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.

2005.
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)!
video

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 http://www.boardgamegeek.com
To see how badly I play (well, I do occasionally win), visit: http://themineshaftgap.com/blog.

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.

Summary

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.

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