Saturday, 13 January 2018

Six years and still not enough sleep

Today I am tired. And because I am tired, everything is awful. Life has no redeeming features.

Nothing I do is good enough. Nothing I am is good enough.

My dreams and hopes are either so small as to be pitiful, laughable and childish, or so large as to be unachievable and pointless.

I don't know where I'm going or what I'm doing.

I feel judged and found wanting.

I feel vulnerable and weak.

I feel burnt out.

I am tired. And because I am tired, I can't distinguish between which of my feelings are transient, and which are deep, and dark, and permanent. And sometimes they are both. Sometimes it is the tiredness that allows the deep, dark, sad, hurt feelings to bubble to the surface and dominate all else. The feelings that are always there, but that I can keep under control, refuse to hear, crush with action and activity. But the small corner of my mind that remains rational, despite the exhaustion, knows that some of these feelings will be gone in the morning, and I will be bemused by them.

So maybe I should just ignore all of them until my filters are back in place? Maybe I should refuse to allow myself to wallow in self-pity until I have slept, and forced the darkness back beneath the veneer of positivity, so that I can carry on without wanting to weep into my little boy's sweet, soft hair as I hold him close after his bath. Or maybe I need to feel the feelings, so that when tomorrow dawns I can look at them more dispassionately and find which ones persist, which ones I need to try and take action on.

Do I really need to take a step back from some of the people I thought were my friends so that I stop feeling rejected and an afterthought? Or am I simply imagining things because I'm over-tired?

Do I really need to sweep through the house like an avenging angel and purge every room of heaps of detritus?*

Do I really need to worry that LittleBear's diet is alarmingly restricted and push on with a new regime of trying different foodstuffs, or should I be assured that a child who'll eat every member of the brassica family will probably turn out OK in the end?

Do I need to worry about all the things we don't do as a family, that "everyone else does"? Is LittleBear missing out on some essential component of childhood because there's a memo I missed about what normal families do at the weekend?

Do I need to censor the things that I say and do because my emotional verbosity, foul language and intemperate ranting is giving me a reputation as the kind of person to steer clear of? Do I need to stop writing a blog, because I'm slowly but steadily ensuring that everyone I know is aware of just how emotionally unstable I am, and there is no better way of driving people away than by being the eternal pit of negativity? Do I need to stop being quite so "me" all the time, and put back the facade of normality that other people feel comfortable with? Is being true to myself, and honest about the crippling self-doubt and anxiety worth it if the result is that I am kept at arms length by the world? Or is it better to be accepted on the world's terms by bending myself to fit?

Do I need to sleep more? Indubitably.

* This one's easy. The answer is yes. The real question is when will I find the time to do this?

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Keeping the peace

There can't be many parents who haven't heard at least some permutation on the immortal line, "Are we nearly there yet?" There can't be many parents who don't hanker after foolproof methods to entertain their children on long car journeys.

We have dispensed with the need for LittleBear to ask either how far we've been, or how far we've got left, or what time we'll arrive, as he's just as capable as I am of seeing the screen on the Satnav and determining these useful tidbits for himself. Which is unfortunate when we would much rather assure him that, "it's not far now, really," when in truth he can perfectly well see the looming threat of an hour and a half's delay on the M6.

My friend Tigger gave us a splendid game for the car that is actually called, "Are We There Yet?" but unfortunately, the need to read the cards renders LittleBear rapidly car-sick, and I'd rather deal with a fractious boy than a vomiting one. So we have to reserve that particular game for when there are sufficient additional passengers that we can play without LittleBear doing the reading. Or BigBear, who can't cope with it either. Or GrannyBear, who can't find her glasses.

We've tried playing eye-spy. We've tried listening to recorded stories. We've tried (and please spare me this ever happening again) me telling stories. We've tried listening to music. We've tried playing twenty-questions. Any and all of these, in varying combinations, have usually managed to pass the time on even the longest of journeys.

Now we have a new form of entertainment. We have not succumbed to any kind of gadget, device or screen. We have not sedated LittleBear. We have not invented a teleportation device.

We have this:

It keeps me quiet

That's right. A list of letters and numbers. I could just leave it at that, and allow you to attempt to work out what manner of game LittleBear has lit upon, but I'll put you out of your misery.

We attempt to "collect" as wide a range of Scrabble scores for car numberplates as possible. Because, obviously, having introduced LittleBear to Scrabble, the first thing he did was memorise the scores of each letter, followed rapidly by learning how many copies of each letter exist in a standard Scrabble set. There are therefore strict rules to the collecting of numberplates, most notably that a numberplate is only valid if it can be formed from a set of Scrabble letters. No double-z thank you very much. A Scrabble set only has one "z", so you can only have a numberplate with one "z" in it.

