Spontaneous Combustion

Mea Culpa in Muscat

I’m sitting at the head of a conference table, feeling stark white in contrast to the chattering women ethereally gliding about the room in abayas and hijabs. I’m in Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman, located a region known for some of the most repressive gender laws on the planet. As I quietly observe, I realize with stunning clarity that, while excited and fascinated, I’ve just experienced a slight shiver of apprehension…or is it just nerves?…good heavens, possibly a bit of discomfort?…even fear of the unknown?…what the hell?…

Milling about…

For the last 7 years, I’ve been the Senior International Gender Consultant at The World Bank (IFC). My job involves conducting gender research globally.  I’ve been privileged to participate in focus groups with women from The Gambia, Turkey, Indonesia, Lebanon, China and The Philippines. Believe me, this is no tourist gig. I’m neck deep in “real culture”, so much so I usually have to facilitate through a translator. I’m no stranger to cultural differences and nuances and I’ve never felt uncomfortable, nervous, unwelcome or even particularly foreign. There’s a universality amongst women that transcends language and cultural barriers, no matter her address.

Sitting around this table is the usual complement of accomplished entrepreneurs; the first woman civil engineer in Oman sits next to the first woman chartered architect. Three seats down from the internationally-renowned jewellery designer is the first Omani woman to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. All run thriving, successful businesses. All are articulate, smart and opinionated as hell. When the calibre of the success of the women in the room was revealed, one participant, with a twinkle in her eye, looked directly at me and dropped the bomb, “You wouldn’t think it when you look at all of these black robes, would you!?”

Busted. And I didn’t even know I was guilty.

Clearly Oman isn’t quite what I didn’t even know I was expecting. Up to that pivotal moment, every western headline, Hollywood movie, every incendiary Facebook and Twitter post is waging an unconscious battle in my brain with logic, fact, reason and my own experience for Gawd’s sake! I realize that my reaction of “delightful surprise” is pretty solid indicator that something ain’t quite right. Why? Because not once, not ever have I reacted this way. It’s simply a done deal that, no matter what country I’m in, women kick butt. What is different however, is that here most of the women are wearing abayas. I learned more in that moment than I have in 20 years of doing gender work.

12-year old daughter of a participant

Participant’s young daughter

No two abayas are alike…

First of all, the abaya. I now know this garment rivals western women’s suits for distinctive design and fashion, each making a statement about the woman wearing it. More to the point though, the “you wouldn’t know it” comment makes me acutely aware how we “tiptoe” around sensitive issues; east versus west, Muslim versus Christian versus Jew, moderate versus conservative versus terrorist, covered versus uncovered. Here I am,  in a room filled with predominately covered, conservative, Muslim women and every single one of us is completely cracking up. So-called “sensitive” topics become the genesis of the most wickedly funny banter and one-liners I’ve ever heard.  There is no recrimination, chest beating or denigrating. It’s decided. Everyone’s perceptions could benefit from a little “fine tuning”.

Once again, the western anti-Muslim garbage landfill is overflowing. I’m pretty sure there’s a profound nugget in this experience but my daughter Kathleen confirms it. Upon reading this, she says, “Mom. Change the people into animals and get this story into kid’s hands. That’s where it belongs.” Brilliant.

The Gang

The Gang

How NOT To Make Friends in The Middle East…

Over the years, I’ve learned Facebook and mid-east politics are a deadly combo.  I simply cannot stand the one-sided idiocy I see posted all over Facebook that allegedly represents “debate”.

I spend a lot of time in The Middle East. I returned home yesterday from a trip that took me to Israel, Jordan and Lebanon and I’m still reeling from the things I’ve seen in the last two weeks: Israel attacked, Gaza attacked, Egyptian police officers killed, Gazan and Israeli civilians killed, soldiers killed, Gadhafi routed. (One could argue it was a slow news cycle by Middle East standards.) Unlike an alarming number of Facebook foghorns, no one, and I mean NO ONE in The Middle East with more than two operational brain cells would EVER make categorical statements about the political situation (which rules out the ruling parties and extremists.) Every discussion I had with locals were calm, reasoned, thoughtful, and filled with, “It’s just so complicated” and “It’s never as it appears on the surface.” “It’s one giant contradiction and paradox.”

