Blog Archives

College Pt 1: the view from Hong Kong

final illu

Conceived by therockmom. Realized by Bonnie Wong.

Kids deserve your high expectations! No, no – they thrive following their own paths! The world needs engineers and doctors. The world needs creative thinkers. If you don’t get in to the Ivy League your life is over. What’s wrong with a state school? Don’t sacrifice Fine Arts in education! Everyone should learn to code!

How are we going to pay for all of this?????

My oldest is two years away from university so we’re already starting down the path: PSAT, IB, ACT, campus visits, personal essays, community service, summer prep work, faultless transcripts, blah, blah, blah.

I waiver from a rebellious ‘Does it really matter?’ attitude to a creeping anxiety that, as a parent, I should be more engaged, more helpful, more ambitious for my kids. Not helped by the fact that I live in Hong Kong, ground zero for Over Achievers Anonymous. A place where you can find a class, workshop or tutor for any and all intellectual, personal or cognitive failings.

It’s easy to say: well, I did this when I was your age and I turned out just fine. Yeah sure – in the ‘80s, when perms were awesome, Cosby was America’s Dad and China was a nation of peasants.

The world is a very different place now.

All I can say is: listen to your kids. And then find a good Physics tutor 😉

With many sincere thanks to Hong Kong artist & creative thinker Bonnie Wong for helping me realize the vision above. You can find her at: http://bonnieeewpy.com/

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A New Chapter

Hi rockmom friends,

In case you haven’t come across any of my shameless self-promoting tweets and posts, I’ve started writing for a site called Expat Living Hong Kong, sister site to Expat Living Singapore. You can read my first post here. The super coolio thing is I’m getting paid. Crazy, I know!

No way, no tan, no how! (photo used with kind permission of Philipp Engelhorn)

No way, no tan, no how! (photo used with kind permission of Philipp Engelhorn)

Without mentioning any names, I’ve done the whole ‘write for exposure’ thing and found that I got about as much exposure as a mainland woman wearing a face-kini.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ungrateful for the experience but after 5+ years of rockmom writing I’m ready for the big leagues. Or at least a decent AAA team in a mid-sized market.

The other nice thing, aside from the do$h, is that I’ll be writing about the same range of topics I’ve covered here at rockmom: raising kids, living in Hong Kong, raising kids in Hong Kong (a very special kind of pressure cooker). Expat Living might not want my post about the latest Father John Misty album – dammit! – but I’ll learn to live with that. In fact I’ll continue to post here, and not just about the oh-so-fabulous work I’m doing elsewhere. Fear not, this site isn’t going to turn in to some platform-building, writer’s promo machine, even if I knew how to do that!

Many moons ago, I started this blog to write about music but then it kind of morphed in to a place where I can clear my head of inane theories about parenting and education and why the next generation has been unable to produce a David Lee Roth. But what’s been most gratifying is realizing there are other people out there (and not just my sister) who worry as much as I do about the pressure on children in today’s world AND the future of One Direction!

So I thank you, dear readers, as always for your support. I hope you’ll continue to enjoy therockmom and I hope you’ll feel that this is where you can connect with like-minded individuals and be yourself – much like these women:

Quindao Beach 1.

Everybody’s Free (not) To Wear Sunscreen (Sorry! Couldn’t resist. Photo used with kind permission of Philipp Engelhorn)

Have a wonderful summer – try the beach! See you in August!

All photos courtesy of the fantastic photographer, Philipp Engelhorn, from his series Qingdao Beach No 1.

Philipp lives in Hong Kong – right on! – and his work has appeared in publications around the globe. Find him at:

http://www.philippengelhorn.com/index.html

From Chicago to China and Back Again: Susan Blumberg-Kason

GCW CoverNot long ago I had the pleasure to meet Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of the recently-published memoir Good Chinese Wife. The book is a very honest and brave look at Susan’s difficult marriage to a charismatic mainland scholar and musician, Cai. They met in Hong Kong, spent time in China and settled in San Francisco, where their baby boy was born. After the marriage fell apart, Susan returned with her son to her hometown, Chicago. She eventually remarried and had two more children before writing Good Chinese Wife. I found Susan’s writing completely compelling but also very, very personal. It takes guts (!!) to write so candidly. After I heard her speak about the book’s journey, which is an interesting story in itself, I asked if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions for therockmom, about writing, family and of course music!

