Sunday, April 29, 2012


I have almost decided to go to the Melbourne Emerging Writers Festival in late May - at least to the two-day Town Hall conference part, which looks absolutely fantastic. It's extremely modestly priced ($49 for the two day conference is excellent value) and the ever-wonderful Miscellaneous Mum is the Program Manager - what's not to like?

There are only two things holding me back from just going ahead and buying my ticket. Well, three. Four? (No, three and a half).

Firstly - or halfly, as this is the most minor of my reservations - I feel a bit guilty about taking one or possibly two full days out for myself so soon after DPCon in March. For better or worse, neither my partner nor I tend to take blocks of time out from family, but I do it more than he does, and I feel both a little self-conscious about that, and also a trifle melancholy about being away from the kids. However, I do know that my partner actually doesn't mind, and that the kids and I will survive 2 days apart without damage :-) I think I can get over this one pretty easily.

Secondly, although it might not be apparent to most, I do get shy and awkward in circumstances where I don't know anyone. The mild anxiety I have about this is quite different in kind from the nervousness I felt before DPCon, where I knew I would meet in person many people I already "knew" online, and was aware of carrying a weight of expectation, anticipation and fear of failure. In one way, this is actually easier - it's just a bit of a fear of having no-one to talk to and / or having to try to make smalltalk with a bunch of complete strangers. I think I will get over this one too.

Thirdly, I have several contract work projects in the offing at the moment. Some or all of them may fall through; late May might be like last November-December, as quiet as the grave in terms of work. However, if even half of them come off, I will be fairly busy with paid work by the time of the Festival, and I am cautious of overloading myself too much, given my recent heart dramas.

And finally, the kicker; the real, down-deep reason I'm hanging back. This is a Festival for Emerging Writers - people who want to grow themselves as writers in all different fields and subtypes, people who hope, presumably, to be read, to be published, to advance. Part of this has to be the self-belief to trust that, with luck, time, work, skill and sweat, you have the inherent ability to be a writer that others want to read. I don't know if I have that self-belief, and I wonder if its absence is fatal to this game.

I don't really know what's at the bottom of this, although I do know it's the reason I'm so diffident about submitting any creative writing for consideration in publications or competitions. (I happily submit non-fiction pieces and accept both rejection, and editing of successful pieces, with equanimity). Whenever I think about myself as a creative writer, I do it in the most deprecating internal voice imaginable. I will say, I write poems ... of a sort. Or, I've written two middle grade novels ... but I don't think they're publishable. Or, I like to write short stories ... they're not much good though.

This isn't, much as it might sound like it, a dreary attempt to elicit the bolstering / support of others. I rarely talk about my writing IRL, and when I do, it's prosaically, without commentary on my own feelings about its value. I post poems here sometimes, and I don't surround them with little caveats about how crap they are. I haven't ever said, actually, the truth of it before: that I like to write, I need to write, but that I question the quality and worth of my creative writing constantly.

I would like so much to have people read and enjoy what I write. I see myself as primarily a middle-grade children's writer (the Famous Five to Trixie Belden age range, if you will), secondarily as a poet, and with a strong side interest in short stories.

A prior task, though, is to root out my sense of unworthiness and my conviction that my writing can't be enjoyed by others. (Alternatively, if my conviction is based in reality, I suppose I should move to a point of acceptance that I will be writing for myself and my family only, and learn to be OK with that).

Perhaps I need to do this before I go to something like the EWF; or perhaps the Festival could be the catalyst to shake loose this admixture of fear, self-deprecation, and low confidence that holds me back. I'll be 40 next year - the time is fast approaching where if I don't do it, I probably never will. And at bottom, I think it would be worse not to try, and to always wonder what might have been, even if I try and crash in a flaming heap. Better to burn out than to fade away, right?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sunday Selections: Tiptoe through the tulips

More blasts from the past - these photos were taken when we took the two older girls to the Tesselaar Tulip Festival (held in October each year at Tesselaar Tulip Farm in Silvan, in Melbourne's Dandenong Ranges). We went two years in a row, and really enjoyed the various activities that were running, from live music to a craft market to horse & carriage rides.

We haven't been to see the tulips since the year I was pregnant with C - that'll be 4 years ago this October. Looking back at these shots and remembering the fun we had, I think we might do it again this year. We're not going away in the October school break this year so this would be a fun day trip to do instead.

