A birthday, Cassoulet and Germaine Greer

My husband is preparing cassoulet in readiness for a dinner tonight in honour of his birthday which falls tomorrow.

Cassoulet, in the grand French tradition, duck leg confit prepared over a week ago which he has cryo-vacced in separate bags and stored away in readiness for inclusion in the stew he’s concocting at present, including a ham hock, pig’s trotter, pork shoulder, Toulouse sausages bought from a French delicatessen in Carlton and various other meats that he needs to brown first before adding them to a giant pot in which he will also cook a truck load of white beans, which he’s had soaking in water over night.

When we were planning this event and I suggested given it was his birthday wouldn’t it be better if he were to tackle something simple or we bought food in from elsewhere or even that someone else might cook, he refused.

‘I can cook it days in advance so it it’ll be ready to go on my birthday.’ For some reason although we had discussed this with our various children and their partners and decided as a group that it would be better to celebrate the event on the Saturday night before, the eve of his birthday, he took it into his head that we were eating the cassoulet on the Sunday.

He thought therefore he had a day’s grace but as we talked about logistics last night the penny dropped and so he was up early this morning ready to go.

The house smells like a French restaurant, dense with the whiff of fried garlic and browned pork. It clashes with the taste of my breakfast yoghurt but still it’s a good smell.

A fantastic smell, especially when the weather is still spring chilly and we all have bigger appetites when it’s cold.

My children grew up with such smells. All their lives their father has cooked like this. One of his favourite pastimes to cook excellent food, but also one of the things that exasperates him the most when things don’t work out quite as he’d have wanted. as happens.

I act as sous chef.

All my life the sous chef, the under cook, the one who fetches and carries, the one who clears up, the one who keeps the plates on the table, the glasses filled, tempers calm. It’s a role I’m used to, given my years as a woman born before the second wave of feminism. Though in the 1970s when I first took myself off to Women’s Studies at the university I began to question my long-held belief that it was a fine thing for me to win my boyfriend’s love by ironing his shorts, by cleaning the toilet and scrubbing out the shower recess.

My job as helpmate.

It came as a bolt from on high when I first began to understand there was such a thing as inequality between the sexes, that women’s lot was more lowly than that of men.

The third wave of feminism, if there is such a thing, has set me further on edge. Ready to declare war on any helpless male who assumes I’m available for taking on the menial tasks of life and yet it comes so effortlessly these impulses to help out, to make people comfortable, or at least try.

I rationalise the impulse back to childhood when my mother taught us, or at least it’s in my mind that when you want something yourself, a cup of tea, a piece of bread, a piece of fruit you must offer all those in your company the same first. You cannot simply go and help yourself without first making sure that others are happy. It’s probably not a bad habit, but it can grate when not everyone expects to be included in my own decisions about what I might want to eat or drink. It can become a type of millstone.

‘Are you sure you’re alright? Are you sure you have enough? Can I get you anything?

The list of requests go on too long and people tire of such solicitude.

My husband tires of it, especially when directed towards others, but heaven help me if I forget to pull back his side of the bed at night after I pull back my own. An odd habit I picked up in Bali where we stayed one overly long week, years ago, and the people who serviced our holiday suites came in every evening to pull back the sheets and drag around the mosquito netting.

How easy it became for me to take up the role of servant at home. As I prepare my side of the bed for sleep I must prepare my husband’s, even when I spend much of the night elsewhere in a spare bedroom to escape his snoring, which starts up around one am and which I cannot tolerate for more than two minutes before I’m wide awake and in search of quieter quarters?

Lynn Freed writes of snoring as one of a man’s greatest humiliations. Snoring stories are the great stories of revenge, Freed argues. The way in which at dinner parties, women, and it is usually women, tell stories about the nature of their husband’s snoring.

Women can keep their fellow dinner guests in stitches as they regale them with the horrors of those late-night trumpet calls, while the husband, the perpetrator of said snores is left humiliated and in shame.  Notwithstanding the fact he commands a respectful figure by day. She imagines him decked out in business suit and tie by day, but there he is at night, slack jawed, mouth agape emitting the most hideous of noises fully unconscious of the fact until his partner jabs him in the ribs and urges him to roll over.