Please indulge me as I attempt to expand our laughably lop-sided world view on the Middle East beyond that last Facebook post.  I, a Canadian, sat with Lebanese, Egyptians and Saudis in Beirut, talking with Arab Christians and Muslims about Israel, Libya, Hezbollah and Hamas. There was the young Arab Lebanese banker who said, “It doesn’t bug me one way or another if Israel exists. Hezbollah focuses on that issue because if it didn’t, it couldn’t exist. They are nothing but empty rhetoric.” Or the young Lebanese woman who told me Hezbollah scares the hell out of most people of her generation. Then there’s the Israeli soldier who shared “The army make you stupid. It’s a full time job trying to stay smart.” Or the Haifa-based Jewish cardiologist who lamented, ” The Right of Return law makes most Jews uncomfortable. Though its genesis is understandable and certainly complicated, it’s also flat out racist.”

In Israel, I stayed in a village in The Galilee that was bombed by Hezbollah in ’08 that resulted in many Israeli casualties (including Arabs in neighbouring villages.) Yet last year my host Hanna, (still living there) , went ballistic when it was proposed the village expand which would entail building on a neighbouring Arab burial ground. Her community not only didn’t build, together with their Arab neighbours, they built a memorial instead.

Blew me away. As did having to watch Hanna agonize as she prepared her 22-year old soldier son to return to the front because of the civilian bus attack in southern Israel. (He had a good friend killed in that attack.) The day before said son, parents and close friends (I was honoured to be included) enjoyed a feast that included delicious Ramadan sweets… baked by a Jewish grandmother.

I had high tea with a Lebanese bank president who had to move the bank location 3 times in 30 days because it kept getting bombed to the ground. I drove through a Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and it took days for my brain to register what my eyes were seeing. My hotel was located at the epicentre of the fighting during the civil war in Beirut (the infamous Green Line). Today high end restaurants, Chanel, Cartier, and Fendi share real estate with bombed out shells of buildings. Can you spell C.O.N.T.R.A.D.I.C.T.I.O.N.?

Pretty much every young Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese and Jordanian I have ever met – Arab or Jew, mosque, synagogue or church-goer – spend considerably more time and psychic energy looking for a decent job, falling in love, feeding their kids and living a peaceful and fulfilled life than following any hardline political or religious doctrine. The zealousness of the last generation leaves most of them cold. And frankly? Pretty pissed off. As does the chest beating and empty rhetoric emanating from the cosy comfort of computers in the democratic west.

So rage on dear Facebookers. Most of our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters find this rampant, malevolent Facebook  poker game of,  ”Yeah? Well I’ll see your dead Palestinian pregnant woman and raise you two dead Israeli soldiers” quite appalling.  Just know that while you are having a whale of a time entertaining and alienating other western, white, middle class social media mouthpieces  with your strident, black and white, swinging-from-the-chandelier self righteous,  left-wing, right wing opinions, most folks in The Middle East are just rolling their eyes and getting on with it by going out and grabbing a beer.

A Simply Unbelievable Dog/Facebook Story. For Real.

Facebook – A Dog’s Best Friend?

Recently, my daughter, Kathleen Hazel and I  spent a weekend visiting the grandparents in Ottawa. We decided to bring along the family pooch, Caley, so she could enjoy a grand adventure. She certainly didn’t disappoint.Innocent? Hell no.

The proverbial call of the wild is so pronounced in our dog, the instant she hears anything that resembles a click of a door or human activity around a door, she’s under your feet peering at you with the most mournful guilt-inducing eyes beseeching you to let her go along. Aussies are known for speed and agility so about 50% of the time, she successfully manages to hightail it out the door before your brain can even register that flash of fur.

My mother is not used to having a pooch underfoot so didn’t take the usual precautions necessary that are considered old hat by owners of maniacal “bolters”. Frankly, Mom didn’t stand a chance.

