Sunday, 30 August 2015

Holidays: just like home but harder work

I'm not sure holidays used to be like this. Or maybe they did, but I didn't need the break so much. But a holiday with LittleBear appears to be not dissimilar to being at home, just a bit harder. Maybe if we didn't choose self-catering as our holiday-of-choice things would be different, but I suspect they would just be differently stressful, as I'd have to do awful, unthinkable things like talking to other people, and finding food that LittleBear and BigBear will both eat, ideally at the same place and same time. And self-catering, even in the best-equipped places leads to the following:

Washing clothes... with an unknown machine with obscure heiroglyphs instead of instructions.

Washing up... either by hand or with an unknown machine with obscure heiroglyphs instead of instructions.

Preparing food... with a selection of blunt knives and no chopping board

Cooking... but with no oven trays, no sieve* and no microwave dishes. Oh, and an unknown oven with obscure heiroglyphs instead of instructions. Where do rental properties find appliances that use a completely unconventionial set of markings? It's quite a skill.

Playing with LittleBear.... but with a very small subset of toys**

Reading to LittleBear... but with a very small subset of books**

Running out of milk every third day***... but having no idea where the nearest shop is

Desperately craving sleep... but having a bed that's too small, too soft and too hot

Looking forward to a nice relaxing shower... only to find that on this installation, "red" means cold and "blue" means hot. Of course it does.

Hoping LittleBear sleeps later than 6am... but having him in a room with vast windows through which the light floods at dawn due to the not-entirely-effective venetian blinds.

And then there are all the fun and exciting outings, in which we get to spend our time trying to make sure LittleBear doesn't catastrophically injure himself, vanish, drown, eat his own weight in ice-cream, try and catch a wasp, grossly offend other people ("Why is that man so fat?") or run headfirst into people, traffic, rocks, or beds of nettles.

Obviously, I exaggerate for comic effect. But I'm sure that when I was a child, I didn't have to work this hard on holiday... oh... hang on... sorry GrannyBear. I think once again I may have under-appreciated you...

* Surprisingly little rice ended up in the sink.

** OK, I'll admit, this is actually easier. He becomes totally engrossed in one thing, when not distracted by rooms full of toys, and makes me want to throw away 95% of his toys when we get home.

*** Yes, this happens at home. Every third day. Every third day for three years, and I still haven't learnt. Truly, an old dog cannot be taught new tricks.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Mental gymnastics

Sometimes I step back and more-or-less think "Huh! Look at that..." at my own thought processes. At the peculiar mental contortions it's possible to go through to justify a point of view, or the absurd bias it's possible to place on a situation. I'm sure I'm not the only one who does so, but since I'm only on the inside of my own mind looking out, and not yours, I won't be so cheeky as to accuse you of doing the same. I bet you do though.

Here are a few moments that have struck me recently...

The smugness of SatNav

1. When the SatNav comes up with the same route that instinct would have me take, I feel smug and vindicated that I'm some kind of Navigational Master.
2. When the SatNav suggests a different route to my own, I feel superior that my local knowledge is more cunning than some poxy little computer program.
It's a win-win situation!

Misplaced Cultural Superiority

Almost everyone I know has recommended I read Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With/Who..." books. I have therefore not read them. This may count as terrible cultural snobbery, or cutting off my nose to spite my face, or both, but I have a strange allergy to the kind of over-hyped, faddish, "best book ever" nonsense that went with these books. I like a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction - Henning Mankell, Hakan Nesser, Ake Edwardson, Arnaldur Indridason (with apologies to all the diacritics missing from those names). But I also have some strict internal rules about book recommendations. I find that people can generally be divided into two camps - those from whom I accept recommendations and those from whom I don't. There are some people whose houses I walk into and I recognise old friends on their bookcases, and know that we have common ground. There are some people whose houses I walk into whose bookcases make me wince. (There are, sadly, some people whose houses I walk into who have no books. I fear these people.) Stieg Larsson's books were recommended by people who read awful, awful tripe. I do not want to read awful, awful tripe, so I ignore all the good, sensible people who also recommended them and stick to my position of sneering condescension. Because the wrong-thinking people are right, and the right-thinking people are wrong. Right?

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter

If I don't phone my friend it's because I'm busy, or tired, or stressed, or depressed. If she doesn't phone me it's because I've offended her in some unknown way and maybe she never wants to speak to me ever again.

