In praise of Book Week

Last week social media was full of Book Week. Friends shared photos of their kids, people on various groups asked for suggestions and shared photos and some lucky grown-ups even got to dress up too. So many posts were positive and fun – even if there was a level of stress and relief that book week comes but once a year.   

But occasionally there would be a post that would make me a little sad – parents complaining that Book Week was an imposition or a waste of time and suggesting their kids would just stay home. I get that not everyone enjoys being crafty but thanks to the internet and the $2 shop, there are loads of options.  I’m not saying it is something everyone has to enjoy but I think it sends a bad message to our kids that they should just skip things that they don’t enjoy or that takes a bit of extra effort. 

Our school reminded parents that Book Week was not about creating lots of extra work. Kids could wear their sports clothes and carry a sports related book. There was no rule that the book had to fit within the theme “Escape to Everywhere” or that movie tie-in books were out. On this, I have to admit to previously pushing my boys toward characters from books (not movies) but when our youngest said  he wanted to go as Yoda this year, I agreed with this post and decided this wasn’t important. He has loads of Star Wars books and he was excited about dressing up – and he is six! .

I love Book Week and always have. We are lucky that even in our small town, we have an amazing cheap shop that stocks everything! We also have a Spotlight close by. I could google patterns for costumes (although this can be dangerous) and the op-shop came in handy. I certainly don’t have the time I had the first year when I made Mr Funny’s shoe car (below) but we’ve still been able to come up with costumes with only minimal swearing and acceptable amounts of wine.

Our first book week in 2014 – just back in Australia and not working. Might have gone a little OTT

I thought about my Mum putting together our costumes every year and she worked wonders! Case in point is the photo below. Mum would have found clothes at the op-shop, and my rapunzel hair was plaited yellow crepe paper attached to a shower cap. I should point out, that the family photo albums provide evidence that my Mum was quite the fan of a dress-up – even if I am scarred by the year her Physical Culture team dressed up as the Seven Dwarves (with their stomachs as the faces…..and no, I am not finding a photo – just use your imagination).

Rapunzel and Mary from Mary May Quite Contrary – circa 1984

I don’t ever remember Mum complaining about book week, although I guess she was pretty happy when we started coming up with our own costumes. I remember going as Erica Yurken from my favourite book Hating Alison Ashley in Year 6 – which I seem to remember simply involved a more daggy (than usual) combination of my own clothes, bad hair and make-up. Come to think of it – probably what my 11 year old self was wearing.

This year I had planned to be extra organised – but the first trip to buy supplies (one Saturday after a rare girls’ night out) was not all that successful. By Wednesday, I realised I had to get moving, just in case anything failed. I had to get Willy Wonka and Yoda sorted. Praise the internet! A pattern for Yoda’s cape and a printable mask and printable Wonka bar wrappers and golden tickets (although the judges returned the Lindt bar bribe!). A $4 ladies dress cut off for Willy’s coat (who cares that I was cutting off the sleeves to fit the morning of the parade). Last year’s top hat, and one of my old wigs and a painted stick for a cane and we were done. Yoda’s original mask was a fail when I stapled it to the dining table (hence the printable mask). The light saber was his blue one wrapped in green crepe paper. The cape wasn’t hemmed but in this scenario done is perfect. The kids loved their costumes and that’s what mattered.

Willy Wonka and Yoda – Book Week 2017

After a week of rubbish weather, it was a lovely morning and we watched all the classes from Reception to Year 7 and the Disability Unit parade around the basketball court. So many great costumes and kids having such a great time. A group of Year 7 girls covered in cotton wool, including one in a bath as the sheep from Where is the Green Sheep? An incredible darlek. Footy and cricket players, princesses, Spidermen, lots of David Walliams and Roald Dahl characters. Old favourite books and some I’d never heard of. This the best bit of Book Week – seeing kids excited about books and . Teachers joined in the fun as Trolls, pirates, Harry Potter and animals. Then 450 kids danced to the theme from Ghostbusters and I’m from the country. Best of all – smiles – lots of them from the kids, their families and the school community – and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only grown-up plotting excuses for a dress-up party of our own!

