little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: that’s kind of strange

The mouths of babes

The necessary context: It’s our 15th anniversary and I forgot for the first half hour of the day, then remembered only to realise that we have no money for presents, no babysitter for a date, no time to relax, and I was going to be parent help at Rabbit’s childcare all morning. I was unhelpfully Eeyore-ish about all this through most of the day, but rallied enough to buy flowers and tuna, sweep the kitchen floor, chill a bottle of white from the “fancy” collection, and get out the flash cutlery.

I made an old and sentimental favourite for dinner, poisson cru, a raw fish salad served on rice. I should tell you how to make it because it’s a happy and bonding meal, with little heat required and not too much fuss. You start by marinating chunks of tuna in lemon or lime juice, and when I say chunk, I mean something that you can pick up in your fingers and pop in your mouth without either dropping it or doing that embarrassing thing where you can’t chew effectively and look like a gerbil until you either spit or swallow. Because that is not the look you are going for on anniversary night, or indeed on any night involving loved ones and the fancy wine. So then you have your tuna marinating for about 20 minutes and in the meantime you can put on the rice and start preparing the vegetables. I’ll leave the rice to you; we have our method and it’s foolproof, but no doubt you have yours too. I do think jasmine is best for this — you want a little bit of sticky.

Next we come to the vegetables. The cucumber is fun. I use a whole cucumber if I’m feeling rich and generous, and the first step is to peel strips lengthwise to give a stripy effect. I don’t know if that makes sense, but you’ll probably know if you’ve got it right, and if you haven’t, you’ll have something anyway and I’m sure it will be useable. Then you need to cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. I find this easier in shorter lengths, but it might depend on your prowess with a fork. You really want to scoop with the fork rather than scraping; it’s a textural thing. Once you have your stripy, scooped cucumber, slice it into half circles, a couple of millimetres wide, again about the size you’d want to pick up with your fingers. The garlic is easy — just finely chop a couple of cloves.  Tomatoes are also straightforward. Quarter them and cut out the stalky bits, then push out the seeds. I know no tidy way to do this; you’ll have to use your thumbs, so if you’re a bit on the hygiene-sensitive side like me, wash your hands first. Of course, you’ll have been washing your hands throughout this whole scenario anyway. You probably just did it, hey? Cut your quartered, de-seeded tomatoes into chunks — you know the drill. The last thing is spring onion. Slice it. Diagonally, for class.

So somewhere in the middle of all this vegetable finangling, you should have drained the tuna, tasting it first to make sure it’s “cooked” to your liking. And then you just mix the tuna and the vegetables with a can of coconut cream, decanted, aber natürlich, and then you serve the salad over the rice and pour the wine and have a jolly old time.

And that’s the context: poisson cru, fancy wine, a significant anniversary for which I am totally unprepared and under-resourced, plus (which I forgot to mention) two slightly cranky children, a not-very-pristine house, a strong desire for everyone under the age of ten to go to bed without any fuss, and actually, now that I think of it, the miracle of sharing my life from my early twenties to my nearly forties with the same long-legged, enthusiastic, kind, hilarious man. WITH TWO CHILDREN AND A CAT. Eight houses and as many gardens, hundreds of books, countless reeling conversations, walks and meals and nights and mornings and days, estuaries and mountains and beaches and cities, Paris and Melbourne and Tahiti and Dunedin, kisses and all the rest of it, collapsing laughter and tears and the occasional grump and stomp, all of those things that brought us together, that keep us together.

All of that, and at the bottom of the first glass of wine, Rabbit announces that he got himself a lolly this morning. I don’t understand; I question logistics and mechanics, get him to demonstrate his technique, express disbelief, incredulity. For the record, he pulled a chair over to the bench, climbed onto the bench, pulled down the lolly box, and extracted his prize. We watched him demonstrate; he was perfect. I still don’t know when this happened — he says this morning while I was in the shower, which seems incredible as Ian and the Cat were faffing around getting ready and the house isn’t that big and the chair takes a bit of shifting, so he must have been both quick and sneaky. Anyway, I’m trying to get my head around this small, determined, independent child, who — apparently — is mine, and so Ian tries to explain that the second-borns just are like that: they don’t need parental approval and they want to sort their own stuff out and they go ahead and do what they need to do to achieve the ends they want to achieve. And from the corner, the Cat lifts his head from his book. “Shite,” he says, “that’s so unfair.”


Gender: confusing and probably over-rated

Situation: A conversation with the Rabbit

Location: Fireside

Context: After watching The Muppets


Me: So, are you a man or a muppet?

Rabbit: (pause for thought) A muppet.

Tom/Daddy: What about me?

Rabbit: You’re a man.

Me: What about me, then?

Rabbit: (longer pause for thought) You’re a woppet.


Which reminds me of the time I was wandering the streets of Foxton, heavily pregnant, mid-30ish, tired, cold, and unsure of my place in the world. I passed a kid in his late teens, braced for his critical gaze.

“Hey, poppet,” he said. “How’s things?”


