Monthly Archives: March 2009

I should really save this for Good Friday

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Come the raw prawn

Many years ago, when we first got married, Mr Strange Land suggested that perhaps he and I could play some chess. But because he was so much better than me, he would spot me a rook or a bishop.

I refused. And we never played chess. More than that, I have hardly ever touched a chess board since.

(He is actually far better than me. At chess, that is. But I would far rather lose honestly, than win only because the rules were tilted in my favour.)

These days, I’m learning all those chess skills again. Not because Mr Strange Land and I are playing (chess), but because I’m spending about 40 minutes each week in my younger daughters’ classroom, teaching the children to play chess. I have the two necessary attributes for teaching the game: I am not in paid employment (much) so I have some spare time; and I know the moves. I’ve found the tutorials at Chess Corner invaluable; thank goodness for teh interwebs.

I’ve put a bit of effort into thinking about how to teach the children, who are aged about six or seven. I’ve found that I can supervise about four games at a time, so I usually have eight children working with me each week, while the other children in the class are reading, or doing construction activities, or playing other games. I match an absolute beginner with a child who already knows a bit, and show them how to set up the board, and then I start them on a pawn game. Once they have gotten the hang of moving pawns, I start introducing the fighting pieces, and I ask the child who already knows how to play to be a teacher, and to help the learner. So far, this is working quite well, and by now, most of the children in the class are familiar with the moves that the pieces can make. My next step will be to get them to think about what-if scenarios: “What will happen to my queen if I move it to this square?”

They are very enthusiastic, and some of them get right into the spirit of the battle. Others of them take the battle off board, squabbling about whether they should be allowed to take moves back, or make two moves at once, or move their bishop from a black square to a white one. I’ve made up a series of cards explaining the permitted moves to enable them to resolve disputes in my absence (the class teacher is not familiar with chess, so she can’t help out there), and I’ve taught them that invaluable phrase, “J’adoube.” A few of them know the rule about being able to turn pawns into any other piece if they reach the backline, but I had to work hard to persuade one lad that it’s best to choose a queen, no matter how pretty the knights look.

Later on, I will start teaching them some of the simple ways of setting up checkmate, and I will introduce the complexities of en passant and castling. In the meantime, I’m finding it all great fun, and most weeks I head off from the lesson feeling very cheerful. An hour or so later I’m faced with a room full of university students in an Ethics tutorial – I wish I could infect them with the children’s enthusiasm.

The thing I’ve enjoyed most so far? Tom shouting with glee this morning, “I’ve got all his prawns!”


The lovely Mr Williams, of Back in 15 fame, who has been diligently reporting the Women’s Cricket World Cup, has some free tickets for the final to give away. Sydneysiders, go and talk nicely to him – e-mail: siesta at internode dot on dot net, and be able to pick up the tickets from the city on Friday afternoon. Especially Kiwis living in Sydney. Our team has a great chance of being in the final.

For Australians reading this post – New Zealanders support two teams: New Zealand, and any team playing Australia.

Sceptical housewifery

I got an e-mail message from a supermarket chain last week (loyalty card thingie – it’s not that I have a deep and intimate relationship with supermarkets).


They’re changing the size of laundry scoops and the size of laundry powder packs. Packs are reducing in size, but the price stays the same. Looks like a gyp, but scoops are reducing in size to, so they promise, promise, promise, that we will get exactly the same number of washes out of each pack.

Hmmmm….. not so fast with that claim, clever marketing dudes!

emptyscoopsHere are the old scoop, and the new. The new one is much smaller than the old. So on the face of it, it looks as though the claim is plausible. We will get just as many washes out of the new smaller pack and the new smaller scoop, as we got out of the old bigger pack, and the old bigger scoop.  Nothing to see here, move along please.

I thought that I might test the claim.  smallscoopfullAs it turns out, a full new scoop fills the old scoop up to exactly the half-way mark. So if the new scoop fills the old scoop up to the half-way mark, all must be well. Two halves make one whole; an old scoop must be twice the size of one new scoop. Just as many washes to be had out of the new pack and new scoop.

But, when you add a second new scoop to the already half-full old scoop, this is what you get.

overfullscoop moundscoop

A suspicious looking mound.

Two new scoops make more than one old scoop. Not so many washes out of the new smaller pack, which is sold at the same price as the old, bigger pack.

To be sure, there’s only about 10 to 15mls in it, in a scoop (old) that holds about 120mls, more or less. But the way I figure it, when you use the new scoop, you end up using about 10% more than you would have used for an equivalent old-scoop wash.

There’s probably some clever explanation for this. No doubt the manufacturers will tell us that on average, between half washes and full washes, we will get “about” the same number of washes out of the new packs and new scoops. No matter that in order to be environmentally friendly, we are urged to wait until we have a full load before putting the washing machine through.  Maybe it’s to do with the way we measure quarter cups (new scoop) and half cups (old scoop): a quarter cup is set for convenience at 60mls, but a half cup at 125mls. Maybe the manufacturers have run their claim past consumer organisations, and it’s all close enough, so that’s okay then.  Whatever. The fact is, on the face of it, I will get less washes out of the new packs.

All the washing powder manufacturers are making the move, so there’s nothing to be done about it. Except raise a sceptical eyebrow.

Ambivalence and loss

Review: Black Dust Dancing, by Tracy Crisp

As I absorbed the heat-hazed ambivalence in the first chapter of Black Dust Dancing, I thought, “Bloody hell! I know Third Cat reads my blog, and I read hers, and we’ve met for coffee, but that’s all, so how on earth did she find out so much about me that she could use me as the basis for Caro?” Then after a few more pages, I realised that Caro isn’t me, and nor is she Third Cat, nor indeed any other particular woman except herself. But the problems she faces, the pressures, the drifting, the worries about her daughter, the puzzle about how on earth her life ended up this way, the marking time and marking time and trying to work out just what to do next – these are the problems of my life, and I think the problems for many other women of, or nearing, a certain age.