I did this for years.

‘The double bed has a lot to answer for’, says Germaine Greer in one of recent talks On Consent.

I went on Thursday evening with a few friends. We arrived early to get best seats. My friends are also keen on being able to see and hear clearly. There we were at the edge of the reserved section, which proved to be reserved for dignitaries of sorts. We sat beside two women from Melbourne University Publishing who distribute Germaine Greer’s books.

It was fun to chat with them beforehand. I had forgotten my notebook and during Greer’s talk, I wrote on a scrap of paper, my scanned ticket and just as I was running out of space, one of the women handed me over her ticket and then another as I ran out of space on each sheet.

The woman beside me told me later she noticed that I looked as though I was getting anxious in running out of space and so she felt compelled to find me more paper. A kind and womanly thing to do and I was grateful.

There were two men alongside these two women whom I could not see only I noticed at one point during proceedings perhaps at the point where Lesley Cannold, the interviewer came on stage to begin her conversation with Germaine Greer, after the great woman had talked to us for some forty or so minutes off the top of her head.

I’m afraid I too fell for Germaine Greer, her mind, her wit, her way with words, even as there were moments when I considered she had failed in the art of throwing in qualifiers. Too certain were her generalities.

The man nearby sounded furious with her for the suggestion that all men were… of course all men aren’t any more than all women are…But Greer makes the point and she’s on about the patriarchy and problems with notions of consent.

As if consent was easy. Yes, please no thanks. I’ve changed my mind. As if consent can be factored in during the middle of sex. When you started out in one frame of mind, enjoying the encounter, your mind in top gear and filled with desire only to change your mind when as Greer suggested, your partner turns into a Christian Grey type with his bag of tricks and you decide you’d like to stop now. Too late.

How do you stop? How do you express non-consent?

Greer gave another example of a woman friend and colleague who lived with her young daughter and had broken off with her partner. He arrived one evening demanding sex and she told him to leave, but he forced himself onto her and she failed to protest, believing it was better she acquiesce rather than scream or try to stop him, because she did not want to upset her daughter sleeping upstairs.

And in the morning, this man with whom she also worked came into work crowing because he had succeeded in inveigling his way into her body once more and was able to prove himself triumphant.

Was that rape?

Leslie Cannold suggested it was, but how to prove it in a court of law. And then I found myself thinking of all those Saturdays when I was a child and my father was at home and drunk, when he called out to my mother to join him in bed. And she held back engrossed in her book, and close to us as we played in the loungeroom or watched television and we seemed to do often in those days.

On this day there was no noise from the television just the click of chess pieces on the board as my two older brothers competed with one another in one corner of the room and my younger sister and I played dress ups with our dolls.

The others must have been around somewhere, my older sister, my oldest brothers, my littlest sister and brother, but in my memory,  it was just we four there in the lounge with our mother as our father called out to her repeatedly from the bedroom,

Liesje, kom.’

In time, she set aside her newspaper and dragged herself up from her chair.

How did I know she was going off to him to protect us, to give us peace? How did I know she did not want to go to him?

Her body language spoke of acquiescence and not the acquiescence of a mother who must go to her crying baby in the middle of the night when she wants only to sleep some more, but the acquiescence of a woman who must give into her husband’s demands for sexual comfort.

And then I listened and sensed my brothers and sister listening too, for small sounds, those that might suggest our mother was in trouble, our mother needed help.

When the cry rose up through the walls and into the hall way, we ran to our parents’ bedroom door in file and my older brother led the way. He threw the door open and rushed inside.

I did not see. I could only hear my mother’s voice.

‘Get out of here,’ she said to my brother who backed out. His eyes were wide as plates as if he had seen a ghost. To this day I do not know what he saw.

My mother naked. My father undressed, the two on the bed, on the floor?  What did he see?

I asked this brother once over thirty years later at a family reunion, this brother who is reclusive and rarely speaks. He only nodded his head as I recalled the day but later he said to me ‘I cannot give you what you want.’

To this day, I don’t know what that is either, only I know Germaine Greer is onto something when she said in her concluding remarks:

‘The family is the most dangerous place on earth.’

