31 August, 2017

Keeping my plates in the air

I have several different jobs and a couple of them mean dealing with a lot of sub-tasks which all have deadlines and various people I need to interact with. Some would say I'm the fortunate one, being able to set most of those deadlines, but it is a lot to keep a track of and a lot of responsibility and attention to detail. Juggling all of this can be a nightmare and and easily results in "dropped plates", especially if you tend towards being easily distracted and only fairly organised, rather than truly well organised.

People who know me might not believe it, but I'm only a fairly organised person (I like a lot of variety, my attention span can be short, and I get bored easily). I get organised when I'm overwhelmed, otherwise I approach life a bit more randomly—it's more interesting that way. 

It's ironic that I'm working on this post today. Actually I tried to do it yesterday but got overwhelmed by various other things like a storm that changed when I got home on my bike; a new, frustrating computer keyboard; and a boy who neglected to check his school email till nearly bedtime and insisted that he could only use my computer to do so.

Then today I'd planned to have the whole day at home working on getting on top of several jobs that were looming, but especially the OMF Japan blog. This morning I awoke to the news that I couldn't touch the OMF blog posts I'd been planning to work on most of the day because international headquarters are upgrading the web server. Yes, I'm being tested in patience and flexibility this week.

So, I had to face up to other things, like getting organised! It probably was a blessing as it forced me to face up to some other more difficult tasks on my plate. But it has been a somewhat overwhelming day, made worse by doing it while using my new Japanese keyboard and trackpad so that I can figure out if I can adjust to them (I'm thinking not).

However, my plan for this post was not to tell you about my day, but rather let you in on a secret weapon that I use to prevent dropped plates in my editing work. It's a website that one of my editing team introduced me to a couple of years ago: asana.com

It allows you to set up tasks and sub-tasks with due dates and, if you have a team using it, assign tasks or subtasks to people (or yourself).

Putting the magazine together gets very complicated, as I wrote about last year here. It's too complicated to just use a calendar, or a list on my phone, or even post-it notes. (Yes, I also use all of these things. To-do lists on post-it notes is one of my specialities. My boys know it too, I think I have several-years worth of post-it notes because they keep giving them too me. Actually, maybe not that many, but still a few!)

I have found Asana.com extremely useful and just this week have put it to use for the OMF Japan blog that I'm also managing. 

I know most of you aren't writers or editors, but you could use Asana for anything you're doing that has deadlines, especially if it is a longer term thing that needs you to do several steps over time to achieve it. For example, preparing for a trip or a presentation. Dates of your school-aged kids excursions or a reminder to do something a few weeks away that you're sure to forget. It really is an easy website to use, though like most things takes a bit of getting used to.

The trick is, of course, to look at the website often (or the phone app, I don't like it personally, but one of our Japan Harvest editors only uses it on that interface). Because I'm working with deadlines regularly I usually have it open in one of my tabs. I love the function "My tasks", which automatically shows you all that you have to do, and by when. I can keep tabs on my team (and writers) also, by typing their name into a box and finding out what they have due when...and following up when necessary.

Well, now I've had my fun in finishing off this blog post (started on my phone while I waited for my husband outside an electrical store yesterday), I need to get back to whatever else it was that needed doing...oh yes, the toilets needed cleaning and there was that email about our home assignment that I was writing and I've got to proofread our prayer letter. Hmmm. Back into the fray.

28 August, 2017

Persnickety Punctuation

This has been interesting summer reading, though it probably wouldn't appeal to everyone! I found the early chapters slow going (history of punctuation), but when it got into the chapters about current punctuation usage, it was much easier to stick with it.

It is more than a dry style manual, it talks about how punctuation has been used and how it currently is being used. 

Something I've never thought about before is that there are two approaches to punctuation: the semantic approach and the pragmatic approach. 

Semantic being that punctuation is all about ensuring the meaning of the words is clear, and results in prescription: i.e. "this is when you use a colon". 

Pragmatic focuses on explaining usage, not just prescribing. The author says that both perspectives are important when evaluating punctuation.
If you find it difficult to understand what someone has written because of the way punctuation has been used, then you're reacting semantically. But if you don't like the look of what someone has written—saying, for example, that a page is 'cluttered'—then you're reacting pragmatically.
As an editor and writer it is good to remember both these, especially when we get to debating a tricky situation that has unclear rules attached to it. The history of punctuation also gives a nice longitudinal view to the issue which helps one to realise that the current trends are merely that, trends (eg. minimal punctuation) that have been influenced by a wide range of people, including typesetters, designers, writers, copy editors etc.

