dimes and quarters, the local tricks for surviving the Florida summer, the warnings about hurricanes and impressive lightning strikes, and the insects, black bears and alligators.

The kind of America I have experienced is one that is fearless and bold, the people exuberant and eager, quick to share their opinions and dreams and also keen to hear mine.

I see a nation where people embrace self-belief, aim for the extraordinary, bringing the impossible within reach. It’s why America’s history is rich and its future is promising.

The world could learn a lot from getting to know Americans, rather than listening to what they think they know about America. One of the things I love most about Americans is that they’re not very worried about what the rest of the world thinks of them.

I won’t mistake different for bad or worse, I won’t let what’s familiar color my perspective and I will remember that the onus of adjustment is on me, the newcomer, not the other way round.

America is difficult to ignore or forget. Eventually I’ll leave these shores and when I do, I’ll remember everything that is good, and I hope you do too.

Published Orlando Sentinel

Published Stuff.co.nz

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Motherhood, you wench.

I got the crib well before time and prettied it up with lace and ribbons. 

It sat centre stage in the nursery with lots of fluffy pink things, a pile of carefully folded soft cloth diapers and a quaint, recycled rocker that I pictured myself settling into for long, pleasurable hours of night feeding.

Well. Baby.

Along came Emma, a first-born who was kind enough to give me one week’s peace, lulling me into a sense of post-natal bliss that had me thinking “This is easy”.

Oh motherhood you wench, you age-old trickster, delivering us women hysterical highs and lows, making us laugh and cry, joy and pain in equal measure.

I didn’t have a name for it, and Google was itself a couple years off being born, so it was six weeks before I discovered the very little word for my very big problem: colic. And with the unreasonable screaming came a bonus: projectile vomiting, destroying carpets, clothes and cleanliness wherever we dared venture.

And then came advice. Desperation for solution made me an indulgent listener and avid reader, too eager to try everything I stumbled upon.

I learnt the hard way: advice is only good when it works. The rest of the time it’s a cruel task-master eroding our confidence and building confusion.

At its simplest, motherhood is about keeping a little one alive, until they grow into something bigger and can go fend for themselves in the world.

Asking plenty and of many is the premise of today’s social masses; it’s also the thief of our belief in ourselves and our abilities. This drive for knowledge and advice is killing our greatest asset, that instinctive feel you have for what’s right for your own baby.

Nuggets of gold are what we pan for when we reach out online.What we often find is advice that’s well-intended but outdated, irrelevant or plain useless. Or worse, we get petty judgement disguised as poorly-worded helpful advice.

I suspect that for all the advice we now have access to, motherhood hasn’t changed much, ever.

Here’s what my world looked like in the mid to late 1990s:

A daily grind filled with tasks so tedious that I wished away the one thing that’s truly irretrievable – time.

Some distressing hours that I knew would pass but in the moment felt like they would never end.

Sanity stripped bare by raw sleep and burnt hormones, mixed with a level of tension I couldn’t get rid of no matter how many times I told myself to relax and enjoy.

A busy kind of boredom with 100 things to do, that individually lack depth yet collectively, I now know add up to the essence of motherhood – protecting, nurturing, preparing new lives to set the world on fire.

Here’s what hindsight looks like for me in 2016:

Seeking perfection in motherhood is pointless because it’s an intangible that looks different to everyone. Take that track and you’ll be lost in a maze with no end.

While it is good to treasure the wisdom of a select few sometimes, it is always good to back yourself first, to have confidence of your rightful place in your child’s world as parent.

You are their everything and while that’s scary in its enormity, take heart – no one knows your child better than you do; chances are you are doing a wonderful job.

Feel your way through the messy, tough days and know that those are the moments where solid parenting is born.

Remember that how you start out isn’t necessarily how it’s going to end. Despite the odds of background and example, with little support, I muddled through the early months, did my best with the early years and found myself growing in capability as the girls did. I even started enjoying it.

I learnt not to fear what’s around the corner. I found out it is curious toddlers, chameleon-like children and teens who will frustrate and delight. There is nothing you can’t handle.

Cherish the moments that are easy to enjoy, and don’t let the tough ones cast a shadow over the rest. Handled well, it’s those tricky times that are going to shape you into the kind of parent your child will want to become.

