Skiing, August 2014: the journey is not the destination

Aside from having a memory that I twice successfully skied nearly half a lifetime ago, there were two things I’d been told about skiing that tempted me back. One is that it is somewhat easier to learn on carved skis, but the other bigger consideration is that being tall is apparently essentially a complete disadvantage in snowboarding, where holding your centre of gravity pretty much above the board at all times is the key skill. In skiing, this is not so. I asked a few people, and someone I know who is quite good at both agreed that with my snowboarding skill level, I really wouldn’t be losing a lot by switching to skiing.

Our trip didn’t begin promisingly. First there was the usual agony of planning a holiday. We had thought to return to New Zealand, but I decided I didn’t want to deal with pumping for A in a daycare and so we’d have to switch off caring for her. There’s essentially no on-snow accommodation in New Zealand; I imagined the experience for the person sitting with the baby in a crowded snow cafeteria all day with a shudder. And the difficulty getting V onto a bus up a mountain each day and entertaining him for an hour in each direction. Then we considered Perisher where we’d been before, but it was ludicrously expensive. So we settled on Thredbo, which is also far from cheap but has more beds and is also a genuine village in its own right. Important, I thought, if I once again got too injured to continue and wanted to do something else with my time. I was tired from planning long before we left.

Even less promisingly, the morning before we left, V woke up and was sick. To be precise: he was sick on the baby, setting a new record for contagious behaviour from my children even exceeding the time A stuck her snotty finger up Val’s nose in the US. We didn’t have the food we’d planned to take and we didn’t have snow clothes. So we waited a while and took a pale and tired V for clothes and generally considered the following day with fear.

V was bewildered and annoyed to get up before the sun, something I think we’ve never got him to do before, and especially since we then hustled him onto a city bus, and marched him across Central and onto a coach. (We can’t easily take a taxi with a baby under one year old, something that also caused a lot of problems on my US trip.) He was then annoyed that we had promised him the very interesting experience that the coach would have a toilet and it didn’t, which was nothing to our reaction to the prospect a seven hour coach trip on a coach without a toilet. Meanwhile, I contemplated the joy of seven hours on a coach where all but three of the seats didn’t have enough leg room for me. (About every two years I have the brilliant idea of taking buses places instead of driving, and each time I board only to remember that I don’t actually fit on them. Oh.)

It all worked out though; the bus made a few loo breaks, and V was well enough to not be miserable but sick enough to spend most of the trip asleep or staring dreamily out the window rather than, as we’d feared, spending the whole trip in perpetual whine-motion. A still isn’t crawling, so she spent the trip strapped to me or Andrew mostly happily except for occasional annoyed screeches. Towards the end of the trip, I was the one climbing the walls, squashed into the bus and nauseous from the bus’s heating level and A’s body heat.

The agony was not over: we were disgorged from the bus with two little kids and two giant and heavy suitcases, went briefly to see the tobogganing and then went to pick up all the gear — two sets of skis, a snowboard, three sets of boots, my stocks, three helmets — with a tired V who was very keen to ski and who believed that we were going to get off the bus and immediately all ski down a mountain together.

I have to hand it to Thredbo: their hire gear places are frighteningly efficient, with 8 separate “stations” each staffed by multiple people who sit you down, pop your feed on sizing guides, stand you up, eyeball you for ski length, strap everything together, tinker with it, and send you on your way.

Even so, it was tough. V had a small tantrum that we weren’t getting him stocks, believing it’s not possible to ski without them (only very advanced children are allowed to use them in the children’s ski school), and a very long epic tantrum as we painfully loaded all our luggage and gear onto a minibus packed with other skiers. Once we had fought all our stuff back out of the minibus, we had to slowly leapfrog it up a steep driveway and steps to the apartment we were staying in while V cried that his skis were so very very heavy, can’t you carry them Mama please? What, with a 20kg suitcase, my skis and stocks, and the baby strapped to my front? (Various adults who saw this trainwreck in action would make sad pitying noises before they saw the baby. After that, they’d just squeak and flap in alarm.) The owners of the accommodation were horrified and helpful once they’d discovered all this and helped us into the flat where we used the very last of our energy for sorting out the following morning’s piles of stuff.

Actually, no, I tell a lie, I used the very last of my energy walking several hundred metres down the hill and back up in the icy dark to buy additional groceries, but this was actually a blessed emotional getaway. (And Thredbo is actually quite warm, it was probably only roughly freezing.)

It’s not a destination designed to be reached on public transport, that much was clear.

We set our phone alarms for the distressing time of 7am, and in our last tragic act, failed to check how to set the thermostats properly before going to sleep, leaving them on MAX and sweltering all night. And so it began. Not entirely as it was to continue, you’ll be pleased to hear.

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Snowboarding intermission: 2003, 2006, 2008

I suppose it’s just possible I have enough loyal fans to actually remember my snowboarding epics, but it’s unlikely.

The distance between 1998 and 2003 doesn’t seem so long now of course, but at the time, it was about a quarter of my life, and encompassed university. (Which is why I didn’t follow up skiing; I couldn’t have remotely afforded to. I am not sure how I paid for the 2003 trip during my honours year, but possibly Andrew, who was working by then, paid for some of mine.) My memory of the fun of skiing at the very end was intact, but the certainty was gone.

