Monday, January 30, 2012

Planning for termtime: My Big Five - Part 5

The last of the big jobs in getting ready for term to start is, unlike the other four, one I've only initiated this year, and it's this:

5. Plan out my own schedule for the first two terms, including 2 mental health days / "days off"

Yes, I live the cliche - I plan for the needs, desires and schedules of my family, but often forget about myself.

Of course this isn't 100% true, as many of the family events, activities and happenings are for me as much as for the kids and G (I am greatly looking forward to piano lessons with E, for instance, and to our mid-term beach holiday). Nonetheless, I do tend to forget about putting my own activities into the mix when planning for termtime, and in the past two years in particular, this has certainly contributed to stresspoints in the early weeks as I try to integrate them post facto into an already streamlined schedule.

The things I have tried to factor in for my term 1 & 2 plan are the known variables that I must allow time for, both in preparation and delivery, that need to be either kid-free or where I need to strategise carefully for the kids to be fully occupied. This is things such as:

- 2 x school council meetings (evenings) and 4 x half-days doing school council work
- 4 x teaching mornings at Sunday School (half-day prep, half-day delivery apiece)
- Approximately 8 days' worth of contract work (known & booked) for term 1 (of necessity this is a rubbery estimate only, as work can vaporise or blow out with very little notice)
- 1 x physio appointment per fortnight (I have found I cannot do this with the kids in tow; it is a recipe for utter disaster. I need to allow 1.5 hrs total for treatment and travel.)
- 4 x volunteer sessions in the school kitchen / cooking program
- Involvement in charity / not for profit events and activities (usually 1-3 things across the two terms)
- 1 x lunch / dinner out for G and I for our anniversary in early March

Of course, most of the things I do across a week are completely integratable with the kids, and so I haven't considered things like shopping, party planning, cooking, housework, playgroup, writing (and blogging!) in my term 1 & 2 list. I've only put in things which require me to schedule significant blocks of time alone to accomplish them.

One thing I've decided to do is to schedule 2 mental health days - 1 per term - for myself. This might seem like a bit of an indulgence, and in reality I suppose it is, but sometimes I can find the pace of my life a little tiring, especially when G travels for work (as he'll be doing quite a bit again in the coming months).

So I've decided that one Thursday per term, I'm going to use the 6.5 hours that the girls are at school and C is at creche to spend time just doing something for myself. I'm not sure yet what form that will take. I might have a massage, go shopping and lunch with a friend; I might bake something fancy, curl up with a pile of good books and a flask of tea and read, doze and dream. I might swim laps and go to a market; I might go to the movies and watch daytime TV. I might dig up the garden, play games, or visit my Mum. I might meet up with bloggy friends and go somewhere fun!

Whatever form it takes, once a term I am going to make myself have a day off, not just because I think I'll be a better parent for it (although I do), not just because I think it'll help improve my stamina and keep me going (although it will), but because I would like to, I think it will make me happier, and I think my happiness matters.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Selections: Back to the Future in the DeLorean

G and I went to a friend's 4oth birthday party last night. The theme was the 80s, and the birthday boy, who's a pop culture aficionado as well as an active member of the comics / action figurine / collectibles world, had arranged for a guy he knows to come along with his fully tricked-out Back to the Future DeLorean.


The photos aren't great photos - they're all phone ones - but honestly, who cares? You can see the details and that's all the counts.

The level of detail was astonishing; my mind boggles at the amount of loving work that has been put into this vehicle. Even the brand names on the parts were right, and the flux capacitor actually pulsed. A-MAZ-ING.

So i sat in the DeLorean and remembered the movies and felt like a teenager again and it was great.

Other people are sharing photos at frogpondsrock's Sunday Selections today. There are some goodies; well worth a look!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Planning for termtime: My Big Five - Part 4

After we get school supplies and lunch plans worked out, extracurriculars locked in, and book our autumn holiday, the next thing I try to do is:

4. Make opportunities for special one-on-one time for each of the big girls with me and with their Dad before school goes back

I find - often - that one of my biggest challenges in parenting three children is finding opportunities to have one-on-one time with each child. Over the summer, all the kids get plenty of time with me and with G, too, but it's as a group, not, unless we specifically plan for it, one on one.

This summer each of my big girls has had a 2-night sleepover at my Mum's house by themselves, so each kid has had time just with me and C while their school-aged sibling has been away. C has been back at her Thursday creche for 2 weeks, too, which has given me two days with just the big girls and I. While they've certainly enjoyed that, it's not been quite a substitute for one-on-one activities and time.

All three of them, despite their very different personalities, crave and need this personal time with parents. C has been asking me for three weeks now, "When are the big gels going back a school?" with a plaintive note in her voice. She goes on to say, with great satisfaction, "THEN we have our Mummy an' C days!" She loves and needs the rhythm of days that can be more 3-year-old-centric (and having most of my attention without sharing!)

With the older two, I see the need for one-on-one time in increasing attention-seeking behaviours and complaints that things aren't fair / obsessing over imagined privileges that the other one has allegedly received. Both G and I have noticed that a special outing with Mum or Dad for each kid works wonders in reducing this wearing competitiveness between them. (And it is tiring to listen to over and over, as I'm sure anyone with more than one child can appreciate!)

In termtime, the structure of our activities provides regular injections of one on one time. A and G do guitar lessons together, while E and I will be doing piano. In termtime I do the groceries on Sunday afternoon and take A with me; G and E stay home and play board games while C naps.

Somehow, in summer, it seems to be harder to find the one-on-one opportunities, but I really believe it's important that we do so before school goes back. So I'm taking E out to get her hair cut and have morning tea tomorrow, and I'll take A with me to grocery shop in the afternoon (and probably take the opportunity for a cuppa again!) G is going to spend some time playing games with E while A and I shop (and C naps), and he and A are back to guitar lessons Tuesday night, which he'll follow with a visit to the ice creamery for her.