Last year’s costumes – boys said no to face paint this year

So many books, so little time (to write)!

At the beginning of the year, I did a great “Make Time to Write” course through the Australian Writer’s Centre. I very quickly realised that I was making too many excuses about why I wasn’t writing. I also quickly realised that if I set the clock for 30 – or even 15 minutes – I could write a few hundred words. But it’s generally stream of consciousness stuff and it’s the sort of writing I do well at the end of the day when thoughts have been spinning around my head while I’ve been working or driving or hanging out with my family during the day. The challenge is then sitting down the next day to polish those words, find the photos and links and publish a blog post. Of late, that’s where I have fallen down.

But the other reason I haven’t been writing much is that I’m spending alot of my limited spare time reading and watching TV. Having a (long) list of books I’d like to read and movies and TV I’d like to watch is nothing new. I’ve often had lists scribbled on paper, notes or photos in my phone and in the last year, have had a list on the Goodreads app – which is really handy when browsing the shelves of a library or book shop.

When I started listening to Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales Chats 10 Looks 3 podcast, my book list started to grow exponentially, as did my list of TV shows, movies, podcasts and must-cook recipes but the podcast was on every couple of weeks at best as so I could almost keep up.

Then came the Facebook group – and things are officially out of control. In a few weeks, the group has grown to nearly 13,000 members and probably fills 85 per cent of my Facebook feed. Not that I am complaining, because it is one of the most enjoyable Facebook groups I’ve been a part of. Annabel, Leigh and the amazing Brenda have made sure that the focus is firmly on books, TV shows, movies and cooking. When it comes to cooking, I’d say the posts a a fair split between “Chatter’s crack” – a moreish recipe from Smitten Kitchen made from salada biscuits, caramel and chocolate topped with nuts (which I eventually made – and demolished), Ottolenghi dishes and everything else.  There’s no nastiness and very little whinging and complaining. It is one of the most positive and uplifting online spaces I have been a part of.

Chatter’s Crack – Thanks Smitten Kitchen

But then the books! My Goodreads list is growing faster than ever, there is a tower of books on my beside table that threatens to squish me in the night and I’ve found myself jumping between hardcover books (two at a time), an audio book and a couple of books on my iPad – and still ordering books and borrowing from the library.  And TV shows. In the last few weeks, we have binge watched three seasons of The Americans (and would have moved on to the next two seasons if they were available), series 2 of Cleverman, Utopia (so I can have flashbacks to my public service life), the Handmaid’s Tale (incredible and confronting but I can’t wait for Season Two) and I’ve started on Season One of Top of the Lake.  And it goes without saying that I’m watching the 7.30 Report and The House!

My current “To Be Read” pile – and this doesn’t include the books on my iPad and the other pile on the floor

I feel like I am on some sort of reading and watching bootcamp, anxiously trying to keep up and plough through the required reading and viewing. Being part of this club sharing photos of your TBR (to be read) pile, and obsessing over what to read, watch and cook next. I’m missing the days of having sick leave and no children (although I probably shouldn’t have said that in earshot of my six year old) but I am loving the excuse to read more. I feel like I’m part of a big online book club.

Spending more of my time reading has probably cut into to my writing time, but as I learned earlier in the year, it is just about carving out small parts of my day. At the same time, I know that part of becoming a better writing is reading more. And the more I read, the more books I hear about and see, the more I believe that I have got a story to share that is unique and will find an audience.

As always, I get to the end of a post, and I’m never quite sure how to wrap things up, so I am just going to leave this Oliver Sachs quote from the beautiful Insomniac City by Bill Hayes (one of my favourite books this year) – which has inspired me to keep writing.