I did some research online and the conclusion I came to was this: skiing is easier to learn, but requires a much longer period of refinement over more difficult terrain. Snowboarding is harder to learn, but once you know how to do it, you apply essentially the same skills to harder and harder terrain. Given that I’d skied successfully for a grand total of about a minute, it seemed worth saying goodbye to the four days of sunk cost and starting with the once-off investment of pain required for snowboarding.

And that theory worked basically OK… for Andrew, who began snowboarding with me in 2003 and who now snowboards at an upper intermediate skill level.

In 2003, we went to Perisher with several friends, staying down in Jindabyne and hauling up to the Skitube and the snow at 8am each morning, other people’s hangovers be damned. (I cannot fathom how hangovers and snowsports go together so closely.) It was the first time Andrew had ever so much as seen snow in his life, hopping out of the tube into the sunlight with his board under his arm. (I’ll give snowboarding this: it’s a lot easier to carry one board around than skis and stocks.) We practised a teeny tiny bit on a very flat part and then enrolled in group lessons.

The skiing joke about snowboarders is “sitting on their butts”, partly because beginning snowboarders fall a lot and partly at group lesson time, beginners’ slopes will be arrayed with snowboarders sitting down listening to instructors, spread along the slope inconveniently. (Andrew notes entirely correctly that skiers don’t do this only because it’s not really possible to sit down in them.) And the first day was terrible for me because we were learning to ride heel-side (facing out from the mountain, heel side of the board dug into the snow), and that involved standing up heel-side, and I was just never able to do it. Sit down. Dig board in. Reach down and grab the toe side. Pull up. And boom, back on my butt. As with having to put my skis back on for every turn five years before, this quickly tired me out and I started getting worse. That instructor had a day off the following day and the new instructor — I think a woman — was rather horrified: everyone (except apparently for day #1 guy) knows that some women in particular really struggle with standing up heel-side (because women are, generally, less strong for their height and have somewhat higher centres of gravity) and you get around this by having them get up toe-side (lie or kneel facing the mountain, dig the toe end of the board in, push up with arms), which indeed I could do.

And then my unrevealed snowboarding curse kicked in: I bruise very easily. A couple of days of falling on my butt and I was so badly bruised that I had to sit out the third day because falling over and over on plate-sized bruises was hurting me too much to continue.

It was in 2004 we learned to scuba dive, and for a while that took up a lot of the time and space we had for getting up too early, hauling ourselves into uncomfortable clothing and interacting with our environment in a highly artificial and expensive manner. Even then, Andrew hinted that he’d probably prefer winter sports, but as the person who has the powers of arranging such things in our household, scuba it mostly was. (If you’re wondering what’s happened to it: we haven’t ruled a line under it. It’s just not a kid-friendly activity, I couldn’t dive at all when I was pregnant, and I’d have to pump at the moment to be apart from A for that long, which is impossible on a dive boat. Most likely we will dive again when we happen to be near good dive sites, as in Maui in March 2013, the last time we dived. We probably won’t go back to diving ten or more times a year for a long time, if ever.)

We stumbled into a snow trip in 2006, when André arranged for a number of people to spend a week at his family’s ski lodge in Victoria. I think I grappled again with the idea of switching back to skiing but figured I couldn’t be that far from getting over the hump to learning to snowboard. So we went for lessons again, the last time Andrew and I were still just plausibly at the same level, and I continued to struggle. I bought a private lesson one afternoon with our instructor at Mt Hotham which just about hauled me up to the level of the rest of the group, so that they could cheer when I turned again and again to reach the bottom of the slope. But again, I was ridiculously bruised, my knees and butt an even black-purple, and had to sit out the third day, the day Andrew thoroughly climbed over the snowboarding hump and began to cautiously experiment with intermediate slopes with André’s skier friends. He got his own injury there, falling on his face hard enough to kick his board into the back of his head (if you look at the back of his head, there’s a 4cm hairless vertical scar on it — that’s why), but while he probably narrowly escaped a really nasty head injury there (and has since worn a helmet) cuts on the head aren’t as inhibiting as falling on bruises over and over.

And this was also the time we were heavily into doing yoga, and for months afterwards, I noticed a faint but sharp pain in my ribs when I twisted.

Finally, in 2008, I decided it was do or die, and as part of a bigger pre-kids holiday driving around the south island of New Zealand (recommended: “let me guess… around this corner we will find… a lake and a mountain? I WIN AGAIN!” — it’s the best) we spent five days snowboarding and I took only private lessons. And really, after these I probably can say that I could snowboard, but every inch of progress was hard won. I never once got off a chairlift without falling over embarrassingly. I got badly bruised on the first day, and kept on mostly with the power of the butt and knee armour I hurriedly went out and bought. At least one night I cried about how much I was dreading the next day. And, on the third day, I cracked a rib in the same place that I’d hurt them in 2006. I sat in the medical centre in the ski resort while a very small friendly doctor pressed all over my chest until I screamed, and then offered me some powerful codeine, just in case I wanted to return to the slopes the same day. No.