Kim at frogpondsrock runs Sunday Selections each week, a photography meme for people to show off shots that might otherwise never see the light of day. There's always good links to follow if you like beautiful photos!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Building up by running down is no compliment at all

Two little incidents from the past week:

First, I'm in a shopping centre with my 3 year old. I'm talking to her, telling her a story, as she walks alongside me, one hand lightly on the trolley. She's calm, smiling. I'm calm, talking quietly.

An older lady, white-haired, bent, pushing her trolley through the fruit & veg, drops a tomato. Before she can reach to pick it up, my 3 year old has darted forward, collected the fallen fruit, and handed it back to her with a shy smile.

"Thank you, dear," says the lady warmly. C says, "You're valcom!"
The lady turns to me and says, "What a lovely thing to meet such a well mannered child. And so well behaved too! What a good mother you must be. Not like those mothers that let their children run amuck - " (this with a glare at a cute 2 year old who's hooting loudly and scampering past us).

This is intended as a compliment, and she is a stranger, my elder, and frail. I smile and nod noncommittally, but I feel uncomfortable, complicit.

Second: talking on the phone to someone close to me. I mention a mutual acquaintance who's started back to paid employment, and the difficulty her small son is having integrating into fulltime care.

"Oh," sniffs my interlocutor. "Well, that's her decision, of course, but if she'd put her children first, the way you do, it wouldn't be necessary. More mothers should be like you."

"Not called for," I riposte. This person isn't a stranger, so I won't wear it. "How do you get that she isn't putting his interests first? There are LOTS of ways to do that. As many as there are families."

"No need to get stroppy," huffs my caller. "I was only trying to give you a compliment."

But here's the thing:

Giving me a compliment by running down others in comparison doesn't make me feel good, or valued.

Telling me that my choices or actions (or children) are "so much better" than other people's isn't true, or fair, or kind.

Judging me - even if you're judging me to be "good" - makes me uncomfortable and uneasy. I know what lies behind it, and usually not very far behind either: a negative comparative judgement of someone else, someone whose story and circumstances aren't mine, and aren't known.

I stand behind my decisions, but I realise that they are not perfect ones or appropriate ones for every woman.

I know that my children are just people like everyone else - beautiful, wonderful, amazing, difficult, whiney, persistent, angry, kind, generous, foolish, intuitive, polite, rude, and incredibly changeable. The sepia-tinted Goode Olde Days behaviour that C pulled out in the supermarket was followed by a tantrum of truly Herculean proportions 20 minutes later in the library.

I know that I try to be the mother that it's in me to be - I want to give my kids the best version of myself. I don't always succeed, and even when I do, it's still imperfect, because even at my best I am deeply flawed.

As are we all. Every one.

So don't build me up by tearing others down. I don't want to be praised in comparison, or, really, compared at all. I don't want any part of the judgement that goes into that.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reading Notes: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum

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

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (Heinrich Boll, 1974) was one of the set English texts when I was in year 10 or possibly 11 (it all blurs together at this remove). We were studying the theme of Justice, and I remember we read Nelson Mandela's No Easy Walk to Freedom as well. (There were almost certainly several others, but they haven't stayed with me in the same way). I remember watching the film Biko, being part of a debate on the topic "The Death Penalty: Justice or Revenge?", and writing an impassioned, if naive, essay about economic justice, which I got a B minus for because my English teacher didn't think economic justice was a "real" justice issue (as you don't, if you're a private school teacher married to a doctor and independently wealthy besides. Whoops, that was a bit catty.)

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum
is a novel written in a reportage style that makes it read like a series of newspaper stories, police interviews and other "source" material, all told from a plural first-person (omniscient narrator overhead) perspective. The story is of a housekeeper, Katharina Blum, who meets a man at a party, is attracted to him, and spends the night with him. The next morning, as she is resting, police break into her house looking for her lover, who they claim is wanted for a bank robbery (it later eventuates that in fact he is an army deserter who stole money from his barracks before taking off). They question her relentlessly, arrest her, and continue to harass her.

It's not the police's tactics that attract Boll's greatest ire, though, draconian as they are. Rather, it is the coverage of Katharina's story by the tabloid media, especially a reporter named Totges, who works for the fictitious newspaper Die Zeitung. Totges' invasion of Katharina's life is foul and complete. He harasses and insinuates himself with her friends and family, including her ex-husband and chronically ill mother, who dies the day after Tötges visits her. He brands Katharina as an active accomplice of Götten, rather than merely a girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Moreover, feeding a current panic abroad at the time, he claims she is a communist and agitator, based on no evidence whatsoever.

In the end, driven to the edge by Totges' persecution, Katharina invites the journalist to her house, ostensibly for an interview. When he arrives, he sleazily propositions her. Katharina shoots him dead, thus ending both her immediate victimisation and also any chance of restoring a life for herself.