For us, this makes a lot of difference to everyone's feeling of readiness to get back into the swing of things.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Planning for termtime: My Big Five - Part 3

Following on from sorting out school supplies and lunchbox contents and locking in extracurriculars, the third thing I do in these lead-up weeks that makes going back to school more pleasant is:

3. Plan and book our autumn holiday

We have a strong tradition of late summer - autumnal holidays in our family. Before G and I had kids, we travelled a few times, and all of them in the Australian autumn (granted, we travelled sometimes to places where we found spring!)

Since we've had the girls, we've holidayed five times, on all but one occasion between late February and early April (our Gippsland farm holiday, last October, being the sole exception).

There are a few reasons for this preference. Firstly, G usually finds it difficult to get time off work over the long summer break (he can, and does, take odd days here and there - like much of the nation, I expect, he's got tomorrow off to make a 4-day weekend of Australia Day - but periods of a week or longer are very hard.) Secondly, everything is more expensive travel-wise in the summer peak, and friends' holiday houses, on which we have relied twice already, are not available when the family is using them itself. Thirdly, everything is more crowded, especially at popular places, and the heat can get really uncomfortable. Fourthly, we all enjoy having the summer hanging about at home - day trips and excursions, exploring our own spaces, suit us on the long staycation.

While weather is often chancier (naturally), we've had reasonable luck with it so far - each of our autumn holidays (Mornington Peninsula, Phillip Island, Echuca and Anglesea) has had at least half the days fine and warm, and we have always been able to find fun things to do on the colder days.

Locking in our autumn holiday now allows me to:
- Book holiday houses (if available) or inexpensive paid accommodation
- Give the girls a real say in where we go - we can discuss options, make enquiries, choose somewhere together because the time is there to do so
- Get husband's leave locked in, and allows me to give plenty of notice to the companies I occasionally contract to regarding unavailability
- Build anticipation and give us something to look forward to in what can be a hectic first term

In all but one instance so far (3 out of 4), we have holidayed in a termtime week. This raised no eyebrows when it was A skipping a week of 3-year-old then 4-year-old kinder, but last year, when we took E out of Prep and A out of Grade 2 for a week, a few people questioned whether it was a wise decision. Obviously I feel it was, as we're doing it again this year, but I know there are different views on it. (Do you have a view? Tell, tell!)

Taking a week out of term one actually worked very well for us last year; the girls really benefited from the downtime, they read heaps, played maths games and Scrabble, kept holiday diaries, explored wildlife and the ocean, sent postcards to their classes, and generally, I'm quite convinced, learned every bit as much as they would have at school. The school was a little cooler on the idea initially but ended up being quite happy, as it was apparent that neither kid had lost ground in their sneaky 7 days off :-) I hope they'll see it my way again when I once again present my letters excusing both girls for a week this term, but even if they're not super keen, it's my decision to make - they are my children and it is our family needs, which are best served by this holiday pattern, that I need to consider.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


it started so badly. a day
for headaches and shouting, temper and tears. so I thought.
a day to be endured, not enjoyed, this too shall pass
every little gnat bite of irritation unbearable on friable skin

the day before someone had said, come to the park with us? and I said sure
on the somewhat curmudgeonly premise
that misery loves company.

the day was bright, hot
but the park shaded, inviting. I sat under a tree
talked and ate fruit, and listened too
while children ran and laughed together
in the patchy summer grass.

market day it was, and
the pleasures of the beach stalls lay open to us. we wandered
the sky the most brilliant blue, hats at full mast
fingering stamp blocks and necklaces, books and wall hangings.
my little one fell in love with a carved wooden owl, and I
with a dragonfly painting
iridescent and inviting
in the heat of the sun.

lunch at a cafe - rarest of pleasures - and the knot
that had twisted my insides to sour ruin was unravelling

then the library, cool and calm
a middle girl lost in a book, a galaxy away
and a little girl on my knee, her head against mine
as I read her Ten Little Ducks over and over.

finally, through the park to the beach
the Police band was piping
our steps carried on a wave of Amazing Grace

to play, cool and safe, under the pier
away from the sun, immersed in the water

sandy-home to wash and eat again

and the gnats no longer sting, although I still swat at them
coated in the armour of summer and love
(and perspective)
as I am.

- Kathy, 25/1

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Planning for termtime: My Big Five - Part 2

The second thing I do to get ready for term going back is:

2. Make any final decisions necessary about extracurricular activities, book them in, and pay for them

The shape of a termtime week is not just determined by school and creche, but by the out-of-school / care activities that the kids do. I've always wanted the girls to be able to do things and try things that interest them, but this has to be balanced against the costliness of extracurriculars and the toll they take on the relaxed free-play time that I believe younger kids sorely need after school.

For the past two years I've said each child can do no more than two activities per term in addition to swimming (all three kids do swimming lessons on Saturday mornings - we all go and make it family time. My husband and I think swimming is a really important life skill). The big kids have dabbled in dancing, cricket, athletics and basketball, but for the last two years their constant has been gymnastics, which the toddler also started in 2011. My 8 year old started doing guitar lessons in term 4 last year and is loving that, while my 6 year old is taking up piano with me this year. The toddler and I also go to playgroup during school hours one morning a week.

This year, the big girls have expressed a very strong desire to try dancing again, and both are urging me to get them riding lessons / join a pony club. They also want to keep going with gymnastics!

