Monday, January 31, 2011

The year is really afoot

I cannot quite believe that today is the last day of January, and that the summer holidays are almost done. On Friday my middle girl, E, will start school and my eldest, A, will go into grade 2. Next week all the various other activities kick back in - playgroup, gymnastics, swimming and more. The rosters have just come out for my various volunteering obligations - playgroup, school breakfast club, community centre, and so forth - and there will be more to add on when I sign up to do school classroom reading one morning per fortnight for E's class.

I didn't quite meet my goal to post every day in January, dropping the ball last week pretty chronically. This was partly just running out of puff with it, but partly also that my husband had the week off work and we did lots of family stuff. Neither hubs nor I spent much time on the computer last week - it just didn't fit the vibe of the week. Instead, we went to the Zoo, we went to the movies, we went shopping, we went to the beach, we had a very productive gardening day, we cleaned out cupboards, and we had friends over for a BBQ on Saturday night. (Sunday, being our first real scorcher of the summer, we were outside until the sun drove us in at 11am then we lolled about inside watching Wiggles DVDs and the cricket).

I am looking forward to this year, although also a bit nervous, as this will be my first year without paid employment since ... well, ever, actually. I've never been completely unemployed since I was 18. Granted, I haven't worked fulltime since 2004 but I've worked various part-time fractions, ranging from 10 to 25 hours per week, across all of those years. I still feel a great certainty that leaving my job was the right thing to do, but I can't quite push aside my faint anxiety that we'll feel the pinch financially. Still, onwards and upwards - I'm just going to cross that bridge when (and if) we come to it. I think I'm still reasonably employable, so if worst comes to worst, I can look for another job. Even if I do need to, it wouldn't invalidate my many reasons for leaving my old job in December.

I'm a little sad to be farewelling these summer hols, actually. A few minor hissy-fits aside (from all of us, truth be told), they have really been an oasis of calm and togetherness for our family. We've done lots of fun stuff (Zoos, picnics, beach, circus, museums, movies) and had lots of time at home doing crafts, reading, playing, cooking, doing puzzles, and watching TV and cricket.

I have felt like I've really been on holiday too, not just because of the absence of the work hours (although that has helped, naturally!) but because of the flexibility and freedom to order our days around our natural rhythms that we can do in the holidays. And as well as having a lot of fun, I am sure that all my girls have learned as much, if not more, in this seven weeks than in any given term at school or kinder. They've both been into maths and are doing harder and harder problems that my husband is sourcing for them; they are both improving their IT skills by writing books (with photos) on my computer using Word, Photoshop, Google and PowerPoint; and E, my 5 year old, is reading fluently now thanks to a self-driven blitz of phonics work.

Every year at this time I feel the same half-spoken tug towards home education for my girls. I am certain they could learn as well and faster, and much more organically, at home, and the rhythm of our lives might be gentler too. Ultimately I come back (for now) to the fact that I do believe the school environment is a positive one for them, and that they get some things from school (peer relationships not mediated by a parent, opportunities to do specialties like art and sport, excursions, school 'spirit', for want of a better word) that I'd struggle to give them at home. Always I'm tempted, though, and suspect it will be ever thus.

So on we roll into 2011 proper (January never feels like part of the regular year to me). I'm hoping it's a good one for us all.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reading Notes - Lake Wobegon

I read a lot of detective fiction to relax. I also read science fiction & fantasy, literary novels, and non-fiction in copious quantities, but when I'm looking to just unwind and let my mind have a break, I usually reach for a crime novel. I favour cosies (ie low-gore, high-puzzle mysteries) and have an especial penchant for the Golden Age writers, particularly the four Grand Dames of Crime (Sayers, Marsh, Christie, and Allingham).

I also like well-written historical crime fiction, with a particular taste for the sub-genre that is Roman Empire-era crime. (A future Reading Notes will look at a very good childrens' / YA mystery series set in the Roman port of Ostia).

Because I do tend to reach for crime stories for pleasure without effort, it's always a nice surprise to find a book (or better yet, a series) that offers me the same mental escape without being blood-soaked (or at least lightly blood-besplattered, as most cosies are). So when I picked up Garrison Keillor's Pontoon for $5 at a book sale, having vaguely heard somewhere that the Lake Wobegon books were pretty good, I was very happy to find that it delivered in spades.

Lake Wobegon, for those unfamiliar, is a fictional town in Minnesota. Garrison Keillor, who is radio announcer as well as an author, reads the "News from Lake Wobegon" on the radio show A Prairie Home Companion, broadcast live every Saturday afternoon over Minnesota Public Radio and syndicated throughout the US. The popularity of the radio broadcasts gave birth to a number of spin-off books, of which Pontoon (2007) was the first of the most recent crop.

Although the style of the stories - I've also subsequently read Liberty, which was not, to my mind, quite as good as Pontoon, but still enjoyable - is different, the mood I took away from Lake Wobegon was very, very similar to the mood evoked by the TV show Northern Exposure, or James Herriot's veterinary series set in the Yorkshire Dales.

Granted, all of these series derive much of their interest, humour and engagement from the central conceit that could be loosely defined as "small-place-quirky-characters-doing-offbeat-things". Nonetheless, they all succeed in ways that a multitude of lesser works, hung on the same hook, do not.

I think this is down to a potent combination of evocation of place - Lake Wobegon, Cicely, and Darrowby are all real places in my mind's eye - and the fact that the characters that people them are not caricatures or ciphers, but multi-dimensional human beings. (I think Northern Exposure did veer dangerously close to cartooning some of its characters, but avoided it by a hair's breadth). Evelyn and Barbara, in particular, fairly leap out of the page in Pontoon. The plot is a little patchy at times and can feel a touch contrived - the coincidence of the Detmer pontoon wedding with Evelyn's bowling-ball lake internment seems just a bit forced - but the actual characters, and their inner lives, who drive the plot along never feel contrived or artificial, but rather like people who might meet one day (in the case of Evelyn, people you'd really like to meet).

