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Saturday, May 29, 2010

cats and dogs

It's been raining. And raining. And raining. And hailing and snowing in some places too. In fact, Extreme Weather has been pummelling the entire South Island of New Zealand for days now. Our flat is freezing, and we have the additional pleasure of a small, furry, unwelcome guest.

My way of rising above: buying flowery gumboots.

For others, it's slightly more extreme. This is a video taken of people kayaking and surfing the torrential river Leith in Dunedin, which is a city further south from here. Bear in mind when watching it that the Leith is usually a trickle.

And speaking of raining cats and dogs, I have discovered that I love cats! Meet Zoe:

She is my sister's kitten. This photo was taken about two months ago so she is bigger now, but she is still just as cute, and she is lovable and affectionate and comes to sit on my lap and likes being stroked. When I scratch her head in just the right way she purrs, and rubs my hand with her cheek. It's adorable.

I went off cats a long time ago because I was small and incautious, and our cat liked to bite. Now, I am starting to see what I've missed out on all these years.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

princess hats

My Niece-Aged-3 has been going through a very princessy phase. Actually, less phase, more eat-sleep-live-breathe-dream. She adores the Disney princesses but drinks in any other fairy tales involving princesses too. We visited the library together last Tuesday and grabbed a whole collection of fairy tales and there was one obscure and slightly strange princess tale that took about 20 minutes to read but she sat completely engrossed the entire time, eyes wide, as a white bear king (who was actually a prince) snatched off a princess and as the princess ended up rescuing the prince with the aid of a tablecloth.

Then, this Tuesday, Niece-Aged-3 and I role-played princes and princesses for over an hour while Niece-Aged-2 had her afternoon nap. When I finally tired and couldn't be wheedled back into story-telling, Niece-Aged-3 continued to imagine, all by herself, except that at one point I had to come over and make the toy penguin (who was doubling as a prince) kiss her, because Sleeping Beauty obviously can't kiss the penguin herself.

The moderate feminist within me wonders if we're inculcating Niece-Aged-3 with an unrealistic view of men and an incredibly dated view of women and marriage. The problem is, it's hardly so much the adult world forcing its views on Niece-Aged-3 as Niece-Aged-3 demanding romance and Prince Charming from us!

So our other project for this rainy indoor Tuesday was making princess hats. I must say I think I did pretty well with these, and so I thought I'd share the process with you. Now you can:

Make your own princess hats

Here is the template I made from two pieces of A4 paper sellotaped together:

The actual frames for the hats I made from two pieces of plain-coloured card sellotaped together. Then I cut out the shape, including the two holes for the string/elastic to hold the hat on.

The child can then colour in or decorate the hat. Niece-Aged-3 coloured in with crayons for a while. Then she glued some colourful feathers on with PVA, and then decorated with glitter too. Niece-Aged-2 woke up from her nap in a very grotty mood, so I decorated hers for her, drawing flowers with crayon and giving them glitter hearts.

Then, after the glue had dried, I sellotaped up the hats into their cone shape, leaving a gap at the top. Taking two longish ribbons, I tied a rough knot at the top and inserted it into the top of the hat, before sellotaping it up so the knot won't come out.

Final touch - tying on the correct amount of string for each girl so that the hat will stay on.

Result: a very happy little princess!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

the eagle meets Beethoven: case study of a historian

There is a historian in my department who looks like a cross between this:

and this:

He is quite old, set in his ways, and a historian of the most traditional sort, and he enjoys asking questions after the weekly departmental seminars that would cause most of us to visibly tremble.

Today it was "Forgive me for being sceptical, but..."

Other times it has been "I don't want to be provocative, but..." or "I don't mean to be rude, but..." or "That sort of thing may all be very well for English or Cultural Studies students, but..."

Every time he goes on to question the entire fundamental basis for someone's research and to suggest that everything about the way they do history is fundamentally flawed and doesn't help us to know anything.

Even scarier, he doesn't seem to hold back even for students who are presenting.

