Sunday, December 12, 2010

Lost and Found

2010 was a year of lost and found. I lost some friends, and found some long-lost ones. I lost a job, then found a better one. I lost my direction, then found new focus.

My business progressively slowed during the year. This wasn't a major drama, as I was finding it not as enjoyable as previously, so letting it go seemed the thing to do. I was increasingly enjoying the volunteer work in disability care at WALCA, so I decided to do a Certificate III course in Disability Work at Tafe in June. It is a 1 year course, but I decided to do half online so I could finish in 6 months. After the course started, I went on staff at WALCA as a casual key worker. The pay was just above minimum wage, but I enjoyed the work and the clients.

Throughout the year I continued to do volunteer work at both Leah and Caelin's schools, and pursued my hobby of boardgaming. Siew Fong pursued her hobbies of craft: pottery, quilting, and knitting. Her work was mostly consistent, although there was a worrisome slow period. Leah became enamored of manga and online self-published novels. Caelin continued her academic, artistic and musical endeavors.

Caelin performed a solo of 'Flight of the Bumblebee' on the flute at her school's May Fair.

In June we were blessed with a temporary extra teenage daughter, from Senlis, France for 5 weeks. Jos├ęphine was Caelin's school exchange sister. She was very pleasant, and seemed to enjoy all the activities we organised, including a road trip to Melbourne.

My high school class had it's 30th reunion. Much of the organising was done through Facebook, so I was able to reconnect with quite a few long-lost friends and acquaintances. It was a bit much for me to travel there for the party, so I posted a video cheerio online instead, and enjoyed the post-function photos afterwords. There were a number of people I had fond memories of, and was able to catch up to answer those mysteries of how their lives had transpired.

In August, my friend Ulli left our earthly domain. We were very sad to lose him.

Leah performed at the Opera House.

I joined a Masonic lodge. My maternal grandfather had been a Mason, but I know very little about that. One of my gaming group friends invited me to the 'Festive Board' after his raising to the 3rd degree, where I found the camaraderie engaging and the mystery compelling. So far it has all been quite enjoyable. My lodge is mostly made up of fellows younger than myself, and the lodge focuses on accuracy and vitality in the rituals. I have also visited a few suburban lodges where the average age was around 80.

In September I wrote a memo of programme suggestions to my supervisor at WALCA, which unintentionally and apparently, impaled a few of the CEO's sacred cows. I was given the heave-ho the next day. They were quite abusive, and I was very shocked, given that I had no intention of criticizing anyone. A valued lesson in tact and politics.

I made a YouTube video of some of the local wildlife on our balcony.

In October my father-in-law came to stay for 3 months. Usually when he visits Australia, he stays with Siew Fong's sisters in Melbourne, but we were lucky this time for him to come and stay with us. He has done all the gardening and weeding I should have done.

The lady who sat next to me in my Tafe class passed away in her sleep one night. She was only 2.5 months older than me.

November had Caelin boarding an A380 to fly to France to stay with Jos├ęphine's family in Senlis for 7 weeks. She reported that she had a delightful time.

One of my masonic brothers, a man who I had just begun to know, and really liked, died. I visited him in intensive care a week before, and thought he was improving, but no. He was an impressive fellow, and well liked. He lived respected, and died regretted.

One of the requirements for the Tafe course was some work experience. The work at WALCA would have qualified, but my teacher suggested I try an unpaid placement at a different kind of service. After a week or so, they asked me to interview, then offered me a job as a vocational trainer. In January I start working with school leavers that have a significant intellectual disability, training them in skills to enable them to gain meaningful employment.

We went to see Jersey Boys at the Theatre Royal. Much better show than expected, and in the audience was a friend I hadn't seen in 7 years.

If you want my Christmas card this year, I have put it online for you to print yourself, because:
  1. I don't want to waste paper, postage & carbon for those that may not want it; and
  2. I'm cheap & lazy.
For those intrigued, here are the options:
For you, I want you to repeat and live the following oath: "I, YourNameHere, will have the most wonderful 2011 for myself, my family, and my community".

It is now mango season, so I must go.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Federal Election Fun

I worked on the election today. I was a 'Polling Assistant'.

Note: For American readers, much of what I am about to describe will be difficult to understand, as the Australian preferential voting system is quite different to most others in the world. Here is some useful info on Australian elections and voting.

A friend sent me a note a few months ago advising that one could apply for jobs with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) for upcoming elections. So I applied online, and was sent a letter of offer shortly after the election was announced. The pay wasn't overly generous, and it was for an open ended 14+ hour day, but it was some work nonetheless. It turns out they had difficulty filling all the positions needed.

There was some training provided, which was delivered online. I think it would have been better to have a printed manual sent out, as reading lots of little PDF files isn't conducive to review. I decided after completing the training a few weeks ago to review the materials on the day before the election, which was useful.

There were a number of items that were supposed to be provided at each ballot distribution station, which were not there, such as the foreign language phrasebook, the preference voting guide, the script, etc. The Officer in Charge (OIC) did say that there had been some problems with supplies. There wasn't any uniform, but I did get a tag to wear that said "Polling Official".

I was given 3 different tasks/jobs while the polls were open: Ballot issuing officer, queue controller, and ballot box guard. I decided to approach each task with alacrity, bringing some respectful and honorable cheer to what a lot of voters seemed to being suffering. I smiled, and cheerfully welcomed people, and said things like "Its a glorious day for an election", "If you vote in an election today, you should certainly vote in this one", or "Welcome to the Federal Election!". I also had to actively ignore some leading political comments from voters.

Once while I was 'controlling' the queue, an older woman got to the front, and there was a gentleman just behind her, of a similar age, but they didn't seem to be interacting. I directed her to a ballot table, and asked the man if they were together, to which he responded: "Of course we are, I am her husband, you idiot!". I thought this was very funny.

From the training materials, I found out that there is a book available at the polling station that tells you how all the Senate groups have allocated their preferences for above the line voting. The AEC doesn't advertise that it is available. When I asked the OIC for a look at it, she told me that in all the elections she had worked on, I was only the second person to ask to see it. The first had been earlier in the day, and that turned out to be Siew Fong (who I had previously advised of the availability of the book). Using the book, it was the first time I voted above the line in the Senate (because I then knew how my vote would be preferenced out). It was a shame that only 3 other voters voted for the same Senate group as me at my polling place. Here is how people voted at my polling place in the Senate:, and the House:

I was quite dismayed with the quality of some of the other staff. Most were OK, but a couple weren't too fussed with doing quality work. One girl got bored, so she stopped giving voters instructions on how to vote, instead just saying things like "Voted before? Fine, you know what to do." Then there was the young guy who decided to just play his phone game while he was supposed to be monitoring the ballot boxes (I was surprised the OIC allowed this).

It was quite busy most of the day, but the last couple of hours were slow. Then we had to count the votes at the end of the day. There were a few scrutineers from the various parties around, but they didn't remain until the very end.

We only counted the primary vote. If preferences were counted for the House of Representatives seats, I didn't see it. It wouldn't have taken very long though, so perhaps the OIC did it while we were counting the Senate ballots. We had just over 1200 ballots for each house to count.