I felt no burning urge to complete reading Pontoon - it didn't keep me from sleep or play or even other books, that I read interspersed with it - but it was a very, very enjoyable book to read, with a quiet underlying philosophy that crept up on me and left me quite uplifted at the end. Keillor's chief message in Pontoon seemed to me to be: Live your life; no matter how old you are or what you think the barriers are, just live and love. There are certainly worse messages, and I found this one gentle, appealing and welcome.

Monday, January 24, 2011

3D Tangled

Well, I know I said the movies are too expensive - and so they are, comparatively speaking - but my big girls were *so* keen to see Tangled that we decided to try it as a family outing, all five of us, in 3D.

This was the 23-month-old's first cinema experience, so we were a bit trepidatious about the $100 outlay (for tix, 3D glasses and snacks), but as it turned out, she was brilliant. She loved the first two-thirds of the movie, sat absolutely transfixed between her 5 year old sister and I, occasionally squealing in excitement or laughing with delight at the funny bits (or which there were quite a few - it was a genuinely amusing and well-put-together kids' film).

Even as she faded a bit near the end, all she did was snuggle into me and nurse, so the rest of us were able to watch the whole film easily. It was fun.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


My big girls had a friend sleep over for the first time last night. Their friend, who is the daughter of one of my own longest-standing and dearest friends, is 6 1/2 - 11 months younger than my eldest, 10 months older than my middle. This makes M the "just-right" kid, straddling the age gap between my big girls with ease.

My, but they had fun. They played solidly all afternoon, inside and outside, playing with every subset of toys available, I reckon. A dinner of Nando's chicken & chips came before screening of Barbie & The Fashion Fairytale on our big screen, complete with choc top ice creams and popcorn. This was followed by "bedtime", whereupon all three big girls apparently settled down quickly, but as hubs and I were watching our own movie, I could hear (and see out of the corner of my eye) giggling, flitting girl shapes, and the fridge opening and closing. I chose to turn a blind eye to what I was delightedly informed this morning was "our midnight feast with dancing and stuff!" (It actually took place around 10pm - they were all completely oblivious by the time I headed to bed at 11).

The girls have really enjoyed having M over to sleep; I think it'll turn out to have been a highlight of their entire summer. It's the first time they've ever had a friend stay over all night (we've had other kids go to bed here then get collected later by their parents, but none stay all night). M has been an absolute delight to have and we'll definitely look for an opportunity to have her again soon.

It raised the question for me, though, whether my own girls might be readier than I thought to consider a sleepover at someone's house (other than my parents', where they already sleep over a couple nights each school holidays). I have been assuming that, at 7 1/2 and 5 1/2, they are much too young to do this, but I think I might have been misjudging them a little. Don't get me wrong, my circle of people that I would even consider allowing them to go to overnight is pretty restricted anyway - maybe 3 families that are long-standing friends of ours and whose children are close friends of the big girls. I think I (and they) would initially look for a place where they could go together rather than separating them, too, there being strength in numbers and so forth.

So to my surprise, I find myself willing to consider a sleepover for my big kids in the medium-term future. (Very possibly their first one will be at M's house!) It's another sign of how much they've grown up, I guess. Sweet, yet poignant.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Down memory lane

Me and my second baby girl, who's now just over 5 1/2. How quickly it passes.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Favourite songs

My 7-year-old's most favourite song in the entire world at this moment is this one:

Well, it's probably lineball between this one and two other Indigo Girls songs, Love's Recovery and Go. Very possibly this is influenced by the fact that I am taking her with me to the Indigo Girls concert in Melbourne in April, fulfilling the promise I made her in 2007 when they were last out and I went to the concert solo.

(I love so many Indigo Girls songs that I couldn't pick a favourite, but with my 7 year old, I lift my voice to sing "Oh how I wish I were a trinity, so if I lost a part of me / I'd still have two of the same to live / But nobody gets a lifetime rehearsal, as specks of dust we're universal..." Ah, Love's Recovery. One of those truly great songs).

My 5 year old's favourite song is harder to pin definitely, but she's in a pretty heavy-duty They Might Be Giants phase. I asked her what her favourite TMBG songs were, and she picked these two:

Where DO they make balloons, indeed? (OK, it's probably in a rubber factory, but for kids it's a big ponderable mystery).

As for the 23-month-old, she would certainly nominate a Wiggles song, and this one gets the most constant airplay at the moment:

The Wiggles do The Beatles. Very cute.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Reading Notes: The Summer of Narnia

I am reading the Narnia books to my big girls for the first time at the moment. We've read 4 of the 7 books, having just finished The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (my personal favourite of the seven, and, it would appear, my 7-year-old's favourite so far, although the 5-year-old's heart belongs to The Magician's Nephew). Later today, I have no doubt, I'll be cajoled into starting The Silver Chair.

Both girls are eager to forge ahead to The Last Battle, as they are consumed by curiosity about "how it all ends", especially given the fact that I have let slip that a lot of the characters from the earlier books come back into the storyline in The Last Battle. The 5-year-old, who's sharp as a tack, pounced on that straight away.

"But Mummy, Aslan said that Peter and Lucy and Edmund wouldn't come back to Narnia!"
Me: "Ummm, yes, well, that's true, but they do."
She, suspiciously, "It's for a sad reason, isn't it? Do they all die?"
How to answer that without giving away the whole plot pivot of The Last Battle?
"How about we wait and see, love?"
Weak answer, and she knows it, but the 7-year-old jumps in at that point to wax lyrical about how much she loves Lucy. Lucy is her favourite character by some margin.

