Friday, July 31, 2009

Better organisation = more savings and more fun. Don't let freebies go to waste!

Photo credit: mape_s

Organisation is a big key to living simply and frugally while still having fun.

For example, we're sometimes given free movie passes or vouchers as gifts and although we appreciate getting them and fully intend to use them, the last few have ended up expiring or we've given them away.

We just didn't get around to organising baby sitting, or an evening for my husband to get off work a little earlier. And sometimes the pass has just been forgotten, only rediscovered months later under a pile of papers on a bookshelf, or within the pages of a book read long ago.

So last Wednesday afternoon, when I finally took notice of a piece of card which has been in the car for ages and noticed it was a free pass to the city's zoo expiring on Friday, I wasn't going to let the opportunity get away.

I love Taronga Zoo but Friday wasn't an option and I had some work to do. So I shuffled some things around and took my younger two children for their very first zoo visit on Thursday. I packed picnic lunches and the whole day cost me $16, which was for the parking and two lollipops. It was a fantastic day.

I'm chagrined to think that if the pass had slipped down the side of the car seat into a black hole, as much of the paper that gets into our car seems to do, a trip for me and my one year old and three year old would have cost $57. Theoretically, as we just wouldn't have gone any time soon.

So the take home lesson for me was to take control of all the bits of paper that come into our house and car. Taking my cue from dozens of more organised people than me, including Fly Lady and Rhonda, I now have a home management folder with a section that holds freebies and discount coupons.

Now we don't get deluged with freebies, but that one saved me $41, and over a year a small handful of opportunites like that can add up to a lot of savings. So long as they don't go to waste through a lack of organisation.

I'm convinced that my husband and I don't have to work two jobs each and spend lots of money in order to enjoy the best our city has to offer and give our children varied and memorable experiences.

All it takes is a bit of creative thinking, and a lot more planning and organisation than we had got used to having to do before we had children.

Other strategies to get treats for free or on the cheap:

  • Strategic entering of competitions (i.e. when you have a reasonable chance of winning something)

  • Writing book, movie or restaurant reviews for your local paper or magazines

  • Purchasing The Entertainment Book or similar

  • Reading city guides such as Time Out to find out where and when last-minute discounts on tickets to shows or concerts are made available
  • Getting together with friends and family to make use of group discounts
Any freebies or cheapies you got to enjoy recently? Or any organisation tip to share which saves you money? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tips to blast away writers' block

My husband gets writers' block every time he has to write a greeting card.

The minute we were married, he considered himself relieved of the job of writing personal messages on cards to his mother, sister and aunties.

And whenever I do my ritual purges of cupboards and drawers, I come across long overdue birthday and anniversary cards for 'my darling wife' and 'mummy' which are still blank inside.

I think his is a special case.

Most of the time people stall on their writing tasks because they are anxious, distracted, don't have all the information they need or aren't clear on the nature of the task or their audience. So the remedies vary depending on what the issue is that has you staring at a an empty screen or a blank piece of paper.

Life is too short to let writers' block hold you up.

These are my best 10 tips for writers' block and getting on with the job.

  1. Take a break from writing. Go for a walk, call up a friend, have a shower. Anything totally different to give your mind a chance to untie itself of all the anxious knots it's got into.

  2. Do another writing task. Write an email to that friend living overseas, blog post, or some other piece of writing which needs to be done.

  3. Treat yourself. Put on some music which inspires or relaxes you, and keep your favourite little snack nearby. I find that music, art or poetry inspire me and get me in the mood for writing again.

  4. Distracted because there's something else you'd rather be doing? Or you had an argument with someone yesterday and now you can't concentrate? Do what you need to do and get it out of your system. Then make sure you come back to the desk again.

  5. Don't try and be perfect on the first draft. Don't worry it seems not good enough, you get to edit and perfect it later.

  6. Try brainstorming. Just write down the ideas which present themselves yourself to you, then flesh out the outline later.

  7. For bigger jobs decide to write a set number of words every time you sit down to write. When I have a 800 word article to write, I like to write 1000 words fast and then take my time trimming and tightening it up.

  8. Do something else on your to do list. If you can't write anything, you can at least get something else done which will free up some time later for when you're able to write again.

  9. Be clear in your mind what it is you want to write about, who will read it, and how you want them to feel.

  10. Talk to someone who can help you think it through out loud, like your academic supervisor, co-worker or fellow writer.

This is not on the list, because it's risky, but it works for some people and some kinds of writing tasks: Leave it until the last minute. A deadline is a terrific motivator.

What do you to get yourself going again when you've stalled on a writing task?

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Monday, July 27, 2009

From running scared to running for fun in six weeks

There are two weeks to go until the City2Surf fun run, and I can't believe it's come up so fast.

My fundraising tally has reached $200 so far, money that will go to Caritas aid and development projects here or overseas.