She innocently opens the front door to shake out a table cloth, and, with the grace and finesse of a world class Olympian, Caley bolts out into a balmy -30 night, and into a totally strange neighbourhood. Mom, wildly shaking lose crumbs, is blissfully and completely unaware of the inmate’s escape.

Some fifteen minutes later, something starts nudging the edges of my subconscious. It’s intuiting something. (Dog owners will get this.) There appears to be a tremor in the dog universe. I call out to her. Nothing. ( This is particularly alarming considering she’s at your feet before you get the last syllable of her name out your mouth.) Mom and Kathleen Hazel rouse from their respective spaces, brows furrowed, and join in on calling the dog. Again nothing.

In a flash, I know what has happened. With a sinking heart, I realize Caley has done her lightening escape routine and is now wandering about with no idea how to get home. The temperature is sure to kill her if we, or some other good Samaritan, doesn’t find her fast. Bundling up, we begin frantically searching the neighbourhood. After 30 minutes, we can’t feel our faces because of the arctic chill so we return home to get our cars. We drive around for 2 hours all over hell’s half acre with no results. We call The Humane Society, Ottawa Animal Control, even the police. They basically tell us we’re up the creek.

Mom is in shock. My daughter is crying.  The dog is wearing a collar with a Toronto phone number on it, but hubby (who stayed home that weekend) reports no one has called.  Is it possible she’s been stolen? I am slowly grappling with the staggering notion that we may never see her again. The pain of it takes my breath away.

We drop my daughter at home in case the dog comes back and continue on our futile search. She posts a tearful message on Facebook, “Lost. Caley. Somewhere in the Ottawa streets.” The response was immediate.

A family friend, Gwen, who lives in Toronto, sees Kathleen Hazel’s post and calls me on my cell. She tried reassuring us but we were beyond consoling. Then, on a lark, she says, “Hold on. Let me try Kijiji.” I remember thinking, “Sure. A buy and sell website. That makes perfect sense if the idiot that stole the dog was trying to sell it!!” But we were desperate. What Gwen knew that I didn’t is that there is a “community” link with a lost and found feature.

“Hmmmm,” she says a moment later. “That’s odd.” “WHAT!?” I yell back as I wheel into the driveway. She calmly replies, “It says here someone found a dog less than an hour ago in Bells Corners.” I stop breathing. Then I scream, “We’re in Bells Corners!!!” She reads, “The description says, ‘Found dog, very friendly (yep, that’s about right), followed us home (common Caley occurrence) well-groomed (I groomed her the week before) frozen and very hungry (OMG!! Caley is a slave to food.)’” My pulse quickens as Gwen continues, “’Large breed dog” (Oh oh. Caley is definitely not large but I told myself “large” is in the eye of the beholder) “probably a Pyrenees”’. And there it is. Complete devastation. Pyrenees are white and the size of a small horse. Caley is very much a medium-sized tri-colour Australian Sheppard. Different as chalk and cheese.

Gwen insists, “Don’t panic Joanne. They simply may not know the breed.”  She’s right of course and there is simply too much coincidence at work here. Mom and I dash into the house, taking the stairs two at a time to get to the computer. Kathleen Hazel is sullenly staring at the screen then whirls around wide-eyed as we excitedly boot her out of the chair. I sit down and hop onto the Kijiji website. Lo and behold, there it is. Someone has found a dog. However, excitement quickly turns to frustration when we realize the only contact info is a freaking postal code.

Undaunted, we hopped on Canada Post’s website and plugged in the postal code in order to get a clue of the geographic area where this dog was found. There are five houses listed with this postal code. We sit back, stunned. They are directly across the street from us. With a collective war whoop, we make a mad dash for the front door. Each of us take a house and start knocking like people possessed. Then I hear it. Mom’s voice cries out crystal clear in the cold night air, “CALEY!!!!”

With tears streaming down our faces, the three of us descend onto on the house where Caley has been contently chilling for the last 2 hours, warm and well fed.  I hugged the stuffing out of her, while quietly muttering, “Dog, I just might have to kill you.”

