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Time travel

I'm back-dating this post using the magic of LJ timestamps - mostly because I go looking for oldening-related posts around Sep 12, and it's an easier place to find them. Also, because the world has been consumed by Interesting Times since last week, so I'm still catching up. Its actually Wednesday 17th when I'm writing this.

This year's birthday turned out to be something of a non-event. Ariadne and Louise have been sick, so by the time sunlight dawned on this bit of the world we had all been awake for many hours. That set the tone for the rest of the day: fighting against low energy levels to try and get through a busy day (of teaching, report-writing or daycare, depending on which family member you asked). By mid afternoon I was feeling particularly off colour, and as the evening closed I realised that I was probably coming down with something more than lack of sleep. It felt like food poisoning.

Stocking up on supplies, I settled in for a fairly painful weekend: trying to stay topped up on fluid and electrolytes despite violent objection from my stomach. From earlier cases, I figured it would take about three days to burn out. Then things started deteriorating further on Sunday night, with some excruciating abdominal pains and the discovery that my sleepless writhing had exhausted my core and back muscles, making it impossible to hold a posture that kept the pains at bay. Home remedies stopped working during the afternoon (hot bath, painkillers, etc), and I ended up paying a visit to the Royal Melbourne's Emergency Department at 10pm.

I figured it would be a late night when I went in: I wasn't bleeding or suffering anything broken, so I would be triaged right down the bottom of the list. Maybe two hours from that point, and another hour to see the triage nurse on admission. That guess was fairly accurate, but the doctor then wanted blood tests taken. Tests meant returning to the waiting room for a callback, and watching as the night suddenly got a lot busier with some serious emergency patients rushed through the doors. I didn't mind too much: by that stage I was medicated on painkillers that actually worked, and L & A had both gone home to bed. That long wait got longer, and longer still. I finally went over the test results at 5am, once the crises had been dealt with. Inconclusive results, no suggestion what was actually causing the pain. They sent me on my way with a handful of prescriptions, and told me to bunker down and wait it out at home. That's where I've been for the last three days.

I think I'm finally starting to mend now, though night time (and sleeping) are stil problematic. It's hard finding a non-painful way of lying for more than about 30min, which makes for a very restless night. The afternoon has been better than previous days though, so I'm hopeful that maybe I'll get a bit more rest tonight. Rest is healing, so they say. I could use a bit of that at the moment.

I've decided to postpone my birthday celebrations though, as last week was a write off. Maybe it's a sign that I should combine birthdays with aeliel and just have one proper celebration later in the month...

Student's Log: Day 2,000.

Superficially similar to all preceding days, but motivation and energy levels are dangerously low. Also, how fucking depressing is it to find out you've been working at the same task for exactly 2,000 days? Thankfully, I have web tools to tell me how long I've been at this. If I had been scratching marks in the wall, I would have gone through several houses by now.

The thesis and its author are nearly done. Imagine that photo of the anaconda and alligator that both died while trying to eat each other in a Florida bayou, only less violent. That's about what it feels like at the moment: someone might fly over the scene and point a telephoto lens at what remains, capturing the moment for posterity. "Looks like they both just wore each other down," they'll say. "I think the only winner here was exhaustion."

There have been small victories. Yesterday I passed the 90,000 wordcount, finally dispelling fears that it wasn't really enough material for a proper thesis. I'm working beyond full time hours away from the thesis - well beyond, if you include unpaid work. In most areas I'm managing to get things done well enough. There's a theme amongst those things though, and that seems to be a silent "for someone else" appended to any "I finished this task" statement.

Right now, I'm bloody tired. I found out last night that my major project at work is being cancelled: not entirely unexpected, but it means the majority of my income will dry up in 30 days. Three other projects all require significant amounts of work in the next week, between now and the thesis deadline. The Semester 2 census date is next weekend, and so I need to finish writing 1.5 chapters before next Friday or vaguely defined yet ominous consequences will happen in addition to kicking me out of the university.

