Thursday, 12 October 2017

Pointless busyness

It has been a week since I've written a post.

The house has no fresh food in it, and very little left in the freezer.

The gardening jobs are still lurking on a list.

The sheets on the beds need changing.

The carpet needs a serious vacuum clean.

Best friend's birthday present is still not wrapped, though her birthday was yesterday*

What on earth have I been doing?

Have I been bringing work home with me? I have not.

Have I been ill? I have not.

Have I been relaxing and reading my book? I have not.

I have been making a cuddly giant squid. A giant, cuddly, giant squid. With LittleBear. It has been an adventure.

LittleBear decided he would really like to have a go at making a cuddly giant squid, and, being the soft touch that I am, I agreed. We found a pattern on the internet; we choose fabric**; we modified the pattern because the arms and tentacles were not long enough; we drew the new pattern on huge rolls of paper; LittleBear cut out the pattern pieces; I cut out the fabric; together we sewed the pieces - LittleBear on the pedal of the sewing machine and me feeding the fabric through. If any of you have ever sewed with two slightly dissimilar fabrics, one of which is stretchier than the other, you will know how slowly and steadily you need to take the process. Try imagining doing this, when you have no control of the speed whatsoever. I am probably more proud of myself for remaining calm and even tempered in this endeavour than I am of constructing a cuddly squid at all.

We stuffed the squid, we made eyes for the squid, we attached the eyes. It has literally taken over all my waking hours at home for the past week. I was sewing eyes on with LittleBear between breakfast and school this morning.

The mantle and fins are cut out and ready to go

Eight arms, two tentacles, insides and outsides

Mantle with stuffed fins. All sewing and stuffing by LittleBear

A heap of unstuffed arms, three by LittleBear, five by me

Once the squid arms and tentacles were stuffed came the extremely painful, fiddly, time-consuming and vexing process of joining the appendages to each other, and to the head.*** It required more than thirty pins just to hold it together. Needless to say, I saved this bit for after LittleBear had gone to bed.

Trying to assemble squid appendages

But then, the end was in sight. With only another 750g of stuffing, we had a fabulously absurd squid. My fingertips are lacerated, I have bled from under the nails of multiple fingers, my back is still recovering from hunching over a seemingly endless supply of arms and tentacles. But how can I be anything but delighted when the end result is this?

It really is a giant squid

Squidy likes watching Numberblocks too

Squidy isn't afraid of anything and will chase all the worries away

* I only feel a little bit bad about not having wrapped Piglet's present, as I'm not seeing her till Saturday, so I feel I can get away with it.

** I am going to offer a heartfelt, and unsponsored, recommendation to use the website Plush Addict, who not only sell awesome cuddly toy fabric, but will also colour-match the thread for you, rather than making you rely on the colours shown on screen.

*** For those not familiar with squid anatomy, here's a handy diagram, with thanks to a blog by the Burlington Science Centre. We have not constructed either a siphon or a beak.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Effortless elegance

Those of you who are as old and haggard mature and experienced as I am, may remember a couple of chocolate adverts from our youths. Firstly there was Galaxy chocolate, with sultry women draping themselves around with silk and chocolate. Then there was Flake, "only the crumbliest, flakiest chocolate", again involving naked women eating chocolate, generally in the bath. Sometimes there was a telephone. And a lizard. It's all a bit hazy now. Suffice to say, the message was that chocolate was sexy and involved gorgeous and come-hither-ish women.

And now there exists such a thing as a Galaxy Flake (more-or-less, trade names notwithstanding). And, having had a rather rubbish day, that involved, among other things
  • being told (by two members of the board of directors no less) that I needed to do someone else's job as well as my own, because he was, to use their words, shit at it.
  • getting home and finding that one of my radiators was widdling water into a tupperware box, handily placed there by the cleaner, who had presumably caused the widdling by smacking into the radiator with over-enthusiastic hoovering*.
  • having a small boy who, once again, "couldn't" get to sleep because he didn't have anything to think about, and even the lure of the new sticker reward chart failed to prevent whimpering and demands for parental attention.
I decided I deserved some chocolate. And having one of these Galaxy not-a-flake-but-similar bars about the house, I decided that was what I'd have. And I proceeded to drop flakes of chocolate down my own cleavage, where it proceeded to melt, covering the inside of my t-shirt and undergarments in melted chocolate splodges. They never showed that in the adverts did they? Though that might explain why the Flake-lady was eating chocolate in the bath...

