Friday, 23 June 2017

MPP: Double the fun!

Two reasons to be happy today!

Last night, Piglet and I went out to dinner at a sushi restaurant. Neither of our husbands eats sushi, so this was a delightful treat. Any dinner out with Piglet would have been fun, as we talk non-stop when allowed to by the absence of our children, but a dinner out with Forbidden Foods was even better.

Today I have booked a long weekend trip to go fossil hunting with LittleBear in August along the Jurassic coast. Just the two of us. LittleBear is more excited about this than any other part of his approaching summer holiday. And, because I have lovely palaeontological friends, one of them has promised to drop a word in the ear of his friend, the Chief Fossil Hunter, when we go on a fossil-hunting walk (also booked).

Because I can't help myself, there are also downsides to the fossil hunting trip. The disappointment is that BigBear will not be with us. We have a dearth of annual leave, so aside from one week taken together in the middle of the holiday, we're having to tag-team the rest of the summer. I will therefore have two extremely long drives with just LittleBear. And I'll be sharing a double bed with LittleBear for three nights. But despite these things, I'm feeling almost as giddy as him at the prospect of going.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

MPP: Anatomy 101

This is perhaps a bit of a cheat for today's Mini Positive Post, as the event actually occurred last week, but I was tidying the dining table today and found this picture, undertaken by LittleBear:

LittleBear undertook this masterwork with minimal intervention (BigBear was allowed to tell him how to spell certain words, but only from a distance, so that BigBear didn't inadvertently ruin the surprise by actually seeing the work prior to completion).

There are two particular things I love about this picture: firstly, the "poo pipe", because basically I'm a 5-year old at heart, and pooing and farting is funny; secondly the decision to write "intestine" in mirror writing, which reveals something wonderfully flexible about what writing is and should bein the mind of a small child. Or perhaps only in the mind of my small child. A data set of one is pretty limited. However, LittleBear wanted to label the intestines on the left of the picture, and he wanted to start the word beside the object, so the obvious solution was to write from right to left.

I love my LittleBear, and he makes me happy.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

MPP: so far, so good

I will preface all new posts that are part of my "trying to be a bit more positive" with MPP - Mini Positive Post. 

A few months ago, we made the difficult, but utterly necessary, decision to terminate the employment of Problem Employee. Which was all well and good, but left us short-handed and struggling, again, to recruit the right person.

Three weeks ago NewBoy started. Already, he is undertaking quite tricky tasks independently (and getting them right). He listens to what I tell him. He does what I tell him. He asks me what I'd like him to do next. He asks intelligent questions, and makes helpful suggestions. He seems to not only be intelligent, but also competent and capable.

Previously, I attempted to train two muppets in a technical procedure, and it was a deeply depressing experience. I've trained NewBoy in the same procedure, and after only one attempt, he's now quite competently continuing independently. He made notes in his lab book without being told he needed to do so. He read the documentation I gave him about the purpose of the tests. and actually seemed to understand it.

It's all splendid so far, and I feel somewhat reassured that the issues with Problem Employee were not my failings.

I actually think we might have the Right Man for the Job.

This is awesome, and it makes me happy.

Fingers crossed...

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Reporting bias

After my most recent miserable blog post, BigBear was prompted to comment that he didn't recognise the person writing as the person sat next to him - I only ever seem to be miserable in writing, which doesn't reflect the "me" that he knows. Since I was feeling miserable at the time, I came close to a knee-jerk reaction along the lines of, "but I do feel like this, so it must just be that you're failing to observe or care about my feelings." A calmer head prevailed, however, and I realised that BigBear was (rather irritatingly) right. I do tend to write more about negative feelings than positive. And I stopped to think about why. 

I think there's more than one factor at work. For one thing, despite my very un-British willingness to talk about my feelings, I still possess a certain self-effacing tendency that makes me reluctant to paint a picture of bliss and harmony. Nobody wants to read about someone else's lovely life after all do they? The warts are far more interesting. And this sense that misery-blogging is more interesting to readers has been reinforced in my mind by looking at the statistics of my most-read posts - political ranting and emotional over-exposure have consistently attracted more visits than any other posts.

Besides which, we all know people who only ever portray the positive in their lives, who tell you about their perfect children, their extraordinary holidays, the wonderful meals out they've had, the impressive project they've just completed at work, the stylishly renovated listed building they live in. And I don't want to be either the person who seems to live in a perfect world, untouched by everyday stresses and strains, or the person who erects a facade of perfection that everyone knows is a facade and nobody feels able to broach, leaving me alone and isolated as I strive desperately to maintain an illusion of calm and beatitude because I dare not admit my failings publicly.

And then, there's everyday life. And, quite frankly, there are a lot of days that possess nothing in them of any great noteworthiness. Days that have their ups and downs, but barely contain enough interest to manage to sustain a conversation with my nearest and dearest, who might be presumed to care about the minutiae of my life, let alone being worthy of writing about.

So I thought I'd draw an utterly unscientific graph to illustrate my point. There are no absolutes here, no scales, no quantification, just a vague hand-waving towards the general shape of my life:

Totally made-up graph

Mostly, I don't write about the boring, relatively happy, but uneventful stuff. Nor do I tend to write about the super, lovely, makes me sound smug stuff. Instead, I find it easiest to write about that which is notable, but not smug, i.e. the dips in my mood. And that means I am tending to depict myself as considerably more anxious and unhappy than the bigger picture would suggest. And there have been times in my life when I've been told, in rather unsympathetic terms, that all I ever do is complain...

So... I'm going to try an experiment. I'm going to try writing regular, short, posts in which I recount something upbeat from my life. In the past I've used this technique on paper as a deliberate strategy to force myself to focus on the positive. While recovering from post-natal depression I wrote in my "Happy Book" every evening at bedtime, and the rule I set myself was that I had to write something positive about my day with LittleBear. This not only gave me a book of happy memories to look back on, but also made sure I went to bed thinking about the good things that had happened during the day. This may mean I post rather more "isn't my adorable boy adorable" posts, because those are most of my happy moments, but it may also mean those of you who think I'm a miserable cow might discover I quite like life most of the time.

Naturally, as well as the new pseudo-micro-blogging happy posts, I shall maintain a background level of political ranting and anxious meandering. You've got to keep the punters happy after all.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Tears of nothing

I'm sitting on the sofa, on a warm summer's evening, and feel like crying. And it's not entirely because I'm watching England playing rugby, though that experience has been known to induce tears in my fiercely competitive soul.

No, this time, the tears are just... nothing...

I've spent the weekend "glamping" (of which more another time) and seeing my family for BabyCousin's 40th birthday party. I guess he's not really BabyCousin any more. But he'll always be the littlest, and I have to differentiate him from the others somehow.

Really, I should be happy. Except...

... I saw my mother, my aunt, my brother, my niece and nephew, my cousins, their children, and assorted other relatives that are more or less related but defy description. And it feels as though I only managed to exchange a few sentences each with anyone, and at least 50% of those sentences were, "I'm tooooo hot and I don't like it!"And I was reminded how much time I used to spend with various parts of my family, and how much I used to enjoy doing so, and I feel a welling sadness at the passing of time, and the losing of connections, and the inevitable changes that growing older brings.

... I tried to spend time talking to my family, and so I neglected my LittleBear, who was rather forlorn, and for whom I hadn't provided enough toys or games. And he was very good, but I felt like a heel telling him to go and play on his own when there wasn't much for him to do. And I felt like even more of a heel because I didn't really gain much benefit from not playing with him in terms of talking to my family.

... I've woken up at 5am for the past two mornings as the sun streamed into my shepherd's hut (see reference to "glamping", above). I don't function when tired.

... my LittleBear has been poorly, in a vague sort of a way, since Thursday. He was sick (from an empty stomach, so not very sick) in the morning, and then fine. Since then, what with the heat, and the vague illness, and not sleeping well, he's now not really eating properly. And so now he's more-or-less-constantly tired, hot and low on energy. Therefore he whinges. And my reserves of sympathy and motherliness decrease in direction proportion to both my own tiredness and the ambient temperature. And once I start being crabby and short-tempered with a tired and pathetic little boy, I start to castigate myself for my own unkindness.

... I am, if I dare say so, a tad hormonal today. (BigBear did dare, and is alive to tell the tale).

... I drank a reasonable number of glasses of Pimms today. And, as everyone knows, Pimms contains gin. And, as everyone also knows, gin is Mother's Ruin.

In truth, I could probably chalk up all incipient tears to being due to insufficient sleep, and a surfeit of gin. But the rest of it feels like it matters more. Just now anyway.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Never too early...

