Thursday, 31 December 2015

Pretentious? Moi?

I have received, for Christmas, perhaps the most splendidly, awesomely, gloriously pretentious bottle of gin it has ever been my pleasure to meet. My lovely friend Piglet gave it to me (and had bought it before even reading about what I wanted for Christmas).

It is The Botanist, and even the bottle is a work of art. Completely clear glass, with raised lettering front and back listing each of the 22 botanical ingredients. In Latin. And they're not just any old botanical ingredients, oh no, these are hand foraged botanicals. And I suspect I may well feel more than a bit foraged* after consuming some of it.

Apparently, this is a lovingly hand-crafted, artisanal, small-batch, labour of the distiller's art. And it's distilled at one of my favourite distilleries - Bruichladdich on the isle of Islay. That's right, it's Scottish Gin.

What's more it's "a gin as much for the mind as for the palate. A thinking person's gin. A rollercoaster botanical odyssey in a glass." My mind will get back to you on the veracity of that statement later. I told you it was pretentious. And I haven't even finished yet. Apparently "the aromas explode like an olfactory Aurora Borealis filling the senses with meteorites of smell sensations as they explode from the glass." BigBear says the pretension is making his hackles rise. I say he's not joining in the spirit of it all (geddit?)

But what does it actually taste like? I hear you cry. I don't know yet. I have a cold that's making my head ache, my nose run, my throat sore and making me want to curl up in bed by 8pm. The very last thing I want at the moment is gin. However, I shall leave you with two positive thoughts about which I can feel thankful as we roll into 2016...

1. I have a friend who knows me so well, and is so lovely, that she is able to buy me the very thing that I asked for without even knowing that I'd asked for it.

2. It's six days after Christmas and I still have a completely full bottle of awesome gin left unopened.

* A note for readers unfamiliar with all aspects of vernacular British English - it has been observed that almost any verb will served to indicated intoxication when uttered with the right emphasis and in the right context. For example, "we went out last night and got completely badgered"; or perhaps ,"it was Bill's farewell drinks and he was utterly curtained"; or even "The groom was totally turniped at the wedding and forgot his speech". Try it yourself, almost any word will do.  "Foraged" seems like a perfect addition to this canon in the circumstances.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Second Christmas

What do you mean you don't have Second Christmas? Next you'll be telling me you don't know about Second Breakfast either. Doesn't everyone get home from Christmas with their in-laws and launch into a full-scale repeat with another section of family?

To be fair... it wasn't exactly full-scale. There were only me, BigBear, LittleBear and GrannyBear. And the only presents were from, ah, yes, well, my whole family and various friends, so LittleBear had another huge pile of presents. And we didn't have roast turkey. We had roast duck. But I did take advantage of it being several days after Christmas, so I bought lots and lots of yummy food, and crackers and other Christmas treats all massively discounted. Top tip folks - buy your crackers now and put them in the attic for next year!

It was a marginally chaotic day, what with me having failed to let GrannyBear know that we'd safely escaped from The Floods in Lancashire, so she thought we weren't at home and had gone back to bed to nurture her cold. When she then discovered we were home, she rashly got up and drove straight here, skipping breakfast. Yes, I do get it from somewhere.

I managed to dispatch LittleBear and BigBear to the cattery to retrieve the Idiot Furball, and in the hour that it takes to do that, I managed to... find enough space in the spare room for GrannyBear to sleep. I really must remember to at least try to keep that room accessible and not use it as a general dumping ground into which to shovel all the detritus in the house the night before the cleaner is due to come. The Idiot Furball has been miaowing incessantly and vociferously ever since. He picks up bad habits at the cattery.

Once we had retrieved the Idiot Furball and GrannyBear had arrived on the doorstep, snuffling, tired and hungry, I would like to say that the day calmed down somewhat. But I have a four-year old, a deranged cat and a poorly mother, so of course it didn't. However, I did manage to insert lunch into all of them, then persuade LittleBear that yes he was going to snuggle up with Daddy for stories while GrannyBear napped and Mummy got things ready for dinner.

GrannyBear duly curled up on the sofa while I prepared braised red cabbage, potatoes for roasting and duck for roasting. Snoring soon emanated from the sofa. The Idiot Furball curled up behind the television and BigBear read books about sharks and whales to LittleBear for an hour (hooray for BigBear!) I even managed to squeeze in ten minutes with my book before everyone emerged and it was Present Time II: More Presents.

Just as it would be nice to claim we had a calm afternoon, I'd like to claim that present opening went smoothly. However, LittleBear's life was almost ruined by the fact that he only received one more dinosaur toy, and this meant he would never, ever, ever get another carnotaurus. Yes, really. Never mind the fact that he also received a fossil-excavating kit with replica velociraptor fossil; a dinosaur t-shirt; a dinosaur fleece; a dinosaur colouring book; a dinosaur board-game and (outrageously) some really, really cool non-dinosaur presents. So we had to have a little chat about being grateful for the presents he was given and not demand more or different presents. I know, I know, he's only four, but being confronted by that level of self-interest and ingratitude actually made me really uncomfortable. So we had tears. And snot. And flailing. And threats not to play with us tomorrow. And more tears.

On the plus side, the roast duck was lovely. Not that LittleBear ate any of it, obviously.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Dinosaur Top Trumps

Dinosaur Top Trumps really does exist, so naturally it was one of the things that arrived in LittleBear's stocking this Christmas*. The features that are classified in this particular version of the game are:

Killer rating

Our first few runs of the game involved sorting the cards into piles of carnivores and herbivores and then assigning all the herbivores to muggins here, and the carnivores to LittleBear. Because herbivores are just not cool. Except the really, really big ones. And LittleBear got those ones too. Then we each took it in turns to read out all the features of our current dinosaur, thus allowing LittleBear to select which category he would win in. After playing in this manner for a while, LittleBear had memorised enough details about all the dinosaurs that we could move on to a more sophisticated game. This version allowed us each to announce the name of our dinosaur, and LittleBear would have a good idea of which category to select to be able to win. He won.

But we didn't need to limit ourselves to the game as described on the box. We tried other things too. For instance, BigBear and LittleBear arranged all the cards in order from least intelligent (Stegosaurus, Intelligence 1/10) up to most intelligent (Stenonychosaurus, Intelligence 10/10). Somewhat rashly, I inquired where LittleBear might think I lay on the dinosaur intellect spectrum... It turns out I rate somewhere between Iguanadon (6/10) and Suchomimus (7/10). So that's a 6.5/10 for me on the D-IQ scale. I was a little disappointed, I have to admit.

The D-IQ scale

Then we asked LittleBear where he would place himself and his Daddy on this scale. That was a revelation. Not entirely positive (for Bigbear that is).

BigBear indicates his assigned location on the D-IQ scale

That's right. LittleBear assesses his father's intellectual capabilities as less than that of a Stegosaurus, scoring him at a stellar 0/10. He hides his idiocy well I have to say. It made me feel a lot better about being ranked only slightly more intelligent than an Iguanadon.

LittleBear's assessment of his own brilliance was, however, well, brilliant.

LittleBear declares his own brilliance

LittleBear did indeed declare himself off the scale in D-IQ terms. Somewhere beyond a couple of penguins who'd accidentally wandered onto the field of play. At a conservative estimate he appeared to rank himself as a solid 14/10. I'm not sure whether this is the point at which I start worrying about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or just shrug my shoulders and say "hmph, 4-year olds".

Out of curiosity, feeling I had nothing left to lose, I asked where Granny-, Grandma- and Grandad-Bear would rank. GrandmaBear and GrandadBear received solid Iguanadon ratings (6/10), while GrannyBear pipped the rest of us to the post with a very creditable Gallimimus (7/10).

So there we are. Life through the lens of a four-year old. He rules the roost, his Granny is the only one who comes close to being his intellectual equal, and she's (literally) a half-wit by comparison, while his father is little better than a vegetable. I think I wish I hadn't asked.

* It turns out that, despite LittleBear's carefully considered worries about Father Christmas' ability (a) to find us when we weren't at home and (b) to find his way into a house with no chimney, it turns out he managed to get in nonetheless.

** Not actual age, I don't think the authors of the game checked with Pachycephalosaurus when his birthday was. It appears to mean how long ago they lived (in millions of years).

Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas in numbers

I have been on the go almost constantly since a small body launched itself on top of me and declared "It's Christmas and I really need a wee!" It's been a busy, fun, hectic day with 4 children under 11. Everyone has been fed, watered and provided with a plentiful sufficiency of presents. I've even had the chance to Skype my lovely, lovely cousin KoalaBear (she's in Australia, what do you expect me to call her?) and BrotherBear, with GrannyBear lurking in the background while the BearCousins waved their favourite new toys at me.