I used be positively afraid of running. What was I afraid of? Plenty. Being tired, hurting, and looking silly for starters.

What made it possible for me to contemplate running was finding this gentle, easy eight-week training program for people with no running experience:

And using these five stretches after each session:

Well, now I've done it. But I honestly don't know if I'll continue jogging every day after the City2Surf is over.

I'm glad to be a part of a great community event, and especially grateful for the opportunity to help raise money for Caritas Australia. I'm glad I've fulfilled a little dream - which was to run, not walk, in the City2Surf.

But I don't think running is really my 'thing', if you know what I mean.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

About this blog

Ever since my chubby little hand could form words on a piece of paper I have got enormous, heart-widening pleasure out of expressing and creating realities out of writing.

But noisy, persistent, surprising Life kept getting in the way of the book I always wanted to write. Some could say it was laziness. I say it was Life!

In particular, it sent me this guy who seemed convinced that we should be married. He turned out to be right about that. Then came a few babies, and economic necessities, a business relating to writing and communication, and a lot more besides.

So I thought I'd better stop waving Life away, appreciate its charms, get stuck into it and write about it later.

The fact is that we all have a book within us that wants to be told. We're all narrators of our lives. So I'm trying to live a life worth writing about.

Live First, Write later covers parenting, faith, food, freelance writing, art and books. Welcome.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree

We had a special visitor today!

We've been hearing some kookaburras around lately, with their distinctive cackling laughter. But we haven't spotted any until I walked outside and saw this one, not in a gum tree, but our old lemon tree, a couple of metres from our back door.

He seemed very interested in watching me take photos of him.

It's not often we get to see them in our suburb, being so far from any national park. So this is a special treat. But I won't hold my breath waiting for a koala or a wombat to turn up on our doorstep.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Why I choose a simple life

I've always believed that the less things you have the less you have to worry about.

I don't want to live life more widely. Variety is nice, but it's not what I need. My deepest desire and one real need is to live life more deeply.

I know some people are amazing at balancing sucess with family life, but I'm the kind of person who would be so exhausted by a two-house, two-career, two-car, mega-socialising, jet-setting lifestyle that I'd have nothing left to give to my marriage or my children. Or, ultimately, myself.

We sacrifice a lot to have a slower, simpler lifestyle, including the ability to own our own home. Because my income has been variable, we've relied mainly on my husband's income, which until recently has just been enough to cover our bills. We rarely get to have things we simply want.

Sometimes we feel jealous as we see most of our friends and siblings are materially better off than we are, and are buying and paying off their homes, going on overseas holidays, and dining out whenever they feel like it.

But we always come back to this: We've chosen a path which is right for us. We have three children under six years old, and I feel happy that their dad's job allows him to get home long before their bedtime.

I can drop everything and take them to the park if the weather is good. I can read them 10 books before bedtime if they want me to, and I could drink in the way my son's long lashes brushed his peach soft cheeks slower and softer as he fell asleep in my lap in the middle of the afternoon.

I have time to do some volunteer work, along with a little paid writing and editing work which I love doing.

I would love to go to exotic places, and sometimes I do. In my imagination. We have lots of trees at our place, and on windy days it might look like I'm hanging out the washing, but in my mind I'm on the edge of a dramatic cliff with the wild wind off the ocean rushing past my ears.

Even when our children are older, I know I will always be happier with a simpler life, focusing on relationships, community and on trying to live closer to the earth.

It's the only way I know I can experience a connection with my deepest self, with other people most genuinely, with nature, and with the divine.

With a nod to Rhonda at for her recent post reminding me why I choose a simple life.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bicentennial Park and the Royal Botanic Gardens

We took the kids to a big local park yesterday to meet up with friends and have a picnic. It was a gorgeously sunny mid-winter's day.

Bicentennial Park was created in Homebush, a western suburb of Sydney only 30 years ago, when Australia celebrated its bicentenary in 1988. It's a natural heritage site, and a large part of its 100 hectares is a protected wetland ecosystem.

It also has a little lake, some modern water features, a memorial tower you can climb to look over the park and see the city views, 8kms of pathways for walkers and cyclists, tranquil gardens, a cafe and two children's playgrounds. It's popular with cyclists and families and our kids could spend all day there and not tire of it.

We watched the ducks, cranes, sea gulls, pelicans and swans around the lake, then we noticed several enormous, sinuous, finely spotted eels, gliding between the water grasses right in front of us.

They would have been a good 15cms in width, and around a full metre long. They must be used to being fed by park visitors, because they kept swimming close to where we stood on the wooden platform, their little 'noses' nearly breaking the water's surface just below our feet.

Today was even hotter, and we packed up our picnic lunches again. This time we went to the Royal Botanic Gardens in the middle of the city, and met another friend.