Being a lifelong devotee of not just Narnia but of C S Lewis generally, I have so, so loved introducing the girls to Narnia this summer. I know all the standard objections to Lewis, and I'm not even in disagreement with some of them. Yes, his muscular Christianity can be intrusive (it's not exactly concealed - my girls sussed the Aslan-Jesus tie-up about halfway through the first of the books we read, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe). The old-school-tie glorification of a particular kind of physical valour, the traditional gender roles, the implicit racism (to wit - the Calormenes, anyone?), the classism, it's all there in spades.

Buuuut ...

These books are just incredibly engrossing, vividly written, wonderfully magical stories. They suck me in to their world so quickly and easily, and I find them a joy to read, even now, especially as I am sharing them with my kids. I have always contended that Lewis is one of the great writerly-writers of his era - if your measure is the ability to use language to evoke feeling and interest and engagement. He knew how to write a clear, meaningful sentence - not a characteristic of all writers by any means - and with the exception of Prince Caspian (my least favourite of the seven books), I think the Narnia books are a triumph of intelligent plotting and characterisation. As my 7-year-old put it, "they don't drag along, Mum. There's always something to be thinking about."

As for the moral / religious themes, well, they may not be to everyone's taste, but it would be hard to argue with Lewis's sincerity. He profoundly believed in his faith and all the concomitant values it implied, and that deeply felt and carefully argued belief breathes through all his work, not just the Narnia books. His was a formidable intellect and a deep commitment to Christianity. I know some would maintain that sincerity is not in itself a sufficient justification but to me, Lewis's lack of artifice is a vital element in what makes Narnia so real and so wonderful. This, you sense, is the world that Lewis would like to live in, with love and faith made manifest every day. It is a hugely attractive world.

And I am anticipating, with both eagerness and trepidation, my girls' reaction to the big denouement of The Last Battle, whereupon everyone (except Susan - poor Susan) does, in fact, die, and come to the Lewisian heaven, out of the Shadowlands and into the Eternal Real. I may snivel as I read that last paragraph aloud - it has always affected me, and I still think it is one of the great conclusions of all time.

"And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has ever read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

We Play - Gold mining

We've been playing a lot of science-themed games this week (I'm intending to post on Thursday about some of our experiments!), so, in the mood, the big girls decided to spend their some of their saved pocket money today in the Australian Geographic shop on these gold mining kits.

We agreed to go halvies and they happily ponied up their share to get them.

They are quite nifty - mimicking a mixed-soil surface, they require the kids to scrape away several layers of plaster and stone with patience and efficiency to extract the little nuggets of pyrite (Fool's Gold). As they are working on them (they've been going about an hour and a half now, with a break for drinks), I've read them extracts from the encyclopedia about fool's gold, mining, and geology.

These kits aren't all that cheap, retailing for $24.95 each, but they are certainly getting good fun out of them and will have a cloth bag of pyrite each at the end, which will doubtless be added to their geology collections.

I'm going to keep these kits (and the several other similar ones) in mind for potential birthday presents this year. It's something a bit different and it is certainly easily an afternoon of fun, if not more.

This post is part of the weekly We Play meme at the wonderful Childhood 101. Check out the main page over there for lots of fantastic play ideas.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Organising shoes

One of the greatest bugbears of my life, when it comes to trying to maintain some semblance of orderliness in a medium-sized house with 5 active people, is the problem of shoes.

Shoes. They apparently breed in the night - every time I do an inventory, there are pairs there that I don't remember buying or getting, yet there they are. Moreover, some of them disappear on frolics of their own, leaving their mate forlorn and pointless (but unable to be thrown out, due to the protestations of children to whom they instantly become "MY FAVOURITE!") They get grubby in winter and smelly in summer, and they are bulky, not easy to stack neatly. They are also capable of the most astounding disappearing feats, hiding themselves away at exactly the moment that they are needed for a quick departure, only to be discovered nestling smugly somewhere completely obvious after we are already running 20 minutes late and / or have taken sub-optimal shoes and gone for the day.

I have tried a few different systems for managing shoes. Shoe racks failed completely and made the cupboards smell revolting. Scented shoe bags were OK for a while, but also got cumbersome after a time. Mostly recently, we've been dumping all shoes into a large cane chest by the door, which has cut down on odour but has made finding the shoes you're looking for an exercise in daily frustration.

So yesterday we went shopping and have decided to trial a cross between the shoe bag and shoe chest systems - individual shoe drawers.

They are quite pretty, I reckon - designed as children's chests of drawers, they're in bright colours and attractive cane basketwork. We've assigned one drawer per person and one for the overflows (inexplicably, we have several more pairs of sneakers than would seem necessary). Each of us is putting our most-worn shoes on the top, for ease of grabbing. And perhaps most critically, I've sorted through and removed all the shoes that don;t currently fit anyone - that the 7 year old is out of but 5 year old not into, or 5 year old out of but 23 month old not into. Those pairs-awaiting-growth are now in sealed storage bag under my bed.

Only time will tell if this system works better, but at the moment, having just sorted my entryway storage cupboard (used to be a tip, now quite functional) I'm pretty satisfied with the way this corner of the house is working. I've got a bowl for hats, a tray for notices-in and library books to be returned, a spot for keys, coins & paraphernalia, a place for my handbag, a pen jar, and a few photos. It's still more crowded than would be many people's taste, but it suits us - I don't aim for pristine or show-home, I just want useable and friendly.

One tiny zone down; only, oh, the rest of the house to go!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Why the movies are too expensive

Being school holidays, we've been doing a few outings / day trips / special activities that we wouldn't normally do. When I was the age my elder two daughters are now, summer holiday outings basically consisted of one visit to the Healesville Sanctuary per summer (I grew up not far from there), one or two family bowling outings to the local bowling alley, and probably five or six trips to the cinema to see a movie. My mother didn't go in much for big day trips or outings and the cinema, 10 minutes away, was a reasonable and reasonably priced option for amusing me for a few hours. She'd do trades with other local mums - often a duckling chain of five or six kids would be escorted by one mum or dad (or, in one memorably hilarious instance, an extremely entertaining young uncle, who also paid for us all to play video games in the arcade afterwards - SCORE!)