And I have a super-duper splendid new little laptop that I can write all my random burblings on without half-inching BigBear's laptop. Yes, you're right, BigBear did give it to me. No, of course there was no ulterior motive, it was because he loves me. He told me so.

And since it seems too hard to try and condense today into anything particularly coherent, especially after a few glasses of wine, I shall instead condense it into a numerical summary:

0... fights, fallings out, fractious words or fisticuffs

1... extremely happy, extremely excited, extremely tired LittleBear

1.5... hours spent playing in bed with spinosaurus, bunny and a head-torch before getting up

2... new toy dinosaurs (Spinosaurus and Giganotosaurus, since you ask)

3... cousins to play with

4... hours LittleBear managed to contain himself before being able to open his Christmas presents

5... new books to read (for me)

10... people round the table for lunch

12... hours LittleBear kept going without rest, pause or relief before finally collapsing into bed.

13... hours LittleBear kept going without rest, pause or relief before finally falling asleep.

15.5... pounds of turkey

39... roast potatoes (all eaten)

53... brussel sprouts (not all eaten)

60... hours of extra sleep BigBear and I would both like now and are not going to get

Uncounted... the number of presents under the tree

Uncountable... the warmth and love and joy and memories made and shared today. There is nothing in the world as lovely as the joy a small boy finds in Christmas and nothing as infectious as his excitement.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Now, about those sixty extra hours of sleep I'd like...

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A study of the non-Newtonian fluidic properties of small boys


A longitudinal study has been made of the time-independent non-Newtonian fluidic properties of a single example of a Small Boy. The study has been conducted over a period of four years, with continuous behavioural monitoring and construction of a range of experimental situations. The lack of availability of further subjects, and a profound psychological inability of the progenitors to create further specimens limits this study to a single subject. The lack of a control subject limits the conclusions that can be drawn from this study, but nonetheless the observations are felt to be of benefit to the scientific community.


Certain fluids or suspensions exhibit non-Newtonian behaviour under stress. Most commonly these fluids exhibit changes in viscosity that are dependent upon the shear rate. A simple experiment may be undertaken in the home laboratory to demonstrate this effect by creating a mixture of cornflour and water - gentle stirring causes the mixture to be very fluid; attempts to stir vigorously result in a very stiff mixture. This behaviour is a classic example of a dilatant fluid in which the viscosity ("thickness") increases with applied shear force. In the context of the subject matter, Small Boy, this is best expressed as the ability to resist increasing with the force applied.

Experimental conditions

The subject of this study (LB) has varied in dimensions, mobility, co-ordination and communications skills over the course of the study. Attempts are made to normalise these variations by taking an approach classified as Age Appropriate Assessment of Behaviour. In the initial phases of the study, LB's behaviour was largely unpredictable, and could not be considered to fit into any particular model. Inputs and outputs were random and subject to change without notice. The first six months of the study produced little useful data.

Experiment #1
On first attempting to introduce LB to solid nutrients using traditional implements such as the "spoon" the degree of arm movement, head-deflection and high-pitched keening increased in direct proportion to the proximity of the spoon. Several weeks of persistent attempts to approach LB with a spoon exacerbated the above effects such that the experimenter was no longer able to continue. Small fragments of solid nutrients were then placed within reach of LB and he was observed to reach out and insert them into his own buccal cavity with enthusiasm. The removal of external forces resulted in a significant and rapid decrease in resistance.

Experiment #2
When first encountering a large-scale, gravity-propelled, low-friction, acceleration device ("slide") LB vehemently declined to operate the device. Encouragement, assistance and co-operation with the experimenter did not meet with success. Only when the experimenter ceased to observe the subject did the subject voluntarily operate the device.

Experiment #3
The subject has been observed to be adverse to consuming animal protein products. A dedicated programme of bribery, coercion and threat was undertaken. At the peak of this programme, items of cooked material from Gallus gallus domesticus were forcibly ejected from the plate and in extreme cases saline fluid was seen to emerge from the lacrimal canaliculi of the subject. At this stage the experimenters acknowledged that additional force was merely generating additional resistance. Some months after the experiment was abandoned, LB was heard to request "Can we have a roast dinner today Mummy? Then I can try the chicken. And get two dinosaur stickers!" In addition, LB was observed to be returning from an alternative care environment displaying high-status victory trophies (sparkly dinosaur stickers) every day for three weeks. Each trophy had been awarded for the voluntary consumption of new food products. It is of note that the subject's resistance to new food products exhibited this marked change only after the removal of external force.

Experiment #4
When confronted with a large volume of aqueous liquid mediated by a small volume of chlorinated substances, LB started to exhibit a sudden and vehement reluctance to undertake a complete immersion in the liquid. Increasing insistence on the part of a secondary experimenter that LB undertake a free-fall, total immersion ("jump") led to flailing arms, shaking and the emission of high pitched sounds of distress. A forced immersion initiated by the secondary instructor exacerbated these symptoms to such an extent that the primary investigator was forced to remove LB from the experiment for his own well-being. Subsequent encounters with large aqueous volumes using modified methodologies such as "play" and "fun" resulted in LB exhibiting spheniscid behaviour, swimming almost exclusively underwater, and demonstrating no inhibitions regarding immersion. Contrary to expectations, LB subsequently exhibited an emotional resistance to leaving the aqueous environment despite pronounced physiological changes appearing to the skin of the hands and feet due to prolonged exposure.


In each of the experiments described above, resistance to action was observed to increase as greater external force was applied. Conversely, smooth action, low viscosity and fluid behaviour was observed only in the absence of external force. There appear to be significant similarities between non-Newtonian dilatant fluids and some classes of Small Boy. Further work is clearly needed to optimise parenting of non-Newtonian fluidic children and to improve the success rate of experimenter-led activities such that they approximate to the success rate of LB-led activities.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

All I want for Christmas is...


Mostly, what I want for Christmas is more time. Failing any more time for me, I'd like other people's time. I don't want stuff*, I want time to make, to do and to enjoy life.

Firstly, I want a laundry fairy. What do you mean you don't know what one of those is? It's the fairy that appears when you're not looking and not only puts the dirty clothes in the wash, but gets them out again, dries them and puts them away. I am so, so, so fed up with piles of dirty laundry, piles of not-quite-dry laundry, piles of clean-but-not-folded laundry. I just want a laundry fairy. I don't want to be told that there's no such thing. Don't break the magic of a middle-aged woman's dreams.

Next, I want all those little jobs in the garden to be done... cutting the hedge, moving the plants from the flowerbed that's been condemned, putting the hooks up to hold the summerhouse doors open, laying the new paviors, choosing, buying and laying the stone chips in place of the condemned flowerbed, sorting out the bike store, arranging to have a patio laid, getting the external wiring to the summerhouse organised, setting up the telescope properly, pressure washing the path, fixing the fence that's about to fall down. OK, I admit, some of those might go beyond the bounds of "little jobs", but still, don't any of you fancy popping round and doing some hard physical labour for me instead of buying me a comedy knitted hat?

Then, I want all the crappy, irritating, boring things about owning a house to disappear. An invisible housekeeper/butler/handyman would do the job. They could job share with the laundry fairy. Then maybe the cooker hood would work, and the bathroom extractor fan wouldn't sound like a sixty-year old lawn-mower that nobody's oiled in fifty-seven years, and there wouldn't be a hole in the spare bedroom ceiling.

After that, I want time to sit down and finish doing the half a dozen projects I've started and then given up on. Like the cushions to match the curtains at the family cottage; like the painting ideas I got half way through and then put in the bottom drawer; like the heaps of scraps of paper and random mutterings about my family tree; like my aborted efforts to track down my great-grandfather's PhD thesis; like the ideas for cuddly dinosaurs I have; like digitising the family diary; like, like, like.... everything.

I also want time to go to the cinema and the theatre without feeling too guilty or too tired or too alone, because my life is so badly organised the only time I can do those things is if I leave BigBear at home looking after LittleBear.

While we're at it I want time to have conversations with BigBear that aren't only about LittleBear or what should go on the next grocery order. It's not that I don't like talking about food and my son, but I'm fairly sure I fell in love with BigBear for some other reason. I'm fairly sure we used to be members of the local Arts Cinema. I'm fairly sure we used to do cryptic crosswords together. I'd like to spend more time being those people again, not just zombies on the sofa who lack the time and energy to be anything else.