There were lots of informal (invalid) votes (about 14%). Some were blank, some were plainly stupid, and some were intentionally informal. A few rude messages were found, and one vote for 'Humphrey B Bear'. One of the more amusing Senate ballot papers was a formal (valid) vote for the Australian Sex Party, where the voter had drawn a crude penis to indicate their intention.

For the Senate, we only counted the above the line votes. The below the line votes (all 10 or 15 of them out of 1200), were just bundled. It still took over 2 hours to sort and count the votes. The very large ballot papers (about 1200 mm wide) had to be unfolded, examined for formality, sorted, then repeatedly counted. The House of Reps papers only took about an hour.

It was an interesting experience. I will probably do it again.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Goodbye Ulli

Walter 'Ulli' Colman was a friend of mine. He was 93 years old, and died today.

His son Tony advised me that he probably didn't have long to live. Ulli had been in and out of hospital a few times in the last couple of weeks, and been diagnosed with bladder cancer. But he had stopped eating, which was his real health issue. There had also been some issues with the care he received from the Montefiore Home in the last few weeks, which may have made his last few days more difficult than they needed to be.

I went to visit him two weeks ago to say goodbye. Ulli was dressed, and sitting upright in a chair in the Special Care Unit common room. He didn't appear to be in pain, but he seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness. He cried out a couple of times: 'hello, hello'. He briefly asked me where he was, and why was he there. His voice was weak. I know his hearing had become impaired in recent years, so I don't know if he could hear me much. I told him that he was very special to me, and I was very grateful to have known him. I told him his son would be visiting in a couple of days, and said goodbye.

His son Ron arrived a few days later, dedicating the next few weeks making Ulli as comfortable as possible, and dealing with some problematic care issues.

One could say he was a distant relative. His son married my father's cousin's daughter. Both his sons had moved away from Sydney, one to London, the other to eastern Canada. He was my closest 'relative' in Sydney, but more a friend. I had actually never met my cousin Lou before she visited us in Sydney, and I came to know Ulli and his wife Liesel through Lou's family, along with Ulli's other son Ron's family.

Ulli was an amazing man.

Ulli was born in Germany. His parents had a successful retail store in Berlin Alexanderplatz, and they lived just off the Kurfurstendamm. His parents decided he should have a trade, so they sent him to Belgium to learn textiles/knitting. After training, he thought Australia might be a good place to find work, as there was lots of wool here. He had the foresight to organise for his parents and immediate family to emigrate to Australia when the Nazis came to power in Germany (being Jews, many of their distant family and friends perished). He met Liesel in Sydney at a social dance.

He served in the Australian Army during WWII. He could recite his service number to me from memory. He seemed quite proud of his service, although I believe the army at the time didn't fully trust German-born servicemen, so he was given duties in rural NSW. After the war he taught textile technology (specifically knitting technologies) at Tafe.

He often spoke about teaching. He would lament while in the Montefiore Home that he had lost his confidence to teach. Ulli loved being a teacher, and having that sense of control in front of a room.

He was passionate about music, in particular he liked pre-war jazz, which he called 'happy music'. He also liked to play Skat, a German card game which he called 'the chess of card games'.

Ulli and Liesel bought a small 2 bedroom flat in Bellevue Hill after the war. He stayed there until he moved to the Montefiore Home. She passed away in the late 1990's. They raised their sons there, and both boys went on to great personal success, one a lawyer in London, the other a brilliant economics academic in Canada.

Until the stroke when he was about 85, he regularly played tennis a few times a week, and was quite socially active. He traveled to Israel, and drove his 1970's rusty yellow Toyota Corolla around Sydney. He was fit, and friendly. On New Years Eve 2000, he let my family watch the fireworks from his flat in Bellevue Hill while he had gone out to a party with friends.

About 8 years ago he had a stroke. This was quite debilitating at the time, as his vision was severely impaired, and he acquired a short-term memory defect. He could not read (this eventually sorted itself out, and his vision corrected itself, but the memory thing made reading functionally problematic). His friends and family in Sydney formed a roster to visit him at home, and assist him in being independent. This didn't work out for him, so he moved to the Montefiore Home in Hunters Hill. As aged care facilities go, the Montefiore Home is of a very high standard. But I don't think he liked it there much. The home is clean, bright and cheerful, and there are plenty of diversionary activities, but some of the attention to personal well-being can be a bit uneven.

With the memory problem he couldn't remember anything before the prior 60 seconds. He would constantly ask where he was, and why he was there. He usually sort of already knew the answers. He couldn't remember anything that had happened since the stroke, but could remember much of his life before the stroke. Sometimes he would remember something like the weather from the previous day. We could still talk about his family, career, and other things, and he was still very intelligent, and funny too.

He complained that his greatest problem was that he didn't have confidence and was unsure of himself. He said he couldn't teach without confidence. I imagine it must have been truly awful for him, living in that purgatorial memory loop.

I would visit him at the home. Our conversations always included quite a few rounds of the same questions from him, but I tried to direct the topics to current events, his family and past. The visits became less frequent over the years (only once every few months or so), and his physical and mental facilities became less strong (although he did wear out a couple of girlfriends). I don't think he really knew who I was for the last year or so, but he did always remember his real family. He did maintain his sense of humor.

Ulli had an amazing sense of humor. He often made jokes, sometimes about his condition (although he would forget that he had made the same joke about 5 minutes before), and he would kid around with my children.

Ulli was my friend, I have truly enjoyed knowing him, and I will miss him.

Monday, June 21, 2010


I was recently invited to attend my 30th anniversary high school reunion (yeah, I'm that old). I wanted to go, but I wouldn't justify the expense of flying to the other side of the planet for an evening's partying, so I missed it. It was a one-off, once in a lifetime opportunity that I passed up. I have since been pondering the question: Why did I really want to go?

These were a group of people that I was forced into a shared experience with, some for up to 12 years. It was a relationship I had no choice in. As an adult, I can pick and choose the people I spend time with (outside of work), as a child/student, I didn't have that choice.

Are these people special to me? They aren't really now, as I really don't have any contact with any of them. In fact, prior to this week, I had only infrequently communicated with less than 10 people from my school days in the last 25 years (with the exception of the 10th reunion, which I attended). But something in the back of my mind sees them as special.

I wouldn't say that school was a tragic period for me, but it wasn't exactly happy either. Over the years in school, I experienced quite a bit of bullying and teasing (mostly with regards to my appearance, which I had little control over). Also there were those that vicariously enjoyed all the teasing and bullying from the sidelines. Even at the 10th reunion, there were some that wanted to persist in that old style of interacting with me. I recognize that they were just children at the time, and had little idea of the impact of their actions, and I am not bitter. I have forgiven all those people now, although I really am not interested in reconnecting with the perpetrators again.

I didn't have the emotional tools to deal with all that effectively at the time. I do now, but some minor emotional scars remain.