* Fortunately I have an awesome plumber, who I phoned, and who turned up, fixed the leak and left, without charging me, within twenty minutes. This is the kind of blessing in my life that I should focus on from time to time.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Time to get the CBT books out again

Back in the mists of time, as I slowly medicated my way out of Post Natal Depression, I continued to weep on my GP's shoulder from time to time, and she continued to be sympathetic and understanding. Until she moved to another part of the country. I don't think it was anything to do with me. But, one of the things she did do was refer me onto a course of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.

And along I went, feeling something of a fraud, because I was better by then. I was cured! I was normal! And then we started talking, and all my twisted ways of seeing myself, and seeing the world, came pouring out, incoherent and punctuated by tears. And I realised that though I was functional, and capable, and more-or-less getting on with life, I was not quite as healthy or stable as I could be. And over the weeks, we gradually unpicked some of my unhelpful and unhealthy thought processes. We gave name to them, shone the bright lights of understanding upon them, found detours around them, found new thoughts, new patterns and new habits.

And it's kind of worked. I'm mostly in a better mental state than I used to be. Mostly. Avid readers here will have noticed I have an entire category of labelling for my posts of "anxiety". I'm a work in progress. I like to tell myself we all are, it's just some people haven't realised there's no such thing as finished.

And this past week has been particularly challenging for maintaining my equilibrium. It started last weekend, with a tediously long drive in the rain and the dark and across rural Lincolnshire to avoid a closed motorway. It was nobody's fault that we had such a long drive, but it sowed the seeds of exhaustion in me, and possibly in the small boy who'd been tucked into "bed" in his car seat and was sleeping all the way.

And then we had a family evening out with the Bear Family in The North, taking LittleBear out for his first properly late evening meal. He managed surprisingly well for a small boy who is not accustomed to being out late, or to having much variation to his routine, but didn't stumble into bed until close to 10pm. And he was both amazed and horrified by the time. Perhaps that should have been a warning to me?

And then the normal week rolled round again, and I wrestled with Broken Things, and Idiot Customers, and Minion Who Lacks Gumption, and Bureaucracy From Hell. And I didn't go to bed early enough. Not once.

And three times in the last week, LittleBear has failed to get to sleep in what he considers an acceptable length of time. And he has started to become fixated on not falling asleep. He is getting worried and anxious and panic-stricken about being awake. He's not afraid of the dark. He's not scared, or lonely, or (as far as we can tell) in any other kind of discomfort or distress. But he is so worried about the idea of being awake late, that he's lying awake worrying about it. Last night only required two extra visits upstairs, and he was "only" awake until about 9pm. Which was an improvement on Thursday, when he sobbed hysterically for twenty minutes, and required some serious levels of parental intervention, cuddling and calming before sleep came.

And how have I handled this? Have I been calm and relaxed about it? Have I assumed that it's just a phase and that it will pass? Have I been appropriately soothing and yet cheerful with my son about the fact that it's really not a problem? What do you think?

The good news is that, thanks to my CBT, I can label the way I'm feeling as catastrophising. And I can know that it's an unhealthy and unproductive way to think. Go me!

Unfortunately, this hasn't entirely stopped me from my utter conviction that I will never be able to go out in the evening ever again. Or that LittleBear will never return to going to bed and us not hearing a peep out of him until morning. It hasn't stopped me from berating myself for not having a babysitter more often, while I had the chance, while LittleBear was good at going to bed. In my mind, this is the end of everything. The end of relaxing evenings. The end of having a well-rested child. The end of any hope BigBear and I had of going anywhere together. Which we didn't do anyway, and now I wish we had, because we'll never... (you get the idea).

But at least I know this isn't a sensible way to think. That's a start.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Omertà of Motherhood

There is a strange thing that happens with Motherhood. It may happen with Fatherhood too, but I don't have any direct experience of that.

