Saturday, August 31, 2013

Fox in the Box: Gluten free heaven in Gardenvale

As a Coeliac, there is a special (and rare) pleasure to be had from eating at one of the few establishments around the city that run completely gluten free kitchens. To be able to pick anything - anything at all - off the menu is an almost illicit thrill for those of us used to being limited to one salad, and maybe one soup, to choose from.

More than that, though, there's such a sense of relaxation and relief knowing that there is zero chance of contamination, and that you don't have to spend a wearying and potentially embarassing  amount of time quizzing wait staff on ingredients and preparation methods, maybe also having a conversation with a busy chef, then crossing all your fingers and toes that they get it right and you don't end up in pain for days. There are some places - actually, a lot of places - where I won't eat at all, because I just can't feel confident that they understand and will respect the need I have for fully gluten free food.

All of this why Fox in the box, located in Martin Street, Brighton (or is it Gardenvale? you decide) is a lovely, lovely discovery. A cute, unpretentious little cafe, it was tagged by my good friend J as a potential lunch venue for us a while back, and today we finally got around to checking it out.

It's fair to say we were the very opposite of disappointed. The menu is a good, solid cafe menu - wraps and sandwiches, risottos and pastas, chips and schnitzel, an array of nice-sounding salads - but each dish has an interesting little twist on it. There were at least 8-10 things that sounded super appetizing to me, but at the end of the day, I couldn't go past the salt and pepper calamari with three kinds of aoli. I used to love salt and pepper calamari in the good old days before I was a mutant (or at least a diagnosed one), and I miss it very much. Besides, *three* kinds of aoli? Come on. Too good to pass up.

My friend J made the same call and we had our mains with a very pleasant house sauvignon blanc, and wow was the food good. The calamari was delicate, soft and just slightly peppery (ie perfect) and the three sauces were interesting. I wasn't sold on the orangey one to the left of the plate, which had a mustard tang that wasn't quite to my taste, but the other two were to die for, and I scraped every bit out with chips and calamari alike.

Unphotographed, but also incredibly good, was the gooey chocolate pudding with vanilla bean lactose-free icecream that I had with Darjeeling tea for afters. Honestly, I love chocolate pudding, especially the ones that lava the dark chocolate sauce from inside the middle when you break them open with your spoon. I haven't had a really awesome one since being diagnosed almost 7 years ago, and that, my friends, is a VERY long time between drinks. Today I broke the drought with the kind of pudding that leaves you with a warm chocolatey glow of wellbeing, washed down with the no-nonsense tannins of my favourite of all the plain black teas. My friend J had a chocolate tart that she was similarly enthused about, and all in all, we were very glad we waited for dessert :-)

Although not personally an issue for me, the multiply-food-challenged might be interested to know that Fox in the box also does lots of lactose-free and FODMAP-friendly dishes, and plenty of vegan options as well. No matter what your food issue is, this place can sort you out and you won't be sorry you went.

J and I were so enthused that we are planning a group brunch there in the near future to try out the breakfast menu. Two firm thumbs up from me for Fox in the box!

Disclaimer (or anti-disclaimer really): I was not asked to write this post, no inducement was offered nor accepted for doing so, and I have no affiliation whatsoever with Fox in the box or its management. Our meals were paid for by my delightful friend J as a celebration lunch for getting my new job!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Spring (Poem)

heavy with jasmine, the garden
salutes the pastel sky with open-eyed blooms. children
cooped too long against the dreariness of winter
screech life to the brave young sun. everywhere
steps lighten, while histamines, released by pollen
draw forth sneezes to explode the air.

shoulders warm under the soft fingers of the season,
loosening their iron hunch as blood responds to the call of growing things
and beauty in every pavement crack, green and golden promissory notes
of rampant burgeoning to come.
birds call out the story, and sing transcendant
delicate wings against the cotton clouds.

somewhere, I am sure,
lambs arise from their slippery births,
and kick their heels in the lemon light.

everything says: it's coming, it comes
(perhaps it's already here)
lift up your hearts, and voices;
the worm has turned. the world has turned.
we are on a sun-bound course now

and I, who suffer winter as an indignity,
am all rejoicing, as the days stretch out like cotton candy
and it is warm again.

- Kathy, 27/08/13

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A side benefit of working

Reading Captain Awkward's latest advice, to two Letter Writers whose partners flat out decline to help in any way with cooking, childcare and cleaning, highlighted sharply to me one of the aspects of working fulltime that I am most enjoying on a family level.