It boggles my mind to ponder the confluence of good luck, good friends and the power of social media that converged to create this happy ending. If Kathleen Hazel hadn’t posted that lament on Facebook, if Gwen hadn’t read it and, better yet, decided to get involved, if the good souls who took good care of her hadn’t posted finding the dog on Kijiji and if Canada Post didn’t have such a rocking website, this would have ended very differently. As a friend on Facebook said in his post in response to hearing this story, “Try that in 1886…”

A very wise five year old…

My daughter Kathleen was about 5 when her shit-disturbing uncle gave her Rock n’ Roll Barbie for Christmas. (Ugh.) She was playing one day and created an elaborate setting with silk cloths making mountains, valleys and little villages. Kathleen’s cast of characters in this little epic employed her full complement of little round stuffed dolls made from felt. (Any Waldorf parent out there will know precisely what I’m referring to.)

She began her story with a childless old couple. Meanwhile, she was completely unaware that her dad and I were watching her. She started by making two rather rotund  dolls walk down the “road”.  Her narration began:  “The old couple were very sad they couldn’t have children. But one day, they came across a poor, starving orphan living alone! She had no food and was very sick.”

She then proceeds to pull out from under one of the silk cloths – a very vulnerable and naked Rock n’ Roll Barbie.

Clearly a kid with her head screwed on right.

Indonesian Karma…

This photo reveals the truth behind the glamour of international travel.

Oh, the dizzying visual splendour of new cultures, people, food, architecture and smells is all there. Whether I’m in Indonesia or Nigeria, Israel or Japan, it’s all jaw dropping. However, I suffer from a malady many refer to dismissively as “jet lag’.   For me, it’s death in a bag.  It’s brutal when I arrive and it’s annihilating when I get home.

I recently returned from Indonesia, a 27-hour flight complete with a 12-hour time difference. That means breakfast time here, bed time there. It takes every ounce of non existent resources that I can muster to be able to function at a 10% level. It’s not pretty.

However, what invariably happens is karma. (Karma is pretty big in Bali.) This trip, my karma manifested in the form of  a 32-year old Balinese Hindu living in tropical Jakarta, trained dancer cum World Banker, father of a stunning 6-year old, and the BEST sense of humour (next to mine) ever to exist on this planet . Satrya (in the photo above) materialized out of the karmic sphere of wherever the really cool people live purely to delight and torment me. Now remember, I’m a 53-year old Canadian mother of a teenager, trained shit disturber cum entrepreneur living in the snow capital of the world – King City. To say we are worlds apart would be a slight understatement.  And yet, there I was, 3 gazillion miles from home only to find a kindred spirit incarnated in the form of this young man.  It would be impossible to look any more different than Satrya and I. I suspect our lives are pretty different too. Yet, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find two people with more similar twisted
world views.

I gave Satrya a truckload of new material. White people are often referred to as “bule” in Indonesia, a kind of pet name for the boorish, timid, “must-have-my-tea-at-4:00″ kind of visitor. Needless to say, as the token white member of the team, Satrya gleefully christened me with this moniker, providing a steady stream of mirth at my expense. However, the best compliment I’ve ever received was at our bon voyage dinner the night before I left. During the course of dinner, I referred to myself as a bule when both Satrya and Rubin (another awesome being) simultaneously chimed, “Joanne, you are so NOT a bule…!” It appears I had travelled far in two weeks.

Satrya, by mere virtue of his existence, has taught me much: our external differences mean squat, and, in the heart of every person no matter what the address, lies a potential kindred spirit. The world is so very, very small.

The Dumbest Rocket Scientist I Know

There are times that I am utterly stunned stupid by occasional  stunts pulled by my brilliant, real-life rocket scientist (aerospace engineer) husband. Our daughter Kathleen has been on us relentlessly about teaching her to drive.  Michael has been quite resistant while I’m all for it.

So imagine my shock when I look out the window this afternoon only to see my brand new Volvo Cross Country half on the lawn and half on the road. It was surreal. I’m pretty sure I actually rattled my head back and forth in an attempt to clear my vision. “Is that Mich…no…wait a damn minute….blonde hair???!!!!…you have got to be freaking kidding me!!!????? Then I heard the toilet flush. In the house. Five feet from me.

