Monday, March 31, 2014

Intentional Play: March (the wrap up)

March has been a little earthy round these parts. As part of this month's intentional play themes, we've covered our coffee table in a green-felt farm, gotten the dirt under our fingernails and animal poo in the treads of our shoes. We've zoomed orange- and red- and brown- and green-paint covered tractors (and monster trucks) across cardboard to create autumn trees and collected fallen leaves on our walks through our urban forests. We've made an unexpected flight north into the arms of our family, laughed and cried together in the darkness after a series of savage storms and blackouts, and when the sun shone the next day, we wept again and sang as my grandfather was lowered into the red-brown, river-valley earth.

We've watched the leaves slowly turn, the yellows and oranges subtle against the green. In a few more weeks, the streets will be ablaze with colour. There'll be drifts of leaves in gutters and across the footpaths and we'll crunch through them all.

And then there are the apples. As the summer fruits fade away, the apples are ripening. We've been blobbling and cutting and pasting red on green. We've been reading about them, some strange little books and some making me hungry. We've been peeling and stewing them for spooning over breakfast. But there is pie in our near future now because we've been apple-picking.

For this month's little adventure, we packed ourselves into the car and headed north west across the dry, flat plains of country Victoria, to Bacchus Marsh, where the Avenue of Remembrance arches overhead and the orchards and farms line the road. Roadside stands and pick-your-own signs made it easy to find our apples, and in the cool of the morning, we borrowed a bucket lined with a plastic bag and wandered down the tracks towards the just-ripened fruit.

Amongst the Fujis, Dear Boy picked a bucket-full, disappearing in between the laden branches and emerging each time with a single dewey piece of fruit. Each one was raised to his mouth and those I didn't rescue in time were munched juicily in the carpark before we headed out.

After a long play at a gorgeous playground on the outskirts of town and a drive up into the hills to encourage a nap, we found a new farm full of fruit. We emerged half an hour later, him with strawberry-stained lips and shirts and me with a tray of the last of the summer fruit, still warm from the sun, to bring home.

There is pie in our near future. We'll make it together.

Next month, there will be chocolate. And eggs. And bunnies and chicks. And bilbies. But for now, there is fruit and this poem running through my head.

Have you been enjoying the change of seasons? Have you been holding onto the last of the summer fruit and vegetables too? How has March treated you?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Playing cars with boys

I am not sure how my son became such a fan of wheeled things. Sure, his Dad is a fan of Formula-one but he hasn't watched one since Dear Boy was born. We are generally not a car-loving people. Ours is a boring, third-hand station wagon. White. The fanciest thing about it is that, with the backseats down, we can fit our foofy, many-person couch in the back. Suddenly I am the parent of a son who's first noticeable word in context was 'car'. Anything with wheels 'car, car, car'.

I don't think I've made any secret of it that I was struggling with keeping Dear Boy entertained. Running cars backwards and forwards over the floor or the coffee table just isn't my thing. But it's his, so... you know... I play. I play as well as I can for as long as I can before it feels like my brains are slowly leaking out of my ears. And I've never really been sure why it felt so boring, so wrong, so unengaged.

Have you seen any of the ABC's Life At... series? It's a great '7 Up'-style documentary that's been following a group of children and their family life and development since they were one. Life At 1 first aired in 2006, and since then they've shown Life at 3, Life at 5 and, most recently, Life At 7. In each three-episode  series, the kids are filmed playing, in their homes, with their parents, doing traditional psychological experiments, etc. It's not just a doco, though, but part of a nationwide longitudinal study on children and childhood in Australia, a study that turned 10 a little while ago. They've amassed a huge amount of data in that time, studying and interviewing over 10,000 children and their parents every year or so.

In the most recent series, the seven year olds were set up with the 'Attractive Toy Experiment', which you can watch here. Essentially, groups of children are put in a room with an awesome and complex toy and they're observed as they play. In the video, a group of three girls and a group of three boys are filmed and the results sparked something for you. Dr Marc de Rosnay (a senior lecturer in psychology at University of Sydney) narrates as he watches the clips:
"Boys make more immediate attempts to play and to draw others into play. Girls spend the vast majority of time organising the play, making sure they consent to where things should go, what role things should have, where they should be, how it should be structured. Some of them never even start playing in the normal sense of the word, We don't know the reason why boys and girls are so different here but it does seem to be quite an enduring difference."
The boys just started playing and the girls spent their time organising and setting up the story. Ding.