Laying out the week in visual form - which I can do once all the extracurriculars are locked in - lets me see where there might be opportunities to expand activities, and also where flashpoints of pressure might lie. I can then show the girls - and have them really take in - what two MORE activities would do to our week, even supposing I could afford them :-)

By locking in and paying early, I also make sure that we get the timeslots that best suit our needs (for instance, getting simultaneous classes for the big girls at gymnastics, which makes my week so much more doable). The longer you wait, the less likely you will have your pick of times in most things.

So for our extra-activity dilemma, I've suggested, and the girls have agreed, that we take the opportunity to do trial dancing classes at a few different places in term 1, and if they are still really committed to doing it, they can swap out gymnastics for dancing in term 2. Actually - although I'm not telling them this yet! - we might be able to squeeze dancing in as an extra, as I've managed to structure the week in term 1 so we only have one afternoon where we're out from schooltime til dinnertime and Saturday mornings committed. Music lessons are in the evenings, after dinner, but as hubs will take the 8 year old to guitar and I'll remain with the others, and I will take the 6 year old to piano while he stays back, this is a lot less difficult logistically.

Working out the extracurriculars early and locking them in lets you see the shape of things to come much more clearly, and to plan your weeks accordingly. This is why it appeals to me!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Planning for termtime: My Big Five - Part 1

As the end of the summer holidays approaches (too fast, too fast ... this break hasn't felt nearly long enough), I'm starting to try to work out the logistics of the first half of the year for us. I say "try to" advisedly, as nothing ever goes fully to plan, things change, people get sick, unexpected hiccups and opportunities arise, and plans have to be ditched or at least radically altered. All the same, illusory as it might be, I like to try to get a handle on how our termtime weeks are going to roll, if only because I find chaos exhausting if it goes on too long. (Yes, I might have control issues too :-)

There are five key things that I have done in these two weeks leading up to school over the past three years, that seem to have made things easier. Each day this week I'm going to post about one of them, starting with the most obvious and probably dull, but oh-so-necessary one.

1. Get all the school supplies, uniforms, books et al 100% prepared

This might sound self-evident, especially with all the Back to School advertising bombarding the airwaves; but I have found that I, at least, have a distressing tendency to overlook things, or amble along comfortably certain that all is done only to discover, 10 minutes before we have to leave on day 1, that something rather critical has been forgotten.

What I do now is to make a list of EVERYTHING that's needed for school, then literally lay it out on the lounge room floor in full daylight so I can see what's missing, what's stained or torn, what's broken, what's too small or too short to fit. My list for each child goes roughly like this -

4 x polo tops
2 x dresses
2 x shorts
4 x trackpants
1 x winter dress
2 x jumpers
1 x jacket
1 x leather school shoes
1 x sneakers
10 x school socks (white)
3 x hats
1 x lunchbox
1 x water bottle
1 x book and stationery pack (thankfully, purchased from the school as a self-contained set for a reasonable price!)
1 x tissue box
1 x set of headphones
1 x USB stick
1 x schoolbag
1 x library bag

Once I've checked all that and filled any gaps / fixed any problems, I then make a list of lunchbox foods that I'm going to rely on in term 1. This might sound incredibly dull but it has saved my bacon on numerous occasions. I only do a term list for this as kids' tastes change, but most of the term 1 lunchboxes will be filled from these options, and the components go automatically on my shopping list.

I am brutally honest on this list - I only include foods I know the kids will eat and enjoy. My children, for example, don't eat salad other than pasta or potato salad, and won't eat raw vegetables. Rather than rail against this, I figure it's their tastes, and I work with it as much as I can. I tend to offer them new taste experiences at home or in restaurants rather than in their school lunches, because, frankly, they have enough to manage in a full school day without eating unpalatable food or going hungry. Each kid gets one thing from each category per day. This term 1, the list goes like this:

Sandwich - Cheese & Vegemite, Salmon, Honey, Ham, Avocado, Jam, Tomato & Cheese.
Sushi rolls (California, salmon & avocado)
Bacon & egg pies
Zucchini slice
Cold chicken legs
Hardboiled eggs
Tub of pasta or potato salad
Cold roasted veggies


Banana, apple, strawberries, watermelon, rockmelon, pear, tubs of fruit puree.

Savoury snack

Crackers, pretzels, savoury muffins, Le Snacks, muesli bars, wedges of cheese, parboiled carrots

Sweet snack
Brownie, cupcake, slice, muffin, hot cross bun, cookies

It all helps me get prepared for the term and feel like things are a bit more manageable.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Selections: Miss A's camera

My 8 year old, A, got a camera for Christmas. It's just a little point-and-shoot Olympus, but she is enjoying hugely getting to know it and its capabilities. (The trick filters have been particularly enjoyed by her).

Here is her own selection of a few favourite photos from the past three weeks. (NB There were several good shots of both her and her 6 year old sister, but they decided between them that they'd rather not be pictured full-face in this post. I absolutely respect that, and will continue to abide by their wishes in this regard.)

A particularly likes the drawing filter on her camera, and has taken some charmingly arty shots that make our house look positively pretty :-)

She also likes taking portraits and has a good eye for it.

It's a different world for young photographers these days - I remember my first camera, a little Kodak I got for my 10th birthday that took awful shots unless you were exceedingly lucky, and that you had to pay precious pocket money to develop the film. I'm sure A and her peers are going to be better, more natural photographers than my generation, because they have so many more opportunities to play with the medium.

This post is part of Sunday Selections at frogpondsrock. Check out the links over there for more photosets!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reading Notes: The Telling

(This post is part of the Once a Month Book Club link up over at A Permanent Flux. This month's theme is A favourite author).

Where my guides lead me in kindness
I follow, I follow lightly,
and there are no footprints
in the dust behind us.

