Saturday, 21 January 2017

Demoralised by the political process

You might think, in light of the inauguration of (to my mind) the most terrifyingly inept, probably criminal, potentially blackmailed and astoundingly ill-informed president of the United States, this might be a post about Trump.

It's not.

You might think, considering our own government's insistence that "we" voted for a total crackdown on immigration, despite the fact that we weren't actually, explicitly asked anything at all about immigration in our recent referendum, I might be writing about Brexit.

I'm not.

I'm writing about something small, possibly insignificant, that almost certainly won't cause very many people, if any, a problem at all. It might not even have any significant impact on my own life, in the long run. But I'm writing about it anyway.

Because it's my blog.

I'm feeling deeply disheartened by yet another example of our bureaucratic overlords putting on a show of consulting the people. Of listening. Of providing us with choice. Disheartened by the realisation that, once again, it was a sham. Our bureaucratic overlords were always going to do exactly what they wanted to do, and we were merely asked some carefully phrased questions to ensure their decision was rubber-stamped as "the will of the people".

This is about a recent consultation on the future of the provision of primary education in our village. Primary education for LittleBear.

Before I go any further, I know that some of you reading this are also parents of children at LittleBear's school. I know that some of you are happy with the outcome, and some are not. I know that not all of you will agree with my assessment of the situation. I'll say again: this is my blog; these are my feelings; this is how I see the world. I don't think your feelings are wrong, or your opinions, since I know this is all very subjective. If you don't happen to agree with me, I'm not looking for an argument, or reasons why I'm wrong, I'm just putting my feelings out there. I'm certainly not criticising the school, which I think is brilliant.

So, for those not local to our school, what exactly is going on?

Well... there are more small children in the village than there used to be, and there isn't room for them all in the school, so Something Needs To Be Done. And we have a rather unusual arrangement in the village - we have an "infant" school for the first three years of primary education, and a "junior" school for the next four years. So actually, we have two schools, but all the children currently go to both, and both are at capacity, with temporary classrooms in use, and no capacity to take the number of children known to be coming through in the next few years. As I said, Something Needs To Be Done.

So, as is the way these days, a consultation was held. And actually, for the purposes of my views on the subject, the options in the consultation are irrelevant, as is the outcome. It's the process that has irked me. Because in essence, the options were:

1. Something that sounds really sensible, preserves the status quo but can't actually be done.

2. Something contrived and absurd.

3. What the council wants to do and is in line with current government dogma.

4. Something else contrived and absurd.

To nobody's surprise, the option that received most support was Option 1. And then, (and who could see this coming?) it turns out Option 1 simply can't be achieved, so sadly the choice that received the second highest levels of support will be pursued. And what was that? Of course it was. You know it was. It was Option 3, the council's preferred option. The option that received no support from any school governors in the consultation, no support from any teachers in the consultation, and the lowest level of support from parents of school-aged children in the consultation.

Because that's democracy in action for you.

Give the people what you want, while pretending you're giving them what they want, even though you've rigged the questions to ensure they don't choose something you don't want, but they do. I might have to go back and watch Yes, Minister again, just to remind myself, 'twas always thus and always thus will be.

But, because I'm turning into a bolshy cow in my middle age, I wrote to the bureaucratic overlord in charge of this consultation, expressing my disappointment and dissatisfaction, and asking questions about how they intended to implement their Grand Plan. And I received no reply. So I wrote again, to enquire if my first letter had been received. And I received an apology for the absence of reply, and an assurance it would be "followed up". It wasn't.

Because that's accountability and responsiveness for you.

And while I'm not happy with the outcome of the consultation, that's almost beside the point at the moment. It is what it is. Mostly, here and now, I'm just pissed off about the pretense of it all. The illusion that governments, local and national, try to weave to make us believe we have a say. The bare-faced gall of pretending to give a damn about what we, the people who elect them, think. Either give us a say, or do what you want, but don't cynically slink around pretending you care, pretending it's not already a fait accompli, pretending that "consultations" are anything but a sop to keep the people believing they have some sort of say in things. You might as well just start running circuses and giving out bread.

