Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Winter Arts: Melbourne kids' activities June - August

It's getting awfully cold around here, which imposes a different level of challenge when it comes to activities to do with kids. Warmer weather failsafes like parks, extended outdoor play and water in all its many forms are less appealing when it's chilly and raining!

Fortunately, Melbourne comes to the rescue with a swathe of child-oriented winter indoor fun. And just like in the adult sphere, winter is heavy on the cultural / arts side. Kids too can join the throng of basic-black-clad, hot-drinking-sipping, culture-absorbing people soaking up our southern winter consolations :-)

There is a lot on, but I've picked out a few that look awesome to me, and that I'm intending to visit with my children. If you have any other gems, please feel free to let me know!

Wallace and Gromit at Scienceworks
Scienceworks often has fantastically awesome special exhibitions - I cannot tell you how much my three kids all adored last year's Explore-a-saurus, for instance - but this one looks like it's level-up even in those terms. Well-loved claymation characters? Games to play and things to invent? A kid-friendly lesson on intellectual property and why it matters? Yes please!

After reading several fulsome reviews from parents I trust about it, we cannot wait to get there and check it out for ourselves. My husband is as keen, if not keener, than the kids :-)

You can check out all the details of the exhibition at

Game Masters Exhibition at ACMI
This is another one that has great grownup-appeal. Featuring the work of over 125 game designers, across all the platforms you can think of (and some you probably can't), this exhibition promises interactivity, gameplay and a rather intriguing peek behind the scenes at how all those Mario adventures come together. We thought we might do this one as a family day in the city.

You can check out all the details of the exhibition at

Dreaming as One
St Francis Pastoral Centre (326 Lonsdale St, Melbourne) is hosting an art exhibition as part of Reconciliation Week 2012, showcasing Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Art. The promotion site states that "artists have been invited to create works which explore Indigenous culture, country and history from its origins to the present and into the future."

Given how central indigenous art, culture, dispossession, and justice is - and must be - to any Australian child's understanding of their cultural and ethical landscape, we won't be missing this one.

Dreaming as One runs from 22 May 2012 - 04 Jun 2012, 9-5pm Monday to Friday, 9-3pm Sundays.

An Aboriginal Moomba – ‘Out of the Dark’
I've heard about this and am intrigued by the opportunity to learn more:
"Re-visit a Moomba performance that brought Aboriginal culture to the national and international stage. In 1951, an arts festival was planned through Melbourne to celebrate Victoria’s Centenary and the 50th anniversary of Australia’s Federation. Incensed to find that an Aboriginal presence had been excluded, Aboriginal community members organised a performance at the Princess Theatre to critical and popular acclaim." (National Reconciliation Week website).

An Aboriginal Moomba runs from 21 May 2012 - 08 Jun 2012 at the West Footscray Library, 539 Barkly Street, West Footscray. You can check out the full details by contacting West Footscray Library on 9688 0292 or Email

MSO Education Week
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is putting on a fantastic week of concerts and events aimed at children and teachers from 5-9 June. Included in this is one of their wonderful MSO Classic Kids events, this time featuring PlaySchool's Jay Laga'aia. We have been lucky enough to be given tickets to this event, and, after the wonderful time we had at the Melvin Tix show last year, we're looking forward to it hugely! (A post-concert blog will doubtless follow :-)

The MSO does extremely well in their mission to make classical music accessible, interesting and fun for children. I have been greatly impressed by the mix of professionalism and joie de vivre they bring to these events, and the genuine love for music that communicates to the kids. I don't think you'd be disappointed if you took the time for one of these concerts.

You can check out the full Education Week program at

Melbourne Writers' Festival Schools Program
Aimed at older children (grade 4 level and up), the extensive program offered by the MWF for children and young adults just gets better every year. I am seriously considering giving my kids a day off school on Wednesday 29 August so I can take them to the wonderful Bureau of Mysteries session and to meet their beloved Emily Rodda. I reckon that'd be a pretty edumucational day out, hey?

You can check out the full Schools program at

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with any of the organisations or events listed in this post. None of them requested that their material be included and no payment was offered nor accepted for any part of this content.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Changing beds (A poem)

it's Monday, which means the beds are due for stripping.
(which sounds salacious, but is in fact an act of the most anodyne innocence
the most prosaic and dampening necessity).
she pulls the sheets loose, eases pillowcases over lumpy, yellowing foam
a fingernail snagging in one and ripping loose.
she curses quietly and puts the bleeding finger in her mouth
sucking the iron-salt blood free.

a vast pile they make on the floor, a pastel heap
of flannelette and cotton, with one frivolity in silk.
lightly soiled, they'd be tagged
if this were a washing powder commercial, and she a be-rouged and be-ribboned housewife avatar
with gleaming teeth and perfectly tan trousers.
She regards the cloth mountain solemnly, then laughs
as the three-year-old throws herself with delighted chaotic intent
into the middle, and demands "Can y' see my sheet angels? Huh, can y'?"

Remaking is more effortful and frustrating than laying bare.
(Especially for the raised beds. Oh, those beds -
such a fine idea they seemed, before the first linen change).
She sweats, trips and curses again, less softly,
as she wrestles the tight-fitted sheets over the mattresses.
She replaces covers and pillows, soft toys and books
torches and oil pastels;
the detritus of low-light and bedtime.
She runs her hand over the covers, smoothing out wrinkles
(another always pops up elsewhere; there is no finishing it, but after a time it bores her, and she stops).

It is a job with pauses; a job she dislikes
despises, even
the result never quite what she hopes for, the real heart of it unseen, and unremarked,
invisible. its only virtue
(besides the avoidance of squalor, which is an end in itself, of course)
the wind-dried smell of the fresh pillowcases in her air tonight

and perhaps, with that scent
that mingled jasmine and lemon blossom, sweet and clean
wild dreams will come.

