Friday, 30 December 2016

Saying goodbye in 2016

Headnote: which is a bit like a Footnote, but comes at the beginning. I've been trying, and failing, to write this for the past few weeks. I keep thinking of a sentence here, or a thought there, but nothing that quite works. I'm still not sure that this version quite holds together, or says what I want to say, but since I wanted to finish it before the year ends, I think this is the version that you get.

There isn't an error in the title of this post. This isn't about seeing out the old year. This is about all the goodbyes of 2016. I'm not talking about David Bowie, or Prince, or Alan Rickman, or Terry Wogan, or Carrie Fisher, or Debbie Reynolds, or any of other celebrities that you've all heard about. It's not that I don't think it's sad when someone famous dies, but in truth, their deaths are, for me, a gentle regret that something creative and bright has been lost from the world, and not a great depth of grief.

The goodbyes that I've said this year have been closer, more personal and more painful. There are three losses in particular that have cut into my life and hurt.

First of all, I lost a friend. And I still rage at the injustice of it. That someone so good, so deserving, so kind, who was so needed and wanted and loved could be gone, so quickly.

The second loss is not truly mine, and is not my story to tell, and there is nothing I want to say, or can say, other than that it has left me numb and lost for words. I want to say the right thing, but I know there is no "right thing" to say. So, I'll just leave that here - a spark was lost from the world this year.

And now, I have lost my uncle.

Many years ago I lost my father, and the final days of both their lives were, medically speaking, very similar. I have found myself being forced to remember and re-live the time spent by my own father's bedside, and the final acknowledgement that there was nothing more that modern medicine could do, and the waiting for the end to come. I have seen and heard my cousins doing the same with their beloved father. And I've discovered that I've spent more than twenty years carefully not thinking about my own father, not remembering his decline and illness, not thinking of all the bad times and sad times. And only now, as I start to grieve for my uncle and for my cousins who have lost their Dad, am I finally looking back and remembering the little girl who loved her Daddy so ferociously. And missing him. And wishing things hadn't been the way they were. And wishing we'd had all the years with him that we had with my uncle.

And so I find myself grieving not only for my uncle, but, decades too late, for my Daddy too. And even so, I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to write about him, no matter how many years have passed.

Instead I'm going to write about Uncle P.  Because I want to tell the world how wonderful he was. I want to share him with everyone. I want other people to know that the world has lost something special. I want everyone to hear his softly spoken asides, his puns, his wit and his wisdom. I want my friends to bask in the undivided and devoted attention he would bestow upon those who spoke to him, the interest he would take in your interests, the huge depth of knowledge and experience he would bring to every conversation. I want more people to delight in his gentleness, kindness, warmth, and enormous capacity to love.

He was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the great and the good. He spent more than three decades serving his country with the Foreign Office, and then, even in retirement, didn't just sit back and relax. Instead, he devoted huge amounts of time and effort to helping others, most obviously working for Habitat for Humanity. And that's probably what marks him out most clearly as a truly good man - his immense generosity. And I don't just mean the easy generosity of giving money or material goods to others. No, I mean the deeper generosity of spirit that meant always placing others before himself. Always looking for, and finding, the best in others. Always giving his time, thought, love and hard work to make the world a better, brighter, warmer place. Even when in pain in hospital, when the pastor visited he didn't ask for prayers for himself, but for the confused, sick, elderly man in the opposite bed who had no visitors. He welcomed everyone into his home, with good cheer and kindness. More than that, he drew those who were alone, or bereft, or hurting into our family and made them part of us, extending the idea of family into much more than simply a matter of blood.

He's almost sounding too good to be true now, but he wasn't. He was simply a good man, in a world where there are far too few good men. He was a father, a son, a husband, a grandfather, an uncle and a friend. And he was bloody good at all of them, and he will be missed more than I have even begun to describe. There is a P-shaped hole in the world now, and though we may tug and pull to stitch the edges together, and patch up the hole, we will always know the place that should still be occupied by one of the best of men.

Goodbye Uncle P.

I loved you.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Like mother like son

We have stumbled, finally, agonisingly, exhaustedly to the end of LittleBear's first term at school. And, despite all my worst fears, he is not starving at lunchtimes, he is not standing alone and friendless at the edge of school life, he is not dreading every day. Far from it - he comes home with a bounce and a thumbs up, telling me he's had a lovely day. And, aside from the occasion when he wasn't allowed to play in the playground as he was in danger of losing his precariously-clinging, re-inserted tooth, he's never objected to going to school. And he is almost inseparable from at least one best friend, with a whole string of others who he seems delighted to play with.