That's how we play with cars and trains.

I'm not sure if this is actually what's happening when Dear Boy and I play, and I'm not at all certain that this is an accurate measurement of gender differences in play (I'm not a trained psychologist after all). A lot of this may be because of his age rather than his gender. But the difference between us seems to be he's happy to play without context, without story.

Me? I like creating the story. I want to talk about who might be driving the car and where they're going and what road they're driving on. I want to connect the tracks and build up the town. I want a setting and a narrative, dammit. My boy? He could really care less. He doesn't care if the tracks loop round or the road goes nowhere or even if there's a road at all. He's starting to tell stories himself, but is happy as a clam without context. He will lay in the dirt and run those cars back and forth as the world spins around him.

Since watching that video, I haven't tried to change the way either of us approaches play. He doesn't need me to zoom cars next to him and I don't need him to spew his imagination over the train tracks. But it's been nice to know that there's nothing wrong with the way we've been doing it all along.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Meatless Monday: Asian Risotto

Risotto, Asian flavours

Did you know that in terms of human food, nutrition and the amount of calories consumed, rice is the most important grain in the world. Sure corn trumps it in terms of global production but quite a lot of corn production is not for human consumption. Don't get me started on a corn rant, though, or this post won't be as delicious as I had planned. Rice is pretty much the staple food for quite a big chunk of the world's population, especially in Asia where it all originated. Thanks to European colonisation, though, it migrated west to Italy where the Aborio variety was born. 

Asia and Italy collide once more in this dish with Italian rice and Asian flavours and a blend of East and West cooking styles. I start this dish like a curry, sizzling up a punchy flavour base, before adding in the rice and switching to the risotto method. Now, I'm a sucker for cheese, and especially the slow cheesy ooze of a good Italian risotto, don't get me wrong, but sometimes I just want less stodge and a more complex flavour but don't want to get stuck in a stir-fry rut. That's where this recipe delivers.  

The flavour base:

1. In a deep fry-pan (or a heavy-based wok, if you're prepared to keep a very close eye), heat up a tablespoon or two of coconut oil or another oil with a high smoke point and add in chopped garlic, ginger, onion, lemongrass, coriander root (saving the leaves for later), and chilli (if you don't have kids eating). Chop, bash, grate or cut these as you please. I've whizzed the lot in a food processor and kept them relatively chunky - either works. Add in thinly sliced capsicum and cook over a medium heat for a few minutes. 

The risotto:

2. Add in a cup or two of Aborio rice (or another risotto rice; pearly barley is also good although takes longer to cook), reduce the heat and cook for another minute or two, making sure all the grains are coated. They'll start to look a little transluscent around the edges. 

3. Stir in around a cup of white wine or Chinese rice wine (although be warned that has a stronger flavour) and simmer until there's no liquid left. Welcome to risotto cooking. There's a Lombardy saying that "rice is born in water and dies in wine" mostly because the best quality rice in Italy ended up in risottos. 

4. From here, you start a long meditative process of adding stock (vegetable or chicken) one cup or ladel full at a time, stirring continuously (or frquently if you're a risk-taker like me) as the rice absorbs the liquid. It's not as laborious as it sounds. Around a litre of stock will absorb into two cups of rice in around twenty minutes. It gives you enough time to shell some edamame, chop a bunch of asian greens or broccolini or prep whatever vegetables you fancy. 

5. When the rice is on the far side of al dente, with only the slightest hint of chewy crunch, add in your chosen vegetables and cook for just a minute or two more. Turn off the heat. 

The ooze (or sauce):

6. Mix together the juice of a lime, a tablespoon or two of sweet soy sauce (ketjap manis) and the same of soy sauce or fish sauce (we are not a fish-loving people in our house so use a dark mushroomy soy sauce instead). Stir this through your risotto.

The extras:

7. Add in a selection of Asian herbs. Definitely throw in the remaining coriander leaves but Vietnamese mint or Thai basil also work.