This game has led to some interesting observations...

- getting only low scoring letters in a numberplate is surprisingly rare

- trade plates are very exciting, as they allow you to score zero, having no letters in them

- we now feel disappointed if someone has gone to the effort of a personalised numberplate and have not either minimised or maximised their score. Why have only one letter and let it be "K", scoring five points, when you could have "E" for one point? Other people have such strange priorities.

- Z and X seem to crop up peculiarly often

- there is a disappointingly low occurrence of the letter Q

Because I'm me, and LittleBear has to get it from somewhere, I now find myself pathologically incapable of not totalling up the points score of the numberplates that I see. I feel a frisson of excitement if I get a thirty-pointer, or anything below five-points. I can't help myself. I'm not entirely sure who relishes this game the most, me or LittleBear. It certainly keeps me occupied on long journeys.

The good news is that LittleBear has invented a new permutation upon this game, in which the colour of the car can mulitply the score, as a coloured square on the Scrabble board does. A dark blue car - triple one letter. A red car - triple the whole score. A pink car - double the whole score. A light blue square - double one letter. It's doing wonders for LittleBear's mental arithmetic.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

An Epiphany

This weekend, I had An Epiphany. It was not a sudden realisation that I'm not a completely crap mother, and that LittleBear is growing up just fine despite all my deficiencies. I haven't had a change of personality. No. It was not that kind of epiphany, it was An Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus, the visit of the Magi, the first Sunday of the New Year.

After my bleatings before Christmas about my dearth of traditions, and sorrow about not knowing how to keep hold of the joy of childhood Christmases when everything from my childhood has evaporated, my friend Piglet made an inspired suggestion. She suggested that we start a new tradition. Because all traditions have to start somewhere, and there's no reason we shouldn't just decide to start one.

So we did.

And our new tradition is to get together on Epiphany Sunday every year, eat yummy food and play games.

So we did.

The two little Piglets and LittleBear played together more peacefully and peaceably than I think I have ever known, vanishing upstairs together and adorning LittleBear's bedroom door with this sign*:

GirlPiglet's declaration of independence

The adults remained downstairs, crawling around on the living room floor, attempting to complete a nightmarishly difficult jigsaw that LittleBear had chosen for BigBear for Christmas. Every now and then we turned on LittleBear's monitor to check the children weren't strangling each other, then turned it off again as they were a bit noisy (though unstrangled).

The jigsaw itself was a scene of sea creatures, which would have been quite doable, with only the minor challenge of having quite a lot of relatively uniform blue in it. BUT this was no ordinary jigsaw, it was a 3D lenticular jigsaw, so the image on every piece shifted and changed as you tilted it, as did the completed jigsaw as you moved your head. The result was a vague sense of sea-sickness while attempting to do the damn thing, coupled with a complete inability to judge the colour or picture on any piece. Nothing was what you thought it was.

Quite a fun non-3D jigsaw
It is hard to describe the yawning chasm that exists between that static, calm, unmoving, 2D, clear image and the brain-bendingly impossible image we were actually confronted with. We have decided to keep it until LittleBear is 43 and then give it back to him in revenge.

The rest of the day was less stressful, and involved an extremely large roast dinner, LittleBear making his tooth bleed by eating a Yorkshire pudding**, me inadvertently feeding the children a chocolate pudding containing brandy and chocolate liqueur, a mid-afternoon meal that consisted almost entirely of cheese, and several board games.

We have decided that our new tradition is a good one, and will be allowed to continue. The Piglet children have decided we need to have a new jigsaw each year for the day (though I may put my foot down at another lenticular one). LittleBear has decided we now need to own a copy of Carcassonne. I have decided that our children are now old enough to be relatively civilised, and that I should have friends round for Sunday lunch more often, and not just save it for Epiphany.

* BigBear is chanting "Fake News" at me as I post this picture, so I shall confess that it has been mocked up, using the original sign afixed to the living room door. I couldn't be bothered to go upstairs and take a photo of it on the correct door. 

** Despite my taking my life in my hands and abandoning my grandmother's Yorkshire pudding recipe, this was not because of any concrete-like consistency to my pud'ns but because said tooth was on the brink of falling out. Honest.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Ignorance isn't quite bliss but it's not all bad

Today was the first day back at work for me in 2018. And, aside from the sense of lightness and freedom I felt as I drove up the road after giving my bears a cheery wave through the window, it was not much different from many of my work days in 2017. Coffee, trying to remember what I was working on, catching up on the illnesses, bereavements, job opportunities and fashion decisions of my colleagues and their children, debating how to fix the growing wage gap between CEOs and underlings. Oh, and a spot of physics.

