Friday, January 29, 2010

I'm thinking way too much about school

Like everyone else in Australia - or one in eight of us, apparently - I checked out the new website yesterday. Am I enlightened? Not really. I can see that one of the 'best' schools in the district has the worst attendance record. That a school that I'd heard terrible things about got among the best NAPLAN scores in the area. Beyond that, it's all as clear as mud.

My friend G has three well-adjusted older kids, all shining lights of What We Want Our Kids To Be. She told me recently that there's no such thing as the perfect school and that the further I get into the system the worse I will think it all is.

Last year I wrote a story for Australia Today (the Australia Post magazine) about home schooling. Many of the people I interviewed for the story were refugees from the school system. Their kids had been to school and, for one reason and another, it hadn't worked out. Sure, a few of my interview subjects were people who just couldn't imagine giving over care of their child to someone else, but mostly, they were educating their kids because The System had let them down.

This is not something I could do. I take my hat off to any teacher who can manage to hold the attention of even most of a classroom full of kids for an entire day. Activities around here tend to last about a quarter of an hour - painting, play dough, craft, puzzles, are all exciting for 15 minutes and then they're looking around for something else to do. Imagine trying to deal with that in your home, all day every day, and teach maths too!


Mr 6 started first grade yesterday. Asked about his day, he told me it was 'good'. Asked what he did, he said 'nothing'. Asked who he played with, he said 'no-one really'.

Exactly as it should be.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Calling in the experts

One of the best things about my day job is the education I receive while doing it. Under the auspices of 'work', I have talked to Australia's top experts about why Mr 6 was having night after night after night (repeat ad nauseum) of 'scary dreams' when he was four, whether his attachment to one particular teddy bear was healthy, whether trying to bring your kids up to be 'nice' would be the making or breaking of them, and how much of your kids' highly creative artwork you actually needed to keep.

In the same vein, I am keeping a close eye on Mr 3's new invisible friend - Alla Hoo Hoo - and will soon be pitching a story to someone, anyone, about when to be alarmed about imaginary friends. Given that Alla Hoo Hoo now has three children, all with their own names, I'm thinking that anytime soon would be the right time to ring the alarm bell. If any more of them move in, we'll need to move out of the fibro.

But there's real, hardcore education as well. Like the piece I just finished about the rising cost of living in New Zealand. 'We need to know why everything's getting more expensive in New Zealand', was the brief. Except it isn't. Food prices have been falling since August. The CPI is down 0.2 per cent for the September to December quarter.

Okay, I can feel your eyes glazing over, but bear with me. The point of all this is that, as Dr Stephen Burnell, senior lecturer in Economics at Victoria University of Wellington, pointed out, there's a certain 'anecdote bias' out there when we're talking about this kind of stuff. Fuel goes up and the papers are full of it. Fuel goes down and nobody thinks to mention it. Bananas go up and they're front page news for weeks. Bananas go down in price and we all just go back to mashing them up for baby dinners, no questions asked.

I thought about this conversation in relation to my own shopping. Beyond my $107 week I am often heard to complain (in a quiet, genteel manner, of course) about the cost of food - at the supermarket in particular. It's almost doubled in the past year or two and I've railed against it long and hard. But my conversation with Dr Burnell got me to thinking about WHY it's doubled - and the answer is simple.

Yes, prices have gone up but the reality is that I'm also buying more. I've now got two little boys with hollow legs. One of them is at school and I've fallen into the trap of buying those sweet little packets of 'healthy treats' to stuff in his lunchbox in my sleepy morning state. We like feta cheese, and parmesan, and haloumi (which, without any doubt, has gone up!) - and I often buy all three in the same week.

In other words, I'm my own worst enemy when it comes to the cost of living.

Except...I don't live in New Zealand. And the Australian CPI rose by 0.5 per cent in the September-December quarter. And OECD figures show that the cost of food in Australia has risen by more than 40 per cent over the past decade - the highest increase in the developed world.

