Because you kissed him

The kids are pretending to be primary school teachers. The Girlie says to an imaginary girl, "Well, you go to time out now, because YOU KISSED HIM!"

I go about picking up washing and think to myself, well, that's interesting...

Questions and answers: the crossroads of parenthood

Recently Kaili asked me about the parenting 'crossroads' I mentioned in another post and I felt I wanted to write about it a bit more.

It's to do with... geesh, I don't even know where to start :).

Let's start with the differences between primary schools in New Zealand and in Nordic countries. In New Zealand, kids start school when they are 5 years old; in Nordic countries they start at 6-7. Although NZ law requires children to start anytime between their 5th and 6th birthday (children sort of slowly 'drip' into school, one at a time, rather than starting all together at the beginning of the year), most children start either on their 5th birthday or very close to it - so, let's call it, 5.

At school in the morning with my two little ones. The littlest one, I think, will go to school on her 5th birthday. If you ask her, she's READY.

In that sense, our decision to delay The Kid's start of school until he was 6 was seen rather unusual. In fact, quite a few people questioned this decision; some even tried to persuade us to change our mind. But we persevered and, in hindsight, we've been very happy with this decision. Although The Kid is, technically, a year older than most of his classmates, he doesn't look it. He's 'on par' with others in his skills. Even physically, he is among the smallest boys in class. Delaying his school start until we felt that he was ready, has felt like a good decision.

It didn't feel like an easy decision at the time. In hindsight, I recognise that it, too, was crossroads we were at as a family because, rather than being simply a decision about school start, it was a question about priorities. Along with deciding to delay The Kid's school start, it was about deciding to do what we think is good for our family. We found guidance in the words of a paediatrician who said to us: the most important thing in terms of children's development is happiness - both their personal happiness and that of their family unit.

This year, I feel, that thinking is being challenged and it's what I mean when I say, I feel like I'm at a parenting crossroads again.

***

It started with Conductive Education a few months ago. (To re-cap: conductive education is a weekly therapy class we attend where The Kid does a variety of tasks: fine motor, gross motor, speech, reading etc.) The Kid had become resistant to attending and I was saying to the therapist that we need to increase the 'fun' level of the class. Conductive education has to remain a FUN place to come to, because the moment it becomes a chore - another job on the to-do list, a place where I need to coerce my child to come to - then gradually excuses will pop up about why we can't attend one week, then another week, until one day we will simply not want to attend any more.

The therapist didn't agree with me. To him, conductive education is a place where we do things that are important and that are hard - it can't all be fun.

By the way, I haven't got a problem with that. Of course! we do things that are important. And of course! we do things that are hard. And not all! of it has to be fun.

But there has to be more fun than not-fun. Fun has to be weaved into the fabric of things that are important and hard, because it's the joy of doing things will keep us coming back. There has to be some joy even in things that are important and hard.

I've had this conversation with our therapist on and off since, quietly and persistently vocalising to him what I feel is important to me - explaining to him the cornerstone of our family's values, joy. (Which, by the way, is different from 'pleasure'.)

***

Then, another little thing happened at The Kid's school called 'Reading recovery'.

I'll give a bit of a background.

A side-effect of NZ kids starting school relatively early compared to Nordic counterparts is that they are taught to read relatively early, too. For example: Finnish and Estonian kids who start school at age 7 can learn to read before school if they want to and are ready for it, but they don't have to. They learn alphabet, and how to use a pen, and write their name - but they are not expected to read books by age 7.

In New Zealand, on the other hand, kids are expected to read simple books by age 7. They are expected to 1) not use a finger to 'follow' words, 2) not pause between words, so that their reading can 'flow' naturally throughout the sentence, 3) write a variety of words independently (schools give out special prizes when kids can write 25 words correctly in 10 minutes, then 50 words, then 100 words). The whole concept of learning to read is about 1-1.5 years earlier than in Nordic countries. What Nordic kids do at about age 7, in New Zealand kids do at about 5-and-a-half.