And last of all, I want to spend time with my two lovely friends, Tigger and Piglet. I want to do that with all our riotous, daft, intransigent, silly, lovely, funny, boisterous children. And I want to do that with just the three of us. But I don't want to spend weeks trying to work out that maybe in February half-term 2018 we might all be free at the same time, but only for a Wednesday afternoon, and then oops, no, one of our husbands actually has to plait his boss' kitten's tail hair that day. I want it all to just magically be organised, so the three of us can stay up late - eating, drinking, talking, laughing, crying, looking to the future, looking to the past, and knowing that we don't have to get up at the crack of dawn to tend to our children, and we don't have to feel guilty about it.

 That's not so hard is it?

Just one or two little things for Christmas?

Or gin. You could just give me gin.

* except books. I always want books. And time to read the books.

LittleBear's Big Day Out

Because my LittleBear is awesome at swimming, and I'm not actually a heartless bitch, we went to London for his Really Big Treat. We went to the Natural History Museum. And to make it doubly exciting, we stayed in a hotel the night beforehand; and to make it triply exciting my lovely friend C who works there signed us in half an hour before the doors officially opened; and to make it quadruply exciting my lovely friend J (an actual palaeontologist) took the day off work and took us round all the best bits and knew loads more than I could hope to - enough even to keep LittleBear satisfied.

It basically goes without saying that we had a fantastic time. There were dinosaurs, and marine reptiles, and mammals, and birds, and fish, and volcanoes and earthquakes and the solar system, and so much more than we could possibly see in one day without LittleBear collapsing in a little sobbing puddle of exhaustion. LittleBear collapsed in a little sobbing puddle of exhaustion.

I'm not, however, going to write a review of the NHM, which you should all, definitely, immediately go to. More than once. I'm going to instead illustrate our trip with some insights into The Wonderful World of LittleBear.

... there was the terrible moment when we nearly left a ring-tailed lemur eating a broccoli stalk on the side of my dinner plate, and had to call the waitress back to rescue a beloved toy.

... there was the small, sobbing boy who wanted to have another bath simply so he could use the wall-mounted soap-dish in the hotel as a diving board for his dinosaurs (and ring-tailed lemur) and was inconsolable because we don't have such a luxurious feature in our own humble bathroom.

... there was the horrified small boy with his hands clamped over his ears begging me to turn it off and find David Attenborough on the television when I rashly thought he might like to watch CBeebies while I showered in the hotel.

... there was the look I can't describe on C's face, hovering between amusement, bemusement and amazement, as a 4-year old boy rushed up to an exhibit, gazed at the sign next to it and announced, "it's a Temnodontosaurus!"

... there were glorious conversations between J and LittleBear:
    J: What do you think it is?
    LB: An Apatosaurus?
    J: Not quite as big as that
    LB: A brachiosaurus?
    J: Nearly. A bit smaller, and without the hump on its head. It begins with Cee
    LB: Sauroposeidon!
    J: Ah, no, a hard "c" not a soft "s"
    LB: Camarasaurus?
   J: That's right!

... there was watching my boy stroke a meteorite, and when asked if he knew what it was made of, a swelling pride as he said "Iridium?" 

... there was a small boy who is terrified of the sound of hand driers rushing back to re-visit the giant, roaring, animatronic T.rex, totally unfazed by the noise.

... there was the opportunity to delight in C's favourite exhibit: an owl with a pencil in its ear. How else, after all, can the diligent curator indicate that the location of an owl's ears is not in the tufts on its head?

... there was J giving my LittleBear his very own ichthyosaur vertebra as a present, that LittleBear keeps getting out of his Precious Box of Treasures to stroke.

... there was LittleBear standing and studying the array of ancient and modern elephants and mammoths before solemnly informing me that it was showing me the "evolvance" of elephants.

... there was LittleBear trustingly tucking his hand into J's to climb up and down stairs. There is nothing more lovely than seeing my boy trust and like one of my friends.

... there was J showing us the "secret dinosaurs" in the galleries nobody else remembers to visit, and that I would indubitably not have found if left to my own devices.

And, last but by no means least, there was this sight...

For which I can thank C, for letting us in before the public, and Lady Luck for allowing me to catch the perfect moment of childhood awe and wonder when LittleBear met Dippy.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Swimming II: waving not drowning

Having spent the last 4 nights struggling to get to sleep as I lay awake fretting about What Next With Swimming, I was a bit tired and emotional about the whole thing. The more days that passed the more of a Big Thing it was becoming in my mind. But, today was the day. Today I took LittleBear swimming.

We went to the local municipal pool, which has a teaching pool, a main pool and a "toddler" pool, for non-swimming under-8s. It's a lovely, super-warm little pool. Actually it's three little pools, one 0.4m deep, one 0.5m deep and one 0.65m deep, with various ledges round the edges, and fountains, jacuzzi-bubbles and waterfalls here and there. The three pools are also set at different heights, with slopes in between that the water pours down, to make slides for little people.

LittleBear had said "I promise, promise, promise that I will jump in and you catch me Mummy". And he'd also said we were going to have lots of fun. But, the fearful beast in me had heard promises before, and wasn't wholly convinced. After all, LittleBear really doesn't like getting his head wet much, doesn't ever want to go underwater, hates putting his face in the water, and has this New Thing about jumping.

After an hour and a half in the pool, I could only persuade him to leave and stop pretending to be a penguin diving for fishes by telling him I had a chocolate in my bag and that we could come back next week. And even that resulted in a trembling bottom lip and welling tears as next Friday is not soon enough and it's woeful and terrible and awful that we can't come on Monday because we'll be at the Natural History Museum instead. Seriously.

I have never seen my little baby so confident in the water, never seen him so happy playing in a pool, never known him so delighted to go under. I could barely convince him to stay at the surface for long enough to catch a breath before he plunged his head in to go "fishing". We were being Emperor penguins together, he was the male penguin, I was the female and we were taking it in turns to go to the Great Ocean (the 0.4m pool) to get fish for our chick and tobogganing down the slides on our tummies to bring the fish back to the nesting ground (the 0.65m pool). Sometimes we went together and left a Weddell seal looking after our chick. ("The Weddell seal is invisible Mummy".)

Every now and then I got him to "swim" the length of the biggest of the pools, both hands out in front, resting on my arm, legs kicking like fury, or on his back, my hand under the back of his head.

And we got permission from the lifeguard to go and jump into the big pool. He suddenly started backing away, saying he didn't want to, looking scared, but I gave him a big cuddle and reminded him of his promise and that I would definitely, definitely catch him. And he overcame his fear. On his own. No threats, no berating, no raised voices. I stood as close to him as he wanted for his first jump, and he did it. And then he did another one "for Daddy" and a third one "for Granny". And we cuddled and celebrated and I told him that I was proud of him.

"I know why you're proud of me Mummy. It's because you really want to go to the London Natural History Museum with me!"

"No my lovely, I'm proud of you because I know you were worried about jumping, but you did it anyway, and that's really brave of you, and that makes me proud."

"OK Mummy! I'm going to be a liopleurodon now!"

Not only am I immensely proud of my LittleWaterBear, I'm also so happy to have seen him happy in and under the water. And it cemented in my mind that he still learns best when given love and support and given the time and space to gain his own confidence and find his own abilities. And it made me realise that we really should go and have fun in the pool more often, not just rely on lessons, which are becoming more and more about following instructions, learning strokes, gaining specific skills and less and less about just messing around and feeling at home in the water. Both have their place, and I think both are going to be essential for having a happy, confident swimmer.

Now my challenge is which swimming class to sign him up for...

I have a really strong, visceral feeling that I don't want to take him back to throw-him-in teacher. But the other voice in my head reminds me how much LittleBear has loved this teacher so far, and how much fun he has had in his class. But... I don't think I trust him in his handling of my LittleBear any more...

Another option is a different teacher with the same organisation, on a different day, at a different pool. That dodges any negative associations LittleBear has started to build up. Except throw-him-in teacher will also be there, teaching a different class, and I can't help but feel that will be Horribly Awkward and potentially lead to Painful Questions (painful for me, that is). Obviously I'm so conflict-avoidant I will be claiming that we're changing class because it suits our schedule better, and not even consider mentioning to anyone that there is any other problem.

A third option is to stop having formal lessons for a term, and just have fun, then go back when LittleBear has forgotten there was ever a problem.

The fourth option is to bury my head in the sand and ignore the question, while allowing it to gnaw away at me and cause me stress and sleeplessness.

Can you guess which one I'm going to do? I think you can...

And to end on a lighter note... as we drove home and ended up stuck in traffic next to some street art of a scene of trees and birds, LittleBear looked out of the window and commented, "Mummy? I don't like birds as much as I like invertebrates."

