>> Tuesday, 13 March 2018

So, we got a puppy.  Well, it was the one piece of the middle class jigsaw that was missing, after all, and I've never been one to avoid living up (or down) to a stereo-type.

We're just over 2 weeks in to the experience now.  We'd prepared ourselves, I thought, but actually there are a few things I thought I might share in case you're considering making a similar adjustment to your own, perhaps previously smooth-running, life;

  • Be aware that puppies can be unbearably cute, and are almost as big a distraction from Getting Stuff Done as is the internet.
  • They grow too fast.  It's an old piece of advice, but the watching them get bigger is like watching your kids growth pattern on fast-forward.  So, just like with your kids, take photos.  All the time.
  • Watch them, like a hawk.  Puppies (and dogs) use body language to express themselves first, but if they don't feel listened to (like, say, at 3am when they want to go outside for a wee) they can make a hell of a noise.  Or, wee on the floor.  Whatever; they're not fussed.
  • Make sure your neighbours are either extremely understanding, or hard of hearing.  Either are good - both is better.
  • Expect vastly reduced amounts of sleep.  Babies and toddlers are good training for this aspect of dog ownership.  Unfortunately, 14 years into parenthood I had forgotten the impact that frequent wake-up calls have on general irritability and tetchiness.  (Mine, that is - not the dog's).
  • Training is not something you can put on hold until your little darling pup is a little bigger.  It has to start straightaway - never mind that you have the laundry to fold / the floor to wash (no need to explain why)/ the shopping to do.  Oh, and it's a lot more involved than I ever imagined. 
  • On the plus side, you are allowed - in fact, encouraged - to resort to bribery to build good behaviours.  Positive reinforcement works wonders for dogs, and a packet of liver treats is a lot less expensive than the new Xbox games your children might demand in a similar situation.
  • Having warm clothing by the bed, ready to fall into when you wake at 3am to race downstairs to stop the piteous 'I've-been-left-all-alone-does-nobody-love-me-I-think-I-might-be-alright-if -someone-would-just-take-me-outside-for-a-wee' crying, is not just good planning but entirely necessary to avoid waking the entire house as you stumble around trying to find a pair of socks.
  • If well-meaning friends advise you that when planning the timing of getting a puppy you should consider the fact that house training a dog in the winter is tricky, take them seriously.  Because...
  • ...  standing outside in -6degC and a howling blizzard in the small hours, waiting for a dog to go to the loo in half a foot of snow is even less fun than it sounds...
  • ... and probably even less so for the puppy.

But, when all is said and done, there's always this...


Quietly celebrating.

>> Friday, 23 February 2018

Yesterday evening my son came home from school, took off his tie and blazer, sat down at the table, had a snack, and did two pieces of homework. Just sat down, and did them.  Dinner followed, and then he chilled out in front of the television.

Whilst this might not seem remarkable in itself, I can tell you that in this house, it is.

For various reasons that I'm not going to go into, homework can be an issue for him - and consequently for me, too.  And if it's an issue for me, then of course it follows that that spills over into the rest of the family's lives, too.

Looking back over the last three years or so it seems as if 99% of school evenings have featured some kind of confrontation about homework.  The weekends too, if I'm honest.  I'm of the belief that if there's homework to be done it might as well be dealt with on a Friday night or a Saturday morning; that way, we can relax for the rest of the weekend.  My son, however, is of the opposite opinion; as far as he's concerned it's best ignored until the very last moment at which point, amid much shouting, stamping around, obfuscation, and wailing and gnashing of teeth, it is tortuously completed.

It's frustrating to watch; both my husband I know this is what will happen and consequently try (usually fruitlessly) to circumvent it by encouraging him to break the pattern and instead complete the tasks sooner rather than later.  Unfortunately this sensible approach is not one our child subscribes to, so the resulting confrontations often lead to the entire weekend being held hostage to the completion of the damn homework.

If your child is of a similar profile you might recognise these statements: 'In a moment...  I'll do it later... Just let me finish this lego model/chapter/episode/game/toilet trip (delete as appropriate)...' and so on.  Then, of course, when he has finished whatever it is he's using as a delaying tactic, instead of just dealing with it, he uses another.