Another interesting component of the book about the influence that the internet has had on them, how punctuation has taken on a whole lot of different meanings there (and in texting).
What was particularly interesting, and somewhat liberating to me as a writer and editor, were the chapters on semicolons, colons, dashes, and commas. I'm no punctuation expert and often feel a bit at sea when trying to decide between these four marks in a lengthy or complicated sentence. I've therefore been tentative in using them, especially the first three. 

If you've read this far you might be interested in the helpful guidelines this book gave:

  • "Semicolon allows us to join two independent sentences together when we feel they are semantically linked in some way (like an "and")."
  • "The semicolon allows us to see more clearly the structure of a complex sentence, especially one which is packed full of detail. It takes some load off the comma."
  • But the author cautions relying on the semicolon too much, as it can make writing hard to read
  • It can convey an adversative meaning (replacing "but" or "whereas"); a restatement ("that is"); or a result (replacing "as a result")
  • May be replaced by "as follows" (explanation), "namely" (a rephrasing of what's come before).
  • Separates two clauses within a sentence
Dash (em dash):
  • Shows an inclusion in a sentence, alongside commas and brackets (US=round brackets)
  • "[Dashes] are the mark of choice when someone wants to convey a disjointed or chaotic series of thoughts"
  • En dash is used for ranges in dates, times, distances. It also marks contrasting positions, like 3–0 to Australia (soccer) or a coordination a father–son relationship.
  • These are one of the punctuation marks I have most discussions about with myself and my editing team. Sometimes i'ts a matter of meaning, other times it's a matter of opinion. Understanding the latter is very important. If the meaning isn't muddied, I generally have no difficulty with removing or inserting commas if it makes the author (or proofreader) happy.
  • Commas are widely used: to separate clauses, phrases, and words. That makes them slippery elements to tie down and can make things more complex if they are used for different purposes in the same sentence.
  • Serial commas (also known as Oxford comma). The book quoted the best argument I've heard: "because the 'no final comma' principle breaks down now and again through ambiguity, whilst the 'final comma' principle can be followed consistently with less risk of it." (quoted from G V Carey in Mind the Stop)

27 August, 2017

Are they Asian?

We had an interesting conversation at lunch today. Someone mentioned that there were a large number of new kids in sixth grade. One boy commented that "they're all Asian".
A rock we found on the west coast of Japan these holidays, a grand
thing for a boy to climb and contemplate the sea.

I asked "Are they Asian on the inside?" 

This brought some confusion, but led to an interesting discussion that included such tit bits as: 

Me: "What about our friends, the X family, they look part-Asian on the outside, but are quite American on the inside." (This family has one Japanese parent and one American parent.)
Boy: "But they don't look Asian at all!"
Me: "Oh yes they do."
Someone thought out loud: "They're probably considered American in Japan and Japanese in America." Ah, yes.

Another boy: "I was once called Japanese at school in Australia." 

To which we all laughed. This boy has dark blonde hair, grey-green eyes, and an abundance of freckles on his fair skin. He also has a modified American accent. (What a confusion my kids must cause in other people's heads!)

I love to hear my kids' impressions of the international world and hear how it differs to what I think I thought as a mono-cultural kid. They really have different perspectives, but they don't realise that they do. I'm guessing that it won't be until they try to live as young adults in their passport country that they'll realise how different their thoughts are. 

Like any parent raising third culture kids, I hope that they are able to find their way, find a community where they are known and valued for the complex perspective that they have, and find a place that they are happy to occupy.

26 August, 2017

Baking and a new work-station

We're getting back into school-time routine. One was me baking on the weekend. During the summer, with our boys sleeping longer and not doing sports, we discovered they ate less snacks, so less baking was required. However we're back to sports and early rising, so snacks are back. 
Last week I made a recipe called "Spotty Cake" and just saying the title has the power to make my boys go weak at the knees. I don't think it is warranted that kind of honour, but I can't dispute the evidence. (Here's the recipe, I included it in a post a few years ago.)

As you can see, it's nearly finished, so I made Fat Mama Cookies this afternoon (and no, I don't like the name, but they are yummy, basically chocolate chip biscuits with powdered oats included).
Thanks to my wonderful husband, I've also had a work-station change over today.

From this:

To this:
I've worked from the first desk for more than a decade now, but as I've been hoping for a couple of years to find something a bit wider, but not actively looking. It's not easy to find something that fits the space available and yet can accomodate the laptop, printer, and a second screen (the second screen is very handy when I am very often working between two documents at the same time). It just so happened that someone at school heard that someone else was giving away this desk and my husband's ears pricked up.