8. I normally pan-fry firm tofu and lay that over the top after serving but somehow it was the regular, softer tofu that made its way into the basket this time, so I loosely scrambled it and stirred it through like an egg. 

9. If your significant other or dinner guests are mushroom fans (mine aren't - sigh), then fresh shitake mushrooms would be fantastic mixed in or served on top as well. 

Because I chose a meat-free chicken-flavoured stock powder over homemade chicken stock, chose tofu over an egg, and nixed the fish sauce, the dish is vegan-friendly. It's also considerably lower in fat than the traditional Italian version but definitely high in flavour. The mash-up of European and Asian styles and flavours really works, I promise. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

New (Australian) Songs on a Saturday Morning: Busby Marou

As part of my ongoing effort to increase the range of my cultural consumption, I undertook a challenge to listen to a metric crap-tonne new songs. I hit that goal at the end of January, notching up a cool 1000 new songs. My favourites can be found here. But after all was said and done, I was feeling a little bereft without the project to work on. It was there, humming in the background of this blog for so long, that it felt like a friend had moved away. I noticed when I was going through my favourites list that there were quite a few Australians featured, so I thought I might make myself a new project, aiming to listen to more local artists and showcase some of the ones I included on my list. I started with Vance Joy and this week am moving on to more of Busby Marou.

I first heard these two blokes, Thomas Busby and Jeremy Marou, on He Will Have His Way - The Songs of Tim and Neil Finn, doing a cover of 'Better Be Home Soon'. I didn't know they were unsigned at the time, the only unsigned act to feature on the album.

I had 'Biding My Time' at No. 648 on my New Songs list. It's gorgeous and their vocals are sweet. It's simple and cheery and when they sing "I can be the singer and you can be the song", I feel a little goose-pimply.

They released a new album, Farewell Fitzroy, a few months ago and I've been digging on the songs, feeling all 'aw shucks' whenever the Australian accents drop in. This little baby was released as a teaser audio track about a year ago:

And this, I'm assuming, is the single: 'Get You Out of Here'. I'm keeping it tucked away for one of those shitty days when you need both a good cry and a happy tune.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Intentional Play: March (the mid-point)

I was going to title this post: "That Pig Is Stinky". That was Dear Boy's pronouncement when we came across this big fella at a children's farm recently. He was perfect, snorting and snuffling against Dear Boy's face, rooting around his clothes for food through the fence. Life on the farm is definitely stinky but Dear Boy loved every mud-and-poo-covered minute.

Halfway through this month's Intentional Play theme of Autumn, and after a few craft acitivities painting autumn leaves, we've been looking at ideas of growing and harvesting food and life on a farm. Our farm 'smallworld' has littered the coffee table with horses, (slightly demonic looking) cows, sheep, dogs and a pig sitting in his own brown felt sty. My Boy's galloped the animals across the paddocks, let them graze on the grass and slurp at a scrap of blue fabric ("they are firsty, Mummy"). He's taken with the idea that animals eat and drink like he does.

And so, on a grey, rainy day when he'd up-turned the craft box and thrown everything across the floor, I loaded him into the car and drove out of the city to the far, far edges of surburbia. There, a little farm waited.

We were given a ticket on entry and a full loaf of bread to feed to the paddock animals (but not the horses - sad face). Dear Boy was startled when the sheep bleeted, just like on the television, and laughed when the goat headbutted them out of the way to take the bread from him. Cows and sheep and goats and alpacas and deer nibbled bread from his hands, their soft furry lips tickling at his fingers. That beautiful cow angled her calf away from us, always standing between us, but would take the bread and drop the odd piece in front of it before coming back for more.

Can I just say that deer have seriously creepy eyes. But the way their calves... err... sproing... is the cutest. Seriously Disney-esque stuff.

Emus also have creepy eyes. But these eyes dare you to come just that little bit closer, pal, so that monster bird can eat your face. Okay, I have a problem with birds.

But how seriously cute are alpacas. And alpaca eyelashes. And baby alpacas.

In a 'petting' barn, we got up close and personal with the baby animals. Baby alpaca! Baby goat! Baby sheep! Yeah, yeah, cria, kids and lambs, but babies! And that old chestnut, to never work with children and animals... neither sit still long enough for a good photo. Unless there's food involved.