In short, it's this: I am no longer doing the vast preponderence of the heavy lifting in all these categories. It's not that my partner hasn't been involved in the past - he has - but when it was him working long fulltime hours outside the home, and me working predominantly from home and more scattered hours, it was all too easy to fall into a pattern whereby I cooked all the dinners, did all the laundry, did most of the housework and the errands and the day to day kid stuff ... just because I was there and he wasn't.

Now, with me working 4 days a week in the office and 1 day a week from home, the balance has shifted in a way that I find very satisfactory. Two weekday evenings - Mondays and Wednesdays - I come home to dinner on the table, prepared by someone else (my Mum on Mondays, and husband on Wednesdays). Two mornings a week - Tuesdays and Fridays - I get up, shower, pack my own lunch and go to work early for a 7:30 start, and my husband makes the kids' lunches, gets them organised and takes them to school and kinder. We made the decision to hire a cleaner, so once a week, someone else vaccuums, cleans the bathrooms and mops the floors, and dusts. On Wednesdays, my husband has the day off, so he handles both drop off and pick up for the kids and does some laundry on that day.

It's not like my home duties have evaporated, and nor would I want them to. I still do the morning run for the kids on Mondays and Thursdays, and pick them up from kinder / school / aftercare by 4:00 on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. I still take them to gymnastics and ballet, I still cook the other 5 dinners, I do the meal planning and the grocery shopping and the bulk cooking for the freezer. I do probably 70% of the laundry, and husband and I work together to go the on-the-go tidying and life admininstration / errands that still need to be done. Weekends are very happily filled with family time and catching up with friends - no more weekend work for me, another wonderful benefit of moving out of contracting.

All the same, I'd forgotten how nice it is to regularly eat a hot meal cooked for you by someone else. I'd underestimated how much I would value having two mornings off the delicate balancing act that is morning kid prep. I had not expected how much relief and release of household tension could be wrought by budgeting in for a weekly cleaner (not something we could've afforded before anyway).

These things are all contributing to both my overall sense of satisfaction with my life, and my relationships with my family. I was worried that I wouldn't have the same closeness with my kids when I started this job, but the opposite is turning out to be true - because of how we've structured things, so I am still around for the critical after-school period so often, I feel the kids and I are having more positive and more frequent interactions than when I would get to 4pm all tapped out by a day of relentless juggling of needs. And my husband and I, who have always tried to do things as a team, are working more co-operatively than ever before now that circumstances both allow for and dictate this.

So that's a sunny side, for me. I know I'm lucky - not everyone's partners step up like this - but for me, it's been a very nice transition in that regard.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Reading Notes: The Testament of Mary

This review constitutes part of my commitment to read and review as many of the 13 Man Booker longlisted titles as possible before the announcement of the shortlist on 10 September. The Testament of Mary is the second book in the list I have read.

There is some dispute about whether The Testament of Mary should even be on the Man Booker longlist. This is not because of its content (however potentially controversial), nor its quality (as I'll discuss, this haunting little book is an incredible feat of literature in many, many ways). Rather, it's because of its extreme brevity.

At 120-some pages, Toibin's book could fairly be described as a novella rather than a novel - indeed, I've read books marketed as novellas recently that were longer than this work. However, I'm standing on the side of defending the place of this book on the longlist, on the grounds that it is a complete achievement that takes on novelistic level themes and tells a complex story successfully. Indeed, the fact that Toibin is able to achieve what he does in such a brief work is a testament - see what I did there? - to his skill as a writer and thinker.

I found this brief book utterly compelling. I read it in one evening easily, which speaks to its clarity, but I am sure I'll go back and read it over and over. I found it thought-provoking, moving, uncomfortable and challenging, and I know I'll be thinking about it for a long time to come.

As you might gather from the title, this is Toibin's take of the story of the ministry and death of Jesus from the first-person viewpoint of his mother Mary. There has been a trend in the last thirty years to write biblical stories and characters in ways that emphasise their humanity and vulnerability rather than their sanctity and symbolic value, and this continues in that vein, but does more with it, in my view, than most writers have been able to achieve.

In his Mary, Toibin gives us a woman who is angry, frustrated, confused and bitter - not only at her son's killers, but at those who she sees as his (and her) manipulators, which includes various unnamed disciples. Mary struggles, throughout her narrative, to deliver Jesus from the deadly web that his activities and pronouncements are entangling him in, and shows with devastating force that any such rescue was impossible from the outset, not necessarily because of prophecy and manifest destiny, but because of politics and power.