If I don't invite a mother and child round for a playdate, it's because I'm hopeless at picking the phone up. If we're not invited, it's because I'm one of those nightmare parents that other people cross the road to avoid.

If I forget my cousin's birthday it's because I'm incompetent. If he forgets mine it's because I don't matter to him. (The impressive bit is when Cousin B and I mutually forget each other's birthdays. We share a birthday.)

If I hoot the horn in my car, it's because I've inadvertently pressed it with my elbow while trying to reach for the wet-wipes that have fallen on the floor in the passenger foot-well to pass to StickyBear in the back while trying to keep one eye on the traffic lights in case they change. If I hear a horn hoot it's because I've done something terrible and am about to be the victim of a road rage incident.

Conversations That Never Happened

I am more than capable, in fact make a habit of, having conversations in my head. I'm sure I'm not alone in that. It's what I do with the other side of the conversation that's impressive. Other people in my conversations, be they TheBoss, BigBear, one of the BearCousins, any of my friends, the woman who runs the cattery, or someone I accidentally walked into with a trolley in the supermarket, are all, almost without exception unkind to me. I have in fact spent the past four days having discussions with my colleagues that have resulted in me threatening to resign, in my mind. Because, naturally, when I went back into work today, nothing remotely approaching the conversations in my head took place. Far from it. Because despite my psyche's best efforts, actually, people aren't foul to me at every possible opportunity. And I never seem to learn my lesson.

So, go on, 'fess up, what are the mental contortions you go through? Don't let me think it's just me. If necessary, make something up.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Well of Pedantry

Do you know how hard it is to balance pedantry with punning? It's like the two sides of my brain have gone to war with each other and while one side giggles at its own inanity, the other side is harrumphing and wagging its finger about the incorrect use of punctuation, and the lack of clarity of expression that ensues. Because, really, I'm talking about the "well...." of pedantry that my dear friend has drawn my attention to, that I now realise I use all the time.

Well... I don't think sharks can climb trees

Well... a blue whale isn't actually bigger than Russia

Well... I'm not sure crocodiles can run faster than cheetahs

Yes, yes, I know, I'm destroying the magic of childhood by being a dull, humdrum, tediously fact-based human being who can't allow my imagination to soar free with my son. Tell me something I don't know.

It's not as though LittleBear doesn't give as good as he gets. I'm faced with a ceaseless, limitless, continuous font of pedantic corrections that bubble forth from my son. He is truly the Bottomless Well of Pedantry.

LB: Make the bus go!
PB: I can't, it's up to the bus driver, and he stops the bus to let people get on.
LB: Well, actually, sometimes he stops the bus to let people off as well as on.
PB: Yes dear.

PB: Please don't take all the cushions upstairs
LB: But I want to
PB: We won't be able to sit on them if you do that though
LB: Well, you can sit on them upstairs.

LB: I can't put my feet under the table - there are dinosaurs there!
PB: Oh no! Are they going to nibble your toes?
LB: Well Mummy, they're only toy dinosaurs you see.
PB: Yes dear.

Who's destroying the imaginative magic now LittleBear? Hmm?

I should point out that "well" is an incredibly versatile word in the mouth of a small boy. It doesn't have to be limited to pedantry. LittleBear has a wide repertoire of "well"s that he can use:

The Well of Long Sufferance
In which LittleBear sighs before, during and after the "well" as he prepares himself to explain the blindingly obvious to his disappointingly imbecilic mother. You know, things like explaining that the brachiosaurus has to go to the butcher to buy his trees to eat, because that's who sells trees.

The Well of Contradiction
Similar to the Well of Pedantry, but it doesn't actually include any facts, it's simply a direct contradiction of something the aforementioned disappointingly imbecilic mother has said. For instance if I dare to suggest that Dimetrodon is not actually a dinosaur, I am confronted with the simple "Well, it is to me".

The Well of Disobedience
Used to greatest effect when one of LittleBear's utterly unreasonable parents has suggested a course of action that does not correspond with LittleBear's preferred choice. "Well, I've had a better idea Mummy, why don't we..." At least he's mastered being polite when being recalcitrant.

The Well of Uncertainty
In which LittleBear is sure that he has a point to make, but is unsure quite what that point may be. To avoid losing his position in the argument, he simply launches in with a placeholding "Welllll......"