Looking at it from the outside you might ask yourself why we don't just force him to sit down and get on with it.  I know that some of our nearest and dearest have wondered the same thing over the years, but some children, they just learn differently.  Some children are such perfectionists that they can't face their homework not because they don't want to do it, but because they can't face the possibility that they might do it wrong, so they hide, they ignore, they act out.

It's not a recipe for relaxed family life, that's for sure.

So what was different about last night?  How was he able to just get on with it, to the extent that I watched in quiet wonder and asked myself if this is how things are on a typical school night for those families whose children get less anxious when faced with their own very human imperfections?

Partly, I think, it's the fact that he's getting older and more mature, is better able to deal with the swings and roundabouts of everyday life.  Also impacting may have been the fact that the task he chose to do first was one he didn't find difficult and which, because it was online, he was given instant feedback on, so knew that he had completed it perfectly.  That buoyed him up to deal with the second task, which he was less keen on, but still able to do well.  Or perhaps he just had the right thing for lunch, or I said the right thing when I met him from school, or another of the million things that might have affected his mood.

But I don't really know; kids don't come with a manual, no matter what the parenting gurus out there might say.  And if the last few years of dealing with the fallout of my son's learning style have taught me anything, it's that we need to be grateful for those moments of calm - because there might not be another one along for a while.


When I rule the world...

>> Monday, 22 January 2018

I'm thinking of opening a cinema.  Not just any cinema, mind.  Oh no.
  • In this establishment, there will be no concession stand - not in the entrance, at any rate.   No opportunity to max out on sugary or salt laden sweets in-house before the showing begins (although I'm prepared to compromise and have the stand at the exit for customers on their way out).  To ensure no contraband makes it's way into the theatre, customers will have their bags inspected to check they are not in possession of crisp packets, bags of popcorn, rustly bags of any description, large slurp-inducing cartons of drink (although a multi-use bottle / cup may be permitted, because, the Environment), or anything else that needs to be consumed noisily.
  • Patrons will also be notified that whilst a mobile phone is permitted, there is no wifi in the cinema and their 3/4/5G signal is unlikely to work.  Because, blocking.
  • Texting is allowed (babysitters, obv), but if anyone is seen or heard making or taking a call during the movie the screening will be paused, and a searchlight trained on the offender for a spot of public shaming (they will be offered free of charge phone etiquette rehabilitation classes to avoid any future transgressions).
  • 'The cinema is not your living room' will be flashed up onscreen if any customers are spotted taking their shoes off.
  • Families, whilst encouraged to attend, will be expected to treat the cinema with the respect it and the other patrons deserve.  Before visiting this cinema parents may have to give their children a crash course in ensuring that any comments or questions they have about the plot are asked with lowered voices, and not at normal or above-normal decibel levels.  
  • Should two adults be accompanying one or more children, the adults should sit either side of their charges to avoid unfortunate bystanders being forced to endure any transgressions of the chatting loudly, crunching defeaningly, or slurping offensively kind.

Sounds awful, doesn't it?  Why on earth would a person need to come up with such a ridiculous set of rules?

Our local Odeon on a Saturday afternoon, that's why.