Later, when G and I started dating and then were newlywed DINKs, we used to go to the movies A LOT. Any Saturday afternoon or public holiday when we had nothing else planned, we'd trot along to the cinema, sometimes to see something specific, sometimes just on spec. We saw arthouse and independent films but also a heckuva lot of mainstream cinema. I'd estimate we saw 20-30 films at the cinema every year for the first 5 years of our relationship.

I was thinking about that the other day as I reflected on what we've done so far this holidays, and the activities yet to come. I realised that the kids have been to the cinema exactly once this summer (to see Megamind, with their Dad, on New Year's Day holiday), while G and I have been, together, once (to see TRON: Legacy in 3D). Before those two outings, the last film G and I saw at the cinema was Avatar, in January 2010, while the kids hadn't been to the cinema since - wow, I think it must have been Madagascar 2 in January 2009. (Edited to note: G just reminded me that I took the girls to see The Princess and the Frog in January 2010. Still a year ago though!)

Of course, our circumstances are very different now, with three very young children and much busier / more programmed weeks and weekends, and having one child who is much too young to sit through a movie, which necessitates tag-teaming or babysitting. Even given that, there are several movies that I'm sure we would have tried to see at the cinemas this summer (Tangled, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The King's Speech spring immediately to mind) and others too in previous holidays, but were put off by one main factor - the cost.

Daniel blogged about this recently, and I have to say I completely agree with him and his commenters. The movies, for a family, are an extremely high cost option for 2-3 hours' entertainment. Here's a cost comparison with three other activities / days out we've had this summer:

1. Family day out in city
Time elapsed: 6.5 hrs
Activities: Train trip into city, view Myer Christmas windows, lunch in town, Christmas browsing, walking the arcades and malls
Cost: Train / tram fares - $21; Morning snack at coffee shop - $15; Lunch at Nando's for 5 people - $50
Total: $86

2. Werribee Zoo outing
Time elapsed: 5 hrs
Activities: Zoo tour, walking, playing on playground, watching animal feedings, picnic lunch with friends
Cost: $7 for coffees for my friend & I; $32 entrance fee
Total: $39

3. Circus
Time elapsed: 3 hrs
Activities: Watching spectacular acrobatics that entertained whole family, including 22-month-old
Cost: $7 for popcorn and fairy floss; $65 admission
Total: $72

Compare these with the cinema. When G took the girls to see Magamind - so that's one adult and two children, rather than the whole family - it cost him as follows:

$22 = Food court lunch for them all before film
$13.50 x 2 kids = $27
$18.50 x 1 adult = $18.50
$19 = Large popcorn, 2 large drinks (to share), 2 choc tops for the kids
Total: $86.50

And that doesn't include the arcade games he paid for them to play after the film, but that was an optional extra, so I've left it off.

At $86.50 for three hours for only three members of our clan of 5, the movies comes out as $9.60 per person per hour, as opposed to $4.80 per person per hour for the circus, say, or the excellent value of $1.95 per person per hour of Werribee Zoo. Sure, we could have spent more at the Zoo if we had opted to buy our food there, but we had the choice not to, so we didn't.

The other thing, of course, is that, unlike the Zoo or the circus or a day spent in the city, the movie experience can at be at least partially replicated in greater comfort at home. We have a projector and a big screen, along with a great stereo surround-sound system, that means that almost all films except the truly visual-spectacular type are just as enjoyable to watch if not more so at home. Yes, we have to wait - although these days, not for long - for the DVD, but honestly, the combination of the hassle, the cost and the logistics of getting to the cinema makes that a small price to pay.

So, overall, in my opinion - movies = too expensive to be a regular family outing for us. There is an alternative, and there's not usually enough bang for buck.

What do you think?

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Yesterday I was feeling unwell, with a bad headache, stomach pain, and dizziness. All the kids were doing their thing, playing with various toys, so I lay down on the floor, my cheek pressed against the cool slate, and sighed.

Instantly, my 5 year old came trotting up to me. "What's wrong, Mummy? Are you OK?" she said, stroking my arm.
"I'm OK, pet," I said, "just I have a headache and a sore tummy, that's all."
"Never mind, Mummy," she consoled, rubbing my shoulderblades gently as I closed my eyes for a moment.

A moment later a gentle nudge in my ribs caused me to open my eyes. My 7 year old wordlessly handed me a packet of Panadol and my water bottle.
"Sweetheart, where did you get those?" I asked, panic-stricken suddenly that the medicine cupboard was unlocked.
"It's the packet from your handbag, Mum," she said matter-of-factly. "I climbed up on a chair to get it from your bag."
I swallowed two tablets, and said, "Thank you, love, but please, you mustn't touch tablets without asking, OK?"
She smiled at me.

Just then the 22-month-old hurricane came tearing along. Seeing me on the floor, she stopped in her tracks, then said, "Oh dear, dear, dear. Poor Mummy!"
She toddled up to me and patted my cheek, saying, "'S orright dar-ying, 's orright. You OK. Me is 'ere."

The Panadol helped my head. The lie down helped my stomach pain. Three children clustered around in gentleness helped most of all, of course.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Australian eastern seaboard floods

The floods that are covering Queensland, and the stories of loss and damage and pain and heartbreak pouring out of that state, are almost too much to process, even now as the waters start to recede and the massive mop-up operation begins.

The floods creeping across my own state, Victoria, while much less wide-ranging and devastating, are still very worrying and will cause damage and loss too. Friends and family in Halls Gap have evacuated, and other friends are surrounded by floodwater, communicating on mobile phones with fast-dying batteries.