Over the past five and a half years, I have done my best to simply lead by example. Because, obviously, I make an awesome example to my son at pretty much everything. All joking aside, I have made sure that LittleBear knows that I am a scientist and BigBear is a programmer (or "expert at telling computers what to do" as we term it round these parts). I have made sure that LittleBear knows and sees that I can top up the oil in the car, drill holes in the walls, saw up pieces of wood, mend broken dinosaurs, make fancy-dress outfits, sew curtains, bake cakes and get tetchy when over-tired from doing all of the above. I've left it to BigBear to model non-stereotypical male behaviour such as watching and playing football, bicycle maintenance and beer-appreciation*.

And today, finally, came the day when LittleBear came out with a classic, retrograde, old-style girl-boy stereotype. "You should like pink more than white Mummy, pink is a girl's colour"

Before launching into my treatise on why this was a wholly incorrect and unacceptable statement, I demanded of my poor unsuspecting son who had told him this. It turns out, unsurprisingly, to have been one of his little friends.** And not just any friend, but the Friend who was literally designed for the phrase, "If Friend told you to jump off a cliff, would you?" Because LittleBear currently does whatever Friend tells him to do, to my great concern. LittleBear sings Friend's favourite songs. LittleBear mimics Friend's speech mannerisms. LittleBear adores Friend.

But I still, just about, have some sway with my son, so it was time to quash the views expressed by Friend.

So I launched into my treatise. At one point, I'm fairly certain LittleBear said, "yes Mummy, can I go and play now?" but I soldiered on regardless.

And, to give him his due, LittleBear did want to know why toy manufacturers make toys that are labelled as being for girls, and why they make them pink, rather than just making toys for all children, and making them in all sorts of colours. And at that point, I got stumped, because I thought adding the evil empire of profit-driven marketing and advertising onto the issues of structural sexism was too much for a Monday evening.

So in the end, we finished with, "colours are just colours, people are just people, and anyone can like anything. If anyone ever tells you that some colours are for girls and others are for boys, you can tell them your Mummy says they're wrong." Which will probably see him through at least the next 12.5 hours. Or approximately the length of time before he goes through the school gates again.

But no-one is going to tell me I haven't tried to raise a decent feminist child.

* This is a vicious calumny inserted for comedic purposes. LittleBear witnesses BigBear cooking, washing up, fixing things, playing lego, reading, writing, drawing, and assorted other activities. Not so much sewing or cake-baking, but you can't have everything!

** I was fully prepared to have a show-down with any adult who'd dared say such a thing to my child. Really, I am rabid on this issue.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Glumness takes hold

Today's post will be brought to you in a series of vaguely disconnected half-thoughts, tangled up in a headache with a side-order of sciatica....

Today is election day. And I awoke feeling very depressed about it. Not glad that I live in a time and a place where I can vote. Or looking forward to making my voice heard. Or optimistic about the next five years.

Last time there was a general election, I went to quite some length to express my views as calmly and dispassionately as possible. I can't really be bothered this time. You're either with me or not. And there's only a couple of dozen of you reading this anyway. What does it really matter what I say?

There are two major factors that make me shrug my shoulders when I see anyone try and predict the outcome of the election. Firstly, there is the recent, and widely mocked, inability of the pollsters to accurately forecast how people are going to vote. Secondly there's our ridiculous electoral system. Just as a reminder, last election the percentage change in the vote was as follows:

Conservative    +0.8%
Labour             +1.4%
SNP                 +3%
LibDem            -15.1%
UKIP               +9.5%
Green              +2.8%

And yet the change in numbers of seats was:

Conservative    +28
Labour             -24
SNP                 +50
LibDem            -48
UKIP                +1

And every time I look at those figures, I shake my head in disbelief. Not because they don't reflect the election bringing about the result I wanted, but because they're ridiculous. So, no matter the outcome today, I'm just nailing my rather tired colours to my rickety mast - I believe we would have a healthier democracy that would be more representative of the people if we implemented the recommendations of the Jenkins report and moved away from FPTP to an AV+ electoral system.

The upshot of which is basically I wouldn't be very surprised by almost any result, ranging from a massive Conservative landslide, through a narrow victory, a hung Parliament to a Labout squeak. Honestly, some days it feels like anything could happen, and I have no real gauge on how most people will vote, or how that will be reflected in actual seats. Because I live in a bubble. Not the oft-criticised filter bubble of social media, but a real-world bubble. My friends, for the most part, are liberal (with a small "l"). They're generally left-of-centre anyway. Some of them are more right-wing than I am, but they're in the minority. I go to the pub and find myself socio-politically aligned with most people I talk to. I sit at home and feel despondent with BigBear when we watch the news. My colleagues are generally left-leaning. Over lunch we discuss the burning issues of the day, and mostly have the same slant on them. I can't choose my family, so I don't talk politics with them, and besides which, I don't see any of them very often, and the only one I talk to frequently is a paid-up LibDem. So they never have a chance to prick the bubble of my leftism. Social media hasn't much to do with my bubble, which is physical and rarely impinged upon.

So I trundle along in that little bubble. People who care about the same things as me, who share common values and priorities, and who see the same solutions as me. And then I walk to the shops and see the front page of the vomit-inducing Daily Mail, and Sun, and Daily Express, and I realise that there are millions of people who think in a different way, who believe things that I find genuinely abhorrent, and I want to weep. And I know my small world is small, and my voice is quiet and ineffectual, and I am crying out in a storm.

Despite all that, I will be voting.

I will be voting against the funding cuts to LittleBear's school that will see them receive over £100,000 less every year.

I will be voting against scrapping human rights legislation, because it's not possible to take away the human rights of only "bad" people without taking away mine as well.

I will be voting against the continuing erosion of state support for those in need.

I will be voting against tax cuts for the wealthy and benefit cuts for the poor.

I will be voting against a rise in child poverty.

I will be voting against the creeping privatisation of the NHS.

If you are voting, or planning to vote, Conservative, it doesn't mean I don't like you, but it might well mean I hold you responsible when my son's school can't afford books; I might hold you responsible when my 26-year old friend with a brain stem injury doesn't receive sick pay because zero-hours contracts are such a great idea; I might hold you responsible for the next five years of austerity. I might not. I might just emigrate instead. Because at the moment, I don't really like this country any more.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

An unexpected intersection

This is not about a motorway junction that sprung upon me in a surprising fashion. Instead it is about my experience today of an overlapping of two of my major preoccupations: anxiety and politics.

Those of you who live in the UK, and probably even some of you who don't, will have noticed that we have a General Election approaching.

Those of you who've read more than the occasional post here will have noticed that I have a tendency to express reasonably strong political opinions, and that those opinions tend towards the left-wing. I'm not ashamed of either of those things. I stand by my words.

Those of you who've really been paying attention will also have spotted that I have a tendency towards self-doubt and anxiety.

And it turns out that having strong political opinions, using Facebook, and suffering from anxiety and a fear of not being liked are a disastrous mixture. I'm going to preface the rest of this post by saying that it all turns out fine in the end. I wouldn't want anyone worrying on my behalf.

I had been planning to write a blog post about the Conservative manifesto position on social care for the elderly, and their subsequent change in position. Mostly because I think there's an interesting and worthwhile debate to be had about welfare spending on care, on what we (as a country) can afford, what those who have spent 40-50 years paying into the welfare state can expect in return, which benefits should be universal and which benefits should be means-tested (and by benefits I include the social benefits of education and healthcare as well as the financial benefits of child benefit, disability living allowance, income support etc).

I do have serious qualms about telling the elderly that they "should" pay for their own care if they have the money or assets to do so and that they "shouldn't" expect the younger generations to pay for them, when those elderly have spent a working lifetime paying into the welfare state for just this eventuality. They set out on their working lives within a state which promised them care from cradle to grave. And yet now the social contract they signed up to has been broken, and they're being told that we can't afford it, and that we'll look after them if they have a medically treatable condition, but that we won't if they have a medically untreatable condition that nonetheless requires a great deal of care.

Clearly, there is a problem with not enough money in the coffers, and an ageing population requiring more and more care. And there is a problem that wealth inequality in this country is increasing, partly fuelled by the absurd rise in house prices. So I can see there being arguments in favour of trying to ensure that that inequality is not exacerbated and that we don't bankrupt the country in trying to fund everything for everyone. We do need to prioritise spending. We do need to decide what can be afforded and what can't. We are already forced to do so within the NHS, with NICE assessing which drugs and treatments have a good enough cost/benefit ratio. But I cannot find it in me to agree that those whose minds deteriorate, through no fault of their own, are uniquely required to hand over their capital to fund their care, while those who suffer from other ailments are not. It seems fundamentally unjust. I would far rather see a lower threshold on inheritance tax and tighter controls to close the various dodgy loopholes that allow IHT to be avoided*. My idealism would rather we all pay a percentage to mitigate against the vicissitudes of life, not knowing whether we will fall victim to the stroke of terrible fortune that robs us of our minds, than that only the victims of misfortune pay.

Anyway... that was the blog post I wasn't going to write...

What I was really writing about, was making a few remarks on this subject on Facebook, and then finding myself defending my point of view to a friend. (Hello friend! Please keep reading!)