The Telling by Ursula K LeGuin (2000) is the story of Sutty, a woman of a future Earth, who travels to Aka, a faraway planet, as an Observer, and is confronted, confused, hurt, but ultimately liberated by what she finds there.

Actually, that's vast over-simplification of this beautiful, strange and alien work of one of my favourite writers of the science fiction / fantasy genre - in fact, one of my favourite writers, full stop. But the thing about Ursula K LeGuin's stories is that the essential plot is almost always bare and simple to the point of austerity. I could adequately summarise the events / action of every one of her books in one Tweet apiece - 140 characters would be ample, in fact.

The depth and power of her work doesn't come from tricky, complex plotting or a vast, crowded stage of major characters chattering their way into the reader's consciousness. Rather, what Le Guin does so amazingly, heart-breakingly well is to tell stories about culture and difference, to use the POV of an outsider or a narrator to build social structures which the reader can also watch but never really join, linked as we are to the outsider consciousness of the main character. Reading Ursula LeGuin is like looking through a cracked glass at a picture of a room that you don't know - some things seem (are intended, I believe, to seem) oddly distorted, weirdly bent, inexplicable, because you are not seeing the whole picture; or rather, not seeing it from within, the way that only a person embedded in their culture can do.

In this, it's hard not to see the influence of both of LeGuin's parents - distinguished anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Theodora Brown Kroeber, both famous, among other things, for their work with Ishi, the last of the Yahi Indians. LeGuin's deep, loving familiarity with anthropology is absolutely key to her treatment of alien cultures in all her books. The sense of loss and longing and lack of comprehension that fills Sutty on Aka, the sense that LeGuin conveys so poignantly of the observer coming late to a culture in flux and trying to understand it, is, I think, indubitably the gift of a person who has been steeped in anthropological knowledge.

One of the reasons that this book in particular is a favourite of mine (rather than the better-known The Left Hand of Darkness, or the lovely, lovely Earthsea cycle) is that it weaves Sutty's attempts to understand Old Aka - and what happened to it - into her own personal grief and misery, and her painful, bleak history informs her actions on Aka in a way that I find utterly believable and utterly sad.

Sutty is deeply flawed (aren't all non-obnoxious protagonists?) but she really has suffered and that past, invading the present, is what saves her from being merely shallow and trite in her observations. This is her journey to find, to understand, the now-banned cultural system of belief / living (which she labels, eventually, The Telling, for want of a better term, but she acknowledges, and the reader feels - with frustration - is not really an adequate descriptor). It's also her journey through the darkness of the fundamentalist planet she grew up on, and the crimes - motivated entirely differently, or are they? - committed there.

At the end of the day Sutty picks a side pretty unambiguously - another example of her flawed, fractured personality, in fact, given the distance that is an essential part of her task. The book, to be fair, certainly endorses her choice; it's impossible to get to the end and feel anything positive for New Aka and its suppression of The Telling. But there is nuance here, and understanding, and, much as Sutty herself might hate the phraseology - there is redemption. Sutty sees it herself as a price, an awful price, paid to unshackle the future:

His life, that was what underwrote her bargaining. His life, Pao's life. Those were the intangible, incalculable stakes. The money burned to ashes, the gold thrown away. Footsteps on the air.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Winners and Answers


My giveaway for season passes to Adventure Park Victoria closed at 5pm yesterday. There were 6 sterling entrants and I found it difficult to choose between you (I wish I had 6 passes to give away :-( In the end, though, I've chosen the following two:

1. Grace of Lachinvasion , which is a very good blog just by the by, who gave me a fascinating picture of a very different childhood summer to my own:

I grew up in Malaysia so everyday is like summer, hot, sunny, humid... but it rains, a LOT. During the holidays, my parents pack all 3 kids at the back of a car and we drive up north to visit the grandparents. It's a 7 hour car ride! We lived in a wooden house on stilts, near the paddy fields. This is our "summer". We spend our days wading through the muddy rice fields looking for tadpoles, playing under the house on stilts with the chooks, dogs and goats, climbing trees, running barefooted, swimming in a river.... aahhh, such carefree, happy days. I wish my three kids could have the same experience. It's so different these days...

A trip to the Adventure Park would be just as awesome! :) Thank you for the opportunity...

2. MichVee, who wrote of a special summer trip to Queensland that was hard saved for and always remembered. Her comment resonated with me as I have similarly warm memories of the Queensland holiday my parents saved for after the death of my brother, which we were able to take due to the kindness of friends who lived on the Gold Coast and let us have their holiday rental unit at a peppercorn price. MichVee wrote:

For me, it would definately have to be the time my parents took us to Queensland. They had saved up for years (being on a disability pension since the passing of my brother made it so difficult to save but they were determined!) We went with a group of about 40, by bus. I remember being violently car sick on the way there. But I remember the immeasurable amount of fun I had, visiting the theme parks and swimming in the resort's swimming pool. More than twenty years later, I can still recall the sun kissing my shoulders, the sand between my toes, and the beautiful time I had.

Grace and MichVee, could you please email me at kathypllrd248 AT (replace AT with @, just trying to minimise spam scraping!) by 5pm on Thursday 19th, providing a postal address, and I can arrange for your passes to be mailed to you.


Yesterday I asked some questions about the language of flowers, but although quite a few people read it, no-one wanted to have a guess. Anyway, as promised, here are the answers:

1. The meaning of lavender? Mistrust.
2. What white roses stand for? Infidelity.
3. Which fruit plant means "envy"? Blackberry.
4. Which herb means "good health and long life"? Sage.
5. Which beautiful flower says "truth"? Chrysanthemum.

Fun, isn't it?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reading Notes: The Language of Flowers - A Miscellany

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia. No financial payment was offered nor accepted for this post. All opinions expressed are purely my own.