He had a serious sensory overload, patting all manner of tiny beasts. There were also many lessons on patting with the grain of the fur/hair/wool and using gentle hands. And on not running with big clompy boots in the guinea pig and rabbit enclosure. And on not putting your hand into a hollowed-out log full of furry animals. And on not shrieking with joy within a few feet of a pile of bunnies. The little clever-clogs remembered the Charlie and Lola book we'd borrowed from the library a few months back, and announced that the guineas were "from Peruuuu" and kept calling out for Bert "who is a girl not a boy, Mummy. I'm a boy, Mummy".

Later this month, we're going to pack the car and do a day trip out into the Victorian boonies to take on a pick-your-own apple orchard. In the meantime, there's apple craft to be done and leaves to watching turning from green to red. Here's hoping Dear Boy's current attitude to the craft box improves.

Has Autumn arrived at your place yet? Has your child's play changed with the seasons?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Breasts and Bottles: Donor Milk

I recently read about a mum (on a blog far, far away), who described herself as "crunchy", so crunchy in fact that, even though she couldn't produce breastmilk herself because of a congenital abnormality in her breast tissue, she's insisted on exclusively feeding her child donated milk. For the last six months, numerous strangers have regularly pumped and delivered their extra milk to her and her little girl.

I'm a breastfeeding fan and was incredibly sad to turn to formula feeding for my boy. But I have to admit that I'm not altogether sure how I feel about donor milk generally or this mum's own story in particular. If I'm being honest, it makes me feel uncomfortable. What's your initial reaction?

When Dear Boy was only six weeks old and we were struggling with breastfeeding, a local woman died during childbirth. It was an awful situation, but her tiny daughter survived and the internets did what they do best and rallied so much support for the bereaved family. A call-out from our hospital for milk donations for them on Facebook nearly broke my heart. In my own freezer was a tiny, dwindling stash of my own milk - the last of my milk really as my own supply began to fail. I couldn't give it away. I thought seriously about it, but just couldn't give it away.

When Dear Boy was just a few days old, and he slept and didn't feed and I wept as I had colostrum syringed from my breast and when my milk came in pumped the scant few mils I was given, another woman was in a similar situation. Her baby was sleeping and refusing to feed, but she was pumping almost purely for relief. She would come into the mothercraft room with three or four bottles full of breastmilk, adding them to the treasure trove taking over a whole shelf of the locked fridge. I always wonder if she received the same message I did on Facebook and if she looked at her milk stash and decided differently to me. If she would be willing to give her milk away to feed another child.

In Australia, most major hospitals run a milk bank, specifically for premature and unwell babies. They encourage the mums from the birth centre with an over supply to donate colostrum and early breastmilk, as they're better tolerated by a premature baby's underdeveloped gut. The milk there is screened and pasteurised to make sure the babies are not accidentally exposed to anything that could compromise their health further. But what about if your baby is born healthy and you end up being unable to breastfeed or just don't want to? What resources do you have then for giving your baby breastmilk?

A little bit of digging revealed quite a few breastmilk donation networks operating in Australia, with groups like Human Milk 4 Human Babies and Eats on Feets providing community milk sharing opportunities. Most of these are informal and facilitated via sites like Facebook, with the organisations taking a very hands-off approach and letting the mothers sort themselves out. Essentially you join a page and put up a notice that you either need milk or have extra to give away and people reply. Some offer pumped milk and others offer the... errr... full service. I'm not entirely sure what the modern name for it is, but wet-nursing is the one that springs to mind.

My own mum was fairly crunchy herself, and helped to start a chapter of the Nursing Mothers Association of Australia (which changed it's name to Australian Breastfeeding Association in 2001 long after restrictions on using the word 'breast' or 'nipple' in promotional material was lifted) in our home town in the early eighties. According to her, wet-nursing was pretty normal:
"I regularly used to settle other peoples babies by breast feeding them, if I was minding them for a couple of hours. I am pretty sure you and your brother would have been fed by [a friend] ... I don't think we thought twice about it. It was never an issue with my circle of friends. Might have only been a country thing."
Is it a country thing? Is it a rich or poor thing? I know historically it was pretty common, and fraught with all kinds of power and race issues. But this modern day version seems to be a return to a much more community minded sentiment. Breastmilk for all! Natural! Share! That's great!