And then I went to collect LittleBear from school, knowing full well that I would be likely to bump into said friend. And I was wracked with fear and anxiety. I kept my sunglasses on, my head down, and sought out a fellow anxiety-sufferer to hide beside in the playground. I didn't want to engage in conversation with anyone, just in case. Just in case my views are weird. Just in case I've been too strident. Just in case I haven't thought things through properly. Just in case I've caused offense to a friend. Just in case she now thinks I'm an idiot. Just in case she doesn't want to be my friend anymore.

I know that for those of you with a rather more strong and stable disposition** this response will seem rather extreme. You may be bemused to hear that my hands were shaking and I was struggling not to cry in the playground waiting to collect LittleBear. I can only try to describe the effect that anxiety has - the cold wash that sweeps through me, the desire to run away, to hide from the world, to never have to speak to another human being. The welling tears that I fight to hide from the world. The terror that I may have put myself beyond the pale, and the escalating thoughts of catastrophe, of not only having lost one burgeoning friendship, but that this effect will sweep like a contagion through the school until there is no-one left who will speak to me. I am not exaggerating. The tears are returning even as I try and write this. The terror, the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, the dread of confrontation, the fear of rejection.

I am blessed in having one particular friend who I know gets it. I know she has had and still has her own battles with anxiety. And I managed to find a few seconds alone with her, to confess, to seek reassurance, understanding, absolution.

And then a voice piped up beside me, "we should carry on our political debate over a glass of wine!" Because the friend I was worried about offending is a normal human being, who interacts with other normal human beings in a completely normal way. And discussing interesting and controversial subjects with empathy, and intelligence, and wit is a completely normal thing to do, and not one that renders normal people into shaking, paranoid messes.

So we went on (without the glass of wine, sadly) to have a perfectly civilised conversation about the subject. And I'm relatively certain she doesn't think I'm a lunatic. Well, relatively certain she didn't think I was a lunatic.

Then I wrote this.

And this has been a hard post to write, and it may be that if you're reading it, the "today" that I refer to is now many days in the past, because I'm not sure that I'm able to admit all this just yet. It feels like a burden to place upon those who know me, who may feel that they have to temper their views, or filter what they say to me just in case PhysicsBear has one of her funny turns again.

But I don't want you to do that, I am not making a comment on you, nor do I want you to feel you have to moderate your words or actions towards me. In fact, please don't. Please, please keep being yourselves, and allow me to be responsible for my feelings, my failings, my fears. And if sometimes I write about those fears here, it's only to try and shed some light on how my mind works, so that if I sometimes seem to react in unexpected ways, those ways don't have to come as a total surprise. And if you too find your mind works the way mine does, you might not feel quite so alone. None of us should feel alone.

* In 2013-2014, only 7.2% of deaths led to payment of inheritance tax. See table 12.3 from the Office of National Statistics for raw data. Generally speaking for the past few years, HMRC are notified of approximately 250,000 estates per year on which tax is not due, and between 15,000 and 20,000 on which tax is due. There really is scope for the country as a whole to move away from the continuing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Instead of a few unfortunate people spending the bulk of their life savings on end-of-life care, perhaps all people should contribute to the care of the few, just as we do through the rest of our lives via taxation and national insurance. I know this is not necessarily a popular point of view.

** This is a deliberate joke. I feel the need to explain, in case my American friends don't get it. "Strong and stable" is the election slogan of Theresa May. There have been a lot of comedic riffs on this phrase. That is all.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

More awesome parenting

Today turned into One of Those Days.

The kind of day, when I spent at least 75% of it wondering if it's bedtime yet, and then when it came time to tuck LittleBear up in bed, I ended up holding him extra tight, for extra long, and reading him twice as many pages of his book as normal because I felt horrible for how horrible I'd been.

Let me take you back, 24 hours....

The PTA quiz night. BigBear wasn't feeling quite as keen as mustard, so I tootled along sans husband, and proceeded to have a raucous time with my friends. I think, but am not entirely certain, that I drank the best part of a bottle of Prosecco on my own. And then shared a bottle of beer with another friend, because I'd run out of Prosecco. Subsequently I have been informed that I'm "really competitive" and also that I'm "very like a man". The first of these I hold my hands up to. It's a fair cop. The second seemed potentially harsh to both me and men, as it was based upon my admission that the more I drank the more certain I was of my answers, and the higher the probability was that they were wrong. (It's not the first time I've been compared to a man. In fact, my colleagues have a tendency to make sweeping statements about women, and then append phrases such as, "but not you, because you're not a normal woman, you're more like a man." I digress. There's probably a whole thesis to be written on the men I work with...)

I managed to cycle home without incident, and then had a rather sweaty, disturbed and head-spinning night's sleep. Needless to say, I was not at my perky best this morning. I did start the morning reasonably well, as LittleBear and I cycled to the library and then retired to the local cafe so I could top up my caffeine levels and read the much-coveted books we'd collected to LittleBear.

So far, so splendid.

And then we went to a party.

In a soft-play centre.

With the remains of a hangover.

LittleBear ended up exhausted, dripping in sweat and tanked up on cake.

I ended up hoarse, aurally assaulted and randomly weeping in front of a good friend, and a new friend that I barely know. Because I find the best way to break down the stigma about mental health is to discuss post-natal depression at the top of my voice in a crowded public venue and then start crying.

The afternoon went downhill from there.

Once exhausted, LittleBear and I are both prone to irrationality, irritability, and inexplicable fits of weeping. We indulged in all of these pastimes liberally all afternoon.

LittleBear accused BigBear of kicking him during a game of football (untrue). LittleBear did kick BigBear in a fit of pique. Twice. LittleBear sobbed at the injustice of me scoring a goal in football when he "wasn't ready" and then he became immensely overwrought at his inability to play golf(!) on his first attempt*. Then it became clear that a certain amount of confusion existed about how exactly one played golf - "I threw the ball in the air ten times and I didn't hit it once Mummy!". Things didn't improve when I showed him that the traditional method is to start with the ball on the floor and to swing the club at it. He ended up hurling the club on the floor and stamping on it. Which is a state attempting to play golf has reduced me to in the past as well, to be honest. But nobody really wants him to grow up like me, so we had to Have Words.

Meanwhile I exercised all my best parenting skills: I shouted at him. I ignored him. I told him he was doing things wrong. I threatened to take his toys away**.

And then it was, finally, bedtime. And I cuddled him, a lot. And I said sorry for shouting. And cuddled him some more. And read to him. And cuddled him some more. And read some more. And cuddled some more. And we whispered sweet nothings to each other, and it will all be alright tomorrow. Because tomorrow is another day.

* Instead of the usual collection of random objects in a party bag, the children were all given a miniature golf club and four plastic golf balls. It would probably have been a good idea not to simply say, "yes dear, you have a go with them in the garden while I cook dinner."

** To do myself justice, I did also sit on the floor and write a new story with him, and read books to him, and giggle and play with him. But the crappy bits are easier to remember, and always feel as though they dominate.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The looming cloud

LittleBear has, in general, been a well-behaved and kind little boy. Not the sort of little boy to get into trouble. The sort of little boy, in fact, who becomes immensely distressed and remorseful if he even approaches being told off. Which is why it was such a surprise today to be taken aside after school by his teacher to be told that he'd been "put on the cloud".*

I was informed that he had been seen holding child "A" still, while child "B" hit "A". Which sounded pretty horrific. I was assured that LittleBear had immediately apologised to "A" and that it was completely out of character, and not something they'd expect from him at all. Which I suppose is a good thing, but nonetheless alarming.

And lo, a very woebegone little figure straggled his way out of the classroom, burrowed his way into my arms and promptly burst into tears. He was incoherent and begged only to go home. We sat on a bench for a little bit while I cuddled my forlorn LittleBear and assured him that I loved him and wasn't cross, and that I just wanted to know what had happened. Which proved too big a demand on his powers of explanation. So we went home. Except we didn't, because by the time we'd got to the end of the road he'd found two little friends who (with their mothers) had their eyes set on the nearby cafe. So we went there instead, since I decided chocolate was required to restore equanimity more than an interrogation was needed.

Once more or less restored to his sunny little self (a self that was going out of its way to be enormously helpful and accommodating I couldn't help but notice!) I began to get to the bottom of the police-brutality-style incident.
Naturally, LittleBear's version of events involved the obligatory "he hit me first" and "I wasn't even doing anything" statements. However, once such pronouncements are tactfully put to one side and greater detail obtained, it becomes possible to plot the middle ground between the playground supervisor's view, and LittleBear's view. I then come up with something that sounds more realistic...

It seems that LittleBear and two of his friends were playing on the pirate ship in the playground. Another group of friends (including "A" and "B") wanted to play a different game on the same pirate ship. LittleBear's group deemed this an unacceptable intrusion and refused to countenance it, citing the irrefutable logic "they'll spoil our game". It is unclear what form this refusal took - verbal or physical. The secondary group attempted to seize control of the ship by force, at which LittleBear's group responded in like fashion and prepared to repel boarders. A mêlée ensued. LittleBear attempted to grapple "A" off the ship, only to have "B", inexplicably in LittleBear's eyes, land a blow on "A".

