R U OK?

 

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Credit: RU OK

Today is R U OK Day but I hadn’t planned to write a blog post about it partly because I’m not an expert in mental health. But then I wrote a post on Facebook this morning and I thought I should share a slightly edited version of that because while it is all very well for me to share social media posts from organisations like R U OK and their partners, I thought it was also important to be honest and say that I am not OK every day.

Like most people, some days are tougher than others. Making as big a change as we did three years ago is not without stress. We are lucky to have great friends and family to support us, but that doesn’t mean that it has been a walk in the park. I left behind a 15-year career and we moved to a place where we had two friends. We had a child starting primary school, one back at home after two years in an international pre-school, we had to find a place to live, make friends, find jobs and carve out a space in the community. Leaving my career didn’t just mean a change of jobs but it was required a lifestyle change – because deciding not to work full-time, means we had to change the way we lived (and that has not been easy).

It is also tough being a parent sometimes, hoping you’re getting the balance right between doing much and not doing enough for your kids. Should the boys watch less TV? Have they had too much screen time? Do they eat the right food? Are they doing well at school? Do they know they are loved – even when Mummy screams about the messy room for the 500th time?

And as if Mummy guilt isn’t enough, then then is the career guilt. Did I do the right thing leaving DFAT? I still don’t know where I’m going with my career, and I’m still feeling a little flat that I had to concede the consultancy was not the gig for me. I’m tired of juggling the never-ending bills, the piles of washing, the overgrown garden, the constant shopping and cooking, the cleaning and all the other stuff that is just part of adulting. Simon’s tumor and ongoing recovery was a curveball we could have done without but we’re forever grateful for science, incredible medical professionals and the support he has received.

My heart really does hurt for the people doing it much tougher. As we prepare to vote on the marriage equality plebiscite (a resounding YES from me but I wish our leaders could have just sorted this out years ago), I am so distressed for those affected by this awful vote. Love is love and surely we can all agree we need more of it. The government’s stance of refugees makes me sad that we are not the welcoming and inclusive country I was born into. I hate to think what my Dad, who gave so many years to working with migrants and helping them to settle and be included, would make of this poor treatment of refugees. I’m concerned that there are those that believe we can continue to ignore climate change and the impact we are having on the environment. For someone that has always loved the news and staying abreast of current affairs, I find myself switching off because it is all too depressing.

We also need to remember that if we are not OK, we are not OK – regardless of whether we think what is bothering us is less than someone else is dealing with. This sort of stuff is not a competition. While I try not to “sweat the small stuff”, I am aware these days that my small stuff can add up and cause me to feel less than OK, even when I know it pales in comparison to someone else’s problem.

But on the upside, I am mostly be positive about the future and I am thankful that at the moment, we can deal with what’s on our plates, and that the good outweighs the bad. I watch stories on Australian Story like the one on how RU OK was created and the two guys who have fostered so many kids, and I have to believe that there will always be good people out there and that there better days ahead for everyone. I also have to believe that while I might be only one person, I have to try and make a difference where I can.

In the meantime, we all need to take care of ourselves and be there for the people around us – especially those who might not be so ready to say they aren’t OK. There’s some great resources here on the RU OK website that I’m going to explore further but I’d also think its important to get professional help when you need it.

I hope you’ll join me in committing to have that conversation, listening better to your friends and family and asking for help when you need it.

 

 

Writing true stories

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Me and my Dad – late 1974

Last week, I decided that for Father’s Day, I would write a blog post about my Dad, who died almost 8 years ago. I sent a group message to my immediate family – my Mum, my two sisters and brother, brother-in-law and my husband because he isn’t just MY Dad. He is a husband and a father and a father-in-law. I wanted to make sure that whatever I wrote would not upset anyone. At first I put off writing because my Dad crammed a lot into his 83 years and his story is really interesting. There was so much I wanted to say but as I try and keep my blog posts under 1000 words, I wasn’t sure how to fit it all in.

Once I started writing, I was on a roll, and I actually mentioned to Mum that we should write a book. Mum had written a lot about Dad when he died,  stemming from the eulogy she gave at his funeral and I’m sure my siblings would have a lot to add. But that was a project for another time and for now, I just wanted to write a short piece to celebrate his life on Father’s Day.

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Our Wedding Day – and our family altogether. My Dad and Grandma at the front, then my niece, brother in law, sister, me, Simon, Mum, my Poppy, my sister in law, brother and sister. Canberra, October 2006

Born in 1926, Dad arrived in Australia as a two year old during the Great Depression. He left school young, built a career in Wollongong, first in BHP in employment, then in public relations, and then subsequent careers working for the Illawarra Hawks basketball team and at the Novotel before retiring at 73. He was involved in football (the round ball kind – soccer), was a patron of over 130 ethnic groups, was instrumental in establishing a business networking organisation, was involved in local and state politics (including as an alderman on local council and a campaign manager), had an Italian Knighthood and an Order of Australia. He was married twice and had two sets of kids – who are all to this day, close. Dad loved music, sport, the occasional round of golf, food, red wine and good whiskey.