I like it when my kids give me a whole new view of the world, sometimes with just one word.

Last night I was talking with the little Rabbit about his day. “Worms,” he said, “are quite nice.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Did you see some?”

“Two,” he said. “With Daddy.” A pause. “I had one on my hand.” He held out his hand to show me, fingers slightly curved, as though they still held a worm and it might escape.

“Wow, that’s exciting!” I said. “What did it feel like?”

He thought, his body remembering the experience. He looked up at me, a trace of smile.

“Like honey.”

That’s “unique”

An interesting conversation came up on Facebook the other day about whether it’s possible to talk about a film being “more unique”. I’ve wound myself into knots trying to think my way through this, and I need your brains, dear readers.

As I read it, the conversation was about the definition of “unique”, but perhaps also about how it can be meaningfully or usefully used. And my first bit of wondering was about whether the trick to using the word in a meaningful way when talking about films (or people) is to attach the adjective to a more specific noun or characteristic.

I can see that describing a particular film as unique is meaningless if we argue that films have so many variables and characteristics that each film is unique — it’s not like the one yellow pebble in a box of blues and browns, where there are few characteristics and most of them are uniform or shared. And following that line, to say that every film is unique is true, but a platitude, so we don’t want to go there.

But I think it could be useful to say something like, “The director’s vision of New York is unique” or “The filming of bridges is unique” — narrow the field of reference and it starts to make more sense to talk of something being one of a kind, rather than similar to or the same as others.

Maybe a litmus test is to think of the non-unique examples: the director’s vision of New York that’s pretty much like someone (or everyone) else’s, the way of filming of bridges that you’ve seen before. If it’s easy enough to come up with other, non-unique (or standard or shared) ways of doing the same thing and you can’t think of another film that does it the same way as the one you’re referring to, then I think you’ve got a good case for meaningful or useful uniqueness.

But definitely no “more” or “less” in the picture.

And then I started wondering if there’s a problem with saying that “unique” or “one of a kind” means that nothing else is exactly the same as it (which is why films and people are all unique). Maybe “unique” means something more like “there’s nothing else like it” or “there’s nothing else similar to it”. So then what we’re talking about is a film that sits in a category all its own, a film that doesn’t have peers or siblings or imitators or close antecedents. And then it’s clear that a film can’t be more or less unique — it’s either out of the box altogether, or in it and playing with its mates. I think that looking at it this way, some films could be unique where others are not, but still no film could be more or less unique than another.

Or, we could scrap all that and say that every film (and person and bus-stop) is unique, and the only meaningful conversation we can have is about what makes a particular film/person/bus-stop unique.

What do you think, writerly, travelling, thinky, wordy, arty,  crafty, wandery friends? Please tell me where I’m wrong, where I’m right, and what I’ve missed. But gently, hey.

Get thee to a library

Another piece for my sporadic but fervent library fandom, geek-happy, book-philic, dance-crazy series.

But who gets to do the reshelving?

Channelling my mum

So, I’m getting older. And some things are starting to come out (not just in me, either). If you ever see me do any of these things, it’s just the inheritance, okay?

  1. Stab food with just a little too much gusto when dividing it onto people’s plates. Particularly likely when it’s fruit for dessert.
  2. Proclaim that the Southern Hemisphere spring starts in August. Just look at the ground, if you doubt me. Those flowers? They’re doing spring right now. How you divide up the other seasons is entirely up to you. I go for two months of winter, four of spring, three of summer and three of autumn. But in Dunedin, sometimes the summer is just a few weeks squished between spring and autumn.
  3. Snuffle my children. What can I say? They smell good. Particularly in that wee corner between cheek and ear.
  4. Bacon.
  5. Or a sprinkling of salt.
  6. Not cucumber though. I’m leaving that one for my sister and the kids. Unless it’s in yoghurt. Or a diced salad. Or pickle.
  7. Cry easily. Then resent the film or song that made me do it.
  8. Bask in the sun. Window, coffee, book.
  9. Worry about my double chin. Then get over it.
  10. Pick flowers for people.
  11. See the funny side. Not always appropriately.

Modes of writing

Those who teach writing often break the writing process into three stages, recommending that you spend one-third of your time on each. The stages are:

  • Planning and research
  • Writing
  • Editing and revision

In general, I agree with this (a writing project will have more planning and research time at the start and more editing time at the end), but the stages of the process usually aren’t completely discrete. One of the best writing teachers I know, Sharon Stevens, talked about the difference between seeing the process as an arrow —  focused, moving in one direction, passing swiftly and confidently through these stages, never to return —  and seeing it as a spiral — a swoop forward, a curve back, another turn forward, gradually getting to the end of the line, but passing back and forth between the stages within that overall forward momentum. And this spiral seems closer, certainly, to the way I write: I might start with some big ideas, then write a bit, crunch my sentences into a tighter shape as I go, pause to reconsider the overall shape of my piece, write some more, tidy up a paragraph, write, re-structure, write, edit, notice that the centre section makes no sense, rewrite, edit again, and finally, a long way down the track, proof and polish.