Back on the pedantry issue, I know that GrannyBear thinks I'm getting my just desserts on this one. When I was little, my father was particularly fond of a Rudyard Kipling short story The Village That Voted The Earth Was Flat. It featured a rector who persisted in writing letters to newspapers "as a lover of accuracy" to correct them on various, achingly minor, details in their stories. My father used to refer to me as the Vicar of Huckley, for just this reason. I had a tedious habit of pointing out every minor deviation from an absolutely accurate account of events, no matter the situation. I was guaranteed to "improve" any humorous dinner-party anecdote that way. The fact that my son is showing the same tendency is probably all that I deserve.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

A postscript on the decorating saga

Any of you remember my appalling indecision over a choice of curtain fabric? Or my vexation with the hopeless decorator?

You may remember that despite the not-at-all-decorated bedroom, we still had a lovely holiday. And that I laid the smack down on Jonty (the decorator) to insist that everything had to be finished in time for MrCousin, MrsCousin and the LittleCousins to go on holiday at the start of August.

Miracle of miracles, the decorating was finished in time for the CousinFamily to go on holiday. And MrsCousin very nobly stayed inside on the loveliest, sunniest day to receive the new carpet.

The end result?

No pictures or mirror back on the wall yet, but definitely an improvement! Even better (from my point of view) is that MrCousin and MrsCousin report back that they were very impressed with the workmanship and the choices of colour and design. Yay me! (And yay you too, my delightful readers, who offered fabric suggestions and comments.)

Life being what it is though, there was a final fly in the ointment. Of course there was. The invoice. It arrived and was considerably more than I'd expected. Unfortunately, I hadn't actually been sensible and got a written quote from Jonty. No, what I had was the back of an envelope on which I'd jotted down what he'd said over the phone. Gulp. All that advice you read about making sure you get a quote, and not just an estimate? Not only wasn't I firmly in town with a quote,  I wasn't even in the suburbs of an estimate. I was somewhere out in the boondocks with my scrap of paper. I nearly just paid the invoice with a despairing shrug. But instead I had a rush of blood to the head and sent Jonty a text asking why the labour had come in at so much more than he'd originally suggested. In reply? A text saying he'd "look into it". Oh.

But the next day... a phone message from Jonty's bookkeeper... a grovelling, humble, apologetic phone message... Jonty and "the boys" had been working on two different cottages in the same terrace, and she'd got the worksheets muddled up and billed me for the other cottage as well. A new invoice duly arrived, with another apology, and £500 smaller than the first invoice. I am inordinately pleased with having the confidence to question the first invoice rather than just rolling over meekly. Completely, disproportionately proud of myself. At least £2000 proud of myself, not just £500 proud. I wonder if that means I can spend the other £1500 of proud on something for myself? I mean, that's definitely the way it works isn't it? Isn't it?

Monday, 17 August 2015

When dinosaurs rule the world...

... they will apparently limit themselves to eating only those construction vehicles who are the same colour as themselves.

Dimetrodon attacks Lofty

Tumbler is defeated by Utahraptor

Grabber is no match for Dilophosaurus

Ceratosaurus takes a bite from Roley

Bob the Builder has never been so exciting.

Yes, I did move the scenes to have slightly less cluttered photographs. All other features were the work of LittleBear. He was quite firm on the subject, and adamant that each dinosaur was only interested in a vehicle of the same colour. Scoop and Muck were very fortunate.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Feeling like a rubbish mother; or a mother feeling a bit rubbish

After a long and tiring day yesterday, topped off by doing the grocery shopping after LittleBear had gone to bed (actual shopping, in an actual supermarket, as I'd been too incompetent and disorganised to manage an online shop), I slumped on the sofa feeling like a rubbish mother. I'd scolded LittleBear for not listening and not trying when he couldn't understand my explanation of how to swing himself by using his legs. I'd snapped at him for not listening when he didn't stop on his scooter. I'd refused to play yet another game with his sharks in the bath. Basically I'd been tired, irascible and mean all day.

Or had I?

In the spirit of not wallowing in self-pity and recriminations, I replayed the day in my head...

