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Listicle Life

January 2, 2014

I decided that 2014 would be the year of lists. Last year was mostly about hanging on, not knowing if next week I’d be in the hospital or someone else would be, and just surviving past looming dangers. I liked writing lists and finishing things, not so much for finishing them but for setting out with them like a map to some new place.

I made an enormous spreadsheet with tabs for each goal the last week of December. My original list was about 30+ items, so I did end up narrowing it down. I started trying out some of the goals to see what I liked, and quickly discarded some. Pinterest and googling “52 week challenges” and the like helped give me some more ideas.

I also posted to Ask.Metafilter How to walk to Hobbiton and other 365/52 challenges to get some advice. The most directly useful points were:

  • Plan the whole list ahead
  • Prepare as much in advance for busy days
  • Build in some slack so you can skip a day or two and still continue
  • Public accountability (this goal and my family)

I like working for small rewards and colouring in dots, so I printed out a thousand tiny circles on a sheet of paper with a start date and have been circling each dot to give myself $1 for a 365-challenge, $5 for a 52 week challenge and $20 for a 12 month challenge. If I did them all in a year, it would be a lot but even if I only manage to do some of it, that’s still a chunk of change saved up. It’s not extra money so much as our half-hearted vacation fund that we keep meaning to save to. I’ve wanted very much to take the family on a very short trip to an island nearby and this would be enough to do that three times this year which is an extremely cheerful goal.

12 Months:

  • 12 chapters to write
  • 12 dresses to sew
  • 12 museums to visit
  • 12 plays and concerts to watch


52 Weeks

  • 52 baking challenges
  • 52 books of theology
  • 52 new braids
  • 52 Family Movie Nights
  • 52 handmade gifts
  • 52 One bite at a Time projects
  • 52 organizing challenges
  • 52 parks to visit (yes, there are more than 52 parks in Singapore!)
  • 52 poems to memorize
  • 52 songs to teach Maggie
  • 52 vegan recipes


365 days

  • 365 instagram photos
  • 365 Bible readings
  • 365 thank you letters
  • 365 walk home to Hobbiton (About 2,615km so that works out to about 7km a day)
  • 365 Mandarin lessons


I built slack into all of these things, and prepped ahead – book lists, recipes printed out, poems pinned to a wall, booking tickets and so on.

Best of all, I found a skinny purple notebook while I was looking for index cards that turned out to be a goal-setting journal. It’s called Plannerisms and is actually really bloody lovely. I write out the goals and then what I actually got done (and anything extra to cheer me up) to figure out how to get everything done, and the spreadsheet as a reference. I also put reminders into my online calendar so that I remember when to switch goal projects.

I don’t know if I’ll finish any of them. I don’t really care. It’s setting out to do them and discovering what I like on my lists that counts.

Notes from Phnom Penh, September 2011

September 7, 2011
  • Difficult to feel sorry for my pregnancy nausea and clumsiness when I see far more pregnant women in the slums carrying loads of laundry and making their way across the tiny monkey bridges!
  • The big community near Alexandra is severely flooded – the river has risen further than I can remember in the last ten years. The only way in or out of most of the slum is across a monkey bridge, which is basically a 5-inch wide plank with a single pole handrail at the side. If you are an adult, you walk slowly across with one hand on the handrail. If you are a pregnant foreigner, you do this with an arm flung out for balance and stare at the sky above, not the filthy brown water just underneath. If you are a small child, you run back and forth on tippy-toes shouting with glee “the fat foreign lady will fall!”
  • I’m working on budgets and forms. For me, this is tremendously exciting and satisfying. Not so much for anyone else.
  • We’ve just started what will be regular feedback from people in the community visited by or nearby the Advocacy Walks. We’re finally at the point where we can train more guides, and the walks are pretty close to what we want, but we’ve only done one big round of community feedback (no photographs, compensate us equally for time, have the visitors talk to us and not just ask questions) and we want to set up a cycle of feedback so the Walks keep improving.

    Our new volunteer co-ordinator drew up a good survey and went to interview people, and came back with the initial round disappointed. “No-one has said anything negative.” Which is great – not because no-one said anything negative, but because he recognized that wasn’t likely. Someone always complains!

    We went over and figured out that it’s most likely about trust. He’s new, and people in the community aren’t going to complain until they trust he’ll be fair and confidential. Same thing happens with our social workers, so we will have to wait 1-2 months to start getting real complaints.

    We also talked about either a community meeting or putting up posters, and might focus on informing the coffeeshop owners in the communities with feedback posters to spread awareness of what the Advocacy Walks are about.

