Homemade Gifts

100_2135smMy daughter’s birthday is fast approaching, and I still felt I hadn’t come up with a gift idea that was truly from me. I have often made special things for the kids for their birthdays, but they don’t always go over as I’d wish. Three years ago, I made her this awesome jeans jacket. I found an okay commercial pattern and modified it to fit my daughter’s tastes and frame. I spent ages searching for the perfect cool hardware bits to decorate the front. Then I had to order a zip from overseas, because I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted in country (because it had to match the hardware, of course). In the end, I was quite pleased with the results.

She has never worn the jacket. Not once. Not even for a few minutes.

The same thing happened with the skirt I made her four years ago (because the girl needed something other than shorts and T-shirts to wear). She’s worn the skirt…once or twice when I forced her to wear it to a formal occasion, and every time it’s led to tears.

That’s okay. It really doesn’t bother me. I had a blast making every homemade gift I’ve given the kids. If the kids don’t like them, I know that I’ll be able to give them to someone else who will. And some of them have gone over extremely well (all the stuffed animals, the jerseys and parkas, the zip-off pants, the slippers, the fuzzy bathrobes, the wizard costumes…).

I’ve received my fair share of awkward and excellent homemade gifts from the kids too. Because we all give and receive homemade gifts, we all understand and appreciate the time and love that went into each item, even if we wouldn’t be caught dead wearing it. It makes each gift special, regardless of what the item actually is.

And we learn from past mistakes.

This year, the homemade gift my daughter will receive is something I’m pretty certain she’ll appreciate and use–a list of 500 writing prompts, written just for her and categorised by genre. As usual, I’m having a fabulous time making it, and if she doesn’t end up using it, I expect to find it handy, myself.

How is a Teenager Like a Shed?

2016-01-12 08.31.38 smI used to do creativity exercises with my university students. One of the activities was called ‘Forced Analogy’–take two random objects/ideas and come up with ways they are alike.

The exercise forces you to think in strange ways, and to examine the fundamental nature of each thing.

Using a handy online random word generator, I gave myself the following challenge today: How is a teenager like a shed?

  1. There are lots of different types of shed and teen, and each type is good at different things.
  2. A teenager, like a shed, can be gussied up. You can make it look nice on the outside, but inside it will always be a mess.
  3. You may know for certain you’ve put something into the shed (or the teen), but once in there, it’s lost forever.
  4. Keeping your shed and your teenager organised are both impossible.
  5. Sometimes, you find the most surprising things inside–a long-lost treasure, or something you never knew was there.
  6. Occasionally, both smell like dead rats.
  7. Neither one will ever thank you for cleaning.
  8. Both require regular maintenance.
  9. You can learn a lot about a family by closely observing their shed…or their teen.
  10. Everyone expects them to have a few blemishes.
  11. They tend to accumulate rubbish.
  12. After having one for a while, it’s hard to imagine life without one.

Postcard From New Zealand

2016-01-22 14.08.29 smWe spent the day yesterday at the beach (along with the entire population of Canterbury and half a million tourists, judging by the crowds). It was a stellar beach day–hot and sunny. Perhaps a bit too windy at times, but heat and wind are almost inseparable here, so we just go with it. We managed to slip away from the crowds for a while by clambering over the rocks to Little Okains Bay. The water was cold, the sand was hot, the rock pools teemed with cool creatures, and the scenery was stunning, as usual.

The entire day was a full-colour glossy tourism ad for New Zealand. And it was just one of many similar days we’ve experienced recently.

I’m not saying that every day is a vacation–I put in 11-hour workdays (painstaking editing) all last week, and I pull a lot of weeds and have to clean the house and the chicken coop every week–but New Zealand does vacationing well.

All day, I kept coming back to one, glorious, humbling, beautiful thought–this is my home. My family and I are so blessed to have been welcomed into this amazing country. A place where we can stand on the top of a mountain one weekend, and swim in the ocean the next weekend. A place where Christmas/summer vacation lingers through the entire month of January; even once many people are back at work, the vacation mindset remains. A place that embraces a weird and wonderful mix of people from all over the world.

New Zealand has its problems–no human society doesn’t–but I feel honoured to be allowed to make my home here in such an incredibly beautiful place among such incredibly beautiful people.

So you all my Kiwi readers–thank you.

And to all my overseas readers–having a great time. Wish you were here.

Noddy’s Flycap

img_2955-cropI was working in the garden this morning, and came across this stunning mushroom in the middle of the broad beans.

My first reaction was, “Oh, my! Fairies must have visited the garden.” I wondered if nature was trying to tell me I needed a little whimsy among the vegetables. I began to consider the possibilities. A few fanciful carvings on my trellises? Gargoyles atop the fence posts?