“The most we can do is to write – intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively – about what it is like living in the world at this time”. Oliver Sachs, April 2015

Insomniac City – a beautful book by Bill Hayes about his life his relationship with Oliver Sachs and New York. Beautiful writing and photos – so glad I was reading a hard copy version

 

 

Three years among the vines

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The view over the Barossa from Mengler’s Hill – 29 July 2017

Three years ago today, a family of four, including two little boys aged three and five, left their motel in NSW, drove through Victoria and arrived in South Australia. In the early afternoon, with two children asleep, they drove into Tanunda, the place they had decided (with only some online research, two friends and a handful of visits) was going to be their new home. Leaving the boys to sleep, they drove by the school (where they were meeting the principal the next morning), and the house they were hoping to rent. The weather wasn’t great and as they arrived at the motel, they were a bit worried about that choice, but it was exciting. Besides, since leaving their house in Hanoi six weeks before, they had already stayed in eight different places. A massive storm hit as they were picking up supplies from the supermarket and as they put together a meal of pasta and sauce on the floor of their motel room, she was grateful they were together – even if they didn’t know what would come next.

That family was us and I still can’t believe it has been three years since we moved here. We have had our share of ups and downs, but I don’t think we have ever regretted the decision to move here. It still surprises me how quickly it all happened. We arrived here on the Tuesday and moved into our house on the Friday, with the stuff we’d had stored in Canberra arriving that same day. The boys started school and childcare that day and Simon started work the following Monday. Suddenly I was at home alone, the reality of my career and lifestyle change slowly sinking in.

I wrote this post a year after we arrived and I think a lot of it still rings true. Probably the one thing I didn’t expect was while you can make friends and feel settled quite quickly, there are still days where it doesn’t come easy. People often joke that you need three generations of Barossan family buried here to call yourself a local. While we have made incredible friends through school, work, the kids and their sport and more recently through Crossfit, there are times when you can’t help but feel like an outsider. I think it’s for that reason we’ve tried extra hard to learn about the history, explore places to eat, find our favourite cellar doors and get involved in the community.

We’ve really appreciated the friends who have provided job opportunities for us both, got our  boys playing hockey and basketball, invited us to social activities and made us feel welcome. When Simon had surgery in early 2016 to have a cancerous tumour removed and 20cm of titanium inserted in his arm, we were blown away by the support that was offered to us. The boys consider this their home, and after we bought our place last year, I have to say that I feel truly at home here.  A wardrobe full of too small clothes is also evidence that I’ve heartily embraced the best the Barossa has to offer, but fortunately in the last year, I’ve started to focus on exercise again and I’ve started running again.

After three years, I still find the juggle of part-time work,  housework, the boys activities, trying to develop a writing career and have a social life can become overwhelming and I think I’m just coming to terms with what a big change it was to leave a 15 year career. Deciding to wind up the consulting business I started was a difficult decision, but it has been great to just focus on  my part-time job in the wine industry while I try and write more. Leaving my career and not knowing what I would do next has probably made settling down more difficult, particularly as it isn’t something my friends here have experienced. I am only just coming to terms that making such a big career change also necessitates a big lifestyle change. There is the odd pang of jealousy when I see a Facebook post from a friend on an overseas posting enjoyable some fabulous travel experience but then I remind myself of the beautiful place we’re living and the opportunities that we have on our doorstop.

One of the highlights of living here has been visits from friends and family as it always provides a great opportunity to explore new places and revisit and share our favourites. It is hard being away from family, especially when they might be unwell or missing important birthdays and other activities, but it has also made me appreciate friends and family more. We couldn’t have made such a massive change without their support.

Reading back over my post from the first year (and a post from one of my favourite bloggers about her tree-change seven years ago), I was trying to think whether there was anything I would have done differently and I honestly can say, I don’t think there is. I think had we thought too much about our decision, the enormity of it all probably would have caused us to chicken out. I feel like three years on, we are all starting to feel settled, having our own house has given us a base to build on and there is no question this is where we want to be.