Which just goes to prove that context is everything.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

End of school hols…and what have we learned

Remember when you were a kid and the summer school holidays seemed to last for months. I thought it would be the same as the mother of a kid on holidays. That we’d be sitting around, staring at each other, wondering when it was all going to end.

Instead, six weeks have gone by in a nano-second. Admittedly, some days have been longer than others. The really hot days are as bad as the really wet days. Worse, in fact. At least on a wet day you can feel okay about six hours of dvds and ABC-2. When the sun is shining, the sky is a deep azure blue and the grass is growing a millimetre a minute, it seems like a sin to be indoors, curtains drawn, A/C blowing up a storm. But what else can you do?

Pool, yes. Beach, yes. Indoor shopping complex, yes. But only for about an hour each. So that takes you to midday, even if you do them all on the same day – what then do you do with the endless afternoon hours when you’re all counting down the minutes until Dad comes home. I take my hat off to single mums. I couldn’t cope without the change in energy that comes when The Builder enters the house.

It’s not so much that he does anything special, just that he’s new. At the end of a day that can feel very old by 9.30am.

But all that’s about to be over. Soon it will be morning routines, entertaining Mr 3 by myself (say what you like, but older siblings do have their uses), trying to get sleeps and work (I work when he sleeps) in by 2.30pm so we can collect the big First Grader from school.

I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Part of me breathes a big sigh of relief that I’m down to one child again. The other part will miss the days of summer holidays. Even the reeeaaaallly long ones. Only them, not so much.

Monday, January 25, 2010

This could get icky

When you move from a tiny city block to a sprawling country one – not acreage or anything, just a good-sized, old-fashioned yard – there are a few things you feel you must have. One of these is a compost bin.

My Dad has always done compost. I have not-very-fond childhood memories of making my way down to the very far corner of the backyard, under the jacarandah with the swooping magpie, to throw a bucket of festering scraps into the malodorous heap. He assures me it never smelled, that it was just my overactive imagination, but I those little fruit flies still haunt my dreams, so I’m thinking we have a, ahem, difference of opinion going on.

All that aside, and with Green on my side, I knew the time had come. Fortunately, the Council in this area is very pro-active and put on a series of workshops on how to make compost. I know what you’re thinking, how hard can it be to chuck a few scraps in a bin? I thought so too, until I was introduced to the science of it all.

I went under sufferance – and because they were giving away free compost bins that reminded me of Dr Who’s Dialek’s (only black) and kitchen tidies in tasteful shades of cream and beige. But the guys who took the class were SO enthusiastic and informative, that I came home a complete convert. To the point, where The Builder was referring to the bin as my ‘new best friend’ for several weeks after – watching in amusement as I cut up choice titbits for its delectation.

I have to admit that six or so months later, some of the glow has worn off my relationship with the bin. It just didn’t do what it was supposed to do. I followed the instructions to the letter – one part green waste (nitrogen) to three parts carbon (think paper, dead leaves etc). I aerated. I watered when I thought it was necessary. And still no HEAT. Heat which is necessary to actually turn the scraps and muck into useable compost.

So I did what any sensible girl would do. I told the bin that things had to change. I shook things up. I put in more nitrogen. I stirred up the bottom layers. I moved the thing from its picturesque setting under the honeysuckle to a much more practical spot by the garage. And now I’m waiting.

I’m giving the bin some space to make up its mind about whether it wants our relationship to work out. I’m biding my time.

And, in the meantime, I’m sending my oldest son out to feed it on a regular basis.

Creating a whole new generation of sweet childhood memories.

From birth to bacon: introducing the latest in pets

As humans, we are hard-wired to hate change. As mums, I think our anti-change sentiment goes deeper and further. When it comes to kids, routine is good. If they know what they’re doing, when they’re doing it, they seem to cope better (though I would not go so far as to wake a sleeping baby, a la Gina Ford). If mum is stressed, the kids are stressed. If the kids are stressed, mum is close to breakdown.