And I have discovered there’s no better compliment than that.

Published Orlando Sentinel

Orlando massacre: Kiwi in a strange land

Jennifer Watts is a former Hawke’s Bay journalist, who now lives in Florida. She shares her thoughts on the Orlando nightclub massacre.

OPINION: While a madman with a gun opened fire inside the Pulse Nightclub in downtown Orlando I was tucked up in bed enjoying the bliss of air conditioning and sweet dreams, 25 minutes up the road.

The club was busy and the weapon high powered, a combination that left 49 people dead, their own dreams incomplete and unfulfilled, stolen in a nightmare that included long minutes of active shooting and then a three-hour stand off.

Countless others have had their lives shattered after the death of loved ones in an act of home-grown terrorism, the largest mass shooting in modern US history.

There will be many more survivors, those who escaped the club, who face living with the memory of what happened and, more traumatising, the thought of what might have been but for a few centimetres, a slower run, the unlucky wrong place at the wrong time. Survivor guilt, and the close “what ifs” will be heavy baggage for many, the weight of it extending to their own family and friends too.

I’m a recent transplant to Florida, my husband and I having relocated here as temporary residents from Napier six months ago.

Florida has been hot, humid and a heap of fun. This state is home to an eclectic mix of cultures and lifestyles, friendly people and loads of them, massive highways, natural wonderlands and extraordinary tourist meccas like Walt Disney World.

Americans believe that anything is possible. There is an unshakeable spirit of limitless opportunity and potential, a remnant I’m sure from Wild West days when those early explorers looked out over unknown, endless plains where the chance to create the brave new lives of their dreams lay.

That American dream is a little bit addictive and the very best thing I have discovered from inside the contiguous 48 so far.

Coming from the outside, though, I’m well aware the US doesn’t fare well in the eyes of the world. It’s an easy place to pick on. There’s a reputation for obsession of me, money and material that’s partly true and fully ugly.

America’s obsession with themselves and their rights, often without their responsibilities attached, makes this prediction easy: nothing, absolutely nothing will change to prevent the next mass shooting from happening.

This is despite frenetic media coverage and analysis, networks vying for viewers with repetitive breaking news alerts and commentators from agenda-driven politicians to powerful lobbyists to raw survivor stories. It’s a circus which, with my compulsive need to know, I’ve invited into my living room, relieved sometimes by reruns of Seinfeld and other times by the off button.

Why would a young man, born in a country where he is free and anything is possible, choose to take a semi-automatic weapon into one of the most popular nightclubs in downtown Orlando, with a cold, merciless heart and murder on his mind?

The truth, I suspect, is a volatile mix of poor mental health, complicated religious beliefs, a confused man with easy access to weapons and a simmering rage with himself and the world.

You can’t build a wall long enough or high enough to keep that kind of danger out.

I’ve always known that Florida, as beautiful as it is, has a terrible tacky side full of excess and colour that especially won’t appeal to fundamentalists with a narrow view on what the world should look like.

Weighing the risks of dangers like terrorism when you leave the relatively safe shores of home is something we all should do. Letting fear of what might be mark your future path is something I won’t ever do. I will remember everything that is good about America and I hope you do too.

Dominion Post

The affair is over cos I found someone new

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My dear Adelaide, the affair is over. I came, stayed, played just shy of 3 months. You had me in your grasp at day two and I loved you every day after.

But if we’re really going to talk love, I need to know why you’re only ever the bridesmaid and never the bride. Honey, you’re not even the bridesmaid, more like the cute flower girl or distant cousin. An after-thought tacked on to the end of the table because there was space available.

The flashy business hub of Sydney; the artsy feel, eateries and creative soul of Melbourne; the golden sun, sand and surf of the Gold Coast; the continuing lure of money, mystery and mines of Perth. You’re standing in the shadow of your bigger sisters. Not for me, not anymore.

My love started, as often love does, with a stunning first impression. An airport that was spacious and clean and easy to get around and get out of. A friendly taxi driver happy to chat late at night to a couple new, and temporary, to the city. The beautiful inner city lights of St Peter’s Cathedral and Adelaide Oval, all blinged-up prettily as we made our way to North Adelaide. You started well and got better.