And while the locals might not see us that way (and the Swans remain my number 1 footy team), this is our home and we’re pretty happy about it.

 

 

Long live the blog

When I first left work 3 years ago and moved to the Barossa, I was excited about starting a blog. It would be about my career change, and our new life and after 15 years working for government, I could say whatever I wanted. Over time it has included career change interviews, cooking, travel (both local trips and some of my favourite places in Vietnam) as well as my experiences with starting-up (and winding-down) my own business.  More My blogging has been erratic at best and I have often struggled to come up a proper blog post with photos – not to mention having any sort of theme. But I’ll happily write a Facebook post.

One of the reasons I wanted to blog was to have a conversation and engage with other people. But despite sharing my posts across social media, I wasn’t really seeing that many people (apart from family and friends) visiting or reading. While this probably has alot to do with the inconsistent subject matter and posts, I did wonder whether people were actually reading blogs anymore. Is our online time now taken up with Facebook groups, podcasts and other social media?

After deciding to try and write a book last year, I have looked at blogging as a way to improve my writing. Then a couple of months ago, a post about my son’s photo shopped teethpost about my son’s photo shopped teeth went viral and was republished in a number of places. It made me think that perhaps rather than spending my time blogging for free, I should start focusing on writing paid pieces and use Facebook to build a community and engage with people on a more regular basis.

I put this question to the Chats 10 Looks 3 Facebook group. This group of fans (aka “chatters”) of the podcast by Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales started about 2 weeks ago and already has over 7000 members. Given that they are a very well-read bunch, I figured it was a good place to start – do you blog? Do you still read blogs?

I was quite excited and a bit surprised by the answers. While there is no doubt that people are using Facebook more to interact and engage with their online communities, a blog is still seen as a more personal space to write longer pieces – even if there isn’t the engagement from readers. It is a space you can personalise and it is yours. As someone pointed out, you don’t have control over your Facebook post and what happens if Facebook blocks you?

For many people, they are just happy to have the space to write for their own enjoyment and that of their readers – even when the group might be small. For writers and authors (and those starting out) a blog seems to be a great platform. For many people it is a more personal way of sharing their story – whether it be fighting an illness, parenting, building a career or travelling. In some cases, blog posts have led to paid writing gigs and other job opportunities.

When I posted the question, I was really trying to decide whether to keep blogging but after so many lovely comments (and a long list of new blogs to add to my reading list), not only have a decided to keep blogging, but I’ve written a post!

Do you blog? Do you still read blogs?

And if you don’t feel like commenting below, please visit my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/wordsbyange/ and we can have a chat there.

So many things to read means not nearly enough time to write

Farewell to Hanoi – 3 years on

Today marks 3 years since we left Hanoi at the end of our 3.5 year posting. We have been back in Australia for almost as long as we were there.

Our life has changed so much since then. Our little boys who were 3.5 months and 2 years old when we arrived in Hanoi, were still so little when we left – and are now school boys. We’ve had our ups and downs adjusting to a new life in the Barossa. There are days where I do miss the challenge of my public service/diplomatic career and I wonder whether leaving it behind was the right thing to do. But then I think about our wonderful lifestyle, the new friends who have welcomed us into this community and supported us and the opportunities we have been presented. I look at two little boys thriving in this beautiful rural town, playing sport and learning so much and I appreciate the fact I do have the time to spend with them and create my own new career.

The photos below were just a quick sample, uploaded in between the boys Crossfit class and basketball yesterday. It would be lovely to sit and browse through the albums of thousands of photos we took during the years. But how do you sum up 3.5 years of your life in photos or even words. We grew as parents and as a family and made some big decisions. We had the most incredible experiences and we made friends from all around the world. There are so many wonderful people from Vietnam and beyond that really should be in the photos below.