Footnote: I'll probably write about my fears and worries and anxieties that are being triggered by the plans for schooling in the village another time. Because I have just about enough self-awareness to know that a lot of my current feelings about what is planned are rooted in my own anxiety issues, and until I've started to deal with stabilising my own feelings I might just "go off on one", which could be entertaining for some, but not necessarily a Good Thing.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

New year, same stuff

LittleBear has, as I believe I have mentioned previously, a prodigious memory. Not that he can either remember, or tell me, what he's done at school ("it was this morning Mummy, which is a really long time ago"). He can, however, remember that we made New Year Resolutions last year. And he can remember what they were. And when 2017 trickled round, he declared it was time to make new New Year resolutions. So, once again, LittleBear and I made New Year resolutions together.*

This year's resolutions on LittleBear's part were a mixture of endearingly like last year's and also a departure into new territory:
"I will make sure I tell people I love that I love them more often"
"I will cuddle people I love more often"
"I will play fair"
He is, it must be said, already enormously good at items 1 and 2. We cuddle a lot. And he has an adorable tendency to inform me and BigBear that he loves us. I'm not entirely convinced by item 3. It was not, after all, that much later that we were playing Everton v Burnley at Balloon-Football**. And on an alarming number of occasions LittleBear required me (a filthy Everton player) to foul him (the noble Sam Vokes of Burnley). Sam Vokes would then roll around on the ground crying "Ref, ref, my leg!" until a penalty was awarded. After the third such occurence, I did have to Have A Little Chat about the fact that pretending to be hurt to persuade the referee to give you a penalty is actually cheating and that if the referee thinks you're lying to him he might give you a yellow card. I think it penetrated, but I'm also not quite sure it was enough to overcome the wild joy to be had in rolling around on the floor and being awarded a chance at goal with a hapless Everton goalkeeper who is guaranteed to dive the wrong way.

Like I said, we might need to work on the "playing fair" aspect of LittleBear's resolution.

And so we move on to my resolutions. Which I find myself embarrassed to admit borrow heavily from both last year, and from LittleBear. When I say "borrow heavily", obviously what I actually mean is "are direct copies". So, this year I resolve that:
"I will try not to shout at LittleBear just because I'm tired, when he hasn't done anything wrong."
"I will make sure I tell people I love that I love them more often"
The first because, despite LittleBear's rather sweet assurance that I'd done "actually quite well" at that resolution last year, I know that actually I didn't. I get stressed, and cross, and exasperated and then snap at LittleBear when he's just being a little boy. And if I want to teach him to react to and express his feelings in an appropriate fashion, the best I can do is at least try and act as a good role model of not totally wigging out for no good reason.

The second resolution is because it seems like a good thing to do. When my dear uncle P was in hospital, the realisation struck me that I'd never done a terribly good job of telling him how much I loved him, or how much of an influence he'd been on my life. And so I wrote to him. And it was in time. But then I realised that waiting until somebody is terminally ill before you tell them you love them is a bit rubbish, and that I really ought to take a leaf out of LittleBear's book and be more open with my loved ones.

However, my aspiration to be more open conflicts directly with my deeply ingrained Britishness and my inate tongue-tied-ness, which together mean I won't actually be rushing up to any of you, throwing my arms around you and telling you that you are dear to my heart. I actually wince slightly at the idea of being quite so forthright. Maybe working on that could be a resolution for next year. Instead, I have re-stocked my supply of nice cards, and I intend to randomly send nice cards with nice thoughts to people. After all, everyone likes getting things in the post, and getting an actual hand-written bit of post is even better. I get things in the post sometimes. But never yet have my bank included a note with the bank statements to tell me they love me.

So there we go for 2017. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

* And, once again, BigBear recused himself from this absurdity, since there are already enough things we both fail to achieve, without failing to live up to publicly made promises to our LittleBear. That's because BigBear is more sensible than me. Again.

** A safe version of football for playing indoors. Even LittleBear's enthusiastic walloping cannot break a window with a balloon.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Saying goodbye in 2016

Headnote: which is a bit like a Footnote, but comes at the beginning. I've been trying, and failing, to write this for the past few weeks. I keep thinking of a sentence here, or a thought there, but nothing that quite works. I'm still not sure that this version quite holds together, or says what I want to say, but since I wanted to finish it before the year ends, I think this is the version that you get.