The sort of books The Kid reads at the moment, aged 7 years 4 months

And I must say, I don't agree with that. From what I can see, a lot of the kids aren't functionally 'reading' at age 6. Rather, they are sight-recognising: they've seen a word "dad" so much that they know what "dad" looks like, and they can write it. They are encouraged to 'search' the books for cues: when The Kid comes to a word he doesn't recognise, he is encouraged to look around the pictures in the book and guess, basically, what the word is. ("Possum?" - "No, it's not a possum. Does it look like a possum?" - "Hmm... Koala?")

But I haven't brought it up as a problem with anyone because... well, I don't have to grumble about everything I don't agree with. Okay, so the school is doing something that I don't think is age-appropriate (because from what I understand about brain development, kids' brains are not ready to read, functionally, at age 6 which is why they are sight-reading) but... tough luck. Whole of New Zealand is doing it. It's a societal, institutional attitude - my grumbling is not going to change what The Kid is learning at school, so I'm not interested in grumbling at the moment. (And before anyone starts commenting: YES! Of course I know that some kids are ready to read at 5! But it's a difference between letting a child to start reading at 5 and expecting all kids to start at 5.)

And the thing is, I'm not concerned about The Kid's reading skills because we read books every day at home - it's our evening routine. Mostly me and The Man read  to him, but often he reads little bits on his own, too. Often, after we've finished reading, he takes the same book and reads it himself - sight-recognising words, mostly. It brings him joy and that's the important thing. When in town, we talk about things we see on signs; he asks me what's written on trucks and buses and shop fronts.

But, recently, The Kid was picked out for a special reading assistance programme at school called "Reading Recovery" and that's when I kind of started going... ehh.

Up until 2017, New Zealand had a practice of "National Standards" when it came to assessing kids' progress at school. Rather than letting the teacher just work with the kids, the teacher had to periodically 'assess' the kids' progress by comparing their skills to standards set by the government. The standard said, for example, that after 12 months at school a child needed to be able to read at level 6, whatever, and another paper defined what level 6 meant, exactly. A teacher had to report whether the child performed at "above" standards, or "at" standards", or "below" standards. These progress reports then got shared with parents and with Ministry of Education and a continuous "track record", so to speak, was available about kids' performance, comparing children in schools to other schools in the country.

Fortunately, national standards got abolished this year (after a new government was formed). I applaud that, because I don't see the need to assess a 6-year-old's ability to read based on whether he still uses his finger to point words or whether he is able to hold his hand behind his back. (I can sort of understand having national examinations at the end of high school and using the test scores to apply to universities, but with primary school students having national standards is, like... Yeah.)

Anyway, when The Kid reached his "12 months at school" age in June this year, his reading and maths etc ability was scored on 'National Standard' framework. (Although now abolished, the school has decided to keep 'National Standards' for one more year whilst they allow time for teachers to re-calibrate, because the abolishment notice came very late last year.) On the national standards, The Kid's reading ability was scored "Well below" standard.

National standards paper

Which, again, I am not concerned about because out of his whole class, only 2 children are "at" standard - everyone else is either "below" or "well below". On the National Standard, 6-year-old kids' reading skills are expected to change on a monthly basis, so even a 4-month delay in their reading progress suddenly puts them at "well below" standard. But because the school runs a special reading programme for kids that maybe need extra help, The Kid got put on it and I was, like, yeah, okay. Sure.

Every day The Kid has a 30-minute reading session with a teacher that specialises in 'reading recovery'. They read, write, cut up words, put the cut-outs back together again. The Kid likes it, and I like that he likes it.

But there's homework included. It's not much - a little book to read, a sentence of cut-up words to put together from that book. But... it's daily homework. Daily.

Maybe you don't see a problem in giving a 7-year-old daily homework of the same kind for weeks on end (it's always a book to read, and a cut-up sentence to put together like a puzzle) - but I do see a problem. After about 1.5 weeks The Kid started saying, "Again? I don't want to do it again..." and to be honest, I cannot blame him. I, too, would get bored if I was asked to do the same kind of homework every day. And I'm 33, whereas he is 7.

I had a chat to the reading recovery teacher about that. Fortunately she was understanding about it and agreed that, yes, if The Kid starts not liking the process then it's not going to help anyone, so just do as much as we can at home, and she'll do the rest at school.