And, as it's the end of term, and teachers don't already have enough to do, he's come home with his "Learning Journey", complete with mini-report from his teacher (with whom I am still slightly in love, because she's basically the most perfect primary teacher I've ever seen). And I read his little report, and thought to myself "yep, that's me, and that's him too".

First up... what does LittleBear need to work on?

He needs to learn to manage his emotions in different situations. Mmmmm. He certainly does. But then, so do I. I'm the one who has been known to burst into tears at work. Outside the school gates. At the doctor's surgery. At toddler group. On the shoulder of the carers at nursery. I'm the one who rants and swears about work on an almost daily basis. To anyone who'll listen. Managing my emotions is not my strong point. And I try, I really do try, to help LittleBear find ways to express his feelings without letting them overwhelm him, but given I don't know how to manage it yet, I feel I'm facing a losing battle attempting to show him how to do so. We'll keep struggling on together though, and maybe along the way I'll learn a few things too.

And what it LittleBear really good at?

He loves to learn and he has a deep understanding of mathematics. Bless him, he really does love both learning and maths. This is the LittleBear who piped up from the back seat, "Mummy, are there fifteen 50s in 750?" When probed, it turned out he'd known there were two 50s in one hundred, and that there are seven 100s in 700, so there were fourteen 50s in 700 (because 2 sevens are 14) and one more to make 750. And why had he been working this out in his head? Because he likes doing it. And the thing is, that doesn't seem odd to me. It's what I do. I like playing around with numbers in my head, for no reason other than that they're there and I can. I used to love our old style of number plates in this country, they had much more scope for playing number games in my head than the new ones. Let me explain...

We used  to have letter, letter, letter, number, number, number, letter (or the opposite). So, when I was a child we had OHO 770 T and RPJ 675 L and XOU 868 J. And having three numbers in a row meant I could spot my favourite patterns, like 238 (2 to the power 3 is 8) or 329 (3 squared is 9). Now we only have two numbers, and they're from a very small subset representing the year the car was registered. Boring.

And that previous paragraph reveals something else to me about myself as a child, and my LittleBear now. I had an extraordinary memory. I used to find it intensely bewildering and frustrating that my parents didn't seem to be able to recall with minute detail every event that had occurred, every book that we'd read, every program that we'd seen. (They, equally, seemed to find my tedious pedantry on such matters equally bewildering and frustrating). Now, however, despite being able to reel off the number plates of the cars of my childhood (a Ford Capri, a Ford Escort and a Mini Clubman, all of them white, since you ask) I am unable to tell you the number plate of BigBear's car, despite having seen it every day for the past 8 or so years. I am unable to recall where or how the obnoxious stretchy toy lizard entered our lives. There are at least half a dozen things I fail to remember to do every day. And yet LittleBear is able to read or hear a piece of information once, and he can recount it to you many weeks or months later. He described almost every detail of the day on which we acquired the aforementioned obnoxious stretchy lizard, including why we went to the shop we went to, and which shop we didn't go to instead. He has taken over my role of Pedant In Chief, complete with frustration and bewilderment that his incompetent mother is unable to keep up with remembering the blindingly obvious.

I suppose I had it coming really.

But I'm still happy he loves playing with numbers in his head.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Too much and not enough

I have too much to do.

Too much Christmas.

Too much work.

Too much small boy.

I have too little time.

Too little sleep.

Too little organisation.

Too little energy.

Mostly, I am totally and massively overwhelmed at work. I am drowning under a large project without enough help. A year ago, one of my colleagues left, and we didn't exactly replace him. We employed two extra people, but neither of them were to take over any of the design or more complex debug that said colleague used to share with me. So, for the past year, despite only working part-time, I've been doing my own job plus a large chunk of his job. And now another of my colleagues is attempting to inch his way into retirement and has decided to gently shuffle some of his work onto my plate as well.

So, come evening, I am as likely to find myself sitting at my laptop trying to do all the bits of work that I don't have time to do whilst actually at work. When I'm physically present, I work non-stop on making new pieces of scientific equipment work. New designs, documentation, test protocols, quotes for new work, revisions, or anything else that involves sitting at a computer? No time for that while at work, so I do it at home instead. And that leaves me with little time and energy for anything else.