This thing that happens is a strange pledge of silence that mothers appear to take. It's one of those pledges that nobody has told me about, or perhaps I fell asleep during that section of the ante-natal classes. The odd thing is, the pledge of silence is broken by other mothers occasionally, but only if you break it first. Like members of a secret society who must exchange obscure pass-codes to identify themselves, mothers will speak of Secret Things only if you know the Magic Words to say first.

But what are these Secret Things? And what are the Magic Words? And, more importantly, am I safe revealing these Secret Things and Magic Words to the uninitiated? It's a risk I'm willing to take...

The Secret Things are in fact anything bad whatsoever about motherhood. Not the casual stuff that there are amusing memes about on Facebook, like finding it vexing that your children won't put their shoes on. But the serious downsides. The moments where you really hate it and wonder if becoming a mother was genuinely one of your worst life decisions, but you daren't say so out loud, because it's not The Done Thing to admit that you fear you're genuinely shit at mothering. And the Magic Words? Admitting to the Secret Things. Admitting your weaknesses, and your fears, and the bad moments, and the negativity. And the moment you do so, someone will sidle up to you and say "me too" and you'll suddenly discover that you're not alone, and that other people are stuggling too, but nobody is daring to be the first person to say so.

It's a Catch-22. Nobody will speak of the Secret Things, unless someone else speaks of the Secret Things. 

It starts early on. Even when you're pregnant, you are told about birth, and you make plans, and you do know the technicalities of what might go wrong, or what interventions might be required. But it's only after you've come home with your baby, only after you've discovered what "slight tearing" actually feels like that you have honest conversations about birth trauma*. Up until then, you occasionally hear muttered phrases like, "she had a rough time" or, "it didn't quite go to plan, but mother and baby are fine now".

Then there's breastfeeding, the nirvana of perfect motherhood, the blissful bonding, the ideal start for a baby, etc etc. Except for me. And all the other people. It was excruciatingly painful until LittleBear had his tongue tie snipped (at ten weeks old), and then merely uncomfortable after that. But outside a close circle of friends, breastfeeding was either something you were doing or something you weren't. It was never discussed as painful, or messy or miserable. I hated it. I hated admitting that I hated it. I hated being "bad" at it.

There have been few moments in motherhood worse than hating breastfeeding. It was like an admission of being fundamentally, intrinsically wrong at mothering. And yet it didn't seem to be something I was allowed to say. Until I did, and I found I wasn't alone.

Then there's early motherhood. Everyone owns up to the sleep-deprivation, to the bewilderment, to the uncertainty about whether they're doing it right. But nobody spoke up and said, "I hate this. I want my life back. I'm terrified that this is the worst decision I've ever made. This is not a source of constant joy and wonder, this is a hellish delirium of monotony and fear". But then I did, and I found that while some people looked at me in confusion, and stepped away from the crazy lady, as they continued to bond with, and adore, their newborn baby, others fell on me, weeping with relief and said, "me too. Thank you for saying what I was thinking."

And so it goes on.

Over and over again I've found myself seeming to be alone in my fears and doubts. And then I've taken the plunge and spoken up, only to find other people breathing a deep sigh and saying, "me too".

I found it when LittleBear wouldn't eat "normal" food, and I found there was no such thing as "normal". I found there were children who wouldn't touch fruit, or would only eat brown food, or all manner of inconvenient and trying variations on strange eating habits. But it was only ever the mothers whose little darlings ate sushi who were publicly commenting on the fact. The negative feelings, the sense of guilt, the rage felt about the child who wouldn't eat perfectly innocuous food were all dark, guilty secrets that couldn't be spoken out loud.

I found it when I hated myself for sending my LittleBear to nursery, thinking I was failing him in some way, dreading the damage I was potentially doing by not being with him every moment of every day. And then I discovered that other people also looked forward to time at work as a small window of sanity in their lives, but that they also tortured themselves with guilt - not just the guilt at leaving their baby with other people, but guilt at feeling relieved to do so. And again, it was only ever the mothers whose children skipped into nursery with a beaming smile who made mention of their experiences of early years care.

