Friday, November 30, 2012

The end of the tour

So NaBloPoMo draws to a close today - one post a day for 30 days, done and dusted. It hasn't been too much of a strain, really, which may say something about either how comfortable I am in my blogging skin, or how much rubbish I spout on a regular basis :-P

The posts have been:
- 5 posts about working at home as a self-employed person (2 x 2 profiles, and one post on being a contractor
- 2 poems
- 3 book reviews / reading posts
- 3 opinion pieces (about activated almonds, racism on Twitter, and the US election)
- 9 posts that would probably loosely be grouped as "slice of life"
- 1 post that was literally about nothing
- 2 posts about self-reflection and goals
- 1 fun post about a mystery house
- 1 angsty post about difficulties with creche
- 1 post about being gluten free

and bookended start and finish with posts about NaBloPoMo!

It's been fun, and I always find it a good discipline to do once a year. That said, the weekend will bring the blessed sound of silence around here; I'll be back Monday with the third Self-Employed and Working at Home with Kids profile.

Hope you have a great weekend!

This is post 30 in NaBloPoMo. I made it! Hurray!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reading Notes: Fishing for Tigers

I read Emily Maguire's latest novel, Fishing for Tigers, as soon as it came out, and meant thereafter to review it, but all my good intentions vis a vis book reviewing were swallowed up by the Booker Prize longlist. (Penni Russon's wonderful Only Ever Always was another book that similarly suffered from delayed review syndrome).

Well, I had trouble sleeping last night, pain and heat not being a great combination, so I was casting around for something to re-read that would put me in the right frame of mind to rest. I'm not sure what made me reach for Fishing with Tigers, but as it turned out, that was the lousiest choice I could've made, because it not only didn't put me to sleep, it sucked me in so deeply (again) that I ended up staying up til 1am to finish my re-reading. Aside from making me tired today, this finally persuaded me that I ought to write my review of this book, because it resonated with me a lot, and I think it's worth putting text to screen about it.

I came to this book specifically and entirely because of its setting. I have a decades-long love affair with Hanoi (with Vietnam generally, but Hanoi in particular). Despite the fact that I've only been in country twice, and only to Hanoi once, my interest, and affection, runs deep. My family has long connections to Vietnam, via my grandfather who lived and worked in Vietnam and Cambodia, practising medicine, intermittently throughout the 1970s and 1980s while he was still doctoring in Australia, and continuously from about 1995 until returning to Melbourne after his stroke in 2008.

My grandfather fell so hard in love with Vietnam, it is difficult to even capture his commitment. His favourite place in all the world was Hue, and that's where he wanted to die (sadly, it wasn't to be). But he was full of stories about Saigon and Hanoi too, and when he visited Melbourne, he was always accompanied by Vietnamese friends. He and my grandmother spent many years assisting Vietnamese refugees resettle in Australia, and by assisting, I mean sponsoring, employing, taking families and students into their home to live, paying for weddings and funerals, and the like. I grew up helping Vietnamese families' kids master their English (I tutored several of them in high school) and, in return, not only developing an undying passion for Vietnamese food but also picking up scraps of culture and language that linger with me to this day.

So when I heard Emily Maguire speak at the Emerging Writers Festival in May about her forthcoming book, I flagged it immediately as one for me. I was a little trepidatious though, in the way you are when someone is taking on a beloved subject. (Akin to the combined anticipation and dread that many fans endured to the lead-up to releasing the first Lord of the Rings film, I imagine). I wondered if Maguire would do the setting justice, or if it would just be another mostly-failed Orientalist-exotic appropriation. All Maguire's other novels - of which I have only read one, and liked it, although I didn't love it - are unabashedly Sydney-centric novels. How was Maguire going to evoke Hanoi?

The short answer is - brilliantly. From the very first chapter, the sense of Hanoi as a place - as a character, an entity in its own right - is powerfully present. I think that Maguire wanted us to know and love Hanoi even before we got to know (and feel ... whatever for) her narrator and main protagonist, Australian ex-pat Mischa. Foreshadowing the main storyline in her reflection, Mischa talks about Hanoi with such longing that it's like a physical force:

Even now, sometimes when I wake, I lie with my eyes closed and trace the streets ijn my mind, searching out new short-cuts, getting lost and found. The city is always as it is after a thunderstorm, shiny and clean and steaming. Schoolgirls giggle and wring out their shirts and the street vendors glance at the sky before whipping away their makeshift tarpaulins. The air is thick and damp, smelling of rotting fruit and fish sauce and exhaust. I wander until my mental map runs out of streets and only then do I let myself wind back to the centre, back to the apartment overlooking the cathedral and the boy stretched on the bed, as cool and toxic as the rushing Red River.

The descriptions of the city are not only compelling, they are seamlessly woven into the narrative and its themes, not glibly, as a blank mirror for the emotional shenanigans going on within the ex-pat community (which would've been easy, cheap and ultimately unsatisfying), but in a way that brought the city flaring to life in my mind. Of course my response to Maguire's prose is both mediated and magnified by my own experience of the places she writes about, but for that very reason, I rate this book as triumphant in its achievement, because I am a harsh critic of books that sell places I love short, so for me to laud the sense of place in this text is high praise indeed. (One of the only other Western writers who I think writes Vietnam well is Robert Olen Butler, actually.)

As for the main storyline itself, I have read several reviews which questioned the capacity of the narrator, Mischa, to engage readers' emotional commitment, citing her as distant, muted, not altogether likeable. I agree that Mischa is all those things, but I could not disagree more with the idea that this makes her less compelling or less relatable as a character.

When I was reading this book the first time, I was thunderstruck by how utterly familiar Mischa seemed to me, how much I felt like I knew her, and the reason why is that she reminds me to an eerie degree of two of my friends who have survived and escaped long-term marital abuse. Down to the nuances of what she does and doesn't say, the ways she talks to people, the maintenance of the barriers, the craving for solitude, the embracing of being a stranger in a strange land - Mischa reads, to me, like an utterly real portrayal of a survivor. Knowledge of her background changed the way I read scenes like where Cal physically holds her down to have her shoes shined in Saigon, and how she reacts to the horrors of the Cu Chi tunnels. It made those scenes really blindly terrifying because I felt like I was in her head, even as the language remained (it always remains) cool, distant, like Mischa is looking in on herself, painting a picture of A Girl on a Shoe Shine Chair.

The central plot device is one of the oldest, most well-worn tropes of all; you could call it Star-Crossed Lovers, or An Unsuitable Affair, or maybe May-December. Essentially, Mischa has a fairly angst-ridden affair with the 18-year-old son of one of her ex-pat friends. The boy, Cal, has a Vietnamese-Australian mother and an Anglo-Australian dad, and has been raised in Sydney by his mother, grandfather and aunts, who fled Vietnam as refugees in the 1970s. He has never visited Vietnam until this trip to spend time with his dad in Hanoi.

Cal is an interesting, although not especially consistent, character; I think Maguire captures something very important about the mind journey of children with two different cultural traditions in their backgrounds, and in successfully drawing Cal as unmistakeably an Australian kid with unmistakeably Vietnamese heritage, she achieves something that very few writers seem to be able to do. She also gets right the hubris of 18 - Cal's moral certainties, his contempt for compromise, and, yes, his arrogance in his own physical perfection, epitomised by this exchange after Mischa has observed a gay mutual acquaintance scoping him out:

'But him checking you out. Does that make you uncomfortable?'
Cal cackled and slapped my back again ... 'Mischa,' he said. 'I'm used to being checked out. It never bothers me. People like to look at beautiful things, you know?'

Sometimes, though, I think Maguire wants Cal to be a lot more mature and experienced than he is (note here, I am not saying "than any 18 year old is" - I'm talking specifically about the core character Maguire has drawn). I get that she was trying to show the often head-snappingly rapid shifts between wisdom and toddlerdom that people can display as they are growing into their skins, but I think it strains credibility a few times. Anytime I find myself saying, "Hmmmm ... that sounds like an odd thing for Cal to say", I think the ball might have been dropped on internal consistency. That said, it is an extremely hard thing to write the perspective of a character that you are not only different from now, but never had many touchpoints of similarity with. I write children's fiction, and I find it easier to write smart-mouthed, ugly, clever, unpopular girls (which I was, once) than sporting-hero, popular, tough boys. (Although I try to write them, too).

The affair between Mischa and Cal, although the central plot device, was not the selling point of the book for me. I thought Maguire handled it well, and the sex scenes were done as well as anybody seems to do them (which is to say - I have very rarely read a sex scene in a mainstream novel that isn't a bit ho-hum at the end of the day. Nuance, tension and implication is almost always much more interesting to read than the actual this-bit-goes-with-that-bit parts). I found that my emotional investment in Mischa's happiness was much higher than (and in some ways, antithetical to) my investment in the resolution of the relationship.