It was at that fateful moment that the playground supervisor took note of the events, and reported back to LittleBear's teacher. You can see how it would look bad.

LittleBear feels that he has been unjustly victimised in being the only recipient of a "cloud". Though this in itself may not be true, as my drama monkey is fond of the absolute declarations still, and "I'm the only one on the cloud" is a statement to be taken with a pinch of salt.

So, here I am, using all of these events as a "teachable moment"...
  • we can learn empathy ("which human babies start to learn when they're 2 Mummy. It said so on the Blue Planet"). The other children also wanted to play on the pirate ship, and they would have felt sad if you didn't let them wouldn't they?
  • we can learn to share. If you'd taken it in turns, or found a space for two games, that might have worked better mightn't it? 
  • we can learn that violence is never the correct solution to a problem.
  • we can learn that life's not always fair. That sometimes you'll be told off for things that you didn't do, and that sometimes you won't be told off when you did do something wrong.
  • we can learn that it's important to always tell the truth. If you admit when you've done something wrong, then people will trust you and believe you, because it takes courage to admit to wrongdoing. And then if you ever need to say, "but it wasn't me!" you'll be believed. But if you always say, "it wasn't me" nobody will believe you, even when it's true. Just like admitting to hand-ball when playing football with Mummy and Daddy means we believe you when you say it wasn't hand-ball. (LittleBear is remarkably honest about declaring when he commits this particular infringement).
And when I write all that, it sounds to me like I've really cracked this parenting lark. Look at me, finding ways to help my son become a better person! See my smugness as I guide my son's development and understanding! I should be on the sunshine for that.

But I still want to tell LittleBear's teacher that it wasn't what it looked like, that he's a good child and that he didn't do what she says he did. I want to defend him. To insist he's not a thug and a bully. I want to clear his name, un-blot his copy-book, restore his reputation. I become one of those awful parents who never believe ill of their child, who insist that their angel wouldn't hurt a fly, who deny all wrongdoing even when they have no evidence to back their position. I want to rush in and change the narrative, restore my boy to his position as the child who's never been on the cloud.

I won't though. Because I wasn't there and I didn't see it. Because, no matter what I believe, I don't know what really transpired. Because helping LittleBear manage these events is a more important part of being his mother than defending him from all accusations of wrongdoing, justified or not. Because I need to let it go.

But if any of you see me heading towards LittleBear's teacher in the playground tomorrow, you have my permission to restrain me...

* LittleBear's school has a weather-based system for good and poor behaviour. General helpfulness, kindness or goodness and your name label is placed on a sunshine. Acts of helpfulness of kindness above and beyond the call of duty and you are elevated to the dizzy heights of the rainbow, complete with receipt of a rainbow sticker. Poor behaviour will provoke a visit to the cloud. Persistent or extreme acts of poor behaviour warrant the rain cloud and the parents must be involved.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

The eternal cliché

My son is growing up too fast.

I told you it was a cliché.

I so clearly remember those first weeks and months when I was literally counting the days, and wondering how I would get through them. Wondering how old LittleBear would be before I started to enjoy being a mother. Calculating the percentage of time I was towards LittleBear starting school. Desperately finding ways to fill the days with other people or activities so I didn't sit at home, staring at my baby and wondering what the hell I was supposed to do with him, and whether he would ever forgive me for being such a failure as a mother.

I wished the time away, I watched the clock and waited for BigBear to get home from work and relieve me. On one occasion I phoned him at work, begging him to come home* as I couldn't bear it, I was convinced my baby hated me and would never love me. I wanted anything but to carry on being mother to a baby. I didn't want to be needed so constantly. I didn't want to be responsible for the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of this helpless being. There was so much I could get so terribly wrong.

And then I was diagnosed with post natal depression, and I started taking anti-depressants, and I found my way back to the light, and I found myself again, and I discovered that I could be me and LittleBear's mother at the same time. And I began to enjoy days spent with him, and we bonded and played and fell in love.

And today Facebook popped up with a photograph of my little boy from 5 years ago, when he was 6 months old, and I was reminded just how adorable he was**:

My baby

And at that point he was still very much mine. He was my little baby, barely starting to play with solid food, grown in my body, fed from my body, every ounce of him a product of what my body could do***.

And now, come 7 o'clock in the morning, a child who weighs more than a third of my bodyweight, and is considerably more than half my height trundles into our bedroom and scrambles on top of me for a cuddle. And I can still manage to wrap him up into a ball of cuddle, both my arms enfolding him, tucking him under my chin to snuggle the silky soft hair, but he's so big now.

And he's so obviously not mine in the same way that that little baby was. He is not mine to own, to manage, to rule. He is a person, and one who I have the privilege to guide, to nurture and to protect. But he does not owe me anything. I have no power, and desire no power, to dictate the path his life will take. I am here to instill values of decency and humanity in him. To teach him how to love and be loved. To lift him when he falls, to hold him when he cries, to feed his body and mind and to help him do and be all that he can. But I do not possess him.

He is already an independent person. He is all that I begged and hoped that he would be. He does not need me, body and soul, every moment of the day. He does not derive all his strength and growth from my body. He does not learn all his knowledge from my lips. He is not mine. He is his own. And that is both wonderful and terrifying.

Please don't grow up too fast LittleBear.

* Needless to say, BigBear came straight home. He gave me strength when I had none. 
** Yes, obviously I'm biased.

*** Ever conscious of the implied and inferred criticisms that swirl around such things, this does not mean I am passing judgement on anyone who didn't breastfeed their child. I just remember it suddenly dawning on me that ALL his growth came from me in one way or another, and it was quite an extraordinary thought. 

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

A drop in the ocean

Call it extreme if you like, but I propose we hit it hard and hit it fast with a major - and I mean major - leaflet campaign.
 Rimmer, Red Dwarf, S3, Ep3, "Polymorph"

Anyone who's known me for any length of time - say more than about 24 hours - will have discovered that my political leanings are generally left of centre. This hasn't always been an easy position to hold, given my start in life. I don't mean either that I started with a silver spoon in my mouth, or by being sent up a chimney aged five. No, I simply started life in the true-blue heartlands of the south-east, attending a private girls' school. 

It was the kind of school where, once my fellow pupils discovered that I was supporting what was then the SDP-Liberal Alliance, I was labelled a Communist. Seriously. A vaguely wishy-washy, unelectable, moderate, centrist party was tantamount to communism. Which was something of a shock after having stood as Michael Foot in my (state) primary school mock election without anyone batting an eyelid, either at my gender or politics.

It was the kind of school where one of my compatriots actually wore a black arm band when Maggie was ousted by her own party. I still hold that in my own mind as perhaps one of the most extraordinary political acts I have ever witnessed in the flesh.

It was the kind of school where I completely failed to convince anybody, ever, that being born to rich parents shouldn't entitle a child to an automatically better education than being born to poor parents. Honestly, it's a mystery. I kept trying to tell the daughters of well-off parents who were receiving a privileged education that having well-off parents shouldn't be a good enough reason to receive a privileged education, and somehow what I was saying fell on deaf ears.

The one thing that I did do as a child, more or less from when I can remember, is deliver election leaflets around the neighbourhood with my mother. 

And I'm now doing the same thing in my own neighbourhood, this time without my mother. And it has led me to conclude that Fen-village is a considerably nicer place to deliver Liberal leaflets than Home-Counties-town. I've even reached the point where I don't feel obliged to deliver leaflets under the cover of darkness just in case.

In Home-Counties-town I used to be terrified of the overweight, middle-aged stockbrokers and lawyers out washing their cars and mowing their lawns, because they would take one look at a scruffy little girl with a yellow leaflet clutched in her sweaty little hand and sneeringly say, "we won't be voting for them, you can keep it". And I would feel mortified. In Fen-village, I nearly sank into the ground the first time I encountered the resident of a house as I attempted to deliver a leaflet. He said, "here, I'll take it". I quaked. But he took it. I felt myself starting to flush scarlet and wonder whether there was anywhere to hide. But he didn't give it back. Or tell me he hated my party. Or wave a blue rosette at me. I nearly fell over instead.

In Home-Counties-town, every other house appeared to be occupied by either a small, yapping, psycopathic dog that wanted to rip my fingers off at the knuckles, or a beast the approximate dimensions and temperament of the Hound of the Baskervilles. In Fen-village there are lots of cats, and they all want to be my friend.

In Home-Counties-town, people had a strange habit of having letter boxes at the bottom of their doors, armed with sprung flaps strong enough to rip your fingers off - perhaps to provide tasty snacks for the psycopathic yappy dogs. Nobody in Fen-village has put their letter box very far from a conventional height.