Notes from a train journey in Middle England

>> Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Written whilst recently travelling to London by train...
I'm on my way to meet up with a group of friends for lunch; it's two years since I've seen some of them as they are now scattered all over the world, so I'm looking forward to it.  Plus, you know, it's nice to Get Out.
It's not been entirely plain sailing reaching the platform this morning; a contretemps with my younger son ('Yes, you are going to school today') briefly threw the whole trip into jeopardy, but I've made it.  Hurrah.  Not even the fact that the train operating company have, in their infinite wisdom, cancelled a coach on this service - my coach, with my reserved seat on it, of course - is going to slow me down. And in any case never fear, plucky travellers: they have relocated all allocated seats to another coach.
So far, so good. I find my new - correctly labelled - seat, and after an awkward moment kicking out the incumbent who had decided I wasn’t coming (as if), I settle in. All is calm until the next stop when a young Chinese couple arrive to claim their seats across the aisle. Seats that are already occupied by two much older Americans who have, they inform the rest of the carriage at the top of their voices, pulled their heavy luggage ALL THE WAY through the train due to the missing coach, and they are damned if they're moving again.
I won’t bore you with the full details of the following disagreement.  Suffice it to say that the other couple stand their ground to the extent that eventually another older (very British) gentleman, entirely uninvolved, cracks under the intolerable pressure of observing a Disagreement In Public Between Strangers, and offers HIS (reserved) seat to the arrivals.
They refuse his kind offer; they have a reserved seat, after all: it's up to the illegal occupants to move.
The illegal occupants are having none of it.  Instead, they announce ever more loudly that they are not shifting.  It's shocking, apparently, that this should happen; that they should be asked to move.  Their opponents agree; yes, it is.  But those are still their seats, and they would like to sit in them.  
This proves even more painful to Party #3 (the older British Gentleman - keep up)  who repeats his offer, finally playing his trump card by stating loudly that Everyone In The Carriage is being upset by this display.  The new arrivals appear not to care, but at this point the traveller in the seat cracks and agrees to move.  He and his travelling companion huff and puff as they gather their belongings and then trundle truculently away down the aisle, in search of satisfaction from whichever unfortunate train guard they can find.
Twenty minutes pass, with no sign of them.  All is calm. I’m guessing they’ve either been upgraded to First, or been so rude to the staff that they've thrown off the train...


A letter to my grandmother

>> Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Dear Nana,

yesterday lunchtime we got the call that you had passed on.

It wasn't unexpected and yet, it was.  You'd beaten the odds a number of times to reach one hundred and four; in your fifties when you had a cancerous kidney removed; in your sixties when you had a double mastectomy after the early discovery of the same growths that had taken your mother and sister; most recently of all last week, when you had an operation to pin your hip back together after a fall.  So whilst it was obvious that you couldn't live for ever, I suspect that most of the people who knew you wondered if, actually, you might.

The pneumonia that probably caused your heart to stop was clearly in evidence when my mother and I visited you yesterday morning, and you were weary, oh, so weary, but dressed neatly as ever you sat in your high-backed arm-chair, gently stroking the soft grey lacy blanket that I bought you from a snow-bound Russian market six years ago.  The same blanket which, at the time of giving, you dismissed as being for an old person.  When you were ninety-eight.

'She loves that blanket', my mother told me.  'It's her favourite.'  Raising her voice, in the hope that you could hear; 'That blanket was made by Russian babushkas, Mum!'

You nodded, vaguely.  I can only imagine what it must have been like to be distanced from the world by your failing hearing, as if trapped in a thick cardboard box invisible to everyone except yourself.

The nurse who had dressed you that morning came in to say hello.  'She's an angel,' you said, the pneumonia rattling threateningly in your chest.  Mum and I agreed, thankful that such people exist.

'I'm glad she's up.'  Mum said to me.  'It's better for her chest that way.  And G (my uncle) was only saying yesterday, after he visited, that they should get her out of bed.  I'll have to tell him that they have done.'

'Tell you what; I'll take a photo, so that you can send it on to him.'  (It's on my phone now, Nana.  Always a little vain, disliking the marks of time, you would hate it.  I shall treasure it.)

We chatted to you for about an hour, not sure how much you heard and how much you deciphered or simply ignored.  We talked to you about my mother's recent holiday and your great-grandchildren; when I showed you pictures of my boys - fourteen and eleven now, how did that happen? - you smiled at my oldest, grinning cheekily up at you from the screen.

'Saucy', you said, pointing at the photo.  'Lovely boys'.

'Yes, Nana.  They take after your side of the family.'

My mother snorted and told me I was being smooth, but I could tell you appreciated the compliment.  Your family always was the apple of your eye, especially - as a product of your time - the boys.

You leaned forward a little in your chair, and gestured at my mother.  'She's beautiful.'

My eyes filled with tears at the sound of the pneumonic gurgle in your voice; it was clearly an effort for you to speak.  'She is, Nana.'

