Monday, December 30, 2013

This year around here

As the end of the year is upon us (and how in hell did THAT happen, amirite?), I thought it was timely to once again turn my thoughts to how 2013 has played out here on Play, Eat, Learn, Live.

Firstly, from an overview perspective: the year saw a slight decline in both PVs and posts (this post will make the 150th for this year, to last year's 184). The decline was proportionate - ie the reduced number of PVs is about commensurate with the average views per post x reduced number of posts. I am guessing this suggests that my readership numbers here are fairly stable, and, which I also suspected but wasn't sure of, reasonably consistent year to year across categories.

In terms of what drew the eyeballs most this year, my top 5 posts were:

1. Fox in the Box restaurant review (August)
This review that I wrote of a beautiful little gluten free cafe in Gardenvale is now my third top post of all time, and not surprisingly, as the cafe promoted it on their own Facebook page. (Stats tells me a lot of the traffic originated from there).

2. The stream of my consciousness (November)
This is the genuine puzzler of this year. Numerically my second-best post of the year by quite a margin, and currently sitting at 6 in my all-time top 20 list, this is a post about - quite literally - nothing; just crap I was thinking about at the time. It only got the usual one-Tweet promotion, that was all. Yet, it got hammered. Go figure it.

3. Reading Notes: Destination Saigon (June)
I am delighted that this book review came in at number 3 (and is currently sitting at 13 on my alltime list too). The author promoted the piece repeatedly, as did I, and it's genuinely exciting to me that a book review came in among the top performers.

4. Can you struggle on $250k a year? (March)
This was my slightly ranty opinion piece on the superannuation comments of Joel Fitzgibbon earlier in the year. I was somewhat trenchant. People read it, apparently.

5. Reading Notes: Questions of Travel and The Burial (March)
Again, my cheer that a second book review post performed solidly enough to come in at number 5 is immense. This particular double-header review, which was part of both my Australian Women Writers Challenge and my Stella prize longlist challenge, drew traffic from the AWWC site as well as Twitter and one of the authors.

One trend that continued this year was the fading away of comments. Like last year, there was no corresponding drop in PVs; it's just that less people seem to want to talk about stuff (or at least nor here). There was a substantial uptick of people tweeting their thoughts about posts to me, or even emailing them, rather than making actual comments on the blog. I'm not sure why this is so, but it is. I find it mildly disheartening; I used to love the conversations I had in the comments section, and I miss them. It's the way the world is going though, I think.

In terms of what I did with the blog this year, there was a marked divide between the first and second halves, largely due to commencing my fulltime job in July, after which the opportunities for blogging became much scantier. I still did primarily the same sorts of posts, but just a lot less of 'em, and with a lot more hand-wringing. In terms of categories, there were:

- 24 book reviews (here - plus another 7 straight reviews over at The Shake, a review at Dark Matter Fanzine and a Booker composite review at Global Comment)
- 29 poems, of which the most read was January's villanelle, Schoolyard, and a poem that I wrote in February but published in November called The Beginning of the Holiday)
- 10 op-ed posts on a range of topics
- 15 that could be reasonably described as slice of life
- 8 that were about holidays
- 15 posts that were about work, and the challenge of juggling work and family

The rest were a hodgepodge - a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

I've been thinking hard about whether I want to keep going with this blog in 2014. As things stand at the moment, I am probably finding it less of an outlet than Twitter, and something of a commitment at a time when I am struggling a bit with managing all the aspects of my life.

I'll certainly be blogging in January - I've signed up to do the Month of Poetry challenge and will be posting most if not all of my poems here. Beyond that, though, I just don't know. I'm reluctant in some ways to let it go, as I look back fondly over all the birthday and holiday posts, the little quirky stories, the enthusiasms, the literary scrapbooking that I've done here.

At the same time, as the kids get older, what I can say or should say about them in this the ever-living Internet is more limited all the time. Prudence and ethics also precludes me from writing in more than very elliptical terms about work or private life dilemmas. And as my family, my work and my dilemmas take up 85% of my headspace at any given moment, that leaves only the 15% of stuff that isn't that (poems, books, logistics, opinions and observations) to write about. Which would be enough, if I didn't also have three excellent online magazines who are willing and able to take my book reviews / literary content - so I do not, anymore, need this blog for that purpose.

So, I don't know. I'm still thinking on it. We'll see how things rest when Month of Poetry finishes. But if it should happen that this is the last of these wrap up posts - well, I'd like to say thank you for the reads and the encouragement, and may the road rise gently to meet you.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Red hair, moon face and crinkle cut eyes: on not loving the bodily self

So I got my hair coloured yesterday. Instead of my usual blonde-ish highlights on my natural mid-brown hair, I opted to try something different, and got an all-over dark red colour. It's not too flamboyant, but it's certainly a change for me, and although I like it., I'm not quite used to it yet. (Neither is my family - my 8 year old, after a huge doubletake, ordered me to go back to the hairdresser and get them to put back my "normal" hair :-)

While tweeting the mandatory new hair selfie, and changing my Twitter profile picture accordingly, I found myself doing a thing I do a lot, which is this: I deprecated my appearance.

Oh, I did it rationally - I have such a round, fat face! (I do); I have so many eye wrinkles! (I do) - but the fact remains that I did it, when I didn't need to. The pic was designed to show (and show off, because I like it) the colorant in my hair, nothing else. Why did I feel the need to even say anything further about the picture or the face captured in it?

I started thinking today, while at the cricket with my big girls (and such fun it was ... but that's a story for another day) about the problematic relationship I have with myself as a physical, embodied person. I have adverted to this before, but I am unpicking more and more what it means to have a concept of myself that is almost entirely rooted in my mental capacity and psyche; a concept that actually pushes away any notion of me as a physical person in an actual body that is seen and known and understood by others to be part of the totality of me.

This is the bedrock of one of the chief riddles (according to some of my friends) of me: that I rate my own appearance very, very low, while still possessing quite healthy self-esteem and reasonably solid estimation of my intelligence (both logical and emotional) and personality. I think I'm an OK person most of the time, and someone you'd want on your team if you were doing something tricky or challenging. I don't - mostly - dislike myself. And yet my self perception of what I look like, and how this is perceived by others, is that I'm one of nature's warthogs. Moonface, I say. Middle-aged hausfrau, I frequently joke. Big nosed. Squirrel cheeked. Fat, but that goes without saying, and is less clearly pejorative (as applied by me) than the others.

It interests me, this separation that I seem to have between my self and my body. I would say from my observations of others that for many people, perhaps especially many women, low self perception of appearance is often married to low self esteem generally. Certainly, women who believe themselves to be ugly are rarely unaffected by this in the way they live their lives - yet, for the most part, I am. I don't often even think about my appearance, except for certain peripheral quirks that I notice and attend to (eg. I have a must-have-beautiful-fingernails thing going on, but nevermind). When I do think about it, I assume that everyone else sees me the way I see myself, and this doesn't really bother me. I am much, much more concerned with how I am perceived as a personality / intellect than I am with how my appearance is judged - at least in part because I assume I know what that judgement is.

Of course, I am in a position in my life where being of unprepossessing appearance need not impact me if I don't choose to permit it to. I do a job in which my appearance is irrelevant and treated as such by all my colleagues. I'm in a long term stable relationship, so I am not in that miserable crapshoot of having to take my face to town, so to speak, to fulfill pair-bonding imperatives of various kinds. And my appearance is not unusual enough to create an impediment to slipping invisibly through the world, wearing my magic cloak of middle class straight white privilege. Indeed, you could argue
(I frequently have) that being a warthog makes blending into one's environment that much easier; beauty draws the eye, in nature, man, woman and child, and creates a spotlight whether you want one or not.

Still, and this must be said, I do wonder sometimes if my conviction of the low value of body-me has grown from some unchancy and dysfunctional roots. I grew up in a household where many things were wonderful and many things, such as brains, were celebrated; but bodies, and it must be said especially female bodies, were not among them. I grew up in a school where, as a round-faced, round-eyed, pale grub of a child among primarily beautiful children with darker skin, my unexciting appearance was frequently, constantly, a source of derision. (These days we'd say it was bullying, but after a few incidents in my early years, the persecution was rarely physical, so back then, it was seen as the normal rough and tumble of childhood). I had some unhealthy things happen in early adulthood which, among other things, cemented in my self-perception as, to paraphrase an old song, so damn unpretty.

I'm not sure, at my age and stage of life, if there is any point even trying to address this, or whether it really doesn't matter anyway. You understand, I'm not seeking to flip a switch and perceive myself as beautiful all of a sudden - that would be pointless and hilariously inaccurate. I just wonder, with wistfulness, sometimes, if it would be possible for me to learn to see my physical self with more kindness and nuance than I do now, the way I suspect others - particularly those who love me - do. I don't know how that would happen, or if it can. It's something I do think on, though, especially when something happens that brings an aspect of my appearance into focus ... like changing the colour of my hair.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Understar (A Christmas card in a poem)

This year, although I tried, there was no time
or heart for cards and upbeat Christmas letter
Instead I bring this offering in rhyme
(a poem, if it were a little better).