Tasmania's turn is starting - floodwaters are up there too, with more to come.

I feel unqualified to say anything profound or meaningful about these events. My heart aches for those who've lost people, animals and places dear to them. My mind boggles at the scale of the reconstruction necessary. I feel, like I felt in 2009 when Victoria suffered through the Black Saturday fires, wrung with pity and anxiety and yet aware in the very same moment of how fortunate I am to be sitting here, in my safe dry house, with my family around me.

I am thankful and I am sad.

There are many places to donate to flood relief appeals. Some of the ones I've seen are listed below but I'm sure there are more. We chose to donate through the Red Cross but I'm certain all these funds will be put to good use in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Lifeline's Queensland Flood Appeal

Queensland Premier's Flood Relief Appeal

The Australian Red Cross

Which leaves me with nothing else to say that can't be said better by Peter Gabriel.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reading Notes - P D Eastman

When I was a very young child, according to my mother, my favourite book in the whole wide world for a few months was P D Eastman's Are You My Mother? In that obsessive way that toddlers have, I was wont to demand the book several (or more) times a day, and it had to be read with a particular inflection, with a deep voice for the cow and a piping voice for the baby bird, with actions and gestures just-so.

And woe bedtide the unwary reader who didn't realise that it was *my* 2-year-old prerogative to shout "Are oo my MUVVER?" at the correct textual junctions. My mother still smiles over a memory of my tiny 2-year-old self berating an unsuspecting aunt for 10 straight minutes for this grave infraction. My aunt, I am told, was terrified of reading to me for years afterwards ;-)

Although I have no conscious memories of this phase, it's obviously still there bubbling away in my pre-memory long-term storage, because when I started reading it to A, my firstborn, for the first time, I was instantly deeply familiar and embedded in the text. I even found myself putting on the voices, quite reflexively. And it seems the magic hasn't faded in the generation that's elapsed since then. All three of my children have been similarly enchanted, as toddlers, by not just Are You My Mother but by all of P D Eastman's classic books.

A children's author, illustrator and screenwriter for animated studios, Phillip Dey Eastman produced three books in particular in his career that have formed a permanent and beloved fixture in my family's one to three-year-old reading rota. Are You My Mother?, my own childhood favourite, was also the favourite of my eldest daughter. She loved to sit on my knee and be bounced around as I read, "The egg jumped. It jumped, and jumped, and jumped!"

My secondborn's favourite Eastman was, and still is, Go, Dog, Go! As an adult reader, I particularly heart this book, with its engaging illustrations, its clear colours, and its seamless weaving of simple opposite pairs and concepts (up / down, in / out, over / under, stop / go) with a funny, clever little story. My 5-year-old, as a toddler, would literally squeak with excitement every time we got up to the grand finale of the book ("A dog party! A big dog party! WHAT a dog party!")

My 22-month-old also loves Go, Dog, Go! but is also very fond indeed of Eastman's The Best Nest. She likes the sing-song quality of this text, the simple repetition, and the deceptively cartoonish but also very clean imagery. Like her mother before her, she has phrases that are hers to say, and no-one else's ("LUFF my 'ouse, LUFF my nest, All Worl' this nest BEST!" she hollers in delight).

I wonder if there are many English-speaking children who get through childhood without encountering Eastman at some point. Like Dr Seuss, he's rightly ubiquitous in early reader circles. And that's a good thing by me - these books are well-written, well-illustrated, and enormously appealing to parents and children alike.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

We Play - Toddler Sudoku

My 7-year-old, who loves games of all kinds but particularly mathematical and word-based games (she kills it at chess and Junior Scrabble), was given a plastic grid junior Sudoku set last Christmas (that is, Christmas 2009, not the Christmas just gone). She played it quite a bit for a month or two, but lost interest in it as she started to find most of the layouts either too easy or much too hard - the game really doesn't seem to have any intermediate-level challenges. So, it was packed away in the games cupboard, awaiting my second daughter's possible future interest.

In raiding the games cupboard for wooden puzzles last week, my 22-month-old came across the Sudoku set. Attracted, I'm sure, by the colourful and illustrated box, she pulled it out to have a look.

Soon after, wondering in some trepidation exactly what my toddler was finding so engrossing that I had not heard a peep for her in at least twenty minutes, I came into the lounge-room to find her completely absorbed in playing her very own version of Sudoku.

She did very well, I reckon, matching up almost all the picture tiles to their corresponding square, and making a neat pile of her leftovers.

It just goes to show that there is *always* more than one way to play with anything, and that no way that inspires creativity, shape awareness, and fun is wrong!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Learnings from the Zoo

Miss 5: Don't all camels have about two or three humps?

Miss 7: Apparently not. *click*

Me: Photographic evidence for the existence of the dromedary!

The kids, together: Muuuuum!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Cooking with kids: Chocolate Mascarpone Indulgence Cake

(This is reposted from my private blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis, from last year, as I have now had three emails asking for it back again. Interestingly, I note that we made the cake for G's Mum's birthday lunch last year - and we just made it again three days ago for her birthday this year, at her request! It is a most delicious cake :-).

Today we had G's Mum's birthday lunch here. The girls were very keen to make their Nanny a special cake, and picked the Chocolate Mascarpone Indulgence Cake from Beverley Sunderland Smith's wonderful Decadent Desserts cookbook to attempt as part of our cooking project.

Given that we are going to do quite a few recipes this year, the girls and I have together decided on a format to log our cooking experiences. We are going to describe and rank each recipe on difficulty (as assessed by me!), number of ingredients, ease of adaptation to gluten free cooking, steps required, time required, and result. I'll also offer an overall assessment of how the recipe fares as a cooking-with-kids adventure.