I asked her, but why exactly is New Zealand trying to teach kids to read so early? She said that, honestly, she doesn't know. She hasn't even wondered about it - it's just what they do, and have always done. I told her about the Nordic model and she was interested in finding out more.

Because, really: if The Kid was a child in Finland or Estonia or Sweden, then he'd only be starting school in September. No-one would see the need to put him in 'Reading Recovery' or consider his reading skills "well below".

***

However, it really 'rubbed' on me when people were telling me about the importance of getting The Kid to 'catch up' and not be left 'behind'.

'Behind'. Compared to whom is that, exactly?

And, why?

***

In a sense, nothing major has happened. This parenting crossroads is not an 'event' of any kind as such.

But I feel that it's a quiet pressure of... recognising when my child is being 'pushed' to keep up with others for no other reason than to, simply, 'keep up with others'. And it makes me ask myself, what do we as a family stand for.

Me and The Man had a chat about it the other day. If there turn out to be areas of The Kid's development which start lagging behind others - which is entirely possible, because many kids have some areas of development which lag - then do we 'push' him to keep up? (And if we do, why exactly?)

Or do we just, you know... be? And let The Kid be, too.

As always, it's a question of balances. It's not black and white. Sometimes we 'push' The Kid - he says he "cannot" ride a bike on an uneven surface and we teach him that he can, indeed. In a swimming class he says he "cannot" swim "like a dolphin" (it's a swimming exercise they do) and I say to him, that's why we'll practice. I'll practice with you, show you how to do it. We'll practice together and we'll learn how to do it.

We even 'push' him to try foods - it's why we have a 3-mouthful-rule. Everything that gets put on the table, try 3 mouthfuls. After that, you can get down - but we try 3 mouthfuls first. And it's helped him learn to appreciate foods that he, initially, looked at and said, no to.

***

Physiotherapy. I've said to our physiotherapist a while ago already that, sorry, look - it's too much. We do conductive education. Parts of the year we do library clubs. We go swimming. We go climbing. We ride bikes and visit the skate park and walk. On top of all that kids need free time to just BE.

Days can be long and evenings tiring, sometimes
I know that physiotherapy would be good occasionally but, sorry - no. It's too much.

She understands. Which, again, I applaud.

***

It's the need to recognise that my child is different from others, and the pace at which he develops (and the way he interacts) is different from others.

Every child is. Different.

I feel a pressure to make him 'keep up' and I feel I am pushing out my feet in front of me and going, no. 'Keeping up with others' is not a valid argument. Developing skills, and bringing joy, and having fun - all valid arguments.

But 'keeping up' isn't.

PS. Just because, here's a photo of how The Man makes the kids' sandwiches.


:)

A new type of a seizure

It was a new type of a seizure for me.

At first, I didn't even know that's what it was. I couldn't see the letters on my A4 printout at school. There was a white "blotch" in the right side of my vision and it was blocking out some of the words, so at first I thought, "I must've looked at the ceiling light. My eyes are adjusting." (You know how, after you look directly at a bright light, it takes time for eyes to adjust again? That.)

But it wasn't going away. "Hmm, that's weird," I was thinking, as I kept struggling to read the words and moving my head side to side because I could only see a narrow patch of text at a time.

After about 3 minutes, it dawned on me. "Oh. I think I'm having a seizure."

I looked around the class a bit more and realised, the right side of my vision was getting more and more "patchy". Kind of like an edited video where colours are blurred and misplaced somewhat - everything on the right side of my vision was sort of "waving around", I couldn't see it properly.

And I also realised, I didn't have any progesterone in my backpack.

I looked at the clock: 9:30 am. Okay, so, the break's usually at 10 am. I can wait half an hour and go home during the break, get the medicine.

Or can I?

I mean, I wasn't sure. I was hoping I wouldn't have a full-on seizure, and I was thinking I wouldn't have a full-on seizure, but... was I 100% sure?

No. And that was the problem. I was sitting there at my desk, trying to quickly weigh up the options in my head. Go home now, alone, get the medicine? Or wait until break time, get someone to walk with me, but risk going longer without medicine?