That said, the book does achieve some incredibly poignant moments with the Mischa-Cal dyad, especially (isn't this often the case?) after it ends and Mischa returns to Sydney to nurse her sick sister. As the two start to correspond again, working through their tangled web, Cal writes a phrase that actually brought a lump to my throat:

I'm coming back to Sydney and I want to see you, but before I do I need to know - for real, Mish - are you still my em, because I will always, always be your anh.

And Mischa finally begins to reflect some of that clarity back to him as the novel draws to its close and she decides to return to Hanoi. She thinks about her family visiting her in Vietnam one day and about the complexity of relationships, but there is an affirmation of blue skies ahead:

By then, I will know what kinship terms to use and when I use them we will all know what we are to each other.

It is a wonderful book. I will read it again, whenever I'm in a Hanoi frame of mind, and would recommend it to anyone over 18 (who isn't my mother because she does not do either modern fiction or explicitness) without reservation.

This is post 29 in NaBloPoMo. 29 down, 1 to go! (And then a break :-)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A day in the life

It's been a while since I last documented a day in our lives in detail, and a lot has changed since then, with me working so much more in particular. So just for the sake of it, here is what Monday looked like in my house.

6:45am  The dog is barking at the birds, which wakes husband and I up. He gets up to shush him, and then heads to the shower to get going. I lay in bed, thinking.

7:00am  I can hear the eldest moving around in the kitchen, but all seems otherwise peaceful. I have not been up in the night to any of the kids, but I was awake several times with back pain, so I am not feeling particularly well rested.

7:10am  I get up and head to the kitchen, collecting Miss 3 from her room on my way as I can hear her singing in bed. There is still no sign of the 7 year old; 9 year old is at the dining table eating and reading. I make breakfasts and start packing school and family daycare lunches.

Husband, who is now dressed, heads off for the bus.

7:20am  I call out for Miss 7 and get a grumpy half-response. Le sigh. She just doesn't do mornings.

7:30am  I read to Miss 3 as she and I eat breakfast (rice bubbles and butter toast for her, a bowl of macadamia nut gluten free muesli for me). She is currently obsessed with a book called The Saddest King, and again is into the Mr Men titles.

7:45am  I clear the breakfast dishes and call Miss 7 again. Finally, reluctantly, she trails out of her room to the table.

8:00am  Dressing time. Much palaver ensues, but eventually, Miss 9, Miss 3 and I are ready and have hair/teeth brushed. Miss 7, on the other hand, is still eating breakfast.

8:20am  Miss 7 is exhorted to get her backside into gear. In my Serious Voice.

8:30am  I break up a squabble of unknown origin between Miss 9 and Miss 3. Both are told in no uncertain terms to take the pressure down, NOW.

8:45am  We leave for school. I am not entirely convinced 7yo is actually awake yet, but hey.

9:00am  Having delivered the big girls to school, C and I head to my friend's house who is a childminder. I drop C off there, chat for a few minutes, then head off to a medical appointment.

9:30am  Doctor appointment for me.

10:15am Home from the doctor, I get stuck into my work. I am going great guns until ...

11:45am The phone rings. It's school; my 7 year old is at the office with red eyes / sniffles.

12:00pm  I collect Miss 7 from school, bring her home, give her Claratyne, and settle her to eat her packed lunch and read. I go back to work, until...

12:45pm  The phone rings. It's a family friend, looking for a chat. I disentangle myself as quickly as I can, and try to pick up my train of thought. Which I have just about done, when ...

1:40pm   The. PHONE. RINGS. This time it's a family member and it;s harder to get away in a hurry. By the time I do, Miss 7 is needing my attention for a bit. At this point I more or less give up.

2:20pm   Miss 7 and I leave the house. We swing by the bank and the pharmacy, and post some letters, before collecting C from my friend's house.

3:15pm   At school to get Miss 9, I am hurrying down the schoolyard when I trip on an uneven bit of ground, and fall - hard - onto the concrete. I am both winded and in pain, not to mention shocked, and let's not forget really embarassed. Poor C is very distressed to see me lying on the ground.

4:00pm   After having been helped to my feet by a kind couple of parents and provided with ice for my ankle and wrist from the staffroom, I assess the damage and decide the ankle is OK but the wrist and back aren't too flash. Despite my protestations of being alright to drive, the school vice-principal drives us home, which is very kind of her.

4:10pm   I lie on the couch with ice packs strategically arranged on me, head and wrist in considerable pain, the cricket on the TV. The girls are very good, playing both outside and inside, but with minimal intervention. At 5pm, I reward their patience by switching the TV over to iCarly on Nickleodeon.

5:45pm   I hoist myself out of the chair and into the kitchen to fix dinner. The kids happily claim the TV to watch some other show.

6:00pm   I serve the kids' pasta, and swallow my nurofen plus. I sit with them while they eat, but oh how my head is hurting...

6:30pm   The kids go outside to play. I put hubs' and my pizza in the oven, and lie down again.

7:00pm   Husband gets home. We eat, and I groan. A lot.

7:30pm   Husband starts marshalling kids towards baths and bedtimes, while I return to the couch and my increasingly fiery aches and pains.

8:00pm   I intervene as bedtime shenanigans hit Defcon 5. At this stage, I can either get involved, or accept the coming apocalypse. By 8:45 all kids are finally abed and I am feeling so incredibly awful.

9:00pm   I crawl into bed. Every muscle of which I am aware hurts; my head is on fire; I got maybe 50% of the work done that I should have today; my house is a mess; my administration pile is overwhelming; and I didn't get time to do as much kid-stuff as I wanted to.

We're all OK, we're all together, and tomorrow is always another day, right?

This is post 28 in NaBloPoMo. 28 down, 2 to go!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Self-employed and working at home with kids: A blog mini series - Profile 2: Tania the photographer (Part 2)

This is the second part of my profile on Tania, a wonderful photographer (and great person!) and how she manages her working and home lives.

9. How much do you rely on your partner to pick up household and child-activity tasks when you are busy with work?

My husband is out of the house for 12 hours everyday. We did compromise over 18 months ago for him to work from home once a fortnight on a Friday. It was mainly because I felt that he was too stressed, and needed to at least have a shorter day at home. He really doesn’t have a shorter day at home, but I think not having to be in the traffic for that one day, and working in the home environment has helped.

I don’t overly rely on him to do much for me, to be honest I rely more on my friends. There has been the odd occasion he has taken the children to work with him for the day if they are unwell. Its a small office environment where he is and his boss loves kids and is pretty alright about it. Its the same deal though, its something you only do if you really have no other choice. If I am desperate or starting extra early I have asked him to work from home and go in a little later, but again its probably only been twice in the past year.

I rely greatly on my husband as my IT man. Without his great computer knowledge. I wouldn't have such an efficient system running, and backing up all my work. There have been times that he has really saved my butt.

The other thing is that he does all of my accounts. He is great with all that sort of stuff and without him I don't think that I would have such a effective business running.

So although, I may not rely on him heavily for his hands on with juggling the kids as such, I couldn't work as well without his great skills to help run my business, so I think he more than gives his share of the household in many other ways and that I am grateful for.

10. How does your partner feel about this?

As long as he can fit something in he’s fine. I really organise all of the pick ups, drop offs, activities. It just seems easier and less stressful than having to run everything by him, when it rarely involves him.

11. How much do you rely on family, friends and community for help when work is busy? Are you able to reciprocate this help in other ways?

I rely on friends for a school pick up generally. I am usually no longer than half an hour out from pick up but it can be a real squeeze to get there on time. I ask, and I do reciprocate the offer, particularly in November and December and whereever else in between I can. I like to make sure that it is an even balance. I think we are all of the same opinion, so it works well. I often call them if I am running close to pick up and just ask if they wouldn't mind keeping an eye out for the boys, but generally I get there in time, but it good to atleast have someone there looking out for them.

12. What do you see as the biggest advantages of working at home when you have children?

I have always wanted to pick up my children from school. I want to know how they are feeling and how their day has been and I think you get one of the best looks at that when they see you after school, and you get the big smile, or a question or they tell you something. I think that's a great advantage. My kids get to see me work a lot. So they know that I am a working Mum but I do have plenty of time to listen to them as well. I like that they see all of that. They see the juggle and that they sometimes see the stress. Its all part of teaching them about working in society.

