Friday, 23 July 2010

World peace, meerkats and a copy cat

Things I've learned from my children

They probably do really want world peace.
Or at the very least happy families. Boy Two when dropped off at an airport hotel with their Other Grandmother who was flying with them to their dad's for some of the hols enthused: "Group hug everyone."
There ensured a brief and uncomfortable embrace with the Boy between me and OG with whom I enjoy a workable but brittle relationship.

Meerkats stand up on their back legs in order to absorb heat from the sun.
The hair on their bellies is sparse but the skin dark. While Boy Two and the Panther were allowing themselves to be pinged about on some slightly scary ride at Paulton's Family Theme Park, Boys One, Three and I took a stroll over to Meerkat Manor.

Imitation is the route to learning.
They say kids learn by copying those around them. In the past week I've watched Boy Three trying to make a phone call with everything he lays his hand on, and putting everything remotely belt/scarf/necklace shaped around his neck. He's also persistently emptied every bin he's come across and cleared out all the book cases at his level. He also spent some time this afternoon pulling notes out of my purse.

When I grow up I...

Pictures: some of the forces at work in my house and some of the forces at rest

There are some parts of the grown-up world that I've always struggled with, some sense that the 'big people' are doing stuff that I'm too young for, but that one day will be mine.

At 43, I now realise that there probably isn't going to be any great encounter with maturity: There wont' be a sudden moment when I understand that I'm finished, complete and, er, ripe. This is it, a work in progress until they nail down the lid.

So seeing as how there's some real-life sorting out of dingy corners going on, perhaps, it's time to get to grips with the more intangible stuff too.

Here follows a list of the things I have always felt I would grow into but haven't.

I can do restaurants and taxis but other sorts of tipping just gets me in a tangle. I've never managed to tip a hairdresser properly. The few attempts I've made have seemed patronising and clumsy. So to all the long-suffering crimpers I've employed "sorry". I've struggled with tipping door people and those chaps who carried my bags up to my room. Handing over the cash always seemed a little creepy. And I've never been able to guess the right amount - too little and you get that look, too much and they think you're a fool.

Cooking steak
Should be the simplest thing, shouldn't it? A combination of heat and meat. If you get good enough meat, what could possibly go wrong? Well... it could be tough, too bloody, tough and bloody or just bloody tough. My chum and former colleague Julie - now a lady of leisure - has blogged the definitive guide. Get your steak to feel like Gordon Ramsay's chin.

I never got the hang of them and just thought it was because I lacked a level of sophistication. I believed that one day I would understand how the whole thing worked, how you could communicate when the sound was deafening, where you should keep your purse and keys without actually dancing around your handbag and that I'd be one of those elegant confident creatures the sleazy men would consider to be out of their league and leave alone. The only exception to this is the Glasgow establishment formerly known as Clatty Pat's where no one was cool, but they all knew how to have fun.

Ever since they were compulsory attire at Miss Lemessieur's ballroom dancing classes on Friday nights at school, I've hated them. Part of me craved the ankle socks of the Scottish Country dancing classes from which I'd just graduated. Probably still does. Tights are hot and uncomfortable. Beige ones look old and patterned ones tarty or dumpy. What do you do with your toe seam when you're wearing sandals? Thick, black ones I can do - but then only with boots so revealing, at most, 5cm of leg. So unless the broken-vein look comes in some time soon I'm going to be happily hiding in trousers.

Frocks, hats, nice nails and lipstick.
Some part of me would love to be able to cut about in a frock with all the do-dah that goes with it. Sometimes I try them on in shops, occasionally even buying one. But they never make it out of the bedroom because when I put them on I feel like a wee girl dressing up. Same goes for hats (and having an almost microscopic head doesn't help) and nice painted nails. I'm a little better with lippy. I've got lots - in the car, my bag and the big makeup box. I put it on with the slap, but it never lasts past the first lick, slurp or scoff, doesn't cross my mind to re-do it.