Imagine, then, the stress of moving on a family. It’s not just about the boxes and the mess and the packing up of various lives. It’s about finding a new routine. Meeting new people, starting new schools, doing new things. No more barbies with the same old group every weekend, talking about the same old stuff. Instead you all, individually and as a family, must put your best faces forward and find a new group.

I confess I found it all exhausting at first. For starters, you have to clean the house every time someone new steps in it. Cast your mind back to the days before you worked out which are the friends you need to clean up for, and which are the friends who will happily drink coffee amidst your baskets of ‘to be folded’ washing (I have several of these – somehow the actual folding never seems to happen). I have been there every day for 12 months.

But there is also something exhilarating about starting over. You get to have new conversations, sometimes about things you’d never considered. Like the other day when my friend K, a beautifully practical artistic soul, informed me that she thought it would be a good idea to add a pig to the growing menagerie on her ‘town’ block. She’s already got five or six chickens, three ducks, an old, disintegrating jeep, a cubby house, a tire swing, an art studio and a swing set in her backyard.

I choked on my wine when she mentioned the pig. Where was she going to put it? Did she need council approval? Why, oh why, would she want one? She laughed, explaining she was still looking into it all. Apparently, pigs are the new dogs and there’s a whole movement of people keen to love them from ‘birth to bacon’ (or something like that). In other words, you get the pig, raise the pig, eat the pig.

I can’t help but wonder what the neighbours will think when she puts that one to them.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Life puzzle #1: who decided cooking with kids is fun?

Is there anything more satisfying than watching a cake rise? Okay, maybe that’s a sweeping rhetorical question, but having just made vanilla cupcakes for Mr 3’s birthday, I feel pretty happy with it. Or perhaps that’s just the relief talking.

Life throws a few furphies at us, but none more so than the list of stuff that is supposed to constitute ‘fun with kids’. Like gardening – pulling weeds on a hot summer’s day with a three year old doesn’t make it high on my list of awesome things to do. I know, I’ll look back on that quality time with nostalgia in a few years when he won’t even let me drop him off in front of the school lest someone see us, but now? It makes a reasonably stress-free activity into a nightmare of ‘don’t do that, not the basil, dig over here’.

And then there’s cooking. There’s a huge range of cute ‘accessories’ now available to tempt us into the kitchen with kids. The experts reckon it’s an essential part of learning, growing and loving. I agree with that (if not the accessories – kids just want to use mum’s stuff in my experience). I just find the reality of it to be, um, temper-inducing.

I’ve cooked with both my boys from the moment they could stand on a chair to ‘help’. We don’t do sharp knives. Just stirring, measuring, cracking eggs, decorating the gingerbread 'guys', licking bowls. At the end of the day, they’d like to fast-forward to the decorating (aka, eating M&Ms) and licking bowls (particularly when I’m explaining why you cream butter and sugar, and why cakes need aeration) – and so would I. It signifies job done. It leaves happy memories to overlay the ‘please don’t throw flour all over the floor’ discussion.

Perhaps that’s why they continue to turn up when I suggest a cooking activity. They don’t see the determination to turn them into men who can look after themselves (and give their other halves a break from kitchen duty when the time comes). They, apparently, think cooking with mum is fun.

Like most things in life, it’s all a matter of perspective.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The dream vegie garden - and the reality

Part of my new ‘good life’ plan was to have my own vegie garden. I know, just like every other escapee from the city. But I actually did it, rather than just talking about doing it.

Mind you, it took a while. I ‘planned’ for about nine months. Then, last September, I ripped out all the cliveas that were sitting in the sunniest spot in the garden (replanting them in a dead spot under some shady trees, where, I’m pleased to say, they’re thriving). I dug in several types of animal poo and compost (just call me Peter Cundall), mulched it to keep the weeds down and then… nothing.

After six or so weeks, my husband (The Builder) asked me if I was actually planning to grow anything or was I waiting for a miracle. I tried to look wise and Confucian as I answered that I was allowing the soil time to prepare itself. He muttered something under his breath about boy scouts, but left it at that.