So I'm now delivering leaflets in daylight, because I'm not quite as scared of the people in Fen-village. Because I'm no longer surrounded by people who keep pets who'd rather eat your liver than have their ears scratched. Because I'm surrounded by people with cats and sensible letter boxes. My people. 

And I'm going to keep delivering leaflets, for all the difference it's going to make. Because there isn't much else I can do, but I want to do something more than just put my "x" in a box. [And if you want to know why I won't be voting blue, and I will be voting yellow, it's pretty much the same reasons as last time].

Saturday, 29 April 2017

A grotesque culinary assault

Normally, when I write about food, I'm writing about LittleBear and his unwillingness to eat anything that other small children might consider normal. And, though I've been tempted to write more on that subject of late, this time I'm writing about one of my own food encounters.

I work in an engineering firm, and my engineering firm follows the age-old British tradition of going out for a pie-and-a-pint on a Friday lunchtime. Now, this doesn't actually have to include either a pie or a pint, but it's nice to have the option. And the pub that we've been going to every lunchtime for more than a decade has become almost as set in its way as we have. So much so, that despite repeated exhortations from their most long-standing customers, they refuse to cook pie on a Friday. Because, apparently, Monday is pie-day. So we have shaken off the shackles of habit and are exploring other local eateries.

To attempt to form a fair and balanced assessment of each establishment, we are making sure that we all choose a different item from the lunch menu, and compare notes on the results. Last Friday I chose the fisherman's pie, something I felt was hard to get catastrophically wrong, but has scope to be done really, really well.

My colleagues variously chose ham, egg and chips, liver and bacon and a burger. It was that kind of pub. And then the food came... a burger, a plate of liver and bacon and... a fish burger? I went all British on the young man bringing the food and very foolishly said, "I ordered a fisherman's pie, but if you haven't got one, I'll just have that instead." He affirmed that they didn't have fisherman's pie, and gave me the fish burger. I was expecting something along the lines of a fishcake in a burger bun, or some form of breaded fish in a roundish, burgerish shape. I am partial to the occasional fishfinger sandwich, so I thought I was more or less ready for anything. I was wrong.  I was not ready for a piece of battered cod perched inside a bun.

Cautiously I opened the lid of the burger bun to inspect the contents. Yes, it was a piece of battered cod, rather as you might expect in a fish and chippie. Lurking beneath it were some slices of tomato and shreds of lettuce. The bun was gently toasted. So far, so not-too-appalling. But, dear God, what was that? It was cheese. Melted cheese on top of the fish. I poked it. I stretched it. I plucked a piece and tasted it. Cheese. On a piece of battered cod.

At this point, I backed away from the whole idea of eating it as an intact item. The textural contrasts on offer were not appealing. But since most of the ingredients were probably inoffensive, I was still willing to deconstruct my own lunch. A few swift manoeuvres later and I had a pretty good toasted bun, a little heap of salad and a piece of battered fish, still irrevocably adorned with cheese, but I could mine my way beneath the insulting upper layer. So mine I did. Right up until I reached the uncooked fish in the middle.

I was willing to overlook the peculiar nature of the meal.

I was willing to overlook the use of cheese on battered fish.

I was not willing to overlook raw fish.

I finally sent it back. And in its place I received the fisherman's pie I'd ordered originally. And it was covered in cheese. What is wrong with these people? Not only did they assault me with a gratuitously unpleasant meal when they could have brought the dish I'd ordered in the first place, but they appear to have a fetish for cheesy fish. There are a very few occasions where fish and cheese belong together:

1. Smoked salmon and cream cheese.
2. Erm...
3. That's it.

There is no occasion when battered cod should be accompanied by melted ersatz cheddar.

Suffice to say, we do not intend to grace the portals of that particular eating establishment with our presence again.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Bad parenting

Getting LittleBear home from school is something of a juggling act. I suspect getting most small children home is something of a juggling act, but this isn't about most small children, it's about LittleBear and me. I collect LittleBear from school in the car, as I come straight from work, even though he cycles to school every morning. So, on top of the normal school detritus of bags and coats and gloves and water bottles, I have to attempt to wrestle LittleBear's bicycle and helmet into the car and then out of it again once home.

And today, on top of the regular school stuff, and on top of the additional bicycling equipment, I also had an unwieldy thing made during "junk modelling". And a huge roll of paper on which one of his little friends and he had created a (more or less abstract) artwork titled "Spring". And an extra bag of books purchased at "Book Savings Club". And my own laptop and lab-book. And my own coat and bicycle helmet, which was still in the car from the morning's ride to school*.

Quite frankly it was a miracle I got it all home, and managed to get it all into the house once home, with only four trips to and from the car.

No parenting failure yet is there? Quite the reverse, a positive parenting success in being home, intact, with all our stuff by 3:20.

And no parenting failure when reading with LittleBear, or playing football, or building a dinosaur den in the playroom, or feeding him dinner, or bathing him, or putting him to bed.

And then I needed to pop down to the local shop for some bits for dinner. And since it was still light and the weather was relatively clement, I went on my bicycle. I was about to set off when I realised all my shopping bags were in the car, so I paused to grab a bag.

And here is where the parenting failure was identified. It had actually occurred at 3:20, but only revealed to me at 7:45.

I opened the car, and a little voice miaowed at me.

My poor, stupid puss had climbed into the nice warm car while I was unloading all our stuff, and I'd failed to notice him and locked him in there for four and a half hours.

To make me feel even more of a heel, my poor, stupid puss now loves me more than ever, and wants to be with me all the time, because I rescued him from his prison. I am trying to console myself with the fact that poor, stupid puss was happily curled up in LittleBear's car-seat and didn't seem particularly distressed, but the guilt was sufficiently overwhelming that I was forced to share my salmon with him. And now I'm hungry.

* I cycled to school with LittleBear, pelted home, hurled the bike in the bike shed and drove to work. Hence the bike helmet ending up in the car. It makes sense in my world.

Still angry

[Foreword: I wrote this in October 2016 and never published it. It seemed a bit rabid, even for me. And then I came close to writing all the same things all over again now that we're faced with a general election and the probability that the government will increase their majority and use that majority to claim it's time the minority "shut up". I refuse to shut up. I refuse to be told that it's not right for the opposition to oppose. I refuse to sit down while prominent newspapers refer to democratic opposition as "saboteurs" and require them to be "crushed".]

I don't suppose it escaped the notice of anybody reading this blog that I was just a little bit anti-Brexit. Or that I was more than a hint upset at the outcome of the referendum. And it probably won't come as a huge surprise to hear that I'm still not exactly happy about the result, or about the words and actions of our political overlords.

There's one particular thing that's really, really, really winding me up at the moment though. It's not the tanking pound, it's not the xenophobia, it's not the insulting attitude to "foreign" doctors within the NHS, it's not even the embarrassment of having Boris Johnson representing us on the world stage. Those things are all separately worthy of my ire, but they're not the things that are niggling at me like a tiny pebble in the shoe of life. The thing that's currently pushing my blood pressure up is the attitude being shown towards anyone who voted "Remain".

According to Paul Dacre, the poison-peddling, scum-swilling, EU-subsidised* editor of the Daily Mail the "Bremoaners" are whinging, contemptuous and unpatriotic. Obviously I shouldn't pay any attention to what that particularly odious man, and his vile rag, say. Except he either reflects or informs the views of an alarming number of people. And that alarming number of people include those who say that Remain-voters should "get on with it", or "shut up and stop being sore losers", or that we were "wrong" because more people voted Leave than Remain, or that we are damaging the economy by complaining, or that we are a sneering metropolitan elite, out of touch with reality, or that the "overwhelming majority" voted to Leave the EU and we should just leave now and make the best of it.

Let's get some things straight:

1. Majority opinion does not confer "rightness". All it does is indicate the views of the majority, and there is nothing to pre-suppose that just because most people believe something it automatically becomes true or right. People, and I generously include myself in that, are quite capable of being very, very wrong, in very, very large numbers.

2. As a Remain-voter, of course I think voting Leave was the wrong thing to do. If I thought leaving was the right thing to do, I'd have voted Leave. The outcome of the Referendum did not make me shrug my shoulders and think "Aw, shucks, I was wrong." This is not "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" There was not a right or wrong answer, revealed only after we'd had a go at answering the question. And, I am completely entitled to continue holding my opinion, and disagreeing with yours.

3. Me disliking the outcome of the referendum, and fearing for the political, social and economic consequences has absolutely no effect on the value of the pound. Or on the likelihood of multinationals pulling out of the UK or not. I have not suddenly jacked in my job, stopped spending in local shops, given up paying taxes or in any other way ceased to be a contributing member of society and the economy. I am, in fact, working just as hard as ever, building scientific instruments for export. Stop trying to blame other people for the consequences of the political acts of this government. Political acts being undertaken based on your vote.