I'm not worried about the money - that can happen later, when I have time to look at it in more detail. I'm actually relieved about the work leaving my desk, as I sorely need some time to myself. There's still a bit of that stomach-punch feeling about it though, and it's taken the wind out of me. I need to get back up and keep running for another eight days, as this next week is one hell of an obstacle course. All I really want to do, though, is to lie down and sleep for a very, very long time.

Don't Lose Your Way

Most of these thoughts end up locked away in Evernote these days, but I thought I'd put this one out in semi-public. It helps to keep me accountable, and if it turns out to be a terrible idea I can point to major sleep deprivation clouding my judgement. Today isn't a great day for being able to string coherent words or thoughts together.

I want to run a short RPG set in the time before your typical Changeling story would take place. It's a story following some of the Lost through the hedge and into Arcadia, where they find themselves part of a world of unbridled madness; continually shaped and reshaped by the capricious entities that have carved out realms to suit their every desire. Maybe some of them will find their way back, though that's a story for another day. Most will fight against the changing world for a while, then gradually embrace the new powers it gives them. Some will embrace it too closely, losing the path that might one day lead them back home again. It's a story about imagination and transcending the mundane, and about the darker things that lie within all good fairy tales.

I think that the perfect rules-light system to handle this type of story is Don't Rest Your Head, with one small tweak. Discipline is still what lets the characters hold themselves together; Madness remains a source of dangerous, easy power if they want to risk delving into it. I'm renaming the iconic Exhaustion concept (a cumulative boost in power the longer you force yourself to remain awake, destined to ultimately crash you when you use it too much) for Belief. It works exactly the same way, but represents how much the characters begin to accept the weird world they find themselves in. To survive in this new realm you'll need to believe at least a few impossible things before breakfast. Believe too many though, and you might never make it back home - or if you do, you'll be so changed by your time away that you never fit back into the world you left.

DRYH is a simple but elegant narrative system that focuses on the stories of the characters, rather than crunchy rules about how to resolve all the minutiae. It takes all of five minutes to learn, helping to avoid the yet-another-game overload for a group that already plays a lot of different games. Most importantly, it does exactly what I want it to: taking characters away from humdrum reality and dropping them down a rabbit hole into a place where dreams can literally shape the world.

On a related note, Don't Rest Your Head is especially relevant after a small person has screamed in your face until 4AM. I am waiting for my insomniac superpowers to kick in at any moment.

Still here.

It's not much of an epitaph for 2013, but it's appropriate enough: in most regards, it feels like virtually nothing has changed since I sat here last year (and didn't end up writing anything back then...). One thing I've learned this year is that some kind of writing is better than nothing at all, so here I am again - this time, putting some thoughts onto the screen for the benefit of some future self to take a look at.

In 2013 I made only a few changes to my life, but the effects of those have shaped everything I've done.

I resigned from a job that I had loved and then grown to hate. In doing so, I left a job with a stable income at a time when aeliel was planning to be out of the workforce for at least a year. Financial stress over that decision was crippling me, but I made the right choice: I'd lost all sense of value for myself, my skills and my time. I felt as though I was constantly failing to be smart enough, work hard enough, or work long enough, and walked away from the job loathing myself. That took some time to move on from.

For most of the year, I've worked on various part-time and casual jobs: trading stability for flexibility, and balancing uncertainty over my jobs with far more agency over my life. That has made a huge difference to my state of mind: feeling back in control of who I am, and far more capable at negotiating the demands and expectations that others have of me. It also gave me the opportunity to put my family first, finding work that fits around the time that I want to spend figuring out how to be a Dad. That time has been priceless.

Jobs come and go. Money comes and goes. If my choices meant that I missed out on a "perfect" job, I reasoned that a truly perfect job would still be around in a few years from now. Spending time watching Ariadne grow up though... that is something that I know I would regret missing out on. She has changed so quickly over the year that I feel as though the rest of my life may as well have stood still. As luck would have it I did end up finding work with a company that I have enormous respect for, and that has family-friendly working arrangements at its core. Work and money have still been extremely tight at a few points this year (a family and a mortgage on half an income has led to plenty of stress on that front), but I don't regret the year that I have had.