The next day we woke up together unseasonably hot, in fact the hottest October on record was about to start. Did I need the 8 merino tops, wool poncho and woollen – well anything – that I found when I unzipped my life-packed-in-a-suitcase? No.

My utter lack of research about you before arriving only added to our amore since you went on to surprise me at every turn, something that tickled my fancy most days.

Oh I admit for one brief moment I thought you were inland but looks – especially too-brief glances at Google maps – can be deceiving. There you are poised on the coast of that deceptive blip called the Gulf of St Vincent and further afield, the delightfully named Great Australian Bight. I know where you are and I will never lose you again.

I discovered a fabulous public transport system which is just as well because while you are very, very walkable, my sense of direction is very, very poor. Figuring out the free city connector buses, which run both clockwise and anti-clockwise, was challenging. I was the person drawing circles in the air with my finger as I pondered the bus timetable. I was also the person turning 180deg to figure out clockwise and anti, which apparently is no help.

That’s ok. Everybody brings weaknesses to a relationship and while yours is lack of confidence and self promotion, mine is sense of direction and anything that requires a degree of logic.

We went on to play some delightful games of hide and seek, where (and here you proved peculiar to many modern cities) you went and hid all the funky bars and eateries, and then I went and tried to find them.

Down hidden alleyways and strange laneways that looked like dead ends, I found inconspicuous, some times (designer) graffiti-lined doors which I felt required a secret knock to open.  Even the lovely Palace cinemas in Rundle St East took me around the block once before I found the laneway that led to another laneway that led to the entrance. And then I found the short cut from North Terrace. Proof that: being new in love sometimes makes you blind to the obvious.

Some of the politest beggars live in your arms. I’ve been thanked, blessed and wished a good day, when I’ve given nothing but a glance. And requests for loose change have been refreshingly specific. A woman with her worldly goods stashed into two plastic bags asked me for $7.50.

“Why $7.50 exactly?” I asked.

“That’s how much my sandwich and drink costs for lunch.”

Well, when you put it like that, here.

I wasn’t discouraged when I heard her work her way down the queue of people at the bus stop. Ask and you just may get.

Adelaide you gem. You’re lots of things: coastal and metropolitan and old-city all at once. A delightful mix of quaint and hustle bustle. Old world architecture that leaves me feeling like I am walking down the streets of the 1880s, mixed with cool-banana bars, whole foods cafes and a groovy-gritty metro feel that leaves me no doubt that it’s 2015. You have a vibe that rises above the ordinary.

Problem is, I fall in love too quickly. And then it’s painful leaving. My final day with you was a sometimes wistful, slightly manic walk round the central city, doing what I could to burn lasting impressions. I won’t forget you.

On yonder now, abroad for a few years to the Land of the Free – and of the Easily Offended, and of Legislative Nightmare (read: long queues), and of Sugar, Fat and oh heck y’all a bit more Sugar wont hurt. Oh America, you polarising chick, my love-hate affair with you has begun.

Pictured: Me, friend, and bubbles at 2KW rooftop bar, Adelaide. We found you.

Hoarder, no! It’s just stuff.

And I’ve collected a lot of it in the 8 years of being back in home town Napier, New Zealand. It’s a tad perplexing because I’m not a hoarder. Ohhh but wait one closet-filled moment — is that what all hoarders say?

Four and 1/2 dinner sets, two and 1/2 pot sets, a 12 piece cutlery set of which a quarter belongs to other people. The figures are mind boggling, I know. How did I get half of anything? And how did I get a set of toddler cutlery when I haven’t had toddlers for nigh on 16 years?

I had to psyche up for a full day before tackling the plastics cupboard. It’s located in that awkward corner, the one with useless, dark spaces under the kitchen bench. My arms can’t even reach the furry back corners which are home to little creatures that scuttle and rhyme with rockcoaches. Let’s not mention them while in the midst of selling the house.

In this plastics cupboard, I have a beautiful red quality (read: expensive) Tupperware lid, with no matching container base. I blame the youngest (who’s now 19 and out of home so not even groundable). That container is somewhere in the school yard, buried alongside years of odd socks, pens and permission slips gone astray. There’s also a missing drink bottle lid to my favourite eco friendly squashy gym bottle. Meanwhile, lurking on the other side of the plastics cupboard are more than 20 cheap takeaway containers, ALL with matching lids and bottoms. Go figure.