- Kathy, 28/5/12

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Emerging Writers Festival Town Hall Conference Day 1: Fear is the mind-killer

"Advice that comes from a place of fear is never, ever correct." Christy Dena, Seven Enviable Lines session, Emerging Writers Festival Town Hall Conference, 26 May 2012

I went to the first day of the Town Hall Conference, part of the Emerging Writers Festival, today. I went expecting it to be interesting, but also expecting to be a spectator, in mind as well as voice. (Rather to my own surprise, I did end up asking one question - of Emily Maguire - and making one comment, in the Writing Groups discussion; so my voice was less silent than I'd anticipated, too). I was wrong - I got engaged, and I got jolted, in a good way, out of standing on the sidelines in my mind.

I have a rather large confidence problem when it comes to my writing, or at least my creative writing. I don't fear critique so much as complete rejection. Let me explain. I quite enjoy having a discerning and uncompromising eye on my work, picking it to smithereens. I take criticism (reasonably) well and am not usually stubborn beyond all reason about accepting the need for change. What I worry about is not that my work's imperfect, because, well, d'uh. I worry that it is, actually, unmitigated crap, with no redeeming virtues at all. That worry is what has held me back from submitting my manuscripts (there are three and a half of them now) to agents, publishers, or taking real steps towards self-publication. That worry is what makes me anxiously seek out "writer's guides" and "advice on writing and marketing" and then feel all confused and helpless when I read it, and realise I could never do the things or be the writer they all advise. That worry has held me back with my fiction writing all my life long - well, once I passed out of the grand hubris of my teens, wherein I merrily submitted stories and poems all over the place, and, moreover, got them published and won junior prizes for them.

I heard many wonderful writers speak today. Many of them were entirely new to me, and I have a long list of books to follow up (I brought home Romy Ash's Floundering, just to get me started - I'm heartily intrigued with the premise behind this, given how much I loved the similarly-based Room by Emma Donovan, another book about trauma from a child's-eye view). I learned things about the publishing process that I didn't know; I got some really useful tips on structure, process, and voice; and I felt I learned a lot from listening to these generous and articulate artists speak about their craft with a whole range of different foci. I laughed along with Lawrence Leung; I was moved by Sydney Smith and Ali Cobby Eckerman; I was absorbed in the wise words and warm personas of Anita Sethi and Emily Maguire. I found Paul Fearne, Fregmonto Stokes and Damon Young fascinating, and enjoyed the Writers Groups discussion with Dan Ducrou and Penni Russon very much.

But I will tell you the big takeaway of the day, the game-changing idea that will stay with me. It was introduced early on, by Christy Dena, and then echoed back, in different words, by many of the other speakers. It is this:

Don't let the fear of failure make your decisions about writing for you.

This applies in so many ways. It's about taking business-y, cautious advice because you're afraid of your own decisions and don't trust yourself. It's about not wanting to submit work because you're afraid of rejection. It's about censoring or suppressing your voice, and the story you want to tell, for fear of offending or annoying others.

I have been afraid. No, I am still afraid. In all these ways and more. I'm not short of ideas or the will to work at them. I'm not a non-completer or shy of the hard yards; I do finish written pieces, and I redraft and redraft and pick over their bones. I have been afraid to go beyond this, though. I am afraid to.

I think, though, that I will, all the same. Fear isn't much of a way to live a life, when all's said and done.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The up side

I'm still thinking about the work-job-thing that people who are mostly in the unpaid private / domestic sphere do. It occurred to me, on re-reading that post, that perhaps it reads as more negative / whiney than I'd intended. I wasn't going for the smell of burning martyr, but I can see how talking about domestic work and its lack of recognition can smack of that. And really, that's not the full picture. Every job has its upsides - well, most of them do - and it's not all unremitting effort and no reward, being at home.

So, to redress that - or perhaps just to nuance it a bit - I thought I might post today about the five things I like best about being a (mostly) unpaid and (mostly) domestic-sphere worker.

1. The rhythm of my days is more natural / tied into seasons and weather than when I worked fulltime out of the home.
Being with young children, running a household without a clothes dryer and with a growing food-producing garden, and only having the use of a car two or three days a week, I am much more aware of weather, seasons and phases of the day than I ever was when I worked in an office. Our days and weeks are informed by a seasonality that helps me feel more connected to everything, and less like a ghost inside the walls.

I also like the stop-start rhythm of a day with children in it; with just C at home now, our mornings are always full-on, busy and physically active, but our early afternoons are often quiet and sedentary, involving books, crafts or TV. Things get busy again in the mid afternoon, as we pick up the big kids and swing into after-school furore, then wind down to peace sometime around 8:30pm. This mid-day quiet time works very well with my own biorhythms, and it's definitely something I appreciate about being at home.

2. I have a very significant amount of control over how I order my work, how I complete it, and how I prioritise it.
At the end of the day, as the person who is primarily responsible for the maintenance of the house, daily care of the children, and logistics for all of us, I am free to decide which household jobs are essential and which are optional; whether it's more important to clean a bathroom or bake cupcakes; whether we'll have shepherd's pie or risotto for dinner, and so on. I can't really contain the amount of work (if only!), but I have a much larger degree of direction in determining how and in what order task my list will be attacked than I did when I was in an office. When I worked fulltime, organisational priorities, of necessity, shaped mine.

3. We have weekends!
This might sound like a weird one, but what I mean here is, simply, that I am usually able to complete most heavy-duty household work, errands etc during the working week, which means that we don't spend a whole day or even more at the weekend doing household tasks (as is the case for many of my friends, who, superhero-like, juggle two fulltime working loads with children). It means that, except for rare weekends - like the one coming, which I'll be spending mostly at the Emerging Writer's Festival - the five of us can actually share some real downtime.

4. I can daydream
A lot of housework is just menial labour - tasks the hands perform without need of the brain's supervision. I am an inveterate daydreamer from way back, and it's pleasant to me to let my mind wander as I scrub and fold, wash and dry. I think I've become a lot more creative, and more confident in my creativity, for having this mental free-range time for my fancies.