I didn't have many close friends at school. In fact, I used to seek out friends from other schools, hoping that they would see me for who I was, not the teased, bullied kid. I wasn't in any of the cliques: I wasn't a jock, or a rich kid, or a druggie/burnout, or a fashionista, or a cool kid, or even in the nerd group. I had/have very different political/social views from most of my classmates. I guess I fit into the outsider nerd mold, although I did socialize & participate in school life, and I went to some parties.

It wasn't all bad, there were successes, some fun times, and a few laughs. There were quite a few people I got on well with, and many that I admired and respected. These were all people I wanted to reconnect with. But why?

There are also the people who seemed to have disappeared. I feel incomplete not knowing their story. I was also saddened to hear that some had passed away. I wanted closure on their lives, but I doubt this will be forthcoming.

Why go?
Some people think reunions are about finding ways to dominate old classmates. This could be through shadenfreude, or some other attempted domination. I consider myself successful in life, but not in a financial or political way. My successes revolve around my relationships, and my accomplishments (most of which would be of no interest to, nor would they impress, anyone else). I haven't won any significant awards, I am happy with how/who I am, have no need to dominate others, and can't see why I would want to. I am more of a supporter of 'mudita'. Besides, I have spent too much of my life watching TV.

I have heard that some others go to re-live or complete old romantic agendas. Or they go to prey on lonely souls. This was of no interest to me.

Some may go to re-live the joys of the past. Not a lot of juice there for me.

Years ago I lived and worked in Europe one summer. One of my close friends was a Dutch fellow. At the end of the summer I went to visit him in Eindhoven, and we reminisced about the great time we had. I suggested we organize a reunion sometime of all the people we had spent the summer with, but he said: "No, you can never go back". He meant that we could never recreate the best of the past, but should live for the now and for the future. This was an valued lesson for me. I lost contact with him, and if we were to cross paths again in the future, I think I know what he would say.

I had mixed feelings about the results of the 10th reunion. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the stories of the folks I reconnected with, but noticed that I was still annoyed with the others whose irritating personality traits hadn't changed.

After 30 years I don't remember much from that period, and I don't even recognize some of the names or faces. What difference would it make to my life to reconnect with these people? What is the power of this nostalgia?

Over the years I have become close to, and lost contact with, many wonderful people. I would love to reconnect with them too, but why? Perhaps there is a function of humanity that increases your nostalgic need for connection with the increase in shared experience.

There is also something about living so far away. Modern telecommunications, cheap travel and the internet have lessened the distance, but I still am separated from a lot of what happens around my family and friends. Perhaps if I still lived in the Twin Cities it would be no different, but distance seems a good excuse. I am not lonely, as I have a warm, loving family and great social network around me, yet there seems to be a certain loneliness living so far away from my place of origin.

The organizers of the event used Facebook as one of the communication tools. I found it worked quite well for me, even though I didn't go, as I could still connect with some people, in some ways even better than face to face.

I posted a video message, with some minor comedy. From this I received quite a bit of positive feedback.

I also received quite a few 'wish you were here' messages, which were quite touching and welcome.

Photos of the event have been posted online. As I browse the photos, I notice that I feel quite nostalgic. I don't recognize many of the faces, they all look like real adults now, some wider than others. 30 years has softened my outlook, and I long to ask "What have you been up to all these years?" (in a good way).

A Guess at the Answer
I don't think that my experience in this is unique.

I think what I want is the stories. I prefer the happy stories, but the sad stories are real and provide connection with humanity. I want the people who have touched my life to have success, and they are fine however they are.

Without the stories, there is just an incomplete past. I am whole and complete, and the stories provide me with the past's future that I missed. They are like dessert after a multi-course dinner. I like dessert.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Why am I here?

If you are looking for existentialism, you've come to the wrong place. Perhaps Roger Nygard's new film would suit misguided souls:

On 17 July 2010, I will have been residing in Australia for 25 years. More than half my life.

I arrived in Sydney on the morning of Wednesday 17 July 1985. I came in on a Qantas flight, where I got to sit up in the top part (very lucky given I was on a student ticket). I remember the stewardess gave me a whole bottle of red wine, because I was the only person on the flight drinking it. It was a chilly morning, about 5 degrees out, but after being on a long, stuffy flight, that had gone via Honolulu, and experiencing the Australian Quarantine Service welcoming aerosol disinfectant spray, I thought the weather was really pleasant. Two students met me at the airport, Scott Donald, and Rob McKay. Rob drove us, with reckless abandon, to Sydney Uni, where they had to attend some lectures before I could be guided to my temporary accommodation with Scott's family. I thought the scenery along the drive from the airport to Camperdown abysmal. Fortunately that happened to be just a small ugly part of the city, most of the rest turned out to be very pleasant.

I stayed with Scott's family in Turramurra for about 10 days, just long enough for me to organise a flat with Dave Milligan in Neutral Bay. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated staying with Scott's family, who were welcoming, warm and helpful. Scott's parents took me out on a drive to Bobbin Head.

I had come out on an AIESEC traineeship for 1 year working for Pioneer Concrete in St.Peters as a concrete plant manager. I was active in AIESEC for about 4 years throughout my university education at the University of Minnesota. We would go out to local companies, and try to get them to take on trainees. For every traineeship we organised, one of our local members could apply for an overseas traineeship. AIESEC took care of the visa, meeting the trainee at the airport, assisting the trainee to settle in, and other basic details, while the company only had to pay minimum wage. In 2003 I had a summer traineeship with a company in northern Finland, after which I backpacked around Europe for a few months.

Before I arrived, the wise management folks at Pioneer decided that I would be better placed in the Information Systems Department, given my skill set, and I was the cheapest qualified IT worker available in the country. The IT department management was not quite so happy to see me, as I was foisted upon them, and they wanted to hire someone of their own choosing. At my induction interview, I was told "we don't like clock watchers here".

Pioneer was not the most pleasant place to work. The office was located in St Peters (which a cab driver at the time described to me as the 'armpit' of Sydney). Cars were stolen from the street in front of the office during business hours, and the local sewer backed up into our office one weekend. My boss Roger was an OK guy, but he had this inferiority complex, due to his not having a university degree, though I thought him quite bright and competent. His boss was a pompous idiot, who spent his time writing memos, copying pointless newspaper articles into the email system, and promoting his Christian youth Nazi scout group. Once he called a full staff meeting so that the staff would be forced to listen to his description of his most recent holiday. The up-line managers often used language not usually considered appropriate for polite company.

I had youthful enthusiasm for my work, with lots of 'big ideas'. I also seemed to have a big mouth. Roger once told me I should consider the art of 'tact'. I thought it good advice at the time, although I have never quite got the hang of it.

I shared a furnished flat with Dave Milligan on Wycombe Road in Neutral Bay. Dave was a tall and gonzo guy from Long Beach, California. Our flat was only a couple of blocks from the Oaks Hotel, where the all the AIESEC trainees would meet for drinks. We lived there, in one of the coolest parts of Sydney (with little money) for six months. It was really cool to take the ferry across the harbour in the morning to catch the train. We bought a second hand TV out of the Trading Post. It had all of 7 colours, most of them green. We had a thanksgiving party. Our guests didn't appreciate the turkey neck in a condom.