On top of the absolute volume of work to complete, I'm also facing a horribly stressful situation at work that is keeping me awake at night. Every now and then I think I see a chink of light at the end of the tunnel, but it always turns out to be an oncoming train.

I was going to keep blogging, but I lack the time, or the inspiration to write.

I was going to have a pre-Christmas party, but I at least had the self-awareness to scrap that plan at the beginning of December. I'm thinking of a February party at this rate.

I was going to send Christmas presents to my family in plenty of time. They went yesterday.

I was going to make more felt toys for LittleBear for Christmas.

I was going to hem the curtains rather than leaving them held up with pins.

I was going to do so much.

Instead I'm at breaking point. My Christmas holiday starts tomorrow, and I'm not ready for it. I'm trying to smile and be excited for and with LittleBear, while inside my mind is raging, weeping, screaming and battering itself. I want the world to stop, just stop, and let me breathe, let me sleep, let me cry, let me regroup, let me be ready to wallow in my beautiful boy's joy and excitement and wonder. I guess I'll have to settle for going to bed early instead. It's all I've got.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The loveliness of new friends

I realise I've been a bit quiet here lately.

More than a bit quiet, I've been positively absent.

There's been Stuff Going On. Some of it's Family Stuff that I can't yet find the words to express, but keep thinking I'll write about. And then I don't manage to find more than the odd half sentence drifting through my mind in the shower, so never quite get round to writing anything. And since that's the next thing on my internal list to write about, and I am nothing if not list-bound, instead nothing gets written about anything.

So I'm forcing myself to abandon the list in my head and instead I'm going to make a minor digression of praise about some of the wonderful new friends I've made in the last few years. None of my "old" friends should take offense at this - you've all been my rocks and comfort for so long I'm not sure I could begin to find ways to thank you for all you've ever done and been for me. No, this isn't about you, this is about the random acts of kindness that I have been subject to of late.

Many of the budding new friendships I have are courtesy of C, who took pity on my self absorbed meanderings and instituted the monthly Pub Night in the village for mothers of small children to get together and bleat. It's not only been a great arena for bleating, but a good way to actually get to know people, instead of exchanging half sentences before our respective children demand attention. C has a quiet and understated ability to help and soothe. Thank you C.

Among those I've befriended (or who have befriended me, depending on how you see these things) is T, who is the saint who re-inserted LittleBear's tooth when he smashed his face into the pavement, and who counselled me with handy tips to identify shock afterwards. She also arranged to have his bicycle removed from the scene of the accident and then brought it to our house herself later that evening. And she leapt out of a cafe as a bloody and battered small boy and his fraught mother stumbled back to the car from the dentist and shepherded us in so that we could get cleaned up and calmed down.

It's also T who made sure LittleBear knew he could come early to T's daughter's birthday party so he wouldn't be overwhelmed by too may children and too much noise. And he loved the party. Thank you T.

Then there's L, who, without batting an eyelid, offered to take LittleBear after school if I needed to stay at work. In the end I didn't, but we did go round to L's house for a play date on the recent teacher training day and somehow ended up having the odd glass of Prosecco that afternoon. Friends who ply me with bubbly are friends I need. Thank you L.

And there's L2, who took pity on my bleating about LittleBear being sick and missing the school book sale that he'd been saving money for. She took advice on LittleBear's likes and dislikes and purchased a book on his behalf and delivered it to the house this afternoon, to the great joy of NotSickAnyMoreBear. Thank you L2.

There's also H, who nobly allowed herself to be chased by LittleBear around the lawn outside the church when I refused because I'd been wearing stupid court shoes to work all day and my feet were killing me. Admittedly her two small people joined the chase too, and most of the time it's muggins here being chased, but H saw the tears welling in LittleBear's eyes and stepped into the breach, despite her aversion to the running games I find myself playing with small people. Thank you H.

Never forgetting H2, who is always, always there with an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. Never mind how bad her own day has been, she always manages to offer support and empathy. And amusing text messages. And offers of wine. When I didn't know if I could manage to get LittleBear to school without the use of the Breakfast Club that he hated, H2 and C both immediately offered to shepherd him there any time I needed help. Thank you H2.

