Saturday, December 31, 2011

What people read in 2011

I was planning to take a more or less complete online break until tomorrow, but you know, life. We are running a dismal marathon known as the Gastro 500 around here and Twitter has been my sanity as I've comforted children and bathed them repeatedly and washed sheets and made up endless glasses of Gastrolyte. The 8 year old, first down with it (Vomit the First occurred at 11pm last night) is now pale, wan and tragic on the couch, occasionally raising a weak voice to request water or a cuddle. The 6 year old is still caught in the throes, although her dose seems a lot less severe than the 8 year old's - a half-dozen chucks, yes, but she's drinking heaps, even eating icypoles and crackers, and is still fairly perky. The toddler, the victim of a horrific gastric bug just three weeks ago, this time has miraculously escaped (THUS FAR), making me wonder if that awful week maybe gave her some useful immunity.

Today I really should have started work on the small contract job I've got in - it's due on 16 January and work opportunities will be even more constrained than usual in the coming fortnight with all three kids at home. But, as I'm on vomit patrol, clean-up crew, toddler-amusing detail, and laundry duties, plus the fact that I logged a whopping 2.5 hrs sleep (in two blocks) last night, that's just not been realistic.

Instead, in the slips and gaps of time between doing all the necessary stuff, I've been moaning on Twitter (how unusual for me!) and reading people's end-of-year blog posts. I've been particularly enjoying the list posts, where people are indicating their most-popular posts of the year (Miscellaneous Mum and Louisa Claire, I'm looking at you in particular). I've never done this before, partly because I am not very interested in or competent with stats, but I thought I'd check out Blogger's page to see what my 5 most read posts of the year turned out to be.

The results surprised me a little bit, but here they are - the top 5 read posts of 2011 on Play, Eat, Learn, Live.

1. An era is ending
This post that I wrote in July about my mixed feelings at what appeared to be the coming end of my breastfeeding of C was the most read post of the year - due, I'm sure, to being mentioned by the ever-popular Nicole in one of her round-up posts.

2. The Australian Eastern Seaboard Floods
I was a little surprised to note the ongoing reading numbers of this heartfelt but general post about the floods last January. I guess common tragedies do draw people's thoughts together.

3. We Play: Coloured Icypole Sticks
One of the last posts I did in Christie's now discontinued We Play meme, this post has had continuous trickling traffic all through the year from when it first appeared in April.

4. Cars 2: Review and Giveaway
This was probably the only one that didn't surprise me - it was a very cool prize pack :-)

5. For and against: Online grocery shopping

This one got a rush of pageviews when it first appeared in April, and again, a small but unceasing trickle ever since. (It is also, unfortunately, a comment spam-magnet; I've deleted more SPECIAL OFFER url nonsense comments on this post than any other, ever).

None of my posts this year eclipsed the two most read posts on this blog of all time: a post from September 2010 on childrens' detective series Trixie Belden and Emily Eyefinger, which is, to my bewilderment, still a total Energizer bunny in terms of pageviews; and my August 2010 post on the science-themed party that my eldest had for her 7th birthday, complete with a birthday cake composed of the periodic table of the elements in cupcakes. (Yes, all 118 of them). That post caught a lot of traffic after my cake-decorating friend K listed it on a couple of baking sites she frequents.

I guess what this tells me is something I already knew - that posts that get linked or mentioned elsewhere attract more readers (duh, you might well say, but I'm not a quick study with these things). I can also see, from the stats on the posts trailing not far behind the Big 5 (or at least what passes for "big" in terms of my very teeny weeny blog), that my wrap-up / options type posts (such as Presents for Teachers) have a steady, predictable and respectable readership; my Reading Notes posts are much more read than commented upon (7 of the 10 posts ranked 6-15 this year were Reading Notes posts); and that cooking / gluten free themed posts also have a steady readership.

(My least read category of posts? Poetry. I'm OK with that, and it won't stop me writing it, when I feel moved to do so).

I found this a really interesting exercise to do. I'm not a stats follower generally, as I don't directly monetise (although I do reviews), and I am not especially interested in writing in a way that attracts the most eyeballs per se. That said, if I didn't want to be read, I'd be scribbling away in a paper notebook rather than posting on the Internet. I blog to practice writing, to form connections, to share, to hopefully contribute in some small way to the zeitgeist of the blogosphere. For all reasons but the first, I do like to know what themes and topics are of most interest to those who read here.

(In closing, one post that I personally enjoyed creating that didn't catch many views was this one.)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas - An online Christmas card

Dear Everyone,

From my family to yours, I wish you the festive season you're craving - be it parties, champagne and canapes, or family, roasts and afternoon naps; be it church, carols and candles, or a book, tea and solitude; be it rest, meditation and reflection, or adventures, challenges and flight.

I wish you health and happiness, freedom from pain. I wish you bodies that do your will, and spirits that are whole.

I hope that 2012 brings you things you want, and things you need, and things you didn't know you wanted or needed until they surprise you by turning up somehow.

I wish you to be not lonely, even if alone; not despairing, even if heartbroken; not afraid, even if the world is a fearsome place.

I know this isn't much of a Christmas card, but, in the words of one of my favourite poems of the season, it's got the right thought behind it.

Christmas in Envelopes
U. A. Fanthorpe

Monks are at it again, quaffing, carousing;
And stage-coaches, cantering straight out of Merrie England,
In a flurry of whips and fetlocks, sacks and Santas.

Raphael has been roped in, and Botticelli;
Experts predict a vintage year for Virgins.

From the theologically challenged, Richmond Bridge,
Giverny, a lugger by moonlight, doves. Ours

Costs less than these in money, more in time;
Like them, is hopelessly irrelevant
But brings, like them, the essential message

love.

I'll be taking an online holiday from this evening until the New Year, but will then be attempting a repeat of NaBloPoMo in January; for some reason I can't quite fathom, I feel moved to do so again. So see you bright and early in 2012!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas elves and human kindness

Today, one of the nicest - just plain kindest - micro-stories I have ever seen on the Internet unfolded right before my eyes.

It started with Marita and her daughter Annie. Annie, who has Aspberger's Syndrome, was struggling to understand why her younger sister Heidi, who is also autistic, had been provided with an iPad to help in her learning and development, via the FaHCSIA Helping Children with Autism Funding. Rather than trying to explain this further, I recommend you read Marita's post, and, more importantly, listen to Annie herself talk eloquently and passionately about the inequities in autism funding.

The next day, the beautiful Kim of Frogpondsrock wrote this post, drawing attention to the situation and saying simply, well, why can't Annie have an iPad? I think she can, said Kim - and if we all think so, then we can make it so.

I read Kim's post on my Android while trotting from one committment to the next, and made a mental note to come back to it once the madness of our end of school year party had subsided and I could get to my PC (I don't do financial stuff on the phone. Call me paranoid, I just don't).

But when I sat down at 4:30 to go to it, I found that it was all done and dusted. The money was raised in 4 hours flat, a discount was negotiated by the lovely Nathalie of Easy Peasy Kids, the iPad and apps had been bought, and a dream had come true, an inequity been rectified.

At that point, I had a serious case of something-in-my-eye.

There is so much I find wonderful about this story. Annie's articulate and passionate speech; Kim's simple and immediate statement of the need; the instant response and generosity of so many people; Nathalie's participation to arrange the transaction; and Annie's delight at her new tool, as shown in the photos Marita tweeted. What I found so moving about it all was how rapidly, how sweetly, how beautifully it all all came about. Just plain human lovingkindness, displayed as purely and perfectly as you'd ever want to see; no carping, no cavilling, just people seeing a need and reaching out to fill it.