And now, I'm finding it all over again. I was chatting to some other mothers outside school last week, with each of us exchanging the odd rueful shrug about the challenges of bath-time or tooth-brushing. I'd had a particularly trying day the previous day, with LittleBear having his daily tantrum about the iniquitous behaviour of his parents in wanting him to be clean and tucked up in bed. And I noticed a certain harried look about a fellow mother, so I bit the bullet...

... "LittleBear nearly pushed me over the edge yesterday," I admitted. "I ended up almost threatening to hit him. I got as far as, 'if you don't sit up and stop screaming and crying, I...' before backing away. I was absolutely livid. But in the end I just said, 'I won't read you a bedtime story' instead of threatening physical violence. And then I went and shut myself in the bathroom and ran the bath. It was better to leave him sobbing on the floor than to risk saying something I'd really regret."

And so the floodgates opened, as my fellow mothers began to unburden themselves about their own frustrations with recalcitrant small boys. Their own battles to rein in their temper. Their own techniques of simply walking away instead of allowing their anger to win. Their desperation in not knowing what to do. Their sense of being bad mothers.

At the start of the conversation, I could have nodded and laughed and recounted an amusing anecdote about LittleBear. But I didn't. I took a risk and admitted something I wasn't proud of. I hate myself for allowing my anger to overtake me to the extent I nearly threatened to hurt my precious son. I didn't threaten and I wouldn't ever hurt him, but even coming close to letting the words pass my lips shook me. But by admitting the darkness in my heart, not only did I discover I wasn't alone, but I allowed a friend to discover that she wasn't alone.

But because of the Omertà of Motherhood, so much of the darkness remains locked in our hearts, hidden from the world for fear it will be condemned. We wall away inside ourselves all the thoughts and actions that make us feel like bad mothers, and they stay there, festering, persuading us that we are bad mothers, when sometimes all it would take is knowing that we are not alone, that we are not unique, and broken, and wrong, to convince us that we are simply mothers. Not bad mothers. Just mothers. Mothers who are doing their best.

Please, break the omertà, be a pentita. Allow the darkness out, shatter the illusions of calm and perfection that depict a "good" mother, let your friends know that everything is not easy, and wonderful, and lovely. Admit that you struggle, and some days you fail, but you pick yourself up and you keep loving your children, and you keep doing your best even though sometimes it's not as good as you want it to be.

And if, by any chance, you never lose your temper; you never say things you regret; you never wish your children would just shut up and go away for a while; you never feel like a failure ... feel free to maintain your own omertà.

* This is one of the few codes of secrecy I understand. Nobody wants to be the one to terrify a new mother-to-be with worst case scenarios.

Monday, 18 September 2017

A case of mistaken identity

Towards the tail end of the 19th century, there lived two men. They shared the same forename and surname, and were approximately the same age as each other. That is where the similarities end.

One of these men was a poet, and went on to be relatively famous, writing one of the better-known poems of the First World War. The other was a rather obscure chemist who both wrote and translated a variety of chemistry text books.

The first of these men is of only passing interest to me, the second is my great-grandfather.

I have been, over the years, gradually tracking down and acquiring copies of the various books my great-grandfather wrote or translated, and the internet has been invaluable in allowing me to search for copies, contact libraries and find titles.

But... there's a problem with the internet. And it's a problem that many of you will already be very aware of. It can't be trusted. Obviously, we all know that some sources of information on the internet are more trustworthy than others, and we all make judgements all the time about how much a given site should be believed. Generally speaking, the more exclamation marks used, the less reliable the information. This hasn't been much of a problem in my research so far, as obscure 19th century chemists rarely rate a mention on BuzzFeed or Breitbart.

The problem now is that I have encountered several major, reputable, decent, academic institutions and library catalogues who have merged the poet and chemist who share a name into one person, and my great-grandfather's work is being attributed to one of the War Poets. This isn't exactly a problem of earth-shattering proportions, but it is something that I feel I should attempt to correct. Because once incorrect information is "out there", it tends to propagate, and the more places it reaches into, the harder it is to eliminate. And one day, earnest biographers and students will be marvelling over the polymath poet who found time to translate German text books on chemistry, completely unaware that there was another man of the same name being gently forgotten by history.