Making the Chocolate Mascarpone Cake was a very enjoyable outing for us, and while it took longer than I had anticipated, and did not look a bit like the picture in the book, it was well worth it. It ended up tasting sublime - "like a cafe cake", as my mother-in-law remarked to the girls' delight. We'll certainly make this cake again for special occasions.

Degree of difficulty: 5/10
- Cake layers - 7 (Plain flour, cornflour, 4 eggs separated, castor sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla, baking powder)
- Mascarpone filling - 4 (mascarpone, dark chocolate, sugar, 4 egg yolks)
- Sugar syrup - 2 (Sugar & water)
Steps / processes: 8
Ease of conversion to gluten free: Very easy. One flour substitution was all that was required.
Time required: 1-1.5 hrs total prep, spread over several hours due to cooking, chilling & icing.
Approximate cost of ingredients: $15. The addition of 500g of mascarpone, which cost almost $8, plus the fact that it takes a whopping 8 eggs made this an expensive cake to make. I take comfort however from knowing that buying it made from a bakery would have cost twice as much!
Appearance - 5/10. It didn't look as plump or tall or neat as the book!
Taste - 9/10. It was DE-LIC-IOUS. We all adored it.

Overall assessment:
This is a suitable cooking project for older preschool and school-aged kids to assist with. Several processes need to be either completed or mostly completed by an adult, so it is not a highly interactive / self-driven project. It does provide the opportunity to introduce key cooking and baking concepts (such as separating eggs, which my girls enjoyed learning how to do; beating egg whites until fluffy (thank you Kenwood - hand-beating egg whites is NOT my idea of fun); melting cooking chocolate safely; and sifting dry ingredients. At each stage, we were able to talk about why certain things needed to be done - what effect the fluffed egg whites would have, for instance, and why whole eggs would not ever go fluffy no matter how long you beat them. With my 6-year-old's interest in science, this prompted us to do some online investigations about the chemical composition of eggs (yolks and albumen) and learn why each component of the eggs behaves as it does when cooked.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


sometimes (but not too often, it must be said)
there falls upon this house
a silence.
this house, which
is used to the constant sounds of occupation
the rise and fall of voices, their pitches wandering
all along the aural spectrum. sometimes sharp, irritated
sometimes gentle. often animated, often raised together
words slipping like agile otters in among the reeds of conversation
all tumbling together in a bright rush.

the sounds of life being lived.
machines performing their robot labour,
laundering clothes, washing dishes, cooking food,
the steady hum of the vaccuum. pleasure machines, too, sometimes,
the frenetic chatter of the television, the happy ping of the computers,
the peep-peep of the tiny devices, lifting their voices in song
the phones
the music players
the little games.
the toys that talk and buzz,
trains that race with whirring wheels around the plastic tracks
artificial pets that ape life, squeaking in unison
baby dolls inconsolable without their tiny pacifiers.

a cacophony of domesticity, this house
a perfect storm of sound

yet, sometimes, a moment of silence comes. oh, not at night
(the nights are often quiet, but it is the quiet of sleep, not of stillness)
no, sometimes a rare constellation of inclination and introspection will
halt every voice together
all at peace in one moment
a well of silence, that opens up
still and shining and dark

a mother breastfeeding a toddler, her head slightly bowed, thinking of nothing
an almost-baby intent on milk and closeness, noiseless and voiceless
a 7-year-old reading, lying on her stomach, absorbed in her book
a father dozing on the couch, his eyes almost closed
a 5-year-old dreaming dreams and seeing visions, gazing at the future on her tiny Pooh Bear couch

no mechanical slaves about their appointed tasks
no music
nothing but silence
utterly peaceful and companionable
wrapping around the house like a bolt of silk
and all the more so
for its rarity.

- Kathy, 8/1/11

Friday, January 7, 2011

Lori of Random Ramblings of a SAHM

Lori of Random Ramblings of a SAHM posted last night some very bad news - her husband Tony is in intensive care, in a fight for his life. She, and their two young children, are devastated.

I only know Lori through her blog, the Aussie Mummy Bloggers network, and her online presence, but the warmth and humour that she projects in her writing is palpable, and her love for her family is obvious and vast. I cannot imagine what she's going through right now.

I'm hoping and praying today for a good outcome for Lori, Tony and their children. The hat is being passed around the Aussie Mummy Bloggers world too to try to offer some material assistance at this hard time. If you are able to contribute, and would like to, visit Multi Tasking Mummy Blogger at this link and make a donation. (I can't get the widget to work properly here).

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Reading Notes - Reading in the Brain

"At this very moment, your brain is accomplishing an amazing feat - reading." (p1)

Stanislas Dehaene's highly lauded text on the mechanisms and mysteries of reading, Reading in the Brain - The New Science of How we Read, has been on my to-be-read pile since it first came out in 2009.

Just last night, I finally finished it, having expended some of my summer reading time on it. It was an excellent read, although quite dense and scholarly (not that that's a bad thing, but it's not as easy to read or engaging as, say, a Bill Bryson or Dava Sobel popularisation). I enjoy reading science texts generally, but in the last few years my focus has been on astronomy, genetics and paleontology / geology (or, as my 7 year old just noted as she looked over my shoulder, Stars, Babies and Dinosaur Bones). I haven't read any brain science for quite a while, so the Dehaene text was a good, if somewhat challenging, change of pace in this regard.

Dehaene's coverage is well-organised, comprehensive, and worth the not inconsiderable effort. He writes of the development of a scientific understanding of how we read, the notion of neuronal recyling, the differences in learning between humans and other primates (including his hypothesis of the "theory of mind" distinction) and the ways in which non-typical or injured brains can highlight reading issues. Fitting in to the recent understandings about the fuzziness of the human brain generally (ie that very little the brain does is done in a simple linear series of processes; many connections and interrelationships drive all human cognition), this book is a really impressive study on one of the most fascinating of all human skills (to me, anyway, reader that I am) - reading text.

