Friday, December 30, 2016

The year that was

As 2016 creaks towards its end, it seems like the right moment to reflect on the year that's been, as well as express some hopes (and fears, maybe) for the year to come.

Some people are diarists; some record their lives in photographs; some, and perhaps in some ways the wisest, allow their lives to go by unrecorded.

I am not a daily recorder, but I do like to make A record, periodically, and these annual posts suit my style for doing so.

That said, here we go ... 2016, the year that was.

Us vs the World

I think it will come as no surprise to
anyone when I say that on a global level, 2016 was a very weird, foreboding, sad, scary, and downright unsettling year.

Starting with the death of David Bowie in early January, the year seemed determined to throw curveball after curveball - the death count of beloved celebrities was insanely high, while 2016 also brought us:

- New terrorist attacks
- Syria burning basically to the ground
- Brexit
- Donald Trump getting elected to be the actual President of the whatheactualhell United States of America
- Less globally significantly but personally disappointingly, a second term for the LNP government in Australia

Many people lost in 2016 were significant cultural figures in my life - it was a particularly brutal year for GenXers in this regard.

It's hard to pick from the extensive list, but I'll be honest and say I cried the most, and ached in my heart, for the loss of Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Carrie Fisher. They were all people I didn't know but artists whose art I *did* know and was touched by.

Yet despite all this - and believe me I am alive to the cognitive dissonance implied in my next statement - 2016 was, for us as a family and for me as an individual, a remarkably good year. It
was a year of achieving things and enjoying things, a year of generally good health and good events, a year free of catastrophe on a major scale.

So while 2016 was a year that the world as a whole might be better off forgetting ... I have to say, for us, it was a year worth remembering, even as we are aware of and attuned to the bigger picture.

Work and School

This was a great year for us in terms of work and school.

My business (freelancing) really took off in 2016, and I had plenty of interesting work from four big clients and one smaller one, across a variety of projects and areas. I enjoyed my work and my clients a lot, and on a financial level, the year was made much more pleasant by the extra income this brought in.

For the kids, 2016 was a watershed year at school in many ways - it was my eldest's first year at high school, to which she has made a great transition, and my middle kid's last year at primary school.

For me, it was the last year before a break of volunteering fortnightly in the school kitchen as part of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program, which is an absolute delight to be part of. I so enjoyed being able to assist my middle kid's class in this final year of her primary school.

The whole "graduation week" for middle kid was very special time, and her winning of an award for outstanding academic achievement was just the icing on the cake.

My youngest had a great year in Grade 2 and seems to have finally cracked the code of independent reading, and her skills in this area just keep growing apace.

Family / Health

2016 was a generally good year for both our immediate family and our extended family. Aside from a nasty winter flu that belted us around a bit, and a run-in with thunderstorm asthma, our immediate family's health was very good - probably the most robust it has been for years (especially in my case - I've had a very good year with my collection of autoimmune illnesses).

Our extended family fared reasonably well until the end of the year -
my parents had a busy one, with a European trip and moving into their new place, while my brother and his partner continued their renovation efforts. A darker spot appeared in December with the serious illness and hospitalisation of my mother in law, but she is now, thankfully, improving, although her recovery is likely to be quite extended.

Holidays, Birthdays and Special Days

This year was absolutely replete with high notes. I can't remember a year in which there was such consistent doses of daily pleasures and special days. We really have been very blessed.

So many good things happened that it's hard to name them all, but I'd probably select these as the absolute winners:

1. Our MTC season tickets: My husband and I saw 7 plays this year as Wednesday matinees and had a truly wonderful time, each day combining it with a brunch or lunch to serve as a day out. Our favourites of the seven plays were Disgraced, Miss Julie, and The Odd Couple.

2. Our three little family holidays: We were lucky enough to get away three times in 2016 - we had 8 days in Canberra in the Easter school holidays, 4 days in Marysville / Lake Mountain with family friends in July (for the snow!), and 3 days in Ballarat / Sovereign Hill in early October.

None of these trips were particularly costly - we stayed at pretty basic places and cooked our own food, and a lot of what we did was cheap or free (barring some of the attractions, which were worth the cost on the whole!) Each holiday did us a great deal of good, though, and we enjoyed the time away from the everyday.

3. Events and Concerts: 2016 had plenty of special stuff going on for all of us. 
We did a family day at Adventure Park Geelong in January, which was a perfect summer activity. I took the 7 year old to see Matilda in March, which was just superb - every bit as good as everyone says! 

We did a nerd family weekend at OzComicCon in June, which, while it involved hard work as we assisted on our friends' stall, was also brilliant fun (the kids cosplayed for the first time!) 

October brought both the Madman Anime Festival for husband and the two older kids, and our annual Halloween Party, complete with many sugar-hyped and dressed-up children. The zombie brains jelly was, as usual, a hit :-)

I took the older two kids to see some of their YouTube idols at the Palais in November, and in what was a real highlight of the year, took my middle kid to see Coldplay at Etihad Stadium on the spur of the moment in December. It was an awesome concert and we both loved it.

Christmas Day - in fact, the whole Christmas season - was really wonderful this year. I think not hosting the day at my house relieved a lot of pressure and allowed me to really relax and enjoy the season. My brother and his partner did a magnificent job hosting the family lunch.

4. Birthdays: We once again celebrated the kids' birthdays in 2016, with a movie party at home in February for the 7 year old (we watched Oddball on the big screen), complete with pinata and Pikachu cake; a bowling and laser tag party in May for the 11 year old, with Stargate cake; and a "Fandom" party in August for the 13 year old, with a badge cake marked with her favourite creative franchises.

Creative Life

 This is probably the only category in which I give 2016 a C+ Could Try Harder.

Although I did complete Month of Poetry in January and have been actively contributing throughout the year to my Facebook-based poetry group, I didn't attempt NaNoWriMo this year because I was so busy with my business, and most of the writing projects I had been very enthusiastic about at the start of the year failed to materialise.

I also stopped writing book reviews in about April (due to a range of factors) and for the first year since 2010, I didn't do the Man Booker Challenge.

Although all of this was probably inevitable given my business growth and family responsibilities, I did feel it as a loss this year, and would very much like to do more in this space in 2017.

Looking Ahead

Thinking about 2017 is sort of strange - for us it'll be another transitional year, with a second child entering high school, and also, hopefully, a consolidation year for me in my business. 

That said, the world and our own community have some big challenges and uncertain times ahead, and we have to play our part in addressing that, and there's no guarantees that our current comfort will continue.

For myself and my family, I hope for: 
- a successful high school transition for my secondborn; 
- a renewal of my creative life; 
- more opportunities created and taken to get involved with social justice imperatives;
- another good year in business;
- movement on our longer term plan to convert the garage into a room;
- the ability to plan and save for our 2018 Japan holiday; and
- health and contentment for us all, at least most of the time.

If the year ahead delivers that, it will be a stupendous year indeed.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Sevenling for the Season

This is my now-traditional "Christmas card in a poem", for all of you. Blessings of the season, whatever it should chance to mean for you - even if it's just four days off work in a row and a Call the Midwife marathon on the teev. (Actually, that sounds kind of blissful...)

Three things they said the astrologers brought:
Riches, for dominion; spiced perfume, for transcendence;
burial oil, to foreshadow the ending.