13. What are the biggest disadvantages?

The biggest disadvantage is that no-one actually thinks you work, when you are working from home. I think most parents at school seem to think that because i can drop off and pick up my kids and don't work for a company, just myself that its pretend. I recently volunteered to help type up some books at school the kids were working on. I set aside a Monday morning. When I went in to check on it, the teacher was saying oh yes well I know that this other Mum is taking a day off work to come in and help so I can't change her schedule because its very generous for her to take the day off work. (I knew who she was talking about. A good friend actually who works part-time but has an important job I suppose you could say) It was actually a day off for her, but I was a little frazzled because I can be flexible that its not considered that I've taken time off, its more I just have some pretend work to do that the fairies do. Aaaaaaaghggghghg!

14. How do your children feel about your work? Do they ever express frustration with the limitations it may place on your time?

The children have sometimes been a bit impatient with my work, but that is usually if I have have to drive around with them to drop off work at a couple of different locations, but I always just negotiate if you help me with this then I will help you later. Thats all part of it, and to be honest I don't feel guilty about that. I think its a good thing for them to see and learn.

15. Finally: Top tips for others who might be thinking of going down this road?

When you have young children it is a perfect time to start contemplating a new career and working from home. Becoming a parent gives us a different perspective on life, and opens the door to new ideas, and beliefs in ourselves. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t miss office politics, slow computers, and inefficiency. I feel very rewarded at the end of not all days, but quite a few days in a year when I am astounded at the amount of work I have gotten through in one day.

If you want to work from home allow your business to grow at the same pace your children are, as they get older and less physical demands are placed on you. Naps times are gone, time concentrate without interruption get longer, seize those times to then build up the business where you can. We don’t always have great control over this, but like anything just try to self manage as best you can.

Try to do everything locally so that you aren’t stretching yourself all across the city.

Never feel guilty about working. I have a number of friends who work from home, one day recently I was having a cuppa with one and I commented on how my husband thinks I am better when I am working, she turned around and said so does mine, and I know I am. I think I am a better mother and wife as well as of more sound mind. I’m sure some of you out there would understand that. Its a deep ingrained independence that is in me. And I love working.

Thank you so much Tania for sharing your insights with me. I appreciate the time you took and the wisdom of your answers!

Profile 3 in this blog mini series will be posted next Monday and Tuesday.

This is post 27 in NaBloPoMo. 27 down, 3 to go!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Self-employed and working at home with kids: A blog mini series - Profile 2: Tania the photographer (Part 1)

Welcome to the second profile in my blog mini-series on being a self-employed at-home primary caregiver. Today I am featuring Tania, a longtime and close personal friend of mine and a very talented professional photographer. (Over the years, she has done 4 sets of family photos of my family, and we've loved them all!)

This post is the first part of her profile; part 2 will be posted tomorrow. In today's post (part 1), we look at Tania's work pattern and how it varies across the year. Tomorrow, we look at how the work impacts on and relies on her family dynamic in different ways.

1. Tell me a little about your work and your family.

I am a photographer who concentrates on family portraiture, council events and pre-school photography. I am married with two children 8 and 10.

2. How much of your work is performed at home as opposed to out and about?

About 75% of my work is done from home.

3. When you work at home, do you arrange to do so when your children are either absent or being cared for by someone else?

My children are aged 8 and 10 and attend primary school. They have grown up with me working at home and out. They have on occasion come with me to jobs, if I have been stretched at finding someone to care for them at late notice. I figure, it doesn’t look good, but I am my own boss and I’m not going to sack myself for it, and I also let the people know who need me for the job. They are all aware I have children and generally work in children friendly environments so it seems to work okay. The boys also know they have to be on their absolute best behavior in these circumstances, and I have to say thankfully I am probably through the worst of me worrying about them disrupting or messing up the job. And again this has been on RARE occasions, but like anyone with children, unavoidable, due to them being sick, late booking etc.

I try to manage my home hours to work within the children’s school hours, but realistically this just does not work, particularly at peak times for me which are usually second and third term. I usually will be there to pick up the boys, only miss about 5 times a year. We come home. The boys have their routine of what needs to be done before they are allowed to do anything leisurely.They have days when they can play their computer games and days that they can’t, and I have had this routine running for some time now and they seem to have adapted to it well. Readers, homework, piano practice are all done as soon as we get home.

4. Do you pay for regular or ad hoc care to enable you to work? If so, is it important that the care takes place somewhere other than your house?

I have a network of friends that I work with, we all seem to at some stage or another have to ask for help with a pick up from school, or even a drop off, if we are working early, the two women I do this both work, one part-time, and one shift work, and so far this has seemed to be really good for us all. I do have access and have used after school care, but its rare, as I am usually only about 15minutes out from picking up the kids. The last time I used it, it worked out that is cost me $2 a minute to have them cared for. I could have left them there and picked them up later, but its that madness at the end of the day getting home processing and putting things into folders before I forget who the children are.

5. How easy do you find it to work with children present and no other adults around? Do you have any strategies to help your children allow you to work when you need to?

I am lucky to have two great older children, who are on the whole pretty good. They are used to me yelling out business phone call please keep the noise down, before I pick up the phone, to wait when I give them the look (I’m sure you know the look I’m talking about) when I am on a call to wait for me to finish. I worked with my eldest at home easily when he was a baby and toddler. My work load wasn’t as much as it is now, it was more a part-time basis, whereas as now I class myself as a full-time worker from Mid March through to start of November. In between then, there is work, but on a part-time basis.

My youngest was a complete handful, I was a mess, and life was messier. It took me some time to manage and get things into order. I tried childcare for two days a week for 12 months, but it didn’t suit my very sensitive young man. It did however give me some time to get myself back on track, work out some business strategies and cope better. By the time he was in 3yr old kinder, things started to settle and my workflow steadily increased from there. He no longer attented childcare and kinder was for 3hrs a week however, he became much better and content within himself to entertain himself and play beside me as I worked. I have to say I missed his company terribly when he went to school as we really did have a good routine down pat the two years before he went off to school. We seemed to be good work companions. Ha ha.

6. Do you find it difficult to draw boundaries between family and work life when you work at home?

Sometimes I do find it difficult and overwhelming particularly on weekends. I always get a few weekends a year where I have to work fairly solidly all weekend and have worked 10 hr days during the week either side of that as well. That's when I find it hard because we all need a break and I feel I haven’t had time to absorb and just sit and appreciate my family let alone interact with them.

However, the beauty of being at home still means that they can come and ask a question when they like, we can stop to get some snacks, or have a look at something they want to show me. Ask some advice about something. Rather than walk in to get a coffee in the staff room. I can grab a milkshake with the kids and have a quick banter about the day.

7. How do you manage extra work demands at peak times? (All contractors / self employed people tend to have peaks and troughs of work).

There is no easy way to manage the heavy loads, all I do is order takeaway and try to get a few meals in the freezer before it happens, but once the first week of madness starts its usually followed by about another 6 weeks, before I get a breath, so I just let the house get a bit messier, meals get a bit more slapdash. That's just the reality of it, but I think I have got the priorities right on what gives these days. And my quick easy meals, that seem to work for us.

Everyone goes through it, you just have to make sure you take the time to tell your kids that you love them, and to listen to them when they have something going on in their lives; that's the most important thing.

8. How much do you structure work commitments around family and child activity commitments? When there is a conflict, it always work that gives way, always activities, or a mixture of both?

I schedule work generally in advance, and I have to say I usually schedule it around everything else, as I make the timetables work within what I know are busier days than others during the week. I bit the bullet at the start of this year and got a tutor to come in for an hour a week at home to work with my eldest son. It wasn’t that he was falling behind at school, but I’m not the best at English and I thought he could do with some work in that area. It was one of the best things I did, it helped take that guilt factor out of working at my peak times and not giving enough in this area. The thing is that he would not respond or listen anywhere near the way he does with the tutor.

Tomorrow: How does the family help, and what do they make of it all?

This is post 26 in NaBloPoMo. 26 down, 4 to go!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Oh Christmas Tree

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here, and I am mostly happy about that. (Mostly ... it is a very frenetic time of year too, so there's no disputing that it gets tiring).

We normally put up our Christmas tree and decorate our house on the first weekend day in December, but this year, we have a ridiculously crowded weekend at the start of December (including the launch of Karen's book next Saturday! Are we excited? You bet we are :-)

So we took a unanimous family decision to Christmasify a weekend early this year, and spent four fun hours yesterday in hunting out, preparing for and setting up our tree, decorations, lights and our new Christmas train.

It was a little different this year. We listened to Christmas music, as we always do (by the by, if you've never heard the Crash Test Dummies Christmas album, you haven't lived), but we didn't bake as we decorated, and I didn't use the time to write Christmas cards, as I often do.

This is partly because I have a bad back at the moment, and baking would've put a bit too much stress on it, and partly because I have taken the decision that we won't be able to do our usual Christmas baked goods presents this year.