Then I moved in with Grant Noble from Canada into a flat in Kirribilli. We were in a ground floor flat, a couple doors down from the Prime Minister. There were fireworks on the harbour every few weeks.

I met this girl at a party. We fell in luurve. Although, she wasn't as much in luurve with me as it turned out. My traineeship was coming to an end, so we decided to have my company sponsor me for a permanent residency. Pioneer agreed, and did all the paperwork. Then she dumped me. I had to leave the country to get the visa/residency processed. So I went back to the US, via Asia, and a bus tour around the US, then Europe on the way back to Sydney. I had a meeting with a friend of my stepmother's in Minnesota to discuss advanced software research opportunities there. He said I could stay, get the high paying job, the house, 2.5 cars, kids, wife, dog, etc, or continue for another year in Oz, which I would never get the opportunity in my life to do again. I chose Oz, as I had made a commitment to Pioneer, and more adventure sounded good.

I came straight back from the airport to work, e.g. I changed clothes at the airport. For 3 more years it seemed I never left that crappy office. I did other stuff, but never had much money for much fun. I was probably one of the lowest paid IT workers in the country.

Grant decided to get married, so he moved out. I got another guy in, who was British, but a complete jerk, and we never got on. When the lease expired, I left.

I found a share flat advertised in Coogee, overlooking the beach. I did the interview, and loved the place. The guy called me back, and said I couldn't have the room, and hung up. I was stunned, then realized it was the place I really liked. I called him back, and insisted it was the place for me, and he agreed to give me a trial. Joe Montano taught artistic painting at TAFE, and the other flatmate was a seriously gay guy. Joe was divorced with 3 boys who mostly lived with their mother. The flat was magic. Richie Benauld lived in the same building. He drove a little convertible, but that has nothing to do with my story. I could see Coogee beach from my room.

Joe often mentioned this course he had done, and by coincidence, my mother had mentioned the same course. It was called "The Forum". I didn't make the connection, but asked him to take me to an introduction. It sounded pretty flaky, but I figured if I got 10% of what they were promising, it would be worthwhile. I figured I could get rich (although that never happened) from the course, so I did it. What I got was so much more. I got a new understanding of myself, and my relationship to others. I did quite a few more courses with the company, over the next 2 years.

My life for that time revolved around the courses. I have no regrets about that, and still have many friends from that period. I grew personally in many ways. Once I stopped with the courses, I decided to do no more.

The bicentenary passed, with associated functions and parties, and I had a pretty full social calendar.

One night, Joe and I went to a party. There I met a girl. I moved in to a share house in Northbridge with her subsequently, and we got engaged. I figured that given all my recent personal training I could overlook all her faults (which included drug use, obesity, crassness, and stupidity). I discovered I couldn't. We broke up, which was a good thing. I moved on to a share house in Darlinghurst, and a new job with Coopers and Lybrand as a consultant.

I didn't enjoy consulting as much as I thought I would. It certainly wasn't quite what I envisaged, and I never quite got the hang of the politics at C&L. I stayed there for two years, until I got an assignment doing some work for the Qantas Staff Credit Union, who offered me a job as their IT manager.

On one of the C&L staff development weekends at Leura in the Blue Mountains, I met Siew Fong, who was working for a different partner in the Parramatta office of the firm. We started dating, I soon moved in with her, and we married the week I left the firm.

Around 1994 I decided that I had been in Australia long enough to know that I was going to stay. I knew I could make a lot more money in the US, but money had become a very low priority for me. There was nothing calling for me to return to the US (other than my parents), I had a growing family, a good job/career, a nice little house, a strong social network, and a lot of psychological inertia. Having traveled around the world, I knew that where I was was pretty nice, and somewhere else wasn't going to be particularly better. I also found that I was increasingly being alienated from the US, with its growing conservatism, fundamentalism, commercialism, consumptionism and trite culture (sure, Australia is no less trite). Too many ism's over there, and the view from outside looking in wasn't so pleasant. I decided since I was going to stay, I should make a proper commitment to my new home, and become an Australian citizen.

I worked at Qantas Staff Credit Union for 13 years. I had a lot of professional successes there, and a couple of small blunders. My boss loved me, and my staff loved me. Then my boss retired, and was replaced by someone I have nothing good to say about. He decided to replace all the senior staff with cretins of his own choosing (and he went about this task in a particularly reprehensible manner), so I had to go.

I set up my own company, and started work on a product idea I had that I knew would be commercially viable. I developed a working prototype, and started to shop it around to companies that could market it effectively. The product was a unique gadget for the gaming/gambling industry. From the interest I received, it was clear it was going to make a lot of money. In experiencing that industry, and witnessing its participants, I began to become increasingly uncomfortable with my product. I saw that I was becoming a vector in promoting an industry that causes a great deal of harm. I called off my contract negotiations, and canned the product.

Knowing that this looked a bit odd after nearly a year of unpaid work, I wrote an email to everybody I knew describing what I had done, and why I had thrown it away. It didn't occur to me that some of the recipients would be impressed with my strength of character, so I was quite surprised that the email was forwarded to a much wider group than I intended, and quite a few people I didn't know read it. One of them was a parent at my kids' primary school, who was impressed with my integrity and technical skill, and offered me a job as a contractor to his 2 person software development company, Premier Street. I have been working with him since.

One of the benefits of having a home-based business is flexibility in time management. I can start work really early, or work really late. There is no commuting, or waiting in line for lunch. I can ferry the kids to and from school when needed. I probably work longer hours, but get more done with fewer interruptions and distractions. I rarely get sick now. I also can manage the household, with cooking and other home tasks, which relieves Siew Fong to focus on her career (she is a bit of a star at her firm). And I can work in my underwear. The main drawback is lack of social interaction (not a bad thing when working in my underwear).

So with time flexibility, I started to do volunteering around the kids' primary school Ferncourt. This provided a great social network, and allowed me to participate in my children's lives more directly. My involvment in my children's schools has turned out to be one of the most beneficial actions in my recent life. It has led to my recent hobby of board-gaming, professional benefits, significant social benefits, and great self-esteem. I personally know the principals, serve on staff selection panels, and know many of the teachers.

So that is some of my Australian story, briefly from a few angles, and ignoring a few dimensions.

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Contrail 2010, with Additional Wildlife

Some things are better left unsaid, but this isn't one of them. It was a weekend of games, games, and some more games, a bit of food, some wildlife visitors, and then more games to fill.

I've only got some wildlife photos, but soon there should be some gaming photos and descriptions on the Mind Shaft Gap blog site (our group's official blog site).

Contrail is my board-gaming group's annual weekend away, dedicated to spending as much time gaming as possible. Originally it was part of Paul's birthday celebrations, but has moved beyond that. You would have to ask Paul where the name come from (something about a gaming convention on the bush trail, and seeing a aircraft contrail at the same time). Paul schedules the weekend, and books the venue. Everyone brings lots of games. It is a highlight on the group's calendar, and eagerly awaited.

The focus seems to be on longer games that can't normally come out on Sunday nights, and other games that don't often get a regular playing. Newer games also get a look in, as well as old favourites, but really any game is welcome (even the relatively frequently played Power Grid and Brass were opened up).