It still gives me pause though. 

Perhaps it's a post eighties and nineties AIDS epidemic thing when we were taught to keep our bodily fluids to ourselves (anyone else remember that grim reaper bowling ad? No? Just me?) that niggles at me about wet-nursing and milk donation without a middle-man woman and a screening process of some kind. At the moment, there aren't any national health policies on wet-nursing and private donations in Australia. Anyone can do it and there aren't any safeguards. It's all a matter of trust. As much as I would have loved to offer breastmilk to my boy long term, could I have let another woman feed him directly? I'm not sure. Would you feel comfortable with that?

The other part that niggles at me is the idea that's drummed into you when you're being encouraged to breastfeed - "your milk is perfectly designed for your baby". For nine months, you've developed a biological relationship that means everything your body produces is exactly what their little bodies need. What happens when you feed your baby milk that nature designed for another child? Is that still better than formula? According to Dr Ben Hartman, who established Australia's first milk bank in Western Australia, maybe not. Yes, donor milk is much better than formula for a premature baby, but there's no evidence that proves it's better for a full-term baby (quoted in this article here). What I'd like to know is if another mother's milk still provides the same long role-call of benefits if it's not specially designed for that child's immune system, etc. 

There's no agenda here. I'm really just interested in why the idea of milk sharing makes me feel uncomfortable. Am I trying to feel better about having to give our boy formula because I didn't even think of this option when he was small? I don't know. Maybe. Probably. Do you think you'd be okay with milk-sharing or wet-nursing?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Death of a Difficult Man: I loved him and he loved me

My grandfather died last night.

He was not a nice and cuddly grandfather. He was not full of praise or words of love; his words were more often harsh and his temper quick. He did not play or join in with the family around him; he watched from a worn-in seat at the end of the kitchen table, drinking from a dark mug and hand rolling cigarettes with Dr Pat's Irish Mixture pipe tobacco and his limp, polio-deadened arm. He was not a tolerant person; his opinions were ugly and determined and he steamrolled them over the conversations that flowed past him. He would talk with a damp cigarette stuck to his dry lips and a hacking cough shaking through his body to keep his own words hanging with the wafts of blue smoke in the air around him.

He was a difficult man for all the years I knew him. But I loved him and he loved me.

I was his Lilybett: a name that he alone called me, a name that made me feel special, a name I choose to call myself here. When I came into his house, he would announce it: "Lilybett!", a welcome and a call to come and kiss his prickly cheek (always prickly) and lay an arm around his gradually thinning shoulders. "Lilybett," he would rumble and inquire about how I had been since my last visit, and then turn away to talk to the room of other things, of things young girls wouldn't understand or have a worthwhile opinion of: land, cars, politics, football. He would make the adults laugh. And later, he made me laugh too with his sharp, sharp wit and the same sense of humour I see in my Dad and my aunts and uncle. As a child, I hovered on the edges of the stories he told, and waited for the elusive prize of his wheezing, coughing laughter. I felt the lightness of the room when he spoke of old and new capers, and jokes with his mate Charlie and weird and wonderful problems conquered.

I also felt his infrequent and unexpected kindness. When my cousin and I broke the Hills Hoist we had been told not to play on, when we bounced so hard my cousin flew and I fell and the central pole bent towards the earth, the wrath we feared never came. We had trembled waiting for him to find out, for him to lash out at us for the damage we had caused, but he never did. I can't remember what he said, but I still feel now that I amused him even as I disappointed him. When I was 17 and newly licenced and bored with books and felt the lack of anything to do in a little farmhouse on a little island in the rain, I asked on a whim to borrow his car. The old car, the carefully maintained car, the mechanic's car. The year before he had watched as I drove a Kombi (badly) around his front paddock, but he still said yes. The shock of his 'yes' and his pressing the keys into my hand immobilised me for minutes before I loaded the car with cousins and a brother and had the most frightening and careful drive of my life. We bought a pack of cards and came back and played (and perhaps cheated) at the kitchen table in front of him. The car keys sat on the table between us, a token of a moment that I'm sure baffled us both.