This year, as summer steals in soft and cool
and tension mounts in tired, wired girls,
I hope the day is not an end, just tool
a flag from which some rest and peace unfurls.

This year, I wish, as always, for world peace
(and more realistically, for peace at your table)
I hope you all eat well from bounteous feasts
and find some sweetness nestled, where you're able.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night :-) Catch you on NYE for the blog stats year-ender.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What we're doing on our holidays

The time I have off work at the moment - from Thursday last until 6 January - is overlapped by my partner's leave for 9 days; he's working Monday, but then off from Christmas Eve til the 2nd. This gives us 9 days, inclusive of the three public holidays, to try to do some family recovering from what has truly been a monster of a year in more ways than one.

We're going the staycation again - we haven't organised to go anywhere, and truthfully I think we are all too tired to really get any value out of venturing far from home base anyway. But we still have some fun things in prospect, things that I hope will bring us all enjoyment and refreshment.

Some good things have already happened; the kids enjoyed their traditional last day of school party which we hosted here on Friday, I very much enjoyed a night out in town with my Twitter friends last night (happy birthday E!) and we hosted my partner's family here today for a slap-up Christmas BBQ lunch. Several more are in view. Specific things we have planned are:

-Christmas Day at my aunt's vineyard in the Yarra Valley
- Gold Class Hobbit viewing on Boxing Day for the grown ups while the kids go strawberry picking with their grandparents
- me taking the older two girls to day 3 of the Melbourne Test match with friends
- a day in the city to belatedly check out the Christmas windows
- a day at Adventure Park in Geelong because they have been begging for it
- having friends over for a BBQ with their new puppeeeee

In addition to these family things, we have more personal goals and ideas. I want to get my hair cut and coloured, make a strong start on the Month of Poetry challenge for January, catch up on reading and do some serious sleeping. G, my partner, wants to attend to a few niggling things, sort his closets, and get in some game time. Both my elder girls want to build in catch ups with their friends (this will probably happen in the two days after G is back at work, while I am still home). C, my beautiful almost-5, wants to learn some letters.

I think what we all want, and certainly what we all need, is just downtime - the chance to be, together, even as we are doing. For me, three days into my leave, I can feel the knots loosening and I know that by the time I'm sipping my uncle's new vintage merlot on Christmas Day, I am going to be beyond the wave of work, routine and school stressors altogether. This is completely what needs to happen and I welcome it with wide open arms.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Vignette from a kinder waiting room

It's Wednesday, the last day of kindergarten, and more than the usual allocation of mothers are clustered around the kinder door, marking the moment, waiting for the session to begin and the year to end. I, who have had no part in Wednesday kinder since starting fulltime work in July, am sitting between two hijab-wearing mums, chatting, reminiscing. The capacity for maudlin sentiment is rising exponentially.

"So your girl is going to [local primary school]?" I say to one of the mums. She's a beautiful, blue-eyed woman from Palestine, her white hijab carefully embroidered with sequins. Like me, this child leaving kinder is her third daughter, but for her it's not the end of the road, as the bump under her dress attests.

"Of course, yes," she nods. "With my other two, like yours."

The mum on the other side of me, who originates from Saudi Arabia, says, "Mine is going to [local Islamic school] with her brothers, but I'm not so sure I'll keep them there..."

"Oh?" I say.

"It's good from a religion viewpoint," she says, shifting her curly-haired daughter on her knee. "But, you know..."

"I never would send mine to an Arabic school," asserts the other mum positively. "No, no, no. They live here, I want them to be Aussies." Her accent turns the word into a softer, prettier thing than it is - Osssssies, long on the sibilant, short on flat vowels.

"I know," says the other, and sighs. "Besides - and I'm not racist, but - all the teachers are Indians. You know," she appeals to the other mum, who makes a non-committal noise.

"It's just ... I drive a nice car, I own my own house, I want my kids to be taught well," she says plaintively. "And they don't ... I mean , I'm not a racist, you understand..."

The other mum appeals to me suddenly. "You, what about you? Your girls will all go to [local primary school]?"

"Yes," I nod. "Then to a public secondary, probably. I think."

The Saudi mum sniffs. "Not a religion school, then? Well, I don't know..."

I shake my head. "No, not for us, I don't think so..." I say.

The Palestinian mum says, "But you are not only Ossie, isn't it?"

"You look a bit woggy," interposes an Italian dad from the other side of the room, helpfully. "I mean, no offence, but..."

I laugh. "Mostly just a skip, sorry," I say. "A little bit of this and little bit of that, but all in the dim dark past." I don't go into my Spanish and Jewish ancestors; those one-off people are generations ago and while they gifted me with a lightly olive complexion and hazel eyes, I don't feel any cultural connection to their traditions. I am, like many white Australians, shallow-rooted, but such as they are, my roots are here.

The Saudi mum throws a friendly arm around my shoulder. "Never mind," she says consolingly. My best kinder mum friend, a Filipina woman, shoots me a sympathetic grimace, and I grin back.

My daughter tugs at another mum's hijab and says, "It's so pretty. Mummy, you should wear one!"

We all smile, and the door opens to the last of all the days.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On friendships at work

As the end of the working year approaches at a breakneck pace, I've been thinking a bit today about the good and bad parts of working back in a salaried / steady role again after my stint as a freelance consultant.

I realised that I've spent quite a few blog posts recently in cryptic grumbling about the aspects that I'm finding challenging, and that this probably gives a skewed picture of the actual complexities. And one of the things I haven't really focused on is the core psychosocial benefit that I derive from working in one place, onsite, with colleagues rather than clients - and that is work friendships.

I am a fairly extroverted person (although not unambiguously - I usually straddle the E/I divide in Myers Briggs) and I like people. I like meeting new people, I like getting to know them, I like sharing parts of myself and receiving other people's personalities in exchange. I have met a lot of new people over the past 5 months, and I have found this unequivocally interesting, energising and one of the best parts of the job.

Even better than the meeting of new people, though, is when it becomes apparent that you have clicked with one or more of them, and that the possibility of a genuine friendship exists. Of course you can't be besties with everyone and nor would I want to be, but in every workplace, I have had one or two work friendships that were much more than friendly collegiality. I have lost touch with my work friends from early casual jobs, unfortunately, but three of my best friends in the world are all people I met and got to know at various career job workplaces.

So it has been a great satisfaction to me that in this not-so-new job of mine, I have made a friend, and am on the way to making a couple more. Lots of the people I work with are nice, and generally speaking, I like them all; but beyond that, I have a work friend who I trust and who I feel has my back, and that is very important to me.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thank you, and goodnight

And so November comes to an end, and with it my third consecutive completion of NaBloPoMo. It was quite a challenge this year, for all sorts of reasons, but I got there, and that counts for a lot.

I don't have too much more to say, or indeed, too much more I *can* say without being repetitious or inappropriate. Well, I could tell you that my beautiful 4 year old vastly enjoyed We're Going on a Bear Hunt this morning at the Arts Centre; what a fantastic kids' show it was, we highly recommend it. Or I could tell you that we spent the rest of the day at my Mum's having my Dad's birthday celebration, but that I was so tired and wrung out that I fell asleep on my Mum's spare bed at 2:30 and didn't wake til after 4. I could bore you with how ridiculous my life is at the moment, but I won't.

We have our traditional tree-raising, house-decorating and cookie-making Christmas prep afternoon tomorrow, and I will pull together a post on that at some point in the coming week, because it is the one post of the year that my interstate relos and friends look out for and read / share. Other than that, I'm going dark til Christmas. I won't say *no* posts and *no* Twitter, because I can't call it this far out, but certainly it'll be sparse and scanty around here, and that's OK. If you read me over at The Shake, I'm also on hiatus over there until 2014; sometimes life and work, between them, call for the sacrifice of hobbies temporarily, unfortunately.

I hope you all had a good November, particularly those of you who did NaNoWriMo, and I hope that December treats you kindly. Catch you on the flipside...

This is post 30, aka the VICTORY POST, in NaBloPoMo. I'm glad I stuck with it, and I'm glad it's done!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Pretty in the city



This wordless post - because I am getting tired! - is 29 in NaBloPoMo. 29 down ... 1 to go!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

On the art of redirection

Yesterday at work I ran a 2-hour internal workshop training session on a topic where I have the core subject matter expertise but need other people in the organisation to have capacity to deliver their parts. I designed the workshop, arranged QA on the content from a colleague, wrote the notes, developed the presentation, created the activities, booked the room, sent the invitations, managed the logistics and did the photocopying - it was my baby from start to finish.

This is the second time I've delivered this workshop. The first time, back in October, it went well, but yesterday went, if anything, even better. The group was engaged, enthusiastic and seemed very happy at the end of the session. (Their feedback forms certainly supported this good vibe!) I was on game - I spoke well, I was able to pick up on the interests of the group and shape the training on the fly to suit them, and as a result of doing the training, I have established connections into areas of my organisation that I have hereforeto not been able to get access to.