Having an ideal home
Clearly I'm not going to get a mansion within the foreseeable soon, but there isn't really any reason why the house in which I live couldn't be much, much better. I constantly feel as if other forces are at play and I should just get used to clutter, stained walls, holes in the plaster, overgrown grass, weeds, more clutter and things I don't like getting in my way. Before you mention it, I know there are some other forces - namely three Boys and a Panther - none of whom is as tidy as he might be. But it's time to Do Something About It and no longer settle for detritus and stuff running the show.

Half-baked Life of Pi

Novel Idea for Tara's Gallery
Tara's wonderful gallery this week suggested the theme 'A Novel Idea' for a photo. Brilliant theme and how much fun to be had. All week I've chuntered ideas around in my head without settling on one.

Then I remembered how The Panther of News had commented on how Boy Three in a bucket with a toy tiger looked very Life of Pi. Genius, all I had to do was recreate it.
It may have been slightly easier to survive in a life raft with a live tiger.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Apple Mac for the teacher

Apple for the teacher is a quaint old cliche, isn't it? But what about Jo Malone candles, fancy bottles of fizz, electronic gadgets, jewellery and posh chocs?

Our kids broke up from their Scottish schools some three weeks ago, but their compatriots in the rest of the UK are just finishing up now. And everywhere I look in the virtual world I see talk of presents for teachers. What to give and what does miss or sir think of it?

I've never given a present to a teacher at the end of term. I went to school for 12 years, so that's 36 term endings, not including nursery or any form of further education. My kids between them have 108 term ends. That's 144 chances to give a pressie to the teacher (not including nursery or sixth year)... unless you're just being purist and going for the biggie in July and that's 21 opportunities. So between 1972 and now - 21 chances over 38 years - I've missed out, nay, not even considered, buying the teacher a gift.

That's not to say the teachers in question weren't worth it - almost without exception, a dedicated and talented bunch, engaged in a thankless (in my case) and underpaid task.

But now it's been drawn to my attention, I see it's everywhere. Other mums tell me it's rife and competitive. Some, wisely, stick to their guns and produce lovingly crafted home-madery each year, other cave in and shell out at the nearest gift emporium. Shop shelves groan with figurines, fridge magnets, mugs, smelly things and other bric-a-brac. World's best teacher is not an exclusive club.

I wonder. Have I just been so engaged on getting out of the school gates for the hols that I haven't noticed? Am I the pupil/mother everyone talks about? "See her, you'll get nowt from her. Her kids'll suffer next term - composite class for them."

How can that work? The teacher you bid farewell to Alice Cooper style is rarely the one you greet shining morning face, creeping like a snail in the autumn. (Get me, heavy metal and Shakespeare references in the same sentence). Surely bribery would be better served with a 'I'm going to love my new teacher, she/he's the best yet' offering.

And can the teachers really be thrilled with the gift-fest. Sure, we can all make use of a decent bottle of plonk or some tasty chocs (even if they are to recycle as emergency gifts). Homemade biccies and jams are ever welcome. But what about the rest. How many mugs, gurning monkeys in porcelain classrooms and badges can anyone find room for?

Are teachers' homes full of this stuff or do they wait until the last school bus has trundled off and sling them in the skip? I'm engaged in the custard-shoving exercise that is also known as decluttering in my house. It's hard enough without regular additional influxes of tat. Maybe they go straight onto ebay... is there a section called 'loot from the chalkface'.

Me, I'm going to pretend none of this has come to my notice. I'm going to pass through gift shops intent on ignoring anything that suggests it might be for teachers and I'm going to keep my sons from looking too.

But in the event that I can't return to the halcyon days of term-end being only sports day and where to put the 'artwork' decisions, can I make a suggestion? It strikes me that spending money I don't want to part with on a gift the recipient probably doesn't want in order not to feel bad or more guilty is ever so slightly crazy. If the wallets and purses have to be opened, wouldn't it be better to put the money into school funds to buy the books and equipment teachers are constantly telling us they need to make their jobs easier? .... either that or they can just have a bloody apple and lump it.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Not wordless Wednesday... but speechless

Shame on you London Sealife Aquarium for this notice in the lift.

At £34 for Boys One, Three and I to have a wander around, I expect better. No fault with the fish, but I hope to get good spelling from somewhere that purports to be educational.