This, for me, is what blogging is about when it's at its best - being part of communities (often several intersecting ones), communities that can support and grow and educate and entertain and, yes, love each other (in that peculiar, but not false, online kind of way). It's not always or even often about money, but it is about lessening each others' loads, whether it's with shared humour, venting, information, conversation, or just the acknowledgement of the voice of people who may not have another one.

The friends I have made - and I do call them friends, even though I've never met some of them IRL - through my blog and through Twitter are hugely important to me, and I care about them and their worlds. The communities I'm part of here, on the flickering screen, are none the less real for being virtual.

Enjoy your iPad, Annie. You deserve it, and we all wanted you to have it so much.

And to all my online friends - merry Christmas to you all.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gluten free packet mixes: Sponge cake and brownies

Before I was diagnosed with Coeliac disease, I admit that I was a bit of a packet mix snob. Oh, I'd buy the White Wings mixes sometimes if I was running short of time, but I'd always make them a bit surreptitiously, feeling like I was cheating. Mostly, I made cakes, muffins, pies and slices from scratch, some more successfully than others.

Now that I have lost the inestimable advantage of wheat flour in my cooking, however, I've found that some baked goods are really, really hard to get right from scratch (some almost impossible). I've worked out the right substitutions for cookies - we make gingerbread, shortbread, chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies, sultana cookies, and a range of others from scratch and they work out well.

I've had less uniform success with cakes, though, and sponge cakes in particular have been a bugbear for me. I've tried cornflour sponges, but they just don't work (for me) as well as I'd like. Brownies, likewise, have failed to achieve the mandatory fudge gooeyness when baked gluten free.
So I have experimented with different packet mixes in an attempt to find a solution to these baking problems. Brownies were my first mission. After trying some that were, frankly, awful (tasteless, dry, altogether yuk), I gave Melinda's mix a try.

Now, I must admit that while many of my gluten free friends rave about the Melinda's range, I haven't found them universally wonderful. I made the lemon slice from that range a while back and I'm not sure if I just did it wrong, but it came out greasy and unpleasant. But I will say categorically that this brownie mix has 100% redeemed the brand in my mind, because it is AWESOME. Fudgy, rich, delicious, it's everything a good brownie should be. I make it at least once a month now and my kids are always super excited when it turns up in their lunchboxes.

The process is refreshingly straightforward, too, and only requires the addition of eggs and margarine / butter. I really like that aspect, as I get fed up with gluten free packet mixes that require half a dozen extra things to make them. Really, that is *not* the point of a packet mix!

Next up was sponge cake. I tried a few that were tasty enough but flat as pancakes, which is not the point of a sponge cake, especially if you believe (as I do) that the ability to cross-slice and add jam and cream is a mandatory component of a good sponge. Finally, on a friend's recommendation, I hit on Macro Foods' sponge mix and oh what a revelation it was :-)

Light, airy, stable enough to slice and fill, this cake mix is one of my absolute favourites now, as it just quietly works, every time, without any fuss or bother and lets me create a cake that looks (and tastes) The Business, which is what it's all about.

Of course, having my delightful assistant chef in the kitchen is the magic ingredient that brings it all together - and results in superbly licked-clean beaters, spoons and bowls :-)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

On birthdays and rosebuds

The people in the house behind are having a party tonight.
A 21st birthday, with marquee and balloons, laughter and those strange occasional shouts
that parties always seem to disgorge.
From here, in my darkening room, they sound like nothing so much
as a merry gaggle of geese
gathered at a waterhole as the sun sets
to cluck together and wet their feet
while flying insects are plucked from the sky by waiting beaks.

I sit,
the dull thump-thump of music buzzing gently under my feet,
the weight of the day settling over my shoulders like a bearskin
tired and old. well, old enough.
old enough to feel it, in mind and body both
the fingers of all my days, both beautiful and ungentle
lying on my line-marked skin like clay.

I remember being 21. Oh, not nostalgically
(not really).
I was equal parts uncertain and brash in that time, at once
arrogant and assured, and fearing to chance myself
in case I fell face-down.
I was not, I think, a mature 21, as 21 year olds go.
I was childish, in many ways; self-absorbed, petulant, yes, those too.
I don't think I would like that self, now, should I meet her.
(In fact I did not fully like her then. Thus the self-doubt).

I also remember, though, that at 21
I had a body that worked. Nothing was broken, nothing faltered
That 21 year old, she did not know how to value
never having to think on the energy of a thing, or weigh pain against benefit
drawing from what felt like an inexhaustible well.

They say - I've heard it said -
that youth is wasted on the young. I'm not sure if that's always so
I doubt everyone is as callow (shallow?) as I was then.
But for me, oh yes,
that girl I was
she did not understand (how could she?) what she had
she missed so many chances to see more, do more, be more
she did not gather any rosebuds

and now the roses are in full bloom, and sweet they are
but still I wonder
as I half-smile at the rise and fall of young voices
what might have come
had the buds been gleaned
while the hand was still steady for the plucking.

- Kathy, 17/12/11

Friday, December 16, 2011

Things I Know

It's Friday, and the last week of Shae hosting Things I Know over at Yay for Home! So I thought I'd better know some stuff today.

I know that after a scary and sudden bout of gastro, with a prolonged period of extreme lethargy afterwards, seeing your almost-3-year-old well enough to play for a while at playgroup is a huge blessing and a massive relief.

I know that the end of the year is hitting us hard, exacerbated by C's illness but already full of overtired, overloaded behaviours from Miss 8 and Miss 6.

I know that paying special attention to making sure they all get as much outdoor time as possible, as much of me as possible, and as many opportunities to relax at home as possible is critical to getting through this next 10 days.

I know that a big part of getting through this time without major crisis is me needing to get my head in the game. And that means managing my moods better, and less online time in the day - in fact, I think, NO online time when the kids are awake for the next little while.

(I also know that in the 10 minutes I've spent thus far writing this post, C has grizzled at me nonstop and demanded my attention, and that I've said to her five times, "Just give me a minute to do this, honey." Case closed, I think).

I know that spending some money on getting our garden fixed up, and spending some family time on finishing the job with planting and weeding and cultivating, has been so worthwhile and so satisfying for us all.


And finally, I know that the summer holidays cannot come fast enough for me at this point.

For more things that people know, check out Yay for Home - for the last week!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Should I Have a Pet Goldfish? A Persuasive Text

The past five days have been rough around here - C, my almost-three-year-old, has been extremely ill with a gastric upset that saw us in hospital briefly on Sunday. Thankfully she is now recovering, and today was bright enough to even get to our playgroup Christmas break-up for a while (we arrived late and left early, but she enjoyed the bubbles, the carols, the crafts, and Santa's visit, and even ate half a frankfurt and a piece of fairy bread, a major excitement for me as she's eaten effectively nothing since Saturday).

One pleasure amidst the worry and nursing has been introduced by the older girls bringing home their art, maths and essay books from school. It's been really enjoyable looking through their work for the year and noting the progression in all areas.

A, my 8 year old, fished out one of her essays (well, they call them "persuasive texts" these days) and handed it to me.

"This is for you, Mum," she said seriously. "So that you'll be persuaded."

The piece is entitled Should I Have a Pet Goldfish? and it goes a little something like this:



Impressed as I am with the maturity and rationality of her argument, the answer is still no right at the moment (in fact, her dad pulled the ol' parent trick of "when you can show us that you can keep your desk clean, THEN maybe we'll consider buying you Yet Another Object to put on it.")