Many years later, when I came to visit him in the nursing home, he ignored my belly full of arms and legs and my Dear Boy until we stood to leave. Then he gripped my hand when I bent in to kiss him and drew me down beside him, holding me there listening to the hiss and thunk of oxygen flowing through the tubes into his nose. "Lilybett," he pronounced. "Lilybett, I wish you all the best wishes in the world for this one. And I hope that he may be sound in wind and limb and pizzle. Do you understand what I mean?" I didn't understand what he meant. But I nodded anyway and kissed him again. It took me a while to learn that it was a horse thing. And a little longer to realise what a pizzle was. And that he'd added that part himself.

He was in a nursing home for so many years, his body frail and fading but his mind still sharp and cutting. Each visit we would try to encourage him to tell the old stories of life before any of us knew him, and steer him away from any talk of the news that trickled in on the radio. Sometimes I think he was determined to keep living, if only to see the country firmly in the hands of a man again, especially after receiving wedding anniversary messages from all the dignitaries at a time when the heads of state and nation and commonwealth were women all. He was very determined.

I can't remember what our final words to each other were. Each visit we would say our final goodbyes, so many of them that they became almost as jovial as 'hello' and 'see you next time'. His pronouncements that "next time you see me I'll be dead" made us both smile. We'd been saying goodbye for so long that I don't remember if we said goodbye the last time. I don't remember if there were special words or hints that he knew, that he felt it would be the last time. Instead I remember he offered us his leftover cups of juice and a seat on his bed and the chocolate hidden in a drawer. We asked about the same pictures on his wall of stock men on horseback and high-stacked droving wagons and ancient cars that we'd asked about last time. I kissed his cheek and put my arm around his shoulder and he gripped my hand and wouldn't let me go.

I loved him and he loved me.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Meatless Monday: French onion soup and gruyere croutons

We're part time vegetarians in our house, mostly because I do the menu plans for the week and, given the choice (and a husband who was less of a meatlover), I'd give up meat entirely. So every other day is meat-free for us, but I've wanted to link up to Meatless Monday for a while.

I'm generally a fan of thick, comfort-laden soups, rather than brothy ones, but every now and then the urge takes me for something just like this: French onion soup with big chunky gruyere covered croutons. Here's how I make ours:

1. Start melting a tablespoon of butter and a little glug of olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan on a low-medium heat.

2. Slice a metric crap tonne of brown onions (or eschallots if you're a complete masochist). I find around a kilo or a kilo and a half works for us. Add these into the pan. Stir gently but constantly to make sure all the onions are coated and they're not catching.

3. Keeping an eye on the onions, pick off the leaves from a handful of fresh thyme and finely slice about half a dozen cloves of garlic. Add these to the pan with a bay leaf. Keep stirring.

4. The trick to this soup is to cook the onion slowly, slowly. I tend to stand over the pan with a wooden spoon in one hand and stir mindlessly while checking all manner of social media on my phone with the other. Also mindlessly.

5. After about 15-20 minutes, turn the heat up a little and start to get a little bit of colour on the onion. Not a lot, and you still need to be carefully they don't catch and burn, but this helps really develop the flavour and sweetness of the onion.

6. After another 15-20 minutes, add a dash of white wine or a fancy French booze of some kind (just not red). Some like cognac. Let it cook off a little of the alcohol's edge, then add about a litre of beef stock. I use Massel's beef-style stock powder, so this still counts as meatless. A good homemade vegie stock would be okay but you'd need to fiddle with your seasonings to make sure you get the same depth of flavour.

7. Simmer the soup for another 20 minutes, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Feel free to skim off any buttery fat floating on the surface. I didn't but there really wasn't a heap to skim anyway. Fancy folk add a dash of cognac just before serving but, you know... not fancy here.

8. In the last 5-10 minutes, cut up large slices of some crusty bread, add shaved or grated gruyere cheese, and stick under the grill.

9. Ladel out into bowls and float the cheesy croutons on the top. Or that's what normally happens. With a toddler, I have to hide the crusty bread or he won't even try to eat anything else. Bit bread obsessed, that one. Just like his mama.