I went to the workshop not in the best mood. There were Reasons for this, but I literally pulled myself up and said "You have to put all that away now" in the lift as I was riding to the relevant floor of the building. The amazing thing is that it worked - in fact, it did more. Not only was I able to focus on my trainees and deliver them a useful session, but the very act of willing myself into doing it actually lightened my overall demeanour and helped me gain some better perspective on other things.

It's partly that I really do enjoy training, if I'm well prepared - I think I'm pretty good at it, and I find it very satisfying. (So much so that I have not infrequently wondered if a future career turn might not land me in a training role of some kind).

It's more than that, though. It's the thing that we all talk about with kids, especially toddlers, but seem to forget applies just as much to ourselves as adults, and it's this - redirection is a powerful tool for breaking negative loops, be they behavioural or psychological. An early and much-respected manager of mine once told me that when you are feeling angry, frustrated or overwhelmed at work, the best strategy is: Stop. Breathe. DO SOMETHING ELSE. Nothing productive comes of activity fuelled by those negative mental states, and much can be gained by turning your mind elsewhere and focusing on something about which you can be positive.

Of course, when I returned in the afternoon to the Reasons, they were still there and they were still real, but they did seem more manageable and I was able to address them more effectively. All thanks to being forced by circumstance to redirect my own attention :-)

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A haiku for the first hot day

the air smells of smoke
figs, exhaust and remote sea
summer at the door.

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

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How to motivate yourself when you are overwhelmed

Actually, that's a misleading title, because I don't know how to motivate myself out of a stress funk when there is no real end in sight. When there's no daylight to be seen, my instinct is to roar then snore - to flail about wildly looking for a path through, and when one isn't forthcoming, to curl up in a ball, withdraw, and basically try to wait it out in the hope that time will cure the problem. Neither are helpful responses and you will be unastonished to learn that neither are particularly successful in remediating high stress situations.

I should point out here, it's sustained stress without respite in view that I find hard. I worked my arse off in November and December last year too - probably even more hours than I'm working now, or at least as many - and it was hard and I got tired, but I didn't feel so completely overwhelmed and I know why. It was because I knew that it was coming to an end on 31 December and that I would have January off, and then start fresh with new projects in February.

This is not the case this year, and indeed it is not even like I can look forward to a slow start for 2014 - a major, high pressure project, which has to be delivered by the vast team of me, myself and I, kicks off on 6th January, the day I get back from my two weeks off.

Look, there are pros and cons both ways. Uncertainty of income is sucky when you freelance, and I missed having colleagues (clients just aren't the same). But one of the distinct pros of consulting is that it makes it much easier to practice passionate detachment - to be committed to doing the best work you can while understanding that this is not your baby, ultimately.

I need to learn that skill, here in the land of salaried people.

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

Monday, November 25, 2013

Making a Christmas advent calendar craft box

We spent a large portion of the day yesterday making a Christmas calendar box, to be a reusable Advent calendar.

We made it from a craft kit that the kids and I found in Spotlight about a month ago, and from a packet of Christmas scrapbooking paper. It turned out to be a whole family activity; my husband constructed the box, the kids and I selected and applied the paper, and the kids coloured in and affixed the numbers.

I think the idea of a reusable Advent calendar is a lovely one.  I've always admired, with a sigh, the beautiful hand-sewn ones my crafty friends have made for their children; I've always peeked with interest at the pricey but beautiful wooden ones in high-end toy shops. I thought it would be out of reach for us, though, given my lack of sewing prowess and disposable dollars to throw at a bought solution.

This craft kit was probably the only way it was ever going to happen for us, therefore. I can't remember exactly how much I paid, but I know I bought this, the Christmas paper, a witch Halloween costume on special for $9 and a kitchen utensil holder, and only killed one $50 note, so it can't have been much.

So nowm, instead of buying the cheap cardboard ones with crappy compound chocolate each year, I can fill these little drawers with a daily surprise for December for the girls - not chocolate every day (although, doubtless, some days!) but little Christmassy objects or tokens that they will like. I'm thinking hairclips, ribbons, tree ornaments, and maybe even little "vouchers" for things (ie "You can pick dessert for Saturday night" or "A free pass to 3 sessions of a board game of YOUR choice with the whole family.")

We are not an overly crafty family. The kids like to draw, but are not otherwise craft-oriented, and I am not visually astute enough or skilled enough to do much with craft. Doing a family craft project was an experiment for us, but, despite a shaky start, it paid off, and we are all pretty happy with the result. 

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




Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rock, meet Hard Place

This is hardly an original observation, but where the rubber REALLY hits the road for us as a two-working-parent household is when one of more of the kids gets sick, and this coincides with a hectic period at both our workplaces.

It hasn't only been an issue over the past 4 months, as I've been working fulltime; before that, as a freelancer, it's true I worked at home a lot, but when I did have client site obligations, they tended to be high-impact and immovable, and had an uncanny facility for coinciding with illness in the house. Moreover, sick kids aren't the easiest to work around - it's not like you can just plough on and achieve as much as you would have, if they had been well and off to school or kinder. It's entirely reasonable that sick kids need more TLC and of course giving it to them has to be the top priority.

So predictable has the "high stress, high commitment week at work = someone getting sick" nexus become that I am now unsurprised (albeit dismayed) when it happens. And naturally, given the events of Friday, it's happening now  :-(

This week, I have a Mon-Weds schedule that is very crowded, overloaded with work and tricky issues, and high-stakes in that some of the meetings I have to attend are key decision-making ones that will affect how 2014 plays out for me. My 8 year old girl, who has been full of snot for the past few days but soldiering on, started a barking cough yesterday, and has awoken this morning hoarse, with a painful throat and a low-grade fever. Given her propensity to tonsillitis, I will need to get her to the doctor quickly, and my realistic best-case scenario for her would be back to school on Wednesday (and that's if we're lucky and it isn't tonsillitis). The 10 year old and 4 year old are likewise coughing, although not as pulled down, and the potential for them to follow her into more advanced illness is high.

The really impossible thing here is that this is a high-pressure time for my husband at his work too. He doesn't work Wednesdays, granted, so that day is taken care of, but it would be immensely difficult for him to take carer's leave Monday or Tuesday either. And yet, if I am not in the office those days, it will have consequences beyond the days themselves and will make my own life harder for the coming months.

I'm going to jerrybuild a solution, because what else can I do? My first meeting on Monday is scheduled for 10am and it's with only one other person who is  peer-level to me and not particularly difficult to get in to see, so I'm going to bump that out to later in the week and ask my Mum, who does Monday kinder pick-up at 12:45, to get to my house early (by10:30). If she can, this will allow me to be at work in time for my 11am and all the following meetings. I'm also going to need to put off my next root canal treatment, scheduled for Thursday, because given the time I'll be losing in other ways, I just can't risk it knocking me out for a day like the last one did.

I also had not one but TWO volunteer committee meetings scheduled for tomorrow night - I  was going to go directly from one to the other - but I'll need to give apologies for them both.

I also need to get a jump on the week, to make it possible for myself. Mercifully, the only things planned for today are baking and doing a craft project with the kids, so I should be able to squeeze in 3-4 hours of work. If I can just get the most urgent Monday delivery items knocked off, it will give me the flex I need to make tomorrow work.

Tuesday, I don't know what to do, I really honestly don't. I may have to press my partner to take carer's leave on the day, which I don't like to do - I know the pressures he is under too, and I feel, however wrong this may be, primarily responsible. But I am getting real here - if I am not at work on Tuesday, things will be much harder for me for the rest of this year.

It's a perennial problem, and I have no good answers. If anyone else does, I'd be thrilled to hear them!

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

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The beginning of the holiday (Poem)

This is a poem I wrote back in February, but have never published until now.

the usual series of minor crises to get out the door.
the dog's food - oh, the washing, get it out of the machine -
did you cancel the mail? no! did you?
the kids keen to go, tripping about underfoot
til, goaded, their father roars at them to JUST be still, for God's sake -

but, finally, away. the road unfolding, a blank, smooth-faced curl of tarmac
running straight through yellowed fields, dotted with lean-limbed cows.
here come the ABCs! sings the stereo, as one child sinks without trace into her book
another ignores the world with her iPod, and the third
regards the passing landscape with unfocused eyes.

lunch in a country town, at the RSL, clustered around a formica table
overlooked by sweet-faced legions of boys in sepia, their uniforms tight
is that the Queen? says the eldest, and yes, with the King man, her husband -
says the middle, when she was young, you see.
(Both are confused to learn that Elizabeth's man is Prince, not King,
until they remember their Horrible Histories, and recall
newly-wedded Victoria letting Albert down gently into his Princehood).
The old man at the next table, smudgelines of tattoos seeping from his cuffs,
glances at us as he drains his beer.

are we there yet? the youngest asks plaintively, five minutes after lunch.
not yet, not yet, soon, I say, then and every four minutes thereafter,
until - here we are, here! and like picnic ants we swarm maniacally
sniffing out the corners of this temporary base until we have infiltrated it.

later, at the beach, the bigger kids run into cold surf with their father
I paddle in the shallows, swirling my toes in the suction of the sand,
as the little one digs for shells and makes angels in the wash.
another mother, watching a toddler screech with delight in the water, says:
you on hols, then? down from the smoke?
I nod, and she says, bet the beach is a bit of a novelty for 'em!
I want to tell her no - we live near the bay, our beaches are quieter than this -
but it seems rude somehow, so I shrug and shift my weight
deprecating myself like the sand crab that flinches away under my foot.

assailed by headache, I feel the world slowing down and losing colour
as dizziness ascends and shakes the clouded sky.

later yet, the kids sleep, too tired to fight it
and we sip tea and talk of cabbages and kings
and fish, and horses.
small fates gibber at the glass.