5. I get to be part of my children's daytime worlds as well as their evening ones.
As my children get older, I thought I'd find it was less important for me to be physically around and available to them, but I'm finding that's not the case at all. The hour after school is a particularly crucial time for my two elder girls to have with me, even on the days that they don't say anything earth-shattering (which is most of them :-). That doesn't mean that after-school playdates or after-school care are verboten - we do those too, as the occasion demands - but I do see it as a real plus of being at home that I can mostly be there for that time. (So much so, in fact, that when I return to structured employment after C starts school in 2014, I'll be looking for a job that allows me to be at school for pick-up at least 3 days a week).

Anyway, that's just me. YMMV, naturally!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Happy birthday E

The Jesuits used to say (perhaps they still do), "Give me a boy until he is 7, and I'll give you the man."

If it is true that one can clearly see the shape of things to come in a child at 7, if it is the case that nurture's strongest impact has already happened by the time they reach that magical number, then today I raise a glass to both my efficient genes and my earnest, if imperfect, efforts at parenting.

Because my daughter, who turns 7 at 1:05pm today, is wonderful. She's sensitive, strong and kind. She's fun, and funny. She's very intelligent, and she's ever so curious about everything in her world. She has a fearsome temper, and deploys it, but is learning to contain it, in her own ways. And that fierceness shows up in so many positive ways - in her vibrant enthusiasms for new subjects, in her defence of anyone she sees being attacked, in her passionate concern for the world and its people.

Any small part that I had in that - even if it was simply providing a safe environment for her to develop - I celebrate it. And I celebrate her.

Happy 7th birthday, Miss E, my very lovely secondborn daughter. I love you more than the stars, today and every day.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Art party

My secondborn girl, the lovely Miss E, had her 7th birthday party yesterday. (Her actual birthday is Monday). Her party this year was an art-themed party.

E loves art and craft. She loves to draw, paint, create and decorate. When we were thinking about her party this year, a few options got tossed around - a gymnastics party at her gym, a swimming party at the local pool, and a roller skating party among them - but as soon as she heard that her new second-cousin-in-law (my cousin's wife) was starting to offer art parties, she was sold. An art party it was!

Once the theme was established and date selected, the next order of business was to think about the cake. We have a bit of a tradition now of decorated birthday cakes, enabled by our cake decorating whizz friend; we've had lovehearts with roses, round lavender cakes, Dorothy the Dinosaur, and the unforgettable periodic table of the elements cupcakes (yes, all 118 of them...)

The art theme originally had us thinking in terms of an artist's palette, with cut-out squares of different coloured fondant for the paints, but K, genius that she is, soon came up with an even better idea - to use edible markers and let E create her cake entirely by herself, drawing pictures on white fondant. E thought this was an awesome plan, so she and I baked a double mudcake, then K came over for dinner and we made a lot of buttercream, smothered the cake with it, then K rolled out a packet of white icing (the Orchard brand one you can get in Coles) and we applied it to the cake.

After that, it was over to E to draw a master-work on her blank canvas, and she did a lovely job :-) It was also the easiest decorated cake we've ever made, by some margin - K and I were sitting down sipping tea by 8:30, as opposed to the 1am galloping finish with the elements cakes. I think we are getting this kids-birthday-cakes thing down at last!

The actual party entertainment was provided by my cousin-in-law, Pereena, who is a primary school art teacher and a very talented one at that. Her party plan, Active Art, sounds really simple - Pereena guides the kids through the creation of an oil pastel artwork. I admit that I wondered how engaging the kids would find it, and whether they would all go with the program.

Well, my doubts were emphatically laid to rest within minutes, as Pereena helped the kids select an artwork to copy (they chose a pink fish) and set up her easel. Of the twelve kids at the party, only two - our single boy guest and my 3 year old, C - were unable to or uninterested in following Pereena's guidance and direction as they created their own versions of the fish. (C did still enjoy having a free-range scribble with the pastels, as my Dad valiantly tried to draw a fish on her paper with her!)

What I really admired about this activity was the way that Pereena showed the kids how to build up a picture from base elements. Taking them step by step through the process, encouraging them at each turn, she helped them all create artworks that were both objectively attractive and quite astonishingly close to the picture they were copying.

They were all totally engrossed for over an hour, concentrating on their work, and boy were they proud of their results, especially later when parents started to arrive to collect them and were genuinely impressed with what the kids had made. (More than one expressed an intention to frame the pictures!)

E was thrilled, both because she produced a beautiful picture herself, but also because she got to keep Pereena's sample artwork for her own. Pereena even signed it, much to E's delight :-) E got a good set of pastels as part of her birthday present this year, she she got to road-test them too (I bought smaller cheap boxes of pastels from Big W for the other kids to use).

Cost-wise, this was a pretty inexpensive party theme too. Had we gone with a gymnastics party, it would've cost about $3 more per head than this did, for a shorter amount of "entertainment". All up, with the art activity (including buying the cheap pastels), party food, cake, decorations, party bags & contents, a pass the parcel, and E's box of good quality pastels, this party cost me around $350, which puts it solidly in the middle rank of parties cost-wise for us (slightly pricier than a playcentre party, where food is included, but cheaper than E's fairy party two years ago, A's science party or dance centre party, or any of their gala first birthdays, to which we invited everyone we knew).

I tend to make a deal of birthdays - I budget about $400-$500 for the whole birthday experience (including presents), and I save for it. The flipside is we go fairly minimalist at Christmastime, Easter etc. This year, as well as her pastels, E received several books from us and a fairy dress which was ostensibly from her sisters but which I helped paid for (her elder sister chipped in $20 saved from her pocket money, which was nice).

I also paid half of the cost of a new camera for E - she lost her previous one and we had a deal that if she could earn & save 50% of the price, I'd match her as a birthday gift. (Her godmother, learning this, helped her get there a lot faster by giving her a JB HiFi voucher as a gift :-) I was very impressed, in fact, with the quality of camera we could get for our combined $120 - cameras are so incredibly affordable these days. Altogether I reckon I spent around $120 on her gifts this year, with the camera being the big-ticket item. I'm fairly satisfied with that overall.

Her haul of gifts was quite modest by the standards of her friends, but she was very happy with it. She's not a particularly acquisitive child, although she has her moments of whining for "stuff" like they all do. Basically, though, what E craves is experiences; she wants to do things and try things, surrounded by her friends. The balance of spending on her birthday, weighted towards her party, reflected this, and it was a good decision for her.