Q: Let’s start with the memoir, which is a great read! Full of drama and emotion but not in a woe-is-me kind of way. When you were writing was it difficult to sort of re-experience your history or were you able to write in a more detached way? I imagine you’d almost have to look at yourself as a character, that you’d need that distance, to make the narrative work.

A: Thank you for the kind words about the book! If I had written it right after my divorce, it would have been an angry, finger-pointing story full of rage. But since I started writing it eight years after that marriage ended, I had enough distance between those events and the new life I had created for myself. I was able to distance myself from the person I was during the years of Good Chinese Wife. And once I started working with independent editors, and later my agent and editor at my publishing house, the book became a collaborative effort and I certainly looked at myself as a character. We would talk about me in the third person as if I was a character!

Q: I’m always curious as to how writers’ families react to their work. You spoke about it a bit at your book talk, but I’m wondering: did you get your current husband to read any early drafts? What did your children think when they saw the actual book, I mean it’s such a fun thing, right? Seeing your name on a book!

A: My husband Tom hasn’t read the book yet! I was worried about family members reading early drafts because I was worried they would try to influence what I wrote (ie, keep me from revealing so much). I guess I didn’t need to worry about that with Tom! He has been so supportive and pushes my book at work like it’s a drug, then proudly reports back to me when a colleague has read and liked it. Now he’s trying to muster up Amazon reviews. Tom at first said he would read it, but I have the feeling he doesn’t care to go back to that part of my life. He knows about the events in the book, and I think that’s good enough for him! As for my kids, my son Jake is sixteen and hasn’t read it, but I’ve placed it on a bookshelf and told him he’s welcome to it anytime. Some of his friends have read it, though. My two younger kids are too young to read it, but they were so excited when my review copies arrived in the mail. We all held a copy like it was a new baby. I also brought my little ones to a bookstore to see it on the shelves for the first time, and that was super thrilling, too.

Q: Going back to the story of you and Cai, you met him in the world of academia, but you know after I’d finished the book I found myself thinking that being married to him sounded a lot like being married to a rock musician! The hours, the lifestyle, the – dare I say – ego. Has anyone ever suggested that before? What are your thoughts?

A: No one ever compared it to being married to a rock star, but Cai himself warned me—after we married. The first time he stayed out until the early hours of the morning, he was recording a CD for a businessman in Singapore with a group of musicians at the Wuhan Conservatory of Music. When he returned home the next morning, he shrugged and said it’s difficult being married to an ethnomusicologist. As it turns out, he wasn’t kidding! His late nights out in California were all music-related outings with friends he had met in the Chinese music community there. I don’t think that lifestyle is impossible for a spouse, but the person who keeps those late hours needs to make sure he (or she) makes up for it when he’s home!

Headshot from Hong Kong 3

Susan stopped in Hong Kong recently for the release of both Good Chinese Wife & the How Does One Dress To Buy Dragonfruit anthology.

Q: You mentioned that while you and Cai were together, you spent a lot of time around Chinese music and musicians. What’s your take on classical Chinese music? It seems to be an acquired taste!

A: I like Chinese classical music! I’m certainly not an expert in it, but I like the different instruments and the sad melodies. Often when we went out with his friends in China to karaoke, they would sing revolutionary songs, which I thought was funny in a kitschy way. I even learned some of them. I know that’s not classical music, but that’s what Cai’s generation grew up on and what they were most familiar with at that time.

Q: You’ve also said that you actually started to learn to play the erhu with Cai – how difficult was that? Are you a musical person? Do you play any other instruments?

A: I am not a musical person, although I took piano lessons for eight years when I was young and can still read music. The erhu was kind of a fluke. I had signed up for a Japanese language class in graduate school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, but the class was taught in Cantonese. So I had to drop it because I only speak a smattering of Cantonese. A friend from Japan was taking erhu lessons at the University, which I thought sounded very cool. So I signed up, too. It was a lot of fun, and Cai tutored me in erhu after we first met. After we got engaged, he stopped. My class was only a semester-long and I didn’t continue. At the end of the course, I could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star! I still have the erhu I bought in Hong Kong twenty years ago.