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

When swimming tastes like chicken

Yesterday... all my troubles seemed so.... insurmountable.

And today? Not much different.

This, my dear friends, is what sleeplessness does to me. Last night I didn't sleep well because I'd got myself so overwrought that despite falling asleep easily, once I woke at 5:15, that was it. The night before? Inexplicable insomnia, followed by a scant few hours sleep and then far too swiftly by LittleBear coughing. The night before that? LittleBear coughing. The night before that? LittleBear and BigBear coughing. The night... oh sod it, you get the idea.

Yesterday was going beautifully, as our Mondays usually do. Monday is my favourite day with my LittleBear. On Fridays he's overtired and unmanageable after three days at nursery. The weekend is often a bit manic, but he catches up on rest, and Monday is just, well, lovely. While I made breakfast, LittleBear wrapped dinosaurs in baby blankets and put them under the Christmas tree to be presents for me to unwrap. We went to the library together, and even chose some non-dinosaur books. They were about ocean creatures instead, the secondary passion, but it was a pleasant change from dinosaurs. We spent hours reading dinosaur books and then Beatrix Potter books curled up on the bed after lunch. It was a lovely, and happy, and cuddly, and fun day.

Then we went swimming.

LittleBear loves swimming. He's so proud of himself, and so keen for approval, and so enthusiastic.

But... last week, for somewhat mysterious reasons, he developed A Thing. A Thing about jumping in. He's been jumping in for almost as long as he's been swimming. Either jumping to an adult who catches him, or jumping with a float round his body so he bobs straight back to the surface. Last week though, SmallGirl kicked up a fuss about jumping. So LittleBear kicked up a fuss. But LittleBear's fuss escalated, and escalated and there was screaming and sobbing and cajoling and threatening, and still he wouldn't jump in. The teacher picked him up and dropped him in. Which did not exactly pour oil on troubled waters.

It's not the approach I would have taken, but then I'm pretty softly-softly with LittleBear, and that's what he's used to, and I think the rather more forthright approach was unexpected and distinctly un-calming. But it's not my lesson, I'm not in charge, and I can't over-rule the teacher. I gave LittleBear one last chance to jump of his own accord, and then it was the ultimate sanction... a sad face on his sticker chart. And a sad face means no treat at the weekend. Unsurprisingly, as LittleBear was beyond reason by this point, there was no treat at the weekend.

Fast forward to this week....

We've spent all week talking about how we're going to have a great time at swimming. Talking about how LittleBear always used to jump further than anyone else. Talking about how brilliant he is at jumping. Talking about not wanting to lose another treat.

Did it work?

Did it buggery.

LittleBear was happy as a dog with two tails, right up until the moment he had to get in the pool. Then he started to cry, thinking he had to jump. He didn't have to jump, he just had to climb in, but the rot had set in. The whole lesson then went swimmingly (geddit?) with beaming smiles, enthusiasm, and the bubbling joy I love to see on my baby's face. 25 minutes of delight, followed by 5 minutes utter hysterical sobbing on the poolside. Once again the teacher forcibly got him in (this time jumping in while holding him). Once again that was completely useless at getting him to do it himself.

And thus we reached an impasse. Teacher said he had to stay till he jumped in. I said he would lose his treat this weekend if he didn't jump in. Teacher said if he didn't jump today he would have to come back on Thursday and jump in ten times instead. And so I ended up with a sodden, sobbing, snotty, wretched child curled up on my lap, shaking and asking pathetically "will I ever be able to go home?" We stayed till the end of the next lesson. We stayed until LittleBear was calm and cuddled and loved in my arms. I went past angry, through cajoling, beyond reasoning and into rocking, soothing and assuring my baby that he was loved, no matter what. But somewhere in the middle of there, I stood firm on losing his treat if he didn't jump. It's what we'd agreed.

And there's the trouble. I should never have threatened that. Because this weekend's treat is going to the Natural History Museum. We have a hotel booked for the night. We have a lovely friend who's taking a day off work to meet us there. We have another lovely friend who works there who's letting us in early. (I have lovely friends. Thank you lovely friends.) We've been planning this for months and me and LittleBear have been so looking forward to it. And we are going to go. Obviously we're going to go. But I've now engineered this stupid situation where I've said he can't. And now I have to engineer a way so that he can. So, just me and LittleBear are going swimming together on Friday and I'll make sure that whatever he does is good enough to count as earning his treat again.

I just wish I could take back what I said. I wish I could undo the anger. I wish I could not react so bloody fast. I wish I could be the better person. I know better. I know that when he's beside himself with distress there is absolutely no point in any threat or bargain. Nothing will get through, and I'm left with whatever I said. I know that making an issue out of something just creates a Bigger Thing. And before you know it, we've created another chicken*. And I so do not want swimming to become a chicken. I want him to still enjoy it, have fun, splash around, be a little boy enjoying the water.

I drove home from swimming with a reconciled LittleBear but with tears burning down my cheeks, desperately trying to control my sobs as I wondered how I had allowed things to turn so downright ugly. Wondering if I should even be taking my lovely boy swimming with someone who's prepared to throw him into the pool, despite his sobbing. Wondering whether I'm being too much of a helicopter parent in trying to protect him from anything he doesn't like. Wondering whether swimming is now ruined forever. Wondering how I could still take my beautiful boy on his adventure to London. Wondering how to make sure our outing is still something fun and exciting without any horrible associations about getting shouted out. Wondering where today all went wrong.

And then my LittleBear piped up from the back seat "Mummy? I love you." And I just cried more.

And I cried all evening.

And I cried this morning.

And I'm crying writing this.

And I lay in bed in the small hours, with every moment of the swimming lesson playing over and over in my head and wondering where we go from here. Whether we sign up for next term's classes with the same teacher, and take the risk that LittleBear still won't jump and that the teacher will throw him in and make him scared and unhappy and Everything Will Be Ruined Forever. Or whether we sign up for a different teacher on a different day, or is that just running away from the problem, letting LittleBear dodge something that he "should" be facing and Everything Will Be Ruined Forever. Or whether we give up on lessons altogether and then Everything Will Be Ruined Forever. And wondering whether it's already too late, LittleBear is spoilt and too accustomed to getting his own way, and never does what he's told, and Everything Is Already Ruined Forever.

Me? Catastrophising? I don't know what you mean. And I refuse to acknowledge all the occasions when LittleBear is beautifully behaved, and does what I ask him to do, and is helpful and kind, and makes presents for me, and says that we can pretend to be penguins together when we go swimming "because penguins are your favourite thing Mummy".

My boy is beautiful and wonderful and I love him more than I can even begin to put into words, and I just want to do the right thing, and damn it, I don't know what the "right thing" is, and I really don't know how to function when I don't know what the "right thing" is. Especially when I'm tired.

* I have, at various points, tried so many ways and means to get LittleBear to eat chicken that it has now become a Huge Thing. He is now so certain that he Does Not Like Chicken, that there is nothing on earth that will persuade him to allow any to touch his plate, let alone cross his lips.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Synaesthetic I-spy

LittleBear and I occasionally play "I-spy" in the car. But given that he's only small, and I'm not completely unreasonable, we have generally played with colours: "I spy with my little eye, something which is blue". And away we go.

LittleBear has increasingly been having fun playing with words, rhyming them or listing as many words as possible beginning with the same letter, so today we had a go at playing the "original" version, "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with B". And LittleBear has been giving me clues when I can't guess what he's thinking, and they've been awesome. But some of this ideas have been pretty challenging to guess....


"I spy with my little eye, something beginning with W"







I give up, what is it LittleBear?

"It's the clouds! They're white!"


"I spy with my little eye, something beginning with M"









Mouse? Mapusaurus? Megalasaurus? Mammoth?

Nope, nope, nope, nope

I can't think what it is...

"It's mmmmm, the noise that I'm making!"


And really, it didn't matter one jot whether I had any hope of guessing those. They were awesome ideas. How can anyone not love playing word games with small children?

Monday, 30 November 2015

The sins of the mother...

... will be visited upon the son.

Back in the mists of time, BigBear and I made a pact that if we had a child we would do everything we could to make sure said child grew up without all our insecurities, fears, low self-esteem and general fear in the face of life.

Some time after that I sat in my doctor's office, my boy playing at my feet and sobbed that I didn't want him to turn out like me.