We had a few rest days then in any case, and escaped from Queenstown down to Te Anau and Milford Sound, me sleeping a lot under the influence of the lesser codeine I’d been prescribed, the doctor preferring that I be very sleepy to being too afraid of pain to cough, although in reality I didn’t find it had a lot of effect on the pain. Returning to Queenstown I did two more days of lessons, my instructor kindly recommending I never join group lessons because I progressed “at a different rate” to most people. The last day the plan was to attack some long and new-to-me runs, but there was a whiteout and it scared me. Instead I linked some turns down a blue run, and my instructor triumphed over my learning to snowboard, and assured me I’d get the hang of chairlifts soon for sure and could progress from there on intermediate slopes. “Tell your next instructor you’re beginning to link turns on blue,” he advised me. Meanwhile, Andrew’s group lesson was making their first forays into the terrain park as upper intermediate or lower advanced boarders. We would occasionally run into him getting off the lifts, as he’d board over to us with a foot free, bend over, strap it in, wave, and take off down an intermediate run.

Which left me in a frustrating half-way point. I could snowboard, but it was agonisingly slow going, rather scary (you have to have your back to the drop a bunch), and not only had I come home with the usual bad bruises and cracked ribs, I also had a painless but severe swelling in my knee for the next couple of weeks that got bad enough that my GP tossed up draining it (and also, since this was close to the time when I was recompressed for suspected decompression illness, suggested I take up chess as my sport of choice).

I clung to my how-to memories of boarding tightly, determined to go back and get the pay-off from all of this, but life — very literally ­— got in the way. The following winter, 2009, I was pregnant with V. The year after that we were lost in a wilderness of childcare-induced illnesses, and then the flurry of projects I committed myself to; finishing my thesis, getting my business going. Andrew started making noises about really wanting to go again last year, but I was again pregnant. And so, before we knew it, it was six winters since I’d snowboarded, and how much of this pain was I going to need to go through again to get it back?

And so, once more the question: should I really be skiing instead?

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Skiing round one: 1998

Me learning to ski a couple of weeks ago is a weirdly long story, beginning in 1998.

In 1998, I was in the final year of high school, but because of my ludicrous and I now think in some ways ill-advised academic program, I had already completed 9 units of study of the required 11 minimum for the Higher School Certificate and was only doing 8 more. (The reason I now think this was ill-advised is beside the point, but in short, I should have risked a slightly lower university entrance score in return for just completing the entire thing in a year early in 1997, and not spent so much energy on doing 1½ times the required courses for absolutely no long-term benefit.) So it was not completely out of the question to head off to New Zealand for a week in winter.

My sister Julia and I were both working retail at the time, and my parents offered us half the price of the trip if we saved the other half. We duly did so and thus embarked on all the mysterious preliminary rituals for a snow trip (getting fitted for gear and such before leaving) and flew to New Zealand with a small group of fellow pupils. It wasn’t my first extended trip away from my family by any means, nor my first plane flight: in the preceeding year, I’d done two fortnight long nerd camps and flown by myself to Sydney a few times to take part in a selective university-level philosophy course for high schoolers. But it was my first international trip, and my first trip between time zones.

The trip was basically a disappointment in several ways. First, I think in retrospect that the supervising teacher, who went every year, must have been frustrated at the social dynamic. There’s good odds that when you take a small group of teenagers out of their usual environment and hierarchies and give them something to do, they behave much more like adults. But it didn’t really work like that. Unless I’m forgetting someone, in terms of age, there was myself in Year 12, Julia in Year 10, and six or seven other girls all in Year 11. All but two of those were part of a group that even I, a year older and not really in need of knowing their class’s dynamics, recognised as the core of a notoriously cliquish group of princesses. We were staying in a lodge in Methven, and they grabbed their own dorm room with unseemly haste and proceeded to have nothing to do with the likes of the rest of us. We made shift for ourselves, but it was still less than ideal.

Second, most importantly, most of us really struggled to learn to ski. The teacher explained the setup to us, and pointed us at the trail guide and the longest beginner run that we were all going to ski with him at the end of the week, and it wasn’t to be. Or at least, I don’t recall how the princesses did, but of my dorm-mates, one was a natural, already turning parallel within a day of starting, one I think wasn’t and other than participating in lessons took to spending most of the day reading in the bus, and Julia and I weren’t much chop either. I think I was the worst. It was the first time in my life that I got pulled aside by an adult to be complimented for trying really really hard, as distinct from succeeding at all. (As I recall, the instructor was quite emphatic about this: he’d never seen anyone work so hard at it. Subtext: at least, not without learning anything.)

With hindsight: here’s what happened. First, I hadn’t even finished growing at this point. (I finished really late for a woman, when I was 18 or 19.) Physically, I was enormously tall and stretched out like gum. My brain and body were not well matched at the time. Second, this was the dying days of non-carved skis. If you were buying yourself skis, they were carved. If you were renting them, at least at Mt Hutt that year, they were still long narrow flat fence-posts. Thirdly, and most importantly, I just didn’t lean forward enough to stop my skis crossing in front. That last the instructor really ought to have picked up: it’s the most common failure mode in beginning skiing. Perhaps he did and I just never learned quite far enough forward to believe him.