    I have to re-jig the cost of them – we don’t make a profit from them directly really, but they’re great for prompting further fundraising from informed and passionate donors, but we want to add a percentage cut that will go into a community fund that we can use each month for community improvements like repairing the walkways or helping destitute families that don’t qualify for Riverkids’ usual programs. We’ve been doing that on-and-off, but directly pegging it to Advocacy Walks will be easier and more consistent.

  •  We’re going to switch focus on volunteers and try recruiting more Cambodian volunteers. We get a fair number of international volunteers applying without pushing already. We are going to start saying no to anyone who can’t do at least 6 weeks unless they have special skills. It looks like the really short structured trips we’ve been experimenting with are way easier for the staff and produce as much.

    And no more English teaching unless you have actual ESL experience. For the past couple of months, we’ve had six English classes going. Two are taught by a local teacher who isn’t particularly highly-trained, and four by a mix of local and foreign volunteers. The teacher-led classes have zoomed past the volunteer classes. The kids enjoy being taught by the volunteers, but a local teacher with volunteers as classroom assistants (preferably local volunteers) will be way more effective and not much more expensive.

  • And the debate over English class! We finally have an advanced english class organised for this month with an excellent teacher – but that’s it. I am not authorizing any more than 15-30 children, which is less than 10% of our students. There will be regular english classes for about 30% of them, and the rest will have no english classes.

    Why? Because it’s a waste of money to do more. Yup, that’s me the evil despot saying it blunt as I can.

    I have kids who don’t eat a decent meal each day. They’re beaten up at home. They’re struggling to learn their own language and stay in school.

    Adding english classes, especially classes with a high standard that require concentration and discipline, that will cost $10-$20 a month per child – what does that do?

    It’s money that could go to feeding the child, hours spent teaching them maths and Khmer so they can keep up at school, and more.

    English classes are a luxury. For a talented kid, they’re within reach, but most of our kids will reach high school where they need some English, not university. And for those who are struggling to make it to Grade 6, to get a job waitressing or in a garment factory, English isn’t as useful as oh, about a million other things.

    I think it’s because we want so much for these kids – we want them to get the same opportunities we did. But even if someone did give me a million dollars tomorrow, I still wouldn’t spend it on private schools and English lessons for all the kids. I’d spend it on social workers and meals and Khmer lessons first.

    I’m going to make this an essay for our website to explain why we don’t fund more than a percentage of our kids on scholarships and English classes. And those are already funded by some awesome donors. We’re not looking for bright kids – we’re looking for hurt kids, and that’s what we focus on.

  • I am so grateful to see things running smoothly here. We’re introducing a couple of big changes – the social department re-organisation and expansion (YAY!), the Direct Cash Aid pilot, the new curriculum and schedule for the Get Ready program – and cutting and expanding lots of other things, and it’s like a time-lapse film, seeing everything change slowly but surely. I love being superfluous.

Buffy and Ellis Peters

September 4, 2011

On the plane today, I read Brother Cadfael’s Penance, the last of the Ellis Peter’s series. They are beautiful mystery novels, written expertly in the way that seems perfectly simple and straightforward, but requires far more skill underneath to create a distinct world with eloquence.

And they’re set just after the great schism, so while they’re technically Catholic, the lives and thoughts described are as much ordinary Orthodox as Catholic. When your main character is a monk, it’s pretty much a given that religion matters, but Ellis Peters goes further in capturing what it’s like to live a life inside the rhythms of the church, where faith and theology are central, not set aside for a crisis or occasional Sundays.

Dostoevsky is the big feast of Orthodox literature, but Ellis Peters is a nourishing bowl of soup.

The past couple of months, I’ve been rewatching Buffy. Except for episode 16 of season five which I refuse to rewatch on grounds of sobbing helplessly for hours afterwards, I’ve had seasons running in loops in the background.

And it amazes me how good Buffy it is. How much the writers and actors loved the show, because there are details picked up and echoed and moments in the background where a character reacts almost unseen that add layers.

One of the things I love about the Orthodox services – the John Chrysostom liturgy in particular – is the way the service is structured as multiple interlocking circles. There’s the circle of the year, then the week, and the day, then within the service, moving towards the moment of communion, cycles of repentance and worship with key phrases repeated in greater depth in different ways.