I did not take this decision lightly - baking and giving gingerbread and shortbread has been an important, and beloved, part of our Christmas season for the past seven years, and I am already missing it (as are the kids, I think).

However, this is also the first November-December since A was born that I have an average of 30 hours a week of work to complete, three children to juggle, and a physical injury to nurse. Those things are just not compatible with the industrial-kitchen-level baking we usually engage in, and I really don't want to do a half-job of it; if I bake for some people, I like to bake for all the people :-)

I am hoping to go back to baking next year, and I very much hope that our gift recipients enjoy their shop-bought gifts this time. They'll come with just as much love and thanks, if less physical labour.

Doing the Christmas tree without the warm scents of ginger, cinnamon and cloves in the air was definitely a bit strange. As was putting up the tree on the reverse side of the room to usual, to accomodate our brand new Christmas train.

(This was an indulgence that my 7 year old, E, and I bought when out on a shopping trip a few weeks back. The kids have always wanted one, and seeing as this is literally the first Christmas since E was old enough to speak that I could afford it without relying on the magic plastic - thank you, crowded year of contracting! - I thought, why the heck not).

All in all, though, we are happy with our tree. It was dressed with love, if not great artistic skill, and it makes our house feel festive and bright. I'm glad that we are finding ways to keep our Christmas traditions even in challenging times, even if it involves being flexible on the details and keeping focus on what really matters - which is spending time together in this lead-up to the big day.

This is post 25 in NaBloPoMo. 25 down, 5 to go!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

And this is how you do it

One of my friends was expressing admiration for the NaBloPoMo efforts of myself and several other blogs she reads.

"I don't think I could do it," she said. "I mean, I don't have something to write about every day! Or the time and energy to write it!"

"Mmmmm, me neither," I agreed.

She looked at me suspiciously. "So how do people do it then? How are you doing it?"

"Some people plan and schedule a lot in advance," I said. "Some rely on memes and prompts. Some post extracts of their NaNo novels, if they're doing both challenges. Some do a lot of image-heavy posts, using back catalogue images."

"And you?" she said. "What gets you through?"

I smiled. "Bloody-mindedness," I said. "Poetry. Saving up books to review. And when all else fails, which it usually does sometime in the last week..."

"Yes?" she says.

"Then you write a post about nothing, and present it as conversation about how to get to the end of NaBlo."

She snorted. "I see what you did there..."

I just grinned.

This is post 24 in NaBloPoMo. 24 down, 6 to go!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Oh to be so flexible

This is how C chose to position herself for watching PlaySchool this morning. Why yes, since you ask, that *is* her feet ON THE BACK OF HER HEAD.

She suggested I join her, in the same posture. I had to explain that, while Mummy could have done that when I was, say, three, I have not had the capacity for quite some years now. She sighed and patted my cheek.

"Never mind, Mummy," she said. "You can make nice banana muffins, though."

Thanks, darling. That's a huge consolation.

This is post 23 in NaBloPoMo. 23 down, 7 to go!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

I don't want to go to creche

At 7am, she pads quietly into my room and to my side of the bed. I'm awake, but only just, and my eyes are still closed. Standing on the balls of her feet, she taps me lightly on the nose. "Mummy?"

I reach out to her even as I shuffle along to make room. "Mmmmmm," I reply. "Come in and have a snuggle, honey."

She climbs up on the bed and presses into me with a sigh. Then she says, "Mummy, what is today?"

I feel myself tensing up, and I know she feels it too. "It's Thursday, poppet," I say in a quiet voice. I know what reaction I'm going to get. I've been getting it every Thursday for 6 weeks now.

Then it starts.

"I don't WANT to go to creche! I don't want to! I will stay 'ere wif YOU!"

"Love..." I start, rubbing her back, but she cuts me off.


By this time she has woken her sister, who's asleep on a mattress on the floor, and her dad. Both chime in with soothing words and ideas, but C is having none of it. Sitting upright in bed, back stiff, she yells, "I DON'T WANT TO GO! IT'S BOR-ING! I WILL STAY 'ERE!"

She sits calmly through breakfast, complete with reading several Mr Men books to her, and I think perhaps the storm has passed. Until she takes her last mouthful of Weetbix, pushes her bowl away, and proclaims brightly, "I aren't going to creche!"

Her eldest sister, normally a beloved morning dresser, isn't allowed to touch her today. It has to be me, and she resists, not physically, but in her reluctance and unwillingness.

I pull her onto my knee for a hug. "Darling," I say. "Mummy needs to work today, and you need to go to creche. Is there anything we can do to make you feel happier about it?"

"I DON'T WANT TO -" she begins, then stops. "Can I take my puddle book?"

"Yes," I say, picking up her copy of I Can Jump Puddles from the bookshelf.

"Can I say hello to M?"

"Yes," I confirm. One of her favourite carers has recently been moved to a different room, and C misses her.

She sighs. "Not creche tomorrow?"

"No, no," I reassure her. "Kindergym tomorrow with Mummy. Then we could do some painting!"

"Oh-KAY, FINE," she concedes, in the most world-weary tone imaginable.

And when we get there, she says goodbye with a quick hug and runs off to play dollies with her friends, with never a backward glance.

As for me, I just wonder why she has started with this morning stressing on creche days, having been so settled there for over a year now, and I wish so much it wasn't happening. At least she seems to enjoy herself once she's actually there, and I've never left her in tears (not sure I could, to be honest). But it's a cleft stick, because of I am to work, I need the creche days.

I wish it was easier.

This is post 22 in NaBloPoMo. 22 down, 8 to go!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What we're reading

I haven't done a reading round-up post for a while, so I thought I might dip into mine and the kids' book piles to see what emerged.

I have a few things on the go at the moment and several more in my immediate TBR pile. I'm almost finished John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick, a book I have never read before, despite having seen the film version a couple of times many years ago. I am enjoying the book, but ... I don't know. It has a taste to it that's a little sour on my reading tongue. I can't pin down exactly what I mean, other than to say I find it offputting even as it's quite compelling.

I've also been re-reading a number of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. How I do love the Discworld! The witches are my favourite characters by a mile, and it's those books I've been revisiting. (Perhaps, unconsciously influenced by the Updike, I've been reaching for books with a witchy theme).

Still waiting to be read, I must admit, is The Garden of Evening Mists, the last of the Booker Prize shortlist nominees that I never got to in my reading challenge. I've also got Nicola Barker's Darkmans waiting for me, after having enjoyed The Yips so much. Toni Morrison's new book, Home, is nestling on my Kindle reader waiting for me to have both the time and the fortitude to take it up.

The kids are enjoying quite a few different things. I'm still reading my way through the Silver Brumby books with the big kids, and the 3 year old likes snuggling in to listen sometimes too.

The 9 year old is almost finished Picnic at Hanging Rock, and oh, how she has adored it (so much so that I hesitate to give her the weakly "conclusion", lest it spoil her speculative pleasure). She's also been re-reading her Geronimo Stilton and My Story books. The My Story series are historical fiction, set in different periods, with a female protagonist, and A loves them. She's declared her intention of tackling The Hobbit next, and I've just downloaded Watership Down for her ebook reader, which will be interesting.

The 7 year old is re-reading her Enid Bylton school stories for the umpty-hundredth time (those wacky kids at St Clares!) and has started on the Chalet School books. She recently finished, and loved, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Pollyanna, and Black Beauty. Her godmother gave her Seven Little Australians for Christmas at the weekend, and that's her next project.

As for Miss 3, she is back into Charlie and Lola with a vengeance, and is also really enjoying a few Australian children's classics (particularly Dot and the Kangaroo, Snugglepot & Cuddlepie, and some of Mem Fox's books) at the moment. She also adores rhymes of all kind, and we are back to reading nursery rhyme collections over and over, as well as some more risque things like Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes (so naughty, so funny!)

So are you reading anything good at the moment? Do tell!

This is post 21 in NaBloPoMo. 21 down, 9 to go!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Self-employed and working at home with kids: A blog mini series - Profile 1: Nicole from Planning With Kids (Part 2)

Following on from yesterday's post, here's some more wisdom from the Planning Queen ... on how being an at-home worker both relies on and impacts family.

9. How much do you rely on your partner to pick up household and child-activity tasks when you are busy with work?

I could only do what I do, because my husband does work around the house. He irons his own shirts and our eldest school shirts, he unstacks the dishwasher each evening and sets the table for the next day. He is will also work from home on days when I have meetings. He will work in our home office while I am there, then parent while I am out and then back to work when I return. This is super helpful as I don’t have to pay for care or ask too many favours from others.

