Monday, 18 August 2014

Go Ape Aberfoyle: Hanging around in the trees

"Go Ape," the signs urge all the way through sleepy Aberfoyle on a slightly damp Sunday morning. It's hard to imagine the crimplened coach passengers (the only others on the main road at the time) going even a very little bit monkey. 

Pondering this we - Boys One, Two and I, arrived at beautiful Forest Visitor Centre. The day was clearing and there was a whiff of coffee on the air. Lovely. 

However, before I could settle down with a latte and the scenery, I found myself agreeing to supervise my sons on a "potentially dangerous activity". So what's new?

But then, we were being fitted into harnesses and shown how to clip a series of caribiners onto various things "so you don't plummet". And then we were departing, one-by-one by zip-wire to the other side of the valley. "You'll land at running speed," said the man in charge. I don't even like running at running speed. 

However, zipping over the treetops was actually quite magical and the landing very soft and not even too undignified. 

There followed an exhilarating couple of hours of clipping, climbing, scrambling, zipping and, a couple of times, stepping out into the nothing. 

Boy Two said: "It was awesome. Especially coming out of the tree line. It was an amazing experience. The best."

Boy One, laid back as ever, said: "I wouldn't go that far, but it was pretty fun." 

Boy One - the abridged version

Boy Two took the scenic route

Going up in the world

Branching out...

Sensible view of part of the Go Ape course

Lesser spotted brothers not making faces or fighting.

Here's what we learned:

You can't Go Ape unless you are over 10 and taller than this.

It does feel like flying. On the long zip wires, if you look down rather than up, you get the sensation of soaring through the trees. Very cool. Thanks to Jim for that tip. 

Mum's not such a big wimp. Egged on by Boy Two it was impossible to dodge the Big Daddy Tarzan Swing. I only squealed a bit. 

Bum shuffling into the abyss is easier. Striding off the edge of a lofty platform is quite hard to do, but squatting down or sitting and edging off the side less so. 

Women are better designed than women. If you don't believe me, compare the expressions (and gaits) of men and women getting off a zip slide wearing a climbing harness. 

The Queen Elizabeth Forest Park is lovely. Go visit, climb Ben A'an. Soak in the sights, but don't for get your midgie lotion. 

A little adrenaline goes a long way. And that's the beauty of Go Ape, it's mind-focusing and challenging, but not traumatising.

Go Ape is a great idea. Much more fun than visiting shops that sell tartan and tweed. Would someone nip on to those buses and tell the visitors that...

Disclosure: We were invited to Go Ape to try it out and report back here, but we'll certainly be back. 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Snowflakes of fear

It starts with a chill, prickling shift. Loitering behind, just out of sight. A malevolent whiff, fast and sneaky.

The fear.

I'm not talking about what you get from the roller coaster, the latest Stephen King or sitting alone with Blair Witch again. Neither is it the heebie jeebies brought on by arachnids, heights, clowns or even drill-toting dentists. Not, as it happens, that I'm susceptible - not even a twitch. 

And it's not found where the danger lies, the precarious or the broken. Proper horrors come out of the blue, finding you unawares and smothering you suddenly. Only later when the pain ebbs enough to allow thought, you know fear was the least of it. 

Instead my fear stalks the ordinary. The latte and catch ups, the kisses on children's heads, and the homeward drives at sunset. That's when it pounces, inky fast and intense.

But stop me when my heart is pounding so loudly I can't hear the birds singing and I'll look confused. "I don't know. It's nothing."

Nothing. Nothing you can hold or chase down and catch.

For a heartbeat. Boom, it blooms. A snowflake landed on a warm dark sleeve. Solid, intricate and, fleeting.

The house will burn down. The car will crash. The tests come back abnormal.
I'm frightened of the news following the ringing phone. 
I'm scared of the random and the brutal. 
I'm anxious about the truth - but more so the lies. 
I'm dismayed by the news - why not me next. 
I'm suspicious of contentment, paranoid about love. 

What if it happens? What if I'm wrong? How will I know? Can I be strong?

And then it's gone. Away. Melted without a trace. In a heart beat. Beaten. 

This post was written in response to the prompt 'fear' set by @Post40bloggers
Pic by ChaoticMinds75 via Flickr.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Karcher cordless broom K65 review

On the face of it an electric broom sounds brilliant, like a laundry that sorts itself or children who wipe their own faces.

And I'm always on the lookout for anything that minimises domestic effort (mine) and increases domestic bliss (also mine), as no matter how hard I have tried to change things, housework, apparently, is my department.