4. Sixteen million, one hundred and forty-one thousand, two hundred and forty-one people voted to Remain in the EU. This is not an "elite". This is not a small slice of over-paid, over-educated urbanites who patronisingly think they know best. This is not the top 1% of earners in the country. This is not sneering, public-school-educated, home-counties dwellers. This is a large swathe of the country.

5. A split of 51.9% to 48.9% is not an "overwhelming" majority. It is a small majority. And if the split had been the other way, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that those who voted Leave would be vociferous in demanding that their point of view was heard and respected. And they would be right. If the result shows anything, it shows that roughly similar numbers of people voted pro- and anti-EU. If we'd narrowly voted to remain, I'd fully expect our elected government to be working to reform the EU in the knowledge that nearly half the electorate were unhappy with our membership. And in the current situation, I expect our elected government to attempt to extricate ourselves from the EU while retaining strong links in the knowledge that nearly half the electorate were happy with our membership. Yeah, good joke isn't it?

6. The answer "No" to the question "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?" is not a mandate to do anything the government feels like. Repeatedly gibbering "Brexit means Brexit" sheds no light whatsoever on the subject. The electorate expressed an opinion on membership of the EU. It is an outright lie to claim that that opinion can be taken as a mandate on immigration, the European Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Justice, the Single Market, financial passporting, customs union or any other matter. The people were not explicitly asked about any of those issues, so cannot be deemed to have given an answer on them.

7. Why the hell should I shut up? Since when did being in the minority suddenly mean I have to be silent, bowing obsequiously to the vocal majority and their mighty opinions? Isn't it at the very heart of democracy that I should have the right to hold and express whatever political opinion I want?**

* Yes, that's right, Paul Dacre's estates received £88,000 in agricultural subsidies from the EU in 2014. Nothing like a nice bit of pocket-lining hypocrisy with your morning coffee.

** Within reason, and within the bounds of the law, obviously.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Play up, play up and play the game

LittleBear has invented a new game. He's often doing that, and they're generally games involving some form of make-believe, and invariably require me to crawl around the floor and/or be surprisingly stupid. I'm getting pretty good at both of those things. Now, however, he's invented a game with rules for us to play. The first set of rules resulted in an unwinnable game, so they had to be modified. The second set of rules resulted in a game that was not biased heavily enough in LittleBear's favour, so they had to be modified. The third set of rules are just right. And quite complicated.

Essentially it's a game of chase. Involving an extinct crocodilian. And a football.

Look, I said it was complicated, OK?

How to Play:
Player 1 attempts to get from one end of the garden to the other, without being bitten by the Sarcosuchus. Player 2 is holding the Sarcosuchus.

If Player 1 is bitten by the Sarcosuchus, his or her feet are instantly stuck to the ground, and can only be released by Player 1 catching a football. The ball is kicked by Player 2.

If Player 1 does not catch the football, Player 2 receives 1 point.

If Player 1 catches the football, and is bitten on the next "run", his or her feet do not have to remain in one place when attempting to catch the football.

If Player 1 successfully reaches the end of the garden, he or she "steals" 1 point from Player 2.

How to Win:
Player 1 wins if he or she catches the ball on three consecutive attempts.


Player 1 wins if he or she reaches 5 points.

Player 2 wins if he or she reaches 10 points.

The keen students of Game Theory will have spotted the point in this game at which it is impossible for Player 2 to lose. Player 2 can, and does, kick the football in any direction. Player 1's feet are "stuck" to the ground. Player 1, unsurprisingly, despite comedic and valiant attempts to hurl herself on the ground without moving her feet, is unable to catch the football. Player 2 receives a point.

The absence of any defining rules for the starting positions for Players 1 and 2 allow Player 2 (and the Sarcosuchus) to start approximately half an arm's length away from Player 1, thus rendering escape well nigh impossible.

Unfortunately, this game was so much fun that Player 1 and Player 2 were forced to swap roles, requiring muggins here to occasionally catch LittleBear, in a manner that wasn't deemed "unfair" and then kick a football in such a way as to be just hard enough to catch that LittleBear didn't feel I wasn't trying, but not so hard that he actually couldn't catch it. And I can assure you that my footballing skills fall well short of that targeting nirvana.

It all ended in tears.

But apparently we have to play again after school tonight.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Surviving the holidays

Picture the scene...

It is the Easter holidays, and therefore LittleBear is at home, in the company of either BigBear or me, for two weeks. And because I have a tactical advantage over BigBear, he spends all day occupying LittleBear while I Arrange Things To Do. Because I've spent a LOT of time at home with LittleBear over the past five years, and I have an arsenal of Things To Do that prevent me turning into a deranged tyrant after the 73rd iteration of pretending to be a rhinoceros who doesn't know how to build lego models. My tactical advantage is not that I know that having Things To Do is a good thing, BigBear knows this, he's not an idiot. My tactical advantage is that I know other people who also possess small children and who also need Things To Do, so I can plan to Do Things together, and ease the pain provide entertainment for my beloved son.

Friday was one such day. I invited a SchoolFriend for a play date (accompanied by his mother, who I have a habit of going to the pub with, I'm not a masochist you know). Naturally, LittleBear, being the contrary soul that he is, about half an hour before SchoolFriend arrived, declared he'd rather not play with SchoolFriend, he'd rather carry on playing with me. But since the rhinoceros was on strike, and I'm trying to instill some social skills in my son, I explained that SchoolFriend was still coming and they'd definitely have a lovely time. And they did. More lovely than I had planned for.

For what may well be the very first time, LittleBear disappeared off to play with a friend without requiring any input from me whatsoever. He and SchoolFriend remained engrossed in playing with lego, while OtherMother and I sat in the sun and drank tea. And then LittleBear and SchoolFriend disappeared upstairs, carrying boxes and boxes of lego with them. Then they reappeared downstairs, once again carting the lego around. And then... then... this is the point where I made a terrible mistake. I'll let you see if you can spot it...

LittleBear asked, "can we see if the lego boat floats?"

You see, it's easy to spot the error isn't it? You can see how things could all go terribly wrong or terribly right at this point, depending upon my answer.

The correct answer would have been, "no dear, don't do that".

The incorrect answer was, "well, I suppose so, but please don't experiment with the rest of the lego, because it's not designed to float*."

To give myself some credit, I did go and check on them once, and there was a shallow pool of cold water in the bath, with the lego boat happily floating. All was well. So I retreated to my cup of tea and natter. And then, just when I least expected it, a small naked LittleBear came charging into the room giggling, then turned and fled, pursued by two alarmed mothers, one of whom was calling out, "has SchoolFriend taken his clothes off too?"

SchoolFriend had indeed removed his clothes. He was wearing nothing more than a beaming smile as he sat in splendour in the bath, surrounded by all the lego you can imagine. And LittleBear immediately scrambled back in with him, and without batting an eyelid, they started attempting to demonstrate which vehicles floated (none by this point, as they'd filled the boat with water) and which sank (all of them). There wasn't the faintest trace of any thought that they maybe shouldn't be in the bath with the lego. In truth, it was both adorable and extremely funny.

We picked our way gingerly across the puddles on the floor, the cast off bits of lego, the plastic boxes, the discarded, soggy clothes and the vague scattering of sharks, and attempted to start removing boys and toys from the bath. And discovered just how cold the bath water was. It was slightly surprising that hypothermia wasn't setting in. LittleBear assured me that it was alright, as they'd put bubble bath in to make the bath warm by insulating it with a layer of bubbles**. The presence of a bottle of foaming soap, a bottle of liquid soap and a bottle of bubble bath on the side of the bath, and the strangely, well, slippery, feel to both children should have alerted me to just how valiantly they had attempted to make bubbles... Suffice to say, all the lego had to have another bath later to wash the bubble bath off, and we had to start a new bottle at (real) bathtime as the bottle I'd bought on Thursday was already mysteriously empty.

Which, as my mother says, just goes to show something or other.

I think it shows that while it is a great relief to have LittleBear finally content to trundle off and play with a friend unaccompanied, this is not the same thing as being safe to trundle off and play with a friend unsupervised. It may also show that my tactical advantage over BigBear is perhaps neither tactical, nor an advantage.

But I'm pretty certain we'll be having SchoolFriend back to play, as they had a lovely time, and it was only water (and a few bubbles). If his mother will let him come again that is.

* The lego boat has a single piece hull and is in fact advertised as "really floats!"

** I'm delighted by this thinking, but feel I might need to work on his grasp of thermodynamics.

Friday, 7 April 2017

There's probably an -ism for it

There have been a few things I've read recently that have triggered thoughts about girls and women studying science, and what stands in their way, or whether it matters. And there's a nagging theme running through the things I've read that I'm not sure I have quite put my finger on, but I'm going to give it a go...