If you are Melbourne-based and looking for a great idea for a kids' party, consider Active Art - Pereena really knows her stuff and you will not be disappointed. And I'm not just saying that because she's my cousin-in-law :-) Let me know in comments if you want contact details and I'll email you directly.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is it work, and does it matter?

Reading Megan Blandford's excellent post on the mummy wars today, I noted one phrase she included as an aside, and it got me thinking. Megan wrote, "My view on motherhood is pretty clear: It's not a job, it's just life. Sometimes life is wonderful, sometimes it sucks a bit."

I wondered, as I nodded vigorously along with the rest of her post (really, she nailed it about the dreariness and predictability of the manufactured, mostly illusory mummy wars), why this particular phrase had stuck in my head. It itched away in a corner of my brain, and I re-read it three times, trying to put my finger on why. Basically, I agree with the sentiment - I probably wouldn't phrase it quite like this, but the substance isn't something that I dissent from, I thought. And yet - and yet -

After several cups of peppermint tea and a cogitation break to do craft with C, make her lunch, pay some bills, fold laundry and clean the feeelthy bathroom (the one I haven't touched in over three weeks, YES I know that is gross, SUE ME), I think I have finally worked out what nags at me, and it's a bigger question / problem. It's this:

If motherhood's not the job, then what IS the job?

How do we classify all the labour that makes up the day of a person who performs an essentially domestic / private sphere role, in an unpaid capacity? I'm not just referring to parents at home with young children here; I have a friend, who has no children, whose daily life and duties are extraordinarily similar to mine as she cares for her elderly parents in their home. Like me, she ferries people to appointments, she deals with bills and household emergencies, she cooks, she cleans, she washes clothes and strips beds and plans. She cares and comforts and reads aloud. She is firm sometimes and deals with tantrums and unreason. She gets tired and discouraged on occasion. (She also writes - it's a good outlet :-) Anyone whose work takes place in the private sphere faces this same dilemma.

How can we describe what a person does whose labour is unremunerated and, as many of my friends who work fulltime remind me, non-unique? By non-unique, they don't mean non-essential; they are getting at the reality that everyone has to eat / cook, everyone has clean a loo occasionally, everyone needs clean clothes and to pay the gas bill and to get the car fixed and so forth. Fulltime working people still have to do these things, or pay someone else to do them on their behalf. There is nothing special or individual about the household and logistical tasks that a person whose labour is at home performs; they are important tasks, certainly (try living a few months without them!) but they are rendered mostly invisible by their very ubiquity.

Of course it is pleasant and convenient to not have to do these tasks in addition to managing two fulltime paid working loads. It probably improves the quality of life of all the members of the household in many cases, including the paid working member(s), to not have to take on as much, if any, domestic labour. That is one thing that many households (such as mine) factor in, along with the cash costs of childcare for young children or elder care for parents / relatives and the intangible emotional costs of separation if that is an issue, in weighing up the value of paid work for all the adults in the house. Finding the sweet spot is never easy and it sits in a different place for every household, and changes over time. But, as is always the case, any decision comes with an opportunity cost, and a real one for domestic labourers is the lack of a way to describe, to tag, to denote what we do in any but the most fragmented, inadequate ways. (In this regard, domestic labour IS like motherhood - the words are too small, the ocean too vast, to convey it).

The logical next question, of course, is why does it matter? If there isn't a "job word" for what people who work in the home do, so what? Most people recognise that labour is involved, despite the passive-aggressive "lying around on the couch all day eating bonbons and watching soap operas" jokes that infest a certain kind of conversation (or its bleeding edge equivalent - "sit around with the iPad drinking coffee and blogging all day" :-)

I think it matters because humans are hardwired to find meaning in words and language. To know a truth, we speak its name. What then when there is no name, when an entire body of labour and effort and work and yes, passion and committment, is "just, you know, staying at home" (or, worse, as I heard a parent say to another this week at school "Oh, nothing. I do nothing")? When the words we do use - Domestic Goddess, housekeeper, carer, stay-at-home parent - are tongue-in cheek, soft, whispered, self-deprecating; words that lack force and gravitas, lack weight?

So I think that's why people claim motherhood as a job, really. Not because it is - but because parenting is one part of the life of a person whose sphere is currently domestic that does have some social recognition, some cachet. It's the part of my labour that can be described, using words that sound less small, less shrinking, less menial. It's also, in my case, the absolute reason for my labour being domestic rather than external at this point of my life.

Am I a mother? Yes. Am I doing a job called Motherhood? No, I'm not. I'm in the private sphere almost exclusively - barring a limited amount of mostly home-based contract work - and I work. I perform domestic, logistical and manual labour daily. My work is not romantic but it is pivotal to the way we currently live our lives, and it matters to me that I can speak this, with words to convey it.

I just wish I knew what they were.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reading Notes: The Princess Bride

(This post is part of the Once a Month Book Club link up over at A Permanent Flux. This month's theme is A book from the year you were born.)

"This is true love - you think this happens every day?"

When selecting a book from the year I was born to write about for this month's Once a Month Book Club, I was spoiled for choice. I was born in June 1973, and shared my birth year with the publication of A Wind in the Door (the second book in Madeleine L'Engle's peerless Wrinkle in Time series); Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions; Toni Morrison's Sula; Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising (my favourite book in one of my favourite series ever); James Herriot's endlessly appealing (well, to the daughter of a vet!) All Things Bright and Beautiful; Anne McCaffrey's wonderful To Ride Pegasus; Ursula LeGuin's classic The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas; and Mary Stewart's The Hollow Hills, the second book in her groundbreaking Arthurian cycle. All of these books are very dear to me, and I have read them all more than once.

So to pick out one only was going to be a challenge, until I saw that a certain book was also published in 1973; a book that, for me, is wrapped up inextricably but wonderfully with the film version; a book that has a voice, a verve, and a pleasure unlike anything else I've ever read. That book is, of course, The Princess Bride.