So I was delighted when Karcher sent me a new labour-saving device to review. Then I stopped to have a think and ask myself: what have we got here? A vacuum cleaner that doesn't suck or what? How can this be any good?

It's not that I don't have need for such a miracle. My kitchen floor gets swept every day by a brush and dustpan driven by yours truly. The resultant crumbs, peas, Lego bricks and loom bands get emptied into the bin before the brush and dustpan get put away. Not such a huge chore and much less effort than getting the vacuum cleaner out from enormous mountain of bags for life in the cupboard under the stairs.

My biggest problem with the brush and dust pan - apart from the fact that no one else in the house seems able to use it - is that it falls over and makes an irritating clattery noise several times every day.

Still, I'm an optimistic soul so I unpacked my Karcher electric sweeper in the hope that the crud that ends up on the kitchen floor would somehow miraculously vanish and I'd be able to walk barefoot free from the fear of standing on something horrible.

This may be a reasonable point to confess that I used to make Boy Three wear little baby shoes for most of his toddlerhood because I was embarrassed by how manky his feet/socks got without them.

The Karcher came out of the box resembling those (almost entirely useless, or was it just me?) Ewbank sweepers, only with a spare cylindrical brush and a cable to charge it. It also came with a bracket to neatly attach it to the wall.

Not much time elapsed before the sweeper was called into action - the result of a war of attrition between cocopops and rice crispies. I switched it on and pushed it around. Lo, the cereal vanished into the little dust holder.

Loom bands at large

Loom bands tamed. 
Over the next few weeks, the sweeper was called into action. Here's what I've found.

  • It's probably quicker than old-school sweeping, but not much.
  • It is more satisfying than old-school sweeping, by some distance.
  • It doesn't fall over with an annoying clatter, particularly if you use the bracket.
  • Bits of fishfinger, glitter and squashed raisins don't fall out all over the floor.
  • The promised hour of charge doesn't last very long - however, you can happily leave it plugged in.
  • The alternate brush (recommended for pet hair) is also good for human hair (a recent house guest mistook it for a hair brush and was satisfied with the results).
  • You still have to actually push it round.
  • A machine with moving parts is slightly more likely to get used by boys and husbands than the traditional solution.


It's a good half-way solution for quick pick-ups when you can't be bothered to get your big guns out.

Karcher sent me an electric sweeper to review.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

17 years at the school gates: what I have learned so far....

My baby, he's all grown up. It doesn't seem a minute since... Yada yada yada. 

You know the stuff - uttered by runny-mascaraed mothers waving children off to school before returning to their bleak and echoy nests. 

Boy Three goes to primary school this week - the last of my babies to put on the uniform and clamber aboard the big yellow bus. He can't wait and, frankly, neither can I. He's ready - he's desperate to learn to read and catch up with the bigger kids. 

It seems a very long time since Boy One first took his miniature seat in a classroom. That's probably because it is - he started school back in 2004! I didn't even have a blog back then, but then neither did many other people. 

Since then, I've been to 20 parents' nights, 10 sports days and a decade of Christmas shows, nagged children into hundreds of hours of homework, washed gazillion loads of uniform and never once backed for a cake stall. 

As Boy Three starts on his primary school journey, I thought I'd share a few things I've learned along the way. 

Consider who you're going to befriend. I'm not a terribly sociable person and I don't have limitless time and energy for being chums with everyone. Therefore it's better to make friends with the school staff than the other mums. You'll probably see more of the teachers than you will of the other parents, unless you're destined to be friends, in which case it won't be any effort at all. 

Consider who you're going to befriend #2. The school secretary. 

Don't join any committees, help out often instead. Unless, of course, you dream of being a PTA office bearer. I'm delighted to lend a hand whenever I can. In fact, I consider it a duty for the good of an excellent school. 

Don't panic. If something happens that makes you wish your own mummy could come and take over, don't worry. We all feel like that at some point. Whatever's causing you anxiety or upsetting your child will be one step closer to a resolution by talking to someone. Go and ask the teacher/another parent/the secretary/head, you'll be surprised by how easy it is once you take the step. 

School isn't the same as it was in our day. Really. Things like composite classes and being picked for additional support are all part of today's primary life. Assessment, smaller groups and more classroom assistants mean the school knows far more about your child than anyone ever knew about us. It's a good thing. Relax, you are in professional hands. 

An indelible marker will become your friend, but stuff will still get lost. Don't spend lots of money on anything and, where possible, buy duplicates while you're at it. Buy non-iron stuff and hang things up so they don't crease. While your child is still young enough for you to get away with this, buy items (coats etc) that are as distinctive as possible - you have no idea how many similar black parkas will be dropped on cloakroom floors the first time it gets cold. 