And, naturally, there are all the people who listen to me ranting at the pub once a month and don't tell me to shut up. And I've realised the trouble with this catalogue is the terrible fear that I may have missed somebody out. If I have forgotten an act of kindness or a demonstration of true friendship, then I shall blame the glass of gin by my side, and the lack of sleep in my life. I appreciate and treasure all the new friends who have come into my world since having LittleBear. My life is immeasurably improved by knowing you all.

Merry Christmas one and all.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Taking the turnip challenge

I have recently been involved in responding to a tender to build a scientific instrument. When I say "recently", what I actually mean is that I've been dealing with this tender for the past THREE YEARS. Because everyone likes a nice bit of government bureaucracy* don't they?

Initially I prepared a quote for the researcher. He had a small fit when he saw the price and insisted he could make the same thing cheaper himself. I politely suggested that in that case, he should do just that. Funnily enough, he didn't decide he could do it himself. Instead, we proceeded with technical negotiations about just what was required. And then... it turned out that the price had exceeded some magic threshold and the whole project had to go to public tender, and we've been stuck in that morass for some time. I've even had legally dubious communications direct from the researcher "instructing" me in the correct answers to provide to the purchasing department. I have ignored them.

I've been trying to think of way to explain the frustration I'm having with this particular tender, without descending into obscure technical jargon, and I think I've come up with a reasonable analogy. Obviously, what we actually build are mass spectrometers, but just for now, I'm going to pretend that we make cross-bows. And we also make the arrows, and the targets, and a camera. And we absolutely promise our customers that if they set the cross-bow up exactly as we tell them, and position the target exactly where we tell them, and set up the camera to watch the target at just the right distance, and load the arrow exactly as we tell them, then when they fire the arrow it will hit the bullseye of the target, and the camera will capture the result.

Sometimes, though we don't like to do it, we sell only part of this whole set up, and we let the customer supply the remaining part of the equipment. Our rule of thumb however, is that this Never Ends Well. In this case, the customer is supplying both the arrows and the camera. And they are refusing to place an order for our cross-bow unless we guarantee that their arrow will be seen to hit the bullseye of the target. But they won't tell us anything about their arrow, or their camera. It might be a man standing three miles away with an iPhone. We've offered to lend them our arrow and our camera and prove the cross-bow works. But no, they want their arrow and their camera. And I'm refusing. Because, while they might make a perfectly balanced, beautifully flighted arrow, they might try and use a turnip. And I'm not promising anything about turnips.

You might think I'm exaggerating about the turnip, but I've been caught out too many times with the things our customers have "forgotten" to tell us until it's too late....

... like the customer who didn't mention he was going to put our instrument in a helicopter** and take it to the top of the Jungfraujoch.

... like the customer who didn't mention that he was going to install our instrument inside the Arctic circle and wanted an installation visit there.

... like the customer who didn't mention that the entire instrument would be disassembled when it arrived on site and then rebuilt inside a lead-lined box through holes no larger than 60cm across.

... like the customer who didn't mention that he needed the entire instrument to operate at 200 degrees Celsius.

... like the customer who didn't mention that he intended to analyse Uranium hexafluoride

... like the customer who didn't mention that the instrument would need to run in the back of a van being driven along pot-holed roads**.

... like the customer who didn't mention that the instrument would be installed in a hospital and needed to meet medical electronics standards***.

... like the customer who didn't mention that the thing he was asking us to do was widely accepted as being impossible****.

There have been far too many occasions when the psychological equivalent of a turnip has been lobbed our way for me to believe in the non-existence of a turnip in this case. So I'm digging my heels in, and seeing what the wheels of bureaucracy do. So far, each revolution of the wheel is doing what a wheel does, and returning to the starting point. I've now been asked to make promises about the performance of a turnip three times, and I've said no three times. Your move Mr Turnip...

* In this instance, not our own government, another government that has really, really, really mastered bureaucracy.

** As a general rule, precision scientific instruments are not built with sufficient shock absorbers to withstand travel. We now always ask our customers if the instrument is going to be moved around.

*** We found a way round this. Medical electronics is a huge can of worms.

**** It remains one of the high points of my career that I did it anyway.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Living the dream

I don't think my LittleBear is unique among five-year olds* in his desire to win at all times. He does, however, take the importance of winning to extreme levels. For instance, yesterday morning he was to be found sobbing into his Shreddies after it was revealed to him that Burnley had lost 4-0 to West Brom on Monday night. Truly, these are things of great import. His selection of teams that inspire this level of interest/distress is perverse, to say the least. Firstly, and dearest to all the Bears' hearts, is Burnley. Then comes Hull. Because there's a really big aquarium in Hull. Then Liverpool, though LittleBear can't quite remember why. Then Leicester, because they won the League last year, and LittleBear hasn't quite grasped that past performance is no guarantee of future returns. In addition, LittleBear quite likes West Ham because they play in the same colours as Burnley, and Chelsea because they keep winning and he's a glory hunter.