10. How does your partner feel about this?

He sees Planning With Kids as “our business” and appreciates the income it brings in. He realises he has a role to help me where he can. He is very supportive and I can honestly say he has never once complained about having to do any of this because I work from home.

11. How much do you rely on family, friends and community for help when work is busy? Are you able to reciprocate this help in other ways?

I have a fab group of friends and family who are always happy to help out. I see this a bit like a bank like situation. I make sure I help too (deposits!). If I hear that other mums have picked up some more work, are sick etc, I will get in touch and offer dates that I can help out with. I have found just saying “I am happy to help” puts the onus back on the mum to then ask for help. I know I don’t really like asking for help and know many mothers are the same. So I will send an email and outline some exact dates and times that I can help and ask them to let me know which ones may suit them best.

I had some fabulous help from friends (withdrawals!) when I was writing the book with my insanely tight deadline. I still remember this and am always looking to make sure I can help these lovely ladies when ever I can (keeping a positive balance!).

12. What do you see as the biggest advantages of working at home when you have children?

As tricky as it is to manage sometimes, I love it. It lets me be with the kids when I want to be. Having 5 kids, just thinking about the logistics of school morning / after school care / school holiday care etc if I had to work outside the home makes my head spin! Working from home means, I can fit the work in around hours that suit the family and me.

13. What are the biggest disadvantages?

As you work at home, home is your office; I can find it hard to switch off even if I am not actually working! Managing others expectations around my time is also tricky at times. For example, I haven’t made it to a kinder coffee morning this year as they are always straight after kinder drop off. My work hours are precious without kids around that I can’t always make these events. However as I am “just at home” not everyone understands this and can mistake it for being anti-social.

14. How do your children feel about your work? Do they ever express frustration with the limitations it may place on your time?

It is still taking some education on my kids part for them to understand that I do “work” and not just sit on the computer, blogging, using facebook, twitter and instagram! They are beginning to understand more that it is work and appreciate it a bit better. Because my work involves lots of fun things and outings that often involve them, but they don’t see the time I put in when they are asleep. There are times when I am not available (their dad is) and they get annoyed because they want me.

This year, the biggest challenge has been with the eldest two boys. I am always happy to provide guidance and assistance with their homework, but I have had to set a few ground rules. These are for the eldest mainly, who is in year eight. He has a tendency to leave things to the last minute and then wants me to check over or provide guidance on assignments, essays etc. These night before efforts have tended to coincide with when I have major speaking commitments or freelance deadlines due.
Working to 11pm with him on his assignment for example, wouldn’t have been part of my plan, so it ends up putting me completely under the pump.

We have now agreed that I will no longer help him the night before an assignment is due. He did find this frustrating at first, but now appreciates why it needs to be that way. He also knows that he can tell me any time he needs some help and we can arrange big blocks of time, to go through his homework. But expecting me to automatically stop and help him when I am in the middle of cooking dinner is never going to work.

Through this and other experiences with the kids, I have found it is all about managing their expectations, giving them plenty of notice and being consistent.

15. Finally: Top tips for others who might be thinking of going down this road?
• Make sure you set yourself goals. Write them down. When things get tough (and they will), you can focus on the bigger picture of what you are trying to achieve.
• Have routines for the kids and work on increasing their independence – it may seem like it takes longer in the short term, but it pays dividends in the long run.
• Have a space no matter how small that is yours, you can leave set up and no one touches.
• Get a lockable box to put pens and other essential items in – kids borrow but never return!
• Make sure you book in “holidays”. The first few years I took no time away from my work. Now at least twice a year I take multiple weeks off and have a break. It is so worth it, you come back refreshed and it is great to have more time to focus on the family as well.
• Make sure you enjoy what you do!

Thank you very much to Nicole for sharing her working life with me - I really appreciate it very much :-) Next Monday and Tuesday, I'll be featuring an at-home worker in a very different field and looking at how they manage their arrangements.

This is post 20 in NaBloPoMo. 20 down, 10 to go!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Self-employed and working at home with kids: A blog mini series - Profile 1: Nicole from Planning With Kids (Part 1)

As I have written here before, I am currently self-employed (as a professional writer, specialising in policy, standards and regulation) and I work at home primarily, with three kids for whom I am the primary caregiver.

This isn't exactly a novel model of work/life, but it's one that I think more and more parents and caregivers, in all sorts of professions, are trying to make work. So I thought it might be interesting to see how four different people, in different professional areas, are managing being self-employed, caregivers, and mostly at home. Hence - a blog mini series!

I'm kicking off the series today with a blogger, author, speaker and blog coach known to many of you: the lovely Nicole of Planning With Kids. I asked Nicole some questions - well, quite a lot of questions! - about her working system, and she was kind enough to give me lots of answers. This post is the first part of her answers; part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

I hope you enjoy this first post in the Self-employed and Working at Home with Kids series. The next profile will be posted next Monday and Tuesday.

Introducing ... Nicole, blogger, writer, speaker and all around good egg :-) In today's post (part 1), I focus on Nicole's strategies for managing her work. Tomorrow, we look at how the work impacts on and relies on her family dynamic in different ways.

1. Tell me a little about your work and your family.

My family is made up of one husband, four sons (13, 11, 6, 3) and one daughter (8). My daughter is smack bang in the middle of the boys. I have been blogging for almost five years now, but for the last two years, blogging has become a platform for my small business. My activities are pretty diverse spanning from:
• Sponsored posts on the blog
• Coaching bloggers
• Consulting to brands
• Freelance writing
• Selling my own products – physical book, e-books, iPhone App and now a calendar.

2. How much of your work is performed at home as opposed to out and about?

Most of my work is done at home. I do go out to do coaching and consulting, but try to do most of it via skype when I can. I find it is more time efficient to do so.
I do love the portability of my job though. It means if I have dead waiting time and no kids with me, I can sit anywhere and work. I have a new super speedy MacBook Air, mobile wifi, so I can work just about anywhere!

3. When you work at home, do you arrange to do so when your children are either absent or being cared for by someone else?

I predominantly work around sleep times! I still have my 3.5 year old at home for the majority of the time. My times for working at home are relatively consistent. Two mornings a week when the littlest one is in preschool, then from about 2-3pm three afternoons a week when he has an afternoon nap.

I also work week nights once all the kids are sorted with homework etc and are off in bed, I will jump online at least three nights and work for about 1.5 hours.

I will then have a couple of hour blocks across the weekend when their dad is home to be primary carer. We literally say to the kids that mum is going to work and dad can take care of everything. They are only supposed to come and see me if there is an emergency!

4. Do you pay for regular or ad hoc care to enable you to work? If so, is it important that the care takes place somewhere other than your house?

I paid for someone else to look after the kids while I left the house to do freelance writing for the first time this October. I simply had too many deadlines and needed a big block of time without interruptions. I couldn’t have someone come to the house to look after the kids and me stay here, as I wouldn’t be able to switch of from “mumming”. The kids would also know I was there and still want to see me.

5. How easy do you find it to work with children present and no other adults around? Do you have any strategies to help your children allow you to work when you need to?

Working with the kids around is almost impossible for me if it involves the youngest ones being around. I don’t like doing it either as I find it frustrating with all the interruptions and I don’t think it is really fair on them either. During school holidays though, when the pre-schooler has his nap, I will allow the other kids to have technology time (they are limited to how much they can use) and I find I can get about a movie’s worth of work done!

Sometimes I do have requirements that come up urgently and I just have to work for a short period of time with the kids around. By unfortunate chance, this usually happens just after school! I will prepare them a big afternoon tea with lots of their favourite foods and explain to them I have a deadline to meet and will be working for example, 30 minutes. I will then give them some ideas for them to play once they have finished afternoon tea – ones they may not have done for a while and I know they love. I will get them out of the toy cupboard if necessary.

As this doesn’t happen that often, I can generally get the 30 minutes I need to finish something off. If I tried to work like this everyday though, I think it would wear off pretty quick.

6. Do you find it difficult to draw boundaries between family and work life when you work at home?

At the start I did. I tried to do both at once and found it was too stressful. Now when I am with the kids, I am with the kids and I try to avoid taking work calls and using social media etc. I do Instagram some photos when we play though, but that is more mum instinct than blog!

The toughest boundary for me is finishing up work at night. I love what I do, so find it easy to work late, but that can take its toll, so I need to watch it closely.

7. How do you manage extra work demands at peak times? (All contractors / self employed people tend to have peaks and troughs of work).

Mid September until mid October this year was insanely busy for me. I picked up a couple of great freelance gigs, on top of being an organiser for a major conference and found myself running on very minimal sleep at times. This was the first time I did pay for a babysitter for one day and I left the house to do a days worth of freelance writing. It was the only way I was going to be able to meet the demands.