And here we are, with a lovely little four-year old boy, and I find myself doing and saying and being all the wrong things. I can almost stand outside myself and watch my own actions, screaming internally "No, no, no, no, no, don't say that to him!" And yet, there I go, teaching him that only success matters, that only being right and good and perfect matters, that making mistakes is wrong and bad. I don't want to teach him those things. I want him to know that he's loved and wonderful and brilliant no matter what he does. But then I go and get over-tired and become the mother I don't want to be.

You're probably thinking I did something really, really awful now. And I didn't, not really. But I did see a fleeting moment of hurt and confusion in his eyes, enough to know that I was imparting the wrong lesson.

We were writing LittleBear's thank you letters for his birthday presents, with me playing the part of Boswell to his Johnson. I'm not sure what the recipients will make of such statements as "I liked it a lot and a lot and a lot and a lot!" but I wrote what he told me to write. Then he applied the carefully chosen dinosaur sticker (what else?) to the letter, and wrote his own name. I'd written it out for him beforehand, just as a reminder of how to form the letters, and he did really very well.

But then I got frustrated. I got frustrated because we weren't just doing it for fun, or for his entertainment. We were Trying To Get Something Done. It's when I make my worst parenting decisions. That, or when I Have Expectations. Both of those are the ultimate killers of joy. They're when I stop living in the moment, stop allowing LittleBear to be his own sweet self and start imposing weird and impractical and inconsistent rules upon him.

So, there's LittleBear, accidentally writing P instead of b, or drawing an o the same size as an R when the previous time he'd got his proportions much better. And what did I do? I didn't say "That's really well done, my lovely boy", no, I said "No, that's wrong. Why did you do that? You didn't listen and you're not paying attention!" I got cross. I told him off. And he looked hurt and confused and said "It was just a little mistake..." And my heart broke just a little bit. Because he's only four, and why should he be writing already? Because he has years and years ahead of him when getting things right or wrong will matter. Because he was enjoying making marks and having a go, and I spoilt it. Today went from being fun to being me trying to make him do something so I would feel better about the manner in which we were thanking people for his presents. I didn't want to look bad by having my LittleBear make mistakes where other people could see them. It was about my pride, about me wanting to do The Right Thing, about me wanting things to be perfect, about me and not my LittleBear.

When we finished and I was swamped with remorse and guilt and self-recriminations, I gave him a big cuddle and told him he'd done a lovely job writing and I explained that I'd been wrong to be cross when he'd made little mistakes, that it was OK to make mistakes because that's how we learn. I asked if he understood, as I snuggled my nose into his lovely soft hair and he replied ...

"Mummy, you're in charge of Humboldt Penguin, and I'm in charge of Giganotosaurus and they're going to go hunting for snow bunnies together."

And they did.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Meeting Otis

Last week I took LittleBear to the bookshop so he could spend a bit of his birthday money (not, sadly, on books, but on a dinosaur toy he'd seen last time we were there). Happy as only a small boy with a new dinosaur can be, we then retreated to the bookshop cafe to have shortbread and milk (or coffee in my case) and play with the lovely new dinosaur. And several other dinosaurs who'd had to come shopping with us. Obviously.

While playing, another small face appeared over the back of a chair and announced, "I like dinosaurs!" A rather angelic small face, framed with shoulder-length curly hair. Making a foolish assumption, I suggested to LittleBear that we invite the little 'girl' to come and see his dinosaurs. I then asked 'her' name and discovered it was Otis. Oops. Otis didn't seem to mind and none of his accompanying adults had been within earshot, so I didn't offend anyone.

Otis then produced his own Spinosaurus to come and play with our dinosaurs, and settled down in a chair at our table. I nodded a smile to his grandmother and said it was fine, and away we went. For the next forty minutes I played with two small boys and four dinosaurs, attempting to keep the peace between warring dinosaur factions, negotiate the "correct" answer to taxing questions of palaeobiology between two very determined young men with differing views and prevent milk, coffee or shortbread being strewn too widely across the cafe.


Otis' mother and grandmother sat at a different table and had a nice relaxing cup of coffee and slab of cake each. My coffee went cold before I managed to drink it, and I didn't get to eat any of the shortbread.

Now, I didn't actually mind playing with LittleBear and Otis, and I was fully expecting to have to spend my cafe-time playing and chatting with LittleBear anyway, but I can't help but wonder how it is that I'm always the one who accrues children in this situation, and never the one who sheds them? Because this is not the only time I have accumulated additional children when out and about. Some mothers seem to have the knack of engineering a peaceful corner with a cup of coffee, and I seem to have the knack of surrounding myself with mess, chaos, noise and dinosaurs.

I have a sneaking suspicion I actually know the answer to this question... I think it's because I like talking to children. And being the perceptive little creatures that they are, I like to think that small children are aware that I'm interested in talking to them, and so come and talk to me. They have no front, no guile, no social niceties. They are usually inquisitive, interested, interesting and (generally unintentionally) very funny. And they seem quite happy with me just being me. I don't feel any pressure to look a certain way, or conform to any particular model of adult behaviour.

Much as I'm sure it will surprise anyone who's ever met me socially, I actually feel excruciatingly, gut-twistingly uncomfortable and ill-at-ease when meeting and talking to new people. And even not-that-new people. The fact that my defence mechanism in such situations is to talk too much does a pretty good job of plastering over the cracks, thus leading the world and his dog to assume that I am confident and self-assured. Whereas in truth I have been known to pace up and down outside a pub instead of going in to meet people I don't know well. I've been known to turn back in my car and go home rather than go to a social gathering that's making my lower intestine attempt to strangle my liver. And I've lost count of the number of invitations I've turned down because the thought of them makes me break out in a cold sweat. But mostly, when confronted with an uncomfortable social situation, I just become absurdly garrulous with a tendency to over-share.

And with children? They are judgemental and opinionated and tactless in a way no adult could ever manage. But that also means they are honest and open and straightforward. I know where I am with children. I know that they are not merely humouring me, not rolling their eyes behind my back, not itching to get away but plastering a smile on their faces simply because it's the polite thing to do. If LittleBear thinks I'm being stupid or unreasonable he has no qualms about sighing and rolling his eyes. If he's not interested in what I'm saying or doing he either wanders off to do something more interesting, or just interrupts me. I get instant, honest feedback. So much easier than the complex world of adult human interactions.

So, thank you Otis' mother and grandmother, for lending me your child for some honest, human interactions. Next time, maybe I could have some honest, human interactions with a slice of cake while you entertain two small boys?

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Anglo-Chinese relations

Some of you may recall that, not so long ago, I was responsible for some of the training of a group of Chinese engineers. This considerably-less-than-enterprising bunch have taken the rather-too-enterprising step of deciding to re-badge our instruments in China and pass them off as their own. This has therefore meant that they are going to undertake all the training and maintenance themselves. These are the people who didn't know what an isotope was, and now they want to maintain mass spectrometers and train people to use them. I suddenly feel profound pity for any users of our instruments in China...

On the plus side, our friends from China were at least vaguely aware of their own limitations and therefore requested training from us on maintenance. Not a bad idea, but rather inconveniently they wanted it just when we were in the middle of really, really, really struggling to make their next instrument work. So we had to halt all forward progress and spend a week pulling it apart and teaching them how to put it back together again. And re-teaching them as much as we could about how to use it.

This all happened a couple of weeks ago, and it's taken me that long to try and work out how exactly to express my utter, overwhelming despair at what they don't  know without going all technical and incomprehensible on you. I've decided the only thing to do is attempt to give you a few little snapshots of the things they asked and allow you to fill in the blanks of a whole week filled with this...


Again, and again and again. I cannot begin to fathom what it is that these people don't understand about isotopes, but once again it came as a surprise to them that one element may have more than one isotope and that there is a naturally occurring ratio between these isotopes. For every 500 atoms of oxygen with mass 16 in the world, there's one of mass 18. And this, once again, was a matter of both awe and confusion. Really. And they want to pretend that they make mass spectrometers?

Why are states of matter relevant?

Our delightful visitors wanted to know why they didn't get any results when they tried to analyse solids with our instrument. Now, I would forgive you, dear reader, for thinking that's a reasonable question. But this instrument is a gas analysis instrument. We never did get to the bottom of what exactly they'd done to try and analyse a solid with a gas analysis system - did they try and ram chunks of something through the inlet pipe? More alarmingly, this was a question they returned to more than once.

Why are two different things not the same?

We have one major competitor, and had to fend off a lot of questions about the differences between our instrument and our competitor's instrument. My favourite one remains "why is the pressure in your vacuum chamber different?" Gee, I don't know, how about because the chamber is a different size, shape and composition, containing different components, pumped by different pumps, with a different gas introduction system and measured with a different gauge? Or, more vaguely, because it's totally, completely, and in every way different. You might as well ask why I'm not the same height as my husband. I'm just not.