I did manage, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing to convince Wikipedia to accept my assertion that the famous poet was not also an obscure chemist. But that's because, for all its faults, Wikipedia is intended to be modified and corrected by normal humans being in possession of new information. I'm not sure how confident I feel about convincing collaborative, international, library catalogues or university archivists that they're wrong...

But, like a dog with a bone, if someone on the internet is wrong, I find it hard to let it lie. So, with a certain amount of trepidation, I shall set forth upon my quest to separate these two identities for future historians. I may be some time.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Offering a bit of balance

Sometimes I think BigBear might get what seem like poor ratings on this blog. He rarely features as much more than a bit-part player, frequently seems absent from my adventures, or perhaps may cause readers to think, "but if PhysicsBear is so stressed and unhappy, what's BigBear doing about it?"

And the truth is, BigBear is always here, always supporting, and always looking-after, but because he's a private person, and because it's not up to me to wash his dirty laundry in public, anything that strays into territory that might seem to be his private world is off-limits when I'm writing. Which means, though you may think I bare my whole soul here, there are often things I don't write about. And BigBear becomes a cipher.

So today I am, briefly, going to redress the balance and let you know that BigBear is lovely.

Last night, I stayed up too late making a cake. Part of the "too-lateness" of this cake arose from my own decision not to use the beaters until after I thought LittleBear would be asleep (his bedroom is directly above the kitchen). So I didn't start mixing the cake until 8:30. And it was a large cake, containing 7 eggs, and the recipe suggested cooking it at 140C, so it took a very, very, very long time to bake. And I felt as though Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry were hovering behind me, judging the lightness of my crumb or the sogginess of my bottom. When I first stuck a skewer in it, it was still essentially liquid in the middle, which ratcheted up my stress-levels somewhat. Gin was the only answer. For me, not the cake.

I bet you're wondering where BigBear fits in aren't you? He was watching football on television at the time, if you must know. His role in this story comes later.

As I've already mentioned, I'm suffering from an inability to drink alcohol at the moment, and even as I drank my G&T I feared that it was a Bad Idea. And I was right, because when my LittleBear came and jumped on my headache in the morning, I wanted the world to stop spinning so I could get off. Instead, this is what happened...

We had a lovely snuggly, family cuddle for a few minutes, and then BigBear and LittleBear got up and went downstairs. I had two paracetamol and a bottle of water and went back to sleep. I woke up at half-past eleven and went for a shower, and when I came out, there was a freshly brewed cup of coffee on my bedside table. I didn't get downstairs until nearly midday. I have a five year-old child and I stayed in bed until lunchtime, and BigBear has not once begrudged me that time, or teased me about having a gin-related headache, or asked for any special recognition or reward.

Because BigBear is lovely, no matter how infrequently I mention him here.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Acute vexation

Today has been One Of Those Days at work. In fact, this week is shaping up to be One Of Those Weeks.

I have been contacted again by Mr Turnip and the Purchasing Department. While this should be the name of a slightly twee indie rock band, sadly it's actually the stuff of nightmares. Literally. I had nightmares about it last night.

It's nearly a year since Mr Turnip insist that I bend to his will and I refused. And it turns out, rather as I expected, there is no-one else in the world who can or will build a bespoke scientific instrument to his specifications, so a year later and his Purchasing Department have put the instrument out to tender. Again.

So, here we go again....

Except, since we last put a bid in, the delightful bureaucrats at the other end have "improved" the tendering system, and we no longer have to submit paper copies, in triplicate, in sealed, colour-coded envelopes, with every page signed, counter-signed and stamped. Now, they have an e-Tender website. Imagine, if you can, the kind of website that will be designed by people who like having paper copies in triplicate, in sealed, colour-coded envelopes, with every page signed, counter-signed and stamped. Now stop imagining that, if you can, because it will only give you a headache.

For reasons that are too vexatious, and might lead to me committing a sackable offence if I were attempt to give voice to them, I am attempting to submit this bid. But I'm very busy - attempting to get 4 instruments tested, 2 instruments built and another one designed. All by last January. So, I asked Minion Who Lacks Gumption to explore the website, read the documentation, find the bid details and instructions and report back to me on what I need to do. I asked him to do this 10 days ago and have seen him studying the website most days when I've walked past his desk. Foolishly I thought that this meant he would have made sterling progress. Such naivete.