Three things, now, to ask of the season:
Lovingkindness, for the sad and weakened; restfulness, for the weary and heavy-laden;
Abundance, flowing freely, for all at the table.

The future forestalls; a moment of forgetting, dressed in silver bells.

- Kathy, 24/12/16

Sunday, December 11, 2016

On reflecting on good fortune

I took my secondborn daughter to see Coldplay at Melbourne's Etihad Stadium last night.

It was a spur of the moment decision - tickets were available for the second concert on the very morning, and knowing how much she loves Coldplay, I impulsively bought two tickets.

It was an amazing show. Lights, fireworks, glitter bombs, balloons, fantastic sound quality, and an
energetic Chris Martin in fine voice.

They played a two and a half hour set in which all the favourites were played, finishing, to my daughter's delight, with her absolute fave, Up and Up. I was particularly delighted with Clocks, Everglow and Yellow.

It was worth the money, but it was not cheap, even for a Christmas present, and it's made me reflect on how privileged I am to be able to just spontaneously decide to do something like this, and the reasons I am so lucky. Which has led me to want to say this.

I am not Internet friends with employees of most of my clients - with a few exceptions for client-that-is-a-former-workplace, where they are former colleagues and friends. So this won't be seen, on the whole, by the organisations it is about, but that's OK. I still want acknowledge how grateful I am for the work I have had this year, and the opportunities it has opened up for me and my family.

Running a small business isn't always easy but it can be so rewarding, especially when you are lucky enough to have varied, interesting work and good clients to work with.

Without the ongoing patronage of my four major clients, our family life would have looked very different in 2016. There would have been no holidays and mini-breaks, no concerts and events, no roof repairs, no bedroom recarpeting or furniture-buying. School and medical / dental costs would have been tough to meet, and extracurriculars possibly out of the question. There would have been no MTC play season for Gary and I, and far fewer meals out, movie trips, and special days out. We also wouldn't be in the position we're in regarding paying down our mortgage, which we've been able to accelerate this year.

So although most of them will never see this post - I am really thankful to all my clients, for trusting me with their projects and giving me the benefit of this work. I hope to continue working with all four organisations in 2017, and look forward to a great year ahead.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Workplaces and Holidays

My favourite workplace blog, Ask A Manager, is fielding a bunch of holiday-related work questions at the moment.

The two most common themes are:

 1. Should employees give (or in some cases, be pressured to give) gifts or money to their managers as Christmas presents? (This appears to be way more common than you'd think).

 2. How do you decide who has to work the Christmas-NY gap (or in the cases of businesses or services that don't shut down even for the main days, that whole period)? (Again, the level of shenanigans turning up in the letters is extraordinary).

 I find the first issue pretty mind-blowing, TBH. I mean, OF COURSE people shouldn't be expected to (and gift etiquette positively requires them NOT to) make a financial contribution from their post-tax earnings to the person who pays them! That's like a Holiday Tax for Being Employed. Very stupid.

 I have frequently baked Christmas cookies or cupcakes and taken them into offices to share, and obviously my manager of the time was included in the comestibles distribution. But the only circumstance in which I might chuck money into a pot for a manager gift would be for something like a baby or wedding gift. (I wouldn't even do it for a leaving gift).

 That said, this year I *am* getting my boss a lovely personal Christmas gift that I know she'll love. It's a new fantasy novel and a gorgeous blue summer dress. However, my boss is MYSELF, so it's a bit different. It's like my Christmas bonus for a stonkingly good quarter, paid ... to me :-)

 Re the second point - I get why this is such a hot-button issue. It's only ever been an issue for me personally in one job - when I worked for an online news aggregator, and I did indeed have to work Christmas Day night (10pm - 7am on Boxing Day). It sucked, and I was not happy when I was rostered again to work the entire Easter weekend on nights. (I left that job a couple of months later, for many reasons, but the holiday thing was definitely one of them).

Then again, there are people who LOVE working the gap because it's so quiet and chilled at the office. My partner is in IT and he works it every year and cherishes the opportunity to get server upgrades done in peace. We traditionally take our family holidays in January or February, so it suits him. He's never in a competition to take the gap days.

 Most workplaces I have been in that don't shut down for the gap run skeleton staff for that period, and there usually someone who wants to work so they can save time off for other purposes. But when it's competitive, I think the most important thing is to be fair. It can't just be seniority or first-in-best-dressed, there needs to be some regard as to what other "desirable days" people have had in the past (or may want in the next year). If you have to work Christmas gap, you should get first pick of the days around Easter, for example. (Or, for the Americans, Thanksgiving).

 What do you reckon?

Saturday, November 19, 2016


I have reached peak overload.

I realised this about 30 minutes ago when the two base cakes I had been cooking all morning, for my Dad's birthday cake, fell apart coming out of the pan.

I completely lost it. I screamed at the cakes. Berated the oven. Jabbered incoherent nonsense at my 13yo. Hyperventilated. Felt like (but have not yet) bursting into hysterical tears.

If you are thinking that this sounds a wee bit like a toddler meltdown, well, you're right - it's exactly like that. And, like a toddler, my meltdown was triggered by stress, frustration, exhaustion, and a sensory overload burden that I can no longer process rationally.

I am, however, not two and a half, so it is less acceptable for me to break down and throw my toys over what is undoubtedly annoying but not life threatening mini crises. My extreme anxiety at the failed cake sitting on my kitchen bench and my sense of utter catastrophe arising from it is disproportionate and exaggerated. So why am I in this state? How do I dig up?

Well, it doesn't take a psychiatrist to spot that this really isn't about a disintegrating cake at all. Cake is the trigger but not the cause of this emotional tsunami.

I have been operating at 150% for months now, between working long hours, parenting and householding, and making some big changes to how we structure our house that will be much better in the long term but are very stressful to actually implement. I am also becoming steadily less well as my underlying conditions move out of alignment and my anxiety ramps up. (Stress is a big factor in both of these too). I am feeling utterly overwhelmed and it has caught up with me and kicked my arse HARD.

Dragging out of the meltdown I am still fighting (my chest is tight, my throat closed, my eyes awash with tears, and I have told the kids to please not speak to me unless it's urgent) is going to be damn hard. If I was two and a half I could relieve myself somewhat with a screaming jag and throwing a few blocks - but I am not and adulting carries some responsibility to handle yourself differently. (Damn adulting).

Right now I can't think of anything I want to do less than go out to friends for dinner tonight or to my parents for birthday lunch tomorrow, but I know that opting out of these things will be sad for my kids, so I need to put my big girl pants on and do it anyway.

But oh boy. I sure don't want to. And I have started crying now at the thought of making another cake.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Found Poem: Poets in the Sky

This is a found poem dedicated to David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Umberto Eco and Elie Wiesel. 2016 has been hard on us, here on planet earth. I feel like the words of these lost ones have something important to say to that. (Most phrases from the writings / lyrics of the five, with some linking phrases from me).

All collective judgments are wrong.

Oh yes:

It's too early for the rainbow, too early for the dove
These are the final days, this is the darkness, this the flood
And there is no man or woman who can't be touched

the sun that pins the branches to the sky
bleeding all over the future as it daily dies

Battle cries and champagne just in time for sunrise
this world dominated by disorder and decay

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich 
That's how it goes 
Aristocrats on a mountain climb
Making money, losing time

I wish there was a treaty we could sign
It's over now, the water and the wine
We were broken then but now we're borderline

Fear prophets and those prepared to die for the truth
Is it true you betrayed us? The answer is Yes.