My vague understanding trumps your hard evidence

Our smallest, roundest visitor, who has still never introduced himself to me, professes to be an engineer. As such he stood in front of the instrument, poking part of it with a screwdriver, informing us that "this cannot seal. Design is no good". He did this while (I repeat) stood in front of the instrument. The instrument was, at that point, under vacuum, and recording a pressure of 10e-7 mbar. (Bloody blogger won't let me format superscripts, so, in longhand, that's ten raised to the power of minus seven millibar. Or 0.0000001 millibar) For those not used to dealing with either exponents or measurements of vacuum - that's ten billion times lower pressure than the atmosphere around you. I think we can comfortably say that the instrument did indeed seal. And yet small-round remained adamant that it could not possibly work. What can you do in the face of such willful, obstinate intransigence?

Why is life not perfect?

I spent quite a long time explaining why it is impossible to detect two ions that arrive simultaneously when you have a single ion detector. That alone took a depressingly long time. I then moved on to explain that actually there will be a distribution of flight times even for ions of the same mass. (OK, I admit, this is going to get a bit technical, but bear with me).

Imagine, if you will, a time-trial race, where each runner sets off in turn, on their own, running only against the clock. The runners are all corralled together in a large pen, but none of them know when they're going to start, so they're all milling around, wandering back and forth, bending down to tie their shoelaces, until suddenly one is yelled at to "go!"  Each runner runs at exactly the same speed, but they won't all complete the course in the same time, as they will all have set off from slightly different positions, some of them will have already been walking in the right direction and so will get a head-start, whereas some of them will have been walking the wrong way, so will be slower.  If the conditions on the course change while they're running, then they may speed up or slow down slightly as well. So, even though they're all the same, there will be a spread in their race times. That's more or less what happens in our instruments, but instead of runners we have ions.

Broadly speaking, the more money you spend, the better chance you have a of getting all your ions to take the same length of time to complete the course. But I spent at least an hour attempting to justify why all the ions don't arrive within 250 picoseconds of each other. And the answer is essentially: because physics; because thermodynamics; because life.

And the response? "But wouldn't it be better if they all took the same time?" Well, yes, life would be lovely if everything was perfect. Why didn't I think of that?

Why are two different things not the same (Redux)?

We were challenged to explain why our competitor's instrument produced a mass spectrum from a sample of tea that was not the same as that obtained from our instrument. The conversation went something like this:

Us: Did you collect the data on competitor's instrument?
Them: No, they published it, and we saw that data.
Us: So, when you then tried the experiment on our instrument, did you use the same tea sample?
Them: No.
Us: OK. Well, was it at least the same type of tea.
Them: No
Us: Erm, so why would you expect the same result?
Them: ... <blank looks>

They genuinely seemed bewildered when asked why they thought two completely different samples, when analysed, should give identical results. I refer you again to the fact that these "engineers" and "scientists" are now responsible for training people to use our instruments in China. Bow your heads and weep for the future of analytical chemistry in the East...

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The cake that ate my life

It wasn't until I sat down on the sofa with BigBear on Sunday evening, after a marathon three days of 4th birthday celebrations that I realised that not only was I enormously tired, I had also been monumentally stressed. The release of tension of having emerged relatively unscathed from LittleBear's London-aquarium-trip (Friday), birthday (Saturday) and then party (Sunday) was extraordinary. A weight was lifted from my shoulders and I was once more able to breathe easily. I believe I have already mentioned that I had bitten off more than I could chew. A large chunk of the unchewable was the cake that I decided to make.

I had (rashly) asked LittleBear what he'd like on his birthday cake, and he'd announced that he wanted a liopleurodon, a mosasaur, and an ichthyosaur swimming on a blue cake, with a piece of land at the end with a tyrannosaurus rex standing on it. What a ridiculous suggestion! Nobody in their right mind would contemplate making something quite so over-the-top for a four year old's birthday would they? No. Nobody in their right mind would. As it turns out, my right mind is something with which I only have a fleeting acquaintance.

Now, I did think about not writing about this cake. Partly I thought about not writing because for the third year in a row one of my colleagues has informed me that his Swiss wife believes that the English are deranged in making fancy cakes for their children, and that the only reason they do it is to show off on Facebook. This neatly dismisses every childhood memory I have of birthday cakes at friends' parties, taking the form of volcanoes, teddy bears, fairy castles, princesses, race tracks, football pitches etc. All of which pre-date Facebook by quite some time, and most of which were only ever seen by the children and not by any other parents, so can't possibly have been made for the sake of showing off to other parents. Nonetheless, I became suddenly abashed, and thought it would be a terrible social faux pas to write about my absurd cake. And then I thought, "oh, sod it, I made it, I'm proud of it, and I don't care what a random Swiss woman thinks about it."

So here goes...

First you must draw your sea creatures on greaseproof paper

Now you may cut your sea creatures out from a thin sheet of sugarpaste

And, as it turns out, greaseproof paper has an eternal ability to roll up, so must be carefully pinned to the sugarpaste to give any hope of actually cutting round the shapes. I tried wetting it, and just ended up with wet, curling greaseproof paper, which was a retrograde step.

Sugarpaste prehistoric marine reptiles!

All very well, but white is just a little bit, well, white for a fearsome sea creature, so the next step was the painting.

Most things on this table were essential

With a range of gel food colours I could produce any colour I wanted, but I couldn't actually paint with it. So it needed letting down. With gin. Any clear alcohol will do, but gin is what I had. And the alcohol definitely evaporated before I let the children eat it. I didn't really give gin to any pre-schoolers. Anyway, the gin turns it into something more like a watercolour paint. Which would be better if I was actually proficient at using watercolours. There was rather a lot of trial-and-error involved. Looking at this photograph, I don't remember needing either the Savlon or the telephone, but I'm also not very good at tidying up, which is probably what they're doing in there.

Now, I did also make a little model tyrannosaurus from sugarpaste and paint him, but I failed to take any photographs during the making of, as it all got a bit stressful, especially when his foot broke off, and then when I tried to glue it back on (with sugar glue I must point out, not Araldite) my hot, sweaty little hands caused the "paint" to start smudging and running. He survived, and once his feet were firmly embedded in the icing on top of the cake, and he had a little plant to lean on stop him falling over it was all fine. (I failed to give him a heavy enough tail, so he had a tendency to fall flat on his face if he didn't have a little plant to lean on).

So, here we are with the finished article:

Liopleurodon lurking in the seaweed, ready to gobble up the ammonites

T. rex gazing across the ocean from the safety of his island

Mosasaurus and Ichthyosaurus competing for a shoal of fish
Aside from the idiocy of actually making this cake, do you know what the fundamental error I made was? I made only three marine reptiles and one dinosaur and there were five children present. It turned out to be a very, very, very good thing that I'd decided to add fish and ammonites at the last minute, as that staved off what could have been a terrible end to a rather fun party.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Work in a microcosm

I was making my lunch in the kitchen at work today - a sort-of Caesar salad. One of my colleagues saw me shredding some chicken and held out a bottle to me, saying, "If you're having chicken, you should have some of this sauce that I bought just for having on chicken." The bottle was an unctuous gloop called balsamic BBQ glaze or somesuch. Kind of him to offer, but not what I was after. With a cheery smile I responded, "it's OK thanks, I have my own dressing, and besides, I'm putting avocado in this salad and I'm not keen on balsamic vinegar with avocado." Unprovocative and suitably appreciative I thought...

Then my colleague said, "oh, but if you're having avocado, you should have that yellow dressing you can get, it's great with avocado." At which point another colleague chipped in, "ooh, yes, definitely that yellow one, it's great with avocado, you should be having that."

At which point I wanted to yell, "this is my fucking lunch, I've got the dressing that I want, I'm making the salad that I want, why can't you lot just leave me and my lunch alone?"

And when I say "wanted to yell", obviously what I actually mean is that that is basically exactly what I said, because I mean, really. It was my lunch. Nobody batted an eyelid and they continued to talk about their sodding yellow dressing, whatever the hell it is.