- Kathy, February 2013

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

Friday, November 22, 2013

On premonitions

I woke up today feeling deeply uneasy and uncomfortable, for no readily apparent reason. By the time I got to work, I was manifesting all the signs of anxiety - elevated heart rate, tight clenching gut, hypersensitivity to noises, etc etc etc. I tried to shake it off, giving myself a stern lecture about the unreasonableness of my feelings and their lack of basis in fact. But all morning, as I worked my way through my list and then attended a perfectly straightforward and unproblematic meeting, I felt like there was storm coming, and I couldn't stop myself from worrying.

Then, when I got back to my desk at lunchtime, I opened my email to find two major bombs had gone off while I was away - issues that had been progressing and were now thrown into disarray, resulting in a steaming mess that is going to take weeks, if not months, to remediate. While I was obviously unhappy about this, in a weird kind of way, it was almost a relief - the sensation of "something wicked this way comes" was lifted, my thumbs stopped pricking, and I was above to swing into recovery mode quite quickly. The rest of the day was not exactly beer and skittles - even the kids, when I collected them, seemed hell-bent on making sure the day would go down in the Annals of Shit Days - but at least I didn't have that looming sense of doom that had made the morning so difficult.

I mused on Twitter earlier that I still wasn't sure whether my anxiety was a result of having subconsciously picked up signals that things were about to turn in a bad direction, or whether I had had a precognition. That's not really a true divide, though - I believe, have always believed, that most premonitions of disaster (mine included) can be both real AND explained by normal sensory experience at the same time. I think a lot goes on in the greylands beneath consciousness, and most of us perceive even very subtle signs that things are about to go wrong, even if our conscious minds are bubbling along in happy oblivion. I'd tend to put intuition in the same category, actually - genuine, and powerful, AND explicable through the vastness of the human brain and its response to stimuli, rather than something extrasensory or supernatural.

I don't know. I guess I'm not completely closed to the idea that ESP *could* exist - there are more things in heaven and earth, etc - but I've yet to see anything remotely resembling evidence of it. Interesting to think about, anyway.

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

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The end of the year is nigh, and I AM UNREADY

Is it just me, or has the end of year season snuck up on us really fast this year?

Part of it, of course, is that I'm working fulltime outside the home, but I was working (more than) fulltime hours this time last year as a consultant, and it didn't take me by surprise quite as much. But all of a sudden, this week, the invitations, commitments and event notifications have started flowing thick and fast, both for professional appointments as everyone rushes to finish stuff up before the shutdown, and for the chaos that is the build-up to Christmas in our family life.

This is leading to the usual seasonal stupidities - being triple-booked for work meetings on two days next week (it's nice to be wanted, but seriously); looking down the barrel of a 10-day stretch from 2 to 11 December where there is something on every night / day (11 events thankyouverymuch, and would've been 14 if I hadn't turned things down); relinquishing personal time altogether with a sigh, because there just aren't enough hours, let's be honest.

I've also realised that, other than my mum (for whom I bought an early present of a ticket to the Agatha Christie play, A Murder is Announced, which we enjoyed a great deal together last Saturday), I have yet to purchase or really plan a single Christmas gift. Oh, I know what the big shared gift for the kids will be - a springless trampoline - but I haven't *ordered* it yet. As for working out the rest, well. Haven't done it, haven't thought it through, am slightly panicked about it...

The things I need to do, really, are:

- Work out what teacher / coach gifts we want to give and procure or make them. I'll probably make my life easier here by doing same as last year - a bottle of wine, a $5 charity gift card, and homemade cookies. We'll bake in bulk and this should be OK.

- Plan out what the kids will be getting, and get it. The tramp is a big, expensive gift, so I'm looking to go small but cute here.

- Do the Christmas cards. Man, I hate this job, but I feel compelled because lots of my relos and friends are so good about it.

- Plan out the rest of the family presents (my Dad, my brother and his partner, my MIL and SIL) and get them.

- Do a Christmas prep day (putting up the tree & lights, baking, planning the food purchasing for the meals we are hosting here)

That sounds completely exhausting, truth be told, especially because work currently resembles nothing so much as dead run to get everything wrapped up with a bow by 12 December, which happens to be both the date of a major final decision-making meeting, and the last stop on the road to a town I like to call No-One Is Here and Even If They Are, They Are Not Interested In Doing Anything Urgent For You. I expect work will downshift markedly in the week of 16 December, and indeed I start my 2 weeks of leave on the Friday of that week, but that doesn't help me in the mad three weeks to come.

I really don't even know what a good solution to this mayhem would look like. With the merciful exception of dancing (October concert FTW), the kids' activities and school all do, naturally, come to an end at much the same time. There isn't much that can be done about it; it's just the way it is. I suppose December is really just about sucking it up and enjoying it as much as we can, and will make the lolling about I intend to do from Boxing Day to New Years all the more enjoyable :-)

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Prophet ( A poem)

an end is come upon the four corners of this land.
I told them it would be so
told them, with their fat bellies and dancing girls, their idols
the smell of sacrifice gagging the air at every turn

I saw it. It was shown me
what the elders do in the dark
the incense tang sour in my nostrils, the twisted avatars of their spirit lords
cavorting, horrible, absurd, around the smoke-black walls.

I told them. I tried.
In fire it was revealed to me, the voice from the flying furnace
the metallic mystery, with its four faces
coming up from the north in a great wind

and I was told to do many things,
involving hair, and grains, and tiles of clay.
all beckoning to the truth, which was stark enough,
a nation laid waste, a city destroyed,
an enraged God, who would see them punished

I said to them, you must repent,
the cherubim standing behind you say you must. Their swords are flaming,
see, the fire?

repent of what? they said. their eyes were cool, even,
even as mine were burning me, burning
and I told them, I told them, of their iniquities, so much much much
how they played the harlot with other gods and other nations
how they turned away
I said: the four-headed beast from the north told me

You are mad, they said. Like ice water, their voices
There is no beast. No fire. We will not burn, nor our city.

There is a beast. There is a fire.
There are cherubim by you now, waiting to flick your tongues with the branding iron
I am not mad. I am inspired.

I am not mad.

I cut off my hair and beard, and burned it in ceremony.

(Perhaps I am mad).

This nation will fall, and I have seen it, the coming tide.
Also what comes next. It has been whispered into my mind
and it burns.

My head is full of fire
fire


It hurts to be invaded by the future, to see the final black flowering of sin
inside your flame-lit skull
worse, worse, to know that all your prophesying
all your making of pictures and symbols
will not stop that tide from cresting. that tide of brokenness
dispossession, blood and emptiness

Perhaps I am mad. It might be better so.
Perhaps I can hope that this is all a devilment of my own malaise
or, if not so,
that at least I will be spared watching this cursed theatre unfold
with the anguished eyes of sanity.

sigh therefore, thou son of man, with the breaking of thy loins and with bitterness

- Kathy, 20/11/13

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My daughter the fat acceptance songstress

4yo, singing in the shower, after I've gotten out:

"Mummy's got big arms,
and a squishily bum,
and big long legs
and a wobbly tum
Cos Mummy's fat! And we're alright with that!"

Other than asking you to please note the excellent rhyming she did there, can I just say, simply, that I'm happy. I'm happy that she knows she can call me fat (which I am) without upsetting me or being reprimanded. I'm happy that she uses "fat" as a descriptor, not a pejorative. I'm happy that she is interested and curious about bodies that come in all shapes and sizes, and sets no greater store on one type than another.

The world will come in. Of course, it will. But just for now, I'm happy that my little girl thinks that everyone is acceptable and beautiful.

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pay (A poem)

take what you want - and pay for it, says God

take it. the diamonds dug with blood
the gold and all its pains
the land that aches in chains.
your plenty in full flood.


take someone else's lover;
their kisses and catching sighs
elide the sweat with lies
use destiny for cover.


take it. if you have the might
or just the luck, to claim
all rich things without shame
let strength mimic the right.


take it. more food than you can eat
more clothes than you can wear
though bone-deep-down you pare
the millions who you cheat.


take. the good air of the sky
clean purity from water
the wild beast from her daughter
let trees fall as they lie.


take it. take it. take
all that your hands can seize
and hold and hold and freeze
this choice was yours to make.


take it. and one day, pay
in coins on closing eyes
in dark and dusted skies
in love rag-torn away

in a people flashed with rage
on a loud and knife-bright stage
in uprising nations
in murderous celebrations
in land leeched clear of green
in all that is not seen
all that can't be known
all that can't be shown


take it. if you want it so.
take it. (and pay for it, though).



