Thursday, 15 February 2018

Road Trip to Lyme Regis (redux)

Last summer, LittleBear and I set out on a road trip to the Jurassic Coast. We went without BigBear, and (mostly) had a marvelous time. There were less than marvelous points, such as car-sickness, and attempting to share a bed with my son, but it was largely splendid. And while staying in Lyme Regis, we went on a guided fossil-hunting walk, which was an excellent way of taking the pressure off me to be good at finding fossils. However... the two delightful men running the fossil-hunt cheerfully told my son that the best time to find fossils is actually in winter, when the rougher seas, and worse weather, cause more erosion and more mudslides, revealing more fossils. Not to mention that there are fewer people visiting, so fewer people finding all the lovely fossils.

Which is why we're now in Lyme Regis in February.

I had intended to repeat last year's efforts and write a daily blog of the trip, but we're already on day three of the road trip, and I've only just found the energy to do so. The last two days we were staying with GrannyBear, which was a great relief. As I have recently mentioned, I've been a bit under the weather, and LittleBear has had The Eternal Cough. My patience has been wearing more than a trifle thin, such that I reached a new nadir of parenting shortly after midnight on Tuesday....

BigBear was still at home, and not due to join us for another day. LittleBear had gone to bed coughing. I had gone to bed at 10:15 and fallen asleep in around 17 seconds. An hour later, LittleBear's coughing started. So I trotted over to his room and rubbed his back and soothed him. Then at midnight a small figure appeared beside my bed to inform me that it was midnight and that he couldn't sleep because of his cough. So I invited him to join me, as it seemed the simplest solution. Then I remembered how much I hate sharing a bed with LittleBear. And then he needed his bedside light. Then his GroClock. Then his cuddlies. After I'd been back and forth several times, and found the cough medicine, I was even shorter on patience than I usually am in the wee small hours. Which is how I came to say, "If I'm horrible to you all day tomorrow, it will be your own fault for keeping me awake!"

Like I said - a parenting nadir.

I more or less redeemed myself by cuddling my moppet, and stroking his hair and soothing his worries about not sleeping, and about coughing, and soon we both drifted off to sleep. To my surprise, neither of us woke up again until shortly after 7 o'clock. Then my LittleBear read his book beside me in bed before trotting round to GrannyBear's room to check if she was awake and climbing into bed with her for a cuddle and a chat. The next thing I knew it was 9:30 and I stumbled, bleary-eyed, downstairs to find LittleBear and GrannyBear playing Scrabble together. I cannot begin to put into words how grateful, relieved and lucky I felt in having such an understanding mother, and such a biddable small boy, that they allowed me the extra sleep that I needed and happily got on with their day together.

Valentine's Day thus passed in a medley of games and food, with me in a considerably better mood than I'd managed for some time (and I apologised to my LittleBear for my poor behaviour in the night...) And finally, after many train-based-delays, BigBear arrived and we were ready to start the major part of our road trip the next morning.

This time, we were not travelling on a Bank Holiday, and I had not allowed LittleBear to over-fill himself with soft fruit, so we managed to arrive without a hint of vomit. LittleBear was (again) underwhelmed by Stonehenge, and (again) delighted with the place names. We were thrilled to rediscover West Camel, and to find its compatriot Queen Camel. In fact, we then spent several miles being regaled with a long list of potential camel-based place names. And then an even longer list of random-words-with-camel-appended, before parental patience wore thin and we called a halt to the recitation. LittleBear then returned to another current favourite - making up his own songs. Songs with catchy lyrics such as:

There's a mince pie in the sky


Blu-tack is small and round and furry like bolognese


Squidy's going on holiday
Squidy's going on holiday
Squidy's going on holiday
Oo! Sign to Lyme Regis!

Because, yes, we have brought a cuddly giant squid on holiday with us. I am more than a little bit relieved that our room is near the back of the hotel, and accessible via a door from the carpark and I was not forced to march down Broad Street and through the hotel carrying a giant, scarlet, cuddly squid.