He didn't tell us his name, but he seemed to want us to look at something interesting over the other side of Elizabeth St.

The only notable wildlife we saw today were hundreds of grey-headed flying foxes. Although they are in plague proportions and are destroying parts of the magnificent 200-year old gardens, they are a protected native species and can't be culled. Last summer they estimated that 22,000 of them were living in the heritage-listed gardens.

The Botanic Gardens Trust wants to use noise disturbance (basically playing loud music at key times of the day) to make the bats relocate from the gardens to less sensitive parts of Sydney. Apparently a similar program in Melbourne has been successful.

Can't say I'll miss them. I'm used to seeing the little fellas, but when they are hanging upside down in clumps of hundreds in every tree you pass under, it is slightly creepy.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I need a MasterChef for my writing life

If you live in Australia then the words Julie and MasterChef probably mean something to you.

Julie, a 38 year old wife and mother of three young boys, who runs an IT business with her husband, out-cooked and out-lasted 19 other promising amateur chefs on this popular reality TV show for the title of the country's first MasterChef.

I'm not a reality TV fan ordinarily. I only started watching this show a week before the finale, because my half-sister was having a sleep over at our place and she didn't want to miss it.

Then I was hooked, and when Julie won and described her dream (soon to be reality) of opening a warm little restaurant on the NSW central coast, where she lives, I had tears in my eyes. The result was so perfect, so tug-on-the-heartstrings that allegations immediately twittered about that it was rigged.

It's perfect because she was the oldest woman among the finalists, and she is an everywoman. She represents those mothers who have for so long put their own girlish dreams on hold in order to raise their families and pay the bills that they have nearly forgotten them altogether, or remember them without any hope of fulfilling them.

But she put her hand up for this show, got selected, spent three months in an intense learning environment with some of the country's top chefs under the critical gaze of a third of the country's population, and her natural talent was allowed to flourish. She excelled.

It inspires me, and a lot of other mothers, judging from the reactions of my friends. I think, well, if Julie can do it, I can make my dreams come true too.

I could write that book that millions of people will actually read. Then I could spend the rest of my life showering money on my favourite charities and causes and travelling the world; pray along the Camino de Santiago, sip sweet milky coffee in Vientiane, and throw my second coin in the Fontana di Trevi.

But which of us has the time, the three or four hours a day over a long period that it takes to perfect a skill, to bring out the full potential of our talents? How many of us have the guidance of mentors who are at the top of their field?

Maybe not too many. But stories like Julie's, or anyone who has pursued a dream and succeeded later in life, give me enough hope and inspiration to try a little harder. And that's all I need to be a winner.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

A conference on happiness

Next year Australia will again host a Happiness and Its Causes Conference.

The conference website says it will be focused on "the key issues of the mind and its potential, happiness, wellness and the care of others. Attendees will be drawn from professional groups such as psychotherapy, mental health, counselling, coaching and human resource management."

I'm intrigued by this conference. I was last time too, when it was held in Sydney in 2007, but I couldn't afford to go then, either. At first I wondered at the cost of attending the two-day happy-fest, $800 or $1300 this time, plus dinner and workshops.

I wondered how many of the people we would naturally expect to be unhappy could afford to go - people with chronic illness, or substandard housing, literacy or employment for example. I wondered if it was targeting, and appealed primarily to, the worried well.

What's making me think that it may be worthwhile is the list of sponsors on the website. They include organisations working in the areas of mental health and other health care and related issues, including the Ted Noffs Foundation, Beyond Blue, the Black Dog Institute, the Mental Health Associations of NSW and Queensland, the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses, the Australian General Practice Network, and Relationships Australia.

So maybe it's not so much about achieving personal happiness, as increasing the wellbeing and potential for happiness in people who face significantly greater disadvantages than the majority of the population? If so, I would support that.

The Dalai Lama was a keynote speaker last time, in 2007. His said the secret to being happy is getting eight hours of solid sleep every night.

The main drawcards this time around include feminist author and social justice activist, Naomi Wolf; Benedictine monk and director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, Fr Laurence Freeman; and Harvard University neuroscientist and meditation researcher, Dr Sara Lazar.

I'm intrigued to hear what these three people have to say. I'm intrigued about who will go to listen to them speak. Maybe I can volunteer to be an usher or something.

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Rediscovering The Secret Garden

Last night I reread The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett for the first time since I was about 10 years old. I had largely forgotten it. It's so passionate!

There's innocence, sensuality, hatred, awe and reverence, malevolence, love. It's great stuff even though it does have a wussy ending, but hey, it's a children's novel from last century after all. It's no Harry Potter. All the characters who die, do so in the first pages and you don't really care about them.

No wonder I loved Wuthering Heights when I was 17 and 18. I had been prepped for it in a way, seven years before.