Calories will trump nutrition for a while. School days are long and hungry for growing kids. Lunch can be a distracting and disorientating affair. A couple of times I realised that my boys simply needed to eat more to get them through the day. Survival tactics have included pockets full of jam sandwiches, chocolate milk drinks and bananas handed to them the minute they stepped off the bus. 

Don't bother pretending you're not crying at the nativity. Everyone else is.

Zen and the art of parenthood. There are some things about life as a primary school parent that simply aren't worth fighting, you won't be able to change them:

  • Children will bring more junk home from school "fayres" than you can donate to the tombola.
  • You can't get rid of that smell.
  • The clothes won't be clean. 
  • The shoes will be scuffed. 
  • The important note will be discovered too late at the bottom of the bag. 
  • A pile of 'art' will arrive home at the end of term. 
  • Your tiny little beginner will surely turn into one of those big, bold children all ready for secondary school and there's not a thing you can do about it. 

It only seems like a minute ago, but he's growing up already.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Glasgow 2014: My hopes for the legacy

It started with a heat wave and ended with a monsoon. Glasgow 2014: the party's more or less over. As I write Kylie (or someone who sounds an awful lot like her) is apparently doing a sound-check for her appearance at the closing ceremony. 

I'm a bit sad it's all over - although the neglected bits of my life: children, laundry, proper job etc will probably be glad of my attention. It's been amazing.

So proud. My boy and his pal on national telly drinking Irn-Bru!

The city has been buzzing. Locals and people from all over the world have met, celebrated the Games and come away having gained something. Glasgow has been scrubbed and primped as never before (or not since the Garden Festival, anyway). 

The sneery grump bags who promised mayhem, misery and mediocrity were silenced and some even changed their tune. The whole event from dancing tea cakes to the nail biting (and rain sodden) road race has been a triumph. 

But once the final banner has been taken down, the millions of barriers removed and the volunteer population taken off their uniforms for the last time, what then? Here's what I hope the games will leave behind?

The knowledge that sport is more than football. Hurrah! For these glorious few days we've revelled in a festival of all kinds of sport, individual and team. Normally if you asked if I liked sport I'd have thought of interminable tales of premiership and said: "Not really." Now I know different.

A sporting attitude to other supporters. All the way through there have been hearty cheers from supporters who travelled across nations for their teams, but there have also been loud and long encouragement for athletes whoever they are and wherever they came from. And it's been properly uplifting.

Clean streets. That cycling was amazing. How fast did they go down those wet cobbles from Park Circus? But wasn't it also amazing how smooth and flat the roads were? No potholes, no wonky manholes. Wouldn't be amazing if that lasted?

Feeling good about ourselves. Athletes, workers, volunteers and ordinary locals are rightly very proud of what's gone on here. And that's amazing, but it's An unaccustomed sensation. Feeling good about ourselves doesn't come readily and feels mighty strange. We're almost hoping something will go wrong because that slightly chippy defensiveness is familiar as a comfy blanket.

People make a place. People make Glasgow. But, actually, they make anywhere when they play nice, are patient, keep an eye on the big picture, and go the extra mile. That's what happened here - let's keep it up, everywhere. 

The investment won't stop here. Of course, it's cost a packet, these things do. However, a continued flow of hard cash is needed to ensure the next generation of sporting heroes can reach their potential. We also need it to keep the city looking tip top and to make those fantastic new facilities ring with fans' shouts - regularly - for years to come. Let's not forget that it's money well spent. 

The way to properly do inclusively. Para athletes performed right after able bodied ones exactly as it should be. No disability ghetto here. The Games, like life, are for everybody to play. 

But we don't need new words for things. I fervently hope that the use of 'medal' as a verb along with 'venueisation' vanish faster than Clyde toys off eBay. 

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Gaza: For the love of humanity, can't we stop the killing?

I am not a political person - big P, small P or middle-sized P. Wading into debate where feelings run high makes me feel queasy. 

It's not that I don't believe these things matter or that I lack conviction. It's just that I prefer to keep them to myself unless I'm absolutely 100 per cent convinced and rock solid on every aspect of every facet of every argument on the subject.

Of course you've seen me blogging up about the issues that are close to me, so close the focus is sharp. Women's rights, journalism and what the independence referendum means to me, for example.

But how can I speak strongly on someone else's fight when the details are sketchy to me. You need to get yourself pretty near to a person to know what ignites their passion. 

With this in mind, I won't pretend to know how the facts of the situation in Gaza translate to murderous passion for the Israelis and the Palestinians. I don't understand how it feels to be on either side - how the history and anger flows through the veins of this conflict. 