Of course, the other factor dominating my year (and the years before it) has been my PhD, and that really did look like it had stalled - or at least slowed to a glacial pace. On that front I'm in essentially the same position as I've sat in for the past two years: close to the end, and trying to get it finished. Each time I sit down to write, I think I manage to halve the remaining distance between me and the submission day. There's some faint light at the end of that particular tunnel though - the slightest glow of something approaching, still hazy and indistinct. It might be dawn finally breaking out there in the wider world; it might be the headlight of an oncoming train. Either way there's a change on the way. I gave an 80,000 word thesis draft to my supervisor just before Christmas, and have a few weeks to finish writing before the university gives up on me entirely.

So: few outward changes in 2013, but an important time to make hard decisions about the type of life I want to have with my family. In 2014, it's time to finish this PhD before it kills me, and then move on to all the rest of my life - some new challenges, and some things that have been put on hold for the last few years. I've stayed here long enough to know that I want to go somewhere else: the coming year will be a time to embrace the changes, big and small, that will help me to get there.

An end is a beginning from an end

Today we ended an era, and hopefully started a new one.

We farewelled Andrew Bell: father to 8, grandfather to 22, great-grandfather to 23, and great-great-grandfather to two more - a sizeable clan who all were lucky enough to spend time with a truly remarkable man in the 95 years he was with us. I had wondered what will become of the family gatherings now we are scattered far and wide, but I found a place in the new "middle" generation, with something of a shock: we're no longer the grandkids of the family. Suddenly, we've become uncles and aunties - with a whole generation of nephews and nieces (once removed, but who's keeping count?) around us. Maybe there will be something that helps us to keep in contact after all.

The giant Christmas gatherings are in the past now, as smaller family groups now own that time of year - but that doesn't mean we all just keep drifting further apart. I'm exhausted from a day of running around after Ariadne and her new-found friends, but it's a good kind of exhaustion. I think I'd like to do this again.


Victory conditions

One thing that we discussed in last night's workshop was the underlying philosophy of each martial tradition taught in the school. Each Chinese martial art begins with a central principle that defines it and shapes how each technique is developed for, or incorporated into it. It also provides a statement that is essentially a victory condition: we will win by achieving X.

For Wing Chun, that principle is controlling the centreline. Vulnerable points (throat, solar plexus, groin) fall along that line, so you want to protect them and also attack along it. The footwork helps you manoeuvre so you can strike directly towards the target, while the opponent must turn to attack you. Straight lines are fast and efficient.

Lung Ying and Choy Lay Fut, though vastly different in their application, both seek to take the upper position. If your opponent's hands are trapped below yours, you have the fastest route to strike at their head.

For Tai Chi, the principle is destabilising the opponent's stance. Absorb and redirect strength, letting your opponent overextend while pushing you into a stronger stance. The core and legs are strong but flexible and relaxed, minimising unnecessary force: don't resist opposing force directly; let it guide you in which direction you should be pushing in.

Liu He Ba Fa seeks to control the inside position. It looks superficially similar to Tai Chi, but those soft and relaxed arm techniques are there to help you get inside the opponent's guard. Once there, you can strike unimpeded. It has far more subtle variations than the other styles, and the choice of technique (even more than usual!) is determined by what you can feel your opponent doing. Wing Chun and Lung Ying can both take more simplistic approaches if needed: strong and fast practitioners can bulldoze the centreline or lunge forwards with the powerful Dragon Shape punches and palm strikes. Liu He Ba Fa helps to provide answers when those approaches fail: when locked up or out-manoeuvred in very close quarters fighting.

It's an extremely technical style, and one that I think Anne has been steadily unpacking and analysing over the years. The 2013 workshops are quite different to those from the camp in 2001: not necessarily slower (I remember two hours spent gradually lowering into stance, and then gradually standing back up again), but more meticulous in their detail. Last night I found two groups of core muscles that I hadn't known how to articulate before, and I can see where an additional range of movement should be in my shoulders. Poor posture and days in front of a computer have reduced movement in there, but I have some exercises to help fix that.

I'm fascinated by the ways the different styles combine together: each new development feels like it's shedding a bit more light on a much larger and more complex martial art than I realised, as a great deal of thought has gone into selecting the elements that make up the whole.

Four years

...and I'm still finding memories hiding in random places.