Q: What kind of music did you listen to as a teenager? What artists/bands had the most impact on you growing up?

A: I grew up in the seventies and eighties, so the first music I listened to on the radio was disco. This was the time of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, so the Bee Gees were my favorite when I was eight and nine. I also liked classic rock like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, which are my favorite bands to this day. But the ones that had the most impact on me growing up were The Cure, The Clash, Violent Femmes, and anything that would fit in a John Hughes movie. I not only watched his films religiously, but also grew up in the area where they were filmed. Also, my uncle was in a ska band in the ’80s, so I grew up on that. My parents would take us to all-ages concerts at venues that usually didn’t allow kids under 18. My uncle’s band played with Peter Tosh and The English Beat, so it was pretty cool to have a successful musician in the family.

Q: The English Beat! That is so cool. Are you sharing any music with your kids these days? You have a teenager plus younger children, right? Are there any artists that everyone can agree on – or is everyone’s tastes different?

A: We listen to music mainly when we’re in the car. I’m a chronic station-flipper, so I turn the dial until I find a song I like. My little ones are familiar with Top 40 songs, whereas Jake, my teenager, has eclectic taste. My husband Tom and I have taken Jake to see Bon Jovi, the Rolling Stones, and Lady Gaga! That’s kind of a good representation of what we listen to in the car, and all three kids are fine with that. Jake plays trumpet in his school’s marching band, jazz band, and orchestra. I’m sure he gets his musical abilities from his father!

Q: So, since you’re from Chicago, I’ve got to ask about Windy City music, which is so varied and unique: blues, house, indie rock, etc. Is there one band or singer that you would say is the quintessential sound of Chicago?

A: I would have to say that Buddy Guy is the quintessential sound of Chicago. He has a blues club not too far from where I used to live in the city, before I moved to the suburbs. Buddy Guy’s Legends attracts both locals and tourists. Back before we had a smoking ban, he used to perform several smoke-free concerts every January. Those were always popular. Now Legends has a new venue, with great food, and it’s all smoke-free now. When I meet people new to Chicago or visiting for the first time, I always recommend a concert at Buddy Guy’s, especially if he’s performing.

Thank you Susan for taking the time to chat with therockmom!

For more information, please check out:

Susan’s website

Susan on Twitter

Postcard From The Edge

Hong Kong, 2 October 2014. (photo by therockmom)

Hong Kong, 2 October 2014. (photo by therockmom)

At Jardine House, my family and I walked down the stairs from the elevated walkway and stepped out in to an empty street – Connaught Road. In all his 39 years living in Hong Kong, Hubs said, he had never walked in the middle of this street. Now it was deserted of cars, buses and taxis. About fifty yards ahead, we slipped between metal barriers and joined the crowd. And then we walked, slowly, from Central to Wan Chai, on a road that normally carried thousands of vehicles a day, but was now home to thousands of people united in protest.

What can we say of a situation that’s both hopeless and incredibly hopeful? We can voice our support, admire the students’ courage and step back in wonder at the sheer audacity of their collective action. They’ve closed all the roads! They’re being teargassed! They even recycle! We can ponder how long the protest will last and of course, if it will make a difference. We can talk with our friends about what Beijing might do, but ultimately we are expats, with one foot still in our home countries and passports to safety. We won’t have to experience the full effects of their fight.

One young woman smiled shyly and told me she didn’t think the protest would change anything, but even so, she said, “I don’t want to regret not trying.” Her boyfriend, whose orange-dyed fringe peaked out from his baseball cap, said, “We have to be here. We have to.”

Proud Hong Kong. He didn't hesitate for a minute when I asked for a photo. (photo by therockmom)

Proud Hong Kong. He didn’t hesitate for a minute when I asked for a photo. (photo by therockmom)

Most of the people I spoke to had been coming to the protest for two, three, even four days. They would find a patch of ground, set up a mat or two and gather in small groups. Some even sat by themselves, alone but part of the whole. The hardy ones camped out overnight but most said they go home at night, shower, eat and sleep and return the next day. All were united in their desire for true democracy for Hong Kong.