Mama Bear reared up and hollered in her very best Mama Bear voice, “IS THAT CHILD BY HERSELF IN THE CAR??!!” Calm and utterly unflappable, soon-to-be-divorced husband meanders out of the washroom pulling up his fly and replies, “Yep. I told her she could drive the car into the driveway.”

“YOU DID WHAT?????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! BY HERSELF??????!!!!!!!!

He blinks at me, utterly perplexed at this rapidly accelerating force of nature exploding in his face. I look out the window again only to see another car come around the corner with Kathleen stranded in the middle of the road. Pyjama-clad and bare foot, I blast out of the front door mastering a calm but VERY authoritarian tone and command,  “STOP KATE!”

Thankfully she does. I turn to said husband with my jaw dropped and eyes wide open in disbelief. He then utters the fateful words husbands around the globe have uttered as their last…”You were the one … that was all in a hurry to get her driving!”

Visitation hours will be posted later.

Getting My F.O. Papers

Take out of the equation the effect of 50 years of gravitational  pull on your body parts, there’s many reasons to love being in your 50′s. Your membership to the sage and wise club is pretty much assured if you can stay awake long enough to pay attention. One of  amazing privileges associated with this exclusive club, in the wise words of comedienne Sandra Shamas, is getting your F.O. papers. Many men seem to have had their F.O. papers handed to them at birth. But for many women, including yours truly, receiving them is a “bring-you-to-your-knees-weep-with-joy” kind of event.

Not that it is an “event” exactly.

Getting your F.O. papers is a lovely little process akin to having your entire body wrapped in that awful, uber sticky, white medical tape and having it removed a centimetre at a time. Over a  50-year time span. For those of you with that puzzled furrow over your brow, F.O. is an acronym. For the obvious. You know…that thing you’ve been dying to say to that cretin of a boss, client, partner, so-called friend and, yes, at times…dare I say it…? Your children.

It seems to me that, until you pass over that magical threshold of 50, the ability to tell those who deserve it to metaphorically F.O. is difficult for most women. That’s because we were raised to believe varying degrees of the following drivel:  1.) Put others ahead of yourself at all costs. And for God’s sake, sublimate what you really want to say or do if it isn’t simpatico with the rest of the group.  2.) It’s impolite to brag (read: talk about what you’re good at.) 3.) Your job is to be peacemaker, not stir up shit.  4.)  Disagreeing with the world’s idiots will hurt their feelings 5.) You’ll sound like a shrew, fishwife, nag, virago, yenta, blah, blah, blah if you dare raise your voice in anger to disagree. (Think Sheila Copps.)

Perhaps I exaggerate for the sake of colourful writing, but there are more than mere kernels of truth in what I speak.  I’ve lived it. And it’s exhausting. Living life without complete authenticity is confusing, demoralizing, dishonest and makes for compromised relationships. The problem is that for many women, the courage it takes for us to be our truly authentic self doesn’t seem to anchor until we slip into our 50th decade (give or take a few years). No doubt, certainly on the authenticity front, it’s somewhat the same for men, but your address would have to involve a cave if you thought the expectations and perceptions of men are the same as women.

That’s why a 50-something woman is so powerful. This authenticity and wisdom is hard won. It becomes cellular primarily because many of us know what it’s like not being able to live it.  Getting your F.O. papers is a rite of passage that women cherish and relish. It’s a ticket to transformation, liberation, and lo and behold a good night’s sleep  (until the night sweats kick in).  To be able to tell it like it is in our little corner of the universe, free of the shackles of  public opinion, being “polite” and fear of hurting other’s feelings  is, as one friend puts it, “Far better than sex…well…at least as good as…”

Frankly, the greatest gift I’ve given my daughter is handing her her F.O. papers at birth: “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” “The world needs your brain and heart. Share it.” “Disagree with your teachers, your parents and your friends but be willing and ready to present your business case.”  “Take care of others by taking care of yourself too.”  Why should our girls pass the half century mark to figure this out?

