Friday, 29 July 2011

Postcard from Austria - it's time to sack our national nanny

There's a bit of a myth about European Union rules - the dull men in grey suits decide that we can't have haggis, bent bananas or certain types of stinky cheese. Legend has it they're out to stop our fun, destroy our self expression and generally annoy everyone. 

This week I've learned that the grey-suited eurocrat who controls all is, in fact, as credible as the tooth fairy.

Here in Austria, my kids have bruised themselves, scraped their knees, got wet, gone to bed late, eaten lots of new things and, even, played with donkeys and rabbits without rushing to wash their hands after. They've had a ball.

I hadn't really noticed how differently things are done here until Boy Two picked up Boy Three who had taken yet another tumble off the bottom of a slide. "He's OK. But they shouldn't be allowed to have these stones and bumpy bits here," he said, pointing to some roots over which the toddler had stumbled. 

Actually I'm really pleased they're allowed to have lumps and bumps here. Slides that whoosh kids out onto grass and gravel, steep paths cut into the slippery hillside, paddling ponds surrounded by rocks and peddle cart tracks with unforgiving obstacles. Sure I've had to pick up children a few times and wipe a few grazes, but they may even have learned a little about the consequences of their actions. 

The sausage cook-up - over a blaze in the middle of the cart track, of course - saw everyone who wanted issued with a sharpened stick and a sausage. Kids pedalled, romped and slid around while pork was cooked to almost edible. Can you imagine that happening in the UK's nanny state? An open fire around which children play and eat badly cooked pork products? But despite the dire danger, no one got burnt and - as that was four days ago - no one was poisoned. 

In the past few years I have been 'disclosed' four times. That is filled in a form that supposedlywould reveal if I had any previous convictions that would make me unsuitable to hang around children. One was in order to help on school trips and the other three times was to take part in family Cub camps where I was there with other families and never responsible for any but my own sons. Bonkers? Yes. Yet, here there's a play area with hard-working and endlessly patient staff on hand to entertain the children. Marvellous. And there's also a steady flow of parents checking on and talking to their own kids. It's an easy-going and relaxed atmosphere, but not one that would prevail in the UK, where you'd have to have proved yourself to be suitable somehow. 

As an aside, it has often struck me that our system is pretty ineffective against all but the most half-witted sex offenders. Surely if you want to get yourself in front of other people's children for reasons their parents won't like, you don't fess up to having done time, do you?

But before I go to find my kids - Boy One is showing his origami book to a total stranger, Boy Two may be leaping off rocks into a swimming pool and Boy Three is napping - I do think we need to ease up on the keeping-them-safe rules. I don't believe continental Europe is a much more dangerous place for children than the UK but here the assumptions are different. You take responsibility for your own kids who, in turn, learn to take responsibilty for themselves. We assume people aren't paedophiles and that our immune systems will protect us from commonplace germs. No EU madness in sight, just some common sense and lots of fun.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

My toddler did not poo in the baby pool

My toddler did not poo in the baby pool last night. Oh no. It wasn't him. 

My toddler is probably the noisiest child here. It's easy to learn where he is just by cocking your head and opening your ear. "I don't believe it," mini Meldrew style. Or "It's not fair. Too big. Go 'way. I like swimming. Shut up." And that's just him making conversation. But my toddler did not poo in the baby pool.

My toddler isn't very good at wearing shoes. He quite likes other people's, anyone's really. But his own will be prised off his pudgy little toes and thrown. So his bare and grubby feet will pad amongst his peers' leather sandals and technicolour Crocs. But my toddler did not poo in the baby pool.

My toddler has spilt something on the table cloth every single meal. Even when the excuse of hte tippy cup being in the lost luggage vanished, he just spilt other people's drinks. But he did not poo in the baby pool. 

My toddler will throw his icecream onto the upholstery in his attempt to eat the cone first. He flings peas like missiles, lobs bread over his shoulder and smears handfuls of soft cheese on anyone, especially his dad. But my toddler didn't poo in the baby pool. 

