Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reality blogging: My desk

Bec over at Bad Mummy has started a new Wednesday meme, aimed at showing the reality behind the keyboard - something not selected carefully, something not prettied up for the camera / text, something kind of messy and real that characterises life.

With such a palette, I was almost overwhelmed with the sheer number of things I could have chosen (!) My house is messy and cluttered, and so are lots of aspects of my life. What better way to start, though, than with...

my desk. Where all the magic (HAHAHA) happens ;-)

We have a long desk with two computer stations that my husband and I share. It's located in an open area of the house, as we don't have enough rooms to have a dedicated study. And, as you see, it tends to be a dumping ground for every miscellaneous item that finds its way into the house.

Right now, it holds a big pile of papers / letters, my work notebook, the girls' current novels, storybooks, DVDs that no-one has put away, 2 empty tea cups, the camera, toys awaiting repair by Daddy, a jumble of cords, three plastic drawer sets that are supposed to manage the clutter, photos, hair ties, hairbrushes, pens & pencils, toothbrushes for some bizarre reason, my mobile phone, the landline phone, my husband's screwdriver set, CDs, the two monitors, speakers, and weird little things like an empty syringe (from the kids' doctor set), one earring, a handful of coins, a remote control for a video player that we gave away 4 years ago, and some flat batteries.

Yep, that's reality!

Monday, September 27, 2010

We Play - Beyond the story

At the moment, my big girls are deeply in love with Trixie Belden. (I wrote about their literary love affair here).

Reading the books together is only the beginning of the journey, though a wonderfully enjoyable one. My girls have been taking the elements of the Trixie stories and extending them into long and elaborate imaginative games; the 7-year-old playing Honey, the 5-year-old Trixie, and they usually co-opt the 19 month old to be the cute but troublesome little brother of the books, Bobby.

"Bobby!" they'll say. "Come along here and let's take Reddy to visit Regan!"

The toddler usually plays along, happy to be pulled into secret spaces and part of the sister patter, but occasionally her more literal mind will get the better of her.

"Nooooo," she declaimed on the day these photos were taken. "Not Bobb-eee, me Lulu! 'im no Weddy, 'im Babble!" she asserted, pointing at our elderly and long-suffering dog, Basil, who was being co-opted to play Reddy, the dog of the stories.

"Your name isn't Lulu, you know," the 7-year-old pointed out. "Your name is C-. We just call you Lulu because you are our pet lamb."

The toddler giggled at this and ran off, leaving Honey and Trixie to excavate a secret cave, liberate a kidnapped poodle, discover gold, and capture an international gang of art thieves that had stolen - gasp! - the paintings produced by their grandfather that grace our walls.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Today, my fruit trees - two lemons, an orange, a Tahitian lime and a Kaffir lime - were ready for their first stripping of the season, and all the girls helped. They all displayed astonishing levels of dexterity, from the tall, strong 7-year-old who twisted off stubborn fruit with a agile flick of her wrist to the fearless monkey-child 5-year-old who shinned up the trees to pluck the high-hanging lemons and tossed them to the waiting feet of the toddler, who laughed with delight and stacked them neatly in the bucket.

Particularly entranced was the youngest; at 19 months, she's too small to remember previous seasons of pulling fruit from stems, squeezing juicy windfalls between her fingers, smelling citrus-scented air all around, piling the bright globes in the bucket, sitting on the bench seat under the large lemon with cookbooks and deciding what we'll make with the output. She adores to be outside anyway; this cold, seemingly endless winter we've endured has hit her hardest of us all, I think. The gathering of the fruit was, for her, a new and wonderful delight.

Enjoying this hour with the girls so much, being so unutterably pleased myself with the prospect of making lemon & lime puddings, Thai-style dishes flavoured with limes, orange cakes, and assorted other goodies, I was once again struck by how good it is - good in every sense of the word - to eat food that you had a hand in nurturing. I feel this whenever we eat eggs from my mother-in-law's fat and spoiled free range chickens, or when I season a dish with herbs from my modest but hopefully expanding herb patch, or when I eat a tomato from the self-seeded and stubbornly productive Roma plant that decided to set up shop in the corner near the compost (I assume it was the result of a discarded tomato at some past juncture, but it is now a happy little tagalong in my garden).