It is a savage critique that Boll offers of moral panics of any kind, tabloid / sensational journalism, and the lack of protection that mere innocence offers. After reading it, I felt contaminated and complicit, thinking of all the times I'd read characterisations of people or events in the media and glibly passed judgements (often harsh ones) based on the presentations I was given. I never read newspaper reportage in quite the same light again, and I think that was a good thing.

Overall, this book, and Mandela's, hit me like a hammer, as a white, privileged teenager who believed that truth would always come out, that innocent people didn't get caught up in unsavoury events, and that you could mostly believe what you read in the newspapers. As a middle aged woman, I'm more world-seasoned, probably less privileged than I was at 15 (hello, disability and motherhood!) but still white, economically secure and Australian, which means I'm much, much better off than most, and I know it. Nonetheless, my years of living have taught me, of my own experience, that this book may be fiction, but only because it didn't quite happen, not because it couldn't have, or didn't in just marginally different guises. I know now what this book first opened my eyes to - truth, and innocence, are not defences to the mutilations that the world has to offer; luck, and timing, are the only factors that matter in determining whether you will be left in peace, or torn apart for the amusement of the masses. There but for the grace of God, indeed.

Edited to note: Although the issues are less extreme than in Boll's fictitious account, a story that appeared in Sunday Life magazine this week, about four wonderful bloggers, underlines in thick black ink the point that the media often sensationalises and distorts events, at the serious expense of real life people. In fact, the problems with the Sunday Life piece illustrate perfectly the problems with deciding on a narrative (usually a negative or controversial one) that will sell papers. It's nothing short of an appeal to the laziness and venality in readers who want a simple story with heroes and villains in heavy-handed caricature; and it speaks ill of journalists when they pander to that, shaping events, words, and tone around a predetermined theme.

I recommend reading Eden's blog on the subject first, and Louisa Claire's too, before you tackle the MSM article, if you do at all.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday Selections: A moment of mirth

I've been offline since Monday night, taking care of my kids and myself. One of the things I've been doing is putting together a photobook of my three girls' early years, as a birthday present for my Mum.

In going through the old photos, I came across this one, taken when my firstborn, A, was 7 months old. I think it's a nice photo, full of joie de vivre, so I thought I'd share it today.

Kim at frogpondsrock runs Sunday Selections each week, a photography meme for people to show off shots that might otherwise never see the light of day. There's always good links to follow if you like beautiful photos!

Monday, April 9, 2012

And so, a pause for the heart

The last week has been a bit of a poser around here.

To cut a long story short, I ended up in hospital yesterday due to a persistent and worsening heart arrhythmia which was preventing me from sleeping (and, incidentally, scaring the crap out of me). The monitoring showed no cause for panic. My heart is healthy, although it is indeed wandering all over the spectrum of beats; I have no clots, diseases, chemical imbalances or anything else that would suggest imminent danger.

Nonetheless, the palpitations, which were recorded by the monitor, require follow up. I'll be visiting my GP on Tuesday to organise a Holter monitor, which is basically a 24-hour trace of the heart so that transient arrhythmias (like the ones I'm having) can be mapped and hopefully diagnosed and treated. Because my heartbeat was low-normal throughout the trace (varying from 55 to 80), beta blockers, a common treatment for arrhythmia, aren't appropriate - they suppress heart rate even further.

In the meantime, I've been advised to avoid caffeine and other stimulants, get at least 45 minutes non-aerobic exercise each day, use mild calmatives like limited alcohol or low-dose valium, and try to rest / relax. This is, naturally, a little easier said than done, but in trying to do it, I need to clear my decks and my mind as much as I can.

There are things that I can't opt out of easily - caring for the kids, including running them around to their stuff, is the biggest of these, naturally - but anything I can reduce, I am. I'm booking a one-off house clean for later in the week; I'll be relying on frozen meals, bulk cooking and probably takeaway for dinners; and I'll be sending hubs to the laundromat today to bulk-dry all our half-dry laundry that's filling the washing line and house at the moment. (We don't have a clothes dryer).

I have two work projects in at the moment, both relatively small. I'm going to try to complete them over the next few days, and when they're submitted, I'm not taking on any new work for the coming fortnight.

Similarly, I need to take an online vacation. I have a couple of blog posts that are almost completed in draft - one of which is my Once a Month Book Club post for next Tuesday! - and I'll complete them and schedule them to publish over the coming fortnight, but I won't be writing new content here, reading other blogs, or hanging about on Twitter for a while. I aim to have several days at least where my computer isn't switched on at all. (I get email to my phone, so it'll continue unabated).