We can see part of the Showgrounds from our house: just the tops of the rides, and a few bright lights each September. Tonight I watched the fireworks out my window, and remembered the first time I saw and heard a firework show.

It must have been years ago - before the Quayside centre was built in Frankston, back when the current shopping sprawl was just a carpark. Standing in the dark, part of a crowd that had gathered to see the fireworks that night. Bethany was very little, riding on Dad's shoulders. I can't have been much bigger, but I remember standing there fascinated by the colours and patterns each firework made. Mum stood on the other side of me, probably making sure I didn't wander off, or walk into something while I stared at the sky. It's a nice memory to fix in my mind: all together in one place, attention fixed on one thing.

The colours of those fireworks stuck with me for years. Even back then, I wanted to know how everything worked, and some of my first non-dinosaur books were about chemistry. Not long after that, Dad started bringing home bags of aluminium cans from the restaurant, so that we could crush them down and take them to sell back to the recycling centre. We saved the coins in an old money box on the bookshelf, planning to buy a chemistry set with it. Time passed, catalogues of new distractions came and went, and the money was spent on other things - but the spark remained. Then years of uni and work ground it out of me, until I remembered about it tonight.

I don't need to rush out and find myself a chemistry set any more. Years of lab work have let me play with just about everything that you can burn, boil or separate, and I think I left the research science path a long time ago. I'll keep those memories though. Family, wonder and curiosity are all important things to hold onto, in whatever way you can.


International Old Ben Day XXXIII

You know that you should write in your journal more often when last year's birthday post is still on the front page...

What's happened in the last year? Lots, actually. The kind of major changes that ought to happen over a much longer period of time, but rarely have the good grace to do so. When things happen, they all happen fast.

I started a new job in April. Part time at first, now full time, with a review next month. It's the first genuine "career" job I've had*, and will hopefully become a permanent position in the company after October. I can work on consulting projects that match up well with my thesis, people are genuinely interested in learning things from my research, and the company directors are serious about making me pick up all the various skills I'm missing. I'm doing a lot more client-facing work than I've ever done before. That's confronting and challenging, but ultimately very valuable. It's also completely changed my working week: early starts and late shifts when coordinating things with staff in India have played havoc with my body clock, calibrated as it was to a research student timetable.

Louise and I are expecting a baby. Much sooner than we thought 24 hours ago, in fact: The Day might be more like four weeks away now, instead of six. Louise has been having a rough time of things lately - developing gestational diabetes about a month ago, and starting on insulin today. Early detection and management are great, but the doctors are now making noises about needing a much earlier delivery. Those extra couple of weeks were going to involve a lot of frantic getting ready, which will now have to happen on top of all the other things we have going on at the moment.

Those things have meant that I'm still not finished my thesis. Not surprising, but disappointing. In particular, I needed to get a lot of work done before the baby arrives, but haven't had the energy to do anything at all after finishing work. However, I've been speaking at a few events now, and seem to have found my niche: understanding how networks of people work, to help explain all the fuzzy, hard-to-quantify benefits that go with being well connected. That's the heart of it. The ways people use bits of technology to make that easier are another layer on top - handy to understand for my current line of work, but understanding people is the key.

By this time next year, many parts of my life will probably be unrecogniseable. Without really knowing what to look forward to (or look out for), all I can really do is hold on, and see what happens.

* CSIRO doesn't really count. I thought it did, at the time, but being strung along on years of 6-month contracts isn't a career. It's an abusive relationship that you stick with because you think things will get better - ignoring the obvious signs that you're the only one who wants to make it work...


Setting a few goals

It may be only February, but I have the uncomfortable feeling that my year is already full. There's precious little room to breathe in the calendar, and the next six months will be particularly hard. If I get slack at returning emails, or cancel things without much notice, please bear with me - I'm going to have to do what I can to stay sane.

I have a few goals: not all about my PhD, but there are a few in there as well.

Family: Make sure every day contains some time spent with aeliel when we aren't actively doing other things. Occupying the same room =/= spending time together. We're both busier than we ever have been, so that time is more precious than ever.