There isn't an error in the title of this post. This isn't about seeing out the old year. This is about all the goodbyes of 2016. I'm not talking about David Bowie, or Prince, or Alan Rickman, or Terry Wogan, or Carrie Fisher, or Debbie Reynolds, or any of other celebrities that you've all heard about. It's not that I don't think it's sad when someone famous dies, but in truth, their deaths are, for me, a gentle regret that something creative and bright has been lost from the world, and not a great depth of grief.

The goodbyes that I've said this year have been closer, more personal and more painful. There are three losses in particular that have cut into my life and hurt.

First of all, I lost a friend. And I still rage at the injustice of it. That someone so good, so deserving, so kind, who was so needed and wanted and loved could be gone, so quickly.

The second loss is not truly mine, and is not my story to tell, and there is nothing I want to say, or can say, other than that it has left me numb and lost for words. I want to say the right thing, but I know there is no "right thing" to say. So, I'll just leave that here - a spark was lost from the world this year.

And now, I have lost my uncle.

Many years ago I lost my father, and the final days of both their lives were, medically speaking, very similar. I have found myself being forced to remember and re-live the time spent by my own father's bedside, and the final acknowledgement that there was nothing more that modern medicine could do, and the waiting for the end to come. I have seen and heard my cousins doing the same with their beloved father. And I've discovered that I've spent more than twenty years carefully not thinking about my own father, not remembering his decline and illness, not thinking of all the bad times and sad times. And only now, as I start to grieve for my uncle and for my cousins who have lost their Dad, am I finally looking back and remembering the little girl who loved her Daddy so ferociously. And missing him. And wishing things hadn't been the way they were. And wishing we'd had all the years with him that we had with my uncle.

And so I find myself grieving not only for my uncle, but, decades too late, for my Daddy too. And even so, I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to write about him, no matter how many years have passed.

Instead I'm going to write about Uncle P.  Because I want to tell the world how wonderful he was. I want to share him with everyone. I want other people to know that the world has lost something special. I want everyone to hear his softly spoken asides, his puns, his wit and his wisdom. I want my friends to bask in the undivided and devoted attention he would bestow upon those who spoke to him, the interest he would take in your interests, the huge depth of knowledge and experience he would bring to every conversation. I want more people to delight in his gentleness, kindness, warmth, and enormous capacity to love.

He was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the great and the good. He spent more than three decades serving his country with the Foreign Office, and then, even in retirement, didn't just sit back and relax. Instead, he devoted huge amounts of time and effort to helping others, most obviously working for Habitat for Humanity. And that's probably what marks him out most clearly as a truly good man - his immense generosity. And I don't just mean the easy generosity of giving money or material goods to others. No, I mean the deeper generosity of spirit that meant always placing others before himself. Always looking for, and finding, the best in others. Always giving his time, thought, love and hard work to make the world a better, brighter, warmer place. Even when in pain in hospital, when the pastor visited he didn't ask for prayers for himself, but for the confused, sick, elderly man in the opposite bed who had no visitors. He welcomed everyone into his home, with good cheer and kindness. More than that, he drew those who were alone, or bereft, or hurting into our family and made them part of us, extending the idea of family into much more than simply a matter of blood.

He's almost sounding too good to be true now, but he wasn't. He was simply a good man, in a world where there are far too few good men. He was a father, a son, a husband, a grandfather, an uncle and a friend. And he was bloody good at all of them, and he will be missed more than I have even begun to describe. There is a P-shaped hole in the world now, and though we may tug and pull to stitch the edges together, and patch up the hole, we will always know the place that should still be occupied by one of the best of men.

Goodbye Uncle P.

I loved you.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Like mother like son

We have stumbled, finally, agonisingly, exhaustedly to the end of LittleBear's first term at school. And, despite all my worst fears, he is not starving at lunchtimes, he is not standing alone and friendless at the edge of school life, he is not dreading every day. Far from it - he comes home with a bounce and a thumbs up, telling me he's had a lovely day. And, aside from the occasion when he wasn't allowed to play in the playground as he was in danger of losing his precariously-clinging, re-inserted tooth, he's never objected to going to school. And he is almost inseparable from at least one best friend, with a whole string of others who he seems delighted to play with.