10. If you're like me and get the guilts if there's no green in your meal, please note that I've lined my own bowl above with baby spinach leaves. This is a total aberration to the spirit of the soup, I get that, but if you don't stir it in, you still get the full onion soup experience and you can eat a mouthful of wilted spinach at the end. Dear Boy's bowl featured as little of the melted onion as possible, carrots that were wafted briefly near a steamer and some of his favourite corn kernels (we get Aldi's organic variety), and was topped with some roasted pumpkin seeds and walnuts to give him a bit of crunch and protein. His bowl wasn't pretty, but I'm willing to serve him ugly if it means he'll eat it.

Will you go meat-free today? Do you serve up seriously ugly food to your own kids?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

New (Australian) Songs on a Saturday morning: Vance Joy

I'm feeling a little bereft after finishing my New Songs project. It was there, humming in the background of this blog for so long, that it feels like a friend has moved away. I noticed when I was going through my favourites list that there were quite a few Australians featured, so I thought I might make myself a new project, aiming to listen to more local artists and showcase some of the ones I included on my list.

Vance Joy showed up at No 922 on my list with 'Playing with Fire' but here's another great song of his that Lovely Husband plays: 'Riptide'. He'll play it in the morning, checking his emails before he's off to work, and it will stay with me, lingering through the day.

This one, 'From Afar', is soft and powerful, and makes me well with a tear or two, just like The Beatles' 'Hide Your Love Away'. Each time.

I was suckered into this one by the title: 'Emmylou'. The few Emmylou Harris songs and performances I've heard have seeped into my bones ('Wrecking Ball' and 'Where Will I Be?', a duet of 'Angel' with Sarah McLaughlin from a Lilith Fair festival, 'Go To Sleep Little Baby' with Gillian Welch and Allison Krauss from O Brother Where Art Thou). I'm almost scared to listen to many more of her songs in case I fall too deep in love with her. So when I see songs with Emmylou in the title (like this one - oh my goodness, that chorus), I'm always checking to see if there's a kindred spirit there. I'm fairly sure this one's not about that Emmylou, but it's heavenly, nonetheless. 


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ten tips for surviving the first year of university

It's O-week or Week 1 for the first semester at a lot of universities around Australia. My Middle Brother Mountain* is having a do-over on his first year of uni after deferring his spot last year. Apparently, he's feeling all blase about it given he's been surrounded by academics and been on campus all his life...ummm almost literally. He's toddled through the corridors, eaten at student services, been shushed in the libraries, and gone to more graduations than I have. His childcare centre was on campus. So he knows a thing or two about uni life but I'm not sure every first year student does.

Not every student survives their first year. Universities dedicate lots of funds and staff to 'retention' because it's a big issue, and a complex one. There are lots of reasons why students don't survive or can't finish their first year - money, work, family, cultural differences, physical or mental issues, etc. A lot of this is far beyond the university's purview but they do try to put support systems in place to help students cope with those things while also continuing their studies. A lot of it is beyond the student's control too but there are still things they can do to make that first year just that little bit easier (all else being equal). I've been at university for the last 14 years, nine of them as a student and ten as an academic so I'm calling myself a little bit qualified to offer some advice. Here's my top 10 tips for surviving the first year:

1. Turn up. Der. To be a little more specific: week one matters. So do weeks two and three. And all the rest. A colleague of mine received an email from a student last week asking if they'd miss anything important as they're in Europe for the first three weeks of semester. The answer is yes. Those first few weeks are all about the fundamentals of the subject: how it runs, how it's assessed, the responsibilities and expectations of the students and the lecturer, the basic theories, etc. It's also the time when you establish group dynamics. If you miss those first weeks, it's really hard to catch up later. If you do miss those first weeks, through illness or misadventure or circumstances beyond your control, seek out what you've missed: listen to any recorded lectures; look through all the new uploaded material in your online learning system; email your lecturer or tutor. Don't tell them you're in Europe. It won't go down well.

2. Make an effort to know your lecturer/tutor's name. It might take a while for a lecturer or tutor to remember your name. Chances are they're trying to put over a 100 names to over a hundred faces. And it sucks when they keep getting it wrong. But it sucks even more if you need help and can't remember your tutor's name (and hence their email address).