Kung Fu: Grade for 3rd Blue after Easter. I haven't quite learned all of the requisite Kul Dar form yet (it's a sequence of 126 movements, and requires more flexibility than I currently have due to jumps that transition into leg sweeps or kicks), but I think I can learn it in time. It's been over ten years since I last took a grading. Training regularly is good for keeping me healthy (and being physically exhausted enough to sleep), but it's good for mental discipline as well.

Thesis: Methodology draft this week. Update the social media overview next week. Finish coding the first half of my interview data during March. These things will help me to get it finished in time. It's a slow process, building up momentum to write these chapters.

Games: A surprisingly important sanity measure - these give me time to relax in the company of some excellent friends. Keep playing the weekly RPGs for as long as possible. Help aeliel plan out a Call of Cthulhu game for Arcanacon next year - though most of the writing will be a post-thesis project. Play in some WM tournaments and leagues, when time allows, to stretch the tactical part of my brain.

Painting: Another important one - this time for being able to relax on my own. I can't keep doing the late nights now that I'm at work by 8am each day, but painting after midnight is an indulgence. I like painting when the world outside goes quiet. It lets me gather my thoughts, or set my mind adrift while my brush takes over.

That's the barest hint at what I'll be doing over the next few months, but if I can manage those I will be on the right track.


Uberlist 2012

2012 is the Year of the Thesis, but I will also be doing some painting as well. It's become a bit of a tradition to track that, so I know what I need to finish (and how much I've done so far). This is the 2012 Uberlist - a list of the painting projects that I've started (italics), finished (strikeout) or simply added to the to-do list (regular font).

If you're interested in seeing what's on my painting desk at the moment, you can find the list behind the cutCollapse )
Two posts in two days? I must be trying to avoid going back to my Methodology chapter...

I'm trying to work out what to cook for tomorrow night. We're having a Chinese New Year dinner with family, and I'd like to have eight dishes - I might end up with nine though, if I find some fresh fish. Eight is an auspicious number for a new year meal, but I don't know what I'd drop from the list - so maybe the rice won't count :)

Chicken, prawn and chive dumplings
Peking duck pancakes

Salt-and-pepper squid
Crisp-skin pork
Soy sauce chicken
Steamed Snapper
Shitake mushrooms, tofu and vegetables

Char Siu fried rice

Pomegranate sorbet, fresh fruit

I don't usually fry things using much oil, so the squid will be a bit new to me - I think it's an important dish to add though, as the salt and pepper mix is something I remember Dad showing me how to make. Dessert isn't a big part of a Chinese meal, but it will be a hot day and there's too much nice fruit available to leave it out. Plus, aeliel has started making the pomegranate sorbet in her shiny new icecream maker... I'll look for whatever is fresh in the market.

The tricky part will be choreographing the cooking so that our very small kitchen manages to serve up 5-7 dishes while everything is hot. The chicken, pork (char siu and belly) and duck will be cooked ahead of time and I'll aim to have all the food prep done before turning on the stove, so I think it'll look something like this:

Wok: Fry rice, set aside in a metal oven tray covered by a damp cloth.

Steamer: warm pancakes

Oven grill: heat the duck and pork - skin needs to be crispy on both. Add rice to bottom shelf.

Wok: Fry dumplings

Serve duck (with pancakes, sauce and vegetables) and dumplings. Add hard vegetables to steamer (remove with greens, in about 15min). (2 dishes down)

Wok: heat chicken. Serve with roast pork and fried rice. (5 dishes down)

Steamer: add whole fish to top basket (takes 8-10min), green vegetables to lower basket (remove after 4-5min)

Fryer: Shallow-fry squid - probably needs two batches, so start the vegetables during batch 2.

Wok: fry vegetables with tofu and mushrooms. Serve with squid and fish. (8 dishes down)

After that, it's just a matter of leaving one board clean so the fruit can be cut. I think that if we take the sorbet out of the freezer when I start cutting fruit pieces, it'll be ready to serve as soon as the fruit is done.

Now I'm really hungry. I think I can see how it will all fit together though, which is a good start. Now, back to writing that chapter...


Gung hay fat choy!