I haven't been aware of being particularly anxious or stressed, but I know I'm tired, and I know that I need to give my body the best chance it can have to move through this thing.

So I hope you all have a good couple of weeks, and I expect to be back soon, with any luck, refreshed and a little healthier.

This blog is now on hiatus for an indefinite period. Scheduled new content will appear occasionally and comments will be approved, but regular interaction will not resume until notice is given.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Reading Notes: Three picture books

All my kids are big consumers of picture books, even now that the elder two are avid readers of chapter books as well. A well-crafted picture book will still engage them, and I frequently discover the 6 year old, in particular, snuggled up with a pile of stories and a blanket. (Often to the great indignation of the 3 year old, who labours under the belief that each and every picture book in the house is "MINE! MIIIIIIIINE! FOR MEEEEEEEEEE!")

We've been lucky recently to acquire three very different but very engaging new picture books - Nick Ward's The Naughty Fairy's Naughty Surprise, which was a birthday present for C back in February; Karen Andrews' Surprise!, which was a charming ... surprise ... in the conference pack at DPCCON12; and Jan Ormerod and Freya Blackwood's gentle and beautiful Maudie and Bear.

The Naughty Fairy's Naughty Surprise
is a genuinely funny little book, with a premise that was at first hard for C to follow, but that she picked up after a few readings and now delights in. In essence, it follows the trajectory of the life changes of a tadpole, all the way from frog to hero to king to DADDY!, and, in parallel, the journey of the naughty fairy who starts it all off. The book is simply but attractively drawn and the tone is light and bantering, which C enjoys. It's a fun book for adults to read aloud as well - always a big plus.

Surprise! is a picture book of which I'd heard much but had never seen. Written by the inimitable MiscMum, this is just a delightful little book. C likes the illustrations, but it's 6 year old E who's really fallen in love, mostly because of the surprise at the end (and the way it allows her to engage her other favourite creative activity). It's hard to say much more without giving away the ending, but really, if you haven't come across this book yet - make its acquaintance. It's well worth it!

Maudie and Bear is a beautifully drawn book that fits loosely into that genre of children's picture books that I describe as Child Or Child Equivalent Being Demanding / Tyrannical But Cute and Indulged by Saintly Patient Adult Figure. (Alright, that's not terribly snappy, but you know what I mean).

C really loves this book, even though, for me as an adult reader, it's hard to grasp what makes it so great. Maudie is cute enough, and Bear engaging enough, but the story doesn't really go anywhere. This not only doesn't bother C - it's one of the things she loves the most about it. The writers have captured perfectly that sense of preschooler dreaminess and whimsy, that sense of stories that wander and lilt but do not end. C responds wholeheartedly to this skillful and delicately achieved text.

All in all, we'd recommend these three books. They're not at all similar, but all are well worth while and will lend themselves to multiple re-readings.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of Maudie and Bear for review purposes courtesy of Hardie Grant Egmont. I also received a complimentary copy of Surprise! as part of my conference attendance pack at the Digital Parents Conference. No financial payment was offered nor accepted for this post. All opinions expressed are purely my own.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Mother-Worker: An acrostic poem about me

My secondborn, E, presented me with this today:

It's an acrostic poem about me. Perhaps for the sake of the form (or perhaps not), the aspect that E chose to highlight in the poem was her perception of me as a worker.

By this, she doesn't mean the paid work I do - that part of my life, limited as it is now, is largely invisible to the big kids, being performed when they are at school and after they're asleep.

No, what E was referencing was her view that I spend a lot of my time "doing jobs" - housework, cooking, gardening, laundry, errands, phone calls and appointments related to the minutiae that makes up our lives.

While she's right - I do spend a large amount of time doing these things - I don't only work. I read, I blog, I play games with the kids, I walk, I go to the park. I take them fun places (fun for me as well as them, I mean!) I sip tea and I daydream. My life isn't one of unrelenting labour, especially compared with the lives of many women. Not that comparison is helpful anyway; like everyone, I have good and less good days, calm periods and hectic ones. The point, though, is that my life contains no unusual stressors or demands that make it any more difficult - or full of work - than anyone else's.

So why does E think I'm a worker, an all-day worker? I wonder whether I may have been complaining a little too much about it all lately, bringing it to the forefront of E's mind. (She is the sort of person who is anxious to make others feel better / reassured, so if she sensed that I was feeling under-appreciated in this area, she'd rush to remedy that in her own way).