The setup was much the usual for beginners: there was a very shallow first day slope and then over to a short but slightly steeper slope to get the technique down. And that’s pretty much where I was done. On, I think, the second last day, still believing that I’d celebrate with a run down the much longer ultimate beginners’ slope the following day, I grit my teeth and just figured that more hours were more better, went higher up a second short beginners’ slope, and went down it, falling at every single turn. I am pretty sure that I spent the best part of two hours snow-plowing cautiously down in one direction, trying to turn, falling over, retrieving my skis (the bindings were pretty loose), pointing myself in the other direction, spending ages knocking snow out of the soles of my ski boots and skiing in the other direction. Two hours, two baby slopes. Not one successful turn. Lots of crying and self-pep talks. Presumably my growing exhaustion and cementing bad technique were hindering me by then.

I don’t even know what got me back on the slopes the last day. Probably the money I’d spent on it. The last day brought the backhanded compliment about my work ethic (albeit true, I am bad at quitting things), and, crucially and a bit cruelly, the actual breakthrough I’d wanted the day before. For whatever reason, I decided to lean forward to what I considered a ludicrous degree, and which was probably barely acceptable, I pointed my skis downhill, I lost all fear, and I skiied to the bottom (if I am remembering correctly, more or less without attempting to turn) and stopped myself. And then I got back on the pommel, rode up, pointed myself down the hill again, and did it again.

It was exhilarating; I can still feel how happy I was about it.

And then there was absolutely no time to do it a third time because it was time to return my skis, get back in the minibus, ride the nailbiting drive back down to Methven, and fly home to Australia knowing that, probably, I was capable of skiing and would find it rather fun.

And then I didn’t return to the slopes until 2003 and, when I did, I made the regrettable decision to switch to snowboarding.

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July 2014

I took about a week to get over my jetlag from the USA, but it was really rather mild. I would just get on with my day, only as soon as the sun set, the day would be over. The unpleasantness was mostly that this meant that for about a week, I worked and slept and did nothing else.

I met my mother, aunt and sister in Hornsby — where Andrew and I lived for 5 years and where V was born — the Friday afternoon after I got back, which was odd. Of course, most things are exactly the same, but there was also no point to it. We didn’t have friends up there even at the time and there was nowhere to go where people would remember me unless the food sellers in the (very very busy) local shopping centre remember a very tall past customer.

The playground where V played the most was exactly the same, but he’d forgotten it, and it was also verging on being a little young for him. Hornsby Shire Council is not the City of Sydney in terms of devotion to adventure playgrounds. I drove past the hospital to show V where he was born, and realised I’m not sure I’d remember which birth suite it was (even if they were inclined to allow random people to traipse through the delivery ward, which of course they would not be). Hornsby Hospital, which was a state-wide scandal in terms of maintainence, has had some money spent on it in the last few years. The building which I believe contained the old maternity ward my mother was born in has been knocked down and replaced with something in blocky primary colours, looking much like the new Royal North Shore hospital. It shouldn’t surprise me there are trends in hospital design, but it does.

V, of course, was politely puzzled by the idea that he had ever lived in this place or been in that hospital and so on. He also didn’t recognise his old daycare centre.

The block of flats we lived in — we still own the flat — looks exactly the same as when I last saw it more than two years ago, but there’s a speed bump in the street, and a new Thai restaurant where the sad failed grocer was. (Sad both in that any failed small business is sad, and also that they appeared to have sunk a lot of thought and effort into the fitout, trying to set up a slightly fancy deli that was patronised mostly by me and Andrew. They left on what would have been about the first annual review of their lease.) I entirely forgot to check if the Blockbuster franchise was still there; I would assume not.

I had intended to spend most of a day up there remembering things, in the end I drove around and left after 45 minutes.

It was probably that trip that inspired me into a very brief foray into the Sydney property market the following weekend, to wit, inspecting two properties. One we arrived at only to be told by a bored agent it had been bought before its first public inspection. “Yeah, sorry. That’s how it goes!” The other involved real estate agents cornering us to let us know how very motivated (very, very motivated) the seller was, and wanting to have a big discussion about what we were looking for in the market and what we thought about the market and why we thought that and whether they’d be of any help re-aligning our thoughts for us and what kind of finance we might have access to or could be assisted with, and etc, and were not easily put off by “we live just up the street and are having a sticky-beak, and also, this apartment is down two internal flights of stairs and we have a baby in a stroller, so no.” I suppose it could be worse, we could have actually bought the place. But it was surprisingly difficult to get away from them even as entirely unmotivated buyers.

And that was Andrew’s cue to nick off to the USA himself. It was a long and lonely trip at my end, probably much the same as mine for him. As our work trips become increasingly totalising — he was expected to have all three meals a day with work colleagues he needs to know better, I took a baby with me — we’ve dropped off our communications. I spoke to him a couple of times while I was away (and mostly in order to speak to a very bored and slightly bewildered V, at that), I think while he was away we had a couple of abortive attempts at video chat and that was about it. Not much fun having a chat that consists mostly of “… no, I still can’t hear you, oh, I just saw you wave, nope, now you’ve frozen, can you hear me? CAN YOU HEAR ME?” It got even worse when he got to London and didn’t have a local SIM and was impossible to reach at all.