This is post 18 in NaBloPoMo. 18 down, 12 to go!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

That's more what I had in mind, November



Finally, a decent day!

There was bug catching in the yard.

There were three loads of washing dried on the line.

There are Tahitian limes ripening in the sun on the tree.

There was sunlight through the new pergola.

There was a (brief) window in the middle of the day when I could comfortably take my cardigan off and be bare-armed.

It's taken its sweet time, but it looks like spring is here at last!

This is post 17 in NaBloPoMo. 17 down, 13 to go!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Year planning

It's the time of year when things are simultaneously winding down and developing a sense of high urgency, at both work and home. Halfway through November, there's realistically 4 weeks - maybe 4.5 at a push - left to get activities finalised, projects wrapped (and Christmas presents, for that matter) and the storm windows in place, so to speak, for the Long Sleep (aka the period 23 December - 13 January at least, in which most people are not available and thus work, and life, downshifts to a different space).

One of the things that both complicates but also energises this period, traditionally, is the need for it to incorporate planning for the following year. I may not be the world's tidiest person when it comes to my house, but I love a good logistical tidy-up of my schedule, plan and intentions.

This always includes the obvious - I am in work planning phase for January - June 2014, for example, and I'm finalising the kids' extracurriculars - but it is also a bit broader than that.

This is when I plot out family holidays - we're taking two next year, a shortish break to Phillip Island and a longer holiday to the Great Barrier Reef. It's when I think about special activities or events that I want to prioritise - I'll be pencilling in the Emerging Writers Festival for myself in this category, and the Melbourne Show for the whole family. It's where I draw borders around known high-intensity family times (birthdays, Easter etc) and try to integrate this with known crunch points for work (happily, our scheduling area at work is very efficient, and there is already a comprehensive calendar showing key meetings and events for 2014).

It's also when I start to think about personal goals for the year to come. These aren't so much behavioural / aspirational - it's not I Will Be A Better Person stuff - but more pragmatic targets I want to set myself for the year. So far, for 2014, I've come up with:

- Attend one professional conference in my work area and give a peer-reviewed paper. You could argue that this is strictly speaking part of my work planning, but it's actually more about career development, which I characterise as being a personal (ish) goal.

- Do Month of Poetry in January and complete it. January's a good month for me to be writing a poem a day - I'm on leave for two weeks of it, and it is not likely to be a high-pressure time at work.

- Do NaNoWriMo in November and complete it. I have missed NaNo so much over the past two years - I loved it in 2010 and 2011 (and finished both years). Next year, I plan to take a week of leave in the week of Cup Day, which has a double value of covering the kids' inevitable curriculum day on the Monday and giving me some solid writing time to make a start.

- Do at least two Reading Challenges. I'm sure I'll still be working my way through the 99 Black Books Challenge, but I want to make sure I do at least one other. I've discovered books and writers that have enchanted and challenged me through doing these challenges and I don't want to stop doing so.

Am I the only one who starts thinking in these terms as November slips by?

This is post 16 in NaBloPoMo. 16 down, 14 to go!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Inhumanity, here in Australia

The news today is full of reports of an asylum seeker named Latifa, a Rohingyan woman from Myanmar, who gave birth to a baby boy by caesarean last week in a Brisbane hospital. The baby was sick at birth, so he spent some time being cared for in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.

Fine, good, so far froody, right? Australia is a rich country. We take care of sick newborns. And the problem is ...?

Latifa was returned to detention 3 days (yes, THREE WHOLE DAYS) after having the caesarean, which is, after all, major abdominal surgery, while her son was still in neonatal intensive care, and was only allowed to visit him limited daytime hours.

Despite Scott Morrison's posturing, the hospital has confirmed what any of us who have ever actually HAD a baby in Australian hospitals already knew - this is bloody-minded and completely abnormal. The hospital encourages as much mother-baby contact as possible for sick neonates, day and night, to help with bonding, establishing breastfeeding, and just because I DON'T KNOW IT'S THE RIGHT THING TO DO WHY ARE WE EVEN HAVING THIS CONVERSATION IN 2013...

The politicisation of this abhorrent thing has been revolting. Our Prime Minister, who "regrets" what happened but is quick to make sure we all understand that it is in fact Latifa's *fault* for having the nerve to be a pregnant refugee. Morrison, trying to duckshove the issue to be about access to parental beds at the hospital. Look, I had THREE babies by c-section in a public hospital even more poorly resourced than the Mater and this is a complete crock of an argument. Hospitals will always find ways to accommodate a mum who wants to stay near her infant. Especially when she is, herself, only three days post surgery!

I ask this - if Latifa had been in jail for committing a crime, would her access to her baby have been any more restricted? (The answer, by the way, is no - Corrections Victoria, at least, takes the eminently sensible approach of attempting to keep infants and very young children with their incarcerated mothers as much was possible.)

So this woman, who has committed no crime, because being a refugee and applying for asylum is not illegal regardless of one's mode of entry and despite what our government would have us believe, is taken away from her sick baby and shoved back into detention 3 days after a surgical birth. She'd barely have been hobbling by then, let me tell you from three experiences. She was then provided with pathetically attenuated contact with her son because it wasn't convenient for the department workers to arrange more.

Everything - everything - about this stinks. And like everything about Australia's asylum seeker policy in the past decade, it makes me want to roar and scream and do something real to effect change.

This is a sickness of the soul. Cry, the beloved country, for the weight of our sins is heavy.

This is post 15 in NaBloPoMo. Halfway there...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The stream of my consciousness

I don't feel like I have anything burning to write about today, or much motivation to write. These days come to us all, of course, especially when you're tired and have spent a lot of hours writing or editing already in a work capacity. It's inconvenient, when it falls in the middle of NaBloPoMo, but there it is.

One friend on Twitter suggested I write about what's for dinner, and the sort of food we eat. Pork chipolata sausages, orange mash (potato, carrot and sweet potato) and peas and corn, the answer to the first part, is hardly awe-inspiring. Fairly boring Anglo stuff with a slight twist to Indian and Thai cuisine is the answer to the second. Hmmmm. Not much of a post in that.

Another friend suggested I write about the role of romance in fantasy and science fiction, which is indeed an interesting topic and one I'll tackle at some stage this month, but not today, not today. It requires thinking through, and I'm not energetic or motivated enough to do the thinking, let alone the writing, today.

Maybe I should just ramble a bit. (Oh wait, I think I already did ...) What are some random things that I could say?

Well, we have an Indian minah bird that lives in our backyard who has a huge growth under its chin. The growth is the size of a chicken's egg - half the size of the bird itself - and we all find it weirdly fascinating. I don't know if it's a tumour or a goitre or what it is (do birds get goitres? does anyone know?) but it's clearly not fatal because this bird has been bossing around all the other birds in our garden for at least 9 months now, and aside from the thumping great Thing under its chin, it's the picture of health. I'm watching it harass another bird right now, in fact. I keep wondering if the growth bothers it at all, but there's no evidence that it does - it doesn't even seem aware of it, although it has to keep its head on a funny angle just to accomodate the damn thing.

I'm reading a wonderful but difficult book at the moment - Alexis Wright's Carpentaria. I'm reading it as part of the 99 Black Books Challenge and will blog a review when I'm done, but it could be a while - I keep having to take little breathing spells to let it settle. Still, it's easy to see why it was so acclaimed and awarded when it came it, it really is an exceptionally good novel.

My 4 year old gets hyper demanding when I don't instantly stop whatever I am doing on the computer to attend to her, except when I am working. How she can sense when I have stopped working and am instead blogging, or tweeting, or reading the news online, I have no idea. It's not even screen recognition, she can tell before she even gets within sight of me. She just ... knows. It's slightly disturbing, actually.

Is it just me, or do Peppa Pig and her family look pretty wrong for a kid's cartoon about talking animals? They don't really look like pigs, but they do look like ... [something else that starts with p].

So did you know there are only 40 days til Christmas? I just scared myself a tiny bit there.

The episode of Little Kingdom that my 4 year old is now watching has an industrial relations / class warfare subplot. I adore this with the fire of a thousand suns. "What's money for?" says the overprivileged rich royal kid. "I'm not really sure, dear, but the elves seem to like it!" says the queen. Bwahahahahaha :-)

We're into season two of The West Wing, finally, and I confidently expect that we will finish this show by 2015 or so. (OK, we're slow on the old TV viewing...) It's really good, isn't it? [says the most tardy bandwaggoner ever]

I think  might dribble to a stop there. I know, this wasn't fascinating. But I wrote, and therefore I win!