So far, LittleBear has declared this to be the best hotel he's ever stayed in. Which he says about every hotel we ever stay in, but let's not quibble. It has a swimming pool and jacuzzi that LittleBear and I have made use of already, despite my having left my swimming costume at home. Because it's the kind of hotel where they expect you to be gormless and therefore have a stash of swimming costumes of various sizes to buy at reception.

So far, it's shaping up to be the best place I've stayed with LittleBear, if for no other reason than I am currently writing this while sat on a sofa, with a large glass of wine in front of me, in a properly lit room, safe in the knowledge that LittleBear is tucked up in bed about 6 metres away from me, and I have a baby monitor by my side so I know he's OK. This is a significant improvement on sitting hunched in a corner of a pitch black room, trying to type quietly.

And tomorrow we start hunting for fossils again.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Under the weather and over-reacting

Over the past couple of weeks, I've looked at my computer, or even got as far as looking at this blog, and then a wave of weariness and ennui has swept across me and I haven't written anything. I keep having "things" I want to write about, I keep writing "things" in my head. In fact, I keep ranting in my head about lots of different "things". But then, I just don't quite have the energy. And I go over what I've been thinking about and realise that it's all a bit of a storm in a teacup.

And now, the lack of sleep caused by LittleBear's night-time coughing, and nightmares, has caught up with me. And the vague feeling of being a bit under the weather has evolved into a full-blown cold. I now have a fever, and a headache, and my neck hurts, and I'm very bad-tempered. And I realise that perhaps some of the "things" that I've been ranting about in my head are not really worth ranting about. So it's probably a good thing that I didn't.

So instead of writing about all the things that have been getting me worked up, I'm going to try and take a step back. I'm not going to write to the school about The Thing that's really bugging me - I'm going to sit back and wait till I'm calm and see if I still think it's a problem; I won't be trying to "fix" things for my LittleBear that probably aren't really bothering him, but that I'm fretting about; I am going to stop pushing back against the colleague who is determined to undermine me and do the opposite of what I've planned - I've put everything in writing and passed it on to the MD; I'm going to stop contorting myself in the hope that people will like me and just be; I'm going to stop focussing on the hows and whys and whats of other people's behaviour - I cannot control what other people do, but I can try to always speak and act with integrity and honesty. If I don't receive the same in return, that is not a judgement on me.

Meanwhile the positives, rather than just the ambitions:

It's half-term, and I'm going fossil-hunting in Lyme Regis with both my bears in a few days time. (I'm not completely convinced how much fun BigBear and I are going to have in the cold and the wet, staring at rocks, but I think we'll enjoy LittleBear having fun.)

Yesterday I finally went to see my osteopath, after giving up on my GP, and he diagnosed a problem with my L3-L4 facet joint, and now for the first time in a year I don't have a line of pain and numbness running down my right leg. An absence of pain and discomfort is a wonderful way to improve my temper.

LittleBear has a party this afternoon, and it's a drop-off! In truth I may stay with him, and help my friend out with a village hall full of small monsters, but the idea that LittleBear is now a Big Enough Bear to go to parties and be left there is pretty damn exciting. Or it might reduce me to tears that my baby is growing up and doesn't need me. One or the other.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Welcome to your new Mass Spectrometer

I have been writing some new documentation recently at work, in an attempt to render the new instrument I've been working on usable by someone other than me. When I say "new" documentation, obviously what I mean is "cobbled together from things I've written before", because only an idiot would start from scratch if they didn't have to. Or so I thought. It's always worked before. But I was always in control of the documentation before. And last year, because I was over-worked, I lost control. I am no longer the sole author.