The Venue
We stayed at the Equestrian Lodge in Del Rio Resort, Wiseman's Ferry, NSW. This was my 3rd Contrail, and I think the venue has hosted 5 so far. It is about 2 hours (2.5 hours in rainy peak hour traffic) north of my place, on the Hawkesbury River. The lodge itself is on one end of the resort, about 950 meters from most of the other accommodation, so we weren't subject to other people's noise, and more importantly, they weren't subject to our raucous commotion at all hours of the day and night. It is situated about 250 meters from the river, overlooking a large field where wallabies and kangaroos graze during the day.

The lodge has 10 bedrooms, 5 on each side, with 2 cots and a cupboard in each, 2 sets of toilets, showers and basins, a well-kitted out kitchen, a wood heater stove, an outdoor barbecue & balcony, parking, and a large open space in the center with plenty of chairs and big tables. It also costs only about $500 a night, so is quite economical with 10 or more people. It is slightly rustic, and more or less well maintained.

We have analysed other venues, but the lodge has proved to be a nearly optimal venue for a weekend of gaming, it is:
  1. Sufficiently remote, but not too remote;
  2. Economical;
  3. Well kitted out for gaming;
  4. Well layed out for gaming;
  5. Accommodates 10 to 20 relatively comfortably.
Because there were only 6 of us arriving on Friday night, I booked a smaller cabin. After booking, I contacted Del Rio and offered them the option of allowing the six of us to stay in the lodge instead at the small cabin price, which would be beneficial for both parties, as we wouldn't have to move in the morning, and they wouldn't have to clean the cabin after we left. They accepted my offer, which was very generous for them, and economical for us.

I volunteered to cater food for the weekend, for the 3rd year running. 2 identical lunches, and 2 identical breakfasts. Most of the guys took up the offer. I make the offer for a couple of reasons:
  1. It frees the other guys from having to plan for any meals, so they can focus on the enjoyment of the weekend;
  2. It allows for more game time for everybody else (they don't have to cook, or drive off to the club for a meal and wait for them to prepare it);
  3. It is very economical for everybody (it works out to about $5 per meal each);
  4. It saves on contention for the limited kitchen resource at mealtimes;
  5. I can make nutritious, fulfilling and hopefully tasty meals;
  6. I enjoy the cooking, and challenge of catering (i.e. I get to play 'Masterchef: The Home Game', and fortunately no tall fat guy in a kravatte made disparaging comments);
For the breakfasts each day I made fresh Bearnaise sauce and eggs Benedict (poached eggs & thin-sliced ham on a toasted English muffin), along with Bircher muesli (boxed toasted muesli, some dried fruit, soaked in fruit yogurt overnight), with coffee, juice, milk. The leftover Bearnaise sauce was kept for lunch to put on the steaks. I have these nifty microwave egg poachers which work reasonably well. I like the eggs Benedict because they can be quickly made individually, so everybody can get up at whatever time they feel like.

For the lunches, to save time & effort (and to ensure I had the right tools and a clean preparation area) I pre-prepared most of the components at home. In the food processor, I shredded some different cabbages finely, and some carrots & red onion finely, then packed them up. I similarly shredded some brown onions for the barbecue. I made & bottled a coleslaw sauce, which was mixed with the cabbage/carrot/onion mixture on-site. I bought some cheap porterhouse steaks in bulk, cut them in half, and marinated/packed them in my homemade barbecue sauce (last year I had full steaks, but they proved to be too much to eat for lunch). I packed mushrooms (which I cleaned and sliced on-site, for sanitary reasons, for the barbecued onions). I also packed some basic condiments (ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper, butter, sugar, etc).

For bread I got some bags of Lebanese bread at my local Lebanese bakery. This worked really well, because they were fresh, flat & very cheap (7 pieces for $1.30). I didn't need to worry about them getting squished either.

We had 2 vegetarian eaters, so for their lunches instead of the meat I purchased a couple of bags of frozen pastizzi, which were quite simple to just throw into the oven in a pan. Any extras were gobbled up by the meat eaters.

Everybody also brought lots of crisps and other snack food (I previously advised that I wouldn't cater snacks or fruit), along with moderate amounts of golden beverage.

For dinner on Saturday the tradition is to go to the Del Rio Club, so that's what we did.

The Timeline
On Friday afternoon Richard collected me at home, and we drove up together. We stopped at the pub at Wiseman's ferry before crossing the river. Don and Al joined us at the pub for dinner.

We inhabited the cabin, set up extra lighting from the rafters, claimed our rooms, loaded the fridge, arranged the tables and chairs, Don started a fire in the heating stove, and we started some games. Andrew soon arrived. We played a number of games (including Atlantis, Power Grid {the Korea board, which I led most of the game, and came last in one of our closest games ever}, Geshenkt/No Thanks {with a full deck}, and others) until about 2am. Andrew made some coffee around midnight, which must have been quite strong, as I had great difficulty getting to sleep (Richard later reported he also had trouble getting to sleep that night). Ed arrived from Canberra around 12:30am.

I woke early, cleaned up a bit and made breakfast. After breakfast the games started, and the other guys arrived in dribs & drabs. Lunch was had, and we played more games. It was quite a nice day outside, but I don't think anyone noticed that. I got in a nice game of Endeavor outside on the balcony just before sunset (Euhan made a bold strike against my network of colonies, but I managed to sneak in the win).

An hour before dinner we started a deduction game of Mystery Express, which Don brought still shrink wrapped. It ended in a 5 way tie for the win a couple hours after dinner. The others may have enjoyed it more, but I found it to be a slow game with limited scope for interaction or decisions, although it was very well produced. Because this game was so long, others had started some longish games (including what turned out to be an epic playing of Dune), we had a go at my $6 bargain purchase from the Salvation Army Store of an unused copy of Last Chance. The game was really very ordinary, a kind of Yahtzee with lots of betting. But this was an absolute scream, because we all just wanted to be silly and stupid, and made enthusiastic bets with lots of cheering and hollering at the die rolls. Probably didn't help the rather serious game of Dune next to us. We continued playing various games until around 1:30 I was exhausted, and turned in, this time quite able to fall asleep almost immediately. The others continued on til 2am or 3am. Somebody tidied up before retiring.

I woke early again (around 7:30). Andrew was up and preparing to leave. I made breakfast again, and almost everybody was up by 9. Pat was the last to emerge from his room. Another blur of games and lunch. After lunch Pat very generously indulged me in a 2-player game of 1960: The Making of the President, which I had requested he bring, as it was something I had wanted a first playing of for a long time. As everyone knows, Pat only plays blue in games, so he was Kennedy, and I had to be Nixon (although red is my gaming color, I have very different political views from that particular president, and once forgetting during the game that the donkeys were the opposition). I thoroughly enjoyed the game, and surprisingly managed to win (it isn't often I beat Pat at anything). After that a number of us played Betrayal at House on the Hill, which has never been one of my favourite games, and it didn't help that when I became the villain in the scenario played, the rules were somewhat unclear and incomplete. I tried to play with good spirits irregardless, so the others could enjoy the game.