This is post 14 in NaBloPoMo. 14 down, 16 to go!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

False Hope (A Villanelle for a Cold, Wet Spring)

The villanelle form, in case you don't know it, is:
5 x tercets (3-line stanzas) which rhyme aba
1 x concluding quatrain (4-line stanza) which rhymes abaa
 

There are also repeated lines in villanelles - the first line of the first stanza becomes the last line of stanzas 2 and 4, and the third line of the concluding quatrain; the last line of the first stanza becomes the last line of stanzas 3 and 5, and the last line of the quatrain. This repetition helps to tie the themes of the poem together in ways that can be quite beautiful and haunting.

False Hope (A Villanelle for a Cold, Wet Spring)

a child looks at the sky and says it cries,
water floods, relentless, through the grey
the calendar says spring, but oh, it lies.

daily, weather gurus will advise
another drear of working time, not play,
a child looks at the sky and says it cries.

if summer comes, it wears a deep disguise,
warm air withheld, in sour-faced grim delay
the calendar says spring, but oh, it lies.

sad people of the sun, whose mood relies
on the touch of heat on skin in every day,
a child looks at the sky and says it cries.

and here we thought we'd bid our last goodbyes
to the winter spirit's frosty, hard display
the calendar says spring, but oh, it lies.

we wait, and wait, and wait for cold's demise
for rising summer and the year's decay.
a child looks at the sky and says it cries.
the calendar says spring, but oh, it lies.

- Kathy, 13/11/2013

This is post 13 in NaBloPoMo. 13 down, 17 to go!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Working at home, now with bonus sunflowers

My view, this morning. as I set about dealing with email on the lappy.

It wasn't terrible :-)

This is post 12 in NaBloPoMo. 12 down, 18 to go!

Monday, November 11, 2013

When workplaces are kind

I was up half of last night with C, my 4 year old girl, who had spiked a fever unexpectedly and was very hard to resettle.

Although Panadol brought down the temperature, I wasn't prepared to send her to kinder in case she got worse and / or was contagious. So I called my mum, who was going to pick her up at 1pm from kinder, and asked her to come early, which she said she would.

I took C in to work with me, as I had an early meeting and Mum couldn't make it until 10:30. (She came and collected C from my office). When we got into work, at 8:55am, my workmates all flocked around C, chatting to her, getting her water, making her feel welcome. One colleague, whom C absolutely adores (he's very good with little kids, being a dad of two himself), made her a paper helicopter, which delighted her. She was treated gently and respectfully and not like she was a nuisance or in anyone's way.

Then, when my mum rang to let me know that C still wasn't right, my boss agreed readily that I can work at home tomorrow to keep her with me. In the 14 weeks I've been with my employer, this is the fifth time I've had to do this at short notice - pull an extra work at home day to care for a sick child - and never once has it been a problem or even remarked upon, except that my boss always adds her good wishes for a speedy recovery for the child in question.

What this makes me feel is ... grateful. Valued. Respected, as a full human being, not just a producer of outputs. It is kind behaviour. It is decent behaviour. It increases my sense of loyalty to my organisation and my sense of goodwill generally, which feeds into my commitment to doing good work and achieving outcomes for my employer.

I'm lucky, to work where I work. I'm lucky to work with the people I work with, and to have the conditions and flexibility that I do. Most of all, I am lucky because kindness and respect are valued where I work, and this is demonstrated when things go pear-shaped and the chips are down.

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

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Reading Notes: The Curse of Chalion, and the role of religion in fantasy novels

I finished reading Lois McMaster Bujold's fantasy novel, The Curse of Chalion, this morning. I'm a latecomer to the wonder that is Bujold. I first came across her in this year's Hugo novel list, with the hilarious and awesome Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, which prompted me to get stuck into the Vorkosigan books (a journey frequently interrupted, but I'll get to end soon I hope). Although not particularly hard sci fi, the Vor books are undoubtedly science fiction, and also very witty and often funny. I wondered how Bujold's voice would work in a more fantastic setting, with the particular tropes that fantasy often employs.

The first thing to be said is that Chalion is a very good book indeed. It is original - ish - in its conception and delivered with Bujold's customary flair and facility; while not as funny as the Vor books often are, the author's dry wit is still evident throughout.

It's certainly not shy about utilising some of the more common sword-and-sorcery archetypes of fantasy writing, which is why I say it's original-ish (a magical curse, hello! a lone saviour with a dark past, you don't say! a villain who holds a fair maiden captive, how about that!) Bujold's glosses on these well-worn themes, though, are what make the story - the gestures to medieval Spanish court culture, the genuinely labyrinthine politicking and plotting, the subversion of the "helpless maiden" device in the person of the fearsomely intelligent and driven Iselle, the strength and appeal of the characters.

The main character of the book - the tortured saviour, who has to die three times to deliver the royal family from the curse that hangs over it (yes, l I know it sounds cheesy, but go with me here) is Lupe Cazaril, a 36 year old who looks and behaves older, largely due to what he has suffered  before the commencement of the action. Caz is not my favourite of Bujold's characters, to be honest - he's so much less vibrant than a Miles or a Cordelia (or even than Iselle in this very book). That said, I'd probably be less than filled with life too with the backstory that Bujold gives this poor guy.

Because of the course of events that is set in motion when Cazaril, as the secretary to the Royesse (Princess) Iselle, travels to the capital with Iselle, her brother Teidez, and their attendants, Cazaril ends up spending a lot of time mouthpiecing about religion, spirituality, the gods, death, life, the relationship between life and death, and faith. The religion Bujold constructs for Chalion is based around a quintet of god figures - the Father, Mother, Daughter, Son and the Bastard - and each divinity has its own characteristics, its own particular powers and adherents, and its own role to play.

This is a world in which the gods do not speak plainly to women and men, and do not, cannot, intervene in the world except via human consent. Bujold sets a very high store on free will, and on the gods' ability to act, to perform miracles, being constrained by human will and faith. Here, a god may intervene by providing, providentially, access to two fresh mules to a traveller in need, rather than with dramatic thunderbolts and pronouncements from on high. The gods are not superpower-possessing people; they are inscrutable, inhuman, unknowing and unknowable, immense beyond measure, ever-present yet ever-restrained by the potency of human minds.

I liked Bujold's vision of religion and spirituality very much, and found it persuasive and well integrated into her storyline in ways that are not always true of fantasy novels. I think it primarily based on the melding of a particular kind of Protestant Christianity, which is very concerned with the notion of free will and faith, and an almost Buddhist notion of self and souls. I'm reliably informed that the role of the fifth god, the Bastard, comes to the fore in the next Chalion book, which I'm looking forward to.

It made me think on what role religion and spirituality play in other fantasy texts I have read. They're often bound up with ideas about magic, prophecy and sorcery, of course, which are almost ubiquitous in classic fantasy, but there are some notable fantasy texts that are god-less and organised-religion-less (the most obvious example is The Lord of the Rings, but there are plenty of others). Where religion does have a part to play, though, it seems to me that the most common modellings are on Christianity (both of the Roman Catholic and Protestant variety, although almost always of historical, rather than modern, iterations thereof); Buddhism; or Viking / Greek / Roman polytheist, gods-as-powerful-people tropes. David Eddings' enormously popular Belgariad and Mallorean books, for instance, sport a pantheon of gods that are remarkably easy to tag with their various Viking and Roman origins.

I could go on, but I won't. The point I'm trying to make here is that I'm doubtful that any fantasy world's religion / spiritual practice is created of whole cloth by the writer. Of course, you could argue this of many themes, but particularly when it comes to the matters of the soul, people seem to gravitate towards patterns, themes and axioms that are known and familiar, to help to explicate the unknown, the unfamiliar. I don't know what, if anything, this means, except maybe that humans are creatures of habit, and that cultural programming runs deep.

In my own attempt at writing a sort-of sci fi, now paused while I try to get my feet under me with my new job, I've been intrigued to find that my world has a kind of vague mystical / animist ethic to it without having any systemic religion (that I have yet introduced, and as it's not in the plot plan, it's not likely I'll put it in now). The society I'm writing is dispersed and fragmented, and, for a very particular reason, could be considered post-religious in many ways. This tells me some interesting things about how I think about the basis of faith and spirituality and religion, and what I intuit might render them incapable of gaining serious traction in a society.

So I guess I think religion and spirituality, while they add depth to fantasy if done well (and completely destroy it if done badly), are rarely original in their conception and execution, and tend to draw from the already wide palette of real-world religious experience.

Do you agree, if you're a fantasy reader?

This is post 10 in NaBloPoMo. A third of the way there today - 10 down, 20 to go!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The $5 work week

Christmas is a-coming, with all its attendant costs; car rego is due this week ($750 thankyouverymuch); gymnastics, school and music concert tickets need to be paid for by Friday, for a cool $250 total; I still have two more root canal treatments to go at the dentist; and we're still paying off the last tranche of the outdoor renovation. I'm expecting utility and annual insurance bills in the next couple of weeks, and we need to budget to get the outdoor structure painted (although I suspect this may be waiting until after Christmas at this stage).