Luckily, the decision was made for me. The teacher decided to wrap up earlier, so we could start covering the next topic after the break, and I was able to quickly explain the situation to my classmate, get him to walk home with me - just in case, you know, so I don't fall down in the middle of a street without anyone around me knowing what the heck is going on - and... yeah.

It all went well. It only takes about 6 minutes for me to walk home, so we had a good chat on the way, I grabbed the medicine, we made it back to class in time and within 20 minutes, the patchy vision was gone.

But it was an interesting experience because it reminded me how, 5 years ago, I also didn't know what on earth was the weird feeling that washed over me every now and again; and it's really difficult to explain to a doctor what the problem is when it's so difficult to even recognise what, exactly, is going on.

I figured out it was a partial seizure because I know enough about epilepsy - and me - that I am able to recognise a new type of a seizure, even if I haven't had one before. And I know what causes it, and I am able to quickly get medicine for it (and now be smart enough to have a stash of progesterone in my backpack ALWAYS), which is a very privileged position to be in.

It's... humbling and fascinating at the same time.

Edited to add: having now had several more episodes throughout the day (both one-sided and two-sided vision disturbances) followed by strong headaches, it's actually looking like an ocular migraine instead.

Which, either way, is a pain in the *hole*.  (And, you know what? It can be caused by the bloody same thing that my epilepsy is triggered by: lack of progesterone. Such "joy"!)

On the upside though: try googling "migraine visual disturbance", then click on 'images'. THE IMAGES LOOK SO REALISTIC! 



It's actually pretty cool how life-like those examples are. It's pretty much what I've been walking around with today: can't read books, can't see street signs, have to move my head back and forth before crossing the street to make sure there isn't a moving car in my blind spot.

And the headache. Oh, the headache. 

A MAJOR PAIN IN THE *HOLE*!

The choices of windows - aluminium, wood, uPVC

In modern New Zealand houses, aluminium windows are by far the most popular choice of window joinery. I don't know the exact percentages, unfortunately, but it is an overwhelming majority - almost every house that's built this year is fitted with aluminium windows.

My thoughts on this topic are... ambivalent. I mean, I get it: aluminium windows are low maintenance. They will last for a long, long, long time without rotting or needing to be painted. They're also cheap - as cheap as modern double-glazed windows get. But! That's about the end of the advantages.

The problem with aluminium is, it's really, really thermally conductive. Imagine a cold winter's morning: if it's cold on one side of the window, the temperature transfers (through the aluminium) onto the other side of the window so the window frame becomes very cold, too. Or to put it simply, double-paned glass itself may be fine in winter, but the window frame (that's made of aluminium) is REALLY cold around the glass.

Modern aluminium windows are trying to fix the problem by making the frame, what's called, "thermally broken". Instead of having one continuous metal sheet inside a window frame, frames get made of two separate pieces of aluminium - one on the inside, the other on the outside. And what's between them? Insulation.

An image from www.rylock.co.nz/suites/1179/pacific-thermal:

That little grey "circle" between pieces of aluminium is the thermal break

The aim is to decrease the amount of "thermal conductivity", ie make it harder for cold to "travel" through the frame to the inside of the house. But! Although the frame is thermally broken and functions better than a not-thermally-broken frame, it still gets colder than the rest of the window/house. And when warm, relatively moist air of the house comes in contact with an aluminium window frame, condensation occurs.

But before I get to condensation - let's cover other window options.

Windows can also get made of uPVC and wood.

uPVC is what's called "rigid" plastic (poly-vinyl-chloride) and it is commonly white - very popular in UK and Estonia. It is better than aluminium in terms of thermal conductivity - it won't gather condensation on it like an aluminium window does very easily. But! It is very unlikely to last beyond 30 years because uPVC degrades with time and sunlight - and NZ has high rates of UV radiation.

Wooden windows are even better than uPVC at thermal conductivity and make for really good window joinery. But! They need to be maintained, regularly. Every 5 years (at least) the windows need to be stripped of paint, re-painted, seals refitted. If maintenance is not upkept, the wood rots and once it has rotted, the damage cannot be undone - rotting is a linear process and it only goes one way. Wooden windows are also significantly more expensive than uPVC or aluminium. If someone is getting a whole house-worth of windows, then the choice between paying $30,000 versus $60,000 is actually a really big difference.