In the past I have enjoyed, in a kind of sadistic way, watching other people deal with his questions. Now, when I know that sometime in the next six months I will have to present my own departmental seminar, I find myself mentally imagining all the rude things he could say to me and trying to think up an incisively polite way of responding.

I have grown so frightened by him that last week, when he was sitting next to me in the seminar and turned to smile at me when he made a small joke, I mistook his smile for an evil grimace and visibly shuddered. Yes, when I write my novel, I think I will be drawing on somebody I know for inspiration for my villain.

(To be fair, he's probably a nice old man who has the misfortune of forming his questions in the most scary way possible and of looking much like a cross between angry-Beethoven and an eagle, who probably spends his spare time dandling his grandchildren on his knee and reading them Dr Seuss.)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

an introduction to the bach

I have been lucky enough, over the weekend, to stay in a bach literally across the road from the sea, in Akaroa Harbour, with a whole bunch of girlfriends from my school days. Apart from being a really relaxing, wonderful time, it was a great opportunity to enjoy bach culture again.

For those who don't know what a bach (pronounced "batch") is: It's a Kiwi holiday home. More than that, it's a holiday home with character. Baches must not be too luxurious. They can't be too big. A lot of holiday homes would not make the grade.

There are several common features of your garden-variety bach that I will share with you now.

Paua shells will lie around the place.

There will be a jetty nearby from which you can fish or jump.

There will be an odd assortment of furniture and old, obsolete appliances, and an even odder assortment of books. This bookshelf of bach-reading included The Art of Fencing - useful for a slow summer day - as well as a whole stack of Reader's Digests that were older than me.

Unbeautiful, dated artwork on the walls that somehow is JUST RIGHT.

A citrus tree of some type.

Sheep across the fence or some stray geese that will wander into your garden if you leave the gate open.

A tyre swing. (Not to mention an old shed with things growing all over it, and an old outhouse that is no longer necessary, thank goodness.

A snuggly fire, not to mention some lovely carpet, and a clock on the mantelpiece that doesn't work.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

gallery shopping

Have you noticed that art galleries tend to have much better shops than museums?

Aware that I have just placed myself among those who get just as much pleasure from purchasing a few knick-knacks as from gazing at an endless supply of masterpieces, I will continue regardless.

The one exception, for me, was the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The museum itself is much like someone's attic, filled with cool/random old treasures, and its shop is similarly filled with COOL STUFF that could match anyone's budget. Souvenirs that were actually not tacky; accessories; books; creativity exploding off the walls.

But other museums, it seems to me, are full of tacky little models of animals or postcards or badges or low-quality jewellery and maybe a mug or two. Art gallery shops, however, are just filled with prettiness and cleverness. I defy anyone to not be able to find a good present for someone there (although they may need a slightly deep wallet).

The Tate Modern's shop was my favourite in London. The gallery itself was a mixed (though intense) experience for me, but one of the nicest things about it was that it encouraged visitors to actively engage with it - for example, it gave out art sets and pads of paper to children, who could be found sprawling on the floor all over the gallery drawing paintings or artwork that they liked. So different from the more traditional gallery in which you might find the occasional art student working but would feel completely silly trying it yourself, and the mere thought of children sprawling themselves on the floor, drawing, would attract gallery attendants to move them along. The Tate Modern shop was obviously stocked with a similar ethos - unlike other gallery shops, it had heaps and heaps of art supplies, including many for children, besides the inevitable postcards and books and aprons and mugs and umbrellas. I was so hard put to it there not to buy and buy and buy.

I spent the most money, while I was in London, at the National Gallery store. The National Gallery, of which I only saw a small amount - the Dutch Masters and the Impressionists - is an overwhelmingly amazing place, and afterwards, besides feeling dazed by it all, I felt like I had, in some small way, to take at least some of what I saw with me. This ended up being a huge Gauguin poster, a Monet book, a book about the National gallery, and a mug based on Van Gogh's sunflowers as a present for someone. Phew. And it was a battle with my conscience to buy no more.