LittleBear and I had got up and had toast and strawberries for breakfast, allowing BigBear a lie-in. We'd then caught the bus to the train station, riding at the front on the top deck, with LittleBear on my lap, my arms around him, my cheek resting on his warm soft head, spotting diggers, buses, ambulances and building sites on the way. At the station we'd been just in the nick of time to catch the train to WorkTown, the next station north from HomeTown. With cunning and foresight, I'd taken LittleBear's scooter with us, so we'd scooted along the river in WorkTown, stopping in the first park we reached for a little snack and a cuddle. Then on to the next park for what felt like an infinite quantity of swinging (my arms still hurt). A pause to scramble around on the climbing frame, followed by more swinging, then a bit more swinging, before a final bit of swinging and then we charged off across the park to sit under the biggest horse chestnut we could find and have another snack, gazing at one of the finest cathedrals in Europe.

By this stage BigBear had got up, had breakfast and driven to WorkTown to meet us, so we convened at the book shop, acquired a book and map about our forthcoming holiday and then settled in at a family-friendly restaurant where LittleBear got to have sausage, chips and peas followed by ice-cream in a cone. He was so exhausted from several hours of scooting, swinging and running, that after a slightly pitiful "when is my food coming?" fifteen seconds after we ordered, he then climbed into my lap and curled up with his head on my shoulder in the warmest, softest cuddle.

Meanwhile, while waiting for lunch we consulted our newly purchased guide book and were able to tell LittleBear all the amazing things we would be able to see and do... play on the beach... hunt for dinosaur fossils... visit the crocodiles at the zoo... ride on a steam train... catch crabs... paddle in the sea... after the first three items he was almost beside himself with excitement, and by the end of the meal he sat on Daddy's lap, guzzling ice-cream and demanding to see more of the things we would be doing*.

Fuelled mostly by chips and ice-cream, LittleBear then scooted at a rate of knots back to the car and then collapsed almost comatose in his seat. Once back home there were more cuddles, games, stories snuggled up with Daddy and then the discovery that we had the old BBC series "Walking with Dinosaurs" on DVD and LittleBear's cup overflowed.

So, essentially, LittleBear's day was filled with all of his favourite things, and he reached the end of it hot, tired and happy, so I don't think I can have been a completely rubbish mother. Then it dawned on me. There's a big difference between feeling like a rubbish mother and being a mother who is feeling rubbish. And it's possible to be a reasonable (if slightly unreasonable) mother even when feeling rubbish. And this morning my two bears let me have a lie-in and I slept the sleep of the righteous until nearly eleven and no longer feel rubbish.

* The Isle of Wight, since you ask. We were torn between Wells-next-the-Sea or Wales for a UK beach holiday. Big Bear declared the former too near to home to feel like a real holiday, and I declared the latter too far away and therefore too tiring and stressful to drive to. So we've ended up going to the Isle of Wight. Makes perfect sense.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Us and Them

I've recently had cause to realise that I am one of "Them". You know, that nebulous collection of people who secretly control information, who hush things up, who don't want "Us" to know the truth. It's come as a bit of a surprise to me really. I'd always got myself pinned as one of "Us".

Let me take you to a summer day in a friend's garden, where I sit chatting to friend-of-a-friend. Friend-of-a-Friend is a complete stranger to me, but he's been told a bit about me, knows I'm a scientist, knows I'm a physicist, knows I make analytical instruments and is fascinated. How flattering. His own area is not physics, but he's a scientist by training and he wants to know more about what I do. Doubly flattering. So we chat about my work. Friend-of-a-Friend is no idiot, he asks quite sensible, quite well-informed questions about what I do, how it all works, what sort of data we get. I try and pitch my answers at the intelligent-but-not-an-expert level.

Then he lowers his voice and asks if I've ever had results I just can't explain... because he's heard rumours... he wants to know if there are things that are being hushed up... he's heard about an island of stability in the transuranic elements... his friend has told him... his brother knows someone who knows... do I know anything about element 115? Or an even heavier element called Corbomite? [please do not Google these elements until the end of this post, it'll spoil the fun]. Now, yes, there are theories, as in the above link, about islands of stability, but no I've never seen any trace or suggestion of any elements beyond those generally accepted as existing. And yes, if they were around, certainly if there was any natural abundance, we would be able to see them with a mass spectrometer.