What I wanted to know was: what do you hope will happen? And then: what do you think will happen? Answers to the first question were always voiced with conviction. “We want proper elections. We want CY Leung to go.” But the second question usually inspired a half-smile, a shrug of the shoulders or a sideways glance, as if I were asking: how vast is the ocean? Because we all know, even if we don’t want to admit it, that our neighbor to the north is in full control here. For China in the 21st century is not a pariah nation or a failed state, and it’s not about to let seven million former colonial citizens dictate the narrative for the other one billion.

Yes, I am pessimistic. Realistic too. Yet, in my cynicism, I find there is room for surprise, a chance to marvel at what’s unfolding on streets where only a week or two ago I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Because most of these protestors are young, I had to ask: what do your parents think? Only one girl said her parents disapproved. Everyone else said, even though they’d left school and cut classes, that their parents supported them. I even met one young woman who’d brought along her Mom.

A true rock of a mom, with her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend. (photo by therockmom)

A true rock of a mom, with her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. (photo by therockmom)

The two sat together on the ground with the daughter’s boyfriend and were quite happy to speak to me and let me take their picture. They were so positive – so genuinely positive – about their fight for democracy. For a second I almost believed they might win, and I was proud to tell them I’ve been living here for 17 years, and that my children are born and bred Hong Kongers.

The last group of protestors I spoke to manned a First Aid station two blocks from Government Headquarters and Tim Mei Avenue – ground zero for police retaliation. Before they answered my questions they told me protest organizers had just announced that police were gathering in numbers and we should be prepared for tear gas. They told me to be safe.

They explained that they hadn’t known each other before the protest started but had gravitated to first aid and had organized themselves in to duties and work rosters. The talkative member of this group, a tall young man with a strong British accent and thick hair that needed a comb, said he was on the day shift. He was proud to tell me that his group had worked out ‘rules for retreat’, which were very specific and included conditions such as: 1. If tear gas is filling the inside of their aid tent; and 2. If the police are using rubber bullets and are less than 100 meters away. This young man had already been tear-gassed on Sunday night, and he admitted to being fearful. But when he looked at the people around him – his new friends and fellow soldiers – and said, “Of course I am scared,” his words sounded like a badge of honor, a gauntlet to be thrown down at the feet of Beijing.

I would like to think his words, and his will, can make a difference. I would like to think that.

Ribbon spotting in Central. (photo by therockmom)

Ribbon spotting in Central. (photo by therockmom)

Lost in Translation, but beautifully so…

Sometimes my blog gets hit by comments that inhabit this netherworld between actual advertising and crazy spam. A Japanese purse retailer called bagmutton.com commented on my Das Fluff piece by merely writing ‘Prada Hermes’ (the Prada was in Japanese, had to Google Translate that). Must be code for ‘Das Fluff rock Tokyo on a regular basis.’ Das Fluff have a big following in Japan so if they’re looking for a sponsor, bagmutton might be keen.

Last week ‘So Cheap Shoes China’ had a go at therockmom’s 2012 wrap-up by writing the following:

Nightfall instances features unexpected blues and purples that tote up to the majesty of the spontaneous phenomenon. Nike Continuous chose to forward with a more public solar manifestation as the ‘Sunset Break down’ edition on their advised Max flagship, a look whose blocking template parallels the up to date ladies stylishness we’re seeing for the original age here today. These unusual womens Nike Show Max+ 2013s blend Hyper Downcast and Pink Dynamism into a beautiful gradient that shows how the 2013 is built due to the fact that both work and beauty. Disillusion admit us positive how they approach to the Sunsets or the simpler two-tone styles we’ve seen and be on the worry because they just dropped in Asia.

A direct translation from Putonghua? Must be because only a non-native English speaker could come up with something so bad yet so beautiful. Disillusion admit us positive. A koan. A promise. A call. Bob Harris and Charlotte on the 52nd floor.

So Cheap Shoes China – I’m a low-mileage Asics fan, I like a high arch, US size 7 1/2 🙂

The Professional Kid – too big to fail?

Q: How many Hong Kong kids does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Is that with or without a tutor?

Just a normal academic day in Hong Kong.

Just a normal academic day in Hong Kong.