My toddler is past what Gina Ford suggests is the idea age to start potty training. And even if he was so inclined he can't sit still for more than a moment. And the moment he was relieved of his nappy yesterday morning, he took the opportunity to widdle into his father's left Croc. But my toddler didn't poo in the baby pool.

My toddler won't use cutlery, wear bibs or, often, do what he's told. He hates being restrained even by holding hands and only kisses when it suits him. But my toddler didn't poo in the baby pool. 

Someone else's toddler pooed in the baby pool yesterday. We were there so, Panther says, we'll get the blame anyway. But it wasn't him. He was properly dressed for once in his swim nappy. Someone else had to carry their toddler at arm's length, feet flapping with each urgent step towards sanctuary of the loo. It doesn't look easy to carry a bewildered toddler both discretely and without getting dripping excrement down your front. But that's by far the better end of the bargain. The other parent is left to shush a crowing sibling "kaka Papa" while moping up and fishing out. This was not us. Our toddler did not poo in the baby pool.

I felt the pain of those parents - what a horrid thing to happen. Fighting the urge to put it right by clearing up and to flee the scene leaving scapegoats. But it wasn't our toddler who pooed in the baby pool. Nope, not this time. He has peed on carpets, clothes and bags. Pooed on rugs, floors and his mother. But our toddler has not pooed in the baby pool. Not yet anyway.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Why does blogging when you're on holiday feel all wrong?

I like to blog. It is one of my favourite things. So why then does it feel all wrong to be doing it on holiday?

It's not an obsession - honest. OK, I did check before we set off that our hotel had wi-fi, but I was really very calm when the suitcase containing, among other things, my netbook took an extra day to join us here.

So if being on holiday with my family is all about leisure and quality time then, why can't I sneak off for a little blog when no one is looking without feeling guilty? 

Holiday blogging is a bit like texting during sex, putting ketchup on lobster or going to work in your pyjamas. There isn't really any reason why you shouldn't if no one else minds, but you just shouldn't.
Is it because, deep down, we don't really approve of technology and, ahem, social media. It's too new fangled, too flighty and, therefore, just a passing fad. We remember Betamax, you see. And Sinclair C5s. Slankets and bubble perms...

But even then, I'm happy to run the risk of looking spectacularly geeky and uncool. Nope, I don't even think it's unwholesome - not the cheap chicken nuggets of a passtime. More I'd say the goujons made from a contented corn-fed chook, fried in spices and ready to dip in a fancy mayonaise with garlic.

And as if to prove the point, I'm writing this while the Panther of News shows delight at having found the German version of Big Brother on the telly. 

So I'd say a quick blog does you good - in moderation - even when you're on holiday.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

A shake up in the exercise regime

Self portrait before exercise (credit James Munson)
This week I found myself considering a new and revolutionary form of exercise. I was writing about an establishment in Inverclyde called Shoogle and Tone.

It led me consult my old friend Google who told me it was a Whole Body Vibration system. You stand or otherwise balance on a plate that, for want of a better word, shoogles you. Your muscles react by tensing in a "stop this flipping shaking" kind of way. And lo, you will be firm and toned. 

I find that there's an establishment in the next village that has these very things. Oh yes. Am I going? Of course I am. 

But it did set me to thinking about all the other fitness passions I have embraced over the years. 

Aerobics - back when it was still legwarmers and leotards on top of leggings. The only way to do this was with lots of leaping and going for the burn. Thanks to Jane Fonda and her videos many of us did it in our sitting rooms too.  

Jazz-er-cise - Basically aerobics but with better music and more complex foot work.  I don't think bum-floss leotards were essential either.

Line dancing - Yee-ha. Not really very effective exercise but huge amounts of fun. Scientist have worked on this for year, but never worked out why this is enjoyable. Stetsuns, boots and checked shirts help too.

Spinning - bikes that don't go anywhere, pedalled by competitive people who take their fitness very seriously. Not even as little fun as it sounds.

Callanetics - exercise 'system' (reserve caution for systems) involving lots and lots of muscle contractions. Done for hours much pertness is achieved. Results possible because muscle contractions have replaced eating. 