A tricky spot of physics.

A tricky spot of physics that has been an integral part of the instruments I've worked on for the past 12 years.

A tricky spot of physics that I don't really understand, but have nodded my way through for the past 12 years. Every now and then my boss discusses it with me in a manner that suggests he thinks I know more than I do, and I have a looming sense of dread that he's going to find out the depths of my ignorance any moment now.

Any moment now occurred today.

We've run into a bit of a problem on my current instrument, whereby it's not behaving like all the others we've ever built, and we're not entirely sure why. So four of us were thrashing out the problem round a hot whiteboard. Suggestion and counter-suggestion batted back and forth about dimensions, materials, voltages and currents that we could try modifying. And finally, I threw all caution to the winds, and piped up,

"Sorry, just stop there. When the plasma strikes, I don't really understand what's going on. What's happening at that edge?"

Did I get reprimanded? Did I get laughed at? Did I get disparaged?

I did not.

My boss grinned at me and shrugged.

"I don't know. I read the papers, discovered nobody else knew what they were doing and had a go at a design. Since it worked I've never had to try modifying it, and it's too hard to work out what's actually going on inside."

So there we go. Twelve years of fearing that I'd be found out for being ignorant, and it turns out, nobody else knows what we're doing either.

Which, come to think of it, is a bit of a pity, as we don't know what to change to try and make this particular one work. But it's OK, it's only a month late in shipping to the customer, and we've only got a handful of variables to try changing... length, diameter, aspect ratio, angle, separation, pressure, flow, gas species, voltage, current... it's hardly going to take any time to characterise and fix...

So we'll probably do what we always do... shove a capacitor in and hope that fixes it.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Merry Christmas one and all

Contrary to my expectations, fears, dreams and idiocy I had a lovely Christmas. It looked to be heading deeper into the mire of misery as we headed northwards, pausing for a day with my in-laws. Not because of my in-laws, I hasten to add, before BigBear starts bridling about insults to his family. No, it was a continuing sense of feeling left out on my part, caused in the main by my own decisions.

Let me explain...

Over the past few years, as parents have aged, and children have become more boisterous, there has been a general trend amongst LittleBear's grandparental units, on both sides, to suffer from an Inability To Cope With It All. In the case of my in-laws, this has translated to Christmas with both their sons and hangers-on simultaneously to be a bit much. And since other-son has more complicated family arrangements, having an ex-wife, two children, fiancee, step-child and step-child's-other-family, they've had first dibs on Christmas Day, and we've arrived for Second Christmas a few days later. Assuming this to be the case this year, I announced we would take ourselves off to the middle of nowhere and return on the required day.

But then we arrived at the in-laws... and I discovered that they were all spending Christmas with other-son. And there would be a great, big, jolly, family Christmas to which we hadn't been invited*. And, naturally, this precipitated more feelings of woe and sadness in me, and an even greater sense that I would be bereft at Christmas.

So the next morning we set off for the middle of nowhere, with me fighting back tears as we drove. They persisted until we stopped to change drivers at Burton in Kendal and I had a large cup of coffee. My first cup of coffee of the day. And I felt a lot better. And my headache went away. And I began to wonder how severe my caffeine addiction is.

And then we had four days of utterly, utterly foul weather - what the Mountain Weather Information Service described as "incessant rain". The wind was 50mph, gusting to 70mph, and when we did venture out, LittleBear could barely stand, even when clinging to us. Then the valley flooded, and we couldn't even get across the footbridge at the bottom of the field. The cottage had nearly run out of coal and wood and the kitchen was a bracing 11C. And we had a lovely time.

We played games. We ate chocolates, and had toast for lunch if we didn't feel like anything else (and by "we" I mean LittleBear). We read books, and made up stories, and drew pictures, and had LittleBear's Christmas stocking in our bed, and had a teeny-tiny Christmas tree, and an open fire, and new oil-filled radiators in the bedrooms that chewed through electricity but kept us warm and comfortable. And I cooked a massive Christmas dinner for three people. And it was all lovely and low-stress, because I didn't have to live up to anyone else's expectations, or make sure dinner met with other people's approval, or lived up to other people's traditions.