A would-be feminist rant

Women over
populate my life.  Four daughters,
three sisters, and a professional life both in the world of psychology and of
writing that these days is dominated by the presence of women.  It is the same wherever I go.  
The Melbourne Writers’ Festival.  Check out the audience: all those
heads, the dyed or otherwise greying hair of women, mostly older women, though
there are some young ones in between. 
Maybe a quarter of them at most are men.  I do not know the statistics.  The ratio is much the same in psychotherapy circles, one man
to every four women. 
I prefer a more balanced mix of gender, including the in between,
the hybrids, the transgendered.  I
tell myself I would prefer there were more men present, at the same time I am sensitive
to the degree to which men tend to dominate conversations.  
Research suggests that from the
beginning in early childhood at kindergarten and primary school, teachers spend
more time addressing the boys. I risk a generalisation here but it seems to me from earliest days
girls learn to communicate with words, whereas boys are more inclined towards
action, including action words.
In September this year, the feminist activist, comedian and all
round ‘nuisance’ woman, Catherine Deveny was on the panel of Q and A with the likes of Peter Jensen, the Anglican archbishop of Sydney.  Catherine Deveny gets bad press as a
loud mouth.  She invites it to some
extent because of some of the things she says, like her comment about Bindi Erwin and the hope that she ‘get laid’.  
A non-academic Germaine Greer of sorts, Deveny by and large is on the
side of the underdog, on the side of women, but she too enjoys her friendships
with men and what seems like a loving partnership with a man with whom she
cares for two sons, though to her great pride the couple remain unmarried.  I befriended Deveny on Face Book
because I enjoy her style; though I watch other peoples’ faces crumple at the
mention of her name.
I mention Deveny here because of the battle over the number of words
ascribed to her during this session of Q and A.  Several twitterers and bloggers considered her to have
dominated the show.  She cut across
the other panelists, people complained, when in fact she did no such
Chrys Stevenson analysed the data and found that as is typically the
case the men used more words, and cut across people more often, while the two
women on the panel spoke less.  Not
to get into a battle between the sexes, I think about these issues here in my rambling
disjointed and broken way of thinking – I am a woman after all – my father’s
daughter, my husband’s wife.  I
recognize the imbalance of power in my world where women are mainstream but men
get the cream.  The cream of jobs,
the cream of books reviewed, the cream of recognition.
Despite the prevalence of patriotism everywhere, including
and for me especially during my childhood, somehow the men often seem to wind
up worse off than the women who are downtrodden, though not in extreme
cases.  Witness the plight of
certain Muslim women, Indian women, women in deeply patriarchal societies where
to speak out as a woman is to risk getting your head cut off, and not just
When I first started to write again, many years ago after a destabilising
event that left me demoralized, I could only seek solace in words on the
page.  I realised then the degree
to which writing has come to be dominated by what Ursula Le Guin has called
‘father tongue.’  Father tongue,
the language of the academy, the so-called objective language that seeks
distance; that resents uncertainty and demands closure.  This as distinct from mother tongue,
the language of mothers and babies, mothers and children, the language that Le
Guin argues is closest to poetry. 
It flies on the wind.  It is
repetitive and simple.  It thrives
on doubt. 
Both languages are essential Le Guin argues but there is a danger
when one presupposes superiority over the other, as evidenced in the hostile
response to Deveny’s non-rational comments juxtaposed to the less virulent
responses to the so-called objective and reasoned thoughts of her fellow mostly
male panelists.  We need both
mother tongue and father tongue to develop what Le Guin describes as native tongue
but this is not easy in a world dominated by the patriarchal.
My sensitivity to such things derives from my life in a family top
heavy with men and this time not only in notion, but also in fact.  There were eleven of us in my family,
six males, five females.  My father
at the head.  He ran the show.  He earned the money.  My mother obeyed.  
At least overtly she obeyed.  If ever she defied him it was a hidden
defiance, one she undertook in stealth. 
That was until she caught my father at my sister’s bedside and the look
on his face told her he had over stepped the mark.  My sister was sitting in bed, the blankets pulled up to her
chin, like a little bird, my mother said, while my father leered. 