I keep intending - every year, I intend - to build square-foot raised garden beds and make an attempt to grow more. I do not delude myself that it would be necessarily cheaper, at least not initially (my sister in law, an avid vegetable gardener with a huge plot under cultivation, tells me that after about year 3, if you choose good varieties and have good luck, the food savings start to outweigh the garden maintenance costs). I do think it would be so much better for us in other ways, though. In terms of freshness of ingredients (and certainly about their provenance); in terms of learning opportunities about botany, and the chance for the kids to have responsibility for tending sections of the garden; in terms of family time, like we had today, harvesting and weeding out and laughing and talking and being together. I dream of beds of rainbow chard and patches of mint, more tomato plants and zucchini.

Every year, I say, this year. My intentions are real and earnest, but my capacity has been derailed by one thing and the next every year since my second baby's birth, 5 spring seasons ago now. Will this be the year we crash through? I really hope so. I think so. I want more harvests together from our own ground.

Do you grow any food of your own? If you do, do you have any tips for me?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

We Play - P Day

When planning our school holidays a few weeks ago, my eldest girl reminded me that we needed to keep the first weekday of the break free as a pyjama day. We always do this - no leaving the premises, no visitors, lots of food and fun and relaxation. It is a good way to start the time off for us all.

I pencilled in "Pyjama Day" on the calendar, when my 5-year-old musingly remarked, "Pyjama starts with a P. So does pancakes. We could have pancakes on pyjama day."
"Yeah," said the 7-year-old, catching the theme, "and popcorn and pretzels, for snacks."
"I could make a homemade pizza for lunch?" I offered.
"And we could do puzzles!" enthused Miss 5.
"Painting, make puppets..." added the eldest.
"Play outside, if it's warm enough," I put in.
"And of course read LOTS of books with P in the title!" ended Miss 5 triumphantly.

Thus, in a moment of alliterative wandering, was P-Day born.

We ate pancakes,

and pretzels,


and popcorn.

We played outside

and did puzzles.

We read P-titled storybooks

and painted a canvas of Disney Princesses

and made sock puppets (which involved teaching both big girls to make loop knots, stitch buttons, and tie off).

We played games of Patience, Pony Racing to the Rainbow, and Pictionary (Junior).

We even found time for a little television ... Pingu, naturally!

We stayed in pyjamas - or princess dress-ups - all day long.

P-Day was a roaring success in our house.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Reading Notes - Trixie Belden and Emily Eyefinger

Two very different series of mystery / adventure themed novels are delighting my 7-year-old bookworm at the moment - the classic and beloved-of-my-own-childhood Trixie Belden books, and Duncan Ball's Emily Eyefinger series.

The Trixie Belden books, for those unfamiliar, are a long-spanning series of Girl's Own Adventure-type mysteries, written between 1948 and 1986 by a series of publisher staff writers using the pseudonym Kathryn Kenny. The heroine of the stories is Trixie Belden herself, 13 years old at the start of the first novel and around 16 at the end of the last (although the references to ages get vaguer as the novels progress).

I have the first 12 novels in the 39-book series, saved from my own childhood, and my 7-year-old recently expressed a desire to read some more mystery books "that are a bit older than the Famous Five, Mummy." So I dug out the Trixies, and suggested that we have a go at them.

They have been a very palpable hit with both the 7-year-old and the 5-year-old. My younger girl isn't reading fluently yet but she loves to be read to, and is old enough to be getting right into the stories, plots, suspense and excitement of the Trixie books. We have developed a split system for the books, where A, my 7-year-old, is reading some of them by herself, but we are reading other selected ones aloud as our breakfast and dinnertime chapters. (I tend to peg reading to meals, and have since the kids were tiny; it works in our family, but I know it doesn't suit everyone).

I asked the girls what they found appealing about the Trixie books.
"I like all the people in them, especially Honey," mused the 7-year-old. (Honey Wheeler, also 13, is Trixie's best friend, and is also depicted as much more feminine, timid and gracious than the "tomboy" Trixie).
The 5-year-old snorted. "I like Trixie!" she countered. "She is much braver than Honey! Also, she doesn't like doing cleaning up either," she added with satisfaction.
"I like the mysteries, they are very exciting," said the 7-year-old.
"AND hard to guess!" agreed Miss 5.

For me, the things I like most about the Trixie Belden books, both when reading them as pre-teen many years ago and now reading them again, are the character of Trixie (who is an extremely appealing, and extremely imperfect, girl, who grumbles about chores and makes silly decisions and gets impatient and isn't good at everything) and also the way the books are situated firmly within their time and place. All the places Trixie and her friends visit are evocatively drawn, especially their home town of Sleepyside (in upstate New York).