Its been cold and rainy here in the Barossa today and so I can’t help but miss the Hanoi summer. We are so grateful to have had the chance to call another place home and while it was only 3.5 years, it will always be a very special part of our family’s story.

 

5 things the viral teeth post taught me

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Just a selection of the news articles about the photo-shopped teeth – US, Finland, Belgium, US and France

Last Monday, I really thought the story of the photo shopped teeth was done. I  declined interviews from a couple of local radio stations and a national evening show because I was concerned that perhaps I’d already said enough and I figured I didn’t need to spotlight my son or his school further.

Then I had an offer to republish the post with my byline on Mamamia, a popular Australian online platform.  I’d just read its founder Mia Freedman’s book, Work Strife Balance and given that I’m trying to build my profile as a writer, I thought this was a good opportunity to have my post republished.

As the week went on, the sites that were directing traffic to my blog continued to grow. I found myself asking if anyone could translate the Belgian, French or Finnish articles that had linked to the blog. Articles are now actually referring to the post going viral.

The story was picked up by a couple of sites in the United States, including the Today Show who wrote to me with more questions. So I wasn’t that surprised when a friend on a work trip in the US tagged me on Facebook with screenshots of the story on their breakfast program on Monday. Requests from various US blogs have followed and this morning I’ve had an email from Canada. A couple of photography websites have asked to republish my blog in full – which is great if the industry are thinking about the ethics of photo shopping.

I can’t get over how much interest this story has generated but it has definitely given me a few insights:

  1. You can’t pick what will go viral and once it’s out there, anyone can write about what you have written and share photos.

This is a good reminder for all of us – and a good lesson to share with our kids. While this post might be about embracing the embarrassing photos we have as kids, but let’s encourage our older kids to be a bit careful. Once my blog post was reported on and republished, I wasn’t in control. I was also a bit surprised when one UK news site published a photo I’d posted on Instagram the night before (quickly set my Instagram to private for a little while). Once the post started going viral, I was definitely glad I’d kept my son’s name, his school and the company out of the post.

2.  The media cycle isn’t as short as we might think.

I was excited when my post was first shared by a couple of bloggers with big audiences. Watching my readers spike was exciting. This post has been read by about 4700 people – the next most read post on my blog has had about 370 visitors – and that was published in 2014!  Last week I thought the story was done here, but then other countries picked it up. Politicians make announcements to kill off stories they might feel have gone on for too long, but when your story has been picked up out of nowhere, it’s pretty hard to influence what gets covered next. It’s  a bit like a baton relay so I’m now just waiting to see who picks it up next – and hope nothing gets lost in translation

3. Just keep writing – even when you don’t know what to write.

I originally shared the story on a closed forum because I was so baffled. But then I learned it was more common and it was sometimes a paid add-on. I wrote the blog to start a discussion about authentic photos – not just for our kids, but also for ourselves. Now my challenge is keep writing and as I wrote in my last post, to write about things that matter to me. It will probably be a long time before I’ll have 4000 people reading my posts again, but I’ll just keep writing anyway.

4. Blogging and social media has changed traditional media.

Although some articles have just copied parts of my blog, many journalists have contacted me to ask follow up questions and ask for permission to use photos. In what feels like an era of continual cutbacks to journalists and photographers in news organisations, I can appreciate journalists need to use the resources out there – in this case bloggers – because they don’t have the time/money to go out and find content. In that case, I’m happy to play a role, and is it really any different to an organisation sending a media release? On the other hand, I hate to think this justifies the shrinking of an important profession. Social media and blogs can play a role in modern journalism but they shouldn’t replace proper well resourced investigative journalism.

5. The overwhelming response to my post has been that people don’t want their kids school photos photo shopped because those memories are precious.