This book is an unusual one for me in that it is the only book I can recall where I saw (and loved) the film a long time before reading the book. I came to the book with images firmly rooted in my mind, pictures of what the main characters looked like and were like. I saw Robin Wright in my head when I read Buttercup's lines; I heard Mandy Patinkin's inimitable voice as I read of Inigo holding his sword. Happily, this predisposition didn't spoil either book or film for me - rather, it enriched both. I think is a testament to the depth of Goldman's involvement in the film that I found no serious disjunction between the two. The book is wittier, more nuanced, and much more cynical than the film, but the essential thread - the humour, the romance and the derring-do - is absolutely consistent between them.

The Princess Bride, in case you are unfamiliar with the plot, is a story within a story. The author, William Goldman, claims to be abridging a longer history written by an historian of the fictional country of Florin, relating the epic tale of Princess Buttercup and her farmboy, Westley - their love, their travails, their adventures and (of course) their happy ending. Goldman inserts a fictionalised version of himself, and his supposed trials in performing the abridgement, into the story, which provides an oddly appealing whiney omniscient voice over the straight fairytale-esque patter of the main plot.

Despite the importance of Buttercup and Westley, this is an ensemble story, and really, it's the supporting cast that make it such a funny, engaging story (especially in the film). Goldman has a gift for drawing vivid characters: Fezzik the Giant, the repulsive Prince Humperdinck, the evil Count Rugen, my personal favourite character Inigo Montoya, ("Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You kill my father. Prepare to die...") the clever (but not clever enough) criminial mastermind Vizzini, and of course the wonderful Miracle Max and his wife, Valerie. In both film and book, these characters get some of the best lines - dead zingers, sharp as a needle and very apt to stay lodged in one's subconscious, then recycled out to form part of the cultural context when a group of late Gen Xers get together. I could not count the number of times the one of my friends, crowing over their impending victory in a game of skill, comes out with Vizzini's immortal dying words: "You fell victim to one of the classic blunders - The most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line"!"

However, even though it's often considered to be a sweet, funny, fairly simple romantic adventure, I think the book in particular is much, much more complex (and cleverer) than that. Goldman, by interspersing a non-self purporting to be a self into the text, is able to play around in some very interesting ways with not just "history" and "story", but things like "truth", "persona" and "identity". Goldman slyly invites us to believe that when we are reading his commentary, we are engaging with a reality outside the text, when in fact we are simply approaching a different fictional character, with a different voice, who happens to share a name with the author. I find it quite postmodern in its approach, but entirely without the dreariness and self-importance that often characterises self-consciously pomo work; this is funny, entertaining, often light-hearted, AND casually, skilfully, questioning the nature of self and story and received truth.

For all these reasons I love it, and it is a worthy ambassador for 1973 - carrying the flag for humour and subterfuge, self-deprecation and silliness, romance and risk-taking and storytelling. There are worse years to be born :-)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Science and wonder

I am very slightly in love with this YouTube video that my husband dug up yesterday:

I have a massive soft spot for nerds generally, and science nerds singing sweet (nerdy) songs about the biology of maternity just slays me. I bet his mother is proud :-)

It prompted me to think, after looking at some of the comments, about the relationship between science and wonder. A few commenters - only a few, most people loved it - were down on this song for "making everything too clinical" and "too science-y". They seemed to feel that explanations of how things work in scientific terms somehow missed an essential element, destroyed the 'magic', of the bond that exists between a mother and a child.

This is an argument I've heard before, not infrequently in fact. It's an argument that has no resonance at all for me. The idea that science is the enemy of wonder, or emotion, or dreams, seems to me so entirely misguided that I cannot quite fathom what drives it. I am no scientist, but I have an intelligent layperson's interest in science, and have read widely especially in the fields of genetics, cosmology and neuroscience. My reading hasn't made me less amazed and awestruck at the terrible beauty and complexity of the world and myself; it's made me much more so. Journeying even a short way into the immense amount of knowledge that human beings have accrued about all manner of things opens the door to more and greater mysteries and astonishment.

How can it not be incredible, to learn about how stars are born? Is it not a sense of enlightenment, to understand a little how your brain works to carry you through life? And as a mother, grasping just what your body did to make another human being - how powerful and how wonderful.

My children share this fascination with science, with knowing how things work. I think perhaps all children do, really. For them, learning more fuels a hunger to go further and deeper, and they build rainbow castles of fancy on the foundations of the periodic table of the elements, or the constellations of the southern sky, or the colours of the spectrum of light. They get a deep satisfaction from knowing, as their beloved They Might Be Giants sing, that science is real:

I don't believe science and wonder are oppositional concepts at all. Wonder is not an exclusive prerogative of magic, faith, or the transcendent; it lives in understanding the process of oxidization, in comprehending mitochondria, in thinking about the Big Bang. How fearfully and wonderfully is this universe made and is constantly remaking itself. It should excite and awe us all.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Things I Know

I used to play along with this meme every week, but then I dropped the ball. Bygones, people. ANYWAY, here is what I know this week:

- I know that family walks with the dog are fun, and do us all good, and that we should do it much more often than we seems to get around to.

- I know that when your 3 year old has a grizzly evening, a dreadfully disrupted night and then refuses to eat her breakfast, it's not the smartest idea in the world to offer to drive your partner to work across the Westgate Bridge which is in gridlock due to an accident. Unless you feel like ending up with a car (and child) full of vomit with at least 20 minutes left before you can clean anything up. (That was our morning today...)

- I know that when 3 year olds can't go to gymnastics (due to aforementioned vomit storms), they are disappointed. But I also know that an offer of watching The Lion King with Mummy, AND having fingernails painted in rainbow colours, makes up for it very quickly.

- I know that interpersonal skills are a vital part of working in any kind of medical or related healthcare field, and that no matter how technically competent you are, if you are shit at talking to patients, that decreases your effectiveness hugely.

- I know that waiting is not my favourite ... and now I have another wait, this time to get results, until next Friday.