‘Get out of here,’ my mother said to my father.  ‘If I ever see you with her again I’ll
kill you.’  
Later she thought my
father’s visits to my sister had stopped, but my mother could not bear to see,
and my sister protected her by keeping my father’s further visits a
I do not want to suggest that men are the bad guys here and women
are the victims.  We are all in
this together.  The other night at
dinner after a day long writing workshop, four women and one man, we talked of
travels overseas, and one woman, the youngest among us, talked of how she had
been groped six times in India in less that six days until she finally saw
red.  She ran after the man who had
grabbed her breast, and yelled at him that he should not behave so while
squeezing a bottle of water over his head.  She yelled at him all the way down the street and
imagined-hoped, she said, that she had managed to shame him in front of friends
and family.  
‘It happens all the time,’ she said. 
Not to me, I thought. 
But then again I have not travelled through India, or Rome, or the
Middle East where others have told me such extreme exploitation of women takes
place.  And I am over fifty, the
age they say when women disappear from view as sexual objects.
Alas, these unwarranted gropings do not just happen overseas.  I went to the most recent Reclaim the Night march in Sydney Road in Brunswick in October this year.  The march followed closely on the death
of Jill Meagher.  This much
publicized event took Melbourne by storm. 
Jill Meagher was young, beautiful and talented.  She worked in the media.  She had a profile in her ordinary
day-to-day life that drew people’s attention to her, but now she is dead and
her alleged killer is in prison awaiting trial.
There was a storm of protest when Jill Meagher disappeared, mostly
fueled by comments on social media and people’s rage which apparently made it
easier for police to track down the alleged killer.  When I heard they had found him, not only did I feel relief,
the man was off the streets at last, my daughters might be safe, especially the
one who lives in Brunswick close by to where Jill Meagher was raped and murdered,
I also felt sorry for the children of this man, boys or girls, what does it
How is it to live your life in the knowledge that your father is a
sexual predator and a murderer?  I
know something of what life is like with a father who sexually abuses his
oldest daughter and moves in the direction of his younger daughters.  And it sucks.  It sucks because it makes you twitchy in relation to all
things sexual.  And it makes you
wary of relations with men.  Not
that I haven’t had my share of them. 
And I have been married for 35 years to a man who even as a successful
lawyer and a man of many talents still struggles to find an identity in a
world, his world dominated by women, his mother, his sisters, his wife and four
He calls it girlie talk when we prattle away in whatever is of
interest to us at the time, the price of the new Funkey shoes, the intricate
details of my daughter’s recent birth of her son, the latest gossip about the
girls at my youngest daughter’s school. 
I am used to my husband’s disdain and often times will try to redirect
the conversation to something that might feel more inclusive of him, but my
daughters are less so inclined. 
It is not simply the gender divide.  The generation gap applies too.  My husband who had his formative years during the hippie
loving seventies now and then comes out with schoolboy humour, lightweight
sexual innuendo to my ears but to my daughters, his jokes are appalling.  He once argued with one daughter and in
the heat of the moment referred to her as a tart.  She objected to the word.  She still does. 
She considers it an affront to have a father who calls her a tart.  He used the term not to describe her
appearance but more because he was angry about her behavior, too long on the
telephone or some such thing. 
I argued with my daughter over her sensitivity to the word.  ‘Bitch would have been better,’ she
said to us, ‘but not tart.  Tarts
are prostitutes.’  My husband
learns to hold his tongue. 
Language changes and with it words take on new meanings.  The politically correct extracts its
toll and plays its part in the power imbalance between men and women. 
When I was young I thought my father ruled the house, but there came
a time when my parents were around the age I am now, not long before my father
died, when the tables turned.  My
mother took up voluntary work with the church visiting impoverished families in
the high-rise estates in Fitzroy.  My father by now had retired.  He did not like her going out while he
was stuck at home alone.  He did
not want her to learn to drive for fear she would never stay home.  Instead he drove her in and out of the
city from Cheltenham every day in order that she should be near.
The tables turned and my father, once the strong one became the helpless
dependent one right up until his death. 
And my mother grew stronger once he was gone.