One of the most interesting sections of the book for me, as the mother of young children, was Chapter 5: Learning to Read. In that chapter, Dehaene considers the process by which literacy is acquired, from birth to fluency. The three stages of reading acquisition now recognised by science as explored: the logographic / pictorial, the phonological, and the orthographic stages. Dehaene takes great pains to debunk the idea that any of these stages is optional in acquiring deep reading competence.

In particular, he completely demolishes the idea that children can learn to learn via the whole-word method favoured in some education systems over the past thirty years. Phonemical awareness (fostered by a phonics model) is essential to reading in the brain, and Lehaene demonstrates why in fifty different positions, so to speak. Focusing on the "shape" of words to enable one to "recognise" them is not a way to actually grow a reader, because that is not what our brains actually do when they see a printed word. Rather, the brain breaks a word down into graphemes and morphemes that represent phonemes (sounds). We read phonically before we can read orthographically (in which parallelism and efficiency start to take over, words need no longer be sounded out, and unfamiliar words are sorted more easily because of the context of the surrounding words). Whole-word language tries to take children to this orthographic level without first giving them the basis in phonics, and Lehaene is so, so not a fan:

"Cognitive psychology directly refutes any notion of teaching via a "global" or "whole language" method. I have to stress this point very forcefully because pedagogical strategies of this kind were once very popular..." (p 219)

This comes as no great surprise to me, from my own experience with my children. When the new national curriculum model was announced a year ago in Australia, I wrote about what I saw as its strengths. One of the things I was most pleased about was the return to a phonics basis for teaching reading. I wrote then, praising phonics, that:

"One thing that puzzled me when my daughter started her first year of school was the almost total lack of phonics emphasis in the literacy instruction the kids were given. Children were encouraged to have a guess at words based on their context & place in a sentence, and not to worry if they guessed wrong, so long as their guess made sense in the context of the sentence. This is called whole-language learning...

However, it didn't work well for my daughter. She wanted - no, she needed - to be able to understand how letters joined together to make sounds, and to sound out unfamiliar words, in order to be able to feel confident to read new texts. Guessing words was a profoundly unsatisfactory exercise for her. She really only began to read when, over the winter holidays in June-July, I gave her two weeks of fairly low-key daily phonics work - reading phonics books, looking at blends and ends, and playing sound-pair games. That was all it took, and she was flying. Once she had that phonics basis, she was quite comfortable with doing a bit of whole-language work at school - because she had the tools. I don't believe I am overstating the case when I say that I taught my daughter how to read, with phonics; school has vastly improved her reading competence, expanded her literary reach, taught her great read-aloud expression, improved her vocabulary and is now teaching her about sentence construction (all whole-language tools), but she did not set foot on that road until she and I worked together to give her a familiarity and competence with the phoneme basis of written English first.

I just think that for most children, it gives them the tools to become readers, rather than bluffers. There are plenty of A's cohort at her school that are "reading" at level 10 or above (according to their take-home books) but who actually cannot read at all. They can recognise a handful of of common words, and most initial letters, by sight; they are smart and intuitive and will look at pictures and guess what the word *could* be based on its first letter. What worries me about this is that parents are explicitly told NOT to correct them if they guess wrong, so long as their guess is "plausible". How does this equip these children for true literacy, where they can read whatever is put in front of them, whether it has a pictorial cue or not? I don't see it myself."

It's nice to see that my instinct in this regard would appear to be validated by the best in modern neuroscience ;-)

Overall, I would give this book 8/10 if I were reviewing it, and I wish Chapter 5 in particular could be mandatory reading for all trainee teachers in Australia. Well worth it if you can spare the time to read it through, and worth dipping into even if that's too much to contemplate.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

We Play - Chalk drawing

This week, the girls have been enjoying drawing with sidewalk chalk. They've made a chain of hearts (and decorated it with rose petals), they've drawn pictures and stories, and I've helped out with a few words in high places.

Monday, January 3, 2011

On playing with toddlers

It has occurred to me recently, with something of a start, that I think I play less with my 22-month-old than I did with her sisters (now 7 and 5) when they were her age.

I certainly spend as much time with her - truth be told, possibly more, as I haven't worked in the office since her birth, whereas I did part-time / occasional work away from home when both the other two were in the 18-month-to-3 age range. I read just as many books to her as I did to them; we cuddle as much and talk as much; and we spend as much, if not more, time outdoors together. But actual time where I sit down and play with her at home is more limited.

This is partly, I'm sure, because having two older sisters puts her in a really different situation than they were in at her age and stage. Firstly, of course, she has two excellent and very patient playmates in her big sisters, and often she will opt to play with them rather than with my partner or I, even if we are available. The big kids will help her build with blocks, will play chasey and hide-and-seek with her, will play with their Zhou Zhou pets and Barbies and include her in the game, will set up the train tracks in intricate loops for her, and so on. This is all very good, naturally, and the last thing I want to do is discourage it.

The other reason for me getting down on the floor less with her has been a logistical one. We are just busier, and home for less stretches of time, than we were back then. When my eldest, A, was the age C is now, Friday morning playgroup represented the sum total of our weekly commitments, and with E being so tiny (just 6 weeks old), we spent an awful lot of days just hanging out together. Even by the time E was almost 2, our locked-in commitments had only expanded marginally to include 2 sessions of 3-year-old kinder for A. Basically, the flow of our weeks was pretty organic and pretty fluid. This doesn't mean that we didn't do anything, of course - those were busy years too - but it does mean that the number of places we had to be at specific times was drastically lower.