- I know that I'm quite excited, energised and a little overwhelmed as I look at my May-July schedule, stuffed as it is with Mother's Day, the Emerging Writers' Festival, E's birthday, our family trip to the snow, and potentially a LOT of contract work (especially if I end up getting a rather large and interesting project I'm quoting on).

- And finally, I know that I am going to do Nanowrimo again in November; the ideas have started sprouting spontaneously, and the taste for it is coming back already.

Lots of people know things this week, and they're over at Dorothy's place.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mornings at our house

The ever-wonderful Nicole has posted about her household's morning routine today. Our mornings look a little different, so, for the sake of variety and joining in the conversation, I thought I might post it.

The first point to note is that our "routine" is a lot less consistent, and a lot less ... ummmm ... routine-y? than Nicole's. Possibly this is a function of the fact that I'm a much less orderly thinker than Nicole is; it certainly isn't anything to do with family shape / size, as I have three kids to her five and they line up pretty much exactly with her younger three in age.

In my house I have:
- a 3 year old, C, who still likes a morning breastfeed, can wake anywhere between 6 and 7am, and doesn't like leaving the house in the morning;
- an almost 9 year old, A, who is an avid (some might say obsessive) reader, quite deadline oriented, and prone to hissy fits;
- an about-to-be-7 year old, E, who haaaaaates mornings with the fiery passion of a thousand suns;
- a husband who thinks mornings are evil and will sleep until the last possible nanosecond; and
- me - usually a morning person, but currently suffering interrupted sleep and thus often very tired and irritable in the mornings.

If you're thinking that all sounds like a powderkeg waiting to go KABLOOOEY, well, you'd be right. We've had our share and more of frantic scrabbling, everybody yelling, tears and Benny Hill-style chases through the house to catch people whose hair needs BRUSHING, WOULD YOU HOLD STILL FOR ONE FRICKIN' MINUTE, and so forth. We've had forgotten lunchboxes and overdue notices and unkempt breathless late arrivals at school. Oh yes we have.

The things that I'm finding that have a calming effect on this maelstrom are five little tricks. They don't really constitute a "routine" so much as "a set of tools to help prevent a series of unfortunate events from unfolding". On the whole, they work, and the last two weeks, mornings have been a lot pleasanter and we haven't been late once! (WIN!)

1. I do all the notices, money, extracurricular bits and pieces etc the night before now. (This includes getting E's gymnastics bag ready on a Wednesday, as we go to gym after school that day, and A's ballet bag ready on Fridays - same logic). I always *think* I'm going to have time to do this in the morning, and I never do, so I finally learned the lesson and went with advance preparation. We haven't had a crisis with notices since the very beginning of the year now I use this system.

2. Refer everybody who can read to the Morning List, which I got A and E to create, write and illustrate (and allowed C to colour with green pencil so she felt she had some buy-in too). This list is really a bit of a lifesaver. Since we've had it, I have not had any struggle getting A and E to eat their breakfast reasonably swiftly, for instance, because they can *see* what has to come next - they know because they wrote it! It's also a useful mnemonic for me - I glance at it several times as I'm doing my morning things to act as a prompt.

3. Task the older two kids with helping to get C ready. C is a mischievous monkey when it comes to getting dressed, but she is somewhat less so for her sisters, who seem to have a knack for making it a game and getting C to join in. I get out the clothes I want her in, then one of the bigs (usually E) dresses C and even sometimes combs her hair.

4. Put in restrictions around all distracting activities, including (sadly) reading. We've never had morning TV or computers on weekdays, but visual media aren't the only child-diverters around. Both A and E, but particularly A, will happily lose themselves in books, daydreaming away the time until it's suddenly CRISIS O'CLOCK and they are still in their bunny slippers and pjs. We now have a rule that you can read while you eat your breakfast, then it's books down until you are ready to walk out the door. (Naturally, if you are ready early, you can read to your heart's content!)

5. Wake husband at the latest possible moment for him to get to work on time (7:45am if he has the car - Mondays & Tuesdays - or 7:15am if he's on the bus). An extra adult isn't actually as helpful to my morning process as you might imagine; often it simply ups the ante of people getting annoyed and peeved, and makes things harder. Unless I am actually sick, it's smoother if I just make the mornings happen and let him get about his business.

So, routine-light as we are, we still manage to get to school (walking Mon & Tues, in the car the rest of the week) and C gets to creche on Thursdays. We aren't often (too) late and everyone has a healthy lunch packed and everything they need for the day with them. There is even usually some laughter and cuddling involved. Sure, I don't often squeeze in a shower - I more often wash at night - and there's usually dishes to come home to. But for a family of muddle-headed wombats, we do OK.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Violet and Pencil

"Play with me, Mummy!" she says, bouncing on her feet. I shove aside the mountain of unfolded clothes without regret.

"What shall we play, honey?"

She regards me seriously, tipping her head to one side as she ponders. "Tea party," she concludes finally, grabbing my hand. "With my Dorothy teaset. I'll be Pencil, and you be Violet."

"May I have some tea, Pencil?" I say, cross-legged on her floor, a teddy propped up beside me, a city's worth of building blocks strewn just behind.

"Cert'nly'" she replies in a growly falsetto, tipping water from her tin teapot into my thumb-sized cup. (The floor wears some too; Dorothy the Dionsaur tea kettles are imprecise instruments, it seems.)

She presses a green block into my hand. "Now eat it, Violet," she instructs, miming with her own block. "It is delishus, see?"

I put it to my mouth, making exaggerated "mmmmm, mmmm" noises. "That was just lovely, Pencil. You are a wonderful cook."

A grin, then, "I am a boy. Pencil is a boy, Mummy-Violet. Pencil is a boy and Violet is he's Mummy."

"OK," I agree. "Shall we build a tower, Pencil? Or do something else?"

"Let's play the gentlemens game," she decides, and together we sing her favourite finger-play song, the one that uses each finger in turn to be a person. We waggle our thumbs and sing, "Two fat gentlemen met in the lane, bowed most politely, bowed once again. 'How do you do? How do you do? And how do you do again?'"

"Violet," she says, snuggling up on my knee, "I love you."