Suddenly it was time to leave, so we packed up, tidied the place, and left. Neil joined Ricard and I on the drive back, as he lives quite close to us, and there was now plenty of space for him in the car since all the food was now eaten. We all chatted about our individual experiences of the weekend.


Here we have Steve not observing the vista from the front balcony (he isn't the wildlife). Most of the mobile phones didn't have coverage, but those on Telstra could get one bar of reception. Just before I took this photo there was a Kookaburra sitting on the rail across the path behind Steve.

During the day there were usually 3 or 4 wallabies browsing around the paddock.

While Steve and I were chatting, a large mob of around 100 kangaroos came hopping towards us into the paddock, chasing the wallabies away.
Here you can see a wallaby on the road, with some roos protecting their turf.
A moment later they turned around, and moved quickly towards the lodge. I don't often get the opportunity to get a photo of wildlife coming in my direction.

They split into 2 groups, and ran past the lodge on either side up into the bush.
Then some sat at the tree line observing us.
Later they dispersed, and a few stayed in the paddock. I think they may have wanted to get into our game of Ghost Stories, but it only takes 4, and our session was fully subscribed (I killed the most ghosts I think).

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Driving With a Spider

Hairy Brown SpiderLast week I attended an evening event at Leah's school, and parked next to a bushy tree. During the event a spider constructed a rather elaborate web between my car and the tree. As I returned to the driver's seat, I passed through the web, which I didn't see because it was dark, but could definitely feel, as some of the threads were very strong. Apparently this was when the spider hitched a ride on me, and moved into my car.

During the week, whenever I went out in my car, I would find quite strong and elaborate webs between the steering wheel, my seat, the roof, the sun visor, etc. In fact, that spider was quite productive and made thick, strong threads throughout the car, particularly around the driver's area. I didn't see it though. Somewhat annoying given that I had just thoroughly cleaned the interior of the car a couple of weeks ago.

Yesterday noon I had to go out on an errand. As I sat down in the driver's seat, I noticed more threads from the wheel up to the visor, and there it was, sitting on the visor. It was brown with a white stripe down his back, very hairy, had a leg-span of about 2.5"/6cm, and a body of about 2cm. I'm not exaggerating (the photo above is of the deceased and deflated creature, with his legs tucked in), and I was quite startled to see it inches above my face. I jumped out of the car.

I felt that the spider on the visor (or dropping down to the steering wheel) might be a bit of a distraction to me while driving.

I decided to encourage it to leave, so I got the Toyota service log out of the glovebox, and used it to try to move the spider. The spider didn't really want to cooperate. So after a few minutes, and with my departure deadline approaching, I had to swat it. With lots of spider guts on the carpet and log book later, the terrible deed was done. I swept it out onto the roadway and left.

It was still there when I returned, so I took the photo above. I did manipulate the image to highlight the area around the spider, but I didn't change the size or anything like that. Note that this is after it was swatted, so it's volume is much smaller, and it's legs are tucked in.

I'm glad that we didn't meet while driving, but a bit sad it had to die.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Are You Prepared?

Chinese New Year is on February 14th this year. It will be the Year of the Tiger, and it is a male metal one (golden/white) at that!

Are you ready? Have you got your red packets? Practiced saying 'Gung Hai Fat Choi'? Put up your garish posters and decorations? Cleaned your house? Paid off your debts? Left your noodles uncut?

It is up to you to prepare.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Finally, an Annual Diatribe!

Yes, it’s another year end diatribe. I missed writing a few of these, so I might as well start from the beginning.

I'm not sure how to start this thing.

I haven't written one in a few years.

It doesn't seem to be starting right.

Let's see...We are all well, I'm sort-of employed, no major felonies or lost limbs. Hmmm, that's not enough, and 'Hmmm' isn't a real word.

Hey, what if I do the temporal thing!

1962. January.
It was a cold and wintry morning in St Paul Minnesota. There was a lot of screaming going on. Cell phones hadn’t been invented yet, and taxes were due in 12 weeks.
That may be a bit far back.

2004. February.
Brian was a lot older. So was his father. Regardless, he and Irene came to visit us in Sydney, which was good. We hiked part of the trail to Minnehaha falls, did the usual tourist things and hung out.

2004. May.
I resigned from Qantas Staff Credit Union, after 13 years service, under unpleasant political conditions. I started my own company, and spent 10 months building a new original product for the gambling industry.

I also started to volunteer more at the kid’s primary school, Ferncourt. I formally joined the P&C.

The woman who was running the Ferncourt Chess Club sent out a note saying she had taken on a new a short term job in the same timeslot as the club, and needed a volunteer to take over for 1 month. I took on the position for the month, and as was fateful, her job became permanent, and I defaulted into becoming the permanent Chess Club supervisor. I took on the position with some gusto. I also developed a deep respect for the skills of primary school teachers. The club expanded over the next 18 months from about 8 kids to around 30. With the very much appreciated assistance of other parents, we also expanded into other games and built an outdoor chess set for the school.

Then I volunteered to be the chair of the P&C Technology Committee. We wrote a grant application to the federal government and secured $50,000 worth of equipment and facilities for the school.

Then I became treasurer of the P&C. Fundraising grew, and financial management improved. Not being an accountant, I felt pretty good about this.

Nothing happened anywhere for the rest of the year, so I won't say anything about that. Except that we did watch a lot of TV.

Caelin started year 5 at a new school (Earlwood Primary) in an ‘Opportunity Class’ (OC). The selective class is for brighter kids. She enjoyed the experience. We didn’t get involved in this school's community much, as it wasn’t as sociable as the other schools.

I then decided that I didn’t like anything about the gambling industry, and threw the product I had developed away (after receiving significant interest from some very slimy characters). When I wrote an email about that experience and decision, it fell into some unknown mailboxes, and I received a job offer.
Two other software developers had a small software company, one of whom had children at Leah’s school. All of us work from home. Most of the work I did for them was for the University of NSW.

Caelin won a public speaking competition, and also performed ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ a-capella on her own at the school music night (she really belted it out)!

2006. January.
In January we had school holidays. I completed, more or less, my first project with my new 'employers', who seemed adequately pleased.

2006. February
One of the other parents from Leah's primary school invited me along to one of his board-gaming evenings. I had never heard of modern boardgames (of which many come out of Germany), so I accepted his invitation. I was hooked, so I now have a new hobby, playing Euro-games. I, and the kids, thoroughly enjoy the games, and now we have a bit of a collection of interesting games. Now every Sunday evening is spent at someone’s house playing 3 to 5 games. For more information about boardgames, visit
To see how badly I play (well, I do occasionally win), visit:

In March Siew Fong and I decided to have a very extravagant holiday to the US. The kids were old enough and at the best age to enjoy a Disney park experience, and they were at an opportune point where missing a couple of weeks of school wouldn’t affect their education. I also knew they had never experienced an American Halloween, and would soon be too old to appreciate it. So we started to secretly plan a trip to Florida and Minnesota around the end of October. I had a lot of fun making a big deal (‘Top Secret’ envelopes, ID cards, special instructions, etc) when we told them about the trip.

At Easter we drove ourselves to Melbourne, to stay with Siew Fong's sister for a week.