Can we please all remember this when the expensive photos we have purchased come back less than perfect? This is not to say that we should accept poor quality photos – but if our children’s hair looks bad, their teeth are wonky and there is a pimple on their chin, smile and remind yourself that this just is how they look right now. The same can probably be said for any photos have done. As a Mum, I know there are times I have missed out on photos with my boys because I didn’t have make-up on, my hair done or the right clothes on. But this has made me stop and realise, its up to me to set an example and just accept capturing the moment – even if it isn’t “perfect”.

While Gappy thinks its all a laugh, and our six-year-old is feeling a little left out, this whole experience has been a great lesson in social media and more importantly in accepting ourselves, just as we are.

So if you knew your post would go viral, what would you write about?

What do I write about now?

I’m still blown away by the response to my post about the Photoshopping of my son’s teeth in his school photo.

I was so chuffed to have bloggers that I’ve followed for ages share my post. Then a couple of journalists got in touch, news.com.au ran an article and then this morning on the way to hockey a friend rang to say she’d just seen them talking about it on the Today Show. Another journalist rang me at home – he was wondering if Gappy McGapster and I would like to have our photo taken for the Sunday paper. I declined but said while I was surprised about the response, I hoped it would make all of us think about being more authentic with the photos we share and post. I love the photos Lauren from The Thud shares that remind us that so many of the photos we see on social media are carefully curated (and probably filtered if not photoshopped).

 

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Enter a caption

Gappy thinks its all hilarious and as we left a 1st Birthday party yesyerday he said, “I’m surprised more people didn’t recognise me from Mrs Woog’s Page – he’s eight!

But while it is exciting to watch lots of people coming to read my post, I’m not kidding myself that I’m about to turn into some overnight blogging sensation. It has encouraged me to write a bit more but to be honest, I feel a bit how I imagine a debut artist feels when their first song hits number 1 – where to next?

Over the last 3 years, I’ve been a fairly inconsistent blogger and I’ve struggled to find a “theme” and thus an audience. I started the blog as an outlet when I left the public service and we moved from Vietnam to the Barossa. I was excited about the freedom to write about whatever I wanted. I have written posts about recipes, travel advice, career change and starting a business (and failing), as I’ve undergone my own transformation from diplomat to student, trade consultant and business owner and now writer and jack of all trades for a winemaker.

 

I wrote the post about the photoshopped teeth because it mattered to me so maybe I just need write about the things that matter to me, the things that make me smile, the things I like. Maybe they won’t always be popular or headline grabbing, but that’s not what this is about.

Right now, the list of things that matter to me is long – marriage equality, gender equality, climate change, access to health and education,  health and fitness, resilience (especially in kids), opening our homes and hearts to refugees, preserving our heritage and environment.

I love food and I used to love cooking until I had to do it every night. I love wine and I’m loving learning more about the industry from growing grapes to making the wine and then selling it. Admitting my business had failed was hard, but I love not having to juggle so much. I think social media is great but I probably show my age that I really only use Facebook, Instagram and occasionally Twitter (although it’s still my first stop for breaking news).

I love Crossfit when I go to bed early enough to get up, and I will run another half marathon this year – albeit very slowly. I love our old house but I am a crap housekeeper and need some serious motivation to get the garden under control. I love my family and I love seeing the boys embrace new things and make new friends (even if I moan about driving them around and constantly feeding them).

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My “beautiful” backyard

I love the Barossa but I miss my family and I miss living in Asia. I’m reliving our time in Hanoi through the book I’m trying to write – which at the moment is just many pages of  jumbled memories. I wish I had more time to write – and to read. I know I need to budget better, be more frugal and I’m currently obsessed by the war on waste – which means I do need to control my love of shopping and stuff!

So if any of that appeals. Stick around. Follow me on Instagram (especially if you like food, wine and beautiful scenery). Like my Facebook page – where I promise to share more than just blog posts and follow the blog because I can’t promise to be consistent or regular. Comments and debate welcome but play nicely and tell me where I can read your stuff. But mostly be good to each other, and yourself and enjoy life.

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No filter or photo shopping required on a winter day in the Barossa