Step - good lord, how is it that such a simple thing could create such confusion. Step is apparently very good for you but so complicated that only the mentally agile should attempt.

Slide aerobics - mercifully short-lived fad. Comprised a slippery pad and smooth things to put on your feet. You slid your legs in and out and, er that's it. Inner thighs you could crack nuts with.

Pilates - embraced because it seemed to include a great many lying down exercises. This was a mistake - it's the most painful lying down can be outside of a Marquis de Sade novel.

Personal trainers - patient young men and women who nag you into keeping going long after you are bored rigid with an exercise. Effective but expensive.

Salsa - very free-form interpretation of Latin-American dance to catchy music. Successful if you're at the any movement is better than no movement stage of the exercise timeline. And almost as much inexplicable fun as line dancing. 

Jogging - didn't like it very much and wasn't very good at it so stopped.

Fitball - where you learn that sitting on a gigantic beach ball is harder than it looks. 

Body Pump/Attack/Combat/Jam - Aerobics for the 21st century but with more enthusiasm and shouting than I can stand. I will not whoop for anyone.

I fully expect I'll do a few shoogling sessions and declare it the next best thing. This will happen about a fortnight before I lose interest all together.

And after that? Who knows? I'm very keen to know what the next big things going to be. 

(I have excluded hill walking and yoga from my list because my interest in them never fades even when I don't have time to participate.)

Sunday, 17 July 2011

At which point do you become an author?

Is it when the book is commissioned? When it is actually published? Or when you type the last word?

I hope it's the latter because it certainly feels significant. I'm cock-a-hoop and have been since about 9pm last night when I finished writing Blogging For Happiness. With a huge sigh and a glass of Champagne it was done. I've sent it off to the publisher today and will shortly begin the unseemly grapple with my aged printer to get a hard copy the editor wants too. 

I suspect that I'm basking in the glorious sunlit meadow of a book's life history. It's the bit where the hard work is finished, but all hopes and possibilities are still alive. I am enjoying it. Let's see how I feel after the editor has had a look at it. 

Now I can start to pay attention to all the wonderful supportive people who have been ignored during the last few weeks, starting with the Panther of News and the Boys. I can start the reclamation process in the unruly place we live - it used to be a home and it will be once again. And I can begin gradually luring Boy Three back from the feral beastie he became. 

What an interesting couple of weeks it has been. I've learned that the only way I can really get on is to get off the web. The discovery of was a turning point. The purchase of a laptop stand means I don't automatically get a sore neck, thanks to SuperSister for her sage advice.

I learned that getting over the 2000 word hump is a bit of an issue with each chapter. In future - ha - there will be more shorter chapters. 

Oh and deadlines. I already knew I couldn't do anything much without one, but I now know I need to get into gear considerably sooner when the project is about 50 times the size of my usual ones. Probably I need to allow 50 times longer.

It's amazing how how quickly your standards slip when you have already got considerably more work than you can fit into a reasonable working day and then the toddler contracts chicken pox. I confirm he did request and get ice cream for breakfast one day. 

Anyhow, I can't hang around basking too long. All the other stuff that usually takes up all of my time and energy has been waiting patiently for my attention. 

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Is there a place for baby talk in the office?

I surprised myself yesterday. Working in an office, I overheard someone talking loudly about their baby. About his sleeping patterns or, actually, the lack thereof. 

She was going on about how her little treasure would often wake up and what cute things he would do in the middle of the night.

Perhaps the person she was directing this at was interested, but I found myself thinking through gritted teeth: "Just shut up. No one wants a baby bore. Either we've been there and got the sick stained t-shirt or we don't know what language you're talking, but in both cases WE DON'T CARE."

Then I had a word with myself. How un-supportive and non-sisterhoodly were those thoughts? Should I have made a point of sympathising.

I generally don't talk about sleepless nights, sick, cute things and stretch marks when I'm at work because I really don't think anyone not related to my children gives a flying farthing about the minutia of their little lives. 