We have a couple of episodes of Match of the Day recorded, and LittleBear likes to watch and re-watch them, warning me in advance for example that Hazard will score first in Chelsea's 5-0 drubbing of Everton. Because he seems confident that I haven't been paying attention on the previous thirteen viewings. And he's right. I use Match of the Day as a good excuse to drink a cup of tea and read my book. And I can do a fairly convincing "oooh, really?" while doing so.

The next step from gazing, rapt, at highlights of real matches is obviously to not only re-enact them ourselves, but to act out matches with even better results.

So I present to you a match played between Burnley and Manchester United at Old Trafford**. Due to limited resources, both sides played reduced strength sides.

Tom Heaton, Andre Grey and Sam Vokes for Burnley
David De Gea, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for United

I think we can all agree that the resemblance to their flesh and blood counterparts is astonishing:


Manchester United

And I'm delighted to report that Burnley beat Manchester United 10-1.***

I'm not entirely sure that a life supporting Burnley is going to sit well with a desperate need to see his side win all the time. On the other hand, it's possible that following Burnley will help remove his expectation of victory and thus be a Good Thing overall.

* I think I failed to mention LittleBear's fifth birthday last week. We could now open a Lego shop.

** A note for my foreign readers. The sport in question is soccer, dear to the heart of many Englishmen, and particularly the one I married. Old Trafford is the home ground of Manchester United, until recently the dominant team in English football.

*** For the record, since 1968, Burnley have only beaten Manchester United once, and that was 1-0. LittleBear's imagination and aspirations are nothing if not impressive.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

A conspiracy of rubbish

Not a conspiracy of actual pieces of rubbish, though looking at the state of the house, it wouldn't surprise me to find that the detritus scattered across every surface has actually become sentient and is starting to gang up on me. Just a conspiracy by the world to have a series of minor, irritating, vexing occurrences take place, any one of which wouldn't have been a problem, but taken together are going to push me over the edge.

Thing 1
Some time ago, our stupid shower door fell off. I managed to temporarily patch it back together, but it's once again dangling by hope, limescale and the slenderest bit of a screw. So, I bought a new door, tracked down a tradesman, and got it all organised. And then the tradesman had a heart attack, poor sod, and quite reasonably isn't going to fit the shower door. So now I have had to do the thing I hate twice and find a replacement tradesman.

Thing 2
I finally, finally, finally, managed to gather together enough gumption to ask around and find a babysitter, and was all lined up for me and LittleBear to meet her tonight prior to her first babysitting session tomorrow, thus allowing BigBear and I to go out. Together. She sent me a message this evening to say her car had broken down and she couldn't come, and sorry.

Thing 3
I parked in the church carpark to collect LittleBear from school today, as is the system. I parked in a marked bay, beside another car. The other car was on the end of the row, next to a nice green expanse of grass. When I returned to the car with LittleBear, I was harangued by the woman with the other car for parking so close to her she couldn't get her child in. I apologised and said I'd merely tried to make sure there was enough room in the carpark for everyone as it's always crowded and was told I should have been more considerate towards her. Right. Because she had completely unfettered access to one side of the car, and there was enough room on the "too close" side for me to get in and out without even noticing the cars were close together, but apparently I was incondsiderate.

Thing 4
I took LittleBear swimming, about half an hour away, along The Road From Hell. The we came home, back along The Road From Hell. And then I found I'd left my handbag at the swimming pool, so back we went for another hour on The Road From Hell to collect my handbag and return home.

Thing 5
My boss has decided he wants to change the way the instrument I'm building is controlled. After I've finished building it. After the components and wiring for the next 4 copies of the instrument have all been built. So I've spent three days attempting to work out how to reconfigure the metres and metres and metres of wiring loom to achieve the desired effect without having to remake all the cables.