Still, 10/10 for effort, I reckon.

Monday, December 12, 2011

On a sudden and serious illness

in the hospital bed, you lie
your face a folded white petal
creased and pale,
the blue veins marked clearly beneath.

you want to drink, but your belly
a temporarily broken vessel
will not accept the water.
again and again you shake and heave
and I, who thought to pack fresh clothes for you
end up drenched, as you cling to me, crying, afraid
and empty your stomach down my neck.

(I spend the rest of the day in a hospital gown, provided by kindly nurses
and confusing to doctors, who come to question and poke at you, and then wonder
if I am mother, or wandering patient, as I hold you in my arms.)

you, who seem so robust to me in the everyday
so strong, so lovely
now stare at me with filmed eyes
your body at once a weight on me and curiously light
your skin soft and dry, feeling permeable
terribly so
as if a harsh wind could blow it to dust

and I am, out of all proportion, fearful of this thing
an illness, a virus, no more, yet
in a different time or different place
quite apt to steal the life of a person
especially
a person so small
so young, so tender
as you.
my beloved child
my somehow-suddenly-fragile child

and I do not think I could bear it. People do,
they do if they must, I know. my mother did. my grandmother.
friends.
in other times and other places
people must bear this again and again
and endure the scoring of the heart
again and again

please, little love.
be well again.
please.

- Kathy, 12/12/11

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Human Rights Day: No more turning away

Today is World Human Rights Day. This is a day to mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (63 years ago now) and to reflect on how far we have - or haven't - come in recognising and realising these principles in daily life.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be able to hear about the work of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and its staff and volunteers in helping asylum seekers in Australia. The ASRC is non-federal-government funded, fuelled by donations, volunteers and a small amount of state government support (95% of the funding is derived from philanthropic and community sources). Initiated 10 years ago as a student project, ASRC was originally primarily a food bank for asylum seeking refugees but is now much broader in its activities, offering asylum seekers English language services, counselling, legal aid, employment assistance, health programs, support at hearings and more. The activities of the Centre are built on 4 pillars: Aid, Justice, Empowerment and Community.

The philosophy of the Centre is this:
The ASRC recognises the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. It is the vision of the ASRC to enact the change we want to see in the world and to build a community which defends the ideals of dignity and justice for all.

It seems to me on Human Rights Day that turning my mind towards the work of ASRC and the situation of many asylum seekers in Australia is peculiarly apt. Refugees are a group of people whose human rights are regularly, even routinely, disregarded in Australia. Asylum seekers are confined, treated as criminals, when in fact it is not illegal under international or Australian law to be a refugee. Some portions of the media and some voices in the community - often the loud ones, unfortunately - engage in awful, inhumane, selfish rhetoric in which refugees are the kicking post for larger fears and deeper prejudices.

Hearing about the work of ASRC last night reminded me sharply of the work my grandparents did in the 1970s and 1980s, helping Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees come to Australia (and be allowed to remain). I can remember, as a child, playing with the children of these families, children who had literally nothing except what they were given by aid agencies, often possessing no more than one change of clothes. I can remember, as a teenager, being numb with shock at the stories that some of them had to tell about what they had gone through to come here, and the circumstances that had driven them from their countries of birth.

Horrific circumstances. Terrors and traumas that no-one should have to live through, not a child, not a woman, not a man.

I believed then, as I believe now, that people do not choose to become refugees. It is a last-ditch decision that's made in the face of adversity so severe that most of us here are blessed to be unable to really imagine it.

I believed then, as I believe now, that our shared humanity should prompt compassion, not turning away, from suffering like this; that refugees' dignity should be respected and their hurts tended, that to do otherwise is cruelty, and is a failure to recognise the humanity in others.

I think that the work the ASRC is doing is incredibly valuable, important, life-valuing and humanity-affirming work. And on this Human Rights Day, I salute them and all their volunteers (more than 600 people in all different fields) for what they are doing. They are not turning away. None of us should.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

C is for cookie (and community)

It's good enough for me :-)

The inaugural Community Blogging event is on tomorrow night at the Victorian Archives Centre. This event happens to fall in the busiest week of the busiest month of the year for me (especially because of the kids' school concert yesterday, which, being on school council, meant jobs aplenty for me - but it was awesome and so much fun). I wondered if I might reach this point of the week stressed out and a bit over myself, without much verve left for the day.

Happily, the craptastic portion of my week, complete with full-scale meltdowns, seems to have discharged itself harmlessly on Tuesday afternoon, leaving yesterday as a productive and wonderful school concert day and today free for finishing Christmas shopping (done), laundry (doing), wrapping prezzies (doing), baking - so much baking! - and singing Christmas songs to myself in the quiet house. (I am still not used to not having C here on Thursdays, even after 8 months' practice).

I decided to put together a tray of gluten free cookies for tomorrow night's event. The catering, which is going to be delicious, is all savoury food, including gluten free options, but as others are bringing sweets for the "normals", I thought it would be nice if anyone with dietary issues (and - ahem - moi) could have a sweetie as well.

This kind of planning ahead is something that, frankly, I never used to do before I was diagnosed as a Coeliac. Knowing that I will need to either make & bring, carefully investigate food options, or go without has concentrated my mind wonderfully on the pre-production and stockpiling of food. As I'm sure most Coeliacs would agree, there is nothing worse than being hungry, being offered yummy-looking treats and having not one SINGLE thing you can safely eat. It's the pits. So rather than booking a table at Pity Party for One, I get around it now by baking things I like to eat and bringing them along.

(If you are going tomorrow night, allow me to beat my own drum for one second and say that if you like gingerbread, you should try mine. It's pretty good. /boast :-)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Presents for teachers

It's the time of year again when most people with children are thinking about gifts to give significant adults in their children's lives - school teachers, kindergarten teachers, sports coaches, club leaders, music teachers, carers at creche, playgroup leaders, babysitters ... (The list can have infinite variations!)

There are many schools of thought about the gifts-for-teachers thing. While the majority of people of my acquaintance (both teachers and parents) seem to appreciate the notion of food gifts, some people are implacably opposed to giving or receiving food. Home-made vs store-bought is another potential minefield - home-made is personal and shows thought and effort, OR home-made is cheap and tacky and results in unreliable products. Alcohol and gift cards as presents are also contentious. How much is appropriate to spend on teacher gifts is another area of dispute, and everyone has their own ideas about it. I have been a little surprised, in the last 6 years of doing teacher gifts, exactly how deeply people hold their views on the subject and how much they believe them to be universal truth, rather than, well, their opinion, relevant to their situation.

In our case, this year we'll give gifts to:
- 7 gymnastics coaches (2 apiece for the three girls, and the director)
- 3 swimming teachers
- 2 carers at C's creche
- 4 teachers at the big kids' school (their classroom teacher, the maths coach who has done much extension work with them both this year, and the school VP, who has been super wonderful to us)
- The administration staff at school
- A and G's guitar teacher
- 7 families at playgroup
- My cake-baking friend K

(I'm tempted to add "and a partridge in a pear tree" :-)

We've varied what we give over the years, but each offering has included home-baked food. We've done chocolate truffles in the past, white Christmas, and pink fudge. One year we did meringue snowballs. Every year we make gingerbread, and last year and this, we have made shortbread. Everything I prepare in my kitchen is gluten free, so that certainly adds to the ingredient cost somewhat, but it's worth it so I can sample as we go :-)

I do check in with all the recipients before I cook whether there are any dietary or taste barriers, and I modify the gifts accordingly. Each year I do one batch of gingerbread that is dairy-free, for example, to cater to lactose intolerant people. And some people always state a preference for not eating chocolate (strange as I find this :-) so they get extra cookies and no truffles in their packs.