I’ve never been a hoarder – yet my linen cupboard is full of towels I just don’t recognise. Key in my investigation, has been a name written in bold marker in the corner of some of these towels – now mine by default.

I’ve had a permanent “left overs” shelf in my pantry – a corner that’s home to everything that anybody has ever left at our house. Stuff stays there about a month then moves either: to my own stock (that explains the cutlery draw and linen cupboard) or to the charity pile. And sometimes to the back seat of my car where it can stay for another month while I remember – and then keep forgetting – to return it to its rightful owner.

I’m preparing for another overseas move, packing my life into two 23kg suitcases, 7kg carry on and a very large handbag. On our last big move from Melbourne to Napier, I had a good tidy out, keeping the hub and two kids, ditching most of everything else, and gaining a fluffy ginger cat.

But then people give us stuff, I buy stuff, people leave stuff, I accidentally take stuff from other peoples places … well, it all adds up. One time I bought a top from an op-shop which I adored, got home to realise I’d dropped this top off at the charity bin not too long ago. Worse part? I’d ORIGINALLY brought it from the op-shop. Oh, I don’t want to talk about it.

There’s a cathartic feel in lightening the load of stuff. There’s something meaningful in realising there’s no real value in the stuff itself –  the real value is in the memories the stuff help creates.

I’m walking around our Napier home one last time remembering it as a place that gave us 8 years of amazing memories in those busy, bumpy years of raising teens. I don’t want them back (neither the teens nor the years) but I do want to remember the moments they gave.

Hello abroad … oh look it’s Adelaide.

Killing me with kindness

A love-thy-stranger epidemic has reached our shores and it’s killing me with its kindness.

I’m slowly being poisoned by terms of endearment thrown out randomly and carelessly by sales assistants everywhere. I’m not half way in a shop before I hear “Hi, love” or “Do you need any help, sweetie?”

“Hello,” would be enough. “Welcome,” would be plenty. “How are you?” would suffice, even with its oddness in rarely demanding a reply.

When a sales assistant first called me “darl” it was in an Australian accent and I thought she had called me a doll. It struck me as so unusual that I replied with genuine enquiry, “Excuse me?” There was a pause and I realised she didn’t get what I was asking, so:

“Doll?” I asked.

“Darl,” she replied. “As in darling.”

I was stumped. Was I upset at being called something only my husband called me, and probably after I’d done something nice like got him a beer from the fridge? I don’t think so. Did I think I should introduce myself to her so she could call me by my real name rather than the sickly darl? Possibly.

“Everyone says it to everyone here,” she said, using the one of the world’s weakest excuses to cover the shenanigans of the majority. If everyone’s at it, it must be okay, right?

Well no, dear sweet sales assistant, no my lovely, no.

That first “darl” was 12 years ago in the city of Melbourne and they have been few and far between.

Except sometime in the last two years, this love-thy-stranger epidemic has reached our shores. It’s got past Customs and those cute airport sniffer dogs and is well entrenched in cities and towns throughout our country. Contagious, noxious, a useless weed that needs killing.

Here’s the list of endearments I’ve racked up just this year: darling (a Kiwi accent this time so I got that one right away), love, lovey, honey, sweet, sweets, sweetheart, sweetie. Wait, I spot a theme and alas, none of it do I find sweet.

Maybe growing older has made me more intolerant, though I’d hoped the opposite was true. Maybe my hackles have been raised by my own prickly tendencies and I just need to shut up and shop.

However, I’ve conducted my own thoroughly unscientific survey (apologies friends, family and those random people I accosted in shops and cafes) and I know I’m not alone.

My poll concludes that all of my friends and family, most of the strangers and half of my two teenage daughters do not like  being called anything other than “awesome” by sales assistants. If you are a sales assistant and you really want to assist your sales, you need to drop the honey, the love, the sweetie.