Of all the Victorian conceits, habits and fol-de-rols - romantic poetry, psychics and fortune tellers, memento mori, heavy furniture and delicate art - the one I'm most fascinated with is the language of flowers. Since first encountering the idea in Anne of Green Gables many years ago, I've been extremely taken with the idea of flowers conveying a message without words, of individual flowers representing something.

This very lovely little book, which highlights the history of 50 popular (European) flowers and their meanings, as well as providing a dictionary of moods with which to match a bloom, is a delight to someone like me, and my daughters, especially the eldest, have been enjoying it too.

While we have few representations of the flowers listed in our garden (which is predmoninantly Australian native plants!), we do have lavender, and we were all surprised (and slightly dismayed, I'll admit) to discover its customary meaning. We also have rosemary - which, as most people know, is for remembrance; pansies, which means "think of me"; geraniums in pots, which stand for true friendship; freesias, which are for "lasting friendship"; white jasmine, which is for amiability; and ivy, for fidelity. Once upon a time we had tulips, which are used as a declaration of love; and irises, which are "messengers". Isn't it lyrical?

The queen of flowers is, of course, the beautiful rose, and here each colour holds special meaning. We have a deep pink rose, which speaks of grace, and a newly-planted golden-orange standard, which is for fascination. In time we'll also have a white rose, whose message is destined to remain forever unfulfilled in this house.

So here's a game for you ... if you know the language of flowers, or just fancy a guess. (There is no prize, being right is its own reward :-) See if you can recall:

1. The meaning of lavender?
2. What white roses stand for?
3. Which fruit plant means "envy"?
4. Which herb means "good health and long life"?
5. Which beautiful flower says "truth"?

I'll post the answers tomorrow. Or, you could always buy this lovely little book and look it up yourself!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday Selections: Sky

Today for Sunday Selections I have dug out some of my favourite photos of the sky.

I love photographing the sky in all its moods - clouds, colour and patterns both fascinate and soothe me. In fact, I find gazing into the sky a remarkably calming activity, and often my response to being stressed out or angry is to go outside, take a deep breath or ten, and stare into the expanse above me for 5 minutes. It sure beats screaming at everyone, that is for certain.

I am also a dedicated star gazer, and one of the few times I pine for a really good camera is when I'm looking at a beautiful night sky without any way to record it.

Still, for now, I'll make do with clouds and rainbows, sunsets and storms.

Kim at frogpondsrock hosts Sunday Selections each week, a meme where people can show some of the many photos we all take that sit around mouldering on hard drives. Have a look over there for more links to photo collections.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Making music

My dad is very musical. (He's also artistic - a painter - which rather begs the question as to how he ended up in a science profession). I grew up in a household where the casual making of music was normal - Dad would whip out his guitar and we'd play around with harmonies and melodies, often.

For me, I learned piano as a child. I wasn't very good, but nor was I awful, just pedestrian; able, with practice, to gain adequate competence (and to learn to read musical notation, which is a skill I happily retain to this day). I haven't played for a really long time, though, and I'm rusty.

My husband G spend a brief period in high school playing clarinet and then saxophone, but never, he tells me, attained great competence in either, and has no useful memory of them. He does, however, have a wonderful singing voice, and loves music - always has.

When I was pregnant with my youngest child, 3 years ago now, G expressed a desire to learn to play the guitar. We procured him an instrument but the year that followed C's birth was so full-on that it was pushed to the back of a cupboard for easier times. In 2010, as things started to settle down, G got out his guitar and taught himself a few basics from Internet tutorials, but it was hard for him to make real progress that way.

Then, last year, G and E, my 6 year old, started guitar lessons together. While G took to it quickly, it was a bit much for E - she found the attentiveness necessary hard to sustain and strumming guitar strings didn't satisfy her need to feel pressure under her fingers (that is, itself, a post or ten, but probably not for here, maybe for my private blog). My 8 year old took over her lesson slot in term 4 and instantly proved herself to be a fine little guitarist in the making. She and her Dad are already playing simple tunes together and it's giving them such enjoyment, I can't tell you how nice it is to see them both flourishing.

E, G and I talked about it and concluded that the instrument that would best suit her needs (and that I'd be happy to do with her) was the piano. Pianos can be rented, or keyboards purchased, of course, but to do either is an investment, and certainly buying one was out of the question for us this year (until I land my Dream Job TM, whenever that may be :-)

Then, earlier this week, a colleague of my husband's offered us a piano. For free. In perfect condition. All we had to pay was the transportation costs.

Then yesterday my friend and her daughters came for a playdate - my friend who is, by trade, a music teacher, and who has offered to teach E and I privately, at a time of mutual convenience.

Amazing how kind people are sometimes; amazing how the universe gives you a free one, sometimes.

It was delivered today and already the 6 year old is in love, and my fingers are remembering the pleasure of drawing music from a piano. I know there is work and practice ahead for us all, and that the kids will go through stages of being bored with it and wanting to chuck it.

But oh, I am happy at the thought of a housefull of music, no matter how hesistant and bumpy it is at first.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Explaining food restrictions to toddlers (or, a post on trying not to break little hearts)

18 months old
At breakfast time she offers me a dripping spoonful of her Weetbix. milky and lightly sweet with a dusting of brown sugar.

"No, sweetheart, I can't," I say, regretfully. "It will make Mummy sick."

Her brow creases in concentration and puzzlement. "'Ick? Mama? No 'ick, 's yum!" She demonstrates, shoving the spoon into her mouth, smacking her lips to show me. "See, Mama. Good!"

I smile and wipe her dribbly chin, pushing my own bowl of cereal further away from the flight path of the gluten-carrying spoon.