And yet:

even though it all went wrong.

little scraps of wisdom spark the heart
tiny shadows gesturing at a new start

times are changing

It's time we all reach out for something new

Hope is like peace -
we want it so much we will it here

A dream is a scripture.
Sometimes, the truest one.

I have tried in my way to be free:
To show not what has been done, but what can be

There are victories of the soul and spirit
to be prised from hands of ice

This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.

The sun, the moon and stars
Don't seem as far as they did yesterday -

- Kathy, 16/11/16

Friday, November 4, 2016

A November without a writing challenge

I am feeling a bit flat.

It's November, and every November for as many years as I can recall, I've done a writing challenge. I've done NaNaWriMo three times; I've done a Month of Poetry a few times; I've done NaBloPoMo (blog every day) at least four times. I've even done a Month of Non-Fiction twice when working on long academic pieces coming out of my thesis.

This year I am not doing anything, and it's for good reasons - I'm up to my eyeballs in paid work, I have a heavy month with family commitments, I am quite fatigued - but I still fell a bit disjointed. I'm so used to November being The Month of All the Words ... it feels strange, a bit wrong, to be not trying to make something this year. Especially after enjoying NaNoWriMo, and the production of my verse novella Theory of Mind, last year so much; this year does feel like a letdown in a lot of ways.

I do have plans to catch up creatively - I'll be doing Month of Poetry with my poetry group in January again, and I am hoping to sign up to do Camp NaNo in April. But I won't lie: a November without a driving creative goal feels peculiar, and I really wish things were different for me this year.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Spring (Poem)

the arctic cup flowers hold a native bee apiece
a fragrant tenement, open to the sun

upside-down honeyeaters excavate the stiff bottlebrush
their neon-splashed wings fanning out to brush the seedpods

near the doorway, a white and green speckled spider spins quietly in the lavender
building a shimmering net to catch mosquitoes by the dozen

the cat that doesn't live here, and the dog that does, loll on their backs
a little breeze lifting the soft vulnerability of their belly fur

the fruit trees are ferocious with buds, while the wattle paints the sky canary-bright
white butterflies investigate the weeds by the compost pile

the rose trees, thorniest of all the weeds, are glorious in triumph -
sunset-gilded, ivory and deep pink, red as the reddest love

the wind stirs the branches and flaps the sheets on the line, and says:

Monday, October 10, 2016

The road not taken

When I was 23, I was working part-time (initially 0.6, later 0.8) at a small education industry support association while completing my Master of Arts by thesis part-time. My job at the association was primarily around sourcing, editing, publishing and marketing a range of teacher-support booklets and student resource books. I found teachers who were willing to write them, commissioned the work, hand-held it through to delivery, copy-edited the product, sourced images and handled the permissions, arranged printing, marketed and sold the publications at conferences and events, and even packed and posted the mail-ordered products. About the only thing I had no touch on was the money bit (I didn't invoice or bank or pay bills).

I'm not sure whether it was just because this was my first professional job, or because I still had it in my mind that I wanted a "writerly" career and I didn't have the bredth of experience or imagination to think about other possibilities, but I assumed that my career path was one of two options from there: an academic career (which was already losing shine as an option as I watched the convulsions in the academy) or a career in publishing.

By the time I got engaged to be married in the December of that year, I had pretty much ruled out an academic path; in my discipline (American History), a PhD in the US would've been essential, and my life was taking me down a different road, with a partner who was committed to remaining in Australia. So I thought I had it worked out. I'd finish my MA, get married, and move into a job with a more mainstream publishing house. I'd work my way up through editorial roles. I'd build skills so that when the time came to have a family, I might be in a position to freelance those editorial skills from home for a while.

In the year following, I applied for six jobs in publishing, and was interviewed for four of them. In two cases I didn't make it past first-round interviews, but I was one of two final candidates for a job with Oxford University Press, and I was actually offered a job with Pearson Education.

With the Oxford job, I missed out to a person with just a touch more experience - that job I absolutely would've taken had it been offered. The Pearson job was a key decision point for me, though. It was an entry-level position, and the salary they were offering was lower than the fulltime equivalent of my 0.8 job; not massively lower, but when you are earning less than $30,000, $2,000 less is a significant chunk of change. And so, after agonising over the issue for three days, I reluctantly turned down the offer, even though it was likely to be a great path into the industry I thought I was decided upon.

After turning down the Pearson offer, I got so busy with wedding and honeymoon planning that I didn't apply for anything else, and when I got back from my overseas honeymoon, a postgraduate friend asked me to do some freelance publications work in the government agency she herself worked in. I took that option, left the industry association, and spent eighteen months doing publications and event work there while finishing my Masters. From there I went to another government agency to manage in-house publications, then to an online news aggregator service. It looked like I was sticking with publications-related stuff, if not traditional publishing per se.

My next job, though, turned that on its head. I went back to the government agency I'd first worked for to take a job developing policy and training systems / programs. This felt like a weird step - after all, although I had some training skills, I had never actually worked on policy before. I honestly thought it was a transitional job, that I'd do for 12 months to get back on my feet after the horrors of the night-shift news job, before going back towards publishing.

I was there for almost 10 years, and when I left, I was established as a policy development professional.

I don't regret any of my professional decisions to any great extent, although, with hindsight being 20/20, I can observe a tendency to stay longer in poor situations than I really should have. I do wonder sometimes, though. How different would my life / career be now if I had accepted that Pearson job? How would it look if I hadn't been just slightly edged out for the Oxford role? Would I, now, be a senior publisher at a big trade house? Or would I have abandoned the field and moved into something else?

The work I do is still "writerly" - of a sort - but it isn't what I imagined my future looking like, back when I was 23.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Work and non-work and how the narrative creates the form

“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

David Frayne has a very interesting article in Roar Magazine at the moment called Towards a Post-Work Society. In it, he posits, among other things, the notion that we are, as a society, over-engineered towards paid work as the centre of meaning in our lives.

Work is, of course, the mechanism through which most of us (well, the workers of the world, not the owners of the means of production) exchange labour for the means to live, enabling us to pay for our necessities as well as some of our desires. But it is also "the main and certainly the most culturally approved way that people live out a public existence". There is a strong tendency to define identity at least partially by not just what we do in general, but specifically, what we do in the public labour market. Unpaid labour, particularly domestic, caring and nurturing labour, has no horse in this race, and neither do the passions of most people's hearts (unless they are marketable).

Frayne argues that this makes for a miserable, and sick, social environment when it coincides with the death throes of the neoliberal project, in which there are fewer and fewer jobs available, and only a small percentage of them are meaningful: "we are steadily becoming a society of workers without work: a society of people who are materially, culturally and psychologically bound to paid employment, but for whom there are not enough stable and meaningful jobs to go around."

To me, it's all tied in to consumerist culture as well. Past survival, and then laying in a store for harder times, what drives people to work so hard and so long? It's the impetus to consume - to eat more ostensibly pleasant (and therefore more expensive) food, to have more costly experiences, to purchase 'better' housing, to own more goods and accoutrements. Naturally people are prey to this to different degrees and it manifests in different ways, but the small (or large) bursts of pleasure that luxury purchases afford are addictive for almost everyone.