I remember a similar experience when I was a twelve-year-old visiting the USA with my parents, and, after spending a day wandering round the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, making a beeline for the shop and begging my mum to advance probably over half of the money I had saved for the trip so that I could spend it all at once. I ended up buying one Renoir book which I still have.

(Other places in England with shops in which I almost spent large amounts of money - the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, the British Library Store, the National Portrait Gallery, and some nice little modern art gallery I visited in Chichester. I'm sure there are no shortage of them.)

My local, the Christchurch Art Gallery, also has a lovely little shop. It has some great postcard reproductions, some of which I have put in little frames at home - an easy way to decorate - and then a whole lot of cool stuff, including books - especially children's books - which I can't find at any other shops in town. Wearable t-shirts. Stationery. Gifts. It obviously doesn't aim itself at "the average tourist", yet isn't completely inaccessible either.

What a frightening thing it is that I could, potentially, visit the online stores of all the world's major art galleries. I could spend huuuuuuuuge amounts of money.

What are your favourite kinds of slighty-abnormal shops?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I would be a terrible revolutionary

So yesterday I did a blog post on the facebook protest group a friend and I have started, about the changes proposed for our university's library. Since then, I have exchanged emails with the Vice Chancellor and today I got a call from a reporter who wanted me to forward her these emails (which I didn't do, but since with his permission I had pasted his comments onto the group wall she'll be able to get all the info). The group has got 333 members so far, that's in the space of 72 hours - not exactly setting a facebook record but sizeable enough.

I would not be a good revolutionary because I'm starting to bite my nails, wondering if it was the right thing to do - I've never thought the change proposal as a whole should be thrown out, only that parts of it are worrying and need to be explained more. I have to admit some of the stuff the VC says is not completely stupid, and when I got the call from the reporter - implying that our goal in setting up the group is being fulfilled, and more publicity will attend these changes - I started freaking out that she is going to completely exaggerate everything I said, because I DON'T TRUST THE MEDIA.

Basically, I'm not a good people's-uprising-leader.

So I'm listening to soothing rain sounds (they're remarkably wonderful; I feel like I'm in the mountains, staying in a log cabin in the forest), and the breadmaker is churning away making me some fresh bread.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

it's mother's day

So it's Mother's Day. Hooray, another totally consumerised excuse for businesses to make money, I tell myself. I always got my mother something little for Mother's Day, but she got embarrassed if I got something that cost too much because she too thought the day was completely unnecessary.

It's ironic, now, in a way, because she's not here, and despite the fact that I don't believe in Mother's Day, I wish she was here and I wish that I could give her some extravagant bunch of flowers which she didn't think she needed but which she so fully deserved. Despite the fact that I don't believe in making "annual days" especially sad, like her birthday or the day of her death, I don't enjoy Mother's Day now, and I was glad that I stayed home from church today with a horrible cold, sniffling into a tissue and drinking echinacea tea, because I didn't have to sit through the inevitable tributes to mothers and encouragements to appreciate our mothers.

I miss Mum a lot, and in a way I miss her more every year. I don't think about her quite as relentlessly as I did during the first year or so, but now, four-and-a-bit years on, I think I have a deeper understanding of what life is going to be like without her.

And so, despite my cynicism, I'm a tolerant Mother's Day sceptic. If it helps people tell their mothers that they are appreciated and loved, well, that's no horrible thing. And from the other point of view, if it gives mums everywhere a break from a REALLY HARD JOB, hooray!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

heart a librarian today

I've done something new for me - started a facebook protest group. It's called "Heart UC Library" and is really quite a polite protest, but nevertheless a protest. Unfortunately, when we set up the group, we couldn't find "People's Rebellion" under the group types available.

I am embarrassed to say that our university, the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand, has proposed to "disestablish" the jobs held by 35 of our most qualified librarians, including interloans staff (without whom it would be impossible to do research), only replacing them with unqualified staff, and to "move away" from printed books into e-books alone. At least, that's what it sounds like. It's hard to tell because the university bureaucracy is trying to keep this very quiet, and hasn't released the details publicly.