2006. May.
Caelin took exams to get into selective high schools and for private school scholarships.

2006. June.
I was sitting at my desk one morning, and the phone rang at about 10am. Normally this is a telemarketing call from India offering me some fantastically valuable deal, which only an un-savvy person would decline. I live for such calls. But not today. It was not to be. Instead it was an administrator from a Sydney private school (Methodist Ladies College) calling to offer Caelin a 6 year 50% scholarship for high school. MLC is a pretty good school, and her cousin has a full scholarship at the Melbourne campus. Her cousin is a very bright and talented person. We hadn’t heard from the Department of Education if Caelin was to be offered a place in a selective high school, so I told them we would consider the kind offer. About 20 minutes later I got another call. This was also not from India (just not my day). This call was from an administrator from the Presbyterian Ladies College, another very good private school. They were calling to offer a 6 year 100% scholarship to Caelin. I asked them to repeat the offer, as I didn’t think I actually heard it correctly. I thanked them. I then waited for the third call, surely to come from India, offering to pay us to send Caelin to a nice private school. That third call never came, and I blame the telephone company for that.

This all posed a problem for us. I am a keen supporter of the public education system, and firmly believe in it. The public selective schools have statistically better results, but are poorly funded and resourced. PLC has very pleasant, modern and well maintained facilities, a good educational reputation, and lots of rich kids. PLC wanted an answer on accepting the offer before we were to find out about the selective schools. We discussed the pros and cons of both, and Caelin chose PLC. We received notice that she had been accepted to a selective school a few weeks later, which we subsequently declined. She was very excited about the prospect of her new school. Then I found out that the PLC school blazer cost more than what I spent on my entire wardrobe over 5 years (I actually don’t spend much on clothes, and I look it!).

2006. September.
Being an active member of the P&C, and not having a strict 9-5 job, meant that I volunteered for a number of interesting things. One was learning to be a Bush Dance Instructor. For Americans, this is roughly the same as barn dancing. Despite my ‘prosperous’ physique, I taught a number of 5 to 8 year olds to Doh-Si-Doh, even though the boys refused to hold the girls hands.

Earlier in the year my gaming buddy Richard suggested we put on a special day at the school to promote board games. My experience with the games had shown that they promote social interaction and require a significant amount of brain work. This is quite the opposite of computer/video games, which I personally dislike. The games are fun for both children and adults, can be repeatedly played without becoming tiresome or boring, and allow families to interact without a TV, DVD, or computer. Richard organized a local online game retailer to provide a number of demo games, we lassoed in a few of our other gaming buddies to act as supervisors, printed a brochure, and got the school to provide a room. Our wives ran a BBQ, which generated a bit of money for the school too. More people turned up than expected, and the day was a roaring success. I don’t know how many games were bought by parents, but at least quite a few had been exposed to an option for Christmas gifts that might have some benefit to their families.

2006. October.
Siew Fong’s aunt from San Diego decided to join us on our trip to Walt Disney World. She flew in on a separate flight to Orlando. When I organized the WDW resort, they informed me her flight didn’t exist. I knew she was a very competent person, and couldn’t believe she could make such a big mistake. This was when we discovered that United airlines likes to cancel or reschedule flight ad-nauseum without advising their passengers. I thought, Hmmm, maybe I should double check my flights. This was when I found that my connecting flight from San Francisco to Orlando had been rescheduled from 1 hour after my arrival to 2 hours before. United was very kind, and agreed to not charge me extra for the privilege of changing to a flight that I could actually catch.

In late October we took a cab to the airport, then one of those big bankrupt airlines took us to Florida, in a rather roundabout fashion that gave us lots of extra infrequent flyer miles (we got a free trip to New Zealand).

The flights were mostly ordinary, although we were late in arriving and showed up at the resort at about 2 in the morning.

There the Disney corporation convinced us we needed lots of things with Mickey Mouse emblazoned on them. They also kept a lot of money that the kids will not now inherit. We certainly enjoyed the time at WDW. I managed to get many blisters on my feet. It is a plastic fantastic holiday, but still a lot of fun.

We hired a car one day and drove to the coast to the Kennedy Space Centre, which was also worth the trip.

After finishing all that needed to be done at the World, we flew to Minneapolis on another bankrupt airline conveying us in a style which made me feel like cattle, but without the feed, and cattle get to carry liquids. Irregardless, and without further ado, we arrived in Minnesota, for an intense 10 days visiting the family. I purposely didn’t contact any of my old friends, as I wanted to focus my attention on family. We went out to the Landscape arboretum, and dropped in on my brother’s mother-in-law Joan Forrester for lunch. Sadly she passed away a few months after our visit (we are reasonably sure we weren’t the cause), so I treasure the time we did get to spend with her, as she was a very special person, one of those amazing characters one likes to remember in life.

We also got to see the new Mpls Public Library. While one could infer a connection between the two, I don't believe that any material grown at the Arboretum has been used in the publication of anything at the Library. There was also little connection between the family, the Arboretum, and the Library, although it turns out one member had been a trustee of the library. It was good to see everybody, but a bit melancholic noticing how much we miss being so far away. The kids always love to see their cousins.

Halloween was a highlight for the kids. My brother Greg and his wife Anna arranged for us to go to a Halloween night party at one of her relatives in a nice neighbourhood. The trick-or-treat experience was quite overwhelming for the kids. Nothing quite like it in Australia. The experience of being given candy just for the asking was enchanting for them. We forced them to distribute the majority of the loot amongst their classmates at school. They had so much it didn't become an issue. Although Australian Customs gave us some very challenging looks when they x-rayed our bags. When I said it was 'candy' (which is apparently drug runner slang for illicit goods), the old gal looked like she was about to order a more personal exam.

Our house was still standing, and Pumbaa had managed to eliminate his welcome at the lodgings we found for him (something to do with barking all night, and decorating the house and the house next door with faecal contributions).

2006. December.
We received notice that Leah had been offered a place in an Opportunity Class at Wilkins Primary School. Caelin had just completed 2 years in an OC class at another local primary school (Earlwood, where our then current Prime Minister had gone). Leah had to decide whether she wanted to go to a new school with all new kids. She reluctantly decided on Wilkins, given Caelin’s prior good OC experiences. John Howard’s boyhood home is now a KFC, but that has nothing to do with us. Wilkins is a bit more of a drive for me to get Leah to and from school.

The Foo’s came to town. Siew Fong’s sister and family drove up from Melbourne and visited us for Christmas. When they left the house was still standing.

How are we going here? Nobody bored yet? Anybody need to grab a coffee or have a comfort break before I continue?

2007. February.
Caelin and Leah both started new schools. Both schools made some effort to ease the transition to the new environments with some socializing exercises and functions. Caelin now leaves the house before 7am, takes the train into the city, changes trains, and is at school just past 8am. She also takes the train home. When she gets home she diligently sits down and does 2 to 3 hours of study, and fits in time to practice her piano and flute.

I started to volunteer at Leah’s new school. I also helped find and train replacements for myself in the things I was doing at Ferncourt.