Now, can you imagine working in an environment where everybody has an opinion on everything you do, irrespective of whether their opinion is helpful, valid or sought after? And that they continue to blather on about their opinion even when you tell them in the bluntest manner possible to shut up. This is my world. This is my work. This is why I am occasionally rabid.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Breakthroughs in culinary variety

A few weeks ago, I went out for lunch with my lovely friends Tigger and Piglet. And all our children. Five children in all. The little Tiggers and little Piglets are pretty good with food, or it certainly feels that way when compared to my LittleBear, but then I have a sneaking suspicion that other children's eating habits always look better than your own. So, we went to Pizza Express, with a little trepidation on my part. My last two visits with LittleBear have resulted in him eating a cherry tomato, two sticks of red pepper and a bowl of ice-cream. Because the thing about pizza, as many of you are no doubt aware, is that it has a tendency to have a certain tomato-ish theme to it. And the thing about LittleBear, as I may have mentioned, is his utter, steadfast, unwavering determination to eat nothing that contains cooked tomato, or that may in any way be considered to have "sauce". Pizzas (and most pasta dishes) are thus rendered Unacceptable.

So... I took a punt and asked it they would make a pizza for LittleBear with just cheese. No tomato. No other topping. Just cheese. More of an Italianate cheese on toast than anything else really. And do you know what happened? LittleBear hoovered it up. He liked it so much that we have now taken to making our own pizza bases at home and having cheese pizza. It's hard to over-emphasise what a profound effect this breakthrough has had. We are now able to go out with LittleBear! And eat moderately civilised food! There's now something different we can cook for dinner at home! One inching meal at a time, the repertoire of meals is increasing. At this rate, by the time he's 18 he might be eating as many as a dozen different meals...

Last weekend we went out again! This time we took some friends to Prezzo, as a thank you for giving us their 4" reflecting telescope. (Because, yes, those are the kinds of friends I have. The kinds who have a spare telescope that they are happy to give away). And in Prezzo, LittleBear consumed garlic bread and more cheese pizza. And this wasn't any old garlic bread - when I went in to his bedroom on my way to bed later that night, his entire room reeked of garlic. That child was keeping away the entire population of Transylvannia single-handed. Or single-breathed. An actual, real, strong flavour has finally passed my son's lips.

Actually, I do him down a bit on the food front. He has a quite surprising repertoire of vegetables that he will eat. It's simply that nowhere serves just vegetables. Certainly not the kind of places that welcome children. Places that welcome children generally have a children's menu.

This is a Venn diagram of how it works in most places:

But in this brave new world of the Cheese Pizza, we have taken a massive step forward to this new situation:

I can't honestly say that I blame any of these places for not serving the kinds of foods that LittleBear wants to eat. I don't get the feeling that there are many other children whose first choice of food often includes cabbage and cauliflower for instance.

And now I am about to write possibly the most middle-class thing I have ever considered writing. In the past week LittleBear has happily devoured for the first time curly kale, adzuki beans and mung beans. He actually had second helpings of kale. And he asked for mung beans for dinner tonight, but grudgingly accepted pinto beans instead. On the plus side, he tried brussels sprouts today, and like all right-thinking people he didn't like them. So there's hope for the lad yet.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Biting off more than I can chew

The corollary to my post about being either a Goddess or Gormless is that I have now completely and massively bitten off more than I can chew.

Tonight I need to assemble and ice LittleBear's birthday cake, and wrap his birthday presents (how do you wrap a bicycle? I have no idea. I'm just hoping 9m of dinosaur wrapping paper will do the job) and draw a giant dinosaur for playing "pin the tail on the dinosaur". Not to mention the cooking, washing up, laundry, and getting stuff ready to take the whole family to London tomorrow morning.

Last night I sat on the kitchen floor assembling children's party bags while waiting for the timer to tell me that I could take the sponge cake out of the oven. The sponge cake that had required 6 eggs, despite the fact there will only be 5 children at LittleBear's party. I think there may be a cake surplus...

The night before last, I sat sobbing on the sitting room floor, watching Billy Elliot while sewing closed the last seam on a beanie volcano. My tears were many-fold...

... I cried because I'm a complete sap, and tear-jerking overblown nonsense that it is, Billy Elliot makes me cry (Not necessarily for the reasons you might think. Billy's mother has died before the film even begins, and I cried at the thought of my beautiful, precious boy facing growing up without me. I cried at the thought of dying myself and missing every moment that my sweet child's future holds. I cried because I have a beautiful, wonderful, inspiring, adorable boy and he's growing up and he won't be my baby forever).

... I cried because I was desperately disappointed in the volcano beanie. I had had in my mind an image of what I wanted, and I had fallen short. I had spent hours and hours and hours making the stupid thing, and I was suddenly utterly convinced that it had been a waste of time. That LittleBear wouldn't be interested in playing with it with his dinosaurs, that all he really wants is armfuls of cheap plastic rubbish, and that I'm wasting my life, time, energy and love making pointless space-consuming stuff that nobody wants and isn't very good anyway.

... Mostly I cried because I was so very, very, very tired. It was 10 o'clock and my list of Things To Do  didn't seem to be getting any shorter, the days left until LittleBear's birthday and then party were diminshing faster than I could keep up with and I was floundering. I couldn't imagine getting everything done that I wanted to get done and I couldn't see the wood for the trees. I couldn't see what could be dropped as non-important and what was essential. I couldn't prioritise, all I could see was the looming, growing, lurking, threatening LIST that I would never complete.

And then the film finished, everyone lived happily ever after, I poked and prodded my volcano a bit more, and imagined some dinosaurs scrambling up its north face, exploring the cave, hiding in the caldera, and (just like last week) life didn't seem so bad after all. Oh, and I had a glass of wine and some chocolate, but I'm sure that had nothing whatsoever to do with my change in mood...

So here we are:

Volcano with cave for hiding dinosaurs in

Volcano with large caldera, also for hiding dinosaurs in

The geologists among you, or perhaps even those who are more than 30% awake, will have noticed that though there is lava pouring down the outside of the volcano, the caldera is strangely empty. This is because the extra red and orange felt I ordered  on expedited delivery LAST WEEK was only delivered while I wrote this post. Therefore the red and orange beanie balls that were to be hot rocks filling the caldera have not been made. And there is not a chance that they are going to get made between now and Saturday morning. I'm moderately certain LittleBear won't mind. I'm also moderately certain that my little pedant will notice. On the other hand, I'm not planning to wrap this present, I'm planning to set up a little prehistoric scene downstairs for him to discover, so I'm hoping excitement will overwhelm pedantry. Just this once.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

A sow's ear from a silk purse

Anyone who has received a Christmas card from me in the last few years will know that I make my own. I generally do some sort of calligraphy or illuminated piece of text. A few years ago I (along with a few of my colleagues) made some rather disparaging remarks about the quality of Christmas card we were using at work. When I then sent out my own cards, the Chairman was sufficiently taken with my design that he asked if I would design a card for the company. I did so last year, and then somehow it was assumed I would do so again this year. More fool me, I made another one this year. More fool for more than one reason. For one thing, even after only two years, it's now being taken for granted that I will spend hours of my free time producing a piece of artwork for the company. For another thing, I rashly completed work's card before my own, and mine is now languishing at the back of a queue of other more urgent projects (see LittleBear's birthday cake, LittleBear's birthday presents, LittleBear's broken toys that need mending, keeping the family fed, clothed, bathed and if at all possible sane). I fear for the chances of actually finishing it and getting it printed in time to write, address and post cards before Christmas. Again. Same as every year.

However, that's not my main problem with this particular project. My main problem is what the Chairman has done with my design. It's a hand-painted, hand-lettered design. In fact, here it is, in not-very-well-scanned format:

You get the idea. At its heart it is a piece of lettering. It is all about the font

And do you know what the Chairman has done? Do you know what font he has used inside the card for the greeting? He has used Microsoft Comic Sans. An excrescence on the face of the world. An insult to every well-proportioned font known to man. A festering pustule on the face of typography. When shown his draft of the greeting, I objected to Comic Sans in the strongest possible terms (translation: I swore like a navvy). His answer? "Well I like it". And now I've seen the proof back from the printer, and there Comic Sans squats, lumpen and ugly inside my card. What I want to do is stomp in, snatch my design back and say "screw you! If you can't respect my views of my own artwork, you don't deserve it!" But I won't, because I'm feeling a bit too munchkin-like for that. But it's the last time I design a card for work. They can used another crappy photoshopped picture of the cathedral in the snow next year.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Goddess or Gormless?

I am, quite frankly, pretty awesome. Either that or deranged. Yes, well, perhaps the latter.