Sharing food is the first sign of altruism humans display. I cannot receive her gift.

2 years old
"Mummy, let's 'ave a sammich fo' yunch," says the toddler firmly.

"I'll make you one, honey," I agree. "I'll have some soup."

A storm cloud begins to gather. "NO, Mummy. You 'ave sammich wi' me! We SHARE!"

I sigh. "Love, Mummy can't share your sandwich. Remember, it makes me sick? I'm sorry, honey."

She thinks on it. "Cos of gee-yuten," she announces finally, reproducing a word she's heard me, and her older sisters, say time and again when talking about food.

"Yes, because of gluten," I agree, hugging her. "Gluten is OK for you, but not for Mummy. It does bad things to my tummy."

She strokes my face gently. "Why?" she asks.

I don't know how to answer.

2 and a half years old
"Mummy, I fell over! Give me kiss!" Sniffing and dirty, she runs to me. Automatically, I reach down to wipe her face with a tissue. She turns her face away from my hand, angry.

"Kiss me now, Mummy! Clean me up later!"

I sigh. "Honey, you've been eating a bread roll ... let me just get the crumbs away, it'll only take a minute."

She submits to the wiping tissue.

Almost 3 years old
She runs to me, arms wide, giggling, and I scoop her up and cover her face with kisses. She giggles in delight, then stops, and pushes me suddenly away.

"No kissing near my mouf, Mummy," she admonishes seriously. "I was eating barbeque shapes before, an' I have gluten on my mouf." She waggles a finger at me. "You will get sick, Mummy!"

I hug her tight. She understands now. She doesn't try to share food with me, and she even thinks about her crumb-laden chin when we are playing.

I don't know whether to be glad or grieved.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sunday Selections: Holidays

Kim at frogpondsrock is running Sunday Selections today, a photography meme where people can display some of the many photos that we all take that just sit around on computers. Today, I thought I'd choose a theme of Holidays and show a couple of favourite photos from each of our family holidays: the Mornington Peninsula (2007), Phillip Island (2008), Echuca (2010), Wangaratta (2010), Anglesea (2011), the Yarra Valley (2010 & 2011) and Gippsland (2011).

This was our first family holiday, down the Mornington Peninsula. A was 3 1/2, and E was 22 months old. I love the tiny girl, giant chess photo a lot.

Our holiday the following year was in Phillip Island. The girls were fascinated with sea creatures (appropriately enough!) at the time and loved it when their Dad found them a crab to look at.

Our first holiday as a family of 5 was in March 2010, to Echuca. The big kids decided that it was the right time to introduce C (then 13 months old) to the joys of ice cream.

Wangaratta was a shorter trip (in July 2010) but great fun, especially as the eldest, then 7, was fascinated with animal skeletons, of which the bush property we stayed at provided many.

Our Anglesea holiday in March 2011 was very relaxing time for us all, and the first holiday of which C has any memory.

Staying at my aunt and uncle's vineyard in the Yarra Valley is always wonderful, and winter mists provide some spectacular morning views.

Our farm / beach holiday near Walkerville in Gippsland last October was, the kids assure me, "the best holiday yet." It certainly was full of a lot of joy and great memories for us all.

So that's my Sunday Selection for this week - family holidays. It inspires me to start thinking more seriously about scheduling the next one!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Toilet of the Future

On Thursday, I took my three girls and my friend J's daughter, M, who'd stayed overnight with us on a holiday sleepover, to a local park next to a lake. The kids played hide and seek, swung on swings, ran up and down hills, and watched people fishing the lake with great interest. We had a picnic lunch on the grass in the shade, and all was well.

After lunch we decided to walk a little along the lakeside to see if we could spot more water birds. And that's when we found what all four girls unanimously declared to be the highlight of the day:

The Toilet of the Future.

I've seen these kinds of automated public facilities before, but obviously none of the kids had. They all approached the sleek metal door with its flashing lights and buttons with caution, like a pack of timorous cats.

"What is it?" wondered E, brushing her fingers over the smooth surface.

"Press the button, let's see!" said her sister, and they all poured inside when the door opened, filled with curiosity.

As the door shut behind us, the music started playing, much to the kids' amazement and delight.

"It's like a show, while you wee!" exclaimed one gleefully.

Another had plunked herself down to avail herself of the facility. "Hey, look!" she chorused. "You don't even have to pull the loo paper - it just gives it to you by itself!" She waved the wisp of paper in the air excitedly.

The real amazement was reserved for when they discovered that the toilet flushed automatically when one placed hands under the taps (which also turned on automatically). "That is, like, super clever," breathed one child reverently. "How does it know?"

A, my 8 year old, spoke up, christening the loo: "It's as if we're in a book or a movie! Like in the future! It does everything for you - it's the Toilet of the Future!"

"Toyet of da Future! Toyet of da Future!" chortled C gleefully, jumping up and down.

"It does do everything," agreed E, eyes shining. "I bet the Queen has a toilet like this. I bet the Queen doesn't have to do anything for herself when she goes to the loo."

There was a pause.

"Well, except the actual weeing and pooing part," said A meditatively, shoving her hands under the (automatic) hand dryer.

"Yes, you can't outsource that bit," I put in, and they all giggled.

As we headed back across the lakeside path, the four girls ran ahead, singing, "Toilet-of-the-FUTURE! Toy-toy-toy-let of the FEWWWWWWWW-CHA!" at the top of their lungs.