Firstly, there's been an interesting study by the Institute of Physics about how to improve the take-up of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects amongst girls at school. Interestingly, the key to encouraging young women to study science didn't really have much to do with the teaching of science. Instead, the biggest impact was when a whole-school approach was taken to identifying and eradicating sexist ideas, particularly the unconscious attitudes held by staff and students, and to boosting the overall confidence of the young women. Not their confidence in undertaking science specifically, but their confidence in doing and being whatever they want. And when given that confidence, and when made aware of unconscious bias and given the language and tools to tackle it, and when free to choose to study what they want rather than what they should, more girls will study STEM subjects. What is more, more boys will study "female" subjects. It's almost as though showing and telling children that we are all simply people, and that interests and abilities are not dictated by gender, liberates those children to follow their hearts and not societal preconceptions.

And then there was an article in the Guardian about the importance of teaching art, drama, music and dance rather than focussing too hard on STEM subjects. And I found it deeply, deeply insulting and offensive. Not because I disagree that there is an important place for the expressive arts in our lives and our schools, but because of the attitude that only the arts can teach creativity, and that science and engineering are not inherently creative but require that injection from the arts. Science and engineering are nothing without creativity, and when well taught, that creativity and inspiration is part and parcel of their study.

I am a scientist, and proud of being one, and I'm damned if I'm going to be told that the only way to be any good at it is to express myself through the medium of dance. There is no more truth in that then there is in claiming that a sculptor can only truly appreciate and work with marble once they have a thorough understanding of metamorphic geology. And there is an absurdity in claiming that teaching STEM subjects without expressive arts subjects will "produce clones of the robots that will threaten our children’s jobs", particularly in a world where ballet schools exist. It's hard to think of a regime more designed to churn out clones than classical ballet training, and an insult to suggest the teaching STEM subjects is destined to create "clones" with no imagination or creativity.

There doesn't immediately seem that big a connection between these two articles, aside from them being vaguely about education and STEM subjects. Except I think there is. I think there's an underlying presumption that still exists, and that even the Institute of Physics buys into, that science is different. That scientists are odd. That we need special measures. That our subjects need tender loving care to prosper in schools and children need coaxing to study them. That there is something wrong with being a scientist, something that makes you other, different, lacking. That left to their own devices, scientists will have no interest in the arts, and vice versa. That scientists are inherently un-creative, uninterested in art, music, dance or drama. That the world is divided into Us and Them, and each must be coerced into taking an interest in the other. It's almost as though C.P. Snow never existed for all the progress we appear to have made in eradicating the concept of Two Cultures.

I may be a scientist and proud of it, but that doesn't stop me from going to classical music concerts, or art galleries. It doesn't mean I don't enjoy reading the short-listed books for Booker Prize, or practising calligraphy. Being a scientist doesn't mean I have no interest or enthusiasm beyond science, or that I am incapable of appreciating other disciplines. And the same is true (in reverse) for some of my favourite humanities graduates - they possess an intellect and a curiosity about the world around them that encompasses science, language, art, technology, music and much, much more.

So how's this for a radical idea? How about we stop perpetuating the myth that science is "too hard" or that it's only for men. How about we stop pretending that there's a yawning chasm between sciences and humanities and that you're either one of Us or one of Them. How about we treat all our children as people, all of whom have infinite potential and need only to be given the confidence and encouragement to find their own path through life, irrespective of gender or societal expectation. How about we teach our children a wide range of arts and sciences, not because one is "needed" more than other, or more important, or more valuable, but because a broad education provides a richer, fuller life and greater capacity to understand and appreciate the world around you and the people in it. How about we view education as something valuable in its own right, not simply as a means to create fodder for the economy, but as a means to stretch our minds, bodies and lives, to enrich ourselves and our world and to enable every child to fulfill their potential and find their niche whilst being exposed to life's rich tapestry along the way.

Nah, you're right, it'll never catch on...

Monday, 27 March 2017

How to Go Out

Yesterday evening, BigBear and I took the plunge. We went out. Or, as local vernacular has it, we went out out. Properly out. With each other. Without LittleBear. In the evening.

We employed a babysitter. She has, briefly, met LittleBear before, as she's my boss' daughter, and has been to the company barbecue at our house. However, she's quite shy and quiet, and LittleBear has traditionally had little interest in teenage girls, so I'm not really sure she'd crossed his radar much.

I've got some great top tips for trying to go out-out when you have a small and clingy boy...

1. Make sure you choose to go out on the day the clocks have changed, thus ensuring that your child is not tired and doesn't go to sleep when you put him to bed at what is essentially an hour before his normal bedtime.

2. Make sure you choose to go out near the end of term in your child's first year at school, thus maximising your child's emotional exhaustion and need to be with Mummy at all times, even when asleep.

3. Make sure that the story book your child brings home from school for his reading practice involves a child being left at home with a babysitter and his parents getting stuck in a snowstorm and not coming home.

3(a) Prior to step 3, ensure that your child is particularly sensitive, does not like even the slightest hint of peril, and is guaranteed to spend his time worrying about what happens in all storybooks. This will help maximise the impact of step 3.

The net result of this brilliant setup is that you can then go out for a whole hour and a half and spend all of it worrying about whether your child is sobbing in your absence, and merely the majority of your time talking about the child who might or might not be sobbing, which you could perfectly well have done while sitting at home. Except you wouldn't have done because he'd be happily tucked up in bed, and definitely not sobbing, and so you wouldn't have been quite so pre-occupied.

LittleBear did not sob all evening. LittleBear did not in fact disturb the babysitter at all. We had a nice curry, and did talk about at least two other things besides LittleBear. I hope that we will do this again, but with less clinging and desperation from LittleBear. I am aware that this may be a forlorn hope.

LittleBear saved up his sobbing and being distressed for this evening, when I had to repeatedly return to his room for extra cuddles and reassurance. LittleBear's bodyclock has unreasonably refused to instantly adapt to British Summer Time and so this performance continued for approximately an hour after bedtime. I am tempted to start one of those stupid online petitions lobbying for not changing the damn clocks. I hate changing the clocks. 

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Here we go again

It would appear that I have lapsed into a "Moog".

It would appear that I lapse into a "Moog" on a fairly regular basis.

You can probably guess from the sound of it, and the fact that one can lapse into one, that a "Moog" is not a flavour of ice-cream, and nor is it the classic electronic synthesiser. Technically, "The Moog" to which I refer is this one:

The Moog

A particularly gormless dog from a children's television programme of my youth called Willo the Wisp.

Somehow the combination of his name, his lack of brain and his rotund dumpiness sum together to express how I feel when I'm down quite succinctly. And telling BigBear that I'm "in a Moog" is quicker, and more emotionally accurate, than saying "I'm suffering a hint of existential angst, combined with fatigue, and a general dissatisfaction with the direction my life is taking, a lack of motivation to change that direction and a crisis of self-confidence." And fortunately, he understands The Moog. He has been known to experience The Moog himself.

The Moog is not the same as the Black Dog of depression; it is less severe, less all encompassing, and generally easier to shake off. But it still leaves me glum, prone to feelings of isolation and loneliness even amongst friends, tearful and with a sense of futility. It is The Moog.

Now that I've introduced you to The Moog, I can get back to where I intended to start, which was to elucidate on my current Moog...

It's about feeling stuck.

About having dreams and not realising them.

About spending my life urgently trying to get unimportant things done.

About repeating the same cycle of working and cooking and cleaning and eating and sleeping and playing week after week after week and never looking up. Never looking beyond the end of my nose for long enough to make a plan that extends beyond the end of the current week.

About watching my life trickle past and not seizing the day.

About being afraid that even if I lifted my head and gazed to the horizon I still wouldn't have the gumption to do anything.

Some of these feelings have been triggered by the pernicious influence that is Facebook. I know (really I do) that the lives presented to the world on Facebook only bear a passing resemblance to reality, and that most people only showcase the happy, good and beautiful moments. I know that looking at Facebook and thinking that it represents anything other than about 5% of anyone's life is madness. But it isn't other people's apparent perfection that has triggered The Moog this time. No. It's the wide variety of things other people are doing that remind me of all the things I'm not doing. It isn't so much that someone else is doing it that's the problem, it's the reminder that I have dreams and aspirations that I can't or won't or don't pursue that's the problem.

I've written before about the conflict that exists between my dreams and my gumption. So even though I'm gazing jealously at exploring tombs in Egypt, visiting the Burgess Shale, climbing volcanoes, diving in the Red Sea, skiing in the Swiss Alps, swimming in the Caribbean or exploring Thailand*, I'm solemnly planning whether to spend 1 or 2 weeks in the Lake District this summer rather than anything more exotic or adventurous.

I excuse my lack of adventuring on the grounds of having a LittleBear in tow, but I know that's no real excuse. There are plenty of people who travel the world with a small child, or several such, tucked under an arm. My own parents did. My aunt and uncle did. My cousins did. My friends do.