I did know the time around the conference was going to be busy, so back at the start of the year, I organised for my husband to take a couple of days holiday leave. They were my saviour! It isn’t ideal to drip use his precious holiday leave, but for us until all the kids are at school, it is a strategy we use to help me get through the peak times.

8. How much do you structure work commitments around family and child activity commitments? When there is a conflict, it always work that gives way, always activities, or a mixture of both?

Work tends to give way the most. Kid and household tasks sometimes take up my whole evening. The kids’ requirements come first, then the basics needed to keep the household running, then work. I will let things around the house go if they are not essential. For example in October, I was keeping the washing up to date and making sure the kids all had their school clothes, but I had a mountain of other washing to fold!

Tomorrow: How does the family help, and what do they make of it all?

This is post 19 in NaBloPoMo. 19 down, 11 to go!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Relay for Life

Yesterday I did some walking laps as part of a Relay for Life team.

Relay for Life is a fundraising initiative of the Cancer Council of Australia, whereby people, in teams of 10 to 15 or more, run or walk around an oval or other venue in relays for a period of somewhere between 18 and 24 hours (depending on the event). People get sponsorship for their walk / run and the money raised goes to the Cancer Council for research into cancer prevention, causes, treatments and cure. Every year, Australian Relay for Life teams raise over $14 million for this cause through their efforts.

We only walked for a short time, really - we needed to get the kids into bed! - but our team delivered on the 18-hour commitment, and the experience was a very positive and moving one.

As dusk fell, tealight candles were lit - to celebrate survivors (of which we know several) and to remember those who have died of cancer. My girls and I weren't there for that part, dusk falling late in these late spring days, but we left candles to be lit in memory of our dear friend Dee, who died of brain cancer in 2010, our family friend Kerry, who lost a 12-year battle with breast cancer in 2005, and of my father-in-law, who died of cancer before I even met my husband. We also left candles to celebrate the survival of family friends who've been successfully treated for cancers of all kinds.

Walking around the oval in the cold evening air, I felt quiet and contemplative, thinking about Dee and my great-grandma and Kerry, and about the losses that friends of mine have suffered to this disease (I was particularly thinking of Veronica and Kim).

There isn't anyone who's been untouched by cancer - everyone has, to some extent or other, and as we age this will just get more and more true. It's an especially cruel disease, I think, because of the way it turns one's own cells against you, making it hard to treat without doing terrible damage to your own body in the process; and the way it lurks, waiting, in your very DNA, so you can never be sure it's really gone. (Often, sadly, it isn't). Yes, everyone has to die of something, but this is an especially pernicious and painful - and often premature - grim reaper in the modern world.

So while what we did was little, and more symbolic than anything, I'm glad we did it. I'm glad those lights were lit, to shine a little defiance for those who have won the fight, and to be a spark of remembrance for the beautiful souls that went too soon. I saw a community drawn together to do something positive on Saturday, and that is a marvellous, human thing to see.

This is post 18 in NaBloPoMo. 18 down, 12 to go!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Dragonfly of glass

My 7 year old made this. Pretty, yes?

This is post 17 in NaBloPoMo. 17 down, 13 to go!

Friday, November 16, 2012

The mystery house

One of the things about having kids who do a wide range of activities is that I find myself travelling regularly to places several suburbs away to take them to stuff. We don't live in or even near Werribee, but that is where one of our activities is located, so we trek out there each week (and usually make the trip count for double by stopping off at the marvellous Absolutely Gluten Free shop as we go).

Every week, on our way, we drive past a heavily treed property that my girls call "the house of mystery".

It's a large block, and densely forested. I'm not very good with size estimates of property, but it's easily four or five times as big as my residential block, perhaps more. I guessed 3 acres, and my subsequent research confirmed it as 1.6 hectares (about 4 acres). Its borderline runs flush up against a high chain-link fence that borders the driveway of a set of light industrial workshops and factories, but driving down there doesn't help you see the actual house, as tall mature trees and thick bushy undergrowth rises high into the skyline, with no discernible gaps between them.

You can, occasionally, catch glimpses of a house through the trees.

It's one of those things the girls and I have always speculated about, in an idle kind of way. What does it look like? Who lives there? Why is there such a big property in the now reasonably suburban Werribee landscape?

Well, today I decided finally to assuage my curiosity, which, of course, I could have done at any time in the past by simply employing the Learned Professor Google. What I discovered tickled me pink, and the girls too.

The obvious starting place was Google Maps, which rewarded us with an intriguing aerial view (satellite, one presumes). In among the thick clumps of trees, looking, as always, like broccoli from on high, we could make out what looked like a dry concrete swimming pool of the old rectangular tiered style, a series of odd-looking curlicue structures, and - excitement! - what was an unmistakeably art deco house in the middle, like a castle in its own moat of green.

Fired up to know more, I then Googled the actual street address (obtained from Google Maps) to discover that the property has a name - the Carter Mansion. When it went on sale in 1977, the Age ran the most wonderful article about it, which you can see here thanks again to Google. It turns out that the mansion was built in 1940 for Mr and Mrs Roland Carter, a couple well known in the area for being, presumably, both stonking rich and a bit eccentric; to quote the aricle, this pair "chartered three aeroplanes for their wedding. One contained the bridegroom and wedding party, the other two the guests and all three circled Werribee during the ceremony."

The house itself? Oh. my. It has, apparently, 14 rooms, three storeys and get this, a ballroom with a bandstand that goes up and down. As if that wasn't enough, an entire storey of this structure was apparently set aside for a gentlemens' retreat. And! And! The strange curly things in the garden are an aviary "structure" of some kind.

So all this piqued our interest about the Roland Carters themselves. It didn't take long to discover that Roland, along with his three brothers John, James and Walter, was the head of a pretty massive poultry operation, exporting eggs globally in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. So successful were they that they ended up building 120 cottages for their farm workers in the area, and the entire section became known as the Carter Estate.

A rich chicken magnate! Brilliant!

I found a few more snippets, but I'm historian enough to not want to post them without being sure I've got the correct Roland Cater. There might be part 2 to this story, if I ever pursue this properly.

Whoever would've thought the mystery house would be so interesting!

This is post 16 in NaBloPoMo. 16 down, 14 to go!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

On being ashamed

This is a selfie of me in my new bathers that I took with the full intention of posting as part of Shae's I Heart My Body day a while back. But I never posted it, and I never wrote that blog. I didn't, because I was ashamed.

I was going to write a post about how much I like my bright and cheery new swimmers (I do! they are comfy and pretty). I was going to write about how my body's worth or acceptability is not reduced by my fat tummy or big legs, my double chin or loose arms. I was going to say that the lines around my eyes and the blemishes on my skin are part of me, telling my story, and that I wear them willingly, and won't try to erase them.

All of these things are true, but they are not the whole story. They are not the whole story of how I feel about my body, and they never will be, because I am heir to a tradition that sees my skin as shameful, and I have soaked that in, deep into my bones, and oh but it is hard to shed.

To post a picture of myself in less than "full" dress is an act of rebellion for me, against the idea that my body ought to covered, ought to be as invisible as possible. To own that my body is not just weak, flawed clothing for my mind, but an integral, potentially joyful part of me, feels transgressive in many ways. I have never been ashamed of being fat, or wrinkled, or freckled, or big-nosed, or short-sighted. I have been ashamed, at a deep, semi-conscious level, or being embodied at all; of being the possessor of female flesh. Of being seen.

But as Mumford and Sons put it, "In these bodies we will live / In these bodies we will die..." I think I am ready to accept my body as part of me, truly of me and for me, and let go of the idea that it is somehow other than me, and something to be hidden away all the time.

So I am being brave, and offering this not particularly salacious shot of me, as part of my journey. I want to have an integrated vision of myself, and this is part of it.

This is post 15 in NaBloPoMo. 15 down, 15 to go!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Reading Notes: The Silver Brumby

I've always maintained that revisiting the books you loved as a child, in the company of your own children, and watching a new generation latch onto them, is one of the purest joys of parenthood. From the Magic Faraway Tree to the Velveteen Rabbit, the Famous Five to Trixie Belden, Narnia to Anne of Green Gables, Roald Dahl to ES Nesbitt, I've enjoyed myself hugely reading aloud to my two big girls. It's been such a delight to see them engage with these books and worlds that meant (still mean) so much to me.

One series I was anticipating sharing with them from way back was Elyne Mitchell's wonderful Silver Brumby books. To say that I loved these books as a 9 year old girl would be a massive understatement. I was completely obsessed with them, from about 9 until at least 12. I owned them all (my copies subsequently got given away - grrr!) and I must have read each one at least five or six times. I remember I dropped one in the bath and then spent two hours patiently drying it out with a hairdryer rather than risk losing it. (It was never quite right again, but that didn't stop me reading it!)