The feeling and "vibe" of the books is entirely of their moment, too, which is why my favourite books in the series are 6 - 16 (the books written between 1961 and 1977). The books have a hopeful, positive aura that is not inappropriate for books written for older children, and books written in the loving 60s. I have just finished reading number 12, The Mystery of the Blinking Eye, to the girls, and one of the things we all enjoyed in that book was the depiction of the United Nations in New York. It was so idealistic and hopeful and yes, naive and US-centric, but so in step with that moment in history. The girls were fascinated to learn more about the UN, too - we made it a bit of a project, and my 7-year-old is writing up a report for school about it now.

The Trixie books aren't flawless, of course - like many books of their type and vintage, they are peopled exclusively by white, able-bodied characters, except for villains who are occasionally Latino - although the books do explore wealth and class in some interesting ways. Still, I do not see this as a barrier to enjoying these books for what they are - and, for instance, I would say they are on the whole less arrogant and essentialist on the subject of ethnicity and class than Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, and less annoyingly perfectionist than that other stalwart girl detetctive series, Nancy Drew. It is something that I try to be aware of, though, as we read these books, and not to minimise or vanish.

Another series that my 7-year-old has fallen deeply in love with is American-born Australian author Duncan Ball's Emily Eyefinger books. Written for a younger reading audience that the Trixie books, the Emily books feature a girl who was born with a third eye on the tip of her finger. This opens up the possibility of fun, mayhem, superpower-like interventions, and some self-doubt for the protagonist as she deals with being differently abled and bodied to her friends.

I asked my 7-year-old what was good about these books.
"They're funny," she replied, "and the stories are good. And I like Emily."
(It's fair to say that affection for the characters is a central theme in my girls' commitment to any series-based fiction).
"Also, it's interesting how people are always a little bit shocked by Emily's extra eye but then they work out that it's really OK," she added.

I've not read any of these books aloud, so my perspective is more limited than on the Trixies, but after hearing A's views, I picked up a few and flicked through them, and was quickly able to see what she meant. Ball's writing style is extremely engaging and his plotting is fast and clever, but what holds the stories together is that Emily is so likeable, and her difference is so cleverly explored. For books targeted at 6+ readers, I think this is a pretty fair effort!

Overall, then, I and my expert reviewers would highly recommend both these series of books. Great characters, smooth plotting, engaging style, and decent-ish mysteries to boot. We give both series 8.5 / 10.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

We Play - I Can Jump Puddles

Winter is nearing its end, but a few late rainstorms opened up the little girls' favourite kind of play in the whole wide world late last week.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

5-year-old philosophising

When I arrived at kinder to pick up E, my 5-year-old, at lunchtime, the teacher's assistant drew me aside and said, "I have to tell you something."

Concerned, I quickly said "Is everything OK?" The sight of my 5-year-old sitting peaceably on the mat waiting for me suggested it was, but hey, it's never a great conversation opener when kids are involved.

"Oh yes," the assistant said, grinning broadly, "I just thought you'd be tickled by this... Earlier on, E was building a big block tower with her friend M. They'd got it really high when another child knocked it over accidentally."

"Oh," I interspersed, expecting a tale of Much Woe. "I hope E wasn't too upset...?"

"Well," the teacher went on, "just at that moment, I called out that it was pack-up time. M and E had both looked like they were going to get upset but they stopped and turned to each other.

M says to E, 'Never mind, it was going to be knocked down anyway, wasn't it?'
E says, 'Yes, yes it was. Nothing lasts forever, does it.'
M: 'Nothing. Except friendship, especially OUR friendship. IT will last forever...'
E: 'And love, it lasts forever too.'
M: 'If it's true love.'
E: 'Oh yes. Only then.'
M: 'But nothing else lasts forever, does it?'
E: 'No, nothing.'
E: 'Maybe stardust, as well. I think it does.'
M: 'Yes, I think so too.'
E: 'And this damn nasty cold we've all got, that goes on forever too.'
M: "Mmmmm...?'
E: 'That's what my Mum says, anyway.'