My next reaction was, “I’ve got to show this to my husband.” (He researches mycorrhizal fungi, and this looked to me a bit like an Amanita, which are usually mycorrhizal). He saw it, and said, “Oh!…Oh!…that’s a…no, wait…I won’t say anything until I’m sure…this could be important.”

He did some research and confirmed the mushroom as Noddy’s flycap–Amanita sp. 2–an unusual fungus recorded only from New Zealand, but thought to be introduced, as it is generally found among non-native vegetation. It has never been recorded this far south, and we’ve never seen it on our property before.

Geoff Ridley has written a nice blog post about this fungus and its odd distribution and mysterious origin.

And so, perhaps nature was, instead, telling me to keep my eyes open for scientific wonders, even in my own back yard.

And then, I learned that Noddy’s flycap is named for the Enid Blyton character, Noddy (and his pointy hat).

And at this point, the symbolism of this strange fungus in my garden got really weird. A whimsical-looking fungus of unknown origin, and not known to be present here, named after a character in a middle grade novel?

The message was loud and clear–this fungus has to show up in my next book. Excuse me while I go scribble down some ideas…

Insects in the Classroom

insectsintheclassroomcoverI’m pleased to announce the release of Insects in the Classroom!

This collection of insect information and activities is the only one of its kind written specifically for the New Zealand classroom. Special features include:

  • Background information about insects and their relatives
  • Instructions on how to care for live insects in the classroom
  • A dozen buggy classroom activities
  • Student-friendly identification guides designed for the New Zealand school yard
  • Insect-themed colouring sheets and worksheets

The book is released in conjunction with a new outreach programme for schools–Bugs and Books–that uses science as the inspiration for writing.


The Art of Food (or Beauty and the Beets)

img_2953-smTwenty-seven years ago, when I became a vegetarian, I had no idea that doing so would be an artistic adventure, as well as a culinary one.

The dietary change came easily and quickly. Because I was actually thinking about my food, I ate much better than I had before–a lot less pre-packaged swill, and a lot more fresh ingredients. I never missed the meat.

The artistic change has come more slowly and has only really blossomed in the past two years of blogging about food. In the past, I concerned myself with the look of food only on special occasions. Most of the time, I didn’t pay much attention to the aesthetics of my meals.

Now, even meal preparation has become an artistic experience. I notice how water beads on the surface of a tomato or how yellow carrots contrast beautifully with the dark kitchen benchtop, I choose vegetables for their colour as well as their flavour, I appreciate the vision of my ingredients lined up in little bowls waiting to be cooked. Sometimes, I’ll pick the vegetables for dinner a little earlier than I have to, simply so I can enjoy seeing them heaped in colander in the kitchen.

Being a gardener makes the aesthetics all the more rewarding to me–when the fruits of my labour are as beautiful as they are delicious, how can I help but be pleased? And, of course, I’m thinking about colours when I plant my vegetables too.

I say the aesthetics are part of the vegetarianism because I can’t imagine a raw chicken leg looking nice sitting on the kitchen bench. There’s something about the vegetables that’s pleasing, whether raw or cooked. Maybe it’s the colours. The vegetable palette is more varied and bright than the meat palette–snow white cauliflower, dark green spinach, deep magenta beets, bright green peas, sunny yellow squashes, scarlet tomatoes…Cooking with those vegetables is like dipping a paintbrush into the colours and creating a work of art.


No More Grammar

img_2951I’ve spent the last three days—11 hours each day—editing. I have no brains left to write a blog—they have all leaked out, stabbed by excessive punctuation, and strangled by curly quotes. If I see another comma, I will scream. I’ve had my fill of cut-and-paste errors. No dependent clauses can depend upon me this evening.

Instead, I will head to the garden, or to the piano. I’ll ignore infinitives, and banish adverbs. I will say whatever I please, and not worry about sentence fragments. Sentences without verb. Subject. Object.

  1. Do. Not. Care.

The English language can take a holiday this evening. Tell the Oxford Style Manual to stay home. I won’t answer the door. Come back tomorrow.


Get Outside—See Cool Stuff

The swarm--apologies for the image quality; I'm allergic to bee stings.

The swarm–apologies for the image quality; I’m allergic to bee stings.

I’m trying to make myself go out for a walk at lunchtime every day. I’ll admit that I can be a bit of a slave driver when I’m working, and I don’t always manage it. I have a tendency to simply work through lunch, and then suddenly discover it’s late afternoon.

In truth, the walks available to me from my front door aren’t necessarily all that inspiring—endless agricultural fields in every direction.

But you can’t experience anything if you don’t first go out. Yesterday, I took the most boring of the boring walks from my house—the one that doesn’t offer so much as a mailbox for the first kilometre. Don’t ask why I chose that way—maybe I wanted to clear my mind, as I’d been doing intense editing all morning.

On this most boring of walks, I happened to see something awesome—a honey bee swarm.