There are so many great bits in it, including the passionately fierce battle of wills between Mary and Colin which ends in quiet intimacy and release (told you, it as everything). And I also love this:

'Oh, Dickon! Dickon!' she cried out. "How could you get here so early! How could you! The sun has only just got up!'

He got up himself, laughing and glowing, and tousled; his eyes like a bit of the sky.

'Eh!' he said. 'I was up long before him. How could I have stayed abed! Th' world's all fair begun again this morning', it has. An' it's workin' an' hummin' an' hummin' an' scratch' an' pipin' an' nest-building' an' breathin' out scents, till you've got to be out on it 'stead o' lyin' on your back. When th' sun did jump up, th' moor went mad for joy, an' I was in the midst of th' heather, an' I run like mad myself, shoutin' an' singin'. An' I come straight here. I couldn't have stayed away. Why, th' garden was lyin' here waitin'!

Mary put her hands on her chest, panting, as if she had been running herself.

'Oh, Dickon! Dickon!' she said. 'I'm so happy I can scarcely breathe!'

Ah! Guess I'm still a big fat Romantic after all.
Tell me, does anyone still write like this for children?

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Almond, honey and walnut toasted museli

I finally found a breakfast cereal I want to eat, a lovely, toasty, nutty, cinnamony museli I've been smothering with yoghurt and a bit of honey, and it's one of the most expensive cereals in the supermarket.

I went through a couple of boxes of it in as many weeks, and I just couldn't justify the expense. Not for breakfast time, when toast and jam has been doing me just fine for so many years. So finally got around to making up my own, with a recipe from as a guide but using what I already had in my kitchen cupboards.

It's so easy, you couldn't call this cooking. And the smell of honey-toasted nuts and oats was very comforting.

It's strengthened my resolve to find more ways of being creative with our resources so we can enjoy the good things in life (and good food is right up there in my reckoning) without being wasteful.

Hannah, my three year old, mixed together the sultanas, coconut, cinnamon, chopped blanched almonds and walnuts. I drizzled honey over and we both dotted the whole lot with butter cubes.

Five minutes in the oven at 180 celsius and the honey and butter had melted and become frothy. I mixed in seven cups of wholegrain oats and popped it back into the oven.

After 25 mins of watching, and stirring it now and then with a wooden spoon, this is the result...

Something to look forward to tomorrow morning. It's supposed to keep in an airtight container for a couple of months, but I doubt it will last that long.

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Creative recycling - Reverse Garbage

I made a trip to Reverse Garbage yesterday. It's a wonderful community resource which accepts industrial discards and sells them very cheaply to the public for creative use.

It's all about sustainability, creativity and recycling what would otherwise go to landfill.

There are two sections to the big warehouse, the bag section and an indivually priced section. You can stuff a cloth shopping bag for $5 and the bag itself is free.

I'm not especially crafty, but even I was tempted to go nuts and fill up my bag with all sorts of goodies - scraps of fabric, cardboard cones, gilt-edged plastic cylinders, spools of ribbon and cotton, cleaning wipes, posters, silver card, folders, empty CD cases, Christmas tinsel and novelty toys, and wood off-cuts.

My favourite things on offer in the individually priced section were lovely antique glass bottles for $2 each, and beautiful leadlight glass windows that had been rescued from demolition sites.

In the end I picked out a couple of folders, some CD cases and the little cones (I thought the girls might make doll's party hats out of them), and some other odds and ends and it all came to $3.

The place was buzzing. There were lots of people choosing all sorts of miscellaneous things from the large bins and there was a terrific creative vibe to the place.

As I lined up to make my purchase I overhead the volunteer salesperson say that someone had bought the "all the plastic bums" to go into an art installation. The mind boggles!

I visited the small art gallery and shop, MAD (Making A Difference), which is on the same site, and I almost bought a silver, classic-looking clutch purse fashioned from recycled drink boxes. But my sensible self reminded me of all the bags and purses I have already!

Everything on display at MAD has been created by artists and at least 75% made of materials from the Reverse Garbage co-op. The current exhibition is of modern artworks by an indigenous artist, priced from $100 to around $1000. I'd love to have any one of them on my wall.

All in all, it's well worth a visit, and if you're not in Sydney look out for similar initiatives in your area.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Doing what I love vs loving what I do

For two days everyone has been sick with the flu at our place, except for me. Monday was great, the house was quiet because everyone was sleeping, and I could do what I love doing when I'm at home on my own.

I did a little cleaning (loving the fact that I could do it uninterrupted and things stayed clean), I did a lot of reading, a little writing, and I called up some friends for a chat and to postpone this week's school holiday plans until next week. Pretty much a perfect day at home.

But today, though they are still sick, they are all just that little bit better. Better enough to want hot honey and lemon drinks made, heat packs warmed up, meals brought, DVDs played, stories read, cuddles given, and trips made to the chemist for more paracetamol.