I loved my family Christmases as a child, and I miss my family, but I do need to remember that everything doesn't need to stay the same for it to be lovely. There isn't one right way of doing things, there isn't one way of being happy. And if I spend too much time thinking about why I'm not going to be happy, I won't leave time for actually enjoying the moments of joy when they come along. And with LittleBear, there are always moments of joy.

On our final day the weather lifted to reveal glorious snow-capped fells under bright blue skies, so me and my boy ran across the fields with gay abandon:

Moments of joy

* This is, obviously, a gross misrepresentation of the facts. I decided we were going to the middle of nowhere, and BigBear informed his family of this. There was never an opportunity for us to be invited to do anything else.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

À la recherche du temps perdu

It may have been the taste of madeleines that provoked Marcel Proust's involuntary memories, but for me it seems to be the preparations for Christmas. And this year, perhaps because of an abnormal level of tiredness, I am finding it a particularly emotional experience. I am reliving all the memories of my childhood Christmases, and mourning all the lost times and lost traditions that I never realised were so transient. At the time, everything about Christmas seemed permanent, immutable and Christmassy. My maternal and paternal families celebrated Christmas in more-or-less the same way, so no matter where we were, or who we were with, I could expect a very similar, reassuring, comforting, family Christmas*.

And now?

I haven't spent Christmas with my brother in eight years.

I haven't visited my South African family for Christmas in twelve years.

I haven't spent Christmas with my English cousins in twenty years.

I'm not seeing a single member of my family, beyond my own two bears, at all over this Christmas period.

We've all grown up. We have our own children, our own in-laws, our own families, our own traditions. BigBear's family traditions are not the same as mine, and we don't seem to have formed a core of our own, beyond the quirk of having an octopus on the top of our Christmas tree. I haven't yet found a way to incorporate the things that seem to me to be essential to Christmas into our own lives, and I can't enforce them upon my in-laws when I'm a guest in their house (as we are every Christmas-time, though never actually for Christmas).

So here I am, feeling again as though Christmas won't be quite right still. The house won't be full of family, the table won't be groaning with food, every chair in the house won't have been roped in to seat us all. I won't have bucks fizz before lunch while we all open presents, as nobody else drinks it. I won't pour brandy over a Christmas pudding and set fire to it, as nobody else eats it. I won't make GrannyBear's special very rich Christmas fruit cake as nobody else likes it. There won't be any arguing over who gets the last of the bread sauce, as nobody else likes it. Nobody will wheel out every single Asterix pun about bacon and ham, batting word-play back and forth across the table, as I'm the only one who knows the Asterix books back to front. We won't make a futile attempt on the King William quiz, because nobody can do it**.

Neither my own beloved Granny, nor LittleBear's Granny will appear mid-afternoon with the tray of "afters" for us to binge on while we play cards. There won't be a sugared almond, a crystallized ginger or a date in sight. I won't spend the afternoon playing board games and cracking nuts, seeing who can get a brazil nut out of its shell intact, and how much turkish delight it's possible to eat before feeling sick.

I feel lost and tearful at my inability either to know what our Christmas should be, or how to recapture enough of my own Christmases to assuage the immense waves of loss that are sweeping over me as I contemplate the past. My grandparents are long gone, as is my own father, and now my uncle too. I feel as though I'm single-handedly trying to cling on to all the precious memories and habits of times gone by while the other branches of my family have moved on and left me behind. They have forged new paths and new families and they have their Christmases, of which I will never be a part again. I feel as though I have lost something infinitely precious, and I never even got to say goodbye.

I know that we will have a wonderful Christmas, and that I will rejoice in my LittleBear's joy and excitement. And I hope that in doing so we will make memories and traditions for him to love and cherish and return to. There will be more that defines a Bear Christmas than just an octopus atop a tree, but at the moment, I don't know what it is. Despite decades of adulthood, I feel as though I'm starting from scratch. And I don't know what I'm doing.

* Obviously, no family is perfect, and we have some excrutiating memories mixed in there too, but I'm glossing over those at the moment.

** None of us has ever been able to do it, but my grandfather's answers were always able to make us feel as though we were at least slightly competent.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

It must just be something about me

So, having bleated about my idiocy in making cakes for the PTA Christmas fair, despite not needing to, and blaming it all on an utterly misplaced and pointless sense of parental guilt...

... this evening I found myself making a batch of Christmassy cupcakes to take to work. Just because I felt like it.

Christmassy cupcakes

I even treated them with (edible) shiny gold glitter spray.

From which I can only conclude that a) I'm a glutton for punishment and b) I just quite like making cakes anyway.

Now if only I'd managed to get my favourite tupperware box back from the PTA at the end of the Christmas fair, I'd have somewhere to put them.