Marriage: Is it rocket science?

It is in my house.

My husband Michael is an honest-to-dog rocket scientist. Or in today’s parlance, an aerospace engineer. As if that isn’t hair raising enough for any self-respecting left brained, emotionally-driven red-headed Irish-Italian, he comes from a family of five boys. You read that right. Five.

And. Every. Freaking. One. Of. Them. Is. An. Engineer. (It makes me think of the Stepford Wives, only this time the wives suck out their husbands brains and start reproducing.) What’s it like being a girl’s girl married to a guy that hails from a cozy nest of five testosterone-laden, left-brained, highly critical  (if they aren’t, bridges fall down) boys?  Hilarious. And hell. Picture this:

I was 8 1/2 months pregnant. All those pregnancy hormones were working their magic as I floated about life in a pink mist of contented domestic bliss. I was in the kitchen baking muffins. (Dead serious.)  Twenty bucks says I was barefoot. Hubby was out in the driveway dressed in car-guy garb tinkering about on his Saab. (All engineers drive Saabs. It’s in the rule book.)  My life had become a cliché. I was inside, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen and he was outside doing manly things.

The front door opened and his Lord High Worshipfulness of the Screwdriver appeared. “Joanne,” he began. “I need some help with the car. Gotta minute?” Suffering from temporary pregnancy-induced insanity, I remember thinking as I waddled out to the driveway, “Isn’t this lovely? We got a real partnership going here.” I envisioned him under the car doing his under-the-car stuff as I patiently stood by like a surgical assistant, handing him tools.  He turned to me and uttered these fateful words, “I need some weight on the front of the car. Would you mind sitting on the hood?”

When he came home from the hospital, he intelligently began the process of learning women are a different species than men.  That was 15 years ago. Oddly enough, we’re still married. Having a daughter has helped immeasurably in his “all-things female” education. I can only thank God that I was his practice run before Kate became a young teenager.

We still struggle with his frequent bouts of engineeritis. I understand now that it’s a permanent condition that goes into periodic remission. Also turns out that I’M the one who had to learn that to stay married, acceptance is far easier than attempting to change someone’s DNA. Took me almost 15 years to figure out that I had the power to decide to be happy, even in this cock-eyed marriage. It was quite liberating and far less exhausting. And just in time. Kate’s coming into to her challenging teen years and all that this entails. I’m entering menopause with hormonal swings that rival a wrecking ball.

I’m not proud to admit this, but it does feels a bit like payback. Hehehehehe…..

My Inaugural Blog

As a writer and professional mouthpiece, I shake my head in wonderment that it has taken me forfreakingever to join the blogosphere. It’s absurd really. I’ve written four books and I’ve finally clued in that writing doesn’t need to involve taking two years off from life, plummeting your personal and financial life into an abyss. I can take 5 minutes, spontaneously combust then get back to work. Or yelling.

I have mega grist for the blog mill.   Take each of the following points into consideration, and one should quickly surmise that I should be the queen, president and dictator of all things opinion-related:

  • Red-headed Irish-Italian
  • Middle-aged
  • Mother
  • Of a teenager
  • A girl teenager
  • A smart girl teenager
  • Married 15 years
  • To an engineer
  • A freaking alien aerospace engineer
  • A man who raises his right eyebrow when he’s deliriously excited.
  • Demon Dog owner
  • So named for her utter disregard to table manners (infiltrating my neighbour’s house and eating a cooling pie off her counter) and Canada’s Food Guide (eats dead things.)
  • Daughter of a mother who, along with her 15-year old granddaughter,  paints her husband’s toenails rainbow colours while he sleeps on the couch.
  • F.E.M.I.N.I.S.T.
  • Spontaneously combusts at just about everything: bad advertising, teen aged-antics, marriage, world events, babies, stupid people, smart people…

Frankly, I could bullet point my life to death.  So, I am thrilled to have finally created a space for my rants, ravings, perceptions, opinions and world views, none which are polite. Welcome to my world. Hope it brings a *snort*.

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