So I couldn't do whatever I pleased today. But I loved what I did.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

My first fun run - the City to Surf 2009

Since having my first child more than five years ago, I have admired those mothers who seem to do amazing things as well as raising their families.

Fiona Wood is one of these. She is a mother of six, a world-renowned plastic surgeon, business woman and inventor of a special spray-on skin for burns victims.

I don't have Dr Wood's kind of talent, but I have been envious of her energy and ability to make her dreams come true.

I have nurtured dreams too, but when I had two children under two, then three children under five, I couldn't forsee a future in which I had time to write an email or grate a carrot, much less write a best-selling book or master choux pastry.

Things are getting easier though as the children get older and I no longer have a babe-in-arms. One beautifully sunny day I was taking a walk down by the bay near my house, being passed by young joggers with perky ponytails and older joggers with lean frames and leathery skin. And I recalled a long-forgotten dream. When I was much younger, a teenager, I wanted to run in the City2Surf.
The City2Surf is a famous Sydney fun run and the world's largest timed one. Every year in August, in a huge community event, around 70,000 people run or walk the 14kms from Hyde Park, in the city centre, to Bondi Beach.

I've never done it before, in fact I haven't been in any kind of fun run since my school days and I had to buy a pair of joggers because I didn't have any!

But now I'm registered and I've been training for a few weeks already.

I've elected to devote my run to raising money for Caritas Australia. Caritas is an international aid and development agency that does amazing work for the poorest of the poor long after their country's crises have left the news headlines. They focus on ethical and sustainable development all over the world.

Because I only just realised I could do this, I've only set a target of $500. That's $10 each from 50 people, or $20 from 25 right? If I can raise more than that, all the better. It's so much easier to get moving on these cold winter days when I know all my effort's going to a good cause!

Please visit the Caritas website and learn about their amazing work, donate to them directly or sponsor me in the Sun-Herald City2Surf by clicking on the widget in the side bar.

And wish me luck!

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Holiday fun with little ones - 10 simple ideas that give everyone a break

It's 10am and I'm still in my dressing gown and pyjamas, my second cup of coffee in hand. The breakfast bowls and glasses are shining in the dishrack, and I'm listening to my children talking and giggling together in the next room.

I haven't raised my voice once. The words "hurry" and "move" haven't even entered my mind and there is nothing we have to do today, the first day of the school holidays.

Ok, it's Saturday, so our two-week winter school break doesn't officially start until Monday, but it can't start soon enough for me.

Naomi, our kindergartener, has been looking forward to the break. So have I. I need a break from shepherding her through the unrelenting school term routines. I need a slower pace for a while, some white space in my days, and some time to try something new, go somewhere different.

I work from home, so for the next two weeks I'll probably have some late evenings after the kids are in bed, but I'm going to enjoy my days. I need some time with my big girl. Do nothing time, do something time, it doesn't matter, so long as it's not rushed time, squeeze-everything-that-needs-to-be-done-before-x-time.

There's a terrific conversation going on at Down to Earth about simple holiday ideas for five year olds (or thereabouts) that are fun, free, and don't involve a TV.

Naomi has made a short list of things that she wants to do: bake a chocolate cake, visit a preschool friend, and go to our local Vietnamese restaurant. All fine choices.

These are my top 10 ideas for entertaining little ones which will save you money and time, are environmentally friendly, and allow you to enjoy each others' company. You won't find a McDonald's or overpriced indoor play gym here.

Holiday fun with little ones - 10 simple ideas

1. Mess up the kitchen

Pancakes, waffles, schnitzel, pizza, cakes - many meals are easy and fun for young children to help prepare. Do something a bit different that you've been meaning to try, to make it more interesting for yourself as well. Pick flowers for the table or light candles, and do it when you've got plenty of time to spare. Washing up can be a novelty too.

2. Look at the local newspaper or your local library or community centre

These are all great sources of information about free or inexpensive events, workshops or shows for children.

3. Garden play

Look for butterflies, lady beetles, or lizards. Write names in lettuce seeds in soft, damp garden bed and in a few days it will start to sprout. Or plant some pretty flower seedlings in pots and line them up somewhere near the front door to welcome visitors.

4. Pack a picnic lunch

Meet up with friends in the park, at the beach or the countryside. Fly kites or blow bubbles, climb trees or run around with a ball.

5. Visit the library

We borrow books, toys, music CDs and DVDs at our library. We recently borrowed a book about magic tricks and taught ourselves a few.

6. Make an album or scrapbook

Print off digital photos from their last holiday or birthday party and let them have fun putting it together. Better still, let them take their own new photos. Or give them some old magazines, toy or clothing catalogues and a pair of scissors and glue for making collages.