I've done a bit of work here this afternoon and like the wider desk. But in order for it to work, I think I need a separate keyboard with a touch pad, because sitting on the side at the laptop and twisting my head to the big screen isn't going to work long-term. Does anyone have a good recommendation (for a Mac computer) that doesn't cost an arm and a leg?

25 August, 2017

Start of school 2017

Ordinary life today meant the start of a new school year, which was different for almost everyone.

Yummy satay chicken by our eldest son.
David: taught two classes (his lowest class-load ever) and did other various tasks that his new role of Director of Teaching and Learning entails.

Middle son: started high school (for the second time, due to a quirk of timing, he actually did six months high school in Australia, where grade seven is now high school). School was only half a day, then he did cross-country training (in 35C weather).

Youngest son: started grade seven (middle grade of middle school at CAJ). He also joined the cross-country training.

Eldest son: worked at the school all day doing various maintenance-department things including monitoring the electricity usage gauge (complex story, but to do with keeping costs down on this very hot day).

Which leaves me. I attended the school community prayer meeting from 8.30-10.00, which included catching up with friends I haven't seen since school broke up three months ago. 

Then I worked as hard as I could on editing at home in the silence of no-kids-at-home until 12.30. After that I had boys coming home for lunch over the next two hours, they all came home at different times. In the middle of all that I tried to continue working on formatting some of the 60 or so blog posts that need my attention on the new blog. 

Then, after the weather cooled down a little, I rode out for a quick trip for groceries to get us through the weekend. Since I got back after 5 I've been mostly on social media or playing a card game on my phone while answering periodic questions about the new satay chicken recipe that our eldest is making.

I have no first-day-of-school photos. Our middle son, never fond of photo posing, quietly slipped out before I could snap one this morning. So I compensate with a photo of the dinner we've just enjoyed.

24 August, 2017

A piece of the puzzle

The thing that has been looming for the last few years is getting closer all the time: the day our eldest moves to Australia. I feel like we've been talking about it for an eternity (well maybe only four years, but still...) University starts late February, so he's currently here, working part-time and enjoying a break from study.

Two big questions need answers:
1. What will he study (and where)?
2. Where will he live.

Of course the second depends somewhat on the first. But it seems as though God has provided somewhere for him to live. A family we've known for many years who live in a convenient location have a room available for him and we've come to a verbal agreement! [Add large shout of celebration here.]

David and my Alma Mater:
University of Queensland.
It's what we'd hoped for, that he'd be able to board with a family, at least initially, to help him through this huge change: not just moving out of home and starting university, but changing countries too.

Phew! God's provision indeed.

Next step is already underway: figuring out what courses he wants to put on the application form (there are six spaces available). 

For my non-Aussie readers: university application is a centrally controlled thing in Australia, so local Australians just have to fill out a form with their preferences. An international Australian has things a tiny bit tougher, in that they have to figure out how to get their grades and scores to the tertiary application centre (QTAC or Queensland Tertiary Application Centre for our state) so that they can be allocated a "rating" that allows universities to decide if they want to accept them or not. Yep, all numbers, no essays or references or interviews (unless you're going into something like fine arts).

That all needs to be done in the next month. After that we sit back and wait a couple of months to see if he gets accepted. Particularly, if he gets accepted at a university that can be easily accessed from where he's potentially got a place to stay.

23 August, 2017

We ate the bitter melon (goya)

So I did it. I cooked up the vegetable that our neighbour gave me last week and I have photos to prove it.

On the left: is Teriyaki Pork Stir Fry (this recipe, though with different vegetables and I also added tofu) the one on the right (and also below) is Cantonese Bitter Melon Omelette.

The stir fry was too salty for our tastes (I never add salt to recipes). The recipe was otherwise very nice, I'm just not sure what to do about the salt, which all came from the soy sauce. Can you buy low-salt soy sauce in Japan?

The omelette I liked, though others didn't necessarily. My husband said that if you had a mixed mouthful of egg and vegetable it was fine, though one of our boys couldn't finish it.

All in all, I'm really pleased. I am not usually any good at stir-fries but this one worked well (aside from the saltiness). Everyone got fed and we received few complaints. I cooked two new recipes and used a new, local vegetable that grew over the road from us.
The goya or bitter melon has an amazing shape and made for photogenic cooking, though I didn't get the focus right on this photo (this was before adding the eggs).

22 August, 2017

CAJ Staff family

This was last summer when we enjoyed an evening with another staff
family who have kids around the same age as ours. Thankfully they're
still around and I'm looking forward to seeing them this afternoon.
I'm looking forward to an annual event on our calendar this evening, the start-of-year staff family dinner (I want to say BBQ, but I'm not certain it is actually a BBQ today). Four years ago I wrote a couple of posts about what it was like to be a staff wife at CAJ, things have changed a little since then, but not much.