At midnight last night, I remembered that the new year was arriving today - helped on its way by a barrage of fireworks from over in Footscray. If you listen to the Chinese astrologers, 2012 is a Water Dragon year: larger than life, and full of change.

There's a lot of change on the horizon. aeliel is a few days away from finishing and submitting her Masters thesis, which will conclude three years of work into giftedness, engagement, learning styles, talent development and video games. She'll also be starting back at work full time, a couple of days after Arcanacon.

I have a lot to learn and write about before I can finish my own thesis. The biggest issue is transforming myself back into more of a 9-5 kind of worker, instead of a "do little bits of work at all hours of the day and night" person. I know that I'll be pushing hard to finish on time, but I don't want to disconnect myself any further from reality than I already have... after all, I'll need to quickly find a job once that final stretch of writing, revision and re-writing is done. That particular source of stress deserves to be thought about in more detail somewhere else, though.

For now: Happy New Year! I hope you can spend some time with family - whether they are the ones you're related to, or others that you've chosen instead ;) I'm planning to have my relatives over on Wednesday night, when I shall fill them with as much festive Chinese food as I can cook over the next few days.


Time for a change of pace

It's 2012. Actually, it's now well into 2012, but I've spent such a languid week that the realisation of arriving in a new year has taken a few days to make it from my synapses to my typing fingers, so I'm only just getting around to writing about it.

This is generally the time when I look back on the last year, decide that it would be a good idea to look forwards at some stage, and then the year starts up in earnest - and the forward planning never happens. At least, that's the way that things have gone in most of the last ten years, now that I can check up on that kind of thing.

It's time for a change of pace, though. I've been in much the same place in my life for a few years now: an odd kind of limbo, filled with enough to keep me happily distracted, but without any tangible sense of progress to anything. I could stay here forever without really doing anything, and that should be warning enough. It's time to start packing up and moving on.

Some things are good. I live in a great part of the city, surrounded by friends. In 2011 I travelled overseas and met people who are doing some fascinating work. I remembered how much I love cooking for friends, and how much I dislike being a hermit. There have been two major problems, though.

My PhD has become a huge part of my life, overshadowing everything else. That's understandable - if it didn't, I don't see how I could still do it. It's now been almost three years though, and it's time to get it finished. That will involve a lot of work over the next seven months. Some of that work involves writing the thesis, but I think the harder job will be breaking bad habits that I've taken ten years to refine: getting used to writing more, spending less time chasing up details, and letting other people read my work. That last one is particularly hard, but will be vital.

The other bugbear I've fought over the years is my health, which has caused problems since I began this journal. Two years ago I was very unfit and unhappy about it. In 2010 I joined a local gym, but it never really became part of a routine. It did get my confidence up though, and helped me return to Kung Fu in January 2011. I've been training ever since, and feel like I've returned home again.

Injuries, health problems and excuses have been disrupting my training for eight years. Last year, I beat the bastards, and got back to doing something that I love.

My PhD has only had three years to build up a backlog of jobs that need to be done by July. It's one hell of a pile of work, but it's time to finish it - I want to find out what comes next.


Three years ago today, aeliel and I got married in Blackwood. By this time in the afternoon, the service would have finished, and we'd all be packed into Blackwood House, trying to fill the guests with twelve thousand cakes. Like today, it was a grey-sky kind of day - bright enough to enjoy being outside, but with a bit of rain on the wind. In an hour or so, we'd head over to Sault with the photographer, who commented on how the soft light made her job much easier :)

What's changed in that time? Quite a lot, I guess. I'm now most of the way through a PhD that I hadn't really considered starting, back in 2008. We have a house and a cat, and seem far more settled than at any time in history. Work remains super-busy, to the point where I sometimes wonder what it would be like to only work on weekdays, or not work in the evenings.

There are some of you that I don't see all that often these days. That's not really anyone's fault - life changes, people get busier, and we all end up wondering how it's possibly been a year (or two, or five) since we last spoke face to face. I'm still curious, though. What are you up to these days? What's going on in your bit of the world?

Games, games, games...