7. Make a water fountain

Stack colanders, metal or plastic bowls and plates and then pour water over the top to make a fountain. Experiment with different ordering of objects and heights. You can recycle the water if you build the whole thing in a big tub or bucket. At the end, tip it over your plants.

8. Camp out

For real, or in a sleeping bag under a tent made of sheets or blankets on the living room floor.

9. Host a barbeque or pot-luck meal

Invite friends or family to come over during the day or early in the evening. Everyone brings a dish so it's not a lot of work, and the kids can play while the adults take it easy. Get the kids to make up place cards, fold napkins, put up streamers or balloons and plan some simple games.

10. A 'we'll do whatever you want' day

Set some guidelines eg. it has to be safe, free, and local and then see what they would like you to do with them.

You might spend the day in your pjyamas doing puzzles, make a dance video, or lounging around the pool. You might eat pizza for breakfast and apple pie for dinner. Or teach your child how to knit, play soccer, or surf. Or read 20 story books two times each. Whatever you do, have fun!

Above all, take it easy, you deserve a break too.

I used to find it mentally exhausting trying to entertain the children myself with lots of little activities, one after another. Now I try to blend things we'll all enjoy into the rhythm of the day.

My best tip for getting through those long, counting-down-the-hours, days is this: Get them involved in the preparation and then the packing away, and as much walking or riding to or from activities as possible.

It also helps to break up the day into sections where physically active and quieter activies are balanced, as well as short and lengthy activities. For example, I might take my kids out in the morning and come back at lunchtime.

After that the two older ones are usually happy to amuse themselves quietly for a while as the toddler sleeps and I get a few chores done. Then in the afternoon we'll take their bikes to the park for a while, chat to the neighbours and pick flowers from our garden for the dinner table.

After a couple of busier days, sometimes children don't mind staying home and helping with little jobs around the house or with your at-home business (anything except for tidying their own rooms!). They might help clean the car, wash windows, sweep floors, or stick stamps on envelopes.

What do you enjoy doing with your children, grandchildren, or other young charges?

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Too easy lemon and walnut linguine

I've been trying to add a few new mid-week dinner options to my repertoire.

My conditions are that they have to be very quick and easy to prepare from scratch, require few ingredients, and be tasty, healthy and filling.

This pasta fits the bill. I found the recipe on the pasta packet of all places. Apologies to Stephanie, Bill, Jamie, Donna and Margaret, whose tomes are growing dusty on our bookshelf.

I've thrown the packet away, but it's pretty simple to remember:


Juice of two lemons, and some zest
1 clove of garlic, chopped finely
A couple of handfuls of fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 cup of olive oil
1/2 cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese
4 tablespoons of walnuts, or a little more, roughly chopped


Heat the oil in a pan, add 2 tablespoons of walnuts, and the garlic and half the parsely and cook
for a minute or two. Then take it off the heat.

Add the lemon juice, zest and the rest of the walnuts, and stir them in.

Pour over 500g of cooked pasta, add the rest of the parsley and the parmesan, salt and pepper, and serve with a salad and crusty bread (I toasted some onion and olive bread from the supermarket).

It fed two adults and three children and there was enough left over for lunches the next day.

What's your favourite 'too easy to cook from scratch' dinner?

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I Choose Happiness

Meagan Francis has a blog I've been following, The Happiest Mom, which is about how to a large extent we can choose to be happy (at least, that's my reading of it).

Recently she wrote about those times when something happens which makes you angry, and then, after a while, you have a choice to either get over it or feed the negativity.

She says: "I am convinced that a huge percentage of marital discord and parental bitterness comes from people making a choice to stay angry or disappointed or disgusted or resentful."

"I know because I’ve made that choice myself, many many times, especially early in my life as a mom and wife," she continues. "And it has never, not once, made my day better, improved a relationship, or given me any real, lasting satisfaction. Now I go out of my way to make the other decision: the decision not to nurture the annoyance or resentment, to forget about the self-pity."

I've had a choice like that this week.

It's been freezing, rainy weather here. The dampness and darkness in our 80-odd year old rented house is more noticeable during winter as well. On Saturday I found that a couple of boxes in the one built-in cupboard in the house, which is adjacent to the bathroom wall, had grown mouldy. The laundry wall and ceiling is starting to blacken and needs a good scrub down as well.

Now, I have a problem with mould. A big one. You could almost say I have a phobia about it.

The very thought of some black, stinking, rapidly reproducing mould colonies sending out their posionous little spores to be sucked up into our lungs while we eat, and work and relax, and play and sleep, makes me feel sick.

The fact is that our rent is cheap for the relatively well-to-do area we live in and we don't want to spend the money to move right now. We live in quite a humid, damp little pocket of Sydney - a former swamp area in fact, which I didn't know when we moved here.

I should have been tipped off by the fact that almost every tree along our street has patches of furry green bark - because algae and mould grow on them all year round (see picture above).