Toibin's handling of key events and key prophetic milestones in the story of Jesus is masterful, sensitive and persuasive. As you would expect from a story about Jesus, history's ultimate resurrection man, Mary's tale dwells often on themes of life, death and the afterlife. The handling of the raising of Lazarus is particularly chillingly well done. Toibin's vision of raised Lazarus as a kind of agonised, speechless (but not murderous) zombie is incredibly powerful and affecting. Throughout it all, Toibin, through Mary's voice, seems to be asking - Even if it's possible, should the dead rise? Is this right, is it proper, is it good? He  contrasts Mary's vision, which is dim and uncertain, of quietude and absence in death, to the almost hysteric seizing on the hope of life eternal by the disciples, their determination to twist Jesus' strange power and ultimate death to their own hectic ends.

It's been suggested that this book is blasphemous. I was raised in a very strict Protestant church, and I'd agree, that by the measures used in my upbringing, it probably is. Certainly, I imagine most Catholic readers would find some of the chief propositions at least worrying, if not actually sacriligeous.

Toibin's decision to have Mary and all the followers already gone by the time Jesus dies, and not present for his burial, is contrary to the Biblical accounts. His remarkably persuasive and nuanced representation of the scene in the garden, where Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and the other women, as a shared but possibly visionary dream of Mary and Mary, the mother of Jesus, rather than a "real" event, is also likely to be seen as problematic, as the basis of Christianity is not that Jesus lived or even that he died on a cross, but that he rose from the dead and, by his death and resurrection, opened a path to salvation for humanity. (This is the way most Protestant churches represent the core theology, anyway).

Any interpretation that questions the actuality of the resurrection is pretty much going to be difficult for believers, although I would hope that minds might be open enough to see the beauty in the way Toibin represents this critical moment, the almost translucent loveliness of the way Mary's words embrace and enclose her son.

For me, I have moved a long way from my hellfire and brimstone roots, and it is no longer important to my spirituality to believe that the Bible is a literal record of actual events, or that the actors in it were some kind of sanctified, purified uber-humans. I found Toibin's Mary startling - human, engrossing, powerful - and I was neither offended nor distressed by his Jesus, a man of obvious power (Toibin never elides this) and charisma, but also a wordly innocence that traps him in the end. I am still thinking about this book, and expect to be for some time to come. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who isn't of a high degree of Christian religious sensibility.

Other Booker longlist reviews can be found here:
Five Star Billionaire

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Purple Party, Tonsillitis, Juggling and All that Jazz

Yesterday was my firstborn's 10th birthday party. Her actual birthday was Thursday, and she'd decided months ago that she wanted to have a purple-themed party and to invite lots of friends, aware that I have decreed that 10 is the last year of large parties until 16. (I have given all my kids a biggish party every year, so I think it's reasonable to have a pause from 10 to 16. They can take a couple of friends to the movies or something in those years, but a break from large parties is definitely in order).

Preparing for the Purple Party was always going to be complicated, compared with previous years, by the fact that I am now working fulltime, and in fact have only been in my job two weeks. I expected that, but what I didn't count on was:

1. Husband having flu last week, and its aftermath this week;
2. Youngest having a heavy cold for the front end of the week;
3. Getting sick myself on Thursday; and, most challengingly,
4. My middle girl going down like a ton of bricks last Sunday with severe tonsillitis, and being worryingly ill all week.

The 8 year old, E, really scared us this week - on penicillin since Sunday, by Friday morning she really wasn't showing any improvement, and had stopped eating altogether and mostly stopped drinking too. My Mum had come over to care for her on Monday, husband worked at home Tuesday and has Wednesdays off, and I worked at home both my usual Thursday and half of Friday (I took Friday afternoon as sick leave, as I was by that time quite ill myself).

I ended up taking E back to the doctor on Friday afternoon, and he switched her to a different antibiotic, and ruled that she needed serious rehydration. The turnaround, just 4 hours after the first dose of Augmentin and two glasses of Hydralite, was astonishing. No longer unresponsive, she started sitting up, nibbling at crackers, and demanding things of her sisters. The relief was enormous.

So by the time A's party rolled around yesterday, I was neither as mentally nor as physically prepared as I wanted to be, but somehow, it all mostly came together, with a bit of help from my family and friends.

I leaned heavily on the power of community this time, to get through and get it all done. My friend J sourced purple fruit for me and came early to make fairy bread; my Mum baked slices and my Dad painted a Flying Purple People Eater for us, and they both worked tirelessly in the kitchen during the party and cleaning up afterwards; my brother and his girlfriend supervised party games.

Another family friend helped hang the piniata; and earlier, my wunderkind cake friend, K, worked with A to decorate the three-layer purple cake. (I had pre-baked and frozen the layers last weekend when I wasn't sick, which, with hindsight, turned out to be an awesome piece of forward planning).