So when I saw a special centenary edition on sale, incorporating 4 of the books with an autobiographical sketch of Mitchell, I bought it without delay to read to my girls.

The Silver Brumby books, written by Mitchell for her "horsey" daughter, Indi, are not quite your average pony books. (There are so many - so VERY many - pony books around). These books are the stories of the various adventures of a brumby herd, led by its silver stallion, Thowra, named for the wild wind by his creamy mother, Bel Bel. Humans appear in the books - particularly in the second book, Silver Brumby's Daughter, about the mare Kunama - but they are not the horses' friends or riders; they are their enemies, sources of fear and misery. The stories are centred on the horses as characters and on the land they live in - the high country of the Australian Alps - in all its seasons and moods.

There are many reasons that I loved the Silver Brumby books and am loving them again now, as I'm reading them to my 9 and 7 year olds.

I loved Mitchell's deeply loving, lyrical evocation of landscape. There are lots of Australian books for children, of course there are; but growing up, only two series that I loved impressed themselves on me as having a uniquely Australian tang - this one and Mary Grant Bruce's Billabong books. In the Silver Brumby books, I read animals and trees and plants and ground I had seen and could see, read of scents I was familiar with, heard words and language that resonated. I have never been to Mount Kosciusko, but reading these books connected me to that part of the country of my birth in a powerful way.

I loved the characters. Oh, how I loved the characters. Bel Bel, Yarraman, Mirri, The Brolga, Storm, Arrow, Boon Boon, Golden, Lightning, Wirramirra, and of course main characters Thowra, Kunama, Tambo, Baringa, Dawn and Moon, live and breathe on the page. To some extent, Mitchell anthropomorphises them - they speak to each other in words, after all - but one of the great triumphs of these books is that the brumbies remain, essentially, horses, with horses' concerns, imperatives and behaviours. These are no ponies dressed in waistcoats sitting down to a tea party; they are wild animals, strong, beautiful, often brutal. In that regard, the books evoke some of the same success of Watership Down, another book that gifts its animal protagonists with speech and sentience without turning them into humans in animal skins.

I loved the plotting. Boy, does Mitchell know how to construct a moment of narrative suspense! None of these novels are all that long, but the amount of nail-biting moments that they pack in are admirable. The plot is always internally consistent and tightly drawn, and even as a child, I recognised the skill in that (as an adult who tries to write myself, I admire it even more!)

Right now, though, the main reason I am loving the Silver Brumby books? The rapt look on both my big girls' faces as I read, and the excitement we all share as we open the book to dive into the world of the Cascades again.

This is post 14 in NaBloPoMo. 14 down, 16 to go!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On thinking about self-publishing

I write. A lot.

As well as blogging, I write policy, standards and professional documents as a contractor; I write articles for journals and magazines, and some of them even get published. I've written two complete middle-grade children's novels, for which I will seek a publisher one day, if I ever get up the courage to do it. I am halfway-ish through a future-dystopia-adventure story for young adults, which is coming along nicely.

I also write poetry. Some of it very bad, some of it very derivative - but some of it, just a little of it, ringing true to me, finding the voice I want to find to express the things I can't express in narrative prose.

I have written quite a large body of poetry over the past ten years. A lot of it will deservedly never see the light of day, and some of it, published here, need not be revisited. I have, though, about 50 pages of poems that I would like to collect, for my family mostly, and present as a coherent body of creative work.

So, because the poetry of the unpublished middle-aged housewife is not a massive buying sector for publishing houses, I am toying with the idea of self-publishing my poems rather than trying to shop it as an actual book.

I was thinking of doing a simple b&w layout with a cover from one of my Dad's artworks, standard paperback size, no internal colour, 80gsm stock, saddle stitched and standard paperback covers (plus an ebook version, naturally, these days :-) I have some book layout experience and all the professional tools, and given it's not a design heavy project, I think I could do it myself.

I thought I might get 100 printed, because I have at least 50 family and friends who I can rely on to pity-buy a copy, and I want a few to keep or pass around, or even sell if the interest is there.

Based on quotes I've received, if I sell it at $10 or so, it would be cost-neutral for me once I sell 80 of the 100, and low-cost once I've sold 50. So it's not a big expense to contemplate, and, thanks to lots of work this year, I can take the cash-flow hit of paying for the printing up front.

So what do you think? Am I mad? Or stupid? Or deluded? (You may select any or all of the above!)

This is post 13 in NaBloPoMo. 13 down, 17 to go!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Naming and shaming, racism, minors, and social media

One of the less edifying spectacles on social media in the lead-up to, and the wake of, the US election has been the outright racism that some people have expressed in talking about President Obama and his family.

To be clear here, I am not talking about criticisms of him as too liberal, too soft, not the person for the job etc. There are plenty of conservative critiques of Obama's administration that don't rely on or invoke racist imagery or ideology. Those critiques may nor may not have validity, but they are, in a democracy, legitimate to make.

I'm not even talking about the many veiled barbs that rely on racist ideas but never come to the sticking point of using outright offensive language. I'd personally lump a lot, if not all, of the "birther" claptrap in here, along with attacks on Obama that suggest that he is a welfare king because of his skin colour. These comments might not use the words, but they are sure as eggs relying on the tropes, of racism to carry their message.

No, I'm talking about the not-tiny amount of comments and messages that go the whole hog and use words like "monkey" and "nigger" to refer to the Obamas. Messages that are so filled with hatred and bile as to be almost inconceivable in this day and age. Messages that, with the staccato style and modern idioms stripped out, could've been penned by slavery apologists in the 19th century without any problem.

That people think these things is execrable enough. That they voice them is worse. That they write them on the Internet, in fora associated with their real names and identities, is a whole level-up of completely stupidly wrong. To me, it shows that they either do not realise that the extent of their prejudices are out of step with social norms, or much worse, that they *do* know and don't care, either because they are absurdly reckless, or because they believe that no real consequences will flow to them from their speech.

(Mind you, I'm not claiming that racism isn't alive and well in all societies today. It is. I think there is a much greater social norming around avoiding overtly racist speech now, though, than there was 100 or even 50 years ago. The ideas linger, but the language to enable them is slowly being redendered verboten, and this is a good thing, because the words hurt real people living actual lives, and validate actions that hurt even more).

The thought of these people casually, or in irritation, or even in thwarted-voter rage, spewing this stuff on the Internet is a nasty one. The thought that there will be no real consequence for it is nastier. I think people should be accountable for their speech. If you want free speech, have it - but with rights come responsibilities. The right to say it does NOT mean the right to suffer no consequences for saying it.

So, then, I'm not sure how to start explaining why I am so ambivalent about Jezebel's campaign to name and shame some racist teenagers posting disgusting crap on Twitter.

Let's be very clear here - what those people posted was foul. It was unambiguously, unashamedly, nakedly racist speech. And most of it was under Twitter handles that either are their real names, or are linked to their real identities. These ... no, I'm not going to call them "kids" ... these almost-adults said some awful things, they said them publicly, and they said them repeatedly. Why shouldn't they be named and shamed? If they are old enough to say it on the ever-living Internet, aren't they old enough to be held to account for it?

Well, yes ... and no. I completely agree with Jezebel's tactic of contacting schools and other institutions to which these people belong, drawing attention to the messages and pointing out where it conflicts with codes of conduct or behaviour that the institution says its students are bound by. (Hint - it breaches all such codes, very, very seriously). I have no problem with schools imposing whatever penalty is appropriate under their regulations for this. Some of the Twitter accounts have been deleted - very cool with that, if you are not responsible enough to use a tool, don't use it. Some of them have had disciplinary action taken. Fine, cool, so far froody, to channel Zaphod Beeblebrox for a moment.

I stop short, though, when it comes to Jezebel's decision to publish the tweets, names and locations of the offenders in its post on the subject.

Why? Basically - these are minors. This doesn't free them from any consequences for their actions or speech, naturally; but does impose an extra level of seriousness to the decision to out them so publicly. There is a reason why the criminal records of minors are usually sealed, and expunged after a certain point. Minors who commit crimes and say horrifically offensive things must be held to account - they *must* be - but the law has always built in the possibility, the hope, of rehabilitation, of better futures, as a result of early sanctions on the behaviour. The clean slate idea might be flawed, but it at least has the virtue of compassion, and of expecting more from people who have stuffed up royally but are still young enough to go a different way.

It is not an excuse to say that these people are at a stage in their lives where impulse control is likely to be weaker than it will be for adults; they said what they said, and it came from a hateful, dark place, there is just no getting away from that. And it's also true that racist teenagers often grown into racist adults. But sometimes teenagers say and do more than they mean, or say and do things that their adult selves, after the benefit of more years of life, would not do or say.