So, yes, I can see why most New Zealand houses are getting aluminium windows. They are choosing between wood (needs maintaining and is expensive), uPVC (degrades in sunlight), aluminium (high thermal conductivity and gets condensation). None of the options are "good", so they are choosing the window which problems they are most likely willing to put up with.

But... over life-time, if maintained well, wooden windows are actually cheaper. They can last a hundred years. I like things that last a hundred years.

...and I have a pet-peeve with condensation in New Zealand houses.

***

The reason I have a pet-peeve with condensation in New Zealand houses is because ventilation - as of yet - is not compulsory is residential buildings.

Typical NZ houses (and I do mean typical here because some buildings are coming around to the idea of healthy, well-built houses) - they don't get ventilation ducts / ventilation stacks installed; it's not yet required by the building code. Instead, they only get extractor fans installed in bathrooms and kitchens. Extractor fans "push out" moist air from the bathrooms and above cook-tops and then because the air pressure inside the house drops, fresh air starts getting "sucked in" through openings elsewhere.

Aluminium windows have ventilation "holes" precisely for that purpose. In fact, it could be said that a lot of New Zealand houses rely on their ventilation needs to be covered by the aluminium windows (what's called "trickle ventilation"). The little holes in the window joinery are designed to let fresh air "seep in" slowly, balancing somewhere between keeping windows reasonably weatherproof and letting fresh air in from somewhere.

But the problem is - and to be honest, it really only applies to New Zealand's South Island where winters can actually be quite cold at night, down to -10 C - that when condensation sets on the window frame, it partially blocks those ventilation holes. In really cold conditions, the condensation actually freezes in there.

And that brings me to ventilation as a whole. A healthy house needs ALL three things from the list below:

1. Insulation
2. Heating
3. Ventilation

It is NOT possible to have a healthy, temperature-managed, energy-consumption-managed indoor environment without them.

1) Lack of insulation would lead to heat loss (or in hot climates, heat gain) and would make it very expensive and inefficient to maintain a good temperature inside.
2) Lack of heating would, again, make it difficult to maintain a good temperature - but to be honest, if you are going to omit one thing from the list, omit heating because it brings with it the least amount of damage.
3) Lack of ventilation... I mean, wow. Where do I even start?

Houses need fresh air. If not for other reasons, houses need fresh air because people breathe out over 1 litre of water every day; plus cooking, showering etc. A house with 4 people in it, going about their daily lives, will get about 6 litres of water "expelled" into the air every day. Imagine someone boiling 6 litres of water into the house every day?

If that moisture has nowhere to go, it ends up "lingering" in the air. Humid air is very expensive to either heat or cool, and it makes mould/mildew grow indoors. When humid air comes in contact with cold objects, it creates condensation.

People breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. When a house doesn't have ventilation, even having a couple of people in the room makes oxygen levels drop and carbon dioxide go up - kind of like badly designed conference room gets "stuffy" at the end of a seminar.

The thing is, modern houses are getting more and more airtight. That, in itself, is a good thing - airtight construction goes hand-in-hand with good insulation and good moisture management. But! Unfortunately New Zealand houses have become airtight without getting ventilation made compulsory and that's where it really starts becoming a problem.

When people breathe-shower-cook indoors, the moisture content grows and the moisture has nowhere to go. In old houses the moisture would've gradually "seeped out" of the structure because old houses were drafty - the building envelope was leaky. But in new houses now the moisture just... sits there.

I don't understand WHY ventilation is not yet compulsory. A lot of new houses have those two extractor fans (one in the kitchen, one in the bathroom) - and that's it. There is no what's called "passive" ventilation at all, apart from those little holes in aluminium windows which, when it gets cold, don't function well anyway. The houses, basically, get fresh air when people open windows and doors.

I hope the change is coming. I think it's the New Zealand way, that first heating started getting installed (to create a way for people to get warm indoors). Then, insulation got installed because people didn't be as wasteful with the heat and they wanted the heat to last. And now, they will come around to the idea of ventilation.