I explained that with a decent mass spectrometer you don't just get a peak at a nominal mass, you can tell the difference between elements and compounds based on their exact mass, which largely comes down to the slight difference in mass between protons and neutrons. Just for fun, here's one of my instruments showing the presence of both iron (Fe) and C4H8 at mass 56. They're not even close to being at the same mass. Understanding exact masses tells you a huge amount about the peaks in your mass spectrum. Nobody is going to hide a whole new element in there. 

And when there are mystery peaks? There was the time we persistently and confusingly found peaks that could only be explained by bromine contamination, and yet we had no idea where or how we could have got bromine into the system. Until we discovered one of our suppliers had started cleaning some fine wire meshes with brominated solvents, and hadn't told us, and now we were seeing the residue inside the mass spectrometer. Or the time I suddenly saw an interesting cluster of peaks at 182, 183, 184 and 186 and realised it meant I was accidentally vaporising a tungsten filament. The thing about mass spectrometers is that they don't lie. They don't have a plan. They aren't working to a secret agenda. They haven't been nobbled by the CIA. They just record the mass-to-charge ratio of anything they can ionise. And then you can look at that data, secure in the knowledge that the mass spectrometer has not decided to hide some of it from you in the interests of national security.

So, when confronted with someone who wanted to know how I knew that there weren't any mysterious extra elements hiding in the data, I mentioned exact masses, and isotope ratios. I explained about the NIST mass spectral database that gives fragmentation patterns for thousands of different gas phase compounds under electron impact, so you know the ratio of different mass peaks any compound will give, and about mixture analysis algorithms. I explained about the Static SIMS library giving similar data for solid samples under ion bombardment, and that we had contributed a lot of the raw data to that library.

He mentioned secret underground labs at Los Alamos... I explained I'd installed an instrument in an underground lab in Los Alamos. It just happened to be underground, because the ground was a bit hilly there, not for any nefarious purposes. It was rather dark, rather grey and rather boring, like a lot of labs.

He mentioned Porton Down... I talked about the instruments we've built that are now there.

He mentioned NPL and NASA... I mentioned our instruments... you get the drift.

It turns out, we have our fingers in all the establishment pies. If there's a conspiracy to hide elements, I'm probably part of it.

I was intrigued about why he was particularly interested in those putative elements, so when I got home, I looked on the interweb. Oh dear. Some of you may be less naive, or more down with the zeitgeist, or have a better memory than me. If you do, you'll know that Element 115 is a key part of the backstory in Call of Duty. And Corbomite is an element that Captain James T. Kirk makes up to get out of danger. That's right, a computer game and a 1960s science-fiction TV program. And not just science-fiction, but a piece of science-fiction within the science-fiction. Look a bit deeper though, and there are conspiracy theories swirling around that these are real things, being hushed up by being placed in full view as works of fiction. Blimey "They" are cunning aren't they? I mean we are.

And now I'm left wondering... was the delightful, charming, interested Friend-of-a-Friend just executing the most perfectly dead-pan wind-up of a boring physicist to see how I'd react to complete and utter balderdash? Or has someone he trusts and believes told him this stuff? Or has he read it on the internet and believed that "They" are hiding actual elements from "Us"? (Or rather I'm hiding them from "Us", or from you, or them, or "Them", or whatever I mean). The trouble is my perception of Friend-of-a-Friend as interested, calm, rational and intelligent doesn't tally with any explanation I can create for his interest in this stuff. I'm just bemused. It would have been easy if he'd been a ranting, frothing loon.

But at least I have now been revealed to myself as one of "Them". I just have to get used to that idea now.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

On the inside looking out

Well, now I'm not in quite such a blue mood, and I've also been hit round the head with a clue-by-four by some of my friends, I'm reassessing my position as being the outsider. It's not exactly a trip into the Total Perspective Vortex, but I have had a massive shift in perspective. It may be temporary, it may not. We shall see.

I have a series of revelations, that are perhaps only revelations to me, that I shall graciously share with you, my dear readers. And if you feel like saying "You numpty, how can none of these things have occurred to you??" please feel free to keep that particular opinion to yourself. No-one likes a smart-arse.