So lately I’ve been thinking that instead of conceptualising the writing process as a series of stages, it might work better for me to think of being in different modes as a writer at different times, to consciously notice and shape my mindset, my frame, my point of focus. And here are the modes I’m working in, along with a table summarising their characteristics (because tables, yum):

  • Contemplative, generative mode
  • Active writing mode
  • Reflective, tidying up mode
Contemplative, generative mode Active writing mode Reflective, tidying up mode
WHAT: Think about content, purpose, audience, structure. Do research. Generate ideas. Gather the information you need. Draft headings. Jot down bullet points to cover. Delegate sections to colleagues. WHAT: Get ideas down. Write your way through a bit of analysis. Hammer out paragraphs. Turn jotted points into paragraphs. WHAT: Check structure. Make sure you’ve covered everything you need to. Review formatting. Edit and proofread.
HOW: Use a whiteboard or a notebook. Talk things over with a colleague. Go for a walk. Have a meeting. Use the internet. Go to the library. Search databases. Review previous work. HOW: At your computer. HOW: On screen or on paper. Get other people involved in this process, but be clear about what sort of reviewing you need.

And what I’ve found most useful about this shift from stages to modes is that when I get stuck, it’s easier, somehow, to get over the hump. Maybe because I’m not wedded to being at a particular stage of the project, maybe because I feel more confident recognising that I’m not in the mood to write or edit, or that I need to bang out a few paragraphs before I can stop and think about the structure of the whole piece.

I like the way this brings the process a little closer to home, more connected to my mood, the music I have playing, the interplay between me and a text, between the words I have, the words still to come, and my thinking, typing, wandering, mulling, pernickiting, singing, dreaming, pruning self.

Finding my people

Being self-employed, working from home, juggling parenting, and running a small business — there’s a lot of fun and satisfaction in there and NO BOSS, plus you get to listen to whatever music you like while you work, and the only office politics are when you have to convince the children to scoot on out of your office and let you concentrate on your work, which may or may not include checking Facebook and reading The Toast (have you found this yet? you should) and watching reruns of The Cosby Show, or you have to negotiate with your partner for an evening or a weekend of work time while he does the Dad-ing. And if you get really into the zone and the proofreading’s flying, you may have to stop to make dinner or pick up the kids, but you’ll rarely have to push the pause button to go to a meeting that’ll get you so wound up you’re good for nothing for the rest of the day, so while you’re mothering and cooking and playing and all the rest of it, your mind can kind of keep trundling along thinking about words and ideas and what your logo should look like. Also, there’s all the stress about money and why there isn’t enough of it and where the next job is going to come from, but best we don’t think about that too much because this post is supposed to be upbeat.

But one thing you don’t have — and that you start to miss after a while — is co-workers, the good sort who instinctively get you and take turns making the coffee and never startle you with casual racism or sexism and who tell good jokes. The sort who make every project you work on together come out somehow much better than either of you could have managed on your own. And in the process of doing which projects, you have lots of those moments where you have a little jump inside because you’ve made sense of something that seemed impossible and found the right words and got the structure just exactly perfect and quite possibly written something that will change the world, or at least a small, tame corner of it. Anyway, forget it, because you don’t have them, those co-workers.

However, you do have a group on a social media website (which will remain nameless) of people who are just a bit like you, with the silly, wordy jokes and the incessant mulling over punctuation and syntax and the secret comma anxiety and all. So when you collapse into bed on a Thursday night after a day stressing about the workshops you’ve got coming up and making soup and reading stories, you roll into your partner’s arms and say, “I had such a great day; we had this thread running for hours about punctuation.” At which he sort of pauses, then says, “You’re really quite geeky, aren’t you?” But luckily, he finds that quite endearing, you think. And on a Friday, while making train sets and doing water play and chopping vegetables and walking the children home and getting everyone into bed FAR TOO LATE, you have this parallel fantasy in your head the whole time of working towards Friday night drinks with that virtual, barely glimpsed, desperately real out there somewhere group of not-quite-co-workers, the ones with whom you’ll pour a G+T and kick back, make increasingly bad puns, sit up in sudden, garrulous enthusiasm when someone mentions a book that no-one else ever seems to know about, but which you will quietly treasure for all time.

And that — and also the lovely, endlessly surprising, ever unfolding blogging world — is why the internet is QUITE A GOOD THING.

Signs that work… or don’t

That’s quite some signage you’ve got there, Australia.







From pie charts to paper craft

So what I want to know today is, “What font shall I use?” And, “Do I have to go to the supermarket, or can I make do?” Speaking of which, “Is it time for morning tea?” And also, “How does the nation grieve an artist, one who has helped us to see who we are, who we might be, what we mustn’t become? How do we keep looking?”

In the meantime, some distractions:

Oscar-nominated films as pie charts

Look! New punctuation marks

At it’s best, the loveliest of fruit

A bookbinder’s blog

One for the kids (big and small)

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