The nasty cupboard discovery would have been the last straw that sent me in a spiral of alarm, frustration and despair, except for one thing - that's what happened to me last winter, our first winter in this house.

And I will not let my peace be disturbed by those filthy little spore breeders this time.

Psychologists know that a large contributor to people's feelings of happiness is their perception that they have some control over their lives. When, one afternoon last winter during the first spell of rainy days we had in this house, I found that mould had started growing in our kitchen cupboards, under our sofa cushions and on some of my clothes and shoes, I freaked out. I got angry, and then depressed.

What I felt was a lack of control. I felt that we were stuck in an unhealthy house because we couldn't afford a decent rent, because we couldn't manage two incomes and had a bunch of unavoidable extra expenses. I felt frustated thatI hadn't nipped the problem in the bud, because I couldn't keep up with the housework (with a newborn baby and two little children underfoot all day and no day-to-day support apart from my husband).

I was afraid all our stuff would be ruined in a matter of a few more rainy weeks and we couldn't afford to buy new beds, new furniture and clothes. And I obviously couldn't control the unrelentingly wet weather. I felt angry at myself and my husband.

That was not a nice couple of weeks. But I found that we do have some control. We could always move to a cheaper suburb, or rent a newer apartment, instead of an old house.

Or we could stay and fix the problem. Which is what we did. We spent a weekend hauling everything out of the cupboards, washing everything that was musty, and throwing out a few things that we hadn't been using anyway. We ran the fans on humid, still days to improve air flow. We asked the agent to send someone out to check for leaky plumbing. Then we kept on top of the housework with better organisation.

It worked, until this rainy spell. But at least this time I know that it's a containable, and above all, a controllable problem. And I tell myself that there is no reason to allow a couple of mouldy boxes to elicit sinking feelings of personal, professional and financial inadequacy.

Instead, I've decided to see the reappearance of mould in the house as a great excuse to step up our regular cleaning and de-cluttering practices, in readiness for when we do, in the not-to-distant future, get to move into a house of our own, or a better rented one.

There's much to look forward too, and I can certainly look forward to chalking all of this up to experience.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Paintings I Love

I came across this artist, Peter Orum, in an article in my local paper. His current exhibition in Sydney is a series of semi-abstract urban landscapes.

He's launched a website for artists, which has more than 40,000 artworks online in what he says is a kind of Flickr for paintings. Artists can exhibit their artworks for people to comment and vote on.

But I what I really like is this, At Kings Canyon, from Peter's own photoblog.

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Monday, July 6, 2009


I didn't realise that my writing on this blog was making any impact on the kids, but it obviously has.

Three months ago, in the last school holidays, I helped my five-year-old daughter Naomi plant up a small pot with miniature jonquil bulbs.
As the weeks passed, she was excited about every little change she noticed in the pot. She counted the little pale green nubs that pushed up from the soil, watched the first slender leaves grow tall and others shoot up, and marvelled when the first flower stems emerged, crowned with clusters of buds tightly wrapped in a tissue paperish sheath.

Next week is the start of the next school holidays, and yesterday she screamed for me from the backyard. It was the first perfect, gorgeously scented, jonquil flower.

"Take a photo for your blog, mum," she said. And she wouldn't move until I went inside to get the camera, took a couple of pictures, and promised to show it off here.

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

NAIDOC week 2009

ULURU AT SUNSET. Photo by bobster855

This coming week, from July 6-12, is NAIDOC week. NAIDOC stands for National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee.

It's a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and an opportunity to recognise the contributions of Indigenous Australians in various fields.

Ceremonies, seminars, exhibitions, author talks, film screenings and other activities will take place across the nation and all Australians are encouraged to participate.

The theme for NAIDOC Week this year is Honouring Our Elders, Nurturing Our Youth.

When I think of Australia's Indigenous people the cynical, or perhaps the despondent, part of me wonders whether there is all that much to celebrate about the extent and nature of Indigenous participation in our broader society and culture.

Our country has a mixed record when it comes to the way we have interacted with our native peoples, and I would say that most of it is pretty bad.

Reports consistently point to significant, sometimes huge gaps between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the population on most socio-economic measures including health, education, home ownership and rates of incarceration.

Modern Australia has taken on much which is valuable from the cultures of many immigrants over the past 200-odd years. In recent decades, we have enthusiastically embraced elements of culture that has been introduced here from Europe and the Mediterranean, and from Asia.

Lots of kids that I grew up with had parents or grandparents who came from Italy. My dad came by boat from Mauritius and my mum's grandparents came from Wales. My husband's parents came here from India. Our children are growing up with kids whose families hail from all over the world (coincidentally though, mainly from Italy again!). This genuine multiculturalism is a big part of what I love about Australia.