And even though there wasn't as much homemade food as usual - cupcakes, birthday cake, purple jellies and Mum's slices were about it - the supermarket provided handsomely, and the kids scoffed fruit, fairy bread, potato gems, sausage rolls and party pies, lollies, franks and chips & beetroot dip quite happily. It might not have been as tightly organised as usual, but the purple balloons, purple table covers and purple guests provided a jaunty feel. The games were simple, but Musical Statues, Pin the Horn on the Flying Purple People Eater, Chocolate Surgery and the piniata were all enjoyed by the kids.

The best parts, though, were that the 8 year old was able to come and mostly enjoy herself (although, of course, was very fatigued by the end) and that the 10 year old was thrilled with it, declaring it was *just* the party she wanted. I may feel like I've run a marathon in thongs today, as the adrenalin recedes and my virus advances, but I'm glad we pushed through and made it happen.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A job like thing

On Tuesday, an important phase shift in our family life came to pass as I headed off to my first day in my new fulltime salaried job. My husband had taken a day off to enable me to not worry about pick-ups and drop-offs, so I left home at 7:45, which turned out to be way too early - I was at my workplace, parked, and waiting outside my work area door by 8:25, significantly before anyone else was even in the building!

Last week probably wasn't the most reliable test - I didn't start til the Tuesday, so it was a 4-day not 5-day week; husband took the Tuesday off; and as it transpired, he was home, sick as a dog with flu, on the Thursday and Friday, which meant that, while our "regular" arrangements were still in play, I was able to get the kids dropped home earlier (to him) than will usually be the case. So it was an atypically gentle introduction to the hectic juggle that is going to form an inevitable part of our lives.

On a "normal" week, the plan is thus:

Mondays I drop the kids off at school and kinder and start work at 9:45; my Mum collects 4yo from kinder at 1pm, big kids from school at 3:15, and stays with them til I get home around 6-6:30.
Tuesdays I start work at 7:30am, so hubs drops 4yo to her kinder friend's house and big girls to school, then continues to work; I leave work at 3:30 in time to collect 4yo from kinder at 4:15 then big kids from after care at 4:30.
Wednesdays is hubs' day off (he's on a 4-day week now). It's a normal-to-long work day for me, where I will pick up any slack from the previous two days.
Thursdays I work at home, with 4yo here. Naturally I also handle the school run on this day.
Fridays I start work at 7:30am, so hubs drops 4yo to kinder and big girls to school, then continues to work; my neighbour collects C from kinder at 2:15, then the big kids from school at 3:15, and takes them back to her house, from whence I collect them around 4:30.

The scheduling will get marginally easier from next March, when C is in school and on the same fulltime school schedule as the two big girls. For the next five months, though, before the summer hols arrive, it's a finely tuned balancing act, with contingencies and possible breakdown points all over the place.

Of course, I do have fallback plans for most days and times - when my Mum's away, for instance, I have a local friend (from my old playgroup in fact) who does ad hoc babysitting and can take C for the afternoon on Mondays, while I have several lovely friends who can cover the occasional pick up on Tuesdays if I'm running just a bit late for kinder. (I'm going to need to invoke this next week, in fact, as I have a meeting that won't finish til 4pm). Hubs and I both have access to carer's leave too, although in his case it can be hard to take it, and in mine, I wouldn't want to try it in the first month unless all other avenues were exhausted.

Even so, there are bound to be - and already are - sticky times when meeting all obligations is hard. For instance, my 8yo has come down ill, so I'm going to need to get to work later than planned tomorrow (around 11) and I've asked my Mum to come over earlier than she normally does - she'll be here hopefully just after 10. She won't always be able to do this, but fortunately, for me, this week she can.

That's the tricky part, but here's the good part:

I am really enjoying the job. There's a huge amount to wrap my head around, but I like a challenge, and there is certainly one to be had here. The people are terrific, the work environment is positive, and the conditions are great. I think it speaks volumes of the flexibility of my workplace that nary an eyebrow was raised at my desire to work at home on Thursdays, or timeshift two other days. I am starting to see the shape of what my work will be, for at least the next 6 months, and it's an interesting and nicely complex set of tasks. (I don't do well with boredom and not enough to do).

I also think it's really good for my husband to have a day off a week, the morning of which he'll spend with the 4yo, and three hours of which he'll have to himself after dropping her to kinder (until school pick up time). He's worked fulltime all his adult life and I am so glad he can set back a bit now, and have a chance to have a bit more one on one time with the kids. I think the kids, too, will benefit from this.

Financially, the stability and extra money will come in extremely handy, and makes our hope of being mortgage-free within 10 years look like it might even be achievable. We are also going to be in a position to help out more with emergent family and community needs, as well as increase our aid contributions, and that's a very good thing.

So I know that one week is a bit too soon to call it, but I'll go with "so far, so good" at this stage. Let's see what happens in 6 months, I guess!