But we're not there, yet.

Which brings me back to windows.

I have lived in (*counts on fingers*) nine houses in New Zealand. Prior to that, in my backpacking year, I probably stayed in at least twice as many. Of those twenty-odd buildings only one did not have an issue with condensation and at about 80% had problems with mould. Waking up in the morning with windows absolutely covered in water drops was... normal.

But those houses were old. They were built in 90's, 80's, 60's, 30's. I knew they had a problem with moisture management, but I assumed it was the consequence of being really old and not having been updated/repaired since. It took me several years to catch on to the fact that... even new houses in New Zealand have problems with moisture management.

This, for example:


It is not my photo, but I've been given permission to use it here.

The house on the photo was built less than a year ago. I have not inspected it, so I cannot say 100%, but it was probably "built to code", ie it fits all legal requirements set onto residential buildings in New Zealand. And yet, this is the condition of the windows when blinds get pulled up in the morning.

And the sad thing is, it's considered "normal". A lot of the people don't recognise this being a problem because they grew up with windows like that. "It's a bit of condensation, just wipe it off."

I disagree. It is a problem. It's an indication of high moisture content "lingering" inside a house that is probably quite well-sealed, and these are not single-glazed windows - these are modern, double-paned windows. What amount of moisture "sits" inside the structure? Behind furniture where air doesn't move well? Inside wardrobes?

New Zealand people open windows during the day (if they are home at day) and run dehumidifiers which "gather" moisture from the air and condense it into a water container which they then empty into a kitchen sink.

And yet, what these houses need, is ventilation. Fresh air.

***

Windows in our house are wooden - probably cedar. We haven't been able to work out if they are original (from 1925) or installed later. There is no obvious sign of them having been retro-fitted later - the joinery "fits" really well with the openings, as if it's always been there. But they are in remarkably good condition given the age, and I didn't think such windows were widely used in 1925 yet - I would've assumed double-hung sash windows instead.

But they're there: hardwood single-paned windows.

We've had to decide what to do with our windows. Take out and replace with something else? And if yes, with what?

Or keep the windows? But if we keep them, how to go about making them double-paned and well-sealed? Take out glass and put in a double-paned glass unit? Or put up another "window" on the inside, basically having the original window open to the outside and another, new window, open inside?

At the moment, we are leaning towards keeping them - forever.

I mean, "forever" is a big word, because nothing lasts forever - but what I mean is, we are not planning on replacing them with something else. We are going to fix them up in such a way that they would last, probably another several decades at least.

I haven't got a good photo of it at hand (I am typing this from a school classroom computer - I have already finished the assignment and there is nothing else for me to do at the moment, so I am blogging instead). I've found an old photo from our house, to try to explain it.


See how there is one window "unit" on the left, another one on the right? And at the top there are two more little "units"?

Well, the plan is to keep those, but add another wood-and-glass unit on the inside, kind of like this:


The old window would open to the outside, the new to the inside. The new unit would have a double-paned glass in it, so it would be triple-glazed window in total - 1 pane of glass outside, 2 panes of glass inside. There would be about 8 cm of air between the two panes.

I have already spoken to the local joinery workshop - they are experienced in making wooden windows.

I must say, it will not be a cheap exercise. It'll probably be cheaper than outright replacing the entire window with aluminium joinery, but cedar window frames are not cheap to make.

However, if maintained well, they could last another hundred years.

And I like things that last a hundred years.

PS. Sorry, gotta go now!

Climbing skills

Another weekend at Clip'n'Climb Invercargill we discovered that they are starting up an afternoon kids' class: instead of a free-for-all-let-parents-watch, they are doing an organised training session where there is focus is on climbing skills. 6 weeks, 1 hour each session, Tuesday afternoons.

6 weeks for $50, it sounds reasonable. Unfortunately, The Kid's school is doing their mid-winter swimming training at the moment and I know from last year's experience that I DO NOT WANT The Kid to have much else on his agenda when they're swimming 4 times a week so... yeah, no climbing training at the moment.

However, if they do another set of training sessions in spring, we might give it a go.

Both kids love the place.












Oops, I think I sketched the kitchen, too

Okay, so... this happened.