The outcome of All These Things is as follows:

Thing 1 - new man coming next Wednesday to fit shower door.
Thing 2 - Piglet stepping in to the breach to babysit. Hooray for lovely friends!
Thing 3 - attempt to learn equanimity in the face of other people's arsiness. Fail and spend the next few weeks parking elsewhere to avoid slightest risk of meeting arsey woman again.
Thing 4 - totally my fault.
Thing 5 - I've done it, but I'm still irked.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Broken electoral systems

I will probably, possibly write something about the US election at some point, if I can get beyond the concept of the Orange One being future President. In the meantime, here are some thoughts on the electoral system that got him there. Not about the people who voted, or why they voted or didn't vote, not about the rights and wrongs of anyone's opinions or choices, just about the mechanics of the system.

As I understand the electoral college system in the US, the intention is to ensure that the sparsely populated states receive some "attention" from the campaigning candidates, and their concerns and views are not neglected while all campaigning is focused on the more populous seaboard areas of the USA. Which, on the surface, sounds like a reasonable idea. Except when you stop and think about what you're saying, which is that lumps of land deserve an equal chance to be consulted, regardless of how many people live on them.

Here's an example of someone suggesting that lumps of land need to be heard:

As far as I can make out, the author of the text on the above image believes it would be unconscionable to live in a "gray zone" and be out-voted by the people in the "blue zones". Except, half the US population live in those pretty blue bits, and I can't quite see why huge swathes of prairie, mountain and desert need more of a voice than 50% of the population. People need to be punished for living in densely populated areas?

It's a good and worthy ideal to ensure that, particularly in such a large and diverse country, different geographical areas receive their own representation that reflects their differing needs and interests. That's why Senators and Representatives are elected to represent their constituencies. That's why the US has a significant amount of power devolved to State level, with Governors and State Legislatures, and a more modest level of power at Federal level. The President, however, is the head of state. One man** to head the country. And there's no honestly justifiable reason why every vote cast by every citizen should not hold equal weight.

Instead, however, you end up with the current situation, where considerably more individual human beings voted for the losing candidate than the winning one. In fact, you end up with the situation where, had 53,447 people spread across three states (Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania) voted differently, the outcome of the election would have been different. That's less than the population of Lowestoft*.

Stats taken from Politico

   DJT 1,409,467
   HRC 1,382,210
   Difference 27,257 votes
   EC votes 16

   DJT 2,279,221
   HRC 2,267,798
   Difference 11,423 votes
   EC votes 10

   DJT 2,912,914
   HRC 2,844,705
   Difference 68,209 votes
   EC votes 20

If 13,629 voters in Wisconsin, 5,712 voters in Michigan and 34,106 voters in Pennsylvania had voted for HRC instead of DJT, she would have taken all 46 available electoral college votes in those states and won the election. (And I am aware that there were also states, such as Colorado and New Hampshire that HRC took by a narrow margin, which would have gone to DJT with the change of only a handful of voters).

Now, obviously, before the election, nobody actually knew that it would be these three states alone, and so few voters, who would spell the difference between one candidate and the other. But everyone knew that there were "swing states", everyone knew that there was no point campaigning in the safe red or safe blue states. So the electoral college system, far from ensuring that every citizen is a focus of the presidential campaign, and is considered and targeted, instead ensures that a small sub-set of the population is the focus of all the attention, and vast swathes of the country basically don't get much consideration. And, it doesn't matter how large the majority is in a "safe" state, that isn't reflected in the outcome. The fact that HRC took two and a half million more votes in California than DJT doesn't change the number of electoral college votes she received. She could have won California with a majority of one person, and she'd still have received all 55 EC votes.

As with the British system, which I've complained about before, the electoral system for president of the USA is demonstrably broken. It is disconnected from the concept of fair representation of the people.

Just like I'm now labelled a "Bremoaner" by a subset of gloating, sneering Brexit-voters who think objecting to anything is simply whinging and not an exercise in free speech, I'm sure there will be those who will tell me that everyone knew the rules before the election, and that DJT won by playing the system, and to shut up and stop whinging, and that it's too late to complain. The supremely arrogant DJT is already adamant he could have won the popular vote, he just didn't bother trying since he didn't need to. To (mis)quote Mandy Rice-Davies, "well he would say that, wouldn't he?"

It won't come as any surprise to you to discover that I disagree. It's never too late to complain. It's never too late to point out injustice and stupidity. It may be an irrelevance when it comes to the election that has just occurred, but that shouldn't mean everyone should just shrug their shoulders and say "yeah, the system's shit, but it's our shit and we're sticking with it". Why should anyone accept a broken system that allows a minority to elect a president?*** I can see why it might not have been a priority to change the system of the Electoral College up until now, as it has largely managed to reflect the popular vote. In fact, only five times in history has it failed to do so - in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016. So, for 112 years it wasn't perverting the will of the people. And we all know here in Britain that "the will of the people" is sacrosanct.