All of this, in combination, makes things a wee bit tight in the hip pocket department at the moment, and means that we need to control incidental expenditure much better than we have been. So I thought, for the 6 weeks between now and when the kids and I break for Christmas, it would be a good idea for me to go back to a thing I used to do when we were saving to buy our first house. This is a little trick I saw on some financial advice show once, and it worked for me then. I'm hoping it'll do the same this time.

The concept is very simple - I am setting myself a hard, immovable budget of $5 per week for "food and incidental expenditure on work days". Obviously this doesn't include things like bill payment, fee payment, petrol, medical & dental etc - those things will be paid for on the magic plastic or with separately assigned cash. It also doesn't cover weekends - we will probably do a few takeaways or meals out at weekends in November and December, and that is OK. (Weekends is also when I do the grocery shopping, naturally).

No, the $5 work week is about what I spend on coffees, lunches, snacks, midweek takeaways, treats etc from Monday to Friday. This can mount up very quickly if it's not controlled - the week before last, for instance, I had lunch at a caf twice with workmates ($15 and $27 apiece), bought a coffee 4 times, each time with a little sweet treat ($7 apiece - $28 all up), and we had pizza on a weeknight because I wasn't organised with my meals, which added another $45. That's $115 all up of money I didn't really need to spend, and definitely could do with saving at the moment.

So what I do is get a $20 note out of the bank at the start of a 4-week period (ie on a Monday), and then that's IT for work week food and incidental expenditure for 28 days. As I have arranged to meet a workmate at a caf on Friday of the coming week for a working lunch, which will, at a minimum, account for $10 of it, this realistically means:

1. No bought coffees
2. Taking my lunch every day except that one day
3. Being very, very careful about incidentals
4. No after-school shop ice creams for the kids - snacks at home instead

I admit I will be *slightly* cheating in the first iteration, because there is still $9 in my wallet which I will consider part of the working week pool (so really it's more like $7 a week in the first cut). However, the concept is a sound one and gets me thinking more intelligently about how I spend money, which is good.

It's doable - I've done it before - and the savings add up. In particular, kyboshing midweek takeaways should make a real dent. I do need to do something to contain galloping expenses and this seems like a good place to start.

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

Friday, November 8, 2013

Reading Notes: Every Secret Thing

I'm over at The Shake today reviewing the first of my 99 Black Books challenge books, Marie Munkara's Every Secret Thing. Go visit me there? (Please?)

The post at The Shake is post 8 in NaBloPoMo. 8 down, 22 to go...

Thursday, November 7, 2013

One of them days

Do you ever have those days when you think you're crap at life?

When you feel like you're doing your job badly, and everyone knows it? (Sometimes it's worse, actually, if you think people haven't quite figured it out yet, but you know they will one day soon). When you realise that productivity is the measure, the only measure that counts, and your output is dangerously, disturbingly low?

Where you truly believe you're a bad, inadequate parent, and you're ruining your kids? When, for all that you love them more than life itself, you feel like you're raising self-entitled, badly behaved little humans who can't seem to go ten minutes without a screaming fit of one kind or another?

When you look in the mirror and see not just fatness, which isn't so problematic, but deep-seated ugliness looking back at you?

When you understand that your perception that you can't retain friends is in fact a true one, and based on the fact that the more people know you, the less they like you?

When you look around your house and actually despair at the disordered state of it, at the dust and the mess and the clutter?

When you hurt, in body and spirit, aching teeth and aching soul both desperate for novocaine?

When you're overwhelmed, exhausted and overcome?

When you want to cry and cry and never stop, even though there is really no reason and you should be grateful for all the things you have and really you are but today ...

Today, you are crap at life. You can't go over it, you can't go around it, so you just have to go through it.

This is post 7 in NaBloPoMo. 7 down, 23 to go.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

10 Things Not to Say in a Work Meeting

If you want to be able to work with people, and not alienate them to the point that they will never put themselves out to help you EVER AGAIN, here are some things I recommend not saying in a work meeting:

1. "Look at me when I'm talking to you!" - Excuse me? Am I a naughty 5 year old? Are you my nanny??

2. "What you have to understand is..." - You might get away with this once, but if it's your standard, patronisingly drawled riposte to any question or discussion, yeahno.

3. "Get us a coffee, wouldya, sweetie?" - When spoken by a peer (male) to a younger female (me) who does not actually report to him.

4. "What you've written is just stupid" - It may indeed be, but this is not the optimal way to communicate this fact.

5. "I'll get it to you by 5 on Friday. You can fix it up over the weekend, right?" - OHO, you'd like ME to do the unpaid overtime, would you?

6. "How can we resolve this so you will do what I want you to?" - Um, we can't. Because what you want me to do is illegal / unethical / suboptimal.

7. "I get paid more than you, so you have to do what I say" - This was a classic from an early, retail job environment. So much noooooooooooooo.

8. *Heavy sigh* "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear..." (when considering a proposal) - Pat me on the head while you're there, OK?

9. "I don't like your new haircut much" - Noted. And this has what to do with the subject at hand?

10. "I think we can all agree that [insert principle that no one else agrees with]" - This one just annoys people to no end.

Work meetings should be about professionalism, courtesy and effectiveness. I'm all for vigorous disagreement when necessary, but I'm not for passive aggressive (or aggressive-aggressive) derailing. That just puts my back up straight away.

NB: While all real examples, these are derived from multitudes of different employment scenarios across my 25 years of employment. Few or none may relate to current or recent job situations.

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

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

99 Black Books Challenge

I follow the wonderful @TheKooriWoman on Twitter (go ahead, check her out. I'll wait). On Sunday, I noticed her announcing that she was about to start reading a book called Bitin' Back, as part of her go at Anita Heiss's 99 Black Books Challenge.

Hell-o, sailor! trilled my book-challenge-loving heart.

I looked up the list on Anita Heiss's blog, and found it here. It's a stunning list, with several titles I've always intended to get around to, many that have been awarded, and many that look shattering, heartbreaking and amazing.

I have not read enough fiction by Australian indigenous authors. I really haven't. It's a bad deficiency, and I want to rectify it.

I'm not a complete indigenous writing illiterate. I've read quite a lot by Native American writers - my field of study was American history, after all - and Louise Erdich is one of my favourite novellists from any place or time. (If you are feeling strong and want a good read, you can't go past her incredible The Master-Butcher's Singing Club. But don't say you weren't warned when you sob out loud).

I've also read quite a lot of indigenous Australian poetry, especially by Ali Cobby Eckermann, who is my equal-favourite Australian poet alongside Judith Wright.

None of that makes up for the fact that I've read barely any - three? four? - novel-length books by indigenous Australian writers, and that I want to fix this. I learn about the world primarily through books, it seems to me - or, rather, books are a vital key to unlock a perceptual door, which allows me to view situations, people and challenges with a different set of eyes. And I've always believed that one of the best ways for me to engage with anything is by reading myself into the headspace where I can do it justice.

It's also timely for me, because I have a task coming up that will require that I be not just open to, but truly aware of and sensitive to, the grief, racism and pain with which many indigenous people  contend on a daily basis. Literature teaches me, and I need to learn how to position my self in this process, as a partner but never a leader or dominator; how to offer my expertise in the service of something that isn't mine and shouldn't be, in any way, mine. It's an important task - important to do it right and get it right - and I'll take every primer I can get to help.

So, here I go - committing to doing the 99 Black Books Challenge. This won't be quick, because, life, and because I will no doubt stop and start and read other things on the way. It could take 2 years, and that is OK. But I'm going to do it and I'm going to blog it, both here and at The Shake, and I hope to grow and learn and engage better along the way.

My first two are going to be Marie Mankara's Every Secret Thing and  Alexis Wright's Carpentaria, a book about which I have heard many great things. I have Bitin' Back on its way in a little joy parcel from the publisher, so that'll be third.

Anyone going to join in?

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

Monday, November 4, 2013

Check your skin, pale people in a sunny country: A pre-summer PSA

I've had an itchy, irritating bump on my back for a few weeks now. The kind of itch that's intense enough to make you scrape yourself up and down doorframes, which is embarassing if you get sprung at work and just weird at home. My family has been called upon for back-scratching duties, and I was getting pretty annoyed, waiting for it to subside.

Then my daughter said, "Mummy, that looks funny."

And my husband said, "It does look pretty wrong. I think you should get it checked."

Luckily for me, my doctor was able to squeeze me in tonight, and I'm recently back from having what turned out to be a seborrheic keratosis - a harmless, if unsightly and irritating, skin glitch associated with sun damage and age - removed from my back via cryosurgery. (I told this to my daughter, who said, "What's that? Surgery where you cry?" Remembering the sting of the liquid nitrogen, I said, "Well, kinda...")

My doctor also had a look at my many moles, sunspots, freckles and other keratoses while I was there, just to make sure they are all still OK. They are, but it made me remember that it's three years since I was checked, and in a pale woman, with moles, over 40, living in a country with no ozone layer worth speaking of, that just isn't smart.