So this year we're sticking to gingerbread and shortbread, packaged in white noodle boxes and wrapped in ribbon, for the people on our list. The kids' classroom teachers and C's creche carers will also get a sachet of A's magical chocolate truffles and a charity gift card for buying school supplies via TEAR Australia. They will also get a bottle of wine (I've checked they're all wine drinkers - they are!)

I reckon if I worked it out fully (I haven't) that the cookie box gifts would probably cost about $5 each in terms of materials, and take maybe 20 minutes apiece prep time. The kids can all be involved in the preparation of the food and the fact that the cookies are always a bit wonky and decorated idiosyncratically is, I hope, part of the charm.

Other good ideas for teacher gifts that I have seen, but not used, are things like tree ornaments, notebook & stationery sets, tea & coffee supplies and equipment, movie cards, books and so forth. My basic barriers to choosing these kinds of gifts are a) financial and b) skill (I am a baker; I am *not* a crafter :-) We did make lavender scent bags last year that were cute, but this year we're sticking to food.

For anyone interested - and because I promised on Twitter! - here is my recipe for gluten free shortbread.

Gluten free shortbread

Ingredients
2 1/2 cups plain gf flour mix (I use Orgran All-Purpose)
1/2 cup caster sugar
1/2 cup rice flour
250g butter, chilled & cut into small cubes

Method
Sift the dry ingredients together. Add the cubed butter and, using your fingertips, rub it through the flour until it hangs together in heavy clumps. (The kids love this part!)

Knead and roll the dough into a rectangle, wrap in cling wrap and chill for 1-2 hrs.

Preheat oven to 160C. Roll out the dough a little more and cut desired shapes. (This stage can be frustrating as the dough is stiff, but don't let it warm too much or the butter gets melty and then the cookies spread).

Cook until shortbread is solid but preferably not changing colour (in my oven it takes about 10 minutes).

When the cookies are cooled, sprinkle with extra caster sugar. All done!

I'd be interested to know other people's take on the gifts-for-teachers thing. Do you do it? Do you have a set schtick that you use, or do you mix it up year to year? Enquiring minds want to know!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Unemployment

This post is reproduced from a May 2009 entry on my private blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis. I've been re-travelling these thought paths recently and getting myself into a bit of a state about our decision that I will re-enter the workforce next year if I can find a suitable position.

At the time I wrote this, I was on maternity leave from my part-time job, from which I resigned in December 2010. My youngest child was 11 weeks old, I was suffering from nerve damage in my spine, I was unwell and sleep deprived. Withall, I still seemed to have a less muddy vision of my relationship to paid work than I do now.

Re-reading this piece helped me to remember the truth that was burning brightly for me 2.5 years ago, and realise that not working is neither an evil nor necessarily a problem for me. I can wait for the right job in the right time fraction, because this is not what my life is about, and the family and community and writing work I do is not marking time, it is the spirit and the core of my life. I feel a lot better now and clearer in my job-seeking paramters.

I hope you like it!


Following a link from the always-excellent Casaubon's Book, I came across this article by Barbara Ehrenreich. Drily entitled "Trying to Find a Job is Not a Job", this piece takes aim at the notion that the newly unemployed have an obligation - and indeed no other option - than to treat their job searching efforts as seriously, all-consumingly and committedly as (one presumes) they did their former careers. In the article, Ehrenreich points out the absurdities that this attitude engenders, from blue-collar workers endlessly retraining for illusory new skilled positions, to white-collar workers creating faux "bosses" to whom they "report" on their job-searching "work".

The ideas that underlie this attitude, it seems to me, are threefold:
1. Not having paid employment is the greatest evil imaginable
2. Persistence and application to the task will inevitably result in the landing of a new, desirable job
3. There are always jobs available for those with the right skills and attitude
2 and 3 are, of course, integrally linked, and are also bundled up with the cheerful and familiar age-old theme of blaming the unfortunate for their misfortune (ie. if you are unemployed for long, it must because you are doing SOMETHING wrong).

I agree with Ehrenreich that the purpose of the rhetoric around job-searching is essentially social control - creating a passive, "busy" corpus of unemployed rather than a rageful, bored army who have time and space to look up and see the writing on the wall. I also think that ideas 2 and 3 are the engine that drives this relentless personalisation - blaming the individual - for what may be, and often are, the effects of broader and more powerful trends.

However, what interests me more is unpacking the embedded notions that underlie the first idea. The concept that paid work is an ultimate good, and therefore, the lack of it an inherent evil, is one that deserves to be examined, not simply accepted. Of course people need resources to live, and in a modern capitalist economy, for "resources" you can read "money or access to it". I'm not suggesting that anyone can (or should even attempt to) live a cashless existence, although that said, I personally know of one couple that does this very thing, and two other families that are close to it. (However, in those cases, they each own another valuable resource - arable and cultivated land, and farm animals - free of debt, thanks to inheritance. Not the common scenario!)

What I'm wondering, though, is whether this global financial crisis and the resulting unemployment might not force a fruitful re-evaluation of the idea that we all need LOTS of cash, and that every adult in a household MUST aim to be part of the cash economy at all times. There are so many, many ways to be productive and contributive to the overall economy of a family, a household, a community, a society. Working for a wage is one of them, and in most cases, a necessary one for at least some of the people, some of the time. But if you are suddenly unable to bring home a wage, is running madly like a rat on a treadmill in order to obtain a job, ANY job, necessarily your only or even best option? Could the time be better spent in the extra work that you'll be freed to do in the unpaid silent economy of home, community and society, maybe reducing your need for high loads of cash along the way (ie by cooking more, growing some food, being able to shop more strategically etc). Communities and families rely anyway on unpaid labour to be sustained; it might be a gentler, kinder world if less people were juggling those tasks with the cash-based task of bringing home the bacon.

In our own case, we've given this a lot of thought of late. We are, granted, in a privileged position to be having these thoughts in the context of two stable, relatively unthreatened jobs (you never know what the future may bring, but the odds of either of us facing redundancy in the foreseeable future appear slim). Moreover, my husband is well paid, and we are relatively comfortably geared in terms of debt (carrying a very manageable mortgage and little else). But even though we have two paid jobs, I work mine in a very-much-less than fulltime arrangement, and I work from home (right now, of course, I'm on maternity leave, but won't be later in the year). At the moment, there is widespread social acceptance of this, as I have three children aged under 6, the youngest of whom is not quite 11 weeks old.

However, the prevalent impression appears to be that when my children are older, I'll work more - possibly fulltime - and what's more, that I'll want to do so, and need to do so, financially and personally. I'm starting to think, though, that I won't; that, in fact, we can live a freer and fuller life by keeping our dependence on cash at the level it's at now or even reducing it, and leaving time to build identities that aren't completely bound up with the paycheck. I salute my husband for his efforts in providing our family with a primary income, and I'll never underestimate the importance or necessity of it; but I also think that what I do, and can do, outside of the cash economy is valuable, the parenting and householding and volunteering and thinking creatively about how to live our lives. Of course, at the moment, the day to day parenting and nurturing is the overwhelming preponderance and joy of my time, but it will not ever be thus, and as the kids grow and become more independent, I want to be able to grow our family situation with them, to creatively rekey our lives every now and then, and live a life that's not in chains to the almighty dollar.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Things I Know

So on 2 December, I know that completing both Nanowrimo and NaBloPoMo in November has left me exhausted but very satisfied.