I'm not an American. I have no say in the political structure and systems of the USA, but I can and will point out that arcane electoral systems, like the Electoral College and our own First Past The Post system, are quite frankly a bit rubbish, and unless we, the people who are governed under broken systems, demand change... it's not going to happen.

* I have nothing against Lowestoft.

** Let's be honest, it's always been a man, and at the current rate, that's not going to change in a hurry.

*** Obviously, the minority are likely to be perfectly happy with the status quo, and then say things like, "you didn't complain before, did you?" Which is enormously constructive.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Blowing my own trumpet

By now, any regular readers here will recognise the general format of this blog. Broadly speaking I either tell you how lovely LittleBear is, or I reveal the darker recesses of my own psyche, or I rant about something (consequential or otherwise). That pretty much covers it doesn't it? Well, today we're taking a departure from our normal schedule to bring you breaking news from the frontiers of science.

Today I received notice that I have been elected a Fellow of the Institute of Physics.

Slightly modified certificate

According to Institute of Physics, being a Fellow is:

"A mark of peer esteem. A sign of significant contributions to physics. A demonstration of impact on your field. Fellowship of the IOP indicates a very high level of achievement in physics and a significant contribution to the profession."

That's me, that is.

I am, actually, inordinately proud of myself for having achieved this. I was sponsored by two of my long-standing customers - Professor A, head of atmospheric chemistry at Very Good University, and Professor C, head of molecular physics at Even Better University, both of whom wrote glowing testimonies for me. I've spent the last 18 years working with, for and among academics, all of them more highly qualified, on paper, than I am. And now I finally have the trump card, the letters that say "I've reached the top of my profession. I am as good as you. I may even be better than you". And, what is more, there are only about 180 female Fellows of the Institute of Physics, which puts me in a pretty special group. It may not stop the self-doubt or defeat the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, but it's certainly going to help me hold my head up high and know that a panel of some of the most senior physicists in my country have assessed me and found me good enough to join them.

This also means I am now entitled to adorn my name with the letters "FInstP". And on all those countless occasions when I wear academic dress, I am now allowed to wear a different kind of hood, and a gown with fancy cuffs. Which will come in handy.

To quote a Young Person that I know, "You go girl!"

Saturday, 5 November 2016

From day to day

This started out as a particularly fine example of my very best Misery Blogging. But I hadn't quite got it finished to my liking yesterday, when I shut the computer down. And today, it doesn't seem to reflect my life very well, despite being a very heartfelt and honest evocation of my feelings for most of the week. And that in itself seemed like a worthwhile thing to notice. So, herewith, two days, separated only by a reasonable night's sleep, treacle sponge with custard and a lovely husband.

Every drive to work this week, and every drive home again, I've wept.

Every drive to work this week, I've dried my tears as I crossed the car park, smiled at my colleagues and got on with the day.

Every drive home from work, I've dried my tears as I've walked to the school gates, smiled at the other mothers and got on with the afternoon.

I'm tired.

I'm sad.

I'm overwhelmed.

It's everything and nothing.

Things that really don't matter at all, and things that matter more than anything.

Things that are figments of my own imagination, products of my woeful self-esteem, and things that are painfully real, and present, and scary.

I'm scared of losing a man I love, who has been my father figure since my own father died. He's sick, though not as sick as he was. He's a long way away, though not as far as he used to be. And his current symptoms are too painfully similar to the ones that took my own father in the end that in the darker moments of the night my mind finds it hard to see a different outcome, no matter how different reality looks during the day.
It's slowly but surely dawning on me that the work project I've been driving forward since its inception is coming to a head, and all the things I've missed, mistakes I've made, details I've forgotten and poor decisions are coming home to roost. I am not ready to deliver the first prototype, let alone the set of five instruments required. And other than occasionally sticking his head out of his office to tell me I haven't done what he wanted, by boss has taken a totally hands-off approach. So I'm in it on my own. And despite the fact that today, one of my favourite customers (a very senior government scientist) decided he also wants to buy one of these new machines I'm making, my boss still informed us that he didn't think the machine was ever going to be a success. Which was a really morale-boosting vote of confidence.