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Front page of the Illawarra Mercury – my sister and I with Dad when he received his Italian knighthood

I’d almost succeeded in drafting a concise history of my Dad, when Simon suggested we go and visit the new gin bar down the road. Despite the fact that it was cold, wet and windy and going out would require a change from tracksuit pants and ugg boots and some make-up, it was Father’s Day, so I agreed. I was also glad to have a break from writing because I was finding it harder than usual to write the last paragraph. How could I wrap up this short history of Dad’s life and do it justice? I’d also made the mistake of reading the eulogy I wrote for Dad’s funeral and looking at the photos we’d put together for a slide show and I was a bit teary.

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Dad and Angus (about 1 month old), January 2009

So off to The Stillery we went for a G&T (from a list of about 20 which includes the Barossa Distilling Company’s own gin), half a dozen oysters and a cheese platter. A nice escape on a chilly day and I even found myself wondering whether it was acceptable to schedule an afternoon G&T writing session every couple of weeks! While the Barossa might be known for it’s wine, there are a number of craft beer, cider and spirits producers doing some really interesting things.

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But I digress – this post is about writing, not drinking! When I got home, I continued to work on the blog about Dad, but I was still finding it hard and I think for the first time I realised that perhaps I had been wrong in thinking that non-fiction was easier than fiction.  Apart from a few thousand words on a fiction novel for my first attempt at Nanowrimo (the national novel writing month where participants aim to complete a 50,000 word manuscript  in November)  in 2014, my recent writing efforts have focused on a memoir of my time in Vietnam and blog posts. I assumed that writing non-fiction would be easier because I didn’t have to be creative. It was just writing about my experiences and opinions. But nothing could be further from the truth. What I am now realising is that writing non-fiction involves so much research, fact-checking and the risk  that the way you portray a person or experience might offend someone, which is even worse if you are writing about someone who isn’t around to give their take on the story.

I am still keen to write a story about my Dad, and I would also like to explore the possibility of writing something longer than a blog post. But I have realised that I need to learn some skills to give me the confidence to accurately and authentically tell true stories. Next week, I’m starting my first formal writing course – Magazine and Newspaper Writing Stage 1 through the Australian Writers’ Centre. I’m hoping that writing more, and having my work critiqued will give me the confidence to write my true stories – and in the meantime, I might just dip my toe into the world of creative writing and see what I come up with.

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Dad wasn’t known for his cooking – apart from his bacon wrapped scallops!

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.

 

 

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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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

The Chicken Pox blogging challenge

Hello and welcome to the Chicken Pox Pity Party. If you’re related to me or one of my friends on Facebook, you’ll know that two days into the term, after what seemed like an eternally long holiday, I got the call from school that every parent dreads.

“Hello, it’s the office – we think A has chicken pox”. 

So at least wasn’t the school sores the teacher had suspected and I’d dismissed after a quick search of Dr Google.

“I’ll come and get him”.

I didn’t dispute it – after all it’s 27 years since I had the chicken pox and I hadn’t seen it since. The biggest mystery was where they had picked it up as we’d been away from school for two weeks and we haven’t heard of any cases recently.

The day before, I’d looked at his spotty face and assumed that it was the usual mosquito bites or grass rash – because like his mother, this kids blows up from the slightest mozzie bite.

I picked him up and he was chirpy. He perked up more we he realised that sick kids home from school get to binge on Netflix and the iPad – especially when their mother needs to work. At this point, I should thank my lucky stars that while I have a casual job with no sick leave, I have a very accomodating boss who is happy for me to work from home – and the office (which I’m usually the only one in) is 5 minutes from home.

He was a little itchy so we stocked up on Pinetarsol solution and Clarantyne. I’d already booked a doctors appointment before the school called after the teacher’s suspected diagnosis.

By the time I went to pick the small one up, he already knew his brother had gone home sick. Off we went to the doctor, who agreed it probably was chicken pox but took a swab anyway. Vaccination means the cases are less severe but the odd breaktrhough case happens. X wasn’t likely to get it. The doctor even got the student doctor see if she knew what it was because apparently young doctors have barely seen a case – but in his usually confident manner, A announced he had chicken pox (no need to be so proud about catching that one mister) as soon as she walked in.

The worst bit was having to let the school, hockey and basketball know. We were those people. Most friends were relaxed. One friend with older kids suggested I open “pox camp” and get it out of the way for everyone.

Pox-kid and I stayed home. I searched for ear-muffs and decided larangytis would be preferable. He didn’t even seem sick. He still needed to be fed.

We survived another day at home, took the small one to his first Crossfit Kids class at my  gym,  sent him off to basketball with a friend for the first game of the season (with the team his brother had probably infected on Monday).

All good – until bath time.

Six spots – maybe ten at best. ON THE SMALL ONE!!

Next round of apologetic emails and texts to those he’d been around – and dread that quarantine had been extended by another two days. And not only that – two of them – together – one iPad, one TV. The small one can’t be guaranteed to bury his head in a book.

And so I went to bed last night, wallowing in my own little pity party. I also decided I’d probably better chuck myself in quarantine – just in case.

However, as we come to the end of Friday, they haven’t killed each other, I still don’t have spots, I’ve done some work and the doctor called to say the diagnosis is inconclusive but to proceed on the basis of it being chicken pox.

But, I’m focusing on the positive. I got to work from bed, in my PJs until after 10 this morning, and I’ve decided to use this extra time at home to read and write – hence the chicken pox blogging challenge!

Husband is also coming home with wine – and I figure I’ve just doubled my Mother’s Day present!

Stay tuned