I kiss her hair. "I love you too, Pencil," I say.

"Not Pencil," she murmurs. "Just me again, now."

We sit, close and warm, for a long while.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


On Thursday I am having an echocardiogram, to follow up from the anomalous results from my Holter monitor test. My heart isn't beating normally, which was both a cause for worry but also, oddly, a relief. The symptoms I have are unabated - getting slightly worse, in fact - and I would have been more distressed, I think, to have a nil result from the Holter and still be struggling on feeling like I do but with no path forward.

The echo may show nothing, or something trivial. There is a small possibility that it will show something serious. Given my age, my lack of family history of heart problems, my lifetime non-smoker status, my low-normal blood pressure and my unremarkable bloodwork, the odds of it being anything desperate are low. I know this with my head, and (mostly) with my gut, although I have been doing a fair bit of 3am staring at the ceiling, imagining the worst.

Waiting is hard to do. I always manage to deal with things once I know what's going on; uncertainty, ambiguity and delay are my nemeses, eating at my peace of mind, niggling away in a corner of my lizard hindbrain (which shrieks at me FIGHT OR FLIGHT OR FIGHT OR FLIGHT) all the time.

But it's a lesson for me, this; it's teaching me to force myself to focus on the moment I'm in, this moment, now, when my heart isn't failing and I'm not lined up for surgery and I am just living my life. I have always been particularly bad at letting go of the future. I'm not particularly nostalgic - mostly, I can remember and relinquish the past - but I still hold onto the comical illusion that I can shape my future and contain events through the brute force of my will. I can't, obviously, but it takes crises and uncertainty to remind me of that sometimes.

So I worry, but I also stop worrying for stretches as I get on with being. I walk my children to school and I pause as I need to when my heart goes doolally, and it's not a sign of the coming Apocalypse, it's just a momentary pause. I work, fulfilling commitments to clients, and sip my decaf tea without a grimace. I help my three year old water our strawberries, our citrus and our mint, I prune my roses, and I breathe deep as their various scents fill the cool autumn air. I teach my almost-7-year-old to make chocolate crackles and I practice my piano pieces. I read, continuously - drawn back to revisit Connie Willis's knockout Blitz double-act, Blackout and All Clear, reading storybooks to C, and reading Anne of Green Gables and its sequels aloud to my big girls, who can read themselves but enjoy the snuggling-up sharing of the spoken word. I cook meals and I do laundry. I sleep when I can and I write when I can't. (When I sleep, I dream of strange things, often involving near-misses and frights relieved). I try to be, and mostly am, with my children and my partner in mind as well as body.I try to be OK - really OK - with knowing that I don't know yet what's wrong, and that life is a chaotic system which could have a thousand reasons - or none at all - for the misfiring of my heart.

Waiting isn't a pleasant state of being. But dark cloud or no, there is plenty of bright edging, especially when I relinquish my need to control, and just let it all unravel as it will.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Giving twice on Mother's Day

Mother's Day is upon us next Sunday in Australia. I'm always a little ambivalent about Mother's Day. On one hand, the idea of a day to celebrate mothering and mothers seems like a lovely one. Maternity is an odd duck in modern Western societies; both ignored and reified, privileged and profoundly disadvantaging, worshipped and sneered at. A day for mother-figures to be recognised in whatever way resonates for them by the people to whom they give their maternal attention seems kind of nice, in the abstract. (As does the heart-melting sweetness of child-made cards and gifts, and child-prepared Breakfast! In! Bed!, which never grows old for me).

On the other hand, the pretty crass commercialism of it, the blaring marketing of MORE and NEWER and MORE EXPENSIVE thingies and whatnots to buy for the maternal figure in your life, bugs me and always has. Even more than Easter, birthdays and Christmas, Mother's and Father's Days are the domain of aggressive campaigns to promote spending for no real reason. The fact that they use the sucker punch of "showing mum that you love her" adds another cheery layer of guilt to the whole business. Ah, capitalism. You're a sneaky beast.

Years ago, we decided to not give gifts to our mothers on Mother's Day, but rather take them both out to a nice restaurant for a fancy lunch. Now that we have young children, we've substituted that with a fancy lunch prepared at our house, for a guest list including (but not always limited to) my parents, G's Mum and sister, and my brother. My girls paint a card each for me and for their two grandmothers, and I give the older two $10 apiece to spend at the school Mother's Day stall to get little things they can enjoy giving to their Nanna and Nanny. Mother's Day isn't necessarily a cheap affair - when I say "fancy meal", I mean fancy meal, which includes foodstuffs of looxury - but it doesn't involve a lot of superfluous loot for anyone.

This year, though, I'm tweaking tradition slightly, because I have asked for a Mother's Day gift, and will be giving one each to my mum and MIL. None of us need any more objects in our lives (well, and this will always and ever be my caveat - except books) and we are all committed to doing what we can to help people who haven't been dealt the royal flush that we're playing in the great poker game of life. We're all white, financially stable, able-bodied, mostly healthy, property-owning, Australians - women, yes, but privileged on many more axes than we are disadvantaged.

So this Mother's Day, I'm giving my mother a gift certificate to Good Return, and my MIL is getting a gift card from Act for Peace. I've asked my husband to buy me a Giving Bowl from Foundation 18's etsy shop, so that I can put my loose change to good use.

If you are looking for ideas for Mother's Day, perhaps one of these might appeal to you too. The three I've listed below aren't an exhaustive sample of Mother's Day focused giving at all, but they are all ones that looked good to me (and are all organisations I trust due to previous associations and research).

1. Good Return
I have posted about Good Return before, and supported their International Women's Day campaign with a loan to Kalpana Poudel, a Nepalese vegetable seller. Good Return is an Australian not-for-profit that takes an empowerment approach to helping people, facilitating micro-loans that finance business and sustainable development projects that allow people to build towards their own futures. When you give money to Good Return, you're actually loaning it, and at the end of the loan period, you can have your money back, reinvest it in another loan, or donate it to the direct charity work of the organisation.