And now Boy One has seen your film about shark nets - which are a jolly Bad Thing - I'm expected, on a regular basis, to do something about the plight of the creatures.

We did learn something, however, about pick 'n' mix sweeties. That is they do not work as a means to keep a 13-month-old quiet while you watch shark-based propaganda. Sure they're effective for the first five minutes, but small children accustomed to freedom of movement get a bit squeaky when their arms are gummed to their sides by half-chewed jelly crustaceans.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

How a chocolate pudding changed my life...

Decluttering Diary: some time later.

I had one of those moments last week. Actually I'd go as far as to say it was an epiphany. And it was down to my sister-in-law Lovely L.

There we were after a splendid supper in her new gaff. We'd scoffed well, roast lamb with rosemary followed by a couple of those gooey Gu puddings. You know, the ones that come in individual glass ramekins... Lovely L and I loaded the dishwasher and I put the dishes in, without thinking really. Look, in my house I keep them because they ought to be jolly useful and ramekin is such a fine word.

Then when the dishwasher was unloaded Lovely L took the dishes out and PUT THEM IN THE RECYCLING BIN. She didn't hesitate, consider their usefulness, just decisively dumped them in the bin. I almost cried out.

Then I realised, that's partly why her sun-dappled home is so easy to be in. It's not cluttered. The cupboards contain what the family needs and no more. Nothing tumbles out at you and you can find exactly what you want.

And it's the same throughout the house. Surfaces are largely clear, skirting boards are visible and there's a sense of space.

A place for everything and everything in its place: if it isn't beautiful, useful or otherwise amazing, it's got to go.

All the way home I was itching to get started. The mug and glasses cupboard was my first target.

Among the discarded items - 10 glass ramekins and a Chinese teapot that was a wedding gift on the occasion of my first marriage 18 years ago and of no sentimental value whatsoever. It has never been used.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Taking the train along the learning curve

Things I've learned from an adventure by rail.

You will always hear things you didn't expect to.
"Shania, push Beyonce over here now. And you, Chardonnay, sit still." Imagine my frustration that, as Boy Three was snoring gently on my chest, I couldn't have a look at this splendidly named family further down the carriage.

Bakugan will be a force for union.
Boy One - not celebrated for his social skills - fell into conversation (yes proper you-speak-I-listen-and-respond-appropriately conversation) with a boy from a family sitting opposite us. Both boys had Bakugans - folding plastic creature thingies - and seemed keen to compare notes. I was very proud of him.

Nothing will be secret when children talk
. Boy One talking to the boy from the family opposite offered: "We're going to see Auntie L and Nephews C and N. She's on her own because Uncle N passed away. By the way, this is my mother Ellen, my step-dad, the Panther, my real brother Boy Two and my half brother Boy Three. My real dad is in Wales. He's called R." Crikey.

Train journeys are surprisingly painless. It was with some trepidation that we decided to travel from Renfrewshire to Hampshire by rail - a decision arrived at after falling off my chair at how much British Airways thought was a reasonable fare for a family of five to fly from Glasgow to Southampton and back. However, it's not that bad. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's actually quite fun to go by rail.

Trains need to improve their pram/buggy storage. There isn't really anywhere to put prams and buggies on trains. Folded up they stick out of anywhere designed for suitcases and erect they just get in the way, everywhere. Maybe they could put hooks up like they have for bikes.

It is not possible to arrive clean.
Grubbiness is just part of the deal and must, therefore, be dressed for. I think there's a gap in the market for a travelling mum's garment. You know how photographers, for example, have special waistcoats with lots of pockets for keeping whatever it is they consider essential. How about one that has slits through which tissues and wet wipes are dispensed, has a movable pad to cushion sleeping babies' heads, pockets for fascinating toys, tickets, glasses, a music synthesiser to soothe exhausted children, a scent squirter to cover nasty niffs and a fold-up book holder with integral page turner for when the baby finally falls asleep rendering you paralysed?

Astonishment will suppress outrage. When the car-hire lady says "We have no cars just now. The transporter hasn't come so you'll just have to wait til we see if anyone brings one back" amazement will be so great that the appropriate response will not be forthcoming.