I know that rewarding myself with a glass of pink champagne on Wednesday night was nice, and sharing the rest of the bottle with two friends who came over for a girls' lunch yesterday was even nicer.

I know that my roast vegetable salad is pretty much always a lunchtime hit (she says oh-so-modestly :-)

I know that I was a little sad to come the end of school reading with my second girl's prep class yesterday, but that all the kids greatly enjoyed the strawberry babycakes that I brought along to mark the occasion.

I know that Christmas is coming very quickly, and that I'm OK with that and mostly organised, which surprises me a tad.

I know that the Community Blogging Christmas event at Victorian Archives Centre next Friday is going to be fantastico and that I'm really glad to be a part of it.

And finally, I know that I'm being vague and random today, but after a month in which I wrote a total of 89,000 words (across Nano, NaBlo and other stuff), you'll have to forgive me if I lack pithiness this time :-)

It's Friday, so lots of people over at Yay for Home! know things.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On coming to an end

it's time
so the calendar says, and the press of small warm bodies
the layer of dust on the benchtops
the smell of gingerbread, the happiness of tiny lights
agree.

it's time to stop, with the
daily henpecking at the keys, clickclick pause click
mind fogged in the words that are yet to fully form
a thick, sticky bear trap for minutes and hours

time to put away November things
and turn to summer with arms wide open, ready
to live embodied, not chasing wraiths through ghost halls of the subliminal
that pearl-grey place
where fictive worlds and thought-pieces (oh yes, and poems) are born.

time to live less strangely, less pellucidly
time to write less, and be more.

time to end.
(until the words' time comes again).

- Kathy, 30/11/11

This is my very last post in the NaBloPoMo challenge, to write a blog post every day in November. I also, as at 11am, have completed the NaNoWriMo challenge, hitting 50,600 words and validating my novel on the NaNo site. (Check out my sidebar button!) The book I'm writing is not completed - I estimate I have about 5-6k left to write - but it will now be shelved until January. I am really glad I did both of these challenges - I've learned enormously from them, I enjoyed the processes, and I'm mostly happy with what I produced. I am also really, really glad they're both over!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Community Blogging

This has been a monumental month for me, full of words, and almost-job-offers-that-didn't-quite-come-off, and words, and concerns over aspects of one of my children's behaviours, and words, and festive activities kicking into overdrive, and words, and entering two skill-based competitions nervously but with hope, and words, and starting early pre-reading with my toddler (which involves words), and extra volunteering shifts at school, playgroup and other places ...

Also, words. Just a few :-)

One of the things that has given me the greatest satisfaction this month, though, hasn't been so much about words as action - collective action in a positive direction by a group of Melbourne bloggers. Created and directed by the ever-wonderful Nicole of Planning With Kids fame, the Community Blogging initiative is an effort by a group of bloggers to work with, support and draw much-needed attention to the needs of not for profit organisations. The idea, to use a hackneyed yet fitting expression, is to give something back, to use our blogs and our skills to create momentum and light for important organisations that are often woefully under-resourced to do the work they do.

The Christmas function, which will be held at the Victorian Archives Centre, will be on 9 December and will support the work of the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre and St Kilda Mums, two groups who are heavily engaged at this time of year in creating relief packages for people who really, really need them.

I feel really privileged to have been asked to be part of this as it's just starting; I feel energised about its potential, I feel like there is a mass of positive charge out there that can be harnessed to do something special. I have been looking for more opportunities to get involved in helping out, in ways beyond donations of money and locally-based volunteering. Being involved with something with the dynamic potential of Community Blogging is a massive step in this direction for me.

This post is part of NaBloPoMo. 29 down, 1 to go!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Christmas preparations

Yesterday we had our now-traditional Christmas prep day. We always try to do this the Sunday closest to the start of December, and I block a day out in the calendar to make sure it's not eaten away by other seasonal busyness. The kids have been excited about it for weeks, and I was looking forward to it too - I really enjoy Christmas, even more so now I have children, and a day to get the ball rolling strikes me as a fun use of Sunday.

Christmas prep day for us includes:
- Making Christmas ornaments - this year, we made cardboard pop-up figures from books my Mum had given the girls;
- Listening to Christmas music
- Making our Christmas lists and writing letters to Santa
- Doing our first round of Christmas baking and cookie decorating (we make shortbread and gingerbread, both gluten free, as gifts for the girls' teachers and coaches across all their various activities)
- The main event: putting up and decorating the Christmas tree!

In years when I've been more organised, we've also written and addressed cards on this day, but this year, owing to my failure to procure cards last week due to a complete brain freeze at the shops, where, as well as forgetting about cards, I also neglected to buy milk, bread and bananas (but somehow remembered chocolate, olives and pork roast :-) I blame it on the Month of the Words occupying my mind, and the concomitant lack of sleep that's gone along with it. Never mind, we'll get to the cards this coming week.

Christmas prep day was, once again, enormous fun. It's become a very special day in our family year - maybe almost as much as Halloween or Easter Sunday, in terms of the kids' level of excitement and anticipation. (Nothing, naturally, gazumps Christmas Day itself!)

We started with a big clean-up of the house, on the premise that the tree takes up a lot of space and a big swathe of clean space is the best way to start. I've found that with family clean-up efforts, making a list of jobs to be done and letting everyone self-select from the list is the best and least stressful way to proceed. My list was heavily annotated by A and E, who got into the spirit of the thing and actually did a fine job.

Then it was a matter of enjoying ourselves, making cardboard decorations, mixing dough to chill, eating a scratch lunch of sausages in bread and sliced avocado (the kids thought that was hilarious), erecting and decorating the tree, and doing our lists and letters. We listened to the Crash Test Dummies' Christmas album, Colin Buchanan's Christmas album, and a rather cool collection I picked up years ago called Christmas with the Rat Pack, featuring a lot of Sinatra.

All in all, a lovely start to the festive season in all its overscheduled glory. Now it's just a matter of finishing the shopping, getting to all the events, getting Santa photos done, helping out with a few charitable endeavours (very important to us at this time of year), and shedloads more baking. (All deferred now til AFTER I hit 50,000 words on NanoWrimo :-)

This post is part of NaBloPoMo. 28 down, 2 to go!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winner: Cars 2 Giveaway

Question: Is it ever going to stop raining in random and voluminous intervals in Melbourne? *Sigh*.

Yesterday we had one of Those Days that everyone had in the lead-up to Christmas, with 5 commitments scattered in a wide arc from our house throughout the day and evening. And as you already know if you live in Melbourne, yesterday it rained. And rained. AND RAINED. In copious, driving quantities.

We got wet going into swimming. (Yes, I appreciate the absurdity of that statement :-) We got wet coming back from swimming. Hubs and eldest got wet going to guitar lessons, and we all got a light soaking running into a friend's birthday party. This was all nothing compared with how wet we got getting from where we parked our car to dinner at the Southbank restaurant my mother had selected for my Dad's birthday dinner.

Damp and steaming was the order of the day, it seemed.

And today, when the furthest we have to go from home is 5 minutes, once, where we can park next to the door?

Not a raindrop in sight. Lucky we love you, Melbourne.

In other news ...

Using Random.org yesterday, I selected the winner of the Cars 2 pack giveaway ...

Random.org picked number 6, so that means FIONA is the lucky winner! Woo hoo!

Fiona, can you contact me by Wednesday with a postal addy that I can supply to Disney for the mailing of your pack. Thanks everyone for playing :-)

This post is part of NaBloPoMo. 27 down, 3 to go!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

1001 Books and me

I'm sure everyone's seen this list, the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die thing. I saw this rendition on Miscellaneous Mum and A Permanent Flux when archive-hopping yesterday evening in a vague attempt at either inspiring myself to keep on writing on my Nanowrimo book, or at least pleasantly procrastinating some time away until it became obvious that no more writing could take place.