  • While it can be glaringly, painfully, humiliatingly obvious when you're on the outside of a clique, feeling isolated, unwanted, bored, and alone, it's easy to be completely oblivious when you're part of a group. When you're comfortable, chatting to friends, relaxed, its easy not to stop and think "Hey! This is me on the inside! I'm OK!" And in truth, there have been, and indubitably will be, plenty of times I've been with friends and have probably made others feel like outsider. And now I feel bad about that. If I ever did that to you, then I'm sorry...
  • How we perceive ourselves is very rarely the same as the way others perceive us. And to judge ourselves based on how we perceive others is a path to madness. Everyone puts on a mask, and for most people that mask is one of a more confident, more assured, calmer, happier person than is so often hiding inside. And it seems I have that same mask - until I started writing this blog, I don't think many people realised the seething mass of insecurity and doubt that lurks beneath the surface. And until I started this blog I didn't discover that to other people I apparently come across as quite the social butterfly, which leaves me utterly dumb-founded.
  • A lot of people want to make friends just as much as I do, and I mustn't assume that each and every person is assured and confident. For every hesitation and retreat of mine; every text message I don't send; every invitation to play I don't make; every conversation I don't start - there's another person wondering why I don't like them, or why I don't talk to them, or why I don't want to be friends. 
  • I am not alone in thinking that I'm the outsider, or in thinking that I don't know how to talk to new people. It's too easy to vanish into a navel-gazing rabbit-hole (which is a really uncomfortable place to be - the contortions required to get in are unbearable). It's too easy to forget to see the world through someone else's eyes. It's too easy to always gaze inwards and think only of myself.
  • Blogging when tired and ill is dangerous. I sink into a morass of self-pity and then I end up not only seeing the world through blue-tinted spectacles, but telling other people about it too. Don't blog when over-tired.

Meanwhile, one of my new friends and I have decided to set up our own pub-clique, in which we go to the pub and drink beer. We might even invite other people to join us, if we're not feeling too shy. I think I'm going to like the view from inside that particular clique...

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Sometimes it's my fault...

I think I may have mentioned that getting LittleBear out of the house can take a while. However, the correct answer when LittleBear asks me to make a crocodile eating a bunny rabbit out of melon for breakfast on a work day when we're running late is "No".

The correct answer is not this:

It's a melon crocodile eating a watermelon rabbit, obviously.

I can hardly blame my son for my own idiocy can I?

[And for the record, yes, we did end up ten minutes late leaving again. And, yes, I did end up heaving the hand-brake on with car half on the drive, half on the road, yelling at LittleBear to shut-up and then running back into the house to retrieve the cuddly penguin I'd forgotten before returning to the car to find a small boy weeping gently and telling me that "shut-up is a mean thing to say Mummy".]

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

On the outside looking in

I've had a couple of conversations in the last few days about being isolated as a parent. About a mother who arrived at a Nursery School orientation and was relieved to finally meet other parents after three years of solitude. About a mother who has found that having a second child distanced her from some of her one-child friends. About going to toddler groups and finding that you know no-one there even though you've lived in the same place for nearly twenty years and gone to the same group every week for nearly three years. And this statement has been playing over and over again in my head since hearing it...
"The problem isn't whether the children know each other before they go to school, it's whether the parents do..."
And obviously, my default position is to start worrying about all this. I mean, I don't think I'm particularly isolated, but I am very aware that because LittleBear attends his pre-school in WorkTown, which is 15 miles from HomeVillage, not only does he not socialise with many children in HomeVillage, but I don't socialise with the parents of those children.

And all the time that I'm not getting to know any parents in HomeVillage, all those parents are getting to know each other. Friendships and cliques are forming that I am on the outside of, and being me, I assume that I will always be on the outside of. I feel as though I've spent my life forever being on the outside of a clique. A comment from a school "friend" has remained etched on my memory for all time...
"Maybe if you changed the way you acted, people would like you more."
I have never been one of the cool kids, or one of the beautiful people, or the popular gang. Never been the kind who can effortlessly make friends, always assumed that anyone I meet would really rather be talking to someone else. And maybe that's a self-fulfilling prophecy, because I hesitate from engaging with people, I don't pursue friendships. I meet nice, interesting, funny people, but they invariable remain friend-of-a-friend, or a passing acquaintance.  And when new, free-standing friendships don't magically materialise from these encounters I feel vindicated that I was right - people don't want to be friends with me.