A scrunching encounter between car and gate post doesn't always signal gloom.
Not when you decided to take the excess insurance waiver option (at £10 a day) on the hire car that eventually turned up.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Toast: a little shelter on a stormy day

Some births are blissful, some scary, some medical, some quick. Every woman has a tale to tell and she'll probably want to tell you if you give her an excuse. There's blood spattered agony, skin splitting screams and contractions that would empty a toothpaste tube in one go. So many different versions of the very ordinary miracle.

However, in the main, if the birth happened within the NHS, there will be something they'll share. It's the comfort of tea and toast.

Either before everything kicks off properly or after the storm is passed, you will be offered (or just presented with) NHS T&T. It will be one of the best things you've ever consumed. It won't matter that the bread is white and sliced and spread with marge, it's divine. Maternity wards don't just smell of milk, lochia, lilies and disinfectant. Mostly the air is full toast.

Now though mums at Glasgow's Southern General Maternity Unit are, instead, being offered "a roll, cereal or biscuits" because toasters are too much of a fire hazard. They set off the smoke alarms and the fire brigade has to come as a matter of policy as it's a hospital. This is expensive and tedious, apparently. So no toast for the ladies.

Don't the health and safety bods realise that not allowing toasters to pop as part of the post partum ritual is depriving mums of something important? A plate of toast and a mug of tea will be the one dependable and reassuring thing in the whole day. Surely it's possible to have a system whereby the fire brigade is phoned up and told it's just an over enthusiastic smoke alarm and a toaster again.

I was going to round off with a comment that even if a commonsense system couldn't be set up, a visit from a few firemen would surely cheer up the new mums. But I realised that would be sexist, objectify the fire fighters and not take account of the women in their midst, so I decided not to.

The pictures? Well elsewhere in the blogosphere Tara at Sticky Fingers runs a weekly photography gallery. I'm a very infrequent participant but this week her theme is Can You See What It Is Yet? So I thought these would do.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Yoga - bending over backwards to help my boy

So, yoga for kids.. a bit Birkenstock and Boden? Only for children who eat olives and read Swallows and Amazons - not really for nugget eating, DSi tapping, I'll-wait-for-the-movie youngsters?

Then there I am on a mat in a front room curled into a ball while my 10-year-old son drapes himself over my back. We hold hands. During the following relaxation bit I wrap his long limbs in a blanket and cuddle him. He accepts the embrace in a way he hasn't done since he was small.

It's very hard to write about doing yoga with my Boy One without sounding like the kind of parent I usually avoid like the proverbial on the basis that they are smug and they make me feel inadequate.

Years ago, once I got over giggling that people actually sit in dusty village halls going 'om', I began to love yoga. It makes me better, stronger and less stressed. I've tried various versions from full-speed sweat-making ashtanga to intense sessions with a serious Sri Lankan chap in authentic yogic PJs.

So when Boy One - who tends to tense stressiness - showed an interest in my yoga (ok the little bit of fauxga you get with a WII Fit) I grasped the opportunity. Boy One is not naturally physical, he hates team games and can't see the point of sports. Karate, beloved of many Aspies, left him bewildered. Swimming is a lark, but more an exercise in drifting then focusing effort.

I found the lovely Janis who specialises in teaching yoga to children and was delighted to meet Boy One and agreed to take him on. At first he grumbled and groaned, but then he always does when he's obliged to do, largely, anything about which he doesn't have an obsession.

Then the complaints stopped and he began to come away fractionally less brittle and twitchy. One rare day when the heavens allowed, I brought him to yoga alone. Normally I juggle the noisy brothers while Boy One does his oms. Janis invited me to join her and Ally.

It was a proper pleasure to see him showing off what he'd learned - a bridge, sun salutation, candle and mountain pose - and for him to help me through my paces. We worked together, comfortably in contact while he grinned and grinned. A real treat, thank you Janis.

The picture is his illustration of the Limbs of Yoga

Friday, 9 July 2010

My name is mummy... please use it

Mum, love, mummy, guapa (though not recently), Nell, madam, honey, Mrs Panther, wife, lady, Ms Arnison, boss, Ellie, mama, Ellen Mary, hen, Auntie Ellen, babe and, sometimes, simply Ellen. These are just a few of the things I've answered to over the years.

