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).

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

What do you do?

So, there I was, sitting at work, when I realised that there are quite a lot of people out there who don't really know what I actually do on a day-to-day basis. Sure, I'm a physicist, and I do physics-stuff. But what does physics-stuff look like? So then I trawled through the server hunting out some old photos of my time here, so you could all have an opportunity to gaze in wonder laugh your socks off.

Being a contortionist

I do appear to spend alarming amounts of time attempting to get under, over or into the scientific instruments we build. This did not change, even when I was heavily pregnant.

Do not adjust your sets. I am upside down.
For reasons that continue to escape me, every single time we build an instrument, as part of the pre-test, one component is mounted upside down, at  the back of a vacuum chamber with no room to manoeuvre. And every single time one of us (usually me) has to dangle upside down to measure tiny voltages. One day I might try and change this working practice.

It also escapes me why there are quite so many occasions when my colleagues sit on a chair while I climb into precarious positions to sort things out. 

Here, let me get that for you.
Now you mention it, this step-ladder is quite painful
 Or under things:

No, I'm fine, it's quite comfy in here thanks.

You do realise I may now be here until I give birth don't you?


 Wearing silly clothes

Another feature of my working life is the opportunity to wear silly things. Sometimes these are work-related. Sometimes not.

You'd wear breathing gear for 20 litres of acetone too.

It was cold at work. We had hats.

This isn't me deliberately pulling a silly face. This is me carefully aligning an ion detector.
The gloves in the preceding photo are the bane of my existence. We cannot use powdered gloves, since the whole point is to absolutely avoid any contamination. Especially powder. So inside the gloves becomes instantly sweaty and vile. Instantly.  

The Day I Spilled Coffee Down My Trousers
Last week, I spilled an entire, very large, mug of coffee down my trousers. My only alternative was a white paper cleanroom suit sized for a 6' tall man. I think I carry it off rather well, don't you?

And just because I can, I think it's worth mentioning what a family-friendly place I work in.

Me and LittleBear visit at 3 months

Me and LittleBear visit at 8 months

LittleBear helps me work (aged 2)

Monday, 2 November 2015

Writing about not writing

I seem to have run out of steam. Run out of things to say. Run out of the energy to say them. Run out of the will-power to be bothered.

I read an article in the Guardian at the weekend by Jack Monroe and in my head I "wrote" a long post about gender identity and stereotyping. And then I thought, "why bother?" It wouldn't have been funny, or amusing or erudite, just more "blah, blah, blah" from inside my head.

I nearly wrote about the irritating features of my new pyjamas, but that seemed too trivial, even considering that one pair of pyjamas has managed to wind me up in two different ways. And I still like them.

I could have written about my challenging emotional relationship with a large fuchsia shrub in my garden, but that seemed too peculiar, even for me.

I could have written about the things that LittleBear is saying and doing, but he's just so lovely, and wonderful, and funny, and clever, that if I try and write about him I know I'll just come across as the worst kind of bragging, smug mother in the world. So I didn't write that.

One of my friends suggested I could write about the reaction in the UK to one policeman's death while on duty, and in some way contrast it to, well, something, about the US. But I didn't want to start a flame war. And I'm not even sure what point he thinks I could or should be making.

I could have written about being tired. About being tired of being tired. Of being tired of complaining about being tired. But I'm tired of writing about being tired. And having spent time with fellow mothers recently, I know I have it easy in so many ways.

I thought about writing about work. But then I remembered that it would probably be a good idea to keep my job, and this is a public blog, so I shouldn't write the things that I'm thinking. Besides which, the minutiae of our office politics are minute, and tedious even when you live them, let alone for someone else to read about.

I might have written about the giant beanie volcano I'm making (no, really I am). But it's not finished, and I don't know if it ever well be, or quite how I'm going to manage to make the cave inside it. So perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned it at all, because now if I never finish it, you'll all know about the failed project.

So I haven't written for a week. And this is just a holding pattern, to explain why I haven't written. I don't think this is the beginning of the end of writing. Maybe it's the end of the beginning and my initial enthusiasm has waned. Or maybe I'm just in a blue funk and can't really be arsed with life at the moment. That sounds more like it. I just can't be arsed.