We are programmed to see achievement and success (and therefore value) as tied to not who we are, but what we do (in a paid labour sense) and what we have (not necessarily in terms of gold limousines and Armani suits, but certainly in terms of comforts of living and level of freedom from financial stress). And that? That is a failing project in the 21st century, for almost all of the 99%. Most of us cannot even achieve a modest security, let alone any real sybarism in daily life (beyond, and I'm not downplaying the importance of this, the enjoyment of micro-luxuries - there's a reason fancy cheeses and decadent ice creams sell better in recessions than in boom times).

In my own life, I have always seen paid work as an ultimate good, and struggled a lot with a sense of self-worth and identity when at home for brief periods with each child (9 months, 6 months and 8 months respectively, and then for 6 months more when my youngest turned 2). I've put serious thought into how I can work - settling, after much experimentation, into freelance contracting in a professional services field, where I work uneven amounts but average about 4 days a week - but it's never really been a question as to whether I should or would work.

Partly, of course, this comes down to money, but when I step back to analyse it, that isn't the complete answer, or at least it isn't anymore, given that our financial position is much less precarious overall than it was even 5 years ago. The reality is, I do work for money to enable us to consume the things we value at the level we want to - for us, that's paying off our housing, good education for the kids, holidays and trips, great food, and community support via donations. But I also work so I can participate unquestioned in the public sphere, and be licensed to have a public identity in a way that those who don't perform paid labour are not automatically granted by the current status quo.

The work I do is meaningful-ish - some parts of it more than others, but that's life - and I 'own' my labour to a greater extent than most wage-earners. The transaction between me and my clients is an unvarnished exchange of skills and time for cash, a business-to-business matter, with no pretence of any mutuality of obligation beyond what is explicitly spelled out in the contract. I can't be 'disciplined' or pressured as an employee can; I don't deal with organisational politics and glass ceilings and restructures anymore. I am, let's face it, much better positioned in most ways to weather the storms of the changing world of work than most. And yet. And yet. I still sense the emptiness at the heart of the project sometimes, and it darkens me, at least for a while. How much worse must it be for those whose skills are less idiosyncratic and (possibly temporarily) in demand?

I think about this a lot for my daughters and the lives they'll live. I wonder if I am part of the last generation for which paid work will be able to serve as a shorthand for "who I am and what I'm worth" - and I think that if so, that might be a good thing, if painful to achieve. For us, it might be too late to fully detach from the hegemony of work, not just materially, but psychologically. Perhaps by the time my daughters are old women, though, the dolphins' attitude might be seen as the best one.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Reading Notes: His Bloody Project

His Bloody Project, by Graeme McCrae Burnet, is one of six books shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and is currently the second-favourite in predictions and odds for the gong (the lead is held by Deborah Levy's Hot Milk). Interestingly, it is by far the best-selling of the shortlisted titles, with sales of the other titles a third to a half less. I think I might have an idea of why that is.

His Bloody Project was described this week by the Guardian's Libby Brooks as "fiendishly readable", and I think that's as good a way as any to open a discussion of this text.

Burnet's book is indeed an easy, engrossing, and captivating read - I bought it on my Kindle at 4pm yesterday and finished it just after lunch today, and I did sleep soundly and long in the middle of that, so it was not a taxing read by any stretch. This is actually more of a feat than it sounds when you consider that the book, set in a remote mid-19th century Scottish Highlands community, purports to be actual historical documents of the time. (It isn't, of course - this is fictional history, akin to, but not as detailed or rich as, the back story in AS Byatt's seminal work, Possession).

What Burnet gets absolutely, shiningly right is his language choices. There's no dialect or attempt to render 19th century speech patterns - itself a crashingly difficult thing to get right and a fast way to alienate readers who aren't either dedicated, language nerds, or being paid to plough through (past Booker nominees Umbrella and The Wake, I'm looking at YOU). 19th century styles can occasionally be done well by modern authors - Eleanor Catton pulled it off in The Luminaries quite recently - but even then, such texts tend to be dense, hard going. His Bloody Project is, by comparison, deft, light, deceptively simple; it draws the reader along from the start.

Instead of trying to invoke a sense of historicity through dialect and language stylism, Burnet uses modern speech conventions but within a sociocultural construct relevant to the times. In this respect, the book reminded me very much of Jim Crace's Harvest, which was also, perhaps not coincidentally, a gripping and successful rendition of poor agricultural communities under severe stress because of abuse of power.

Describing His Bloody Project, or assigning it a genre at least, is a bit tricky in some ways. It's a historical novel - sort of. It's a psychothriller - in a way. It's a true-crime-style fiction - yes, and yet ... For a plot that moves in a pretty straight line, it's surprisingly hard to classify, just as its central subject, Roderick (Roddy) McCrae, is hard to really despite his first-person account comprising about half of the total book.

The story is this: there is a small, poor crofting village in 19th century Highlands, where live 9 families. One family is the McCraes (known as the "Black McCraes") - at the start of the book this comprises father John, daughter Jetta, son Roddy, and two unnamed twin toddlers. The mother of the family, Una, is revealed to have died in childbirth some 18 months earlier, and the family is sunk in gloom as a result.

Other families in the village include the kindly, prosperous Murchinsons (or "Smokes"), and the clever, bullying McKenzies. One of the three McKenzie households is headed by the massive, malicious Lachlan McKenzie ("Lachlan Broad"). Lachlan Broad has a spite against John McCrae and his household; it is implied, but not stated, that this may relate to some bad blood dating from the lifetime of the dead McCrae mother, Una. He is the Big Man in Town and when he becomes the village constable, he uses his authority to subtly and overtly persecute the McCraes, culminating in issuing them with an eviction notice.

The day after the eviction notice is served, 17-year-old Roddy picks up an agricultural tool, exchanges smalltalk with his neighbour Carmina Smoke, then goes to the McKenzie house, kills 15 year old daughter of the house Flora, 3 year old toddler Donald, and, finally, Lachlan McKenzie himself. Roddy then calmly gives himself up to the law. The day after, his older sister Jetta is found hanged (suicide) in the barn.

If the plot sounds straightforward, that is both accurate and misleading at the same time. True-crime novels (which this is mimicking) are often whodunnits, interrogating evidence and inconsistencies in accounts in hope of proving an accused either did or didn't commit the crime. But in His Bloody Project, Burnet is following in the path of the far more interesting and compelling kind of historical true crime novel - the whydunnit. Like Hannah Kent's marvellous Burial Rites and Margaret Attwood's classic Alias Grace, Burnet's book delves into the deepest and least understood motives of the human heart, and poses some profound questions about how we understand character, motivation and morality.

The structure of the book is centred around Roddy's first-person account, written in prison at the behest of his legal counsel, followed by purported notes from examining psychiatrists, court reports, and newspaper articles. The central question is, as you would expect, whether or not the 17-year-old killer is sane and therefore able to be convicted of murder and hanged. The narrative teases the question unmercifully, but never unskillfully; even in Roddy's own words, there are hints of strangeness, of absence of normal reactions, that can be interpreted as consistent with a personality disorder at least, and this is emphasised much more in the neighbours' trial testimonies.