Andrew works in an office, but I don’t, so when he travels I can go for days without having face-to-face interactions with other adults that aren’t transactional. (“Have I paid for V’s dance class this week? No? Here’s the fee!”) So I took V and A to my parents for three nights in the middle of Andrew’s trip. Packing alone for a trip is always really annoying and boring, but the drive that I was dreading (about 4 hours each way) ended up being surprisingly painless. V remains a good and surprisingly non-whingy car traveller and A sleeps even better in cars than he used to. The first morning we were there they had their snowfall of the year; unfortunately we hadn’t brought gloves with us but had a bit of fun anyway, with my parents hauling V around on a tarpaulin “sled”.

Once I was back, I warned Val that I was feeling slightly ill and was having an inexplicably grumpy and sad day. (The amount of emotional work and intimacy required in a small business can be high, but I do like being able to rearrange my day around being grumpy every so often.) It got much more explicable when I realised I was having cellulitis symptoms in my left ankle (an infection of soft tissue under the skin).

I had cellulitis in September 2012 with a slightly unusual and very aggressive presentation: I got a high fever first, about 24 hours before there was any redness or swelling and so on. By the time the redness was even really properly visible, I had been running a 40°C fever for several days, could barely walk due to the painful swelling of lymph nodes, was dehydrated, and was admitted to hospital for 6 days of IV antibiotics (and three days of rehydration, because I refused to take anything by mouth). When I was in there, the infectious diseases registrar asked if she should draw the boundaries of the redness on my leg to check if it was spreading, and the specialist said mildly “I don’t think there’s much point to that.” He was quite right: within a couple more days, the redness had spread all over my left thigh, and I ended up losing two layers of skin from most of my inner thigh, very much (as the specialist pointed out) as if I’d badly burned it. The day before I was discharged, he stopped by my bed alone and remarked that it was cases like this that “remind us that even in the age of antibiotics, these things can be very aggressive, and sometimes even fatal.”

… Thanks.

So, naturally, I panicked that I was having cellulitis symptoms again, only this time with two children in my care and Andrew in London (so, timezone-flipped) and close to unreachable other than by email. It wasn’t, in the end, justified: this time I got the redness and swelling but no fever or systemic illness, and a couple of courses of antibiotics cleared it up without me losing any skin, although I did walk with a cane for a couple of days due to lymph node pain. It was no worse than having twisted an ankle a bit in the end. It was tough on the extended family, as I set up Illness Level Red in case of needing to be hospitalised, unnecessarily in the event. (Andrew and I agreed that he’d arrange to leave London early as soon as I started running a fever, so he ended up leaving as planned.)

As a concrete thing, Andrew and I are going to have to work a bit more about communicating, and being accessible, while each of us travels. I used to talk about emotionally putting our marriage on ice for the duration — which is already much easier for the person who is travelling than the person left behind — but it’s not possibly for parenting, especially if the at-home parent gets taken out of action.

Once Andrew was back, all was well with the world. For the week and a half it took him to incubate the influenza he presumably picked up while travelling, anyway… stay tuned.

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USA, June 2014

Before I left for the US in June, Val asked me what other people were saying to me about my plan to go on an intercontinental business trip and bring a baby, and I said that I gathered that people thought both that it was a terrible idea and that it was fairly typical of me to attempt it.

It was touch and go committing to it. Just when I started to get excited about it, A went through a non-sleeping patch over Easter that nearly saw me walk away from the whole thing. So after that I mostly dealt with it by ignoring it as much as possible until the time was nearly upon me, much as I deal with the entire idea of long haul travel generally.

In fact the trip over started quite promisingly, sitting in Air New Zealand’s nearly deserted business lounge looking out onto the tarmac and feeling a kind of peace and happiness I very rarely feel. (So rarely that I can remember most other cases of it. The afternoon after I finished my final high school exams. Flying back from Honolulu last year finishing up my PhD revisions. I usually need to be alone, and finishing something very big, neither of which was true in this case.)

I like Air New Zealand’s schedule to the States compared to Qantas’s. To fly Qantas to the Bay Area, you fly to LA, which takes about 15 hours, and get off the plane at some point between midnight and about 3am Sydney time, ie, just when your body was finally about to fall asleep. Instead of sleeping, you must navigate LAX. I’ve had nightmares that are more fun than that, even though LAX has usually been rather kind to me if anything. However kind, last year I arrived in San Francisco without a moment of sleep (and pregnant, and ill). On Air NZ, the long flight is the second flight: Auckland to San Francisco, so it more nearly corresponds with my sleeping time.

The question was always whether the baby would sleep at all during the flight, and actually she did surprisingly well considering how ill-designed her location was. They had her staring straight up into a light! Nightie night! I did OK too, although the trip’s high point in the lounge was quickly followed by its low point when I subluxated my shoulder in the middle of the night shutting a window shade (yes really, I attempted it from a terrible angle, but yikes) while located something like 2000km from the nearest hospital (and 10km in the air). But I only had to spend a couple of moments imagining the horror of finding some doctor on the plane to attempt to reset it before it reset itself. The whole thing gave me a new appreciation of fear of flying, as the plane bumped along held up by thin, cold air with me stuck inside it with a busted shoulder. I don’t experience fear of flying, but I increasingly think I probably ought to.