I have been feeling a bit overwhelmed with household matters lately; drowning in a king tide of housework, as I saw one writer put it a while back. Our basic problems are too much stuff, too little space, not enough time and not enough energy - the age-old, unoriginal complaints of just about everybody.

I thought I'd been managing my growing sense of frustration and angst fairly seamlessly, but once again, I'm reminded sharply that kids miss NOTHING. Anything you think they don't know about what you're feeling or thinking - they do, sometimes before you've even enunciated it to yourself. A few teary moments, in a quiet corner, after coming across yet another tsunami of mess created and abandoned by the 3 year old; sharp words at the husband because dishes are left in the sink; a tirade at the big kids for the perpetually dreadful state of their shared bedroom. Plenty of clues for a smart cookie like E to put two and two together.

I don't want to make my feelings about the state of the house the kids' problem, although I do want to start to build more age-appropriate tasks into their routines which will get them helping more. I need to find ways to either manage my house better and overcome my fundamental inconsistency and, yes, laziness; or I need to find ways to not let it stress me so much when my house is cluttered and messy and dispiriting sometimes. Maybe it's both, actually.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Eating gluten free in Melbourne: Black Ruby cafe

G and I went out for the day yesterday, leaving the kidlets with my parents. School holidays are upon us; this was a parent holiday in preparation.

The day, we decided, should be composed of:
- Brunch. Preferably a large one.
- City-wandering and bookshopping.
- Catching a matinee at the Comedy Festival

So after we dropped the girls to my Mum's at 9:30, we set off for Parents' Day Out Part the First - Brunch.

I first heard of Black Ruby cafe in North Carlton from the people at Absolutely Gluten Free, the gluten-free supermarket in Werribee. Shane, one of the owners, was raving about the bread Black Ruby makes.

"Best I've ever had," he said emphatically. "Good enough to make fairy bread with." We both nodded sagely. Fairy bread is one of the recognised litmus tests for gluten free bread, as is peanut butter sandwiches. Poor gluten free bread makes both these treats inedible.

I ordered some of the Black Ruby bread through Absolutely Gluten Free and liked it a lot. It did make a nice, if slightly chewy, peanut butter sandwich, and the fruit loaf, toasted, was to die for.

So when I was searching for a brunch option, I lit quickly on Black Ruby, as it's two blocks from the tramline that would take us right into town, as well as being 100% gluten free.

I'll write that again, for all the weary Coeliacs out there who have been made sick from cross-contamination one too many times -




Being able to choose from any entire menu is, of course, a big treat, but the extra assurance of knowing that you don't have to worry about preparation methods and so on is wonderful.

Of course, I do have other criteria by which I judge the awesomeness (or otherwise) of an eating establishment. Gluten free is a strong start, but is the food delicious? Is the service good? Is the atmosphere comfortable and welcoming?



And, yes.

(Clearly, I do not have a great career ahead of me in restaurant reviewing :-)

To elaborate, we found Black Ruby to be a very cosy, well-set-up little cafe. We snagged a table in behind the door, which sounds cramped but was actually great - it was like our own private booth in the window, looking out to the sidewalk. Our coffees, ordered on arrival, were delivered within 3 minutes and were perfect, always a good start.

We both opted for the big breakfast and settled in for a chat, but it arrived only 15 minutes after ordering - so fast that I was a bit surprised actually! I saw on a couple of the restaurant review sites that people have been complaining about slow or unfriendly service, but all I can say is, our experience was the absolute polar opposite of that. The staff were really friendly and efficient, and it's probably the quickest I've ever gotten a cooked-breakfast order in a busy cafe on a weekend morning.

As for the food -

The food was magnificient. Delicious juicy little sausages, perfectly runny poached eggs, rashers of bacon, a little lamb chop, tomatoes, spinach, and the most yummy onion jam stuff to eat with the savouries. The eggs, of course, nestled on a thick slice of Black Ruby's home-made bread. I should've taken a photo of the food, but I was hungry and was halfway through it before it occured to me. (Another reason why I should never become a restaurant blogger!)

We washed it all down with a second hot drink - tea for me, another coffee for hubs - and rolled ourselves with difficulty out the door, with a little pocket change from $50. I consider that extraordinarily good value, given that if we had taken the kids, we would only have needed to add in an order of pancakes to feed us all bountifully. (Actually my only regret is that there was no way we could have squished pancakes in. I really wanted to try them. Next time!)

All in all - big thumbs up from both me and G, both as a gluten free eating haven and as a general top cafe. We'll most certainly be back.