I copied and pasted it into Notepad, thinking I might go back to it later, but actually I find myself drawn to have a look today. I flicked my eye through the list to discover that I've read 147 of them, with a heavy emphasis on 19th century female authors (the Eyres and Austens account for over 10) and on texts I was set in high school (the Tolstoys, James, Hardy, Dickens et al all came from there). The books on the list that I've read just from sheer affection and delight are mostly modern women writers, and genre fiction (crime and sci fi / fantasy). I recently read the three Jules Verne entries for the first time and really enjoyed them all, and I have a bit of a taste for both Latin American and spy fiction, as evidenced by the Allende & Marquez and Flemming & Le Carre entries.

147 seems like a lot, and I suppose it is really, but if you included in the count the books I've started but not finished, because I found them dull, too difficult, unpalatable in some way, it'd be closer to 250, maybe more. Frankly, the three goes I've had at Ulysses are enough for any one lifetime, and unAustralian as this may make me, I cannot STAND Peter Carey's prose (I've tried, I really have, but I haven't been able to finish a single book of his. And the one I liked best and got the furthest with, The True History of the Kelly Gang, isn't even on the list!)

I'm sure people could argue until the cows come home as to what books 'belong' on such a list, what the near-exclusion of certain kinds and genres of books says about the listmaker's biases, and why some exceedingly popular and highly-regarded authors don't appear at all while others have just about everything they ever published included. I was frankly astounded to find just one Agatha Christie book on the list, and, in fact, the entire Golden Age of crime fiction represented by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and two titles of Dorothy Sayers', and not even her best two titles at that. And where is Ray Bradbury? Ursula LeGuin? CS Lewis, for goodness' sake?

Anyway ...

I'm not going to make it my mission to chew through the 1001 list, but I might use it as a prompt to step outside my comfort zone every now and then and try something that other people have loved over time.

I won't reproduce the whole 1001 here, it'd be painfully long - check out Karen or Amanda's pages if you're interested. But anyway, for what it is (or isn't) worth, here's the list of the 147 I've read. In my opinion only, the best 10 of the lot of them are: Possession (AS Byatt); I, Robot (Isaac Asimov); Beloved (Toni Morrison); Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte); The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Attwood); A Secret History (Donna Tartt); The Hitchhinker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams); The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien); In Cold Blood (Truman Capote); and Smilla's Sense of Snow (Peter Hoeg). Likewise, the worst five (again, YMMV) are the tedious Captain Corelli's Mandolin, the incomprehensible Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the horrifically wordy A Tale of Two Cities, the massive and depressing War and Peace, and The Mill on the Floss, a book which I cannot comprehend the attraction of, even now (and certainly not as a 14 year old being force-fed it under threat of exam).

What I've read
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon
Fingersmith – Sarah Waters
Dead Air – Iain Banks
Atonement – Ian McEwan
The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood
Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson
Veronika Decides to Die – Paulo Coelho
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernieres
Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
The Secret History – Donna Tartt
Possessing the Secret of Joy – Alice Walker
The Crow Road – Iain Banks
Jazz – Toni Morrison
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
Smilla’s Sense of Snow – Peter Høeg
Wild Swans – Jung Chang
Possession – A.S. Byatt
Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel
Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood
The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie
The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul – Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams
The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Perfume – Patrick Süskind
Neuromancer – William Gibson
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – Milan Kundera
Smiley’s People – John Le Carré
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
The Virgin in the Garden – A.S. Byatt
Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison
Interview With the Vampire – Anne Rice
Autumn of the Patriarch – Gabriel García Márquez
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum – Heinrich Böll
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John Le Carré
Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
The Book of Daniel – E.L. Doctorow
The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – Tom Wolfe
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
The Magus – John Fowles
Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – John Le Carré
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote
The Leopard – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
The Once and Future King – T.H. White
On the Road – Jack Kerouac
Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
The Quiet American – Graham Greene
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
Casino Royale – Ian Fleming
Foundation – Isaac Asimov
The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
Animal Farm – George Orwell
Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Outsider – Albert Camus
For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
The Nine Tailors – Dorothy L. Sayers
The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain
Murder Must Advertise – Dorothy L. Sayers
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
Orlando – Virginia Woolf
Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie
Sons and Lovers – D.H. Lawrence
Howards End – E.M. Forster
A Room With a View – E.M. Forster
The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells
Dracula – Bram Stoker
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
The Mayor of Casterbridge – Thomas Hardy
Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson
King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
Around the World in Eighty Days – Jules Verne
Middlemarch – George Eliot
Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There – Lewis Carroll
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
The Water-Babies – Charles Kingsley
Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot
The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
The Purloined Letter – Edgar Allan Poe
The Pit and the Pendulum – Edgar Allan Poe
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe
Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper
Frankenstein – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen
Persuasion – Jane Austen
Emma – Jane Austen
Mansfield Park – Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
The Thousand and One Nights – Anonymous

This post is part of NaBloPoMo. 26 down, 4 to go!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Things I Know

Today I know that Christmas is only 4 weeks away... and that that makes me (mostly) smile.

I know that I have some distance to go before I perfect roast pork with crackling. (I know it tasted real good with applesauce and gravy anyway).

I know that I have had a wonderful week in terms of my self-esteem, with both extrinsic and, more importantly, intrinsic, boosts to my confidence and belief in my own competence and ability.

I know that being at 40,000 words on my NaNoWriMo novel, with the finish line achievable and in sight, is a big part of this feeling of wellbeing and self-power that I'm enjoying today. I Am Writer, Hear Me Roar :-)

I know that the Month of the Words is extracting a price, but that its price isn't being paid in less attentive time with the kids or dropping the ball on commitments. Rather, it's being paid in lost sleep, undone housework and lost reading time - which seems fair, as those sacrifices are mine to make, and it was, after all, me who wanted to do this thing.

I know that I am looking forward keenly to our Christmas prep day on Sunday, when we'll put up our tree, decorate the house, do round 1 of festive baking, sing carols, and watch a Christmas movie. (The daggy delights of suburbia, but I don't care).

For more things that people know, hop over to Yay for Home! and check out the links.

This post is part of NaBloPoMo. 25 down, 5 to go!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Reading Notes: RIP Anne McCaffrey

Anne McCaffrey died two days ago. I imagine many (maybe even most) people have some idea who she is - a beloved, prolific and renowned science fiction / fantasy author, one of the true greats of the genre in terms of sales, spread and the affection of fans.

I first read Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, starting with Dragonflight, as a 12 year old. I used to have frequent sleepovers at the house of my best friend at my new high school (and still one of my best friends today; she's my daughters' godmother, in fact). Her house was, I will be honest, a lot cooler than mine - they had a big TV, a pool, they lived walking distance from the shops and a video store, and there was always bacon & eggs for breakfast (an unheard-of luxury at our house).

Her parents were also very relaxed and both were huge readers of all kinds of fiction, but particularly science fiction. My mother likes to read, but her tastes ran even then to Christian devotional texts and cozy crime fiction (in fact, the love that I retain for a well-written cozy or puzzle mystery comes from my Mum, and we still swap new books in this genre, and occasionally indulge ourselves with tea, chocolate and a Poirot movie :-)

My friend K's parents, though, had all sorts of adult books lying about that they were happy for me, voracious reader that I was, to pick up and flick through, and then borrow. That was how I first made the acquaintance of Anne McCaffrey.