So my question is: Am I an ill-tempered baby chat refusenik or should tot talk be banned from the office?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Hotter, especially for Hobbit feet

Tasty toes
I like my feet. In fact, I'd go as far as saying I'm proud of them.

On them I have walked a very long way - it's my favourite way to travel and my feet have never let me down.

Over the years, though, my tootsies have developed a thick skin. Not just on their soles, but metaphorically too. You see, many of the people who have had occasion to see my feet in the buff have been, well, downright rude about them.

The Panther of News - whose own dainty trotters rarely see the light of day - calls them Hobbit feet and reckons they wouldn't look out of place in The Shire.

Ok, they are wide (but I'd say that makes for a more stable platform) and they do have high arches but, ahem, that makes them better to dance on. I say "no comment" to allegations of hairy toes.

What it does mean is that they are a bitch to find shoes for. Lovely footwear catches at the wrong bit or just, in the most miserable of cases, won't go on.

Not long ago I discovered Hotter shoes. Buying by mail order I found their shoes were comfortable and, for my work-at-home lifestyle, good looking. They also make most of their shoes in extra wide sizes too. I bought a white pair that I have worn almost every day of the summer so far. 
Until, that is. I spotted a tweet about the fact that Hotter were opening a real life shop in Glasgow's Buchannan Galleries. I tweeted my delight (yes, I know. I don't get out much) and got a reply. I was invited to visit the shop and pick a pair of shoes to review. 

The shop opened on Wednesday and on Saturday I went along. Certainly there are some shoes you would consider a bit "old-lady", but a great many that weren't. So many that it took me a long time to decide what to choose. 

I dithered over some cute strappy wedges and pondered a gorgeous pair that looked made to tango in. In the end I plumped for a pair of ambitiously named nirvanas in cornflower blue. And I'm delighted - comfy and with enough style to be somewhere between "nice" and "funky".

Oh, and the Glasgow Hotter shop lady told me that if they have to order some shoes for you, they'll deliver them to your home for free. (Delivery that is, not shoes, they're good, but not that good.)

Disclosure: I was given a pair of shoes to review.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Be clear, phone hacking has no place in the life of us hacks

There's a cheque sitting on my desk - made out to me from News International. But if you think I'm going to tell you about a great dilemma or some kind of scandal, you're wrong.

It's actually a very ordinary - even boring - thing. I'm a freelance journalist so, if I'm doing it right, lots of different organisations pay me... including News International. I also take money from, among others, the Mirror Group, Associated Press, STV, Magicalia and the Express.

I love being a journalist. I've been doing it, or a variation of it, for 20 years and I still do. It's exciting and creative. It's also an important thing - no, not necessarily any of the things I've been working on lately, but, in general, the media - Forth Estate, if you will - is essential to democracy.

As the online din increases and "crowd-sourced" news might suggest that the role of the traditional media is much reduced. But how do you know what you read on a blog or Twitter is true?

Clearly, phone hacking is very wrong. No one I know - and that includes lots of tabloid journalists - thinks it's acceptable. Most of us are sickened and angry that someone should do such a thing and that we should get lumped in with them.

I'm also upset by the fact that a great many people are very quick to crow about the demise of a historic newspaper - and appear to hope for a similar fate for other organs.

Now, if you could just leave your high horse in the stable over there with the others I have a couple of points to make.

Journalists serve an important function in finding and reporting corruption, hypocrisy and other foul-smelling things in high places. Who else is going to?

Journalists have sources inside organisations who tell them what's going on. Some are motivated by money, but most just want the world to know what's happening. It's also known as whistle-blowing which is seen to be a Good Thing.

To a degree, the private lives of sporting heroes and other celebrities are newsworthy because a, in some cases they influence young and vulnerable people and b, they earn a lot of money from advertising and sponsorship because of the image they have. Politicians likewise cannot expect standards of behavior from the public they can't attain themselves.

Some news organisations - such as the News of The World - do did trade in stories about the private lives of ordinary people in public life. I've never been terribly fond of those tales. You know the kind of thing, city father books for op to turn into a mother...

Newspapers are businesses - they have to be filled with things that make people buy them. If no one buys or reads, there isn't any point, is there?