What I do know, however, with utter conviction, is that the killing and injuring of children - however it is dressed up - is wrong beyond measure. There is no wrong great enough to justify this as a reasonable byproduct. Not now, not ever. 

Have we learned nothing in the century since the start of the "war to end all wars"? Good grief, those who marched off then couldn't begin to imagine the so-called progress that would happen in the next 100 years, but they might have hoped they left a more civilised planet.

In all that humanity has learned and created, there must be something, surely, that can be used to find an end to the terror and bloodshed that continues to pour over the innocent.

I don't know what the answer is - I don't even fully understand what the question was - but can't those who do, please, find a way to solve this. Nothing is more important than preserving life, how can it be? 

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Signs you've embraced the spirit of the Commonwealth Games.

Slap bang in the middle of the Commonwealth Games it feels like it's been going on for ages, in fact sometimes it's hard to imagine life without it... or maybe it's just me. 

Here are some signs you've got the Glasgow 2014 bug: 

It has become entirely normal to spend your life with a label around your neck. In fact, most of the people you meet are similarly attired, like exhibits in the livestock show. It's become normal  even - Kate wears hers with her Zara blazer. 

You face a label in/label out dilemma. When it drizzles do you wear your accreditation label inside your jacket giving you an odd-shaped bosom or outside where it flaps irritatingly?

Clyde is as familiar as Mickey Mouse. Boy Three is very pleased with his toy Clyde and, with truly sporting enthusiasm, uses it as a javelin. He was also very, very impressed by this picture of his aunt. "Is that the real one?" he gasped. (Sentient thistle not aunt.)

You start guessing the sport by the shape and bearing of the athlete. "Nah, too short for rugby - must be hockey." "Do they look fierce enough?"

A whole new world of sport opens up. Lawn bowls is not the preserve of the beige and weight lifting is oddly fascinating. 

You get over the urge to snigger at "clean and jerk" and "snatch". OK, this one's not true. 

Festival, what festival? The usual mild envy of anyone within easy reach of Edinburgh and having enough leisure time to attend lots of festival stuff is absent this year.

Places like Kiribati appear on your radar. Or at least their Wikipedia pages do. Apparently it's the only country in the world likely to vanish due to global warming. Which puts our problems in perspective. 

Public transport delays don't drive you to homicide. While not exactly embracing the calm of the bus queue, a certain uncharacteristic patience has descended.

You develop a fascination with the huge number of sibling pairs competing in the Games. Imagine how Scrabble-rule disputes pan out in a home where two wrestling champions live, or the idea of a gentle stroll in the home of sprinting brothers. 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

When will there be rain?

"And we've been so lucky with the weather...," they cry, perspiring pinkly. "It's hotter than the Seychelles, here. In Glasgow."


It's true. The sun has beat relentlessly onto Glasgow's unusually clean streets these past few days. Even locals who normally consider that a sunny spell is part of an elaborate natural practical joke - like making someone sit on a comfy-looking but precarious chair, have begun to relax. 

"Marvellous. Wonderful."

Erm.. Actually, I'd really like it to rain for a bit. No really, I would. 

Oh, stop it with the disapproval. What's so fantastic about relentless sunshine anyway? 

The sweating. How can we be celebrating anything that recreates the feeling of a roiling hangover or a hot flush? Broken-vein burgundy is not a good look for anyone, especially not when viewed through a sheen of dampness. Not to mention the niff. 

Then there's the potential for skin-damaging sunburn. I know we spend a lot of time and energy painting pretend stuff on ourselves, but that's because the real thing is dangerous and ageing as well as less readily available in an ordinary Scottish July. Plus sunburn hurts. 

Our wardrobes aren't designed for it, either. Our attempts to keep cool, yet look vaguely professional aren't wholly successful, falling somewhere in the region of professional burlesque performer, badly rolled pork shoulder or Bedouin tent. 

Gardens shrivel up and go brown - something I would possibly celebrate if it wasn't for the fact that you're left with dead and wizened weeds that look worse than the live ones. Obviously this is not the case for those of you who are competent gardeners, but if you've driven down my street lately you'll know I'm not among your number. 

Perhaps our slavish sunshine adoration has something to do with the thousands many of us have spent on getting ourselves to a more southerly country to spend the best weeks of the year smearing ourselves in expensive lotion to protect ourselves from the very rays we're about to spend hours exposing ourselves to. This, I have never quite understood. 

However, if you normally pay for something then, clearly, when it's being given away for free we're going to binge - like "those" relatives at a posh wedding - even if we don't actually enjoy what we're doing. 