Yesterday, I sat down with him to enquire whether he had worked out what the tendering process actually is.

PhysicsBear: what do I have to do?

Minion Who Lacks Gumtion: Ummm

PB: Do I upload a pdf? Or do I have to copy and paste into a web form?

MWLG: Ummm. 

PB: ?

MWLG: I think you type things in. There's a spreadsheet.

PB: Really? It's just that last time we had nine pages of descriptions and photographs and diagrams, so it's hard to see how I can type that in.

MWLG: It said something about blue ink.

PB: How do I use blue ink on a website?

MWLG: I don't know.

PB: So?

MWLG: There's a briefcase.

PB: What's that?

MWLG: Ummm.

PB: Yes?

MWLG: I think you put things there?

PB: How?

MWLG: I don't know. Whenever I try and look I get an error message.

PB: What message?

MWLG: Ummm.

PB: Can you show me?

MWLG: Ummm.

After a bit more poking and prodding we sit and look at the website together. And, lo and behold, there is indeed an error message. MWLG has registered the company on the website, but the registration is incomplete, and without completing the registration, access to the bidding section is restricted. The website clearly states, in big, red letters, "You do not have a Digital Certificate. Please obtain a Digital Certificate before attempting to continue."

PB: What's the Digital Certificate?

MWLG: Ummm

PB: Well, there's a menu called "Digital Certificate" at the top there. We should look at that.

And yea, verily, there were documents entitled "Important Points for applying" and "Application Procedure" and even an actual application form. At this point, somewhat exasperated, I retreated to my own desk to read what were obviously quite important pieces of information that MWLG had failed to find, or read, or tell me about. And it was in the following twenty minutes that everything unravelled before my eyes.

I learnt a new word. It wasn't a swear word, though I may use it as such. Though perhaps it's too pretty for that. It is "apostille". Try it, it's rather nice: apostille, apostille, apostille. My lawyer friends may be nodding ruefully at this point. Those of you who don't know the meaning of "apostille" - I envy you. I wish I too was still in a state of blissful ignorance. I wish I too did not know anything about the Hague Convention. I wish I could just footle around with my protons and electrons and not have to fall into the chasm of bureaucracy that has opened beneath my feet.

Let me explain. I'll try to be brief.

To apostille a document is to certify that it is legal under the Hague Convention. Which sounds quite benign.

The requirements in this case are that I take a signed passport photograph, my passport, the company seal, a legal document demonstrating I am authorised to act on behalf of the company, the company's certificate of incorporation, the articles and memorandum of association, the first and second pages of a company bank statement, the last audit report, and the last annual financial return to a Public Notary. The Public Notary duly notarizes copies of these documents as being true and valid etc etc. Then I have to send these notarized documents to the Legalisation Office of the UK Government to be apostilled. Which appears to mean that they are notarized to prove that the government agrees that the notary who did the original notarizing is indeed authorized to notarize. With me so far?

Obviously, I have to pay for all these services. And they take time. I could get the apostilling done on a next day basis, if I went to London myself.

And then (and here's the kicker), I have to send the apostilled, notarized documents... to Mumbai. Where they will take a minimum of 7 days to process them. At the end of which process, they will issue me with a 2048-bit RSA key digital signature certificate. Though I may also have to provide biometric data. To Mumbai. No, I don't know how they expect me to do that.

And this utterly extraordinary level of security and complexity will essentially be to give me a password to a website so I can (possibly) upload a pdf offering our services to supply a mass spectrometer. And I thought internet banking was a bit of a faff.

We have 30 days in which to submit this bid. We would have had 40 days if MWLG had actually discovered the need for a digital signature in the ten days he had to look at the website.

I've decided not to bother.

I've written to our agent in India and said "No". He can deal with it, that's what he takes a cut for. He can actually be an agent for a change and apply on our behalf. And if that doesn't work, Mr Turnip will have to make his own mass spectrometer, because I give up.