Imagine for a moment that you have bought yourself a lovely, new mass spectrometer. You are a young, keen, environmental scientist, looking forward to collecting data and identifying patterns in atmospheric pollution. English is probably not your first language. In fact, the roman alphabet may not even be the writing system of your native language. You're really hoping that the documentation that comes with your £150,000 instrument is going to be clear enough that you'll be able to start using your new toy almost straight away. You aren't an engineer or physicist. In fact, you don't really know how this particular technique works, but you do understand the data that comes out of it, and it's the data that you're interested in.

You've fully immersed yourself in this imaginary scenario haven't you? Good. Now you can open the user manual. What's this? There are four manuals? Why are there four manuals? What are they for? This one says it's a "Hardware Reference", and seems to be full of impenetrable jargon, so you put it to one side, as it clearly has nothing in it that will tell you how to use your new machine. "User Guide", that looks more promising. Except its introductory statement tells you that you need to read and understand the "Hardware Reference" first, and that you have to read the other two manuals. What are they? They both seem to be software manuals, how odd. One of them is the software for controlling the machine, and the other for collecting the data. Surely that's the same thing?

It's at this point that I'll let you in on a secret. For historical reasons, we have two utterly separate software suites, one that controls the machine's voltages, temperatures, pressures and flows; the other suite is all about data collection, processing and analysis. They're written in different programming languages.

But you, the naive, young, non-English environmental chemist, really don't care what language any of it was originally written in, and nor do you want to have to jump back and forth between different manuals as you try and work out how to get some data. Shaking your head at the crazy people who have written this documentation, you resign yourself to reading one of the software manuals, and since you need to try and turn the machine on, you start with the software guide for operating the machine. And you are confronted with this as the very first line in the user guide:
Now that the source and optics are almost completely computer controlled, many front panel controls have disappeared, to be replaced by controls in screen dialogs. These have been added to the existing monitoring program, which now takes on both tasks.  
I think you would be justified in being, as a bare minimum, bemused by this, and at worst perhaps panic-struck to hear that controls have been disappearing. I genuinely cannot imagine what was passing through my colleague's mind when he decided that this was a suitable introductory sentence for a user guide. It makes perfect sense to me, to remind me what's changed since the version of this machine we built a couple of years ago, but not to someone who neither knows, nor cares, about the design of an instrument they don't own and will never use.

Overcoming your concerns about the sanity of the author, and the wisdom of having bought some very expensive equipment from a company in the grip of utter lunacy, you plough on, hoping to understand what's going on. You soon find yourself reading how to use the control system...
Many of the adjustable parameters require a high dynamic range in adjustment, meaning that the range of adjustment is very large compared with the smallest adjustable increment. In systems with manual controls, these adjustments would often have been made with a 10 turn dial potentiometer. Unfortunately, there are no standard Windows controls that are suitable and convenient for the task, so it has been necessary to invent a new control.  
Because a user guide is always the place to justify the author's hatred of Microsoft. You, my poor, naive, enthusiastic chemist, don't care why the control system has been designed the way it has. You don't need to know the pain we suffered when using another manufacturer's appalling control system, designed to overcome this same problem. You only need to know that what you have is simple, robust, intuitive and clear. You only need to know that you can easily and comfortably adjust 3,500V by one volt at a time with mouse or keyboard without specialist knowledge or training, and without needing the eyes of a hawk and the dexterity of a concert pianist.

So, back to the "new" documentation I'm writing. Which is now destined to actually be new, because I cannot, in good conscience, and with any sense of professional pride, have those sentences, or many of their friends and relations, in my documentation. And I'm going to take the radical step of putting all the information about how to use the instrument into a User Guide, and all the other, detailed, technical stuff into a Service Manual. Which has taken what was a fairly sizeable job and turned it into a behemoth. And I have to try and get it done quickly enough that nobody will notice the complete restructuring that I am undertaking and tell me not to "waste" time on it. And I have to get it done well enough that everyone will agree that my way is the best way, and not defend the Four Manuals of Bewilderment. Sometimes I think taking a pride in my job will be the death of me.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Food, glorious food

As I may have mentioned, once or twice, I have issues with food. More specifically, I have issues with LittleBear and food. And, in a completely unsurprising fashion, I am therefore inducing Issues With Food in my son.