Indeed, one of the real interests in the book is how different Roddy looks as seen through other eyes as opposed to the self-perception he chooses to present in his narrative. That it IS a choice, and possibly quite a calculated one, is emphasised by the things he leaves out (which emerge from others' testimony). While Roddy does avert, albeit via sideways references, to the strong element of sexual coercion and power running through the text (especially in his account of his sister Jetta's probably-coerced liaison with Lachlan Broad, which led to her pregnancy and then suicide), it's in the accounts of others that Roddy's own sexual issues are highlighted, for instance. Carmina Smoke's account of Roddy's Peeping-Tom and exhibitionist behaviours are all the more disturbing for the fact that she discloses them reluctantly; a kind and forebearing person, she clearly doesn't want to worsen Roddy's case.

The story, though, is not just about the pathology of one person. It's also about the effects of poverty, injustice and oppression on whole communities, and whether or not a rotten system based on arbitrary authority can ever be redeemed. There are those who see Roddy's act as not personal but political - and if ever there was to be a revolution in the crofts, someone like Lachlan Broad would definitely have been first against the wall.

To me, though, Roddy's violence is so entwined with every aspect of his life that it's impossible to parse it effectively. He's a beaten, terrified, furious, rejected, probably sociopathic and certainly unstable, boy. He kills horrifically, and in two out of three cases, completely inexcusably. (Killing a three-year-old so they won't cry out is an appalling act, and Roddy's matter-of-fact commission of it, and total lack of remorse or understanding why it was so reviled, is telling). Was he a murderer, in the sense of possessing the necessary mens rea (state of mind) to understand that what he was doing was wrong? The fact that after having read the book with rapt attention, I can still say I honestly don't know, is testament to the power and skill of this extremely good novel.

Overall? 8.5/10. Would be happy to see this one win the Booker, although I think it will get pipped by the Levy book.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Newport Lakes

Today was another nice spring day sandwiched between chilly wet ones.

We took advantage of it this time to go for a picnic and walk at Newport Lakes, followed by ice creams in Williamstown. (Ice creams from The Ice Cream Shoppe are always and ever a holiday treat - they even have gluten free waffle cones, which makes me just so happy!)

There is much to do and see at Newport Lakes. For a place that was once a quarry and later a rubbish tip, Newport Lakes has developed into a spot of great beauty and tranquillity - a habitat for many species and a lovely place to spend time for the community.

After picnicking and kicking balls around for a an hour or so in the area near the playground, we went for a leisurely walk around the circuit of the lake, spotting animals and birds everywhere. The kids had bubble wands that added a bit of sparkle to the occasion.

They particularly enjoyed the antics of the many waterbirds, who clearly are a bit too used to having humans provide an illicit supplement to their diets and followed our progress along with great interest. Spotting insects, lizards and other birds was also fun.

The Lakes were not at all busy - I suspect because the day started off wavering with cloud, which might have given some people pause. In the end, though, it was a gorgeous sunny spring day, and we were fortunate to be able to enjoy it together in such a lovely place.

Some school holidays we do big things or go exciting faraway places. Other holidays, a bunch of days doing relaxing stuff close to, or even at, home, are what makes the holiday great. So far, this spring break is being one of the latter, and that is more than OK.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

School Holidays Day 1: Dog Beach

Day 1 of the spring school holidays - the first decent, non-raining day in almost 2 weeks. Taking the dog to the dog beach just seemed like the thing to do.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Man Booker 2016: Shortlist time

The Man Booker shortlist for 2016 out. For the first year since 2011, I have neither the time nor, frankly, the interest, to commit to a reading challenge to cover the whole list (as I am no longer writing for the ezine that used to commission pieces on the Booker list, I also have less incentive to do so). Nonetheless, I have some general observations about the shortlist to make.

The six books listed are:
  • Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout (Oneworld)
  • Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project (Contraband)
  • Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
  • David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
  • Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)
His Bloody Project, which is on my TBR pile, surprised many people by making it up from the longlist, as did the Deborah Levy and that book about modern masculinity (All That Man Is) that I managed 7 pages of before abandoning. I was personally a bit disappointed that the beautiful My Name is Lucy Barton didn't make the cut from the longlist - review of that one coming soon, when I get time! - but it is ever thus with the Man Booker; books about intimate lives, especially women's lives, aren't deemed important enough to be in the running for the gong.

So what have we got overall?

It's even-stevens on gender lines - 3 men, 3 women - but mightily skewed towards the transatlantic Anglophone hegemony. There are two USians, a Canadian, two English writers and a Scot in the mix, but no-one from anywhere else in the Commonwealth or indeed the English-speaking world. No representation from Africa, India, the Antipodes, the Caribbean, or Asia this year, at all. This is, you may recall, pretty much exactly what many predicted would happen when the Booker was opened up to the USians.

Thematically, it's a mixed bunch. His Bloody Project is a fictionalised historical "portrait of a murderer", which, on description, looks like it's drawing on influences both from the made-up history school of writing (exampled by AS Byatt in Possession) and the recent fascination with telling the inner story of horrific historical crimes (Hannah Kent's Burial Rites springs to mind).

The Sellout sounds like it could either be very good or very awful, but I approve of the fact that it *is* a risky plot - there is nothing cookie-cutter about the ideas it's grappling with. I have only skimmed a couple of reviews, but any book that takes on small town wastelands, civil rights, slavery, sociology, bigotry and the rewiring of societies through revolution, all set in Southern California, has to get at least respect for trying.

All That Man Is is allegedly about masculinity, told through the lives of nine men. I did not like the start and am not particularly interested in the theme, so I won't pursue this one.

Hot Milk is apparently about the mother-daughter relationship, but as Levy is one of my least-favourite contemporary authors, I will never know, cos this one is not on my horizon either.

Eileen sounds like it might have legs too (albeit a bit derivative), constructing a Hitchcockian noir crime plot out of a dispirited, downtrodden young woman's encounter with a charismatic co-worker who draws her into a folie a deux type scenario.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about the story of the Cultural Revolution in China and the years following that lead to 1989 and Tiananmen Square, told through the memories of a refugee who fled China and came to Canada. It sounds interesting, and possibly worthy (although let's hope not too much).

So common themes do not seem abundant in this crop. There are two crime-ish ones, one political / social / historical one, a relationship one, one about men, and one (The Sellout) that's hard to classify without reading it. (I think I am sufficiently intrigued to get hold of it, actually). I do note, with some jadedness, that books about *men's* lives are apparently important enough to be contenders, whereas a book like Lucy Barton that so beautifully examines *women's* lives are not.

It's not the best or bravest Booker shortlist I've ever seen, but there are at least three that look worth the trouble, so we'll see...

Saturday, September 10, 2016


"What do you want to do do now?"

She pauses. "Maybe ... we could pick oranges off the tree? To make orange juice."

Our once-tiny orange tree is now an absurdity of year-round fecundity; we can't possibly keep up with its production, even with giving away bags and bags of little, tart oranges.

I say, "That sounds like a good plan. Come on, get your shoes on, we'll go out".

Plucking low-lying fruit, she squeals with delight as she spots an enormous grandmother orange, nestled squat as a toad, hiding inside the deeps of the tree.

"Look! Look! They never get that big! Can you reach it...?"

It takes some maneuvering and a scratched hand, but I eventually work it free. She clutches it to her chest, beaming.