It really is frightening that a university is attacking its own library in this way, the very heart of any university.

And if you are a student at my university, at any other NZ university, or from anywhere but just indignant at these proposals, please join our group. There is going to be a meeting on Monday with the Vice Chancellor to discuss how much more to make public, and he needs to know that we care about our library and will not let it just disappear from under our nose without batting an eyelid.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

reliving my childhood

I have said before on this blog, or more probably, my old blog, about how I babysit my two nieces, aged three and two, every Tuesday. I am absolutely loving it. When you look after children one day a week, it's much easier to be creative, especially when you're looking after two little girls who like a lot of the things you used to like.

It happened that last week we got a book out of the library, about a fairy who moves into a little girl's doll house. The book is called The Doll's House Fairy, by Jane Ray, and it's just lovely. We read it about three times in a row that very afternoon, and apparently that's been a pattern for the rest of the week.

During the rest of the week, this got me all nostalgic, thinking back to the days when I too was into fairies - knowing in my head that they weren't real but hoping with all my might that they were. I built fairy houses in the garden. Sometimes they were simply hollowed-out kiwifruit skins, once it was a full-blown house made of three bricks holding up a roof of twigs, with a carpet of flowers, and furniture inside.

So this Tuesday, when Niece-Aged-3 was having a little meltdown and not wanting to do anything that was suggested, a fairy house suddenly sprang to mind. Miraculously, she didn't shout, "NO!" Instead, we went for a little walk down the road, collecting sticks, pinecones, wildflowers, pine tree branches, stones. Once home, we picked a few flowers from their garden, and found a discarded plastic plant-container. The result is below:

With a stone floor and two rooms, this house is any fairy's castle. A pinecone at the back of the house provides shelves for fairies to store their rose petals and honeydew; the upside-down plastic plant container has an opening cut into the side and a opening-and-shutting door at the front. A garden outside contains flowers, and the roof is fashioned from pine needles. A small plastic Duplo cake provides nourishment for fairies.

Then we made fairies - from clothespegs, coloured paper, and sellotape. On the left, we have Thistle. She is named after the fairy in the picture book, and has wild brown hair too. On the right is Rosebud. She has a rose in her hair and a skirt made from yellow leaves. Both sport beautiful necklaces made by Niece-Aged-3.

Here, Thistle flutters up to the flowers and sits on the vase, because that's what you can do with clothespegs.

Here, Niece-Aged-3 puts Rosebud and Thistle to sleep in their cosy fairy house.

I love reliving my childhood! And it also makes me miss the days when reading a book meant doing something. When reading a book was so consuming that for weeks you lived in a world of fairies, of Milly-Molly-Mandy, of giants, princesses or mermaids.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

artistry unaware

I was cutting up leeks for minestrone the other night, and, completely accidentally, created a work of art. Wanted to eat the leeks, so photographed it for posterity's sake.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


It's autumn! Life is good!

Autumn is my favourite time of year, apart from spring. They're generally first equal. I'm always tempted, though, to put one ahead of the other when I'm actually in it.

I've been surreptitiously pulling leaves off trees and putting them in my bag, taking them home and pressing them between pages of my giant dictionary. And yes, I'm aware how dorky that sounds. Or alternatively how frightening; one of my friends was worried that the Masters was getting to me and I was doing an Ophelia. Rest assured. I am fine. I am taking advantage of the season and keeping leaves I can use for decorating cards, etc. I'm not crazy. But I am a nerd.

We've had amazing weather - sunny, warm, and beautiful most of the time, and a few chilly forebodings of rainy winter days, which I love, because it's not ridiculously cold but I get to wear my favourite snuggly winter clothes.

And we've had amazing sunsets. Featured: my flatmate, posing for the camera in front of the beautiful sky, while I shouted, giggling, "Work it!"