And for these particular teenagers, that Jezebel post is going to brand them for the rest of their lives, because, as we all know, that which is written on the Internet, is written forever. It's very similar to the way nude pictures haunt teenagers for years and years (with the obvious difference that nude pictures are not inherently offensive or wrong, and racist speech is).

Yes, I realise that the tweets are themselves public already, but in gathering them up into one handy reference point, with commentary, Jezebel has provided a powerful and compelling mash-up that will be read by many, many more people than ever saw the individual messages. I am so torn in finding this problematic - but I do, and I think I would no matter what the circumstances, when minors are involved.

This is post 12 in NaBloPoMo. 12 down, 18 to go!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Snapshots of a weekend

It's been a hugely busy weekend for us, managed on not terribly much sleep - the first of several such as the end of year season starts to kick in.

It all started with the 9 year old having a dose of stomach flu overnight on Thursday, and vomiting all over her bed at 3am, which woke the 7 year old and necessitated both much cleaning up and much resettling. Poor 9 year old was then subjected to the usual sequel of vomiting bugs, and spent the next 6 hours wearily trotting back and forth to the loo. I didn't really sleep again after her wakeup, being on alert for a repetition.

Friday was preparation for, then running of, the bake stall at the school night market. I was also on fairy floss making duty. (Here's a hint - if you are ever tasked with doing this, wear no sleeves or something old that you don't mind thoroughly stickyfying).

All day Friday baked goods were being delivered to me in preparation and for pricing, much to the mounting frustration of my 3 year old (look but don't touch being a very hard commandment when jelly cakes and Mars Bar slice is involved :-)

The stall itself looked pretty good:

and it was fairly successful too, raising $370 for the Cancer Council as part of a Relay for Life fundraising effort.

Saturday I was up at 6am for some bizarre reason, but the plus side was that I managed to get my pre-reading finished for Tuesday's new work project meeting. By 8am the kids were up and breakfasting. Then it was on to our usual swimming lessons, followed by a lightning shopping trip then a race to a 9th birthday party, which featured this:

Yes, that IS a giant Scooby Doo jumping castle! The kids liked it rather a lot.

Home again, home again, and the neighbour kids were wanting to sleep over, so we organised fish & chips and sleeping bags in the lounge room. Hubs, however, was reporting feeling off colour by this stage and was really not looking smashing.

(This resolved in the middle of the night into full-blown stomach flu - poor guy - which unfortunately woke the 3 year old, who was then very hard to resettle).

Today, on reasonably limited sleep, I've made pancakes for sleepover breakfast and dispatched the neighbour kids home, then took the girls to a combined birthday party on the other side of town for our friend J, who is 40, and her beautiful boy X, who's 3. It was a BBQ picnic in the park, and there were two kinds of cake!

Home at 4:30, with the 3 year old asleep in the car, we've found poor hubs socked out in bed and I've realised that the mountain of laundry ain't gonna do itself (I haven't really caught up from Thursday night's vomit storm loads, actually). So there's quite a bit to go before bed tonight.

Weekends like this are fun - well, barring the stomach flu part - but they also take quite a lot of stamina. I'm looking forward to a few easier ones once the seeasonal mayhem is over and blissfully empty January is upon us.

This is post 11 in NaBloPoMo. 11 down, 19 to go!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Boudicca (A poem)

eyes spidered with veins, she stands
a critical mass of rage
blood matting her hair, rusted dark
onto her torc of authority, which names her
queen and heir and symbol-body, her bruised skin
the link that joins them all to the thick mud beneath their feet

her daughters beside her. these children
or are they women? it's too dark to see. too dark
but their pain pulses in the night, fires the moon
and the telling of it turns all hearts wine-dark

she tells it. what was done. what will be done.
the land that will be taken, the sons and the daughters laid waste.
the circle in which they see the bands of life broken

she is enormous in what she will do.
she is without quarter. she will lead them roaring
to the razing of towns and the taking of heads
eking the price of daughter-pain in the young of others
this is a war of justice, not mercy.
ferocity without limit, but not,
it must be owned,
without cause.

and when at last cold metal is at her throat
to drink of the dreamless cup
and go into the shadows alone
rather than be paraded, barbarian-slave, for the beneficence of the great city.

I wonder what she would have made of her adoption
by that muffled time of another queen, a romantic-melancholic time
removing itself from the natural in the female human body as far as philosophy could do it?
I wonder would she have been baffled, or simply uncomprehending
when they labelled their Victoria with her name?
She who led armies to rebellion, and then their bloody end
to be twinned to the grieving queen
who could mourn a man lost not to violence, but disease,
in safety for a long lifetime.

I wonder if she knew, or ever thought
she would become folk legend, claimable
for many a purpose and many a song. or if
she flailed into her fate, driven by devils of chance and malignancy
and died with a heart of acid and a backbone of spear
not allowing the enslaving
not conniving the mythologising
simply stepping her own stars.

- Kathy, 10/11/12

This is post 10 in NaBloPoMo. 10 down, 20 to go!

Friday, November 9, 2012

A sisterly moment

Today I have my eldest home from school after a night of sickness. My 3 year old really appreciates having biggest sister around for some cuddly storytime :-)

This is post 9 in NaBloPoMo. 9 down, 21 to go!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Mum's day off

Today was my first total day off - no kids, no housework, no errands, no paid work - since April.

Actually, given that I was sick with heart troubles in April, it is my first truly discretionary day off since February (ie where I didn't have to content myself with doing nothing but lying still on a couch reading or watching X-Files repeats, nice as those things are).

Don't get me wrong - I love being with my kids, and I like working. I enjoy my time greatly doing these things. 95% of the time, I'd choose to be doing it.

But just every now and then, just once in a while, it's pretty cool to get a day off.

I didn't do anything earth-shattering, although it was all extremely hedonistic and not at all constructive of anything. I went and had a facial first up, then did a little Christmas shopping. At noon, I went into into town to meet a friend at Bopha Devi, a Cambodian restaurant at Docklands, for lunch to celebrate her 30th birthday. Lunch involved much chatter, delicious food, and champagne - not too shabby, all told!

It was exactly 6 hours of really self indulgent "me" time and I probably shouldn't admit it, but I revelled in every second of it.

Tonight I'm back in mother-mode and tomorrow, as well as caring for Miss 3, will be full on with preparations for, and helping to run, our school's night market - but today was a little gift that I was so happy to have the chance to unwrap.

This is post 8 in NaBloPoMo. 8 down, 22 to go!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

On having an opinion about the US election

The polling is closing in the US Presidential election as I write this, and I'm going about my day here in Melbourne, Australia, playing with my daughter, doing laundry, baking for the school bake sale, paying bills ... and refreshing the ABC's election coverage every fifteen minutes, stomach clenching as I hope, hope, hope to see a spreading wave of blue on my screen.

I've followed this election from a few months out - it really started to hit my radar as more and more Republicans were being publicised for their comments on reproductive rights, healthcare, and rape. (This then became a steady stream of "what the..." moments in the past two months in particular). These have helped me to form a very strong view on what the outcome of this election should be, much stronger than any opinion I've ever held about the politics of another country. It's this: I want Obama to win, mostly because I really, REALLY hope Romney loses.

I am an Australian, and although I have studied US history, I've never lived there for longer than a semester, and I don't pretend to understand all the cultural nuances or lived experience of USians. I also understand that I do not get either a vote nor a voice in the US landscape, and that's fair enough.

But I also understand two other things. The first is that it's legitimate to have a view about foreign politics when they have human rights implications, and I completely believe that in this case, they do. Non-nationals have views on murderous regimes, restrictive philosophies, and environments that are inimical to women, children, or ethnic equality. It's not only appropriate, I'd argue it's necessary, that we are allowed to engage theoretically and emotionally with what happens beyond our borders.

Secondly, US politics affects Australia in many direct and indirect ways. As an ally, we are dragged into conflicts on the US's coat-tails. Our economy, while no longer just linked to the US, feels knock-on effects from decisions made there. And our our political discourse is informed and shaped by what happens in the US, especially given the dominance of USian culture in our entertainment and news zeitgeist.

So I will wear the cross scolding of people on Twitter telling me off for having an opinion about this election. (Notably, it's people whose opinion differs from mine who object, so I suspect it's not the having of an opinion, but the opinion I have, that they find objectionable). I won't desist from thinking, hoping, worrying and voicing those feelings about this election.

I HOPE BARACK OBAMA WINS. Make of that what you will.

This is post 7 in NaBloPoMo. 7 down, 23 to go!