"Will it have way more juice than the smaller ones?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe not; it might be a bit dried out in the middle. Bigger doesn't necessarily mean juicier."

She thinks about this. "So we'll just have to see when we squeeze it."

I nod. "That's the only way to really tell."

Later, inside, we set up the juicing station. "This is like what we're doing at school," she says, slicing inexpertly through the first orange; I catch my breath, watching the knife blade waver.

"Are you doing things with oranges?" I say, steadying her hand. She shakes her head.

"No, we're studying how things change, when things happen to them. Like how water turns into ice when it gets really cold. Or how eggs go all rubber when you soak them in the vinegar."

"Transmutation," I murmur, and she half-shrugs, a common response to conversation she finds impenetrable. She's unlike her sisters, who would question every word, would want to know now; this child is content for understanding to grow like the young wattle outside the door, every season a new flush of branch and bud.

She pushes the first orange down on the steel juicer, concentration furrowing her face.

"Can you take pictures? Of what it was before and what we make it into? So I can show the class, at school."

"Of course," I say, pulling out the phone. "And what will you say about it?"

She picks up the large orange, and regards it thoughtfully. As suspected, it is dessicated inside, almost entirely dry; exhausted, spent, grown beyond its own capacity to sustain.

"I will say that it takes a lot of oranges to make a cup of juice," she says. "And that big oranges might be hollow inside."

"They might," I agree, helping her squeeze the last of the juice from the small, fluid ball in her hand. "Sometimes bigger is not a good thing."

"Sometimes things aren't what they look like," she says, and I have one of the moments of clarity that generally arrive from the juxtaposition of very simple and very layered utterances from the mouths of ... well, perhaps not babes. She's seven now; old enough for knowing, old enough to begin to knit together her own meanings.

Then: "Can I have a little bit of sugar in it?" and she's off, leaving a citrus-drenched bench and a pile of orange skins in her wake.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Being thankful

Like everyone, I suspect, I spend a reasonable amount of time feeling anxious, or aggrieved, or frustrated, or even angry, about the challenges in my life.

Parenting three growing children isn't always a walk in the park, especially at times of illness and times of transition. Running a freelance business has its ups and downs, and can create both underload and overload stressors. Not possessing a private fortune (ha!) means that money is sometimes an issue. Aging parents and chronically ill friends make me both sad and worried. Having chronic illnesses myself poses non-trivial hurdles in managing my days, weeks and months.

And all that's before you even get into the state of the world, which it's often tempting to characterise as hell meets handbasket. Every age is cataclysmic for those who live through it - my historical training tells me this, and I know it, intellectually - but the press of darkness, the weight of it, has seemed strong these past five years. No, the world wasn't a more innocent place in the 80s, but I, as a child / teen, was a more innocent person than I am in 2016, and less of the horrors penetrated my lower-middle-class bubble. (One of many ways that adulthood sucks, really).

So it can be tempting to dwell, on the hard bits and the sad bits and the infuriating bits. Tempting, but ultimately not healthy, I think. Of course the struggle is real, and shouldn't be minimised, but so is the lightness, and at the end of the day, I have so much to be thankful for.

I have three wonderful, healthy, curious, amazing daughters, whom I love dearly, and who love me and their father and each other.

I have work that I mostly enjoy, pays reasonably well, is very varied, and is highly flexible, including allowing me to work predominantly from home and do almost all the kids' school runs, school activities etc.

Further to that, as a freelancer, I am my own boss, which brings me bushels of psychological benefits that far outweigh the irritation of having to keep my own financial and taxation records.

I am in a long-term, stable marriage to a person I love, who shares many of my tastes and interests, and with whom I greatly still enjoy spending time.

We are, while not flush, not struggling to cover basic living and education expenses, and well enough positioned to be able to relatively easily afford key home maintenance tasks as they arise, and decent swathes of charitable donations (although we could do more, and I plan to). We also manage plenty of luxuries, like meals out from time to time, family weekends away, local holidays, buying books, throwing good-sized birthday parties, going to events that we're interested in, and suchlike. We are also able to plan and save for bigger things if we are careful, such as 2015's kitchen renovation and 2018's planned overseas trip. This puts us in a position of great relative privilege and I am well aware of it.

I have been able to stabilise my autoimmune conditions, and flares have become much rarer over the past 6-9 months, to the point that I am actually quite surprised now to have a run of bad days (whereas this was the norm 18 months ago).

I have some absolutely awesome friends - some long-term, some of more recent vintage - who make my life much better.

I am free to indulge my lifelong passion for reading, as well as build my poetic practice, in ways that I find immensely rewarding.

I live in a state that is becoming something of a beacon in troubled times in terms of the compassion, sense and achievement of our state government.

I live in safety, free of the fear of violent death, or even of having guns casually waved around in my vicinity.

I live in a country where sexism and misogyny are at least blunted in professional and public life by legislation and common consent, despite their pervasiveness in broader attitudes still,

I live, insofar as anyone does in a capitalist economy: free.

By any measure, I've got a lot to be thankful for. It doesn't hurt to remember that, specifically and intentionally, sometimes.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Limbic (Poem)

some things, random, so sharp:
listening to a science podcast on the long-ago-lost iPod, while cleaning a bathroom.
the sweet-acid taste of strawberry yoghurt while reading In Cold Blood, huddled by a gas fire.
the feel of your vertebrae grinding as the horse underneath reaches stride on the cold grey beach.
the scent of apple-blossom and rot by the Perfume River as the sun goes to sleep.
the pressing letdown of milk at the sound of your baby's cry.

the sickening press of a needle into the spine.

some things, that should mean more, blurred, or absent altogether:
the day your youngest brother was born.
the day the elder one died, and his funeral service; that, too.
the entire middle of your wedding day, everything from the recessional to the toasts at the zoo
(monkeys shrieking from their perches behind you).

and you start to realise that when your great-grandmother said, when you were eight:
I have forgotten more than everything you know:
she wasn't lying, shrouded in her spiky, musty, crab-handed twilight.

some things, confused.
did it happen - or, perhaps a better question, did it happen to you,
or was it just a story you heard on a bus one time
or a catching novella read on a plane and half-assimilated:
a daytime film watched through fever-lidded eyes after surgery
a dream or half-dream, swallowed whole into the fabric of your own life

what is lost is so much greater than what is retained
of all unreliable things, this the worst:

who you are may not be who you are

- Kathy, 30/08/16

Friday, August 12, 2016

Transitions and disjunctions

I'm in a transitional stage with work projects at the moment.

The nature of my business is that I work with anywhere from one to four clients at a time, on projects that can be done partially or wholly at home (different projects require different levels of site attendance). Generally, I work on independent contractor agreements tied to the specific project (although one regular client now has me on an open-ended agreement where new projects can be added upon mutual consent).

Although my projects can, and do, vary in length and complexity, it's typical for me to work on any given project for at least 3 months, and usually more like 6-9 months. In 2016, this has meant that I have been with one client on Project A since last November; I've been with a second client on Project B since February; and client three, with Project C, started in early March.