Even when I was on maternity leave and going to all the baby clubs and Early Years groups, I'd find myself sitting alone with LittleBear and watching small groups form around the room as other people gossiped and chattered as though they'd known each other for years. Even when I could have been making friends... I wasn't. I'm just not very good at it. I don't know how to start a conversation. I don't know how to move from those first halting comments to actual, real friendship. I'm not too bad at getting to the point of vaguely knowing someone, and if I push on rapidly enough I can even make acquaintances, but making friends? Putting myself on the line to the level of inviting someone to my home risks rejection. It risks discovering that where I thought there was shared experience, humour or interest there was actually just polite tolerance. And trying to join a conversation amongst people who already know each other? I actually feel my stomach tying itself in knots even thinking about doing so.

I've come up with some categories of People I Know...

Vaguely Knows - these are people who I know well enough to nod and smile and say hello to. Chances are I know your child's name and not yours. It's nice to live in a village where there's quite a few of these, but it's really hard to move to the next step, after all, how do you ask someone their name when you've been nodding, smiling and chatting to them for the best part of four years?

Acquaintances - I actually know your name! There's a chance you know my name! This is good, and makes me feel you might not actually despise me. But on the off-chance that we're still in the category of polite tolerance and you do actually despise me, I will find it almost impossible to make any further overtures of friendship.

Friend - I know your husband's name as well! If you're lucky I know your surname! I've either been to your house, or you've been to mine, and we actually have some conversations that aren't only about children. All the signs are there that you might actually like me. From here onwards I can cope with the evolution of a friendship, give or take some crippling bouts of self-doubt.

Real Friend - we've discovered that we actually like each other as independent human beings and are interested in socialising together without our children. Pubs and curry nights beckon!

So, how am I faring at actually making friends in HomeVillage?
  • Eight weeks of ante-natal classes - 7 Real Friends, though technically only one of them lives in HomeVillage and therefore qualifies under the rules of the current assessment.
  • One year of attending the Early Years Centre baby group - 1 Real Friend and a handful of Vaguely Knows.
  • Six months of Baby Club followed by 2.5 years of Toddler Group - 2 Real Friends, 1 Friend, 5 Acquaintances and a raft of Vaguely Knows.
  • Three years of swimming lessons - 2 Acquaintances.
So I reckon that makes 4 Real Friends that I've made in as many years. And only three of those have a child who will be in the same school year as LittleBear. Out of an intake of approximately 80 children, I genuinely know 3 of their mothers. Way to go PhysicsBear.

And meanwhile, naturally, the Nursery School that LittleBear isn't going to in HomeVillage, where I was assured that it wouldn't matter at all if he didn't go before joining the Infant School, already has all those little cliquey setups like closed Facebook Groups, and email lists, and parents' associations. And I'm already not part of them. And I already don't know the other parents, or children. I already don't know the gossip and infighting and politics that goes on. I already don't know whose toes to avoid stepping on, or who isn't speaking to whom, or who's upset about the restructuring of the Infant School and who is in favour of it. I'm already not the mother who's on the playgroup committee, or organising the cake sale, or volunteering to listen to the Year 1 children reading, or making art installations for the Reception class, or organising the Harvest Festival, or making costumes for the School Play, or doing the accounts for the School Fete.

Because I can't. Not that I can't read, or listen, of make cakes, or sew costumes, or run a stall, or sit on a committee. But I can't volunteer. I can't try and fail. I can't offer and not be wanted. I can't attend and be forever on the peripherary, the spare limb that nobody knows what it's for, but nobody wants to amputate. I just can't.

And so it goes... on the outside looking in... again...

Postscript for my Real Friends
You, my real friends, parents and non-parents, are the most incredibly lovely, supportive, funny, amazing people, and I consider myself lucky and blessed to be able to call you friends. I'd rather have you in my life than be part of any number of superficial cliques. But one day, just once, I'd quite like to be on the inside looking out, just for a change of scenery.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

The wonderful world of the Underground Cat

Mummy? Do you know something?

No, what is it love?

There's a kind of cat that lives underground. It's called an Underground Cat. It lives soooo deep, it's even underneath the dinosaur bones.

Really? What sort of a cat is it? Is it like DaftMoggy?

It's bigger than DaftMoggy, and bigger than a tiger, and bigger than Daddy. It has really, really big teeth. Bigger than a tiger. Bigger than a Great White Shark. Even bigger than a T. rex.

It's got black fur, and black skin, and you can't film it because it's so dark, even if you go down in an underground lift. You can only see a pair of eyes that are bright. And sometimes you can see the end of a tail twitching.