It’s most common in common shops. I’ve only once heard it somewhere posh – at lunch at the Hilton, when a waitress was throwing “darling” around like free water. My hero (middle-aged woman on another table, I adore you) politely but firmly said “Please don’t call me darling.” And from the stunned waitress: “I’m so sorry.”

I’ve spent too much time thinking about why sales assistants do it and I’ve yet to come up with an adequate answer. Is it a sloppy attempt at establishing rapport? It feels patronising. It’s definitely unprofessional. It’s meaningless, like the Kiwi idiosyncrasy of adding “aye” to the end of sentences.

Sometimes it’s irked me so much that I’ve been put off shopping and walked out of the shop (okay, written down that does looks priggish). Other times I’ve spent way too much time browsing aimlessly through racks of clothes having a conversation in my head about how best to reply after being called “love”.

I think me and my dear hackles need to spend more time shopping online, where there’s no GST and no name calling. Sweet, I say.

The B Word

For sale: Ball dress, sky-blue taffeta with a puffy skirt and pretty bow.  Cost a fortune, worn once, going cheap.

It’s ball season.  I’m not the one going but as a parent of teenagers that are, I am feeling slightly giddy. There’s a slow-burn build up that feels like excitement yet it could be panic, these two things have my heart racing the same.

There’s many a grey area in raising teenagers and a few black and white rules that can’t be danced around.

For parents of teenage girls, one of them is this:  You can NOT wear the same ball dress twice.  Not even if you cut the pretty bow off, alter the hemline and promise new matching shoes.

A ball dress, I have discovered, is a product with a use-by date of the worst kind – a perfectly good item that can be worn only once. I think of it as a very expensive disposable nappy – clean it as carefully and as best as you can, still no one will ever want it after you’ve used it.

It’s bordering on insane to buy a new ball dress when there is a perfectly good one from last year hanging in the closet.

Perfectly good!  I’m aware this makes me sound like a grandmother way before my time. The “save the crusts I can use them in a pudding” kind of nana.

However, there is a recession on and most of the princesses of Year 12 and 13 are blind to it. Perhaps they simply don’t care.  I’m also guilty of beauty at any price and I’m the one with the mortgage. So how can I blame them?  Well, I don’t.

The cynic in me is easily won over when I see their unbridled enthusiasm and a focus that unnerves me in the weeks leading up to the ball. The effort they put into pursuing the initial dress hunt then the shoes, jewellery, hair and make-up trials is all scary in its intensity. My children would be excellence students with top course endorsements if ball prep was an NCEA subject.

The ball colours everything else going on at school. “How’s that maths going?” I ask. “Good,” one daughter replies. “Hey, how much is 15 per cent off $360? Cos that’s how much my dress is.”.

Left to their own wild runnings, our two daughters would spend hundreds of dollars on this event. They aren’t and can’t. They work off a budget that took careful negotiation. With only a small amount of sarcasm, my husband notes that this is a good trial to see how each is going to handle future wedding preparations.

The youngest, 16, is a bargain hunter who also wants the latest colour and style and will go to extraordinary lengths to get it. She will trawl cities and sales to succeed. She will own the whole process with a confidence in her final appearance that’s so inspiring I want to bottle it.

The eldest,17 and ironically the better saver of the two during the year, explodes her budget with a dress worthy of its own photo shoot. A crisis in confidence blinds her to sales and a creative outlook – she can only buy from the local exclusive ball shop and pays more than I did for my wedding dress (okay, that was 20 years ago and it was a bargain even in those days).

There’s too much fuss, too little time, too much money and I want to yell “Enough!”

To those parents who have gone before me, are yet to get here or choose not to, judge me kindly.  I tell you we are raising a different generation. One that’s excruciatingly optimistic and full of self-belief. One that demands the best of anything and after being told from all corners of their world that they can have it, they believe they deserve it right now.

In an effort to be mature and pick my battles, I am flowing with this tide rather than swimming against it.

As I rue the cost of raising teenage girls, I have to admit to something else. That slow-burn build up is catching. I could lament the sheer wastage on pretty things but I don’t.  Instead of labelling it all unnecessary, I roll with the credit card hits and I bask in the glow of their excitement.

Yes, I do believe it’s pride in daughters looking gorgeous and on the cusp of womanhood.

(Hawke’s Bay Today 2013)