Although there have been a couple of small one-off projects come and go in this time, it has meant that the vast preponderance of my work has been stable for the past almost 6 months. Yes, there has been substantial variation across weeks as to which project has got the most time and attention, as needs have dictated (that said, Project A is the uncontested front-runner in terms of hours overall). However, even within this variation, there has been the opportunity to strike up a rhythm and a norming of my work pattern. I've got to know the projects, the organisational staff, the expectations, the systems, and the objectives really well. I've gotten pretty comfortable, truth be told.

Well, over the past month (and in the month to come), things are going to be turned on their heads. Project A, while still ongoing, has geared down from being routinely 3 days a week to being about 1 day a week, as it cycles into its close-out phase. Project B has concluded - I delivered the final presentation and report, and sent the final invoice, this very morning, in fact. (An aside, but I was really happy with my work on Project B - I did my best and I was proud of the result. The client liked it too, which what matters the most!) Project C, due to staffing changes at the organisation involved, has disappeared into radio silence over the past fortnight, and I suspect will remain fallow for some time to come while they sort themselves out.

While all this is happening, I've been fortunate enough to secure a new project (let's call it ... Project D!) with the same organisation as Project A, but a different division and new people. Project D kicks off properly next week and will occupy as much time as I'm free to sell them until early October, then pause for a month, then back on to 2-3 days a week til Christmas. Simultaneously, I am negotiating with a new client for a Project E (that may or may not come to pass because Reasons, but it's something to be factored in). To ice the cake, the client from just-closed Project B would like me to do a smaller follow-up project (Project F, although let's hope not :-) in the October - December period.

What this means for me is that I am in a heavily transitional period in my work life. I'm in the set-up, get-a-handle-on-it, build-relationships phase with two new teams, and one new organisation, and the comfy old shoes of the people I've come to enjoy working with are no longer available to slip on each morning. (That's why I'm treasuring my remaining one day a week with the good folks at Project A - security blankie for sure!)

It's quite tiring, this phase - especially just coming off flu, as I am - although it's also quite exciting in its way. The lure of the fresh and new is real, as is the usual performance anxiety about whether or not I will be able to satisfy the expectations of the new projects. All in all, work occupies much more of my headspace at these times of change than when I am mid-project, and that's something to be aware of, and careful with, when it comes to maintaining balance and wellbeing.

Still, there's no denying it - having work sewn up through til Christmas is a very good thing, and I'm grateful. I know for sure now that I'll be OK to pay for things like two lots of high school fees in 2017 and house repair expenses we have coming up. That is awfully reassuring at the end of the day.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Note (Poem)

the handwritten note in cherry red ink
propped against the TARDIS teapot on the bench
says: i'm sorry i love you

which begs a question:
is the comma omitted for brevity, or sense?

- Kathy, 26/07/16

Monday, July 25, 2016

Screen-free days: Nostalgia time again

Lately I've been reminiscing longingly on something I used to do when my children were littler and I was working a lot less hours, and that was to have one (or sometimes two) completely screen-free days a week. No TV, no computers ... it was before tablets were A Thing and before I had a smartphone, so while I didn't switch my mobile off, it was just a call-making and taking device.

It worked so well when the older two kids were preschoolers to rule off one (sometimes two) days a week where we just didn't interact with screens at all. Those days were calming, centreing. They could be quite tiring, as having no fallback to afternoon ABC Kids meant organising more in terms of stuff to do than was typical; but they were good days, slow-molasses days, for me as well as the kids. They cleared my head and slowed me down.

I thought, briefly, about whether I could reinstitute a screen-free day now, and I've reluctantly concluded that I can't. We certainly have plenty of TV-free days - more than not, in fact - but the older kids, husband and I all use our computers, laptops and smartphones daily for both work / schoolwork and social contact in a way that is much more ubiquitous than it was 9-10 years ago.

The reality of my working life as a freelancer, moreover, means that while I can and do have days at weekends or on holidays when I do not switch on the computer / laptop or do any substantive work, I can't ever (including at weekends) be completely unreachable for more than 24 hours in a row. Of course if I am sick or otherwise occupied, I might simply respond by saying so, but to not respond at all would be unprofessional and not helpful to my cause when it comes to getting further projects.

Because of email and Messenger on my smartphone, I am never fully unplugged. I can queue email up for response - in fact, on my document days working at home now, I only check and respond to email between 9-10am and 4-5pm, otherwise muting it, so I can concentrate on the documents I am writing. What I can't do is ignore it altogether, ever, and that means effectively no screen-free days are possible.

My parents, who are retirees, tell me they often have days without screens. Days of reading books and walking and lunching with friends, doing creative projects and cooking and shopping and oing for a drive in the mountains. Partly, of course, this is a disposable time issue, but partly it is being free of the burden of contactability that allows them to be screen-free. I envy that freedom, some days.

I want to make more of an effort to minimise my screen time where I do have discretion to do so over the next few months. Part of this is just re-learning the art of switching off immediately my work day is done, rather than leaving the computer on for aimless social media puddling around (which happens far too often, and it doesn't make me happier or more relaxed in the way that a game with the kids, reading a good book or even baking something does). Part of it is learning to compartmentalise and triage even my work use of screens more effectively (ie my new, and very useful, email-checking-zone policy, which has made me much more productive on my working at home days).

And part of it is just remembering to stop, look up, breathe. Remembering to hang with the world of sense and substance, not just the world of ideas and ether.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ebb (A Villanelle)

the ending of the world is always near:
in fire, water, a mosquito's sting;
all flesh corrupted, the eventide is here.

politicians twist and turn our fear,
planting weeds where late the sweet birds sing;
the ending of the world is always near.

a wafer membrane sky that keeps us sere,
as to a stress-torn shell we, frightened, cling;
all flesh corrupted, the eventide is here.

bombs enough to blast all live things clear
and darken now the face of everything;
the ending of the world is always near.

every day that passes, every year
brings close and closer that grim reckoning;
all flesh corrupted, the eventide is here.

it hardly seems to justify a tear:
life is always grown from harsh wellspring
the ending of the world is always near;
all flesh corrupted, the eventide is here.

- Kathy, 21/07/16

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Kingdom of Cats (Poem)

We think the streets are ours, but we're wrong.
Every suburban sunlit cloister is carved up between the cats:
uneasy territories marked with spit-fights and scat
the caterwauling sharp in the winter night air.

Open half an eye and it's obvious.
The huge ginger tom that menaces small children, slipping under the gate
into the overgrown garden of the house he doesn't live at, but has annexed to his fiefdom.
The delicate, atonal tortoiseshell who likes to sleep on my doorstep
mewling for smoked salmon and finger-light stroking all day long.
The big, lazy cream and apricot boy next door, who rarely bestirs himself long
except to trot forwards to the spreading gum and harass the junior magpies in their song.
The black and white with the ruined eye, who patrols the back end of the street stiffly,
snarling at dogs and cats alike if they get too close.

If it were drawn on a map, the intricate leys of these kingdoms,
their fluid mutability, their permeability, their uncertain intersections,
would create a kaleidoscope of songlines in this undistinguished street:
called into being through the hundred vocalisations of the feline throat
given meaning in battle wounds, and marked with the pungency of piss.

The kingdoms of the cats, traced over the asphalt and lavender beds
written on stone benches and colourbond fences, grass verges and childrens' trampolines.
A suburban neverwhere, hiding in plain sight.

We think we own this ground, but we are wrong.