If that was all that Black Dust Dancing was about, then it would disappear up its own existential angst, and it would be one of those dull, unsatisfying, worthy books, or worse, chick-lit with an overlay of portentous Meaning Of Life. But it’s also about Heidi, a much younger woman, who is trying to grow up, and escape the small town she lives in, even though she doesn’t quite know that yet. I loved Heidi’s story, and the way it is pieced together in the book, until bit by bit we realise what her life must have been like, what the sense of loss must have done to her, and work out what she might need to do next, and hope that she is able to do it. When the final loss came, for her, I felt quite shattered, but unsurprised. If this had happened once before, then it could happen again.

The novel is a lovely meditation on women’s lives, on the choices they make, or don’t make, the way they take action or let things happen, the way that their plans can go awry, and what can be made of their lives after that. I would like to meet Caro one day, over a glass of wine, and compare notes about how things got to be this way, and talk about what each of us could do next. Heidi I liked, but she is younger, and perhaps we wouldn’t connect so well. I think I would like to meet her in 10 or 15 years time, to see what she has managed to do, and to hear about how she thinks her life has gone, and will go.

Underneath all these stories is a pot-boiler plot. At least, it could be a pot-boiler plot, but the author never lets it take over. What’s important in this book are the stories about the women living in a small Australian town, and they take centre stage. The town itself is not a character, and TC resists the temptation to let it be one. It’s just a small country town – nothing remarkable – with all the good things and all the bad of small country towns.

The novel ends convincingly, but not by authorial fiat. It’s simply the next thing that Caro and Heidi might each do, the next steps they might take. It’s not clear that things will work out for them, but then, it’s not clear that they won’t either. They are both making positive decisions, but there’s nothing like a trite, forced feel-good, everything-will-be-alright flavour to the final few chapters of the book.

There’s some good characterisations of minor players. I have clear visual images of Suzie the hairdresser, and Vicki the doctors’ receptionist, and Libby the mother-in-law, which I have not because Tracy wastes words in drawn-out descriptions, but because I have a sense of the sort of people they are, and then just a few words are enough to flesh out their physical realisation.

I love the restraint with which the book is written. There’s no sickly, heavy overlay of adjectives, no set-piece action scenes, nothing that makes me want to skip a page or two. The action comes in conversations and small movements, the little actions and pauses of everyday life. They all build together, piece by piece, into a satisfying story.

You should read this book.

Update: Other reviews
Still Life with Cat: In which Third Cat’s book is launched
Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony: Writing from the right side of the brain

Friday Feminist – Mary Wollstonecraft (4)

Cross posted

For Miss Ten

Consider, I address you as a legislator, whether, when men contend for their freedom, and to be allowed to judge for themselves respecting their own happiness, it be not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women, even though you firmly believe that you are acting in the manner best calculated to promote their happiness? Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him of the gift of reason?

In this style, argue tyrants of every denomination, from the weak king to the weak father of a family; they are all eager to crush reason; yet always assert that they usurp its throne only to be useful. Do you not act a similar part, when you force all women, by denying them civil and political rights, to remain immured in their families groping in the dark? for surely, Sir, you will not assert, that a duty can be binding which is not founded on reason? If indeed this be their destination, arguments may be drawn from reason: and thus augustly supported, the more understanding women acquire, the more they will be attached to their duty—comprehending it—for unless they comprehend it, unless their morals be fixed on the same immutable principle as those of man, no authority can make them discharge it in a virtuous manner. They may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent.

But, if women are to be excluded, without having a voice, from a participation of the natural rights of mankind, prove first, to ward off the charge of injustice and inconsistency, that they want reason,—else this flaw in your NEW CONSTITUTION, the first constitution founded on reason, will ever shew that man must, in some shape, act like a tyrant, and tyranny, in whatever part of society it rears its brazen front, will ever undermine morality.

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792

“Mary Wollstonecraft rocks” – more on raising feminists

Those of you who know me IRL, and those of you have been reading my blog for a while will perhaps be aware that my daughters are the most intelligent, likable, delightful, caring, beautiful girls in the world. I am outrageously proud of them.

I’m sure I will write about each of them on occasion, but today I am feeling particularly outrageously proud of my elder daughter, Miss Ten. As part of her school homework, she is required to read aloud to me for 5 minutes, once a week. Last week, she found some political theory notes I had written for a course I delivered a few years ago, and she read the section on Plato’s theory of the forms (it’s useful to know about them when you are reading The Republic). So she decided would read it out loud to me. But I directed her to another section of the notes, about Mary Wollstonecraft. Hard going, for a ten year old. But she’s a bright kid, and there’s good reason to stretch her, and even better reason to start to introduce her to some of the great women who have come before us, and made the world a better place for us.

Miss Ten read the section competently, and then turned to me and said, “Mary Wollstonecraft rocks!”

Well yes, dear, she does, I thought. We talked a little more about her, and then she started heading off to bed. As I was helping her to straighten her room (a nightly task because she really does prefer to store things on the floor), Miss Ten said, “You know, she [Wollstonecraft] was even more amazing because it must have been much harder to be feminist back then.”

I’ve taught university students who have been incapable of assessing a person in the context of their own times.

Miss Ten says she wants to be a feminist when she grows up. I think she’s one already.

[/proud mother rant over]