And, as it's the end of term, and teachers don't already have enough to do, he's come home with his "Learning Journey", complete with mini-report from his teacher (with whom I am still slightly in love, because she's basically the most perfect primary teacher I've ever seen). And I read his little report, and thought to myself "yep, that's me, and that's him too".

First up... what does LittleBear need to work on?

He needs to learn to manage his emotions in different situations. Mmmmm. He certainly does. But then, so do I. I'm the one who has been known to burst into tears at work. Outside the school gates. At the doctor's surgery. At toddler group. On the shoulder of the carers at nursery. I'm the one who rants and swears about work on an almost daily basis. To anyone who'll listen. Managing my emotions is not my strong point. And I try, I really do try, to help LittleBear find ways to express his feelings without letting them overwhelm him, but given I don't know how to manage it yet, I feel I'm facing a losing battle attempting to show him how to do so. We'll keep struggling on together though, and maybe along the way I'll learn a few things too.

And what it LittleBear really good at?

He loves to learn and he has a deep understanding of mathematics. Bless him, he really does love both learning and maths. This is the LittleBear who piped up from the back seat, "Mummy, are there fifteen 50s in 750?" When probed, it turned out he'd known there were two 50s in one hundred, and that there are seven 100s in 700, so there were fourteen 50s in 700 (because 2 sevens are 14) and one more to make 750. And why had he been working this out in his head? Because he likes doing it. And the thing is, that doesn't seem odd to me. It's what I do. I like playing around with numbers in my head, for no reason other than that they're there and I can. I used to love our old style of number plates in this country, they had much more scope for playing number games in my head than the new ones. Let me explain...

We used  to have letter, letter, letter, number, number, number, letter (or the opposite). So, when I was a child we had OHO 770 T and RPJ 675 L and XOU 868 J. And having three numbers in a row meant I could spot my favourite patterns, like 238 (2 to the power 3 is 8) or 329 (3 squared is 9). Now we only have two numbers, and they're from a very small subset representing the year the car was registered. Boring.

And that previous paragraph reveals something else to me about myself as a child, and my LittleBear now. I had an extraordinary memory. I used to find it intensely bewildering and frustrating that my parents didn't seem to be able to recall with minute detail every event that had occurred, every book that we'd read, every program that we'd seen. (They, equally, seemed to find my tedious pedantry on such matters equally bewildering and frustrating). Now, however, despite being able to reel off the number plates of the cars of my childhood (a Ford Capri, a Ford Escort and a Mini Clubman, all of them white, since you ask) I am unable to tell you the number plate of BigBear's car, despite having seen it every day for the past 8 or so years. I am unable to recall where or how the obnoxious stretchy toy lizard entered our lives. There are at least half a dozen things I fail to remember to do every day. And yet LittleBear is able to read or hear a piece of information once, and he can recount it to you many weeks or months later. He described almost every detail of the day on which we acquired the aforementioned obnoxious stretchy lizard, including why we went to the shop we went to, and which shop we didn't go to instead. He has taken over my role of Pedant In Chief, complete with frustration and bewilderment that his incompetent mother is unable to keep up with remembering the blindingly obvious.

I suppose I had it coming really.

But I'm still happy he loves playing with numbers in his head.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Too much and not enough

I have too much to do.

Too much Christmas.

Too much work.

Too much small boy.

I have too little time.

Too little sleep.

Too little organisation.

Too little energy.

Mostly, I am totally and massively overwhelmed at work. I am drowning under a large project without enough help. A year ago, one of my colleagues left, and we didn't exactly replace him. We employed two extra people, but neither of them were to take over any of the design or more complex debug that said colleague used to share with me. So, for the past year, despite only working part-time, I've been doing my own job plus a large chunk of his job. And now another of my colleagues is attempting to inch his way into retirement and has decided to gently shuffle some of his work onto my plate as well.

So, come evening, I am as likely to find myself sitting at my laptop trying to do all the bits of work that I don't have time to do whilst actually at work. When I'm physically present, I work non-stop on making new pieces of scientific equipment work. New designs, documentation, test protocols, quotes for new work, revisions, or anything else that involves sitting at a computer? No time for that while at work, so I do it at home instead. And that leaves me with little time and energy for anything else.