Two weeks later he told me that if I didn’t put something in it, he was going to make a claim for land rights and turn it into a Japanese garden. It was the impetus I needed. Leaving land to 'improve' is very tempting – mostly because it’s the easiest part of gardening.

But the concept of having to rake sand around a stone pagoda on a daily basis was enough inspiration to get me out of my lull and off to the nursery. Where I purchased. And purchased.

Three months later, I have a few hard-won pearls of wisdom to share about my first vegie patch. Firstly, chances are you won’t need five tomato plants. No, really. I have just finished making tomato relish with three kilos of roma tomatoes, having given away about the same. I still have three kilos of green tomatoes to bottle, and no sign of a tomato drought yet.

Secondly, read the labels on the seedlings. Also known as – don’t take the kids to the nursery with you. I picked up what I thought were cherry truss tomatoes during a sibling kerfuffle over who got to stand on the end of the trolley and, voila! My cherry tomatoes turned out to be GIANT tomatoes. And it’s not the tomatoes that were huge – it was the bush, which turned into a trifid and took over the entire patch within minutes.

Thirdly, I love spinach. My kids love spinach. We all love spinach. But there are not enough spinach recipes in the world to make use of the amount of spinach that five small plants can produce. Ditto, capsicums.

So I guess my lesson, this time around, is to plant small amounts, often. Otherwise, there’s a major glut in the kitchen – and the birds are having a party in the backyard.

Why Pollyanna has a credit card problem

As part of my day job, I write finance pieces for Ninemsn's Money website. I've also written a book about paying off your credit cards. Before you ask, yes I do - pay my card off in full each month, that is. One thing I discovered during researching the book is that the positive thinking that infiltrates so much of our daily lives (translates loosely into 'she'll be right' in Australia) is, as I suspected, highly overrated. Particularly when it comes to your finances.

Experts agree that one of our biggest problems with credit cards is optimism. We think - no, make that firmly believe - that we will pay our debt off in full every month, without fail.
So we don't read the fine print when we choose our card. We sign up for rewards, air miles and every bell and whistle we can find, without thinking about what will happen if - just imagine - we bite off more than we can chew one month and, gasp, don't pay off the full amount.

So the huge interest rates that often underline rewards programs are overlooked. Unfortunately, once they kick in, they cost us big bucks, which can mean that every month we roll over (or 'revolve' as the lingo goes) more and more debt. All because we didn't take a balanced view of our credit card usage.

It doesn't always pay to be optimistic. In fact, credit cards are one area where keepin' it real is essential. Get to grips with how you actually use your card - not how you think you do or how you'd like to - and you've got a better chance of wrestling your debt into submission.

For help with choosing a card visit

Leftovers are the new takeaway

My move south last year coincided with the GFC, which wasn't a bad thing. It actually helped me through those first few months when my shopping options dwindled to not very many and the home delivery menus no longer needed a drawer of their own. From a funky inner-west bastion of Thai, Vietnamese, Greek, Lebanese, Italian et al cheap eateries, I have been reduced to multinational pizza joints, multinational fast food joints, fish and chips, a whole lot of Chinese restaurants (sweet and sour anyone?) and one lone Indian (pretty good, since you asked).

So I've hit the kitchen. Now if I want a night off from cooking for the family, I need to have planned (48 hours in advance) leftovers. Tasty leftovers. Leftovers that people will actually eat without turning their noses up and feigning sudden illness. Leftovers that won't cause sudden illness.

It's not easy. My new BFFs are recipe mags like Super Food Ideas and Good Taste, and you know what - they're great! Easy, tasty meals that don't require a list of gourmet ingredients as long as my arm. I'm in love. But not as much as I love, the online archive of these two mags and three more besides.

We're saving heaps of money, too. I fed four of us for $107 last week. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. I know that there are people who can do it for less (possibly the same people who save their soap scraps to make new bars), but it used to cost me closer to $200 and we'd have takeaway two nights a week on top of that.

I discovered that a shopping list is the best place to start when you want to save money and eat well. Plan your meals like Nanna used to. Turns out that old-fashioned is the way forward.
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