Today my partner has taken my elder two kids out for a Daddy day (which is to include McDonald's, video game arcade, and seeing Megamind at the cinemas - very little of which appeals to me, but that's what makes it a Daddy day!) This left C and I at home together at 11am, with about an hour and a half to go before her nap, the housework and laundry (jobs I often jump on when the big kids vacate) close to finished, and the last of our baking just coming out of the oven. C looked at me a little pensively, and said, "Mummy, Daddy, big gels, go? C and Mummy go too?"

"No, honey," I explained, "C and Mummy will stay here. Let's play something together. What would you like to play?"
I wondered if this was going to be too open-ended a question for her, but she instantly broke into a grin and said, "Twains! Mummy set up twains! We race Embily!"

So we got out the train set and I laid out a complicated triple track for her, with her assiduously squatting by my side and handing me pieces. "'Elping Mummy!" she announced proudly each time. After we'd raced the trains around the tracks for 10 minutes or so, she took my hand and led me into the lounge room, where she opened her box of Duplo and said, "Mummu? Dumo bwocks?"

We played with her Duplo for half an hour, building, demolishing, building again, playing with the duplo pets ("Meow, Meow, Mummy!" giggled the toddler as she moved the plastic cat towards me), running the duplo cars over the carpet and over each other ("Mummy be a woad! Bwoom bwoom, car!") C concentrated, laughed, talked, asked me questions, and was delightful to be with in every possible way. I enjoyed myself immensely, feeling very relaxed and very in the moment with her.

Later, we played bouncing games with her on my knee (This is the Way the Ladies Ride on so forth), then we read a few books before it was time for her breastfeed and bed.

As I left her bedroom at 12:45, with her sound asleep in her cot, I thought what a great time we'd had. Not only had C really enjoyed herself (and it was so evident that she had), but I had too, and I was struck by the notion that this was the one missing element in my daily parenting of C. She is nurtured and loved and encouraged and fed and read to; she gets exercise and social play and outings and fun; she draws and paints at least as often as her sisters did (and often under their supervision), and she cooks with me all the time. But often, the contingencies of our busy routine mean that she plays in proximity to me, with my verbal participation or encouragement, rather than me actually playing *with* her.

This makes me a little sad, to think that I've not given this necessary and wonderful element of our relationship the attention it deserves. However, it also makes me determined to build time for C-and-Mummy play into most days, even if it can't always be the concentrated 90 minutes we were able to have today. After all, I consciously build in talking time for my eldest, who needs and wants her 20-minute bedtime chat with me daily, and reading time for the 5-year-old, where we snuggle and read her latest book for 30 minutes together, uninterrupted. Spending time playing with C is no less necessary or rewarding, and I'm going to do my best to ensure it happens.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Toddlers and gendered clothing

My 22-month-old girl, C, is going through a phase where she only wants to wear dresses or skirts, preferably with sparkles or patterns. (Also preferably without a nappy, but that's a story for another day.) If I try to dress her in pants and a top, she wails in protest. "Noooooo! Me no wear pents! Me be pwetty, so pwetty!"

With the warmer weather, I've largely given up the battle, allowing her to wear whatever she selects. It was a bit more difficult on some of the cooler days we had in November and December, but on these balmy days, a little sundress is quite weather-suitable. Once she's dressed, she pirouettes in uneven but joyful loops around the room, singing "Me pwetty! So pwetty! My 'ave dwess! Boo-ful C!"

C has two elder sisters, both of whom like their dresses very well, but neither of whom is now (or has ever been) obsessive about clothing. They like to dress up for occasions and dressing up often involves wearing dresses, but mostly they self-select clothing that is a mix of types, styles and colours, and their predominant criteria seems to be comfort. As I write this, mid-morning on a lazy Sunday with nothing on the horizon but a shopping trip sometime later on, my 5 year old is wearing a red t-shirt and white cotton shorts, while the 7 year old, her head buried in a book, is still in pyjama pants and a somewhat stained green shirt.

Nor am I myself a very girly-girl with respect to clothing choices. I tend to select clothes that I believe are fit for purpose (and fit me), rather than being overly concerned with how they make me appear. I actually don't like to wear dresses all that much, although I do wear skirts.

So I wonder where this fixed idea has come from, that prettiness lies in clothing that is usually, in our society, worn by females; and indeed that feeling or being "pretty" is in itself a wonderful thing.

I wonder if it is partly a result of the fact that, as the youngest and blondest of my children, and an exceedingly appealing one (if I do say so), she is constantly being petted and fussed over by others, people who tell her that she is "so cute", "so lovely", "so pretty", and compliment her on her clothes: "WHAT a pretty dress!" and "Doesn't she look like a little doll!" I don't especially like this kind of commentary, but it's almost impossible to counteract when you're talking about grandparents, doting aunties, and random old ladies at the shops. It feels churlish to say "Actually, I'd prefer you don't focus on her appearance when you talk to my child", and I doubt there would be understanding of the underlying point anyway.

Of course, there isn't much point trying to read too deeply into it - she's not quite 2, and barely has a sense of herself as a separate entity, let alone a deep, nuanced understanding of the politics of beauty ;-) Still, it is something I observe and note, as I watch this youngest child of mine grow.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Post-a-day January

Last year (it feels rather odd to be referring to 2010 in those terms, but it is New Year's Day here!), I set myself a goal of posting to my then-public, now-private first blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis, every day. Not every post was earth-shattering, and some were wordless (just images from our summer). It was a fun thing to do, though, and served as great practice for what became my larger writing challenge in 2010 - NaNoWriMo in November.

This year, I'm going to attempt the same thing, except here on Play, Eat, Learn, Live. I'll play along for We Play Tuesdays, naturally, and will post a new Reading Notes post each Thursday. Other than that, I will write about subjects related to parenting, to my experience of it, to books and literature and summer. I might even manage a poem or two, who knows.

Hopefully at least some of what I post will be of interest to someone, but if not, never mind - it's still good practice for me, a place to write about things I'm interested in, and a record for my family.

Roll on, January...