With summer coming on, if you are, like me, a pale pinkish grub in a hot, sunny land, think about getting your skin checked. Avoidable skin cancer is not the thing any of us wants to die of, is it? So - let's not.

This has been your I-just-went-to-the-doctor-so-here-is-my-current-health-preoccupation PSA for today :-)

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

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Outdoor renovation: A story, with pictures

We have lived in our house for almost 10 years now, and it's a 30-year-old house, built in the heyday of 80s building boom. When we moved in, A, my eldest, was 7 months old. In the intervening time, we've had two more babies (in 2005 and 2009), I've eased back into more work hours, and we have slowly picked off small to medium maintenance projects around the house - new carpets, new air con, new blinds, new wooden floors, new furniture, upgrade on the car, solar panels on the roof, and so forth.

The big stuff, however, has been mostly out of reach until recently, with me working only part time.

One of the features of the house that we most liked when we bought it, and still do, is the yard - a large-ish, nicely laid out, side yard with mature native trees, a paved concrete path and BBQ area, and a slatted openwork verandah that wrapped around three sides of the house and fed into a domed pergola above the BBQ area. This openwork verandah, as well as working well aesthetically, protected the houise considerably from summer heat, rendering it much more energy efficient in the hot months.

When we moved in, this structure (like the house) was approaching its 20th birthday, and was starting to look quite faded and a bit manky, but was basically still structurally OK. But it has been apparent for the last 4 years, and screamingly apparent for the last 18 months, that the structure was becoming dangerously rotted and aged.

So when I started fulltime work in July, the two big projects that we settled on quickly for this financial year were:

a) A rebuild of the outdoor area, and
b) A family holiday to the Great Barrier Reef next June.

I have booked accomodation and holiday time for Port Douglas already - I'm nothing if not ahead of myself when it comes to vacations! The next step was to get moving on the outdoor improvement project.

As you can see, the starting point was not awesome. The pictures above shows what most of the structure was looking like before work started - not pretty, and not safe.

I found a carpenter online and got him to come and quote the work. The job was, unsurprisingly, not cheap - that is a LOT of wood! - but we decided it was important to do it anyway, so we went ahead and booked it. 

The work was (to me) incredibly smoothly accomplished. I was very impressed with how efficient and reliable Dave and Murray, the two carpenters, were - turning up on schedule, working meticulously, and checking in with hubs or me whenever there was a point of concern.

They identified (and remediated) some unsuspected rot on the eaves once the old structure was pulled away, and triggered us to get our gutters cleaned, a job that probably should have been done years ago too. (Bygones, people...)

The demolition phase took about three days, and construction took another 5,  which, with weekends and one fallow day, stretched the process out to just shy of two weeks. I think this was a great result for the size of the job, especially given how many of my friends and relatives had been harrowing up my soul with chatter about tradies that didn't turn up, didn't finish, didn't listen; renos that went on for months, houses disrupted, costs that blew out...

None of that happened to us, Not one bit of it. Our job came in at the quoted price, with minimal disruption, and bang on time. Not to mention, it looks awesome and is *just* what we wanted.

Have a look!

My lovely shady but airy wraparound...

My beautiful domed pergola...

My robust structure made of treated pine that will never need to be replaced by us again.

It's yet to be painted - we have a quote to get this done, but finances need to recover a bit first - but we love it.

We took advantage of having the ginormous skip here for removal of building rubbish to also dismantle and throw away out rusted and collapsing old swing set, which the kids have been sternly urged to avoid for the past year, and to move the old trampoline (itself scheduled for the tip after Christmas - the kids are getting a springfree tramp as their Christmas present) into the play area at the end of the yard. This has opened up a new stretch of lawn - "big enough for a tiny cricket game", as my 8 year old noted.

My husband also cut back all the hairy and overgrown trees and we did a big declutter of the outdoor toys.

Result? A yard that we are so looking  forward to being in this summer :-)

(Because I have been asked by several people for details, and I was so happy with the quality and professionalism of the work, here is the website of the carpentry group I used. This post was in no way sponsored or solicited by the carpentry firm, and all views are, as ever, entirely my own).

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

Saturday, November 2, 2013

On employee engagement

This week at work, I attended a workshop led by a visiting American academic on the subject of employee engagement. I found it very thought provoking, although I'm not sure the thinks that it has made me think are the intended thinks (if that makes sense!) I've been mulling over my reactions to it ever since, and thought I might try and tease them out a little bit here.

Employee engagement is a slightly odd concept to try to nail down, but I think it comes down, really, to the extent to which employees buy into, drive and support the mission, vision and operations of the organisation for which they work.  This is an imperfect definition, because it doesn't account very well for people who are highly invested in and engaged with the profession to which they belong, but don't necessarily feel any loyalty or attachment to their actual employer (ie doctors - medicine vs hospital; geologists - field vs mining company; historians - discipline vs University).

The first premise of the day was that employees can basically be divided into three (broad) categories when it comes to engagement - actively engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged. I'll try to render these definitions as well as I can, but bear in mind that they are a bit wibbly (like many management-y terms, dare I say...)

Actively engaged employees are committed not only to their work but to the organisational values and objectives of their workplace. They believe their work is meaningful, and they derive their own sense of meaning / wellbeing at least in part from work.

Un-engaged / not engaged employees may be diligent workers, with personable, professional attitudes, but they do not see their work or their workplace as part of who they are. They may or may not take a time-serving approach to work, and they do not innovate, take risks, or take initiative.

Actively disengaged employees not only feel no commitment to their work, they actually hate it and work to undermine the overall organisational objectives, infecting others with their negative approach. They may have strong resentment towards their employer and see no meaning in what they do.

Using the results of an international Gallup poll as evidence, the suggestion is that a minority of employees fall into either polar opposite of this spectrum - the clear majority, sitting typically around 60-65% in most countries, are in the middle "not engaged" bracket.

The speaker went on to draw a link between organisations with higher numbers of actively engaged employees vs actively disengaged and organisational success. Note that it's the ratio, rather than the hard number, that we're talking about here - it seems to suggest a multiplying effect (law of attraction kind of stuff), whereby the higher the positive-to-negative number, the better the organisation does even if there are less actual actively engaged employees by proportion. (Thus, if Organisation X has 20% actively engaged, 70% not engaged and 10% actively disengaged, it's better off, and more likely to succeed, than Organisation Y, with 25% actively engaged, 50% not engaged, and 25% actively disengaged).

Leaving aside the elephant in the room for a minute (as a colleague pointed out, there is a big correlation vs causation problem here), this gave me furiously to think about the proposition that for organisations to succeed, they have to increase the number of people who are actively engaged. (Thinning the herd of actively disengaged is a no-brainer, of course). It made me think about what it means to be actively engaged, and how culturally specific that concept might be.

Is it the case, as the speaker suggested, that passion is more important than competence? Is it the case that only workers who invest a significant part of their existential struggle into work are capable to delivering great outcomes? Does work have to be the answer to the ontological quest of every person's life in order to be successful? What does "successful" even mean, here? It's easy to measure for Silicon Valley start-ups (the main consulting field of our speaker), but what does success look like for a school? A University? A government?

I wonder about the idea, expressed as a mantra, that people are happier when their search for meaning is invested in their work. I think this is a very white-collar and culturally specific idea. resting on assumptions about worldview, work, and the self that might be laughably inapplicable outside of a Western frame. Indeed, they sounded slightly odd - off-kilter - even to a room full of Australians, so I wonder if this isn't even more specific than that - an American vision, maybe an American entrepeneurial vision, of how lives find purpose and what the proper relationship of work to life might be.

For me, you see, I value competence highly, in myself and others. In fact, I value it more highly than passion. I am proud of my skills, and that includes all my skills (interpersonal and relational, as well as technical) and I seek to continuously improve them. I do see my work as meaningful, and I am committed to achieving the objectives I've been set and exceeding where that is possible. Work is mentally stimulating and socially rewarding, and what I do, if I do it properly, makes other people's jobs easier and supports my organisation to achieve its goals, and I do value that very much. I like my employer, my colleagues and my conditions of work, and I would never do anything against their interests.

But what I don't do is confuse work with life. Work is what I do to allow me to live my life in the way I choose to, and support my family at the level I wish to. My work is not the font of all meaning for me as a person; my sense of self, my sense of satisfaction in life, can be negatively impacted (temporarily) by work, but not completed positively by work. Who I am and what I am, my own search for meaning, is forged in familial relationships, my spirituality, my sense of myself as a writer. At the end of the day, I could do a different job without affecting my sense of meaningfulness in my life, and that's what tells me, under these definitions, that I'm not "actively engaged."

Yet, isn't that a pretty high bar to set? I believe I am innovative in the way I approach my work. I believe I do use initiative and take risks (the last two weeks bear this out!) I think I am focused on quality and outcomes and that does show. (I hope). Is it really the case that I don't add enough value because I don't tie my sense of self up with the job I do?

Interesting thinks, these.

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