Now, I’m not going all “A Canticle for Leibowitz” with Buffy (although how awesome would that be for a short story?), that rhythm exists in Buffy. Some of it is the structure imposed by a TV episode set within seasons, but much of is internal, with deliberate mirroring and repetition of ideas. Who they become grow from who they were (Oh, Willow!) and Glory and Ben are Buffy and Dawn, and Riley is Xander, and there’s so much about morality and ethics and humanity in it. Wisely, for a supernatural show (Yeah, I’m looking at you Castiel) Buffy very seldom touched on actual religion, but approaches the same ideas obliquely.

I liked Firefly well enough, and Angel even more.

But Buffy is the reason TV was invented.

The bitch of biology

July 22, 2011

I have four adopted children, all of whom are high-intensity children, but aside from the first year when the youngest was in diapers and very physically clingy, I’ve been able to split childrearing with my husband fairly evenly. Much of this is because we both work flexible jobs and often from home, and he is one of three boys which meant he had more household knowledge than I did, as the youngest daughter in a family with maids.

But now, we are expecting our fifth child (warding fingers at Doris Lessing!) in January next year, and the biological impact of pregnancy has been brutal for me.

I’m high-risk, after eight miscarriages, which meant fourteen injections a week, lots of medication and frequent bedrest in panic. Now it looks like this baby will survive to term, and we’re starting to discuss what will happen when we suddenly have a newborn in the house.

Will I work from home? How long can I take in maternity leave? If I can breastfeed, then I’ll default to the primary carer for at least the first year. How much physically can my husband – and to some extent, the older children, although we’ve made it clear that they have no obligation beyond regular sibling “don’t drop the baby on its head” duties – take over?

But even now, the pregnancy is exhausting. I haven’t gained any weight yet because everything tastes dreadful, and eating is a chore. It took me two hours this morning to finish three pieces of toast and a cup of milo. I’m not hungry at all, and the only sign I have that I’m not getting enough calories is that I have no energy at all. My husband will make me eat a bowl of mashed potatoes, and suddenly I can get up and walk around.

Then there’s days of work lost to medical appointments and bedrest. Bedrest seems wonderful in theory, except in practice I end up lying on the bed staring blankly at the wall, either in pain or panic. A day arrives when I’m alright, and I have three days of work backed up.

I know one of our clients in Cambodia, a young woman with a difficult life, is around the same pregnancy stage as me. There’s fifteen years and so so much difference between us – I can go to an excellent doctor whenever I need to, I can afford different foods, I don’t have the immense financial and living difficulties she has. But what fascinates me is that she can’t work because of her morning sickness, and that this is not minor.

I will somehow muddle through the next six months of miserable pregnancy, and then hopefully the first year of intensive baby parenting.

She has to do that with a tiny fraction of what I have.

I’m finding this so difficult, even with so many resources. To expect a pregnant woman to act like a non-pregnant woman, to expect a parent of an infant to act like a non-parent – is so patently absurd now to me. These are wonderful things to do – someone has to have and raise the next generation, and the state or society needs to make up for what’s lost. Because there is so much lost to the sheer physical and time demands of biology, whether it’s pregnancy or a young infant.

We’ve pushed through a direct cash aid pilot we’ve been discussing so that she, along with four other families, can be the first trial recipients. It won’t be much, I think $24-$30 a month, but that together with free medical care and sponsored prenatal visits and medication, will mean the difference between her baby being born into destitution or working class. And for her – yes, she was daft to get pregnant that young, but I’m fifteen years older and this baby, very much wanted when we realised, was not at all planned or expected. And I’d rather live in a world that recognizes and supports pregnancy, because it is bloody hard, than one that punishes people for being less than perfect.

I have met quite a few women who had easy pregnancies, and don’t see why any special allowances need to be made. To which I say: bell curve, because they shouldn’t be special, they should be the default, and talk to me when your baby has screaming colic for three months straight.

On a related tangent: A friend wrote about Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas, a beautiful story but one that to meis obliquely about reproductive rights, especially abortion. I started thinking of great sci-fi/fantasy works that tackled pregnancies and young infant childrearing as part of their worldbuilding. Bujold is the most obvious one, as is Brave New World, and I think Delaney has at times. But for something so critical to shaping society, the vast underpinning of silent sacrifice, usually by women, of productive economic/mental/physical years, it is a ghetto. A pregnancy blackhole.

Why don’t we talk about this more? Because we’re exhausted and vulnerable? Because it’s only a few years total of your life (hah, says the past decade of mine)? Because it can be ignored, I think. It’s a nice feel-good to give up your seat on the train or donate to a maternity clinic in a third world country, but the real fundamental shift in industrial work practices, in shared gender parenting, in tax-subsidies for children that are needed, well screw them over and the people hit hardest are too exhausted and marginalized to do anything about it.