I'd discovered most of the greats in middle-grade sci fi / fantasy independently by then - I'd done Tolkien, Lewis and Susan Cooper, I'd covered The Wizard of Earthsea, Madeleine L'Engle and Diana Wynne Jones. (One day I'll post about the vast imaginative world that they supplied me as I moved through an oftentimes lonely childhood).

Those books were part of my mental landscape, but when I started reading Dragonflight, the richness and strangeness of this adult story was something different again. I was sucked in, completely and utterly besotted, within 5 pages, and I didn't stop until I'd read all seven of the first Pern books, then-available: Dragonflight, Dragonquest, Dragonsong, Dragonsinger: Harper of Pern, Dragondrums, Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, and The White Dragon.

Later, I'd go on to read most of McCaffrey's major series - the Ship Who Sang books, the Crystal Singer books, and the Talents books. I enjoyed all of them (and own most of them), being particularly fond of To Ride Pegasus, her 1973 exploration of a society where psionic talents are manifest and struggling to be recognised, and The Crystal Singer (mostly because I love the central character, Killashandra).

McCaffrey's non-Pern works, though, sit for me within a broader landscape of other science ficton and fantasy authors that I've come to know and love since those wide-eyed 12 year old days - Isaac Asimov, Ursula LeGuin's adult works, Frederick Pohl, Robert Heinlen, Connie Willis, CJ Cherryh, Nancy Kress, and so many others. It is to Pern that my first heart belongs, even today.

I embraced some of the later Pern books - especially 1988's Dragsonsdawn, which came out during my year 10 exams and is singlehandedly responsible for my bare C in Maths - and 1991's All the Weyrs of Pern, which I read, rapt, tucked up in the little fiction library in the Union building at Monash, a first-year student with no idea about how to navigate university life, but thrilled and relieved to sink into Pern again for a little while.

But when I think back on how I became an adult reader, and how I developed a lifelong commitment to both science fiction / fantasy and also good plotting and good storytelling, it's those first Pern books, that very first glimpse of Dragonflight, in fact, that stays with me.

Thank you, Anne McCaffrey. Your enormous talent gave me many a gift, and to millions of others too. Rest gently now you've gone between, and know that I will always treasure the fact that it was your words that led me into the readers' world that is one of my greatest delights in my life.

This post is part of NaBloPoMo. 24 down, 6 to go!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On drawing dubious conclusions from data (or, How to push your barrow along regardless)

This article in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday set my teeth on edge, and it's taken me until today to pin down why.

The article is, basically, reporting the results of the NSW Schools Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey, but with the inevitable glosses and essentialist positions that seem to go hand in hand with any reporting on childrens' health or activity levels. It leads off with an absolute statement and doesn't improve from there:
MANY Australian children are too inactive, with more than half of the primary students and almost three-quarters of the high school students in a survey spending more than the recommended time each day in front of a TV, computer or other screen.
My editor's eye immediately caught the phrase "too inactive" and started unpicking it. What's too inactive? I thought. According to whom? Is the only measure how much screen time children are having, or are other factors considered too?

As the article continues, it becomes clearer what the study means by "too inactive" - it means a) more time in front of screens than 'experts' think is optimal b) an asserted decline in 'basic' physical skills such as jumping and catching a ball and c) a steady rate of consumption of fat-rich foods and sugary drinks (not an increase, it is noted in small words).

The article, to do it justice, does point out that the proportion of overweight and obese children is stable at 22.8%, having shown no increase since the 2004 study despite the widespread panic about a "rising" obesity crisis in young people. However, this is presented as the 'good' news in amongst a generally dismal set of results.

However, I'll be honest; it's not the actual data or even the conclusions that the article draws from it that I find problematic. I think aggregated data about diet and habits can be useful thing to gather in terms of planning public health interventions. I think messages about nutrition and giving growing bodies the best dietary support to do their growing, as well as initiatives to positively increase activity levels (such as Victoria's Go For Your Life program) are great, especially when they are done in a way that supports and encourages achieving the best health your body is capable of, rather than focusing on dubious measures of wellbeing such as weight.

No, the part of the article that really bugged me was the conclusions voiced by some of the people involved in the study. For instance:
Dr Hardy said it was ''appalling'' that fewer than 10 per cent of girls in year 4 and 6 could throw a ball overarm correctly.
REALLY? That's your measure of the decay of modern childhood - the ability to throw a ball overarm "correctly?"

The (weak) premise behind this is that if children lack physical skills, they are less likely to enjoy physical activity and / or get picked for team sports. If the lack could be demonstrated to be global, across ALL activity types, then perhaps there might be half a leg to stand on here. But it entirely fails to consider that some children - hell, some adults - may lack ball skills but still be perfectly physically competent, and active, in other ways. My own daughters, for instance, are somewhere below mediocre in ball sports, but are great swimmers, good gymnasts (and growing those skills all the time), and love to ride their bikes and scooters everywhere.

Is this study really asserting that THE MEASURE of physical wellbeing in children is whether or not they have the capacity to be good at a limited number of ball sports? I think, actually, that the assertion arises because of the data, in that the results showed a drop in ball skills, the commentators have an interest in showing an overall picture of failure and crisis, so they seize on that element and tut-tut about how shocking it is. I agree that helping kids to acquire good ball skills is a worthwhile goal, for parents or for PE teachers - it helps hand-eye co-ordination, and it's fun to play ball games! Do I think it a universal measure, though? NO.

I guess what I find the most disappointing in these stories is their assumption that a) there IS an obesity crisis, and it's getting WORSER and WORSERER b) kids these days. They need to get outside more! Screens are bad, eleventy!!! and c) parents are to blame. (Naturellement). I think what studies like the NSW one can do, at their best, is give a statistical picture that can help focus public health messages across the board, and also, in this case, refute some folk wisdom that's actually based on erronoeous assumptions (that childhood obesity is worsening. As this data shows, it isn't). It's a shame that instead of these actually useful outcomes, the focus always springs to demonising weight, parents, and children who use technology.

This post is part of NaBloPoMo. 23 down, 7 to go!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reading Notes: 5 Christmas picture books

Last year I posted about 5 of our favourite Christmas picture books. With the season almost upon us again, I thought I might offer 5 different books that we're already enjoying in this pre-festive warm-up period :-)

1. The Twelve Dogs of Christmas by Kevin Whitlark
This hilarious remake of the Twelve Days of Christmas features, among other things, three French poodles, six pooches playing, ten labs a'licking, eleven puppies pooping, and a fat cat in a fur tree. The kids like it because it's amusing. I like it because I can SING it, and, tunelessness notwithstanding, I do love to sing.

Apparently there is a companion volume, The Twelve Cats of Christmas, and I'm on the hunt for it now.

2. On This Special Night by Claire Freedman and Simon Mendez
Choosing one animals'-eye nativity story out of the bunch is always tricky, as there is such a plethora of titles in this sub-genre. This one, which uses a little grey kitten's learning about the meaning of the special night as its central device, is very appealing, though, firstly because it is beautifully, almost photographically illustrated, and secondly because of the oddly touching detail of the empty manger in the final illustration, leaving the child's mind to supply the image of the infant Jesus, being gazed on by the animals.