And having a name as apparently complicated as Ellen, I've also been called Helen, Elaine, Eileen and, unaccountably, Alison. I just reply, it doesn't really bother me.

When my ears are ringing with "muuuuuum, mum, muuuummmmeeeee" sometimes I think I'd happily never be called that again. It kind of echoes in your bones though, doesn't it? Someone else's kid only needs to get halfway through the word and an internal switch has flicked. It's true. Look around a supermarket or shopping centre the next time a child wails for its mother. Twitching at the sound is a surer mark of parenthood than saggy boobs and eye bags.

But Boy One has suddenly decided in his Asperger's way that only proper names will do. Any slip into using the shortened version of his name that has suited him well for ten years now sparks fury.

"That's not my name. If you loved me you'd use my name. Don't call me that," he rages.

I've tried to point out that in a family nicknames and silly baby names are part of the fun... a bit like a cuddle in a word, but he's not having it.

He's also decided that I'm going to be Ellen because that's my name. In principal, I don't mind. It'll be easier to pick his bleat out from the flock. And, as the Panther pointed out, it works for Bart Simpson.

But it's horrible, I hate it. It makes me cringe. I can't explain why, it's not as if I'm not used to it. It comes into my ears like an insult.

"Ellen, Ellen, Ellen, where are you?"
"Please call me mummy, it's special."
"No it isn't, there are millions of mummies."
"Not your mummies though. There are only three people who can call me mummy and one of them can't talk yet, that's special."
"No you are Ellen. I'm going to call everyone by their proper name except my teachers because it makes them cross."

This is going to need a long hard look into my store cupboard of logical explanations. There has to be something there that will persuade him that if he can reject with vigour his pet name, I can insist on mine.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Sinister or sweet?

Nearly wordless Wednesday.
I was going to ponder on at length about guns, violence and children, instead I decided just to show you these and ask what you think.
Boy Three picked up one of the weapons from his brother's extensive arsenal. He could just as easily picked up a bow and arrow set, a water pistol or a sci-fi phaser gun.

Laundry lament - a song for Bosch

Yoohoo. Helloo. Mr Google. Anyone there?
(Taps fingers and sighs)

Oi Google, over here.
Ah, there you are. Now come in and bring your Alerts thingy, the one for Bosch because I'm talking about my 18-month-old Bosch Exxcel tumble dryer... or rather its door handle.
Now Google, you don't mind if I call you that, do you? Make yourself comfy. That's it.

Once upon a time my dryer and I were in love. I fed it soggy stuff and it returned soft scented garments that didn't, generally, need ironing if I got them hung up sharpish. All I had to do was empty the water thing and scrape lovely fluff from the filter.

Did I mention I have a thing about dryer fluff? It's so pretty and soft.

At first it seemed Which? were right. It gave Value for Money, Good Performance and Reliability.

Anyone else use the Which? cost-performance crossover to decide about buying boring things? Rank the stuff Which? has tested in order of wonderfulness and go down the list until you find the first one you can afford.

The honeymoon ended when the first handle fixing bit broke. At the time I was pregnant and bending down only happened in my fantasies, so I thought perhaps I was tugging unevenly at the top. I phoned Bosch who said: "Not covered in your warranty, you've pulled too hard."
But at about £6 for a replacement including delivery I didn't have the energy to argue.

Boy Three arrived, bending over function returned, washing baskets filled more rapidly and the newly replaced handle was conscientiously pulled from the middle - the pulling load couldn't have been shared more evenly between the three plastic fixy-on pegs.

Then the first one went "pop" and the handle got wobbly. Sure enough it wasn't long before it came off all together.

Another one is on its way and it's still a bargain at around £6. But that's not the point, really, is it? My dryer and I should be preparing to grow old together. Instead, I'm cross.

So, Google, you see. I really want this story to have a happy ending but I fear the worst. I see you've taken notes, now would you be a good and helpful search engine and run along to Bosch and tell them their door handle is crap and it's coming between me and my dry fluffy clothes.