Mum shifted in her chair, uncertain at the unexpected compliment.  'She was talking about you.'

'No, Mum.  She was talking about you.'

Time came for us to leave, and my mother stood. 'Goodbye, Mum.  I'll see you tomorrow.'

'Goodbye, darlin'.'

We gathered up our coats and bags and I kissed you on the forehead, careful to avoid knocking your chair and your painful hip.  'Bye, Nana.  I'll come back and see you next week.'

You nodded.  'Sleep.'

Mum rearranged the cushion behind your head, and pulled the babushka-crocheted blanket up around you.  'You have a rest.  I'll see you tomorrow.'

'I love you all.'

We stopped, startled.  Such a statement wasn't entirely out of character, but it wasn't common.  I kissed you again, making sure you had a supply of tissues within reach, and as I left I turned and waved at you, sitting small and pale in the corner of the room.

You waved back.

Goodbye, Nana.  I love you too.


Still learning how to parent...

>> Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Boy #1 is growing up.  Getting taller, broader, etc etc.  So when I picked him up from the sports camp he's been at for the last couple of days, red-faced and a bit sweaty, I suggested that he might want to take a shower when we got home.

To my relief, (because let's be honest, boys don't always see the need for such trivial pursuits as showers) he agreed and disappeared upstairs when we arrived back.  Thirty minutes later he appeared in the kitchen; wet-haired, clearly cleaner but - and this, I think, may be where my understanding of boys and their priorities falls somewhat short - crucially in the same clothes he'd been wearing before his shower.  The ones he'd been training in all morning.  The ones that - well, I don't think I need to spell it out.

I pointed out that climbing back into his dirty kit - no matter how comfortable he found it - sort of negated the beneficial effects of the shower.   His response?  'Mum, you asked me to take a shower.  You didn't ask me to change my clothes as well..'

Lesson learned.


Of mice and AI

>> Friday, 18 August 2017

I just spotted something small, brown and furry emerging from under one of the kitchen cabinets.  Now, I've been here before.  I have form in this area, but not for some time now have I had the fun of dealing with unwanted household visitors.  As I sit here typing my feet are on high alert (who knows when I may need to stand on a chair whilst I assess the situation at the top of my voice?), with a weather eye on the gap between the dishwasher and the cupboard, that it used as an escape route.

I'm kidding myself that it was temporary incursion made through the kitchen door left open into the garden all morning, and also hoping that my initial impression from the fleeting glimpse I caught of the creature - that it was a shrew, rather than a mouse - was correct.  I'm not sure why, but a shrew in the house seems far less concerning to me than a mouse, which is ridiculous, really, because both are rodents and both are unwelcome; it's just a matter of semantics, really.

Whilst I wait for the fugitive to show itself, I'm taking my mind off it with some displacement activity; namely that of today's rant.

As an aside here, I do find this whole getting older thing makes me far more sensitive to - and crosser about - things that in the past I would yes, have noticed, but probably shrugged off as just part of life's rich tapestry.  Hormones, eh?

In any case, the subject of today's mini rant is Alexa, Amazon's cloud-based home management system.

Tell me please: why is Alexa a woman?  Or more specifically, since I'm sure there are options to customise the system and have an 'Alex' rather than an 'Alexa', why is the one featured on all the advertising a woman?

Because I don't know about you but I am sick to the back teeth of being the go-to person in this house for just about any query regarding home administration, especially when the person asking the question has usually not even bothered to raise their eyes from whichever screen they're watching to try and locate the information themselves.

As a feminist (a label I'm proud of by the way; more of that in another rant in the not too distant future), I'm trying to raise my sons to make no assumptions that it will be the woman of the house who will sort home-based admin problems out for them.  Yet on every side they are confronted with images that tell them no, your mother's wrong; no matter how much she may try to encourage you to adopt a non-sexist approach as you deal with life, it IS a woman who is going to run things for you.  And here, on the tv and radio is Alexa, an early version of AI - complete with female voice -  to underline that fact.

I can't be the only woman to be annoyed by this, surely?


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