And now I am going to drink some ginger beer and try to work.

A Comprehensive Guide to Preventing Assault!

May 31, 2011

From SlutWalk Stockholm, and with so much angry affection from me for the truth of this:

A Comprehensive Guide to Preventing Assault!

1. Don’t put drugs in people’s drinks in order to control their behavior.

2. When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone!

3. If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault them!

4. NEVER open an unlocked door or window uninvited.

5. If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, DON’T ASSAULT THEM!

6. Remember, people go to laundry to do their laundry, do not attempt to molest someone who is alone in a laundry room.

7. USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM! If you are not able to stop yourself from assaulting people, ask a friend to stay with you while you are in public.

8. Always be honest with people! Don’t pretend to be a caring friend in order to gain the trust of someone you want to assault. Consider telling them you plan to assault them. If you don’t communicate your intentions, the other person may take that as a sign that you do not plan to rape them.

9. Don’t forget: you can’t have sex with someone unless they are awake!

10. Carry a whistle! If you are worried you might assault someone “on accident” you can hand it to the person you are with, so they can blow it if you do.

And, ALWAYS REMEMBER: if you didn’t ask permission and then respect the answer the first time, you are committing a crime- no matter how “into it” others appear to be.

Time Tested Beauty Tips

May 28, 2011

For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his or her fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge you’ll never walk alone.
People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; Never throw out anybody.
Remember, If you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.
As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.
The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries, or the way she combs her hair. The beauty of a woman must be seen from in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.
The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mole, but true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It is the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows, and the beauty of a woman with passing years only grows!

Sam Levenson, but often attributed to Audrey Hepburn

I know very little about Audrey Hepburn as an actress, but years ago I was researching the effects of sudden malnutrition and came across a reference to Hepburn. It was wonderful to be able to tell my daughter that she would grow up as beautiful as Hepburn. She had several miscarriages and two sons that she loved fiercely. This was one of her favourite poems that she would recite to them. I plan on framing it for my daughters’ bedroom.

The slushfund at Riverkids

January 19, 2011

So every now and then we get an emergency that requires cash. As we have more families, this is more frequent. A sudden death, a house collapsing, and this week, two teenage sex workers who were in a minor road accident and are being held by the clinic until their families cough up $700. It’s complicated because we’re still trying to figure out what’s going on with the doctor’s threats, the families, etc. So far, we’ve gotten the price knocked down a couple of hundred, so hopefully they’ll be home soon.

Something bad happens. We have lots of great donors and social media access.

We can – and have at times – go online and post an appeal.

But – that means either delaying help for the client in danger until the funds arrive (let alone factoring in time to transfer the funds over to Cambodia) or being honest and saying “We’d really appreciate the donation, even though it won’t directly go to this person in time, but sort of replace the money we’ve already spent on them.”

Not so sexy.

We want to imagine that the money, our money, is getting handed over like some shiny baton of charity from our hands to the charity to the grateful recipient – and it’s our special money, not anyone else’s grubby cash.

Because putting money into a charity’s general unrestricted funds – the slushfund! – is decidedly dull. Your donation is far more likely to be spent on a bit of the utilities’ bill, or staff payroll or other mundane everyday expenses, than the $100 of life-saving medicine or school uniforms or baby milk or whatever else the charity hopes you’ve visualised on donating.

Reading the discussions on Kiva on this blog, I can see why people are pissed at Kiva fine printing that the loans are all predisbursed.

I have very mixed feelings about Kiva and other donor-pooling websites like them. But this bit is I think as much a donor problem as a fundraiser’s.

People give more and faster when it’s urgent. When they think they alone make a difference. I found it easier to give to the Pakistan floods than the Haiti earthquakes personally because I knew the floods were getting less coverage, and I felt ‘virtuous’ about the 10 minutes it took me to research and choose a Pakistan charity to support.

(Another post there – I donated a couple of months ago, and no contact since – I would have happily given them more at Christmas or this new year if they’d sent me an update. I have another charity I gave to for two years, lost when I switched cards, and they’ve not followed up to get me to resubscribe. And they’re not little ops like Riverkids, but big places that should know and do better.)

So slushfunds are vital. With the slushfund, we can respond immediately. And I remain deeply, deeply sceptical of any charity that truly commits to honest P2P funding for critical situations. From a client point of view, Kiva’s fund-first approach is better than waiting around hoping that you’ll get chosen, not just by your local MFI, but also by a bunch of people in what amounts to a dating site.

The fine print still sucks.