- Kathy, 11/07/16

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Winter holiday in Marysville

We're just back today from a four-day, three-night trip to Marysville, where we visited the snowplay area at Lake Mountain, ate a lot of beautiful food, woke to the sound of magpies and rosellas in the creek, walked green forest tracks, gazed at waterfalls, read books, watched Masterchef, went secondhand bookshopping, and enjoyed the company of the family friends who came with us.

Here are a few of the better shots the chilly, pretty landscape afforded.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Term is over!

It's been such a long, challenging term. Tonight, we marked its end with manicures, Nando's, and a happy half-hour of craft supplies shopping.

Now it's onwards and upwards to two weeks of winter holidays for the kids, and one week of working around them for me and one week of shared holidays, yippee!

We have little planned for the coming week while I must work, but I suspect it's going to involve rather a lot of reading, watching Doctor Who and Stargate, doing crafts, painting, playing Minecraft, and walking with the dog. The two elder kids and I are also doing our own family writing challenge - like a mini-NaNoWriMo - where we are going to try to get 500 words a day down on our respective projects.

But it's cold, and we're all tired. Yes, I need to work at least 4 of the coming 7 days before commencing my leave next Friday afternoon, but it'll all be at home. I think we're going to all need a lot of time at home, some hibernating time, some cave time, to recouperate.

We got through a long, busy term. It involved assessments and workloads, tournaments and an operation. It had trials and tribulations, performances and learning, stresses and excitements. Every day had its demands. Now here we are, on the other side, and ready for the reward.

Year One in Business

Today marks the first anniversary of leaving my salaried job and returning to life as a freelance contractor. Since that makes it also, technically, the anniversary of my life as a sole trader / small business operator, I thought it would be worth having a look at how it's all gone.

First, the stats. This year, I have:

- Worked for 5 clients - 3 "major", 2 "minor", covering the private, tertiary and government sectors. My two biggest clients were my two University clients, closely followed by my government client, which certainly tells me some things about where the bulk of my work will likely lie.

- Had 11 weeks completely off: the whole month of July 2015 (5 weeks), a week in October, two weeks over Christmas / New Year, two weeks over Easter, and a week in April. The April week was due to illness / surgery, but all others were planned family or vacation time.

- Worked an average of 3.75 days a week in my 41 working weeks. This wasn't evenly spread - there were weeks I worked 6 long days to meet deadlines, and weeks I sent things off on a Tuesday lunchtime and was not occupied with work again until the following week as I waited for client responses. The busiest stretch was from mid-February to the end of May. This tidal pattern is quite normal for professional services providers like me, and provided you can adapt to it, it is a pretty good way to work.

- Attended client sites / meetings an average of one day a week across my working weeks. There were weeks I traveled to clients two or even three days (especially during my very busy February-May period), but there were also weeks I didn't go onsite at all. The clear majority of my work was performed in my home office.

- Earned quite a bit more than I would've made staying in my part-time salaried role (I was working 0.6 when I left my former job), but a little less than my fulltime salary in that job. This seems reasonable given that I only worked about 150 days in the year compared with the 240 I would've worked fulltime (or the 144 days I would've worked staying part-time), and comfortably covered my need for sick, vacation and family time.

From a stats viewpoint, then, it's been a successful first year in business. My goals were to replace my part-time salary, work less weeks, and work at home more, so those goals have definitely been kicked to the curb.

The thing the stats don't fully show, though, is the lifestyle benefit and general easing of stress that moving back into business has afforded me. Project-based work, which is what I do, suits my temperament and my skills; I am very good at managing deadline pressure, very bad at ongoing situational stress. Working at home has its challenges, of course, but it suits me and my family needs much better than working in an office did - the sheer logistics of life are so much more doable.

I've been very fortunate to have had four big projects this year, which has enabled the income flow to be maintained and also helped me build more networks. Hopefully this will continue into 2016-17: signs are promising so far, as while I am in the final stages of two of my large projects now, I have been extended with one client until September, and have expressions of interest for a new project with a new client.

For this coming Year Two in business, I have three goals:

- Save 70% of the money needed to cover our planned 2018 overseas holiday from my earnings. My goal is to be in a position by next July to pay for all the items that we will book via travel agent: our flights, train and bus passes, travel insurance, and all prebooked tours / attraction passes. This will leave me well-placed to book and pay for the other big upfront expense (accommodation, which I will do myself mostly via Air BnB) over the course of the subsequent six months.

The way I think of it is this: In this first year in business, 30% of my gross earnings - 40% of net - went on paying for our new kitchen, and we still met (sometimes scraping, but we met!) all our other expenses. If my earnings are similar to last year, I will only need to save 20% of my gross earnings to reach the travel payment goal by the end of June. Even in the context of a year where expenses will be a bit higher, thanks to having two kids at high school, this seems like it should be achievable.

- Increase earnings by 5% on last year. This is an intentionally modest growth goal and I think I can achieve it.

- Take 8 weeks fully off, including 4 weeks in summer. (One of these weeks off will in fact be the first week in the new financial year - we are all having the first week of July off as a family).

One of the only things I didn't love about my work year was that the exigencies of my projects had me back at work on 3 January, when the kids still had 4 weeks of summer holidays left. This time I intend to be firm about closing up shop on Tuesday 20 December (the last day of the primary school year) and not reopening until Monday 23 January.

We'll see how that all goes!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Sevenling for the Night Before my Birthday (Poem)

Three things about my hair:
it is as much silver as mouse-nibble brown, now;
it is thick as a badger's pelt;
it still forms inappropriately juvenile ringlets in damp weather.

Three things to turn over, quietly, in the marches of dawn:
I am heavy with the weight of things undone;
I am grown into myself, at last; I tip my hat to the world with the returning sun.

The mother saluting the crone, as autumn's fingers lengthen in my bones.

- Kathy, 18/6/16

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Alone (Poem)

I saw a fascinating little documentary on SETI (the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) a couple of months ago when awake with insomnia, and it's been stuck in my head ever since. In particular, the unpicking of the Drake Equation (maths equation that purports to work out how many extraterrestrial civilizations there might be) and the role of the Firmi Paradox (which asks the simple question - if intelligence is so common, why haven't we encountered any?) has been causing me to ponder. This is the outcome of these thinks.

Many are the stars.
White ice fractured on the inscrutable mask of god;
dwarfs and giants, neutron bombs and tauri,
stars in their main sequence, like our own

Stars that hold exoplanets in squeezing embrace,
millions upon millions, spinning around the light:

planets where anything might live
petri of their own mitochondria
life reaching towards the pulsing energy of the local sun.

Anything at all -
bug-civilizations and nanite empires
democracies of wraith-creatures born in sulfur
thousand-year-livers and brief flaring butterflies
teeming bacteria without limit or end
sentient and sapient, striding their natal dust:

or, of course, planets where nothing might live
no biology to disturb the chemical soup
no life to turn towards the warmth, and say: We are

The tyranny of distance meaning, of course,
that unless one of us learns how to unpick the seams of the universe
we will never find each other, whether we look or not.

so each, functionally, practically: alone
We are.
We may be legion.
We may be the only children of an overwhelming multiverse.

For now, though: We are.
The sky tells us nothing more; the hidden god shrugs
and we keep listening
in radio telescopes and dreams

We are.
Alone, we are.

- Kathy, 14/06/16