After I had sketched the back yard, I kinda got carried away and sketched up the kitchen plans, also.





As always, the result is not final until the thing actually gets built (which will not happen for a long time because, well, woodshed and deck and workshed and bedrooms and life somewhere between all that), but for the moment, it was a fun thing to do.

Also, this movie, A Hologram for the King, which we watched whilst I did the sketching, was so good!

Questions and answers: best books I have ever read

Tinker asked me, "Are you writing a new book? Is it a fiction book? If not, are you planning of writing fiction? Can you name (maybe at some point you already did :P) best books you have read?"

I'll start with the best books.

I don't log my reading anywhere, so these are just off the top of my head - chances are, I am forgetting some. But nevertheless:

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov. My favorite book ever, I think.

WINTERDANCE by Gary Paulsen. Probably the funniest book I have ever read :)

UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN by Frances Mayes. Beautifully written - and by that I mean, it reads like poetry although it's not poetry. Very visceral descriptions of food, landscape and smells. Really does feel like standing in Tuscany and experiencing what Frances talks about, when in fact it's just descriptions in a book!

MARLEY & ME by John Grogan. I still regularly pick up this book when I want to leaf through a couple of pages of something, but haven't got anything at hand.

EAT, PRAY, LOVE by Elizabeth Gilbert. A powerful, honest account of hope and playfulness.

THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Isn't it almost everyone's favorite?

VAARAO K√ĄTTEMAKS by Gleb Golubev. Not sure why, but I've loved this book since I was a kid.

UNSAID by Neil Abramson

I've devoured a large number of books that have to do with Antarctica and mountaineering - there are a lot of authors that have written a lot of books on these topics. But whilst they usually tell fascinating stories, they are not usually literary masterpieces so I have not included these here. Kind of like the book I've just finished: Trust me I'm a Junior Doctor by Max Prebbleton. I laughed out loud, and it's been a good book, but I wouldn't list it as one of the best books I've ever read. I would nevertheless recommend it though!

As to my own writing, yes, I am writing a new book. "Writing" is a very loose description though because, for the moment, I am not actively writing. I have several bits sitting on the Google Drive, to be worked on, but at the moment I am simply trying to pick up my life after a very tiresome two months of studying and holding together a family whilst everyone is tired and out of their routine after our trip to Europe in May.

It's a non-fiction book about New Zealand, re-telling of my first year here - the parts that I haven't shared publicly so far, and some parts I haven't shared at all. But it makes for a good reading, I think, and there is some interest from publishers. So we'll see, maybe one day it'll actually get finished :).

As to fiction? I spoke with some fellow writers two weeks ago that, although I have interest in fiction, it is never high enough on my priority list. Real life is always so much more fascinating than that!

I recently took part in a writing exercise where I submitted a short fiction story written from a perspective of a defence attorney in a court, and people who read it were asking me to write more - to "develop" these characters, and to tell more, because they wanted to know more about the story! But I said to them that, look, if I had two parallel lives of 24 hours a day each - one Maria here doing her study and weeding her greenhouse and taking care of her kids, and another Maria somewhere else who had time to do other stuff then, sure, I would write more. It would be cool to write more!

But I don't have time. It's not important enough for me to clear something off my already overflowing plate to make space for fiction writing, and so I don't write fiction. I only just manage writing non-fiction, and it always comes higher than fiction. I love real people's stories!

Estuary walkway at sunrise





They look like little petrels (sea birds) when huddled in coastal grass like that

Using Sketchup to lay out back yard plans

I've written before that when me and The Man discuss (and, at times, argue) about plans for this house, we do a lot of visualising through sketches. Most of the time it involves me, literally, sketching with a pen in a notepad so we both know that we're talking about the same thing.

But recently, we've started using Sketchup.


It's grown from a purely practical need for being able to quickly find out, if we put a greenhouse there, how much space will it leave for a lawnmover to go past it?

If we put a woodshed there, will we have to chop down the tree by the back fence?

A toolshed, will its corner go past where our two neighbours' fences meet? How far will it sit, exactly, if it's 4.8 m long?