Often a story is broken by a tabloid is then followed up and much chattered about elsewhere. For example, I've seen a story broken by the Panther of News (a proud tabloid journalist) in his newspaper one day then reported on and discussed the next day elsewhere. He scooped them.

Good journalists are experts at the law and have no desire to be on the wrong end of it. They know what they are and aren't allowed to do. It's not just about moral compass, although that comes into it, breaking the rules incurs stiff penalty.

If you never read a newspaper, watch the news on telly, listen to the radio, read the news online or read a gossip magazine, you can sit down. The rest of you, where do you think the stories come from? Who researched and asked the questions? Who knocked on the doors? That's right, journalists.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Stratford-upon-Avon: a few blissful days off the treadmill

Shakespeare's bedroom windae

Juliet yelling out of the window

Watching life flow by

Swan lock

My bucket list got a little shorter this week. Mum decided to help me achieve one ambition by organising a trip to see the RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon, and inviting Supersister along too.

It was a splendid couple of days of strolling by the river, watching the world go by, smelling the coffee and generally letting out a big fat sigh of contentment. 

Here's what I learned on the way:

Salsa is probably more complicated than you'd imagine. Dinner the first night at Grants on Sheep Street was to the accompaniment of a new salsa class. We dined and gazed - they were concentrating too hard to notice. What a lot of hip wiggling and fancy footwork there is.
There comes a point where you have to stop alarming young men. On Wednesday we enjoyed a breath-taking performance of Cardenio at the Swan Theatre. Sat right at the edge was thrilling and the performances flawless. The following day the debut season actor who played lead Cardenio in the "re-imagining" of the lost play was in the RSC restaurant at lunch time. He will perhaps remember how a 40-something woman who was slurping cocktails at lunchtime caught his eye suppressed a squeal as he went past. That glance was uncomfortable for both of us. 

Theme products can go a little far. The prize for the most tenuous / worst bit of Bard tat was a dead heat between the "out damn spot" rubber and the Shakespeare face cookies.

Thesps beware of lofty peeping Toms. From the top of the theatre tower you can see into the gardens behind the actors' accommodation. Apparently some young players like to sunbathe bare, this week there was no nudity only some of the cast of the Merchant of Venice having breakfast in pyjamas.

Lack of facts has never stood in the way of a good story. Stratford is, essentially, a genteel Bard-based theme park for middle aged people. This though, doesn't make it a bad thing. It is, however, as much a study in centuries-old celebrity as it is about old Will.

They may be luvvies, but the do put on a lovely show. For example the Merchant of Venice, modern style complete with reality game shows, mobile phones and some fabulous pieces of humour. Bravo. 

My favourite female people are top of the list not just because they're family. Thanks ladies. 

Friday, 1 July 2011

Leaving primary - why does this move knock mums for six?

The scared-looking grin just about sums it all up
Today is Boy One's last day at primary. It's a Big Step for us all. 

I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling unexpectedly wobbly about the whole thing. My first baby stepping up to the next stage and all that. 

We've been talking about it, preparing for it, and getting excited about it for months. Why, then, is this such a lump-in-the-throat transition?

Is it because Boy One is leaving the protective shelter of the fantastic Bridge of Weir primary school? I know we have been extraordinarily lucky with the level of support he has had there. But I've no reason to think that the same level of care won't continue at Gryffe High School. It certainly seems that way.

Is it because it only seems like yesterday when the little boy with his brand new uniform and pale face vanished into his classroom for the first time? Possibly. It can hardly seem right that we're all seven years old in a blink. 

It certainly isn't because this family is bidding farewell to primary. By the time Boy Three finishes in 2021, I'll have spent 17 years as a primary parent.

Perhaps it's because the next leaving that Boy One comes to will be the one from school to the next thing, to being an adult and going out into the world? It could be. If seven years went by in a jiffy, how fast will the next six go?

Anyhow, it probably doesn't do to dwell on it too much. Just give your primary leavers a huge hug - they'll need it and don't forget the tissues. Good luck.

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