It was a fun day :-)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Adventure Park Geelong: Review and Giveaway

Disclosure: My family was provided with free entry to the Adventure Park, meal vouchers and a VIP cabana for the day of our visit, courtesy of Porter Novelli and Adventure Park Geelong. No payment was offered or accepted for this post, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Maybe it's just me, but when I think of theme parks, Queensland - and California! - are what spring immediately to mind, rather than regional Victoria. G and I had talked in a desultory sort of way about maybe doing a family holiday to the Gold Coast and doing the Dreamworld / Movieworld / Seaworld thing at some point, but, to be honest, we found the idea pretty underwhelming with three little kids and a single income; it's an expensive business, interstate vacations.

I had been vaguely aware that there was a theme park near Geelong - we've stayed in Anglesea a few times over the past three years and have been to Geelong a half dozen times, each time passing colourful billboards promoting the park. I hadn't really processed it though and if I am being frank, I imagined it to be a few waterslides and maybe some paddle boats - a low-key sort of water fun place, nice to stop at if you are staying nearby, but not necessarily worth a special trip.

After our enormous day at Adventure Park on 27 December, however, I'm revising that very mistaken impression completely. The Adventure Park is a multi-faceted, professional, and very fun place, with many more activities and options than I had imagined.

Our day at the Park was quite cool initially, although it warmed up later (and, in fact, I wasn't nearly as sun-smart with the kids and myself as I should have been, forgetting to reapply sunscreen after water play and ending up with an 8 year old with red shoulders and myself with a cherry nose. Ooooops.) Settling ourselves in our VIP cabana, we ventured into the completely awesome water play labyrinth before us, but, as I'd suspected, the chill wind, cold water and cloudiness quickly proved too much for my extremely cold sensitive 6 year old. She and I spent a fair portion of the morning sitting in the cabana sipping water, eating strawberries and watching the world go by, sometimes accompanied by the toddler, sometimes not (toddler was happy paddling a lot of the time).

My 8 year old, however, who would not be averse to skinny dipping in Antarctica, dragged her Dad around all the water attractions except the big slides. I couldn't count how many times the two of them floated down the lazy river. She thought it was the best. thing. ever.

Lunch was obtained from the park for husband and kids, but not for me - anticipating the probable lack of options, I brought rice paper rolls from home for myself, and it was lucky I did, as there were no real gluten free meals options available. This is a small point - the food quality, from what I could see, was high and the family certainly enjoyed their meals - but I think it would be ideal if venues like this maybe catered one allergy safe option (a g free, lactose free, nut free salad wrap springs to mind as something that is relatively easy to get right).

At this point, I admit, that while we were really enjoying ourselves, I wondered if it would really be worth the price of admission for a larger-than-standard family (such as ours) with most of the children under 8. This is especially true as Adventure Park doesn't do family ticket pricing, a model that serves to contain extreme costs for some other attractions we've been to. Water play is great and the water facilities are the best I've ever seen, but I worked out the maths and it would've cost us north of $120 just to get in for the day, and I couldn't see that amount of value could possibly be squeezed from the water adventures (however fun! however splashy!)

This is where Adventure Park really came into its own for us, however. I'd forgotten, or somehow neglected to take in, that there are lots of other things to do at the Park other than get hilariously wet. And it was in the "dry" afternoon that we really hit our stride, especially Miss 6.

So what did we do, from lunch til dragging ourselves car-wards at 4:30?

- We watched the Bonito Pirate Stage Show, which was light, cute, a bit cheesy, but enjoyed by all the kids
- We drove electric bumper cars. Wheeeee!
- We rode the carousel - a real, old-fashioned, beautiful one - 6 times.
- We played on the enormous air cushion (like a jumping castle on steroids)
- We took a train ride around the Park and the kids used their new cameras to take shots
- We watched paddle boats, canoes and water bikes splashing about on the water

There were other activities, too, that weren't age-appropriate for our kids but would be fun with older ones (like the tube water slides and the archery range).

All in all, I'm now completely converted to the idea that Adventure Park represents good value for a "special" family day out - as part of a staycation, perhaps (like the one we had between Christmas and New Year). The option to bring food in and the excellent BBQ and picnic facilities allows you to budget the day fairly tightly, as all the activities are included in the entry price (park food was, I thought, reasonably priced for attraction food - better than at other places I've been - but there's no doubt that with a family like ours, you wouldn't get much change from $70 if you had to buy all your food, snacks and drinks).

So would we go again? We not only would, we are - we're taking a family short-break down in Anglesea for 5 days in March and the kids have made it clear that one of the days is booked for Adventure Parking :-)


Adventure Park have kindly provided 2 season passes to be given away to readers of this blog. The passes, valued at $74.99 each, entitle the bearer to unlimited free entry to the park for the whole of this summer season (until the park closes for winter on 29 April 2012). Check out this page for full terms and conditions.

Here's how to enter:

1. Leave a comment below telling me about a summer fun special experience from your childhood - something that really sticks out in your mind, something you might have only done once or occasionally but that shines in memory. (I have such memories of going to the Penguin Parade at Phillip Island, for instance).

2. I will select the most interesting two from the entries and each will win a season pass to Adventure Park.

Entries close at 5pm AEDT on Monday 16th January. Entrants must provide a valid email address and be an Australian resident. Judges' decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

Good luck!

UPDATE: This competition has now closed. Winners will be notified and then announced here. Thank you for playing!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Reading Notes: History as mystery

I am a fairly dyed-in-the-wool crime fiction fan. I am also, by training, a historian. Those two interests are not at all disharmonious - all history involves an element of speculation, of reconstruction, of imaginative forensics if you like. (I don't believe in the notion of objectivity in history - or, for that matter, in fiction. The subjectivity of the writer is always there and always influential in shaping the presentation of the story, whether it's factually based or not).