BigBear and I both got collective bees in our bonnets about the tediously restricted range of food that LittleBear is prepared to consider, and have attempted, again, to persuade him to at least try new foods. This has been about as successful as every other attempt we have made.

We wrote a list, because all plans need a list. My life wouldn't function without a list. We involved LittleBear in the writing of the list, as we deliberated what foods he would consider trying. I explained about the existence of little pasta parcels that could have something inside them - he suggested chocolate. I explained that I'd like him to actually try some kind of sauce on pasta - he suggested chocolate. I asked him what kind of sandwiches he'd like to try - he suggested... you get the idea.

In the end, this was our list:

cheese and ham sandwich
some kind of pasta sauce
indian food - poppadom, naan, and vegetable-something

We've had... mixed success.

LittleBear ate a ham and cheese sandwich, with a certain level of reluctance, and declared that it was "OK, but I prefer just cheese."

He also ate macaroni-not-very-cheese, but was strangely "full" fairly rapidly. Though his pudding stomach was not full.

He is virtually reduced to tears at the thought of contemplating, let alone tasting, a tomato-based pasta sauce, so we're just pretending those don't exist.

Pesto was forcibly rejected.

Pasta with home-made pea-pesto was utterly abominable. And some of it fell on the floor. The cat ate it. We concluded that the ingredient responsible for LittleBear's hatred and the cat's love of this dish was the olive oil. LittleBear hates olives. The cat loves olives.

Carrot and butternut squash sauce was not acceptable. Even the cat didn't like it.

Cauliflower sauce was disgusting.

He asked me to make sweet potato sauce, and I refused.

Because, by this point, my exasperation levels were more than a little elevated. I wasn't making these random sauces up, and trying to enforce strange-vegetable-based products upon my son. He asked for these sauces. And, to the surprise of nobody who knows me, my exasperation was being expressed. Facially. Vocally. Physically. Imagine me, sitting slumped at the table, head in hands, muttering, "But it's what you asked for... I am NOT making any more sauces, when you won't even try the ones you ask me to make."

So LittleBear was getting upset, I was getting upset, BigBear was wincing in the corner. Once again I have managed to drive my son to the point of fear and desperation such that, once again, when faced with a new food, he curls in on himself and refuses to even consider tasting whatever monstrosity I have placed before him. Well done me. I've really improved the situation. I'm really mastering parenting here.

But then...

We went to the local Indian restaurant. LittleBear hoovered up boiled rice, poppadom and naan bread. He looked repulsed by daal. He nibbled the corners of saag aloo (too spicy) and onion bhaji (yucky). But this visit probably counts as the highlight of our food exploration, in that LittleBear voluntarily tasted utterly new foods.

And then, in the same week, kale, broccoli and cheddar sauce was delicious. And adhered to the saucepan like superglue. What kind of child likes kale but not tomato sauce? MiddleClassBear, that's who.

And, entirely by happenstance, one of LittleBear's topics at school this term is about the senses, with quite a bit of focus on taste. And this week's "Home-School Challenge" is to record the flavours of the different foods he eats over the weekend. He is being asked to categorise everything as Salt, Sweet, Sour, Bitter or Umami.

So, now we have a list of the things LittleBear has eaten this weekend. And so, once again, I am reminded of the surprising range of things my poppet does eat. And, yes, it's frustrating that they're not the same things other children eat, and they're not the "normal" things that make easy family meals, but they're varied, and interesting, and some of them even have flavour.

And I am making absolutely sure that I tell LittleBear how little I care whether he likes something, and that I will never, ever be cross just because he doesn't enjoy a new food, but also how proud I am of him for trying something new.  In the vain and pathetic hope that I can undo some of the damage I've already done.

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.