There’s a sad/funny story going round about the parents at an international school here in Hong Kong. The school in question is considered one of the most well-regarded, expensive and academically rigorous of the international schools in town. Dual-language learning (English & Mandarin), loads of homework, low student-teacher ratio and a tough admission policy including an exam (sorry, they call it an assessment) and an interview for the child and parents. My kids don’t go there and we never considered it for them, mainly because it’s super expensive and a long bus ride from where we live. I have no doubt the school and its teachers are very dedicated and prepare children well for ‘the challenges of the 21st century’ but, having learned a little more about its academic demands, I jokingly call it the kryptonite school. It seems to leech away any time a child may have had for sports, hobbies or, well, free time.

Next year the school will open a sister campus in mainland China and will begin a policy of sending its Year 10 students (age 14-15) there for a year of boarding and instruction. Five a.m. Calisthenics, The Little Red Book’s Lasting Legacy, Crafting Algorithms for Fun and Suppression! and Theories of Insurrection Management will be offered as electives.

Kidding, totally kidding about that last part.

It seems the parents are split, about 50-50, as to whether they think it’s a good idea for their kids to spend a year in China. Some are very supportive, recognizing an exchange year as a wonderful life experience. Some are not so keen. When I heard from a friend about the parents’ objections, I asked if they were concerned their kids would get homesick, or maybe the parents would miss their children too much. My friend said half the parents (50 percent!) are worried about their children being away from… their tutors.

I am not kidding now.

You’ve heard of the military-industrial complex? Well, here in Hong Kong, we have one of the world’s most sophisticated education-industrial complexes. And I use ‘complex’ as both the adjective, intricate and multifaceted, as well as the noun – a personal hang-up.

But set aside for a minute questions about the cost of this huge, sprawling mass of after-school educational centers, private tutors and prep courses. Not to mention the money we’re already paying in teachers’ salaries, school facilities and that laptop that every kid needs. Hey, let’s not think about what this says about the curriculum itself i.e. are we forcing our kids to punch above their weight class? Or whether they’ll be able to succeed once those tutors are no longer around. “Excuse me, boss, but I’ll be paying a guy to come in and help me with my spreadsheets.”

Let’s focus on the bigger picture. Let’s narrow it down to one fundamental ask: why is failure not an option?

I think it’s because in this age – in our post-Boomer, middle and upper class demographic – our children are ourselves. We’re the Meta-parents, the Type-A over-schedulers, the anxious Mommy and Daddy bloggers (Yes, I cop to it). We’ve gotten ourselves on to this hamster wheel and we can’t seem to get off.

We obsess because we can. Because society rewards it. Because technology encourages it. Or just maybe because our parents, who were divorcing and finding themselves in the ‘70s and ‘80s, didn’t.

I don’t know. I don’t have the answer. I know I want my kids to do well, give their best effort, in whatever they choose to do. I want them to be happy but I also brag about their achievements and I fret about what they’re doing online. And I’m not sure if I’m comforted by the fact that they’re way more focused and goal-oriented than I ever was at their ages. Should I be comforted? The other day I asked EO and her friend a question: would they use a private tutor if it meant the difference between an A or a B? They both said ‘Yes’ without hesitation. And when I asked why, they asked me, “Won’t it help you in the future? It’ll lead to better opportunities, right?”

At first, when I thought about the bigger picture and what my fundamental question to you readers should be, I thought I should ask: will our children remember a happy childhood? But then I thought, oh, that’s just me spouting hyperbole, thinking everyone should have a Tom Sawyer kind of childhood. Of course, our children, who don’t have to scrounge for food or worry about drone attacks, will be perfectly happy. Reasonably happy, at least. But it will be their kind of happy, and unless we make some fundamental changes, it will include Kumon and SAT prep and hours of homework and a whole lot of expensive, instructional bullshit because we think that’s the path to a good future. And they won’t know any different.

I’ll leave you with another anecdote, a brief conversation I had with a neighbor a few years ago. She has a son and a daughter, who both go to prestigious local schools, really the cream of the crop in Hong Kong education. We were chatting about summer holidays and she was excited because they’d made plans for a big trip to Italy. She said, and I quote her verbatim, it would be their ‘last hurrah’ before her son started at this fancy, all-boys school. So how old was her son, you ask, as he enjoyed one last carefree summer?

He was seven.