But largely unheard are valuable soundings from the traditional Indigenous ways of life; attitudes around respect for the natural environment, respect for elders, resourcefulness, and a style of life which places pre-eminent importance on community, family, and spirituality.

Many have said, including Pope John Paul II in his historic speech at Alice Springs in 1986, that the key to a coherent and genuine Australian identity lies in the engagement with and acceptance of the ongoing contribution of Indigenous Australians by the broader society.

Here is my list of four events and people who are signs of hope for an integrated Australian identity, one which includes genuine appreciation of our indigenous people, their histories and cultures.

1. Tania Major

Tania, an indigenous youth advocate, was named Young Australian of the Year 2007 for her efforts in addressing the issues involved in the welfare of young indigenous people.

When she was 22 years old she became the youngest person ever elected to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission (ATSIC).

She's passionate, driven, and wise beyond her years. She spoke about her advocacy work and her own life story in a TV interview on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton.

2. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations
Does it matter what the motive was? Whether it was prompted by self-serving politics, a genuine desire for reconciliation, or a mixture of both, many people who needed to hear words of acknowledgement and apology from the country's leader in order to begin to heal, did so. It was a great day for the country.

3. Indigenous artists such as Bronwyn Bancroft and Matthew Doyle

They are two of many artists whose work spans traditional Indigenous and contemporary cultures.

4. Pope John Paul II's 1986 speech to Indigenous Australians at Alice Springs, which also includes this message:

Your culture, which shows the lasting genius and dignity of
your race, must not be allowed to disappear. Do not think that your gifts are worth so little that you should no longer bother to maintain them.

Share them with each other and teach them to your children. Your songs, your stories, your paintings, your dances, your languages, must never be lost.

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Friday, July 3, 2009

Vincent Van Gogh and me

I know they're not sunflowers, but does this photo of mine make you think of something?

Just a little bit?

What about this?

If you like modern art the Vincent Van Gogh Gallery website is worth checking out because it's just so pretty to look through. It also has info on Van Gogh's life and paintings, and you can purchase prints of his famous and lesser-known works.

I like the section with some quotes of his. I love these two; the first because I think it's so true, and the second, well it's true for me too (sans the pipe, and depending on your definition of a 'fling').

"A good picture is equivalent to a good deed."

"To do good work one must eat well, be well housed, have one's fling from time to time, smoke one's pipe, and drink one's coffee in peace."

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

People you meet

He used to play professional rugby league, he was a surfer and a cricketer, is still a golfer, and before he entered training for the Catholic priesthood he liked a dance with the girls and a beer with the blokes (actually, he still enjoys a beer).

He's funny and hardworking, and Fr Vaughan has seen a large part of Australia's history since colonisation; 90 years out of 211.

During World War II he ran for his life when the Japanese sent submarines to bomb Sydney Harbour. He has made engagement rings and officiated at weddings, visited the sick, consoled the grieving, buried the dead, cuddled babies, bit his tongue, read poetry, and always said his prayers.

See here for my article on Fr Vaughan in the Broken Bay News.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Win-win sweet potato and pumpkin soup

This was all that the kids left from last night's dinner. You know when everyone is silent at the dinner table that there's something special going on with the food.

It gives me such a feeling of satisfaction to be able to feed them good, tasty food that they enjoy. And the best thing is that it is so incredibly easy to get such a yummy, smooth, richly coloured result that fills us all up.

It's just a bit of chopping here, drizzling with olive oil there, and sticking in the oven (I always roast the veges for a richer flavour). Later on a few seconds of pouring and stirring. Then just before dinner, a bit of blending, and voila! It's done.

Here's the recipe I used originally. I used to use it as a guide and now I just wing it with a nice pumpkin and sweet potato or two, an onion and a bit of garlic or ginger plus some thyme or rosemary or whatever I have in the garden. It's easier and it means that every time I make it my soup is a little bit different, which I like!

Also, I omit the milk or cream because I usually forget to buy it.

Sweet Potato and Butternut Pumpkin Soup

You need:

500 g chopped sweet potato

500 g chopped butternut pumpkin

4 cups of chicken stock (home made is best)

1 medium onion

50 g butter

400 g of Carnation milk OR 400 Coconut cream (garnish with coriander)

1 teaspoon crushed ginger

1 teaspoon crushed garlic

salt and pepper

Method: In a large saucepan or boiler, melt the butter. Add Chopped onion, garlic and ginger - cook till onion is clear. Add other vegetables, mix, cook a few minutes. Then add chicken stock, salt, pepper, bring to boil. Simmer 20 minutes. Cool (a bit) blend. Add in Carnation OR Coconut cream. Return to heat, bring to nearly boiling.

For more intense flavour roast the pumpkin and sweet potato first. Serve in bowl with crusty bread. Add a good dollop of sour cream (or natural yoghurt) and a garnish.


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