On top of the absolute volume of work to complete, I'm also facing a horribly stressful situation at work that is keeping me awake at night. Every now and then I think I see a chink of light at the end of the tunnel, but it always turns out to be an oncoming train.

I was going to keep blogging, but I lack the time, or the inspiration to write.

I was going to have a pre-Christmas party, but I at least had the self-awareness to scrap that plan at the beginning of December. I'm thinking of a February party at this rate.

I was going to send Christmas presents to my family in plenty of time. They went yesterday.

I was going to make more felt toys for LittleBear for Christmas.

I was going to hem the curtains rather than leaving them held up with pins.

I was going to do so much.

Instead I'm at breaking point. My Christmas holiday starts tomorrow, and I'm not ready for it. I'm trying to smile and be excited for and with LittleBear, while inside my mind is raging, weeping, screaming and battering itself. I want the world to stop, just stop, and let me breathe, let me sleep, let me cry, let me regroup, let me be ready to wallow in my beautiful boy's joy and excitement and wonder. I guess I'll have to settle for going to bed early instead. It's all I've got.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The loveliness of new friends

I realise I've been a bit quiet here lately.

More than a bit quiet, I've been positively absent.

There's been Stuff Going On. Some of it's Family Stuff that I can't yet find the words to express, but keep thinking I'll write about. And then I don't manage to find more than the odd half sentence drifting through my mind in the shower, so never quite get round to writing anything. And since that's the next thing on my internal list to write about, and I am nothing if not list-bound, instead nothing gets written about anything.

So I'm forcing myself to abandon the list in my head and instead I'm going to make a minor digression of praise about some of the wonderful new friends I've made in the last few years. None of my "old" friends should take offense at this - you've all been my rocks and comfort for so long I'm not sure I could begin to find ways to thank you for all you've ever done and been for me. No, this isn't about you, this is about the random acts of kindness that I have been subject to of late.

Many of the budding new friendships I have are courtesy of C, who took pity on my self absorbed meanderings and instituted the monthly Pub Night in the village for mothers of small children to get together and bleat. It's not only been a great arena for bleating, but a good way to actually get to know people, instead of exchanging half sentences before our respective children demand attention. C has a quiet and understated ability to help and soothe. Thank you C.

Among those I've befriended (or who have befriended me, depending on how you see these things) is T, who is the saint who re-inserted LittleBear's tooth when he smashed his face into the pavement, and who counselled me with handy tips to identify shock afterwards. She also arranged to have his bicycle removed from the scene of the accident and then brought it to our house herself later that evening. And she leapt out of a cafe as a bloody and battered small boy and his fraught mother stumbled back to the car from the dentist and shepherded us in so that we could get cleaned up and calmed down.

It's also T who made sure LittleBear knew he could come early to T's daughter's birthday party so he wouldn't be overwhelmed by too may children and too much noise. And he loved the party. Thank you T.

Then there's L, who, without batting an eyelid, offered to take LittleBear after school if I needed to stay at work. In the end I didn't, but we did go round to L's house for a play date on the recent teacher training day and somehow ended up having the odd glass of Prosecco that afternoon. Friends who ply me with bubbly are friends I need. Thank you L.

And there's L2, who took pity on my bleating about LittleBear being sick and missing the school book sale that he'd been saving money for. She took advice on LittleBear's likes and dislikes and purchased a book on his behalf and delivered it to the house this afternoon, to the great joy of NotSickAnyMoreBear. Thank you L2.

There's also H, who nobly allowed herself to be chased by LittleBear around the lawn outside the church when I refused because I'd been wearing stupid court shoes to work all day and my feet were killing me. Admittedly her two small people joined the chase too, and most of the time it's muggins here being chased, but H saw the tears welling in LittleBear's eyes and stepped into the breach, despite her aversion to the running games I find myself playing with small people. Thank you H.

Never forgetting H2, who is always, always there with an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. Never mind how bad her own day has been, she always manages to offer support and empathy. And amusing text messages. And offers of wine. When I didn't know if I could manage to get LittleBear to school without the use of the Breakfast Club that he hated, H2 and C both immediately offered to shepherd him there any time I needed help. Thank you H2.