Today, in no particular order, I have:

  • read a lot of dinosaur encyclopedia entries to LittleBear
  • made a beef casserole with LittleBear, during which he was sensible and funny and helpful and used a knife and a garlic crusher and a corkscrew and no blood was drawn
  • taken LittleBear swimming and then managed to keep him happy even though swimming was cancelled because of excessive chlorine levels
  • provided the wherewithall for LittleBear to make firework pictures with glue and glitter (and words cannot express how much I hate all crafts that involve glitter. The mess... oh the mess....)
  • read an enormous book about deep-ocean creatures to LittleBear
  • made train tracks and scared the trains with dinosaurs
  • taught a variety of baby Emperor penguins to swim across the carpet
  • planted 60 crocus bulbs and 2kg of daffodil bulbs while LittleBear watched "Spy in the Huddle" (about penguins)
  • provided three square meals plus snacks to LittleBear, all of which were met with approval
  • made shortcrust pastry and turned the aforementioned casserole into pie for me and BigBear (in the length of time it took BigBear to read bedtime stories)
  • cuddled LittleBear. A lot. Because... why not?
  • hand-painted a sugarpaste tyrannosaurus rex made earlier in the week, to go on his birthday cake
  • at 9pm headed to the 24hour Tesco to acquire 9m of dinosaur wrapping paper to wrap LittleBear's birthday bicycle, plus a large white sheet for making the inside of a volcano bean bag*, plus a wide variety of chocolate and beer.
  • done laundry. There's always laundry
  • sat down with a glass of red wine and wrote about how amazingly efficient and awesome** I am

* Normally, I would go to a fabric shop and buy the right length of fabric for the job in hand. However, my goddess-like competence suffered a minor malfunction in the planning stage and I have run out of plain cotton, and I'm pretty certain a felt beanie volcano that will be pummelled by dinosaurs needs a strong inner bag to prevent bean-leakage. Normally, I would nip to the local fabric shop in WorkTown during the week, but this week I'm being visited by the Chinese again. You remember the Chinese? Well, they're coming back for more training, and I'm down for large chunks of it. Which means no ducking out of work for sneaky shopping trips. And I've been so busy stressing about making LittleBear's absurdly complicated birthday cake, trying to make a volcano beanie, getting his birthday presents, organising his trip to the London Aquarium that I have done no preparation for their visit. That's right, the anxiety-monster in the corner is planning to wing it tomorrow morning for 3 hours of training on leak detection, analyte valve maintenance, stepper motor drive and who knows what else. Admittedly I should know what else. I wrote the training schedule. I've just forgotten. But at least I can lie awake all night worrying about it as a bit of a change from lying awake worrying about LittleBear's cake.

** Or perhaps excessively bad at planning and time management, with stupidly over-optimistic assessments of what it is possible to get done in a day.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Not so bad after all

Sometimes I find it hard to remember the good things. To hold in my mind the things that I've achieved. The times that I've succeeded. The occasions when I've been genuinely good at something. For the most part, when I look back at my life, as well as remembering with vivid, painful clarity every mistake, every embarrassment, every misjudgement, I see a background of mediocrity. I see someone that I perceive to be very ordinary. And then, just occasionally, something happens that jolts me out of that perception, and I have a pause of wondered puzzlement and think to myself that actually, I'm not so bad after all.

I know that a there are people who would look at my life, at the things I've done, the places I've been, the accolades I've received and think I must be deranged not to perceive myself as a success. And that when I say, "I'm no good at anything" I must just be fishing for compliments. I had an ex-boyfriend like that, who rather cuttingly said to me, "I'm not here just to bolster your ego" when I was feeling particularly down. I think he genuinely couldn't imagine that the way I saw myself was so divergent from the way the rest of the world appears to see me. So I ask you to know this: I am not fishing for compliments; I am not looking for praise or validation; when I say that I feel mediocre, it doesn't matter what you see. What you see is not what I feel.

Back to my recent jolt. There were two of them actually. Firstly, one of my lovely cousins referred to me as "brilliant". OK, so she called me "flawed and brilliant", but since I know I can't argue with the first adjective, I'll gaze in wonderment at the second one. The second jolt was seeing someone I studied at University with presenting the weather on Al Jazeera English. This prompted me to Google her (obviously) and I found her Wikipedia entry, which claims "she was awarded an MA in Physics, gaining the University's top marks for the final year presentation project". And I instantly thought to myself, "she certainly didn't get the top marks". Why do I think that? Well, the final year presentation project was a joint project, and I was in the same group of 4 people as weather lady. And all four of us received the same mark. Since I know I can't have got the top mark, she can't have done either.

Except... hold on... I don't actually remember what mark I got in that project. I do know that I was awarded very high marks in all my other projects. In fact, I know that overall my project work alone was classed as a starred first, which was enough to salvage my abysmal performance in exams and get me an upper second at the end of the year. So, it's not completely implausible that weather lady and I did get alphas in the presentation. And, now I come to think of it, I was awarded a prize for my project work. How did I forget that? How is it possible to spend so much of my time thinking I'm not good enough that I forget I was awarded a prize during the final year of a Cambridge degree? How is it that my immediate reaction on seeing a statement that implies I was good at something is to assume the statement is a lie?

So, here I am, wondering if it's too late to change the way I see myself, the way I view my past, the memories that are strongest. But also having a moment of thinking to myself that actually, sometimes, I'm not so bad after all. And maybe that's a start.

Dinosaurs still rule our world

My son has, to put it mildly, a dinosaur obsession. This obsession does not simply express itself in reading dinosaur stories or playing with toy dinosaurs. It expresses itself in reading every single dinosaur book in the library. No matter how advanced you or I might think these books are, they are the only ones he will allow his devoted parents to read. No more Mog. No more Winnie the Pooh. No more tigers coming to tea. This obsession also expresses itself in playing only with dinosaurs. Only dinosaur figurines, only dinosaur cuddly toys, only dinosaur jigsaws, only dinosaur board games, only dinosaur games on my tablet. Even lego is now used only to make dinosaurs with. His rather lovely cuddly cheetah has now been declared to be some kind of predatory dinosaur. As has our poor cat on occasion. And me.

The upshot of this dinosaurcentric world-view is that he is now an alarmingly well-informed nearly-4 year old. When we went to the Sedgwick Museum, the nice lady undertaking a survey of visitors suggested perhaps he should be invited to give talks. It also gives rise to some quite startling questions and pronouncements...

"Mummy? What did the first animals evolve from?"

"Mummy? Did the animal populations recover faster from the end-Cretaceous mass extinction or from the extinction at the beginning of the Triassic?"

"Mummy? I don't think the carers at nursery even know there is such a thing as saurischian and ornithischian dinosaurs..." <said with a remarkable degree of regret>

"It's very sad that the dinosaurs are all extinct isn't it Mummy? I think it would be nice if they were still here. Only the friendly ones though."

After I insisted that my dinosaur (forever the victim in our games) was going to run away to the middle of Pangaea, where it's dry and dusty and his dinosaur won't want to follow:

"No Mummy. These are late-Cretaceous dinosaurs, and Pangaea has already broken up."

"Mummy? Is Ornithocheirus bigger than Quetzlcoatlus?"

Yesterday I conceded to allowing LittleBear to take one of his favourite library books on the subject in to nursery today ("Only for the adults to look at Mummy, because they don't know very much about dinosaurs"). I thought it might be a good idea for them to see what it is that he's reading at home. I rather get the feeling that he's a little... unusual... in his interests and vocabulary. Every day I am told by one carer or another that Robert knows a lot about dinosaurs. As though this could possibly come as any kind of surprise to me.

And finally, when we were in the library this week, he pulled a new book from the shelf, pointed to the cover and read aloud "Discover more Prehistoric Monsters". He appears to be teaching himself to read. About dinosaurs. I think my life might be going to get quite challenging.

LittleBear can't really, properly read. What he can do it recognise some words instantly and take intelligent guesses at the overall sentence. He clearly absorbs the start of the word and then takes a stab in the dark. Turns out it's quite an effective strategy, though doomed to failure in certain circumstances. Ichthyostega, Ichthyosaurus and Ichthyornis are indistinguishable unless accompanied by a picture, in which case he knows them immediately. I can already, however, see him being condemned to the same academic future as me: if things are easy and he can jump straight to the right answer, then all is rosy and he's happy. He's bright enough, as I was, to jump straight to a lot of right answers. If there's a challenge, I can already see the look of despair and failure sweep across his face as he mutters "I can't do it Mummy". I try to cheerfully encourage and support, because I don't know what the hell else to do, and allow him to try and fail and try again and succeed. I don't want him to be too much like me - giving up at the first hurdle, instantly convinced he's a failure. I want him to know it's OK not to be able to do something first time. That it's OK to have another go. That sometimes the things that are worth doing take practice and effort. Instead I have a take-the-easy path LittleBear who guesses and then gives up. Oh well, he's only 3 (for another week).