The border official at San Francisco looked a bit skeptical that I was bringing the baby on a business trip, but duly admitted me for business and her as a tourist. And then it was déjà vu all the way out thought the ceiling height metal arrival doors and into and through the waiting groups. I’ve flown into San Francisco internationally only once in the past — my first big overseas trip in 2004 — and so I quite vividly remembered the entire experience. Luckily this time I didn’t have to head out to BART and try and work out SF’s bus system without any sleep (in 2004 I had never been in the northern hemisphere before and didn’t know that I would constantly confuse north and south, thus catching a bus for half an hour in the wrong direction). This time, too, I had a baby with me. Quite a change. I went outside and Suki met me with her car and we loaded A into the car seat and we were away.

It’s always summer in SF when I go there, and for once it really felt like it. Our first night, I went to a long dinner at Amelia’s house. Everyone was pleasingly impressed with my ability to stay awake, but I was playing on easy mode: it was only about 2pm in Sydney. The next day I had lunch at Sanraku at the Metreon because somehow my SF experiences seem to always involve the Metreon, visited Double Union, had coffee with K nearby and dinner with James at Mission Beach Cafe. All with A strapped to my front. (Actually, not strictly true, I put her on the floor at Double Union!) Too many appointments; I should never visit SF just for two nights, it needs to be a week or not at all.

The idea of getting back on a plane the next day was abhorrent, but I just gritted my teeth and did it. In any case, it was only to Portland. I am too used to thinking of Australia as a uniquely large country and therefore had been surprised that we weren’t driving to Portland. Aren’t all foreign cities an hour’s drive apart at most? No. Portland is about 9 hours, it seems, from SF, so much like Sydney and Melbourne or Brisbane. I was also disappointed that it was still about another 5 hours north to Canada, or I would have gone for a day trip.

I was in Portland for eight nights. It was good to settle into a routine there. A adapted really well to the new time and slept much better than she had been doing in Sydney, or has done since. I think it was due to the solstice, which occurred while we were there. Sleeping through the night is much more likely when someone lops four or more hours off the night for you. She sleeps from 6pm here, but in Portland she was staying up past 9.

I hadn’t remembered about Powell’s until Chally reminded me before I left, and in any event I didn’t really appreciate what Powell’s is. It’s a bookstore. A bookstore that occupies a couple of city blocks. It is a good thing that my 16 year old self never got anywhere near it or I might still be living in there. Sadly, it is not quite as magical with a grumpy 8kg human heater strapped to my chest, so I only mounted a couple of special purpose expeditions in, after books I’d been meaning to get for a while. A shame, considering I was only staying a couple of blocks away.

The trip was mostly work. I hope some time I can justify spending some time in the USA that isn’t work-related. (Right now, because V hates it when I travel, I don’t really feel good about travelling for leisure without him.) We arrived Portland on Thursday, had the AdaCamp reception Friday, the Camp itself Saturday and Sunday, Open Source Bridge Tuesday to Thursday, and then I left Portland Friday for Sydney.

I decided to keep things simple while I was there by not having A eating any food, or taking any bottles or pumping supplies, which did mean I was at her beck and call during AdaCamp (which she spent with a child carer) and otherwise I always had her with me. But she was in an exceptionally good mood for essentially the entire trip. Val pointed out that she has a particular trick for interacting with people, which is that she blankly stares at people before smiling at them, giving the impression that she chose to smile especially for them. She made lots and lots of friends. She seems quite outgoing, like her brother. I was sad she couldn’t stay at Open Source Bridge forever, but she couldn’t, what with it only going for a week. (And honestly, I had trouble with just that. I was very tired by that point.)

I liked Portland, but I didn’t feel I got to grips with it. Perhaps the closest was the bus ride out to Selena’s place and back in, looking at the big wooden houses and the massive bright green leafy trees. It’s not a very large city: suburbs full of detached houses can be found within 15 minutes bus ride of downtown. I’m sure they were all ludicrously expensive, but all the same, it had something of a distinct feel to it, so I felt I knew the city a little bit. Another moment of note was that on the bus back, which was exceptionally crowded, the bus driver insisted that someone give me a seat (because A was strapped to me) and didn’t move the bus until they did so. It didn’t at all remind me of SF’s Muni, nor Sydney Buses for that matter.

Val told me that this is the deceptive time of year in Portland, the time when it seems very very liveable. I can believe it, on the 45th parallel. Summertime is long dusks and companionship. Winter is… I’m not sure. I’ve never lived that far from the equator.

A’s one bad time of the trip was on the flight from Portland to SF. She screamed continuously for much of the flight. The man across the aisle from me stuffed his fingers in his ears. I think they may have even messed with the oxygen levels, because everyone around me went to sleep and I had tears pouring down my face from yawning. A did sleep, but it took a while. The wait in SF airport was also no fun — other than a very interesting exhibit of lace in the museum area — most things were closed, and I stabbed my finger hard on a safety pin (not safe enough, it seems). But A was a perfect angel from SF to Auckland; the crew came by to coo over the soundless baby several times. And at Sydney V was very excited to see us and begin the whole fortnight he was to have… before Andrew’s work trip to the US.