CAJ Staff Wife Part 1: I wrote about what it was like when we first joined CAJ, a lot different to now, because none of our kids were enrolled at the school, in fact our youngest was only three months old! But it is a somewhat sad post, because those early years for me were difficult.

CAJ Staff Wife Part 2: I wrote about some of the other results of being a staff wife. One of those has also changed. I wrote that "I always have to sit alone at graduation." Well last year I didn't. Staff who have students in the graduating class are allowed to sit with their families. I enjoyed that, even if the whole night was rather surreal! This school year I'll be sitting on my own again.

This year is the eleventh time we've attended this dinner and I look forward to it every year. It's short, but a good time to catch up with some friends I haven't seen for a few months. And yes, quite a number of the teachers I count as friends. We've ended up with quite a number of staff families around the same life-stage as us at the moment, so that's really fun. I'm sure we shake them up a little, because we're the only Australian staff family at the moment at the school.

I've got six more years as a CAJ parent. I am not sure that I'm looking forward to how my relationship with the school will change once our youngest has graduated—I'll be back to being just a staff wife. Ah, a bridge I don't need to cross yet.

21 August, 2017

Shouting in the Shrine

The day has run away with me (lots of editing) and I've not gotten to actually completing a post here (I have started two, though, just not finished them). So I'm going to cheat and give you a link to a post I completed earlier for the OMF Japan blog. 

I shared it today on Facebook and it's been well received, I do recommend you check it out. It's about an elderly Shinto priest in Hokkaido who because a Christian after watching various members of his family become Christians. This is a really encouraging story: https://omf.org/blog/2017/08/05/turning-up-the-volume/

20 August, 2017

How have the summer holidays been?

Summer holidays are rushing to an end and I want to write a little about how things have gone in the realm of time-management for the boys. (See this post about the guidelines we set at the start of the holidays.)
Oyakodonburi or Chicken and Egg on Rice, a favourite Japanese meal of our
middle son. He needed help with this, but it tasted pretty authentic.

Truth is that there has been a lot of electronics. However, there has also been a lot of reading, creativity, and jobs done.

We spent 16 days away in July and those days had very limited amounts of electronics/screen time and lots of reading and board game-time. There were few complaints.

It's been encouraging to see one boy walk away from electronics significantly on most days in the last month.

Exercise has been spotty and I think two boys are going to be sore when they get back to school and cross-country training begins.

Bedtimes have been somewhat managed by us still. Setting limits on when electronics end . . . alas that hasn't stopped some boys staying up to the early hours of the morning reading. Last Monday we instituted a 9 am limit on sleep-ins and tomorrow it will go back to 8 am, then it's 7 am rising on Thursday in preparation for Friday's 8.30 start at school. That has made people grumpy (mostly later in the day when they're tired—they've acquiesced to the early rising times), but hopefully helped them to get to sleep earlier.

Meal cooking has been interesting, and it's been a lot easier to get cooperation than last year. Typical for our household: second time around is better. The boys aren't very creative, in that they've just chosen meals that we usually eat, but they're slowly getting better at cooking main meals (we need to work on speed a bit though—we've had some very late meals). I'm getting better at being the nearby "help desk" rather than getting in the way.

Late-July we did a big change-over of household jobs. That's gone fairly well too, I expected a challenging learning curve, but the boys have moved into their new jobs well: 

  • Washing: As a result David and I are now only responsible for three people's washing (and the sheets and towels). That's a significant change. It's been great to see our new high schooler taking on responsibility for his own washing. He's also now responsible for hanging up the washing for the rest of us, and has done a good job for the most part. It's better now that he's not getting up at midday!
  • Breakfast dishes: Our youngest has done a great job of getting into breakfast washups. Only whinge has been on those days when it is hot enough to make him sweaty or when he hasn't gotten to it before lunch and ends up with some lunch dishes to do too. Next challenge for him will be being organised enough to get it all done before school.
  • House elf: Our eldest doesn't have a set family-related job at this point aside from cooking once a week. We have asked him to help out randomly with washing up at night-time, though. I don't know how this will change. Maybe I'll get him to do some grocery runs when I'm extra busy in the coming months.
Another staff-mum asked me this morning if I was ready for school to start and I heartily said yes. She, however, is in a different life-stage (little ones) and isn't looking forward to her husband being back at school, especially before her kids go back into Japanese kindy. 

I'm glad that these big boys of mine will soon be back at school, they need the routine and challenge. They need the world to not revolve around their own pleasure as much as it does during holiday-time.