2007. May.
Although Leah had left Ferncourt for Wilkins, I had made a commitment to help out with the Ferncourt May Fair. I was ‘stage manager’. As it transpired, there wasn’t much stage managing to do, so I helped out wherever I could on the day. Over the last few years I had made many friends amongst the parents and staff at Ferncourt. The volunteering had opened up a whole new community for us. I was disappointed that that connection was gone and we would be moving on.

2007. June.
Our company marketing strategy was a bit lacking (the strategy consisted of hitting up current and former customers for more work) and we started to run out of money during a slow period. One of the partners (Peter) had a tight mortgage/financial situation, and couldn’t go without income for any extended time, so he decided to leave the company temporarily and do some contracting. For some reason, he liked earning a wage double his normal wage, and further decided to sell out his part in the company. I didn’t really want to buy into the partnership, so the company is now fully owned by the other partner, Rustum. I didn’t like to see Peter go, as he was quite fun and frustrating to work with at the same time.

2007. August.
The Wilkins P&C decided to hold a Harry Potter themed fundraiser on the day the last HP book was to be released. They showed the first film in the hall, dressed the school up with various HP themes, sold the new book, had a BBQ, and had a haunted forest. I volunteered to design, construct and run the haunted forest. This was a lot of fun. I made about 100 big spiders, a giant web, some ghosts, and the kids and I made a big Aragog spider, complete with smoke and soundtrack. We had another soundtrack with all sorts of creepy sounds, and a number of parents dressed up as dementors. My dementor costume completely obscured who I was, although Leah’s teacher immediately identified me when I offered to explain to her the benefits of Amway. Amway sends a cold chill through my blood.

2007. September.
I took the kids and one of their friends for a 3 hour bushwalk in the Blue Mountains. We did the Grand Canyon walk outside of Blackheath. It was a moderately difficult walk, with a lot of climbing down trail stairs, which lead eventually to what seemed like a lot more climbing up a lot of trail stairs.

2007. December.
Caelin received her school results. She placed first overall in her class of 143. She was first in French, and received awards in maths and art/design. The awards presentation was at the Sydney Opera House, complete with pomp, circumstance, and a number of boring speeches by people who should have known better.

Over the years I had constructed web sites for a few friends and family. My cousin from London has a holiday flat in Turkey which is worth looking at. Also one of the parents from Ferncourt has a theatre company and environmental education business. He has offered me a place on his board of directors.

We bought bicycles.

We flew to Melbourne for Christmas and too much food. We stayed with Siew Fong’s sister’s family. We were met in Melbourne by their Aunts from New York, San Diego, Penang, and her Uncle from Melbourne/Penang and his wife. We hired a 12 seater bus and drove to Merimbula. In Merimbula we experienced New Years Eve at a really pathetic restaurant.

2008. February.
I was on a panel to select the new principal for Leah's school, Wilkins Public School. We selected a fellow whose surname happened to be 'Wilkins'. Over the year he made a number of controversial decisions and statements, so although I stand by the panel's decision, I am now a bit uncomfortable with sitting on any more panels.

2008. April.
Ron Colman, a distant cousin by marriage, and his family visited us. Dave Milligan, an old roommate, also visited Sydney.

2008. July.
Using some soon to expire frequent flyer points from United, we acquired some tickets to Auckland, New Zealand. Once there we hired a car and drove around the North Island.
I started my TAFE course in Training and Assessment (adult education).

2008. November.
I complete the TAFE course successfully, and am now qualified to inflict myself on others.

2008. December.
Caelin again placed first in her class at high school. Leah was accepted for a place at St George Girls High School, an academically selective school (and one of the best schools in the country).
My mother and her partner Doug came to visit for Christmas. They flew to Ayer's rock (Uluru) and Melbourne. We all had a weekend at an eco-cottage in the Blue Mountains.

2009. January.
I entered the ‘Settlers of Catan’ national tournament in Canberra, which was entertaining, although I only won the first round.

2009. February.
The kids returned to school, Leah now attending St George Girls High School, and I started to do more volunteering at the schools.

I applied for some teaching jobs. I got on the ‘eligibility list’ for a couple of TAFE colleges, although no jobs ensued. There was still some work from my current clients, and a new client in London provided a small extra income source.

2009. August.
Off to New York we go. We flew to New York on cheap Delta seats. Complaining about airlines and air travel these days is a bit like whinging about the smell in a public loo.
We stayed with Siew Fong’s Aunt and Uncle near White Plains NY. Daily we ventured into the city, partaking in many touristy pursuits. The kids are now mature enough to appreciate fine art, so some of the big galleries/museums were fun for all. I also almost joined a ‘gangsta rap band’ on 5th Avenue. Siew Fong and I gave ourselves a special treat: a dinner at a 3 Michelin star restaurant, which was fantastic.

Onward we ventured to Minnesota, staying with my brother Greg’s family. The main purpose of the trip to the US was for my sister Louise’s wedding. The nuptials were a success, and other activities were family-reuniony in nature.

2009. October.
Siew Fong then flew to KL for a week for her brother’s wedding. Then Caelin flew to New Caledonia for a school French excursion, her first real trip away from home (aside from school camps). Leah performed her clarinet with the Sydney Regional Orchestra at the Opera House. Caelin then went off again on another school trip, this time to Armidale. Caelin was invited to speak on a TV show, but unfortunately she was in Armidale at the time.
I attended a ‘mature aged jobs fair’, which happened to provide me with a new idea for a career: aged/disability care. This led to me volunteering with an organisation near me that provides ‘day-care’ for severely mentally and physically disabled adults.

2009. November.
More airline fun! Siew Fong’s cousin was getting married in Melbourne. We had tickets on a budget airline, but they cancelled our flight (and didn’t compensate us), so we drove overnight 10 hours to get to the ceremony on time. No more budget airlines for us.

2009. December.
Caelin placed around 4th in her year at school, the slip attributed to our trip to the US just before exam time and other factors, but a fine result nonetheless. She also won some awards for Mathematics.

For Christmas we drove back to Melbourne and stayed with Siew Fong’s sister Siew Chin’s family. They have a pool, the weather was warm, the choice was made. We did the Philip Island Penguin thing, and also a tour of a brown-coal mine and power station. And we ate a lot.


Both Leah and Caelin are progressing with their music training. Both take piano, Leah blurts out the odd clarinet piece, and Caelin flutes about. At Christmas time Caelin does a few turns at busking with her flute, and nearly manages to earn more per hour than I ever have. But she normally only works for about 2 hours at a time. Both are doing well at school.

I have been quite active with Leah's schools (and lesser so with Caelin’s also), as Treasurer of the Parents & Citizens Association, supervisor of the Chess Club, chair of the Computing Sub-Committee, dance instructor, haunted forest constructor, trivia night compere, stage manager, sausage sizzler, security guard, side-show carny, selection panel member, high school finance committee community representative, and co-coordinator of a highly successful Euro-gaming day. My 'employment' is sub-contracting to a small software development company. The work so far has been steady, although by no means assured.

Siew Fong's work has been quite steady, although she works rather long hours. She consistently makes the firm’s clients happy, and keeps the firm happy with lots of client billings.