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Opt-in Creative Commons licencing plugin for WordPress?

Does anyone have a recommendation for an opt-in Creative Commons licencing plugin for WordPress. That is, one where the default state is not to CC licence something, but when some action is taken, an individual post or page can be so licenced.

As background: I have no desire to write, maintain, or even debug a WordPress plugin. I want to know if there is something for this use case that Just Works.

I want opt-in, because it is too hard to remember, or to train others, to find an opt-out box when posting, and thus end up CC licensing things that weren’t intended to be, or can’t be, released under such a licence.

Some options I’ve already looked into:

WP License reloaded: was pretty much exactly what I wanted but doesn’t seem to be actively maintained and is now failing (possibly because the site in question is now hosted on SSL, I’m not sure, see above about not being interested in debugging).

Creative Commons Configurator: seems to be the most actively maintained CC plugin, but seems to be opt-out, and even that was only introduced recently.

Creative Commons Generator: opt-out.

Easy CC License: perhaps what I want, although I’d rather do this with an options dialogue of some kind than a shortcode.

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The Sydney Project: Luna Park

This year is my son’s last year before he begins full time schooling in 2015. Welcome to our year of child-focussed activities in Sydney.

Luna Park entrance

by Jan Smith, CC BY

Luna Park is, honestly, essentially cheating on this project. Do children like amusement parks? Yes. They do. There you go.

In addition, I think four years old is basically about the right age for them. It’s old enough that children are aware that a giant painted face, tinkly music, and carousels aren’t a completely normal day in the world, young enough that the carousel is still just as magical as the dodgem cars. And too young to have horror-film associations with amusement parks, I think that helps too.

Luna Park ferris wheel

by Kevin Gibbons, CC BY

It’s also more accessible to a four year old than some more thrill-oriented parks. V isn’t scared of heights or speed, so he loves the Coney Island slides, and was annoyed to find out that he was too short for the Ranger (the ship you sit in that gets spun upside down about ten stories in the air) and the free-fall ride. He is, however, apparently afraid of centrifugal force parallel to the ground, and refused to go on any “octopus” rides.

Even the four year old who wants to go on the free-fall ride is still young enough for, well, frankly dinky rides like the train that goes around about five times in a circle while you pretend to drive it, and the space shuttles that turn in gentle circles and which slowly go up and down when you press a button. His big draw is the ferris wheel, which I found fairly horrifying this time as I read the signs about keeping limbs inside to him and then had to answer a lot of questions about “why? why do I have to keep my limbs inside?” while giant pieces of metal calmly whirled past us with their comparatively infinite strength. In a similar vein, V also enjoys the roller coaster past all reason and sense, whereas Andrew and I react with “this seems… flimsy…” (I love coasters, but I like them to look overengineered).

Luna Park, where there's still a space shuttle

The only things V really didn’t like were the organised dancing groups who were encouraging children to learn their (cute!) 1930s-ish moves, and the process of choosing a child from a hat to press the lever to light up the park at night (he refused to let his name be entered), because there’s some specific types of performative attention that he really loathes. But there’s plenty of children gagging to dance along and to light up the park that an objector goes unnoticed. It’s not coercive fun.

Cost: entry is free. Rides aren’t, an unlimited rides pass for the day starts at $29.95 for a young child and goes to $49.95 for a tall child or an adult. There are discounts for buying online. (The entry is free thing sounds really useless, but it’s actually good if you have several adults, not all of whom are interested in the rides and/or are looking after babies.)

Recommended: indeed. We’ve considered getting an annual pass, in fact.

More information: Luna Park Sydney website.

Disclosure: because of a prior complaint to Luna Park about opening hours (we showed up several months ago at 2:15pm to find that an advertised 4pm closure had been moved to 3pm), we were admitted free this time. No reviews were requested or promised in return for our admission.

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The Sydney Project: Tyrannosaurs Big and Small at the Australian Museum

This year is my son’s last year before he begins full time schooling in 2015. Welcome to our year of child-focussed activities in Sydney.

The Australian Museum has two programs for kids: Tiny Tots and Mini Explorers, which are patterned something like Art Safari, with the children doing an activity themed to match a current exhibit.

V did Tyrannosaurs Big and Small, which went with the Tyrannosaurs: Meet the Family exhibit. The Tyrannosaurs Big and Small activities ended in June, although the Tyrannosaurs exhibit is continuing through to July 27.

Paleontology

This activity benefited compared to Art Safari in the amount of time available to the children. They started off in an education room with several activities. They first had a short talk about dinosaurs, specifically, working out how big dinosaurs are based on one or two bones. Honestly, this seemed to thoroughly lose most of the children, V included. Most of the remainder revolved around a very shallow imitation of archaeology: finding plastic dinosaurs hidden in sand, or in jars filled with dried lentils. V has not yet absorbed any awe of archeology and regarded this as an exercise in playing with sand rather than a moment of entering into the noblest profession a child can conceive of. The other activity was taking dinosaur shapes cut out of paper (necks, legs and such) and gluing them together into one’s very own dinosaur, which V got quite into.