If the Underground Cat can't find a hole in the world to live in, then sometimes it lives in a factory, but only if there aren't any workmen in the factory. Sometimes it goes into a factory that's never had any workmen in it. A brand new factory. And it makes the things that the factory makes, instead of the workmen doing the work. But it doesn't go into the factory if there are workmen there.

Sometimes the Underground Cat is actually in the shallow sandy sea-bed.

Really? How does it breathe?

It has a tube that comes out of its tummy and its back and it goes all the way up to the surface of the sea so that it can breathe air. But then if it goes back into its cave then it folds the tube up and puts it away cos it doesn't need it any more, it can just breathe air like us.

And when it's in the sandy sea-bed you can film the Underground Cat because it isn't as dark as it is when it's in its underground hole.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Getting out of the house

There are probably (at least) two posts I could write with this title, one of them on the subject of the importance of just getting out of the house to preserve sanity. When you've run out of the ability to find new ways of making a game with three cuddly penguins, two plastic crocodiles, a crocheted blanket and a pile of shiny pebbles interesting. I mean, interesting for the adult involved that is. Apparently anything involving Mummy being required to put on silly voices, crawl around the floor or race (and lose) is endlessly entertaining to LittleBear. And after the third hour I'm on the edge of a nervous breakdown and finding any excuse to retreat to the kitchen because there's suddenly an urgent need to put on another load of laundry. Seriously, I actually use putting the laundry on as an excuse to take a break from playing with my son.

However, that's not this post.

This post is about the simple practicalities of actually managing to get LittleBear to leave the house. I've now given up on going to our local toddler group, as the half hour of tears and fighting about leaving the house were not compensated for by the cup of coffee and a biscuit at the end. Especially when LittleBear stole ate half my biscuit.

Let's take Friday as an example. We were due to go play at a friend's house, with the invitation being for 10am. From 9am onwards I primed LittleBear - "we're going to Friend's house this morning, we've got another X minutes before we go". I put the clock on the table beside where we playing and made it known that when the big hand was at the 9, we'd go and brush teeth and get ready. LittleBear acquiesed to all this quite amicably. I was not fooled. We've Been Here Before. More or less every morning in fact, but still I persist with my system of preparation, warning and getting agreement. You'd think I'd give up given my negligible success rate.

At about 9:45 I started trying to herd LittleBear towards the bathroom to get his teeth clean. You'd think brushing his teeth was some variation on waterboarding the way he carries on. Lying on the floor, sobbing, demanding "more playing, pleeeeeease". Eventually, by getting the lego shark to race against the paper squid, we get to the bathroom. At this point, LittleBear's favourite game kicks in and he "hides" behind the bathroom door. Ground down by too many iterations of this particular favourite, I fail to spend enough time "looking" in the wrong places and instead I find him. More tears, more throwing himself around. Eventually the teeth are clean and I dispatch him to get some clean socks while I brush my teeth.

I hear giggling, then the thunder of little feet returning to the bathroom. Both socks are on one foot. "Mummy! My socks were in one bundle so I put them both on one foot!" Biting my tongue, I suggest he go and take one off and put it on the other foot, as his shoes won't both go on one foot.

Next thing I know there are wailing sobs emanating from the sitting room. "My socks aren't working!" Apparently it's not possible to take only one sock off and leave the other in the perfect position. Who'd have thought it? I peel one sock off while completely failing to leave the other in a millimetre-perfect location. More tears.

Finally the socks are on, and before I know it LittleBear has run away. This time he's upstairs. "Little Bear? Why are you upstairs?" ..... "I'm checking your bedroom for monsters!" Great. It's important to make sure all the rooms are clear of monsters.

Shoes. I give up. Give me the shoes, sit down, stop kicking, stop flailing and just let me put them on for you, or we'll be here all day. It's already ten past ten.

Oops, no, we can't leave the house yet, we need to take some books and toys with us, you know, just in case the two small children we're visiting don't already have a houseful of the damn things. What does LittleBear choose? Two encyclopaedic tomes on coral reefs and a coathanger. Yes, a coathanger. Except it's not really a coathanger Mummy, it's really an Everest Crab Mummy, which is the biggest crab in the world and these are its legs and that's its one big claw. You see Mummy? Yes dear.

We finally arrive at our destination at half past ten. I guess half an hour late isn't too bad... and at least we've got a coathanger Everest Crab with us, just in case.