I excuse my lack of adventuring on the grounds of not having time. But that's not really true either. I could book flights to Hanover as easily as driving to Hawkshead. But my own terrible fear of the unknown and unplanned means I can't, because I wouldn't just need to book the flights, I'd need to plan the details of where we'd go and what we'd do (and what and where we'd eat. The stress of what my LittleBear would eat in foreign climes is enough to make me feel sick with anxiety even typing about it...)

I read books and I watch television and I see what my friends are doing, and I wish that I could watch Nabucco at La Scala, or climb Machu Picchu, or explore the Amazon, or see the northern lights, or watch whales, or clamber around Angkor Wat, or hike in New Zealand, or sip coffee in Prague, or sail amongst the Greek islands, or stand on the Acropolis, or tour vineyards of the Loire, or walk along the Great Wall of China. And instead I stay right where I am. And if I think too hard about doing any of those other things, I get close to tears with the sheer terror of organising or undertaking something that doesn't happen within about 5 miles of my own home.

So, in an effort to combat The Moog, I'm trying to talk myself out of this negative spiral. I'm trying to remind myself of all the things I have done, and the places I have been. That I can do this. I can go to new places. I can try new experiences. I can be braver than this.

I've stood on top of Table Mountain and Pic Blanc. I've climbed the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum. I've explored Borobudur and Kinkakuji. I've swum in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans. I've taken a boat ride with dolphins in Australia and tracked lions on foot through the Zimbabwean bush. I've camped on an island in Lake Victoria, and rafted down the Kali Gandaki. I've watched the Cubs play at Wrigley Field and France play a World Cup match at Twickenham. I've been behind the wire at Los Alamos and to the bottom of a gold mine in the Witwatersrand. I've shopped in the souk of Marrakech and the Champs Elysee. I've walked along the streets of ancient Petra and the Via Appia. I've been beneath the Great Pyramids of Giza and floated on top of the Dead Sea. I've seen the Smoke That Thunders and scuba-dived in the Red Sea. 

By any reasonable standard, I've done an extraordinary number of things already. And, yes, some of them caused anxiety and stress. And some of them I know I wouldn't have done if they hadn't been organised by someone else. And I wouldn't have done them alone. But I have done them. And I can do things like that again. I don't have to give up. I don't have to let LittleBear's life be hemmed in by my fears. I don't have to take charge of every detail of every adventure I'd like to undertake. I can find ways of making it doable, possible, enjoyable, achievable.

But today, now, I'm going to hold onto the memory of the amazing places I've been and seen. The recollection that I am that person, that I have nothing to be envious of, and that being a forty-two year old mother of a 5 year old child does not have to mean I allow myself to stop and hide from the world.

I am PhysicsBear. Hear me squeak in a slightly less daunted way than I did yesterday.

* If you feel you resemble one of these descriptions, please don't feel that I don't want to read about what you're doing, or that I'm in any way criticising the fact that you're doing it. I'm just envious. Envious that you have the get up and go to get up and do. Envious that you're doing the things I'm not doing.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Public health services now offered

On Tuesdays I take LittleBear swimming. We have moved on from the "throw him in" teacher, and LittleBear has remained an aquatic bear. But now we go to a little pool attached to a primary school in a nearby area. An indoor swimming pool where the indoor area, including the changing room, is maintained at a temperature only marginally lower than that of lava. The experience of having to sit watching LittleBear is close to being in breach of the Geneva Convention. So by the time I've spent half an hour losing 3kg in sweat by the side of pool, I am feeling A Bit Flustered, and not usually in the mood for wrangling a clammy small boy into his clothes again.

So you can picture the scene...

... a small boy who has just spent half an hour exhausting himself attempting to swim front crawl, after a full day at school. He has entered Insanity Hour, where all sense and reason have departed and he is as likely to speak utter gibberish as anything else.

... I have removed as many clothes as is legal in public in an attempt not to collapse in a puddle of sweat.

... 8 adults and children, plus assorted siblings are attempting to get 8 soggy children dry and dressed in a space approximately large enough for 3 reasonable sized adults to move around without risking inappropriate physical contact with each other.

And I launch into a Joyce Grenfell-esque monologue:

"No, please don't tickle me. No, no tickling. Not with your foot either. No, tickling me with your foot while I'm trying to put your shirt on is not a good idea. Put your foot down. No, put your foot down on the floor. No, don't just swap feet. Don't tickle me with either of your feet. It's really not helping. See? Now you haven't got your arms in your shirt because you weren't concentrating. Where is your arm? It won't fit through the neck of your shirt. Please put your arms in your sleeves. One arm in each sleeve. Time for your trousers now. Please step into your trousers. No, step into them with your feet, not your arms. And don't tickle me. DO NOT tickle me down the front of my shirt. Why not? Because not everyone in the room wants to see my underwear. I don't know why they don't. Yes, I know it's pretty, but they still don't want to see it. I don't know, it's just how grown ups are. PLEASE STOP TICKLING ME while I'm getting you dressed. I just want to get you dressed so we can get out of this sauna. What's a sauna? It's a stupidly, stupidly hot room that no-one in their right mind would want to spend any time in. No, I don't know why it's so hot in here, but I'd really like you to stop tickling me until you've got your clothes on. No, I don't mean you can never, ever, ever tickle me ever again, I just don't want to be tickled right now. I want to finish getting your clothes on right now, and then when we're out of this room, then you can tickle me. Yes, really you can. No, please don't cry just because I've asked you not to tickle me. I stop tickling you when you ask me to, so please stop when I ask you to. I just want to get out of here, and THEN you can tickle me. Yes, really you can. As much as you want, as long as I can get out of here."

At which point a complete stranger came over to me, bent down and said, "It's such a relief to hear someone else having the same conversations as me. I feel less mad now".

I'll be providing a public health service in a swimming changing room near you any day now. Maye I need a new byline for my blog? "Making other mothers feel less mad, one swimming lesson at a time."

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

A weight swapped

My rash optimism yesterday that being liberated from Problem Employee would be a weight lifted from my mind was just that. Rash optimism. Unlike my colleagues, who tell me that they slept well and easily for the first time in months, I did not. I lay awake for a couple of hours after going to bed, and then woke early this morning. I feel unrested, unrelaxed and unrelieved.


Partly I feel terribly guilty. I have been instrumental in a man losing his job. Admittedly, he was ill-suited to the job, not fulfilling the requirements and making life very trying for everyone around him, but nonetheless, he's a man with a life and hopes and responsibilities who no longer has a job. What's more, I was one of the people who interviewed him for the post, and recommended that we appoint him. So I feel responsible for the fact that we chose poorly when recruiting.

Partly I feel like I have failed, that it is me that is not good enough. In the past 6 years, we've employed three new people to perform some of my job functions. Each time I've been involved in the recruiting. The first didn't last beyond his six month's probation. Despite a PhD in Physics from Cambridge University, part of which spent undertaking research at CERN, he quite frankly wasn't up to much. He didn't learn what we tried to teach him, he was arrogant, and he was unhelpful. So he left. The third (most recent) didn't last beyond his first year. Despite many years experience in electronics and engineering, he didn't learn what we tried to teach him, was arrogant and was unhelpful. Only the second was any use, and he's now moved on to a better job. (Hey M! Any chance you want to come back?)

Having read that, you're probably wondering why I feel as though I've failed. We've had two people who weren't good enough, or weren't what we wanted, and one who was just right. What's that got to do with me? Well, the common theme is that I was the one responsible for training and attempting to manage employees number 1 and 3. Employee number 2 was initially my maternity cover, so by definition his first year with us was spent in my absence.

So, what if it's me? What if it's that I'm simply totally crap at teaching people how to do what we need them to do? M did a great job when it wasn't me teaching him or managing him. The two men I was in charge of failed singularly. To fail to teach and manage one qualified candidate may be regarded as a misfortune; to fail to teach both looks like carelessness.

With these thoughts swirling in my mind, I lay awake last night, running over how exactly I do explain things. Testing my own understanding of the basics of ion optics and vacuum physics in pretend conversations. Teaching an invisible, imaginary person all about what I do. And I still don't know if I can do it. Maybe I'm like the teacher in Peanuts, and all my students hear is "Wah wah wah wah". And even if I do mange to convey the odd pearl of wisdom, I certainly know less than the square root of bugger all about managing people*.

And now, I have to start all over again, advertising, filtering, interviewing, employing and training employee number 4. And I might just go through the whole process again and find another promising candidate who doesn't learn, won't listen and makes life difficult. And it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that it really is me at that point. That recalcitrance, obtuseness, stupidity and arrogance is all in the eye of the beholder, and that I am busy beholding traits that are not inherent in my poor, hapless employees, but are reactions to my failings. Perhaps I am the nightmare manager from hell from whom employees retreat. The one they go home and rant and weep about. The one who is unfair, and unjust and unreasonable.

Perhaps that is me.

And clearly, the only way to know if that is me that others experience is to lie awake at night worrying. Because a lack of sleep always makes things look better in the morning.

* This doesn't actually set me aside from many members of my company. Unlike them, I actually care about this deficiency though.