So no great educational inroads were made, but fun was had. And it didn’t manage to trigger V’s perfectionist tendencies and cause a lot of flouncing and dramatic self-recriminations.

Dino art

All the children were then given a dinosaur tail to wear — I appreciated the staff saying that wearing one was entirely up to the child, although V was perfectly willing — and a giant mass of children and parents headed down to the main exhibit. In theory we were supposed to be measuring the various tyrannosaurs and otherwise filling out an activity sheet, in practice we were mostly keeping tabs on our children and keeping the fossils safe from them. Or I was, anyway.

The exhibit itself is great, I’m intending to go back by myself before it’s up to properly appreciate it. The main attraction is Scotty. Andrew was very impressed by the faked shadow they’ve put behind Scotty, which moves and roars periodically. They’ve also done an amusing video which is mock security footage of the museum being invaded by dinosaurs, including live footage of the viewers themselves, surrounded by invading dinos. This took up a lot of V’s time. Less good for children — and what I’m going back for — is the bits about how, for example, the coloration of dinosaurs is being determined.

The sad thing about taking a young child to this sort of thing is that you cannot impress on them how unusual it is. Australian museums are not full of world-class T. rex skeletons! You won’t get to see this very often! Appreciate it while it… oh never mind.

The only downside was that the ticketing was rather poorly integrated into the massive assembly line that is admittance to the main exhibit. Andrew arrived late and without a phone, and they had to page me down to the information desk to explain that he had a ticket to this workshop, not one of the timed tickets to Tyrannosaurs. We also didn’t know for sure if we were even going to see the main Tyrannosaurs exhibit and nearly bought separate tickets to it. Whoops.

Cost: $12 children and $24 adults, which was reduced a lot for museum members. The year-round equivalent is Mini-Explorers, which is $10 children and $15 adults.

The exhibit alone is $13 children and $22 adults. Odd.

Recommended (kids’ activity): cautiously. They’re well designed programs with a fair amount of thought put into them, but they are, basically, a craft activity and an “opportunity” to chase your child through a museum exhibit. It might be best saved for an exhibit that your child is likely to be unusually interested in.

Recommended (Tyrannosaurs exhibit): hell yes, circle July 27 on your calendar with danger signs and scary notation.

More information: Mini-Explorers and Tyrannosaurs: Meet the Family websites.

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Your crontab file should start with “crontab -l”!

I’ve never personally had this problem, but a number of people have told me that they’ve, often repeatedly, accidentally deleted their crontab by typing crontab -r (which silently removes a crontab) rather than crontab -l (which shows you what is in it) or crontab -e (which lets you edit it). It doesn’t help that “e” and “r” are next to each other on QWERTY keyboards.

Create a single backup of your crontab contents

Since I realised this was an issue, I’ve made the first line in my crontabs the following:

@daily crontab -l > ~/crontab.backup

If you ever accidentally use crontab -r, you can use crontab ~/crontab.backup to reinstall your crontab!

Adjust @daily to a time at which your computer is likely to be on, if it’s not always on, eg 0 10 * * * for 10am daily.

For bonus points, writing this entry reminded me that I hadn’t reinstalled my laptop’s crontab on my new machine, and meant it was easy for me to find and install!

Create timestamped backups of your crontab contents

The above is simple and suffices for me, but if you don’t have a backup routine that will grab ~/crontab.backup regularly enough for your needs, you could do something like this instead:

@daily mkdir -p ~/crontab-backups; crontab -l > ~/crontab-backups/crontab-`date +%Y%m%d-%H%M%S`; find ~/crontab-backups -type f -ctime +7 -delete

Explanation:

  1. mkdir -p ~/crontab-backups makes a directory crontab-backups in your home directory if it doesn’t already exist (and doesn’t complain if it does exist).
  2. crontab -l > ~/crontab-backups/crontab-`date +%Y%m%d-%H%M%S` puts your current crontab into a file named with a datestamp (eg crontab-20140711-124450 so that you can easily have more than one
  3. find ~/crontab-backups -type f -ctime +7 -delete finds all files (-type f) in ~/crontab-backups that were created more than 7 days ago (-ctime +7) and deletes them (-delete)

Warning: you don’t want to put anything else in ~/crontab-backups, because it too will be deleted after seven days.

Posted in Technology | 1 Comment

Use python-flickrapi 1.2 even after the Flickr SSL transition

On June 27 2014, Flickr changed their API to be SSL-only. The Python flickrapi library was one of many pieces of software that used HTTP to connect to Flickr’s API, and that therefore broke for some users on June 27.

flickrapi supports HTTPS connections as of version 1.4.4, released on June 18 2014. If you are able to upgrade to a new version of flickrapi, you can get the latest flickrapi version from PyPI and ignore the rest of this post.

However, as of mid-2014, many Linux distros, including Ubuntu 14.04 (supported until 2019), still package flickrapi version 1.2, which cannot connect to Flickr’s API over HTTPS and is therefore now non-functional. Since developers may for various reasons choose to use their distro’s version of python-flickrapi, I’ve written a very very small Python class that overrides flickrapi’s FlickrAPI class to connect to Flickr over HTTPS rather than HTTP, and allows continued use of the Flickr API.

You can download my Python module that allows this: flickrapissl. See the README for usage.

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