2012: The Year in Random Thoughts & Obsessions

Forget those Best Of / Top 20 / Hot Lists, here’s my year’s worth of musings:

No need to say anything else.

No need to say anything else.

The best music snap of the year (above). Comes from a Berlin disco. Found on the Twitter page of Stana Katic, who’s one-half of the TV show, Castle, which my family can tell you I’m senselessly, annoyingly addicted to. It’s Moonlighting with Canadians! It’s awesome. And, yes, this does make me realize that the internet is high school. Now, if someone would just remake Remington Steele

My Fleet Foxes fixation continues unabated. Old stuff, new stuff, it doesn’t matter. It’s like I’ve become oddly attracted to Crosby or Stills or Nash (which one’s which?). In one of my favorite movies of the year, “Your Sister’s Sister”, Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass name drop the Foxes. I was so excited, I squealed on the inside and thought about them for the rest of the movie.

Fiona Apple is a bonafide torch singer, and if you cross her she will light that torch and stick it up your sorry a**! Unstable, brilliant, painfully vivid, awesome. ‘Hot Knife’ is just crazy good. Makes me dream of Alvin Ailey dancers in motion across a shiny black stage.

With his upswept ‘do, baby skin and wife beaters, Justin Bieber’s lesbian-chic androgyny is strangely fascinating.

If Cat Power battled Feist, who would win the chance to drop kick Lana Del Rey’s ass?

On iTunes, what’s the difference between Alternative and Indie?

The most wonderful Angry White Man is back! I’m so glad to see you, Bob Mould!

Frank Ocean – meandering, unfinished, falsetto doodles… yawn. What am I missing here???

Since everyone – Fun, The Belle Brigade, Best Coast – seems to be channeling Fleetwood Mac these days, it was inevitable. A Fleetwood Mac reunion tour 2013! Yes! Worship at the sky high heels of Stevie. We’re getting the band back together!

Lumineers? Decemberists? Lumineers? Decemberists? Can’t tell the difference. Like ’em both.

Green Day appearing on the Twilight: Breaking Dawn OST surely is the final nail in their coffin, n’est pas? Now go away until some kind of reunion in 2018.

Singles I enjoyed this year, even though some of them are old:

‘I Know What I Am’ by Band of Skulls

‘Solitude is Bliss’ by Tame Impala

‘Pumped Up Kicks’ by Foster the People

‘Mykonos’ by Fleet Foxes, xxxxx, call me 😉

‘Satan’ by Beast

‘Nightlight’ by Little Dragon

‘UMI Says’ by Mos Def

‘Gangnam Style’ by Psy (come on, it is irresistible)

Favorite albums 2012:

Jack White’s Blunderbuss

Fiona Apple’s Idler Wheel…

The Black Keys’ El Camino (technically released at end of 2011 but hey)

Texans of the Year:

San Saba County

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears – follow Joe on Twitter, he tweets entire Cowboys’ games. Hilarious!

So call me mainstream, I’m still not tired of Adele and I keep the new Taylor Swift on even after I’ve dropped off EO and YO at swim training.

Rihanna just bugs me. They say she does it her way but I’m seeing no self respect.

When I dip a toe in to dance music I enjoy Morgan Page and the gloomy glam of The Presets, who are so deliciously Depeche Mode, it hurts in a sweet, angsty way.

The guy I’m digging & rediscovering at the moment: Willie Nelson. He sounds fantastic on “Live & Kickin”. Makes me homesick.

In this digital day and age is it really necessary to deny Hong Kong Spotify and Pandora? There is a border between us and the Communists, but I can’t do anything about the pirates.

So many folk-pop, California mellow, girl-boy duos – Tennis, Best Coast, Teen Dream – so little time. Or interest.

Rufus Wainwright’s “Out of the Game” doesn’t hit the highs of “Release The Stars” but I’ll take it all the same.

Mumford & Sons = The Pogues x Coldplay – Elvis Costello with even more points deducted because Jake Gyllenhaal joined you guys on tour.

Saint Etienne are either celebrating pure pop like Kylie or subverting the genre in some kind of Pet Shop-Blondie mash-up. This kind of thing works really well in the UK. Too fey for the US I’m afraid.

I want to write like a Radiohead song: compact, intense, perfect.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year from therockmom x