And, naturally, there are all the people who listen to me ranting at the pub once a month and don't tell me to shut up. And I've realised the trouble with this catalogue is the terrible fear that I may have missed somebody out. If I have forgotten an act of kindness or a demonstration of true friendship, then I shall blame the glass of gin by my side, and the lack of sleep in my life. I appreciate and treasure all the new friends who have come into my world since having LittleBear. My life is immeasurably improved by knowing you all.

Merry Christmas one and all.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Taking the turnip challenge

I have recently been involved in responding to a tender to build a scientific instrument. When I say "recently", what I actually mean is that I've been dealing with this tender for the past THREE YEARS. Because everyone likes a nice bit of government bureaucracy* don't they?

Initially I prepared a quote for the researcher. He had a small fit when he saw the price and insisted he could make the same thing cheaper himself. I politely suggested that in that case, he should do just that. Funnily enough, he didn't decide he could do it himself. Instead, we proceeded with technical negotiations about just what was required. And then... it turned out that the price had exceeded some magic threshold and the whole project had to go to public tender, and we've been stuck in that morass for some time. I've even had legally dubious communications direct from the researcher "instructing" me in the correct answers to provide to the purchasing department. I have ignored them.

I've been trying to think of way to explain the frustration I'm having with this particular tender, without descending into obscure technical jargon, and I think I've come up with a reasonable analogy. Obviously, what we actually build are mass spectrometers, but just for now, I'm going to pretend that we make cross-bows. And we also make the arrows, and the targets, and a camera. And we absolutely promise our customers that if they set the cross-bow up exactly as we tell them, and position the target exactly where we tell them, and set up the camera to watch the target at just the right distance, and load the arrow exactly as we tell them, then when they fire the arrow it will hit the bullseye of the target, and the camera will capture the result.

Sometimes, though we don't like to do it, we sell only part of this whole set up, and we let the customer supply the remaining part of the equipment. Our rule of thumb however, is that this Never Ends Well. In this case, the customer is supplying both the arrows and the camera. And they are refusing to place an order for our cross-bow unless we guarantee that their arrow will be seen to hit the bullseye of the target. But they won't tell us anything about their arrow, or their camera. It might be a man standing three miles away with an iPhone. We've offered to lend them our arrow and our camera and prove the cross-bow works. But no, they want their arrow and their camera. And I'm refusing. Because, while they might make a perfectly balanced, beautifully flighted arrow, they might try and use a turnip. And I'm not promising anything about turnips.

You might think I'm exaggerating about the turnip, but I've been caught out too many times with the things our customers have "forgotten" to tell us until it's too late....

... like the customer who didn't mention he was going to put our instrument in a helicopter** and take it to the top of the Jungfraujoch.

... like the customer who didn't mention that he was going to install our instrument inside the Arctic circle and wanted an installation visit there.

... like the customer who didn't mention that the entire instrument would be disassembled when it arrived on site and then rebuilt inside a lead-lined box through holes no larger than 60cm across.

... like the customer who didn't mention that he needed the entire instrument to operate at 200 degrees Celsius.

... like the customer who didn't mention that he intended to analyse Uranium hexafluoride

... like the customer who didn't mention that the instrument would need to run in the back of a van being driven along pot-holed roads**.

... like the customer who didn't mention that the instrument would be installed in a hospital and needed to meet medical electronics standards***.

... like the customer who didn't mention that the thing he was asking us to do was widely accepted as being impossible****.

There have been far too many occasions when the psychological equivalent of a turnip has been lobbed our way for me to believe in the non-existence of a turnip in this case. So I'm digging my heels in, and seeing what the wheels of bureaucracy do. So far, each revolution of the wheel is doing what a wheel does, and returning to the starting point. I've now been asked to make promises about the performance of a turnip three times, and I've said no three times. Your move Mr Turnip...

* In this instance, not our own government, another government that has really, really, really mastered bureaucracy.

** As a general rule, precision scientific instruments are not built with sufficient shock absorbers to withstand travel. We now always ask our customers if the instrument is going to be moved around.

*** We found a way round this. Medical electronics is a huge can of worms.

**** It remains one of the high points of my career that I did it anyway.