We are blessed with many nearby apiaries, and I always have a plentiful supply of bees to pollinate my garden vegetables, but even so, it’s unusual to spot a swarm. This one was hanging in a drooping mass off the neighbour’s fence.

Bees swarm to create a new colony. It’s usually the old queen who leaves her hive with a large portion of the workers. A new queen will hatch in her absence and take over the old hive.

The swarming bees leave the hive and gather nearby while scout bees search for a new hive location. This is what I saw—the resting swarm. It likely flew away to a new home within a few hours. Where those bees are now, I don’t know, but I hope they found a nice place nearby from which to visit my garden.

So, my most boring walk was amazing. That reminds me, I still haven’t gotten out for a walk today. Time to step away from the desk and get outside. Who knows what I might see?

Proof We’re Lame

A boat shed in Duvauchelle

A boat shed in Duvauchelle

It was Mum and Dad’s annual day out today. We dropped the kids off at summer camp in the morning, then had the whole day together with no other obligations.

Yeah! Party time!

Or not.

We brought our wetsuits and snorkels, thinking we might do some snorkelling…

But it was cloudy and chilly.

We drove into Akaroa to visit a couple of art galleries and have lunch on the waterfront…

But a cruise ship had just disgorged 2,000 tourists into the town, and it was so crowded, we left.

We ended up having toasties, chips, and a beer on the deck at the pub in Duvauchelle, watching the wading birds and a luckless pair of hitchhikers. Then we went for a short walk and came home.

Lame, lame, lame.

It was a lovely day, but we could have done all that with the kids. In fact, our summer outings with the kids are usually more exciting than that.

Truth is, I wasn’t surprised. It happens most every year. We have a week with no kids in the house, and what do we do? We go to work, we weed the garden and mow the lawn. Sometimes we might go so far as to rent a movie.

No all-night dancing, no dinners out—just the normal routine, with less washing up needed afterward.

Is that lame? Perhaps. I like to think of it as an indication that our daily life is pretty darned good. I like to think of it as an indication that we enjoy spending time with our kids, and our kids don’t stop us from doing the things we enjoy.

So tomorrow, I’ll have a nice long work day (I have lots of editing to do!), and when my husband comes home from work, we’ll make a delicious dinner. We’ll spend the evening sitting on the couch reading, and then we’ll do it all again the next day. Not really too hard to take.


Saturday Stories–Biodiversity

2017-01-05-09-03-54-cropOn our recent tramping trip to Mt Somers, my daughter and I whiled away the evening setting writing challenges. We chose three words at random from magazines in the hut, and used them in a story. The words that inspired this story: rhyolite, biodiversity, and me.

We hiked to the summit and set up our camp on a windy knob. I would have preferred to camp lower down, but the wētā we were studying lived in the cracks on the rhyolite cliffs just below the summit. We would rappel down from the top, our collecting jars in a sack attached to our harnesses, to gather our subjects.

“Caroline, you go first,” said Mark.

“Me?” I had hoped to watch one of the more experienced climbers descend first. I didn’t want to show the others how nervous I was about it though, so I stepped into my harness and tightened it.

At the brink I paused to make sure everything was ready. I knew if I glanced down even once I’d chicken out, so I kept my eyes on the rock in front of me as I slowly made my way down. I focused on admiring the beautiful, angular columns, the reddish colour. I looked for likely wētā hiding spots. I glanced up and saw Sophie coming down a second rope to my left.

I stopped at a small crevice and fumbled in my bag for a collecting jar and the bent wire ‘wētā tickler’ we all carried to nudge wētā out of their lairs. Focused on the insects, I forgot my fear, forgot the dizzying drop below. I fished out two wētā, then lowered myself a few more metres.

The rock was different here. Less columnar, more green than red. Did the wētā only live in the rhyolite? I didn’t know. I was curious to find out. I probed a near-circular hole in the rock with my wire.

The rock seemed to shiver.

I froze. Was that an earthquake? We’d never talked about what to do if we were on the cliffs during a tremor. All my fear of heights came rushing back.

I waited for a minute, eyes shut. Nothing happened. I opened my eyes and looked up at Sophie. She was poking intently at a crevice, as though nothing had happened. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves. Funny what your imagination can do. I laughed at myself and took a moment to relax my taut muscles and clenched fists.

Calm again, I poked my wire into the hole once more—it was the perfect size for a wētā.

There was no mistaking it this time. The rock moved. I yelped and pulled back my hand as a large yellow eye snapped open in the rock face to my right. There was a rumble, and suddenly a huge head detached itself from the cliff face in front of me. A huge, reptilian head. It snorted, and a wisp of smoke curled up out of its nostril—the hole I had probed for wētā.

Too startled and frightened even to scream, my mind lit on one thought: the biodiversity of Mt. Somers was greater than anyone had ever guessed. And unusual insects weren’t the most interesting things up here.

I wondered if we would make it home to tell anyone.