Certainly in the grey-skied north, when the sun shines an internal voice stars saying "ooh, it's nice, get outside, don't waste it, go on. Go on." I'm a grown up now, so I can stay in the shade if I want, but the voice is still there. 

What's that? 

It's raining now. Oh yes, that's better. I'll get my jacket. 

And this is what I found when I went out. So much more beautiful in the rain...

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Commonwealth Games: being part of it

You've probably noticed. There's something going on in Glasgow this week.

It's a little bit like an artist's impression of some improbably marvellous futuristic city that has come to life. Clean streets and squares throng with smiling groups togged out in matching track suits like off-duty astronauts.

There's a sense of united purpose and anticipation tempered only slightly by the bewilderment of those who hardly recognise their home town. Indeed, the commonwealth games seems even to have rendered the mean streets safe with the biggest danger tripping over a film crew or poking yourself in the eye with your security pass.

I've been working at the SECC for a few days now. (For a couple of weeks) I'm a sub editor for the Games News Service, based in a corner of the increasingly busy media centre. And it's somewhere I'm delighted to be.

Way back last year I knew that when the Games came to Glasgow I'd have to find a way to get involved. It would be horrible to have such an exciting thing happening on our doorstep but not being part of it - like hearing an amazing party next door that no one invited you to.

Some of the desire to be involved is simple nosiness - what does a thing like this look like from the inside? Bustling and remarkably well organised, since you ask.

But the bigger part, I suppose, is a hankering to belong inside something noteworthy and exciting. It's an addictive sensation - part of a well-oiled machine.

In fact, I learn there's a whole community of 'eventers' who travel from one championships to the next world cup. If you look closely you'll spot the odd Sochi t-shirt or pair of London 2012 trainers. 

From the inside, it doesn't matter how much it all costs, the relevance of the Commonwealth or what you think of rules of boxing: What we're doing here matters, and that's all that matters. And it's going to be good. 

Friday, 18 July 2014

NT Live Skylight: How perfection is only ever a few pixels away

Not only was the sun shining, making a walk through Glasgow's West End feel like going on holiday, but I'd got parked exactly where I wanted to. Twice. 

Things were looking good. 

It was the evening of NT Live's screening of David Hare's Skylight. For once I won childcare roulette and going was a real, actual possibility. 

With hopes high, I had floated the idea on Facebook and within days a few chums - none of whom knew each other and one of whom I'd never met in the flesh - said "me too". (Sheonad it was a treat to meet you at last.)

A swift but satisfying supper in the Hanoi Bike Shop and a single (school night/driving) cucumber and cranberry mojito set the scene. 

We chose the Grosvenor Cinema for many reasons, including the fact that licence trumps location. But also because of capacious sofas, an absence of sickly pop corn pong and, as far as I could see, no gangs of irritating youngsters deciding that the dark of an auditorium is the best place for conversation. Plus the carpets aren't sticky. So much better than a charmless cube in an out-of-town car park, in so many ways. 

Or at least that's what we thought. 

Just as we were were getting comfortable with the splendid work we were watching  - oddly it takes a bit of adjustment to watching a live play filmed and beamed into a cinema, a confusion of expectations perhaps - there was a bang, a few large pixels on the screen and the play stopped. 

Groans all round. But then it was going again. For a while. Again and again the link broke and, almost always, at a moment that appeared to be crucial or highly emotional. Or both. 

The tutting got very loud, raising the spectre of what a West End riot would be. The lobbing of stale ciabatta, an Evoque ram raid or flinging of movie posters onto the Kadai?

Between interruptions Bill Nighy, Carey Mulligan and Matthew Beard were acting their socks off (quite lideraly in one bit). The play, a sort of love story woven around a social commentary, is just as fresh in 2014 as it was first time round in 1995. 

As if there wasn't enough to admire Carey for, she cooked spaghetti bolobnese live on stage - and the sauce didn't burn and stick to the pan. I'd have enough trouble avoiding that without having to remember lots of lines and deliver them with flawless emotional authenticity at the same time. 

But polished performance and production weren't quite enough. Continual breaks in the feed from the theatre in London were brutal and infuriating. Jolting us from Hare's world  time and again. No excuse really. The technology isn't difficult, is it? And, frankly, the free ticket vouchers don't make up for it. 

I did consider turning this into the parable of the cracked Skylight, banging on about expectation and pursuit of perfection, but, you'll be pleased to know, I thought better of it...

Everything deserves a second chance and yours, NT Live, comes with this:

Only this time I think I'll choose modern and purpose-built (thus better connected) over charming and well upholstered.

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