I am in love with this model, and I know my Mum will be too. I know she'll spend time carefully choosing where her loan should be placed, and that she'll reinvest it again and again, helping more women reach their goals, fill their childrens' bellies, and escape deep-seated poverty that seems so insurmountable sometimes.

You can follow Good Return on Twitter (@GoodReturnOrg), on Facebook (, and on Pinterest (

2. Act for Peace
Act for Peace is the international aid agency of the National Council of Churches in Australia. Probably their best-known single activity is the annual Christmas Bowl appeal, but their work is much broader than that, with a strong focus on assisting refugees around the world in a variety of ways. For Mother's Day, Act for Peace is offering a Maternal Care pack, which provides maternity care to women in Pakistan and Palestine (Gaza), for $15. These are women who have not had access to maternity care, and for whom childbirth-related injuries and deaths are terrifyingly high. Supporting clinics that help address this, and give women a chance to survive and thrive in birthing, for just $15 has got to be a bargain however you cut it.

You can follow Act for Peace on Twitter (@actforpeace).

3. Giving bowls - Foundation 18
Many Australians are already aware of the work of Cate Bolt and Foundation 18. Cate's own story is an amazing one, and a real, living model of putting your money (and time, and energies, and heart) where your mouth is. The work that Foundation 18 and its youth arm, The You Crew, is doing is important and potentially transformatory, and the mountains that Cate and her family have moved to make it happen are vast.

Cate makes a variety of truly lovely ethical products, the sale of which supports the running of the Foundation's group home for girls in Ringdikit, Bali. Her Giving Bowls are beautiful objects in their own right (particularly the felted ones ... I am so enamoured of them) but the concept behind them, of a simple, everyday way to collect the loose change for a worthwhile purpose, is even better. It's this kind of practical approach to charity that helps the most, I sometimes think. Not in grand gestures and impassioned flourishes, but in quiet daily kindness and mindfulness, is the world transformed.

You can follow Cate and Foundation 18 on Twitter (@catebolt and @Foundation18).

So what are you doing for Mother's Day? Will it include breakfast in bed?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On mothers

Today is my mother's birthday. A MayDay baby, she's often gifted with cool, windy birthdays, like today.

The kids and I rang her to wish good birthday things this morning, an exercise somewhat marred by the fight between the 8 and 7 year olds over who would lead the singing of Happy Birthday. The 8 year old was stuck in a loop of unreason - a common enough state for her 6 months ago, but becoming less frequent now, as she learns and practises techniques for managing her emotions. She began her maddening, impossible, impregnable repetitions; wailing over and over, without pause or surcease, "I want to do it! I want to! She can't! I want to!" Her tantrums are rarer, but much more severe, now than when she was a toddler / preschooler. It's like she is blind and deaf to anything I say or do at these times; being firm doesn't help her, being kind / sympathetic doesn't help her, screaming (which I admit I have done sometimes, although I regretted it straight away) certainly doesn't help her. The only approach that speeds these storms to calmer waters is to ignore her almost completely (but remain available to respond quietly if and when she's ready to interact), remove whatever the catalyst was (in this case, I had to take the phone from her and hang it up) and keep her sisters, particularly the 7 year old who is excellent at pouring oil on the flames, away from her.

As we were walking to school later, we talked about what had happened and why she had reacted as she did. As I suspected, there was an unexpressed anxiety about the day ahead behind it - apparently there is a new innovation at school in which her grade level has to participate in a "footy club", an extra sports session run by external trainers. A doesn't like ball sports, doesn't like rough games, and doesn't like this extra session at all. She's not especially sporty, but has always quite liked school PE and certainly likes her PE teacher. Reading between the lines, I wonder if the external coaches are engaging in some competitive / shaming techniques; A seemed embarrassed, worried about what might be said to her.

Mother-bear-like, my first instinct was to march up to the school office and demand to know:
a) why external coaches were being used and parents had not been informed;
b) why the kids were losing a literacy session each week to add in football training, when they already do PE, daily walking club, and sports carnivals; and
c) why they were not allowed to opt out of it, when the philosophy of the school is meant to incorporate "the right to pass".

I squashed this urge, however, knowing it wouldn't help A to deal with what her day held in store. Instead we talked a little more about how to handle these situations, and how to manage the stress they can make you feel. A sighed, seeming relieved but still pensive.

"You are a different Mummy than you were when I was 3," she remarked.

I stopped, surprised. "Oh?" I said. "How?"

She chewed on her lip. "You ... walk faster," she concluded finally.

I knew instantly that she wasn't talking just about my lengthening stride, matched now to the scooting pace of the two big kids. She meant that life is more crowded now, days more full, my attention more divided, the race faster and with less rest stops along the way. She's quite right, of course; I am a different mummy now, and I will be different again in another 5 years, just as she will be at a different stage, with new needs and new challenges, as she enters her teens.

I am also a different person - I have grown, changed, developed in the 5 years since she was three. I have goals and ambitions now that are different, or more developed, than they were then. My life is different. My heart is not the same.

It made me think about my own mother, and all the changes she saw us through. I think I have felt closer to my mum - certainly I've understood her more - since I've had my own children. And I've forgiven her for the mistakes she made, as I bumble along making many worse ones of my own; I have let go of that towering arrogance of my early adulthood, in which I saw all my mother's actions, decisions and conversation as being about meeeeeee. Now I know that my mother not only did the best she could; objectively, she did good. She loves us all unstintingly and unceasingly, and she cared for our needs when we were children, and remains available to us now. She is a human being, a person with thoughts and aspirations and interests and hopes outside of her identity as My Mother. And that is a great thing, a marvellous thing, to realise and embrace.

So here is a multi-verse seasonal birthday haiku, for my mum, and for me too.

in the spring, you
held my infant form
encircled in warmth and ease.

summer brought fire and storming;
self slipping the knot from source
a woman in making.

now as leaves fall
soft into your silvering life
new buds are flowering.

I do not love the winter; silence
of snows on beloved souls
the absence of voices.

Perhaps this autumn will be long;
enough for you to bend in kindness
to smooth my path.

In loving you, I learn
to love myself; then I teach
beloved blossoms to love in turn.