See yourself out, bye now.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Simple quantum physics, rich hair and beetroot roulette

Things I learned from my children today.

(Pics not relevant, just amusing)

Simple is relative
. On a trip to an archeology fun day (no not an oxymoron) at Glasgow's Hunterian museum, Boy One and I were chatting.
"I know more than you mummy," he stated.
"Really? Like what?"
"Everything. I'm much, much cleverer."
"OK. What's the highest mountain in England then?"
"England doesn't have mountains."
"Yes it does. We'll climb it if you don't think it's a mountain."
"I didn't mean that. I meant interesting stuff. Ask me something simple about quantum physics?"

Some hair is for the haves and some for the have nots.
Boy Two was messing with Boy Three in his high chair. There was some breakfast spreading going on.
"Look mummy, his hair's all back here behind his ears like a rich person."

Danger is everywhere.
Boy Three, Boy One and I punctuated our trip to the Hunterian - don't forget to check out the odd collection of penises (penii?), it includes a weasel's penis bone - with lunch. We went to Stravaigin. Typically Boy Three squirmed and squealed before settling down to scoff. Feeling devil may care, I fed him roast beetroot... a colourful choice.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Postcard from Turkey

Things I’ve learned from my children on holiday

Dressing for travel is no longer a function of style
. Considering travelling with children I opted for sandals comfortable and sturdy enough to afford sprinting if necessary. I decided to dress in dark gray and black, colours least likely to show up chocolate, ketchup or anything worse. I went for a garment with pockets – lots of ‘em and quite capacious. The only adornment – a necklace – was chosen as the baby finds it especially amusing.

Lists can let you down
. Packing slavishly to a list can mean you miss out on the most basic items. 20 minutes into a four-hour flight as news greeted my nose that Boy Three was no longer constipated I realised I’d forgotten to put nappies on the changing bag.

Boy Three’s thighs are a mighty force. Certainly not going to be contained by something like an age 1 to 3 spf factor 50 sun suit.

It’s possible to have a pizza flavour adventure. Boy One is widening his dining experience. He’s had pizza with bits of tomato on it – not good, pizza with just cheese – much better, and chicken pizza – wow this is amazing. Bacon pizza, however, he is saving for breakfast.
Pitta bread is awesome. Who knew? Has something of a passion for the hot and delicious puffed-up bread served with every meal.

Children, particularly those on the autistic spectrum, do not like browsing for a restaurant for supper.
It makes them anxious. They just want a plan. You can tell because the more places you idly reject the closer they sidle and the harder they hold your hands.

The town square in Bitez is not just up there by the mosque.
Not sure where it is, but it certainly isn’t just where the lady said.

Getting sunblock in your eyes will make them all puffy and weepy. And it will make Daddy feel bad if it was he who put it there.
If it looks improbably like you’ve scored yourself a peaceful afternoon with a sleeping baby and internet connection, don’t count your chickens. The party that went to the water park will come back early.

New anxieties will emerge – mosquitoes in spite of there being none in evidence, instant combustion at a fire show and the baby drinking sea water, a self limiting affair.

Navigation is not as easy as you think. A five-minute walk to the village centre may actually result in an hour-long wander along dry river beds unsuitable for prams, past mansions with nasty looking guard dogs and through olive groves.

Beware the hammock. It might look inviting and comfy but if you don’t get in it right you’ll end up in a heap with everyone laughing at you.

There are always sentences you don’t imagine you’re ever going to hear
. “Do you think we need to warn the waiter that the baby has just put lettuce in his pocket?”

Turkish women aren’t visible
. Everyone here in Bitez is very friendly and they love kids – waiters, postmen, drivers, deckchair attendants, cleaners, ice cream sellers etc. But there aren’t any women to be seen working any where.

Restaurants will be chosen according to the calibre of the high chair
. Boy Three has suddenly become vocal and opinionated on the subject. Some just will not do, others will be escaped immediately.

If you want to avoid getting invited into a restaurant or bar by the charming, but enthusiastic, staff be a woman on your own with a small child. Interestingly, they won't want to know.
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