(As with all nativity stories, I have to set aside the historical and biblical inaccuracies that go with the territory. My 2 year old really doesn't need to hear me explain that the wise men didn't visit Jesus until he was almost 2, according to the Bible, or that if there were shepherds and flocks on the hills, it sure as sugar wasn't December - midwinter - when he was born. Well, at least not EVERY time :-)

3. Zelda & Ivy: One Christmas
This extremely appealing three-part tale of the Fox sisters' preparations for Christmas has been on our bookshelf for years, but it's this year that it's really come into its own. C, my 2 year old, and E, my 6 year old, have adopted this one as a sister-story, and E's been reading it aloud to C most days. They are particularly enamoured of Chapter Three, where the girls finally get their Christmas gifts, and deliver a very special one to their widowed neighbour.

4. Magical Christmas
This is a strange little book in some ways, combining quite a teacherly-earnest tone in some parts (and useful information about various Christmas traditions around the world) with a very tongue-in-cheek manner at others.

My 6 year old adores it for the way it seems to invite the child reader into the joke, but there's also plenty of sly humour for the adults, with phrases like, "Always show letters for Santa to your parents before sending - it really helps" and "Don't open all the windows at once or the grown-ups will be cross and it is essential not to make grown-ups cross before Christmas."

5. Aussie Jingle Bells
Colin Buchanan's version of Jingle Bells for an Australian audience is famous - probably infamous - now, and needs no introduction. It's another one I can sing, too!

This post is part of NaBloPoMo. 22 down, 8 to go!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Potato salad with sour cream

There was a bit of a discussion on Twitter at the weekend about the problem of people who don't like condiments. Potato salad, for example, was raised as one insuperable stumbling block to the no-condiments thing, because mayonnaise is usually a component of it. And really, what's summer without potato salad?

However, you can make potato salad very deliciously without mayonnaise, and the advantage of doing so is that if you are gluten free like me, you don't need to worry about gluten in the mayo (always a concern with non-homemade mayo). The downside is that this version is very dairy-heavy and thus probably high in calories (I don't care much about fattiness per se, so it doesn't bother me, but YMMV).

Here is ... Potato Salad with Sour Cream 2 Ways.

Ingredients
8 waxy potatoes
300 - 400g sour cream
2 or 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 - 1.5 tablespoon seeded mustard
(I suggest tasting the cream mixture after adding the first portions of vinegar and mustard, and adjusting the amounts to suit your palate)
(For variation 1) 300g bacon, diced and fried in olive oil
(For variation 2) 5 spring onions, finely chopped

Method
Boil the potatoes whole in their skins. When they are still firm, but softening, remove, drain, cool, and dice. (You can peel the skins off if you like - I do sometimes, but not always).

If making the bacon option, fry it, diced, in olive oil. If making the spring onion option, cut the spring onions finely and give them 2 mins in a frypan with a tiny bit of olive oil just to take the sting out.

Mix the sour cream, red wine vinegar and mustard in a jug. Add the cream mixture to the hot frypan (with the bacon or the spring onions), immediately removing from the heat, and mix well.

Pour the sauce over the chopped potatoes. Mix well & chill for one hour before serving.

It is very yummy, tasting sharper / less creamy / more tangy than a traditional mayo-based salad. We like it especially with fancy sausages (the pictured ones are lamb, rosemary & thyme).

This post is part of NaBloPoMo. 21 down, 9 to go!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Selections


Well, this is my first time joining in frogpondsrock's Sunday Selections photography meme, so please excuse me if it's a bit clunky, but like everyone, I have a massive backlog of photos that have ben neitherr printed nor displayed, and this seems like a really good way to give some of them a bit of daylight.

Today, I decided to focus on the period from April to September 2009, which, as anyone who was reading my other blog at that time might recall, was an extraordinarily difficult period for me, emotionally and physically, as I battled probable (but undiagnosed) PND, serious nerve damage in my spine from the spinal anaesthetic I had when delivering C in the February, severe anxiety about the failing health of my grandmother and my mother, and the awful news of my dear friend's terminal brain cancer.

But it was also the period where my family learned to be a family of five, and a period of huge development for all three kids.


A period of great sibling times and lovely cuddles.





I decided to revisit this period in photographs to remind me that despite it all, this was not a period of unrelieved blackness - that there was still joy in it and moments of laughter and light, almost all because of my beautiful children. Pictures help remind me of this more than words could ever do.



This post is part of NaBloPoMo. 20 down, 10 to go!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cars 2: Review and Giveaway

As I mentioned last week, my girls and I had a pretty excellent time at the Disney 3D Bluray Cars 2 screening at the Medina Grand penthouse on 8 December.

The food was a-MAZ-ing, and so was the venue. The kids enjoyed everything, from the activities to the eating to the running amuck to the eating to the view to the eating... I enjoyed less eating, but more atmospherics, and I learned a lot about Bluray and 3D. (I hadn't realised that 3D movies have to be presented on Bluray simply because DVDs aren't big enough to hold them, for instance, nor that 8% of Australian households already have a 3D TV, and that it's growing by 300% a month.)

For all the excitement, one thing we didn't actually do, any of us, on the day was watch the entire movie, start to finish. I watched barely any of it, to be totally honest, engaged as I was in keeping tabs on the three kids (who, naturally, scattered to the furthest corners of the penthouse from each other as if magnetically repelled) and chatting to people. C watched snippets, but was more interested in colouring in and general mayhem. E watched two large chunks before being inescapably diverted by ice-cream and dumplings. A, the 8 year old, probably watched the most, tucked up in a luxury bed, but even she lost the last 40 minutes when toddler shenanigans took over her viewing room.

So when we all sat down to watch Cars 2 (*not* in 3D!) on our home projector / screen last night, it was something of a novelty for all of us.

A, G and I had seen Cars when it came out, and A had liked, but not loved, it. She watched it maybe two or three times but then never asked for it again. My reaction was similar; it was enjoyable enough, I liked it, but it didn't completely captivate me as an adult viewer.

Based on our reactions to Cars 2 last night, I think it's safe to say that in our view at least, Cars 2 is several steps up from the first movie. Other than a slightly slowish start (quite ironic in a movie about racing cars!), the pacing, story and visuals of this film were impeccable. I loved that it was a story about friendship but also about valuing difference, and not judging people's worth on their surface behaviour. Square pegs everywhere should rejoice in Mater's triumph in this film.

My three girls all really, really liked it, too. The 6 year old was probably the most besotted, particularly enjoying the Italian sequence (that was also my favourite part. 6 year old wants us to go to Italy for hols next year now ... ahhhh, no, my love). The 2 year old wandered in and out - at just shy of 2 hours, it's not quite toddler-length - but she was very taken with the final half-hour - in fact we all were, even G.

So this isn't just a collection of my thoughts about a kids' movie (thank goodness, do I hear you say)? There's a prize on offer too!

Disney has provided me with ONE ultimate Cars 2 prize pack to offer to readers of this blog (valued at $177.95)

The Cars 2 pack includes:
- Cars 2 Blu-ray and DVD
- Invisible Pen with UV Light set
- Cars 2 watch
- Credit Card Sized USB Flash Drive
- Mini Car toolkit
- Spy Ear Phone

If you would like to be in the running to win the pack, just leave a comment by 5pm AEDT on Friday 25th November with your favourite Disney film of the last decade and why. I'll draw a winner with random.org and announce it on Sunday 27th November. The winner then has 3 days to provide me with mailing details or I will draw another winning. Only Australian addressees are eligible for this one - sorry!

Disclosure: I received complimentary tickets to the Disney 3d Bluray event in Melbourne and a Cars 2 gift pack, which included the Cars 2 DVD / Bluray, courtesy of Porter Novelli and Disney. No financial payment was offered nor accepted for this post, nor was a review of the movie required. All opinions expressed are purely my own.

This post is part of NaBloPoMo. 19 down, 11 to go!