3. Read through all the material you're given at the start of semester. This applies primarily to the subject guide or outline. It'll have all your deadlines for the semester laid out so you can start planning your assignments (more advice on that over here). You'll get sick of reading the same thing over each semester for the next three to four years, but trust me, the information changes. Faculty and university wide policies on submissions, late penalties, extensions, special consideration, plagiarism, attendance, etc, can change year by year. My students had a real shock when their 'automatic' two day extension (granted automatically if you just ask for one - whose idea was that?) that they'd enjoyed for two years was rescinded. It also applies to the brochures and student services stuff you're handed at just about every 'welcome' or orientation event at the start of each year. There might be something in there that can save your bacon if you run into trouble.

4. Take advantage of any learning skills workshops or tutorials. Each university should have some kind of learning skills department that will offer short courses at the start of semester (or over the semester) on essay writing, report writing, referencing and avoiding plagiarism, how to use the library, how to take notes in lectures, etc. These are all incredibly helpful for making the transition from high school to university-style learning, or for mature age students returning to study after some years. Ours are offered through the library, but your university might have hidden them elsewhere.

5. Get support. If you're coming to university with existing issues (physical, mental, behavioural, etc) that you know may affect your studies, get a support system in place early. Most universities have a Disability Liaison office/officer that can help make sure there are appropriate options in place for all your subjects and assessments. It helps you avoid having to go into (sometimes uncomfortable) detail with each and every lecturer and tutor. If you don't have a diagnosed (or diagnosable) issue, most universities will still have plenty of support or resources available if things crop up during the semester: (sometimes free) general, mental and sexual health services, LGBT centres, women's rooms, prayer rooms and spiritual centres, etc. Each of the universities I've been associated with has also had financial aid officers who can help you navigate Centrelink. Those people need a medal. If you can't find the services you need, ask your lecturer or tutor if they can point you in the right direction. Unless we're in the psych or social work faculties, we're generally not trained counsellors or health professionals but we may know where to find them.

6. Get off Facebook. Not all lecturers are okay with you using a phone, laptop or tablet in class. This is mostly because we've all caught students updating their status, bidding on eBay and all manner of not-appropriate-for-a-public-location browsing. Ask whether it's okay to use your laptop or a tablet and bring a notebook and pen just in case it's not.

7. Join in. If you're heading to uni without your high school buddies or a good support group nearby, it can be a lonely, confusing place. Join a club or society, talk to people in class, set up a study group, find your people. I'm not a natural joiner but it got easier with practice. I started small by introducing myself to the folks sitting next to me in lectures and tutorials and ended up with a small group of folks who'd traipse down to the student union after class.

8. Don't turn up to class drunk. Not even on Melbourne Cup day when you've been cruelly assigned an exam that day. Also, don't email drunk. 

9. Budget. If you're getting drunk all the time, you're going to run out of money pretty quickly. Unless you're one of the fortunate ones - independently wealthy, rich parents, etc. In Australia, we're incredibly lucky to receive so much financial support for higher education. Not only are you sometimes offered Commonwealth Supported Places (which can reduce your fees) and FEE HELP (deferred loans) but quite a few students are also eligible for Youth Allowance or Austudy. It is great, but it is also not generous. It is not even close to meeting what we consider in Australia to be the "poverty line" (what that is depends on who you talk to, but by halving the median of all pay packets in Australia it ends up as roughly $350 a week; youth allowance will hand a single, childless person over 18 who is "required to live away from home" a maximum of $414 a fortnight). If you live at home, fabulous. If not, you need to budget. Or you need to get a job. I have a whole other post coming up for living cheap as a student. But, I will say this...

10. Eat and sleep well. It's really hard to think critically and perform well when all you eat is crap and you're staying up until all hours. Sleeping and eating good food makes your brain work. Good food isn't always easy to find on campus, and when you do find it, it's not always affordable. I thoroughly recommend seeking out the vegetarian options - whether that's your local Hare Krishnas or the veggie club on campus. Veggie food is generally cheaper and better than the other choices. Sleeping well generally means being organised enough to not have to pull all-nighters or not going out every night of the week. I really want to have 'stop drinking so much, stupid' as it's own point, but I'm not a complete teetotaller, I swear. Just take it easy on your body if you want it to complete higher order functions.

Are you a first-year-of-uni survivor? Any other tips you'd add to the list?

* Not his real name.


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