Aside from any methodological symmetries, history is, of course, rife with actual, literal, mysteries; crimes unsolved (or solved unsatisfactorily), secrets half-discovered, motives unexplained or bizarre. Recorded history is a rich vein for novelists and conspiracy theorists alike (hello, Dan Brown) and it is an enormously popular one at that.

When really good writers combine history and mystery, the results are, to my mind, one of the most entirely satisfying reading experiences. (I don't mean mystery novels set in historical periods here, although there are many those I love too - I mean books that take on actual historical conundra). I've read a lot of so-so books in this genre, but three of my absolute favourites are PD James and TA Critchley's The Maul and the Pear Tree; Colin Dexter's The Wench is Dead; and Josephine Tey's wonderful novel The Daughter of Time, which I read for the first time before Christmas and was left amazed (and wondering why it had taken me so long to get to it!)

The Maul and the Pear Tree (1971) is mystery author PD James and historian TA Critchley's re-examination of the 1811 Ratcliff Highway murders. Although lacking the modern fame of the Jack the Ripper killings (and oh, what an industry those crimes have spawned), the Ratcliff Highway murders were nonetheless, in their time, among the most shocking and brutal crimes on record, causing massive public outcry and panic. The crime wave came in two parts. First, a young London draper, Timothy Marr, his wife, Celia, their 3-month-old son, Timothy, and teenage shop boy, James Gowan, were murdered in a short space of time within their shop / home, while their servant, Margaret Jewell, was out seeking to buy oysters. Twelve days later, a local publican, John Williamson, his wife, Elizabeth, and their servant Bridget Harrington were slaughtered in their pub, while the Williamsons' 14 year old grand-daughter Kitty slept through the whole thing and was unscathed. There was a fifth person in the house too: a lodger, John Turner, heard the crimes in progress and escaped out a window by knotting together some sheets (a panicked reaction that strikes me, even at this remove, as entirely human and understandable, if not particularly admirable).

What I found so engrossing about this text the first time I read it was its seamless integration of the solid and detailed historical scholarship of Critchley - the research is impeccable - with the deductive and creative brilliance of James. I have read many true crime books that either are badly, sloppily researched (and usually make overdrawn claims from inadequate evidence) or which, on the other side, plod along without ever weaving a coherent narrative, not brave enough to make deductive (and, necessarily, unprovable) leaps in order to come to a conclusion. The Maul and the Pear Tree is gripping, chilling, and convincing because it is neither light on historical fact nor beholden to it.

The Wench is Dead (1989) is, in my opinion, the very best of a very good series - Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse books. Following the literary device employed so successfully by Josephine Tey thirty years earlier (see The Daughter of Time, below), the plot revolves around Dexter's detective, Morse, lying in a hospital bed, bored, and becoming intrigued with a historical mystery. (The case that Morse investigates is based on a real murder case from the 1830s, the murder of a woman named Christina Collins, but Dexter changes names, facts and details to adapt the case more fully to his plot - unlike The Maul and the Pear Tree, this is not a "straight" historical mystery investigation).

It's a reasonably little book - no chunky tome here - but it is such a gem. Morse's interrogation of documentary evidence, using his detective abilities, is a joy to read and completely satisfying in its denouement. The evocation of life on the canals is utterly wonderful. I've read this book time and again since first encountering it in the 1990s, and it never disappoints.

The best of them all, though, is the oldest - Josephine Tey's 1951 book The Daughter of Time, in which she uses her bed-bound detective, Alan Grant, to investigate, reason and argue the case for Richard III as a spectacularly maligned historical innocent, rather than the nephew-killing monster of popular (Tudor-era and modern) mythology.

What I love - adore - about this text is how Grant and his helpers come to understand and explain how history is made. Not how things happen - that's not history, that's just things happening. Rather, history, in the sense it's used here, is the authoritative account of what happened, the approved picture of events, the received wisdom, the things everyone knows about what happened (even if it didn't actually, well, happen). The title of the book is taken from a quote from Francis Bacon: "Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority." This book is the quintessential and wonderful epitome of this idea.

(As well as loving it, I'm convinced by it - unless a persuasive case is made in the other direction, I think Tey's made the default understanding to be that of Richard's innocence and quite amazing slandering, not guilt, with this effort).

So, if you are a mystery fan or a history fan (but especially if you're both), these three will all repay your time most handsomely.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Dog beach

What to do to avoid:

a) heatstroke
b) cabin fever leading to high conflict
c) lack of physical activity that means poor fidgety sleep

on a day that's going to be 40 degrees or more?

Get out early and take the dog to the dog beach, that's what.

Our dog, Pokey, is still very poorly trained, but has become much better at returning to us when we call, making off-lead experiences possible. The local dog beach - which was already full of owners and dogs by the time we arrived - is a perfect place for him to have a good run, some puppy social time, and for the kids to also enjoy themselves.

Today, we left home just after 8am and the sun was already high (sunscreen and hats were not neglected), had a very pleasant hour and a half in the water, and were back in the car before 10am.

We came home to bath Pokey dog and three sandy children, eat chocolate chip cookies, fruit and chips, and now some TV time for them while I (attempt) to do some work. The house, which has had drawn curtains and is filled with wet sheets hanging up to dry, is still pleasant; we haven't even got our single air con unit on yet.

Often these half-formed little plans of mine fall over with minor or major catastrophes, but, once we actually got moving today, this was not such an occasion. (Mind you, getting out the door in the first place had its moments, as seems always to be the case these days ... that's a post for another day, or, perhaps more accurately, a rant for another day).

Once we got moving, though, it actually worked out well. Pokey was in his element, the kids splashed and shrieked and played amiably with each other, and G and I got to enjoy the cool water and the respite from hot-weather children grumps. Huzzah!

(Now it remains to be seen if I can actually push on with the work...)