I'll also be happy to get my schedule more back under my control. Having them home now is nowhere near as challenging as it was when they were little, but I also have more outside-the-home responsibilities now than I did then. I'll enjoy having less interrupted time, especially in the afternoons. 

Lately I've been getting a bit frustrated at the interruptions and the self-centered assumptions that I should interrupt whatever I'm doing immediately my name is called to attend to whatever they deem is important at that moment (usually these aren't super urgent matters). 

I am torn between being being available and teaching them not to be so self-centred that they assume that whatever they are doing is more important than what I'm doing. Not to mention that they rarely respond immediately when I call their names! 

Then there's the guilt-ridden message that gets showered upon us mums: enjoy them while you have them at home. But they no longer need me constantly and oftentimes what they're asking of me could wait a little while. Not to mention that I can't take 11 weeks off work, nor am I a super-mum—able to work through the night so that I'm available for them all day! So, I'm between a rock and a hard place. A situation that all working mums (and dads) have to deal with.

Anyway enough ranting, I'm just looking forward to having more boundaries in place around my work-life. When they're at school and training—I can work without guilt.

18 August, 2017

Fears and tears

I've had another busy week with work and family commitments. It's amazing to me how my weeks fill up sometimes. I won't give you a blow-by blow account. I've struggled to get to my desk and my to-do list, but it has been a week rich in investing in outside-this-family relationships (which I needed towards the end of these long summer holidays).

This morning, as I've sat down and tried to whittle down that list of work items that needed doing (mostly editing/writing/email), a few niggling thoughts from recent conversations and emails keep poking in. Part of it was the theme of fear. That sounds a bit stark, written just naked like that, but I'm going to explain.

One of the things that I've talked about one-on-one with a couple of friends this week has been dealing with conflict in my work (this has just been in general terms, I'm haven't revealing specifics to my friends). 

I don't like conflict, I avoid it as much as possible, but that is impossible to do all the time in the work I do. My job as an editor is to have opinions and my role in working with many writers is ripe-ground for conflict. My work as I guide a magazine (and now a blog feed for a website) means I have to set standards and guidelines and seek to conform to them. And not everyone likes it where I draw the lines or the opinions that I have, even when I tread softly.

One of my friends reminded me to repeat to myself, "It's not personal."

I find that harder to do in some situations than others. I guess it depends on the "who" and "how" and "what was said". I'm getting better as I get older and more experienced. But I also know that God made me with a sensitive side and I don't wish that away at all, because it gives me empathy for others and it tempers my impulsive side too.

But fear of what people will say about my decisions can paralyse me and make it very difficult to do my work, or to write anything at all. That is something I've been finding myself fighting against, at times, these last few weeks.

The other time that fear came up was when one of my friends insightfully asked about the upcoming year (in the context that we're about to start a new school year) and how I want to grow during that time. Two big upcoming challenges came to mind:

1. My eldest son will most probably leave home to study in another country during the year.
2. We're planning to go on home assignment after the end of this school year (in late June) and last time I moved countries my stress resulted in uncomfortable reflux, the effects of which lingered for months.

My thinking about all of this is that I'm probably more fearful and anxious that I'd like to admit. Moving countries is stressful, but I don't know why I can't be more calm about it. That level of stress I'd like to avoid when we move next year and so, my answer to my friend was that I'd like to survive this year in better shape than I did the last international move in our lives.

She followed up with, "So what 'fills your cup'?" My main thought was deep conversations like the one that I was currently engaged in—with friends. Preferably with coffee in hand!

So we'll see how I go. As God continues to grow me through dealing with conflict in my work and in the stress of major changes in my family, I need to be intentional in seeking good conversations with friends, but also in turning to God.

I don't know where I found this blog post by an Aussie (it was published seven years ago), but it entices me to dig into the Bible again, and lean into another opportunity to cast myself upon God: Praying your fears. Here's just one nugget that I need to follow through on daily: 
We need to relocate our glory: not in our talents or our role, or others' opinion of us, but in God's approval.
Its pair is: Praying your tears, which is also an excellent post. For surely, the fears are often accompanied by tears (for me, in conflict, especially). And another nugget (which I think is a Timothy Keller quote):
Weeping is fine. Weeping and grief is fine. Weeping and disappointment is fine ... but weeping in self-pity will make you a small little person, someone who can't forgive, someone who is always feeling ill-used, someone who gets incredibly touchy and incredibly over-sensitive. ... Look at the cross and say, "... My sufferings are nothing compared to yours. If you suffered for me I can be patient with this suffering for you."
But now I need to get back to my work—looking at people's words and deciding what to do about them.