Last night was miss_rynn's Halloween Special game - one of my favourite traditions of the year, as it involves good food (including butterscotch-and-black-pepper Cthulhu Cookies), good company and a Call of Cthulhu game full of good old-fashioned New Orleans voodoo zombies. I'm still so full I can hardly move, and I don't think any of the characters technically survived to see the end of the game - so the night was a resounding success.

In other game news, the final Game/Play Late Night Boardgames evening is happening at NGV Studio this Thursday night. If you think that playing boardgames with a bunch of friends (and friendly strangers...) at Fed Square sounds like fun, come along - hespa and lena_supercat both mentioned that they were planning to be there. aeliel and I went a couple of weeks ago, and got to try out a bunch of games that we haven't played before. It's on from 6pm - 10pm in NGV Studio @ Fed Square. Anyone interested in coming along?

Three years

Today marks three years since Dad passed away. I've been thinking about him a lot, lately - wondering what he'd be up to now, if he were still around.

Memories hide in the little things. aeliel and I went out for Yum Cha today, as a pre-birthday celebration for her 31st. The food always brings memories flooding back, along with the little rituals. When Mary-Anne poured some tea, I tapped two fingers on the table in thanks - remembering the story that accomanies that little bow, of an emperor walking among the people in disguise, pouring tea for his servants, and the terrified servants using it as a means to preserve the disguise without the dishonor of failing to bow in his presence. Dad told the story at Yum Cha years ago, and I remember it each time we go back.

There are some audio tapes sitting in a box in Somerville. I think some are marked 'family history', while another has my name on it. Dad recorded them in the weeks before he died - he spent quite a bit of time alone, putting things in order, knowing that he wouldn't have time to do or say everything that he wanted to. I still haven't listened to mine, but I think it's now time that I did. Three years ago, I wasn't ready to listen to them yet - but I've thought about them often during the past few months.

A lot has changed in the last three years. I got married, moved house, bought a house and went back to Uni. It's strange to think that so many of the major events that dominate my life in the present have appeared so recently. I hope that I never forget how I got here, or how much of my life was shaped by the years that I had with Dad. One day, I may have kids of my own, and I hope that I will remember enough to let them know who their grandfather was, and what he was like. The trick with memory is association - letting the mind connect thoughts to several reference points. My family memories are embedded in so many parts of my life that I hope they will stay with me in all the years to come.

A food post

I'm in a cooking mood today, so I thought I'd post some foody things.

Lime Crema Catalana

Originally a recipe from the Cook & Taste school in Barcelona; I modified it a bit by changing some of the flavours. My notes have "serves eight" scribbled in the margin, as we used very shallow bowls - but extensivedelicious testing when aeliel made this last night has demonstrated that it makes just over four good-sized serves, with a bit left over to use in a bread-and-butter pudding tonight :)

6 egg yolks
200g sugar
4 cups milk
40g corn starch
Zest of two limes
A splash of Cointreau

Blend together the egg yolks and sugar until the mixture whitens and goes creamy. Add three cups of milk, and stir until it's all thoroughly combined. Add the lime zest, pour it into a saucepan, and start heating it over a medium-high burner.

Meanwhile, dissolve the corn starch in the last cup of milk. Stir the milk/starch mixture through the rest of the custard, and bring the lot to the boil - stirring constantly to make sure no lumps form on the bottom of the pan. When the first bubbles start to appear, turn off the heat, add the Cointreau, and stir it through. Add Cointreau to yourself as needed.

Let it cool for a while, stirring for the first few minutes to dissipate the heat. Pour it into ramekins, and refrigerate once they've cooled to room temperature. To serve, caramelise some castor sugar on top as you would with a crème brûlée.

Slow roasted lamb, with roast vegetable mash

Inspired by a recipe in this month's SBS Feast magazine (which is a bloody good read... if you like recipes and stories about food, I recommend picking one up). These quantities should make about four serves - I've doubled the amounts that I just put in the oven.

1kg Lamb forequarter / shoulder
Olive oil
4-5 lemons, sliced (I've used yellow limes instead, as we had them handy)
1 head of garlic. Separate cloves, but don't peel them.
Salt and pepper

1 medium-large sweet potato
4-5 carrots

Preheat the oven to 220°C. Peel and roughly chop the vegetables, put them into a baking tray and cover them with plenty of olive oil. When the oven is hot, put them in on the top shelf.