We've done some of the discussing, literally, standing in the back yard and waving with our arms. We've laid bits of wood on the grass to show the other, "Here, this is what I was talking about - the woodshed will start from here."

But it's been really tedious because at a point where we've tried to lay out THE ENTIRE BACK YARD AT THE SAME TIME, changing one building's location has impacted on where something else fits, and eventually one of the kids (or both) will start screaming because someone has hurt someone or is needing to go to the toilet or someone is using someone else's bike... You get the idea, surely.

So, eventually, I got out Sketchup, quickly drafted our back yard on it (I've got the measurements written on a piece of paper) and then we would sit at the kitchen table and "play" whilst the kids either 1) sleep or 2) watch a cartoon.

Well, because it is "play", isn't it. The Man would ask me, "Hey, if we put the woodshed there - can you show me how it looks?" and I would draw a cube. It probably takes me 25 seconds to draw a cube with the measurements at hand. Then, if The Man thinks of something else, "Hey, what if we move it 1 metre this way?" I can quickly move the cube.

It is not fancy. We don't need fancy because, at this stage, we simply need to work out at which points corner-posts stand, and for that we simply need to know how much space a building takes on the land, so the most practical shape is, really, a cube.


We don't put a lot of technicality in it. The deck, for example, will have planter-beds for herbs or strawberries or whatever else we start growing in them - but we haven't put them on Sketchup because we don't need to, yet. On Sketchup we've simply laid out the basic dimensions of the deck.



I like the beauty of it - the beauty of simplicity of it. The software is free, it's easy to use (and to learn how to use) and it's this benefit of being a young person in 21st century that such tools are available for me.

On the big computer I also have Revit sitting because being an architectural student (well, technically I'm a quantity surveying student, but our programme sits under the same department as architecture) I also have access to free student licenses for professional software - but for this, I don't need Revit.

Sketchup will do.

Questions and answers: an epic New Zealand adventure I would go on

A couple of days ago Kate asked me, "If you could go on any epic New Zealand adventure, what would would you do and why?"

Wow, I must admit: that question really "winded" me. Not at first - because at first I thought, cool, I'll think of something I want to do in New Zealand. But then the longer I was thinking about it, the harder it was becoming because I got really... stuck with the choices that if I could do ANYTHING, what would I do?

One thing was money: if I assumed that money was not an issue, then it opened up possibilities that I hadn't considered before. Maybe sail a yacht around the South Island? Trek through difficult portions of the Southern Alps with a good friend of mine, a mountain guide on Mount Cook? Learn to fly a helicopter in Wanaka?

But, no, I thought - I don't feel passion towards those choices. I mean, I'd like to do them, yes, they're luxurious, yes, they sound exciting, yes, and they're normally out of my price range. But if I only had ONE choice and I could do ANYTHING, then in all honesty, I would actually choose to do...

...exactly the same thing I did in my first year in New Zealand, and that is to simply backpack the length of the country at a leisurely pace and to follow the seasons to where the work is.

I would stay at simple, cheap backpackers' hostels along the way and make friends with the people who stay there.



I would jump into wintery lakes with them, clothes and all, and laugh about it afterwards.


Sometimes, I would even put a wetsuit on - not that it helps much :)


I would buy an old campervan and let it take me to places that are too far to walk or take a bus to.



And I would work - short, seasonal jobs along the way. Pick apples in autumn, prune grapes in winter, plant all kinds of vegetables in spring.

Whenever between jobs, I would head in the mountains and just... be.


Sometimes alone; sometimes I would take these trips with friends I make along the way. Even in rain.




Of course, there would also be parties - not necessarily the big kind, but just hanging out with people I get along with.


Because money wouldn't be an issue, I would continue trying out things that are fun: like bungy jumping, and long-cable canyon swinging.





Head out on a boat.


Oh, and I would definitely do more canyoning! That was really fun.



Most of all, I would take the time to just be, and move unrushed, and rather than having an itinerary and a plane to catch and a rental car to drop off, I would just... be.

Yeah, I would just be, to be honest. I'd have the luxury of time.


That, and a lot of hikes of Department of Conservation land. :)







Any other questions? Ask them under the comments at Would you like to ask me a question?, please.