I had to stop myself laughing," the assistant concluded, as I chuckled at this tale of existential musing in the preschool set.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

We Play - Pots & Pans

It's fun to play with pots and pans...

to arrange them into patterns ...

to cook a pretend banquet ...

to use chopsticks and wooden spoons as drum sticks to make music...

to be in the kitchen with Mum as the dinner simmers on the stove.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Like father

My husband works in IT. So, apparently, does Miss 18 months!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Planning school holidays

There are just two weeks left of the third school term now, and my mind is turning to the question of how to structure (or indeed, unstructure!) the two week break. It does require thought, because I find that by this stage of the year, the kids are getting very tired - there is a lot of busy learning and activity time behind them, they have pushed through the cold and wet (and usually illnesses) of winter, and they need time to recharge their batteries. Finding a balance between organised outings, unstructured mayhem and quiet opportunities to reconnect with each other and with me can be a little tricky.

Unlike the Easter break, in which we went away for a week to Echuca, or the winter break, where we went to Wangaratta for 4 days, we are not planning any whole-family trips this time. This gives us more scope for planning home-based activities, but also means that, with no away-time as a marker of difference, I need to be careful not to treat the time as one long, long weekend. (Weekends are great, but holidays can, and should, have a different vibe!)

I've found, for my family, that there are 10 rules of thumb useful in planning these kinds of term-breaks:

1. Don't try to catch up with everyone!
Because many of my friends and their children live a fair distance from us, term-time catch-ups are often out of the question. There is a temptation, therefore, to try to see everyone that you've spent all term thinking of and talking to on the phone. This becomes problematic when, as I foolishly did in the September break last year, you realise that you have scheduled all but one day with a playdate / activity. The kids find this exhausting and ultimately everyone enjoys the time much less when it is so harried.

I now stick to a one-playdate-per-week rule in term breaks. We also usually spend a weekend day somewhere in the holidays with a family that we're good friends with. Three playdates is plenty and it means the kids enjoy seeing their friends (and I mine) so much more.

2. Make sure the grandparent stay is locked in first, so other things can be programmed around it
My parents, who live a long way away from us, like to have the two elder girls for a visit in the term breaks. Originally this was for a single night, but as they have gotten older and more confident, they now go for two nights. I've found it's essential to lock these dates in with my Mum as early as possible, as the grandparent-trip really knocks out three whole days for doing anything else. This time, the girls will be going to my parents in the second week of the holidays, on dates that have been agreed since July!

3. Always, always, always plan to take one week as leave from my paid work
Even though I work from home, I feel it's really important that I'm able to focus on the girls in the holidays and spend undistracted time with them. This holidays, I'm taking the first week off, and will do my work in the second week when the girls are away at their grandparents.

4. Plan for husband to take at least one, and preferably two, days of leave so that we can do some family things.
The girls love the opportunity to spend more quality time with their dad in the holidays. This break he's only been able to take a single day, but it is a Friday so we will have one family long weekend.

5. Let each child pick one special activity or place to visit.
The girls take this responsibility very seriously, all the more since I do limit it to one selection apiece. A, the 7-year-old is almost decided on the Museum, while E, the 5-year-old wants to go to the Zoo.

6. Make sure that I am fully stocked up with craft supplies, craft ideas, and so on.
We nearly had a crisis in the wet, cold winter holidays when I ran out of paint, glue, sticky tape AND craft paper on the SAME DAY! And it was a day with NO CAR!! Oh, the humanity ;-) I won't get caught that way again - I am fully loaded for this break already, and have stockpiled some craft kits that A and E got for their respective birthdays to do as well.

7. Keep the first weekday of the holidays sacrosanct as a pyjama day
Oh the girls look forward to this all term ... and if truth be told, so do I ;-) We laze around, read entire books, watch a movie, play games, dance to music, and do not get dressed.

8. Make sure I plan for individual time with each girl
One of the things the kids hang out for, especially the schoolgirl, is one-on-one time with me. This holidays I am taking the 7-year-old bookshopping and out for lunch on the first Saturday of the holidays, and the 5-year-old and I are going to have manicures and lunch on the second Saturday.

9. Have a holiday project that carries through
We often do a puzzle - a 500 or 1,000 piecer - across the holidays. This holidays, though, we are thinking more in terms of a reading project. The girls want me to read them the first 10 books in the Trixie Belden series (well, really, books 3-10, as we've read book 1 before and are reading book 2 now). Of course, we might do a puzzle as well ... you never know!

10. Build in time for husband and I to spend together
School holidays should be good time, down time, for us all, and I find it to be a really good opportunity to program in some adult time as well. This time, I have arranged a babysitter for one of the nights that the big girls are at my grandparents to sit with my youngest, who'll be asleep at the time, so G and I can have a dinner out.

I'd be interested in any tips anyone else has on making holidays fun, relaxing and enjoyable. What are the key factors for your family?