Rub the lamb with olive oil, and add some salt and pepper to season it. Get a baking dish that just fits the meat: I'm using a wide loaf pan, which snugly fits three bits of lamb into it. Line this with baking paper, leaving enough to wrap tightly over the top of the tray when you're done.

Put half the garlic and half the lime/lemon slices onto the baking paper. Place the lamb on top, skin facing up. Pack the rest of the garlic and lemon onto it, and then tightly wrap it all with the baking paper. By now, the vegetables should have been in the oven for about ten minutes.

Turn the oven down to 200°C, move the vegetables down a shelf, and put the lamb into the top of the oven. Cook for about 30 minutes, then turn the oven down to 140°C, remove the vegetables, and leave the lamb to cook for about 2 1/2 hours (or until the meat is falling from the bone).

While the vegetables are still hot, mash them (I added a bit more olive oil and some spices) and put them aside. Warm these back up just before the lamb is done, and mix through some of the roasted garlic cloves. Serve with whatever greens are available - I think we'll be having some asparagus & snowpeas, with a bit of butter and lemon.


International Old Ben Day XXXII

It's funny how traditions develop. We're surrounded by one-off occurrences all the time. If something is repeated, it might be coincidence - a little less random than the rest of our lives, but the pattern is still only half formed. Three times seems to be the magic number: it reinforces the repetition and confirms a pattern; not just for the event, but for the separation between it. And then the tradition is born.

Eight years ago, I started a tradition of pausing for a moment at this particular point in our orbit. Once more around the sun, a week and a half before the equinox. Mostly relevant to the large group of New Year's babies out there, of whom I've met many over the years.

I've doubled in age five times since I first celebrated one of these.

I got to work early today, hoping to get some writing done. This time next year, I'd like to have my thesis submitted and accepted - and be well on my way towards RMIT's giant whole-university graduation in November. In about half an hour, I'll wander over to the GSBL 'Shut up and write' group. That ought to get me started for the day, carving out another section of writing to work on this week.

After that, I'm going home to paint. I don't paint nearly as often as I would like to, these days. It's a combination of things - the PhD has eaten up my free time, and Mochason causes havoc if he gets into the study. I can paint in the evenings with the door closed, but that means not spending time with aeliel after work. So, dust (and cat fur) builds up on my desk, and the pile of unpainted figures mock me. Not today, though.

Following a theme of "start as you mean to go on," I'll be spending a couple of hours at Kung Fu tonight. I think the rest of the class are getting ready for a grading next month, but I need to (re)learn a lot more before I'm ready to grade again. I'm not in any particular hurry. After all, it's been eleven years since my last grading...

Migratory writing habits

I'm changing where and when I work over the next month, and that's likely to flow on to things like where I post things online. For starters, I'll be working from RMIT a lot more often. It has fewer distractions, and no kitten biting me whenever I pay attention to a computer screen.

I'm trying to get a first draft of my thesis assembled by my birthday. Actually, a bit earlier than that: my supervisor is heading overseas for a month during September, and so I need it done before she leaves the country. That means I need an unholy amount of words written by the end of the month: good or bad, what matters right now is getting concepts from brain to screen, so that other people can help me carve them into shape.

To get there, I'm trying some new things. Strange, unfamiliar things, like writing every day (haven't done much of that yet) and not running off to start other jobs (research assistant work, layout, editing, painting) mid-task. It's a little disconcerting, realising just how often I flit off to do something else when I sit down to work.

I'm writing about it as I go, over on Wordpress: Project: First Draft. As there are only so many minutes in the day, that means I probably shouldn't be writing as much in here - though all this time in front of a computer is bound to lead to occasional blog posts when I take breaks.

Just in case anyone wonders where I've gone, I post short-form stuff on Twitter most often. Mid-range stuff (and travel updates for family!) have been going onto Facebook, but all that stuff will move to G+ soon as I prefer their approach to privacy settings. Longer stuff often doesn't happen, but when it does it's being posted to Wordpress or (occasionally!) here. So I might not be here much, but I'm not far away...

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