I'm stuck in my little world of self-pity again, convinced again that I am tolerated but not liked. Certain that everyone else exists in a whirl of friendship and camaraderie of which I am not a part. Feeling isolated and alone in a crowd. Watching people swirl around, laughing and talking while I gaze forlornly around, managing a half-smile of recognition or perhaps a nod and a "hello". Or perhaps I do speak, and I wear the outgoing, jolly mask to prevent anyone seeing the fear of rejection in my eyes. And I am fulfilling my own prophecy as usual, by not reaching out to people, not speaking up to those who I'm sure would listen. Instead I'm trapped in my tongue-tied world, only being brave enough to commit my fears and anxieties to the computer screen, and not to a living, breathing human being. Is it any wonder I feel like an outsider when I position myself outside normal, human, emotional, interactions?

LittleBear and I cycled into the village this morning, to go to the Co-op, the pharmacy, the library, the greengrocer and the butcher. Because we live in the awesome kind of village where all those things still exist. And we kicked our way through the autumn leaves, because our village is full of big, beautiful, majestic trees.

And we met some friends in the library and had a chat. Because we've spent enough time living here and tootling around that most occasions that we go out we bump into someone we know.

And we popped in to the cafe and shared a giant slab of chocolate cake and read a library book (about dinosaurs) together. Because we could.

And because I was feeling a bit weary and a bit run down after lunch, I had a lie down on our bed with a cup of tea and my book while my bears played and read books together downstairs, and neither of them thought this was unreasonable.

And we had a lovely big roast dinner in the early evening before going to a friend's house so LittleBear and LittleFriend (and us!) could watch some fireworks in their garden, because neither of them really want to go to a big, noisy, cold, long display in the middle of the village. And those same friends, plus others, are coming here tomorrow evening so that we can do the same thing again, but in our garden. Which probably means I actually have friends, who actually like me, and actually don't mind spending time with me.

And tomorrow we're going to spend the day with Piglet and her family, going to the local aeroplane museum, which will mesmerise BoyPiglet and LittleBear. Though apparently I am to expect BoyPiglet to lecture me at length about the aeroplanes as his affinity to military aircraft is akin to LittleBear's feelings about dinosaurs.

Today I have a good and happy life, with a lovely family, living in an idyllic village populated by friendly, welcoming people. I just couldn't see that yesterday.

Monday, 31 October 2016

A cure for Imposter Syndrome

Most of you will probably be aware of Imposter Syndrome, even if you've never heard it called that. It's one of my specialist areas. It's that sense I have that I'm winging it, just about managing to maintain a facade of competence and knowledge, a gossamer thin veil being all that stands between my devastating ignorance and discovery. The conviction that everyone else knows what they're doing and all it would take is one wrong step, one mis-placed word, one stupid question to reveal that I am completely out of my depth, unqualified for the job I do, undeserving of my position.

I spend my life working with very, very intelligent people, the kind of people who say things like "well, as I recall, the thermal energy of an atom is about a fortieth of an eV, so we can approximate the mean free path as..." over lunch. The kind of people who assume that everyone works out the orbit of the moon from first principles. In their heads.

I don't spend my whole time tip-toeing around, waiting for the penny to drop amongst my colleagues, and for them to finally realise that the emperor has no clothes and that I am in truth just a rather bewildered muppet. But the thought is always lurking there, just under the surface, waiting to pounce. Always ready to whisper in my ear, "you're not good enough you know, and any minute now, everyone's going to see through you for the fraud that you are."

Just recently though, I've begun to feel a little less like an idiot. A little less as though my incompetence is hiding behind a thin veneer of technical jargon, flung around like confetti. 'What could possibly be the source of such a huge step forward?' I hear you cry. 'Has PhysicsBear experienced a profound metaphysical shift in self perception, suddenly allowing her to see her own abilities in a realistic light?' you might clamour. Not exactly. What's actually happened is that I've been attempting to train two new employees to undertake a few of the testing jobs that have traditionally fallen to me.

Back in the mists of time, my boss trained me to do these tasks. My boss possesses a terrifying intellect, and has a bewildering mix of enormous arrogance, and total lack of self-awareness that allows him to "know" that he's always right, while simultaneously assuming that he's no brighter than anyone else. His approach to training me rather reflected that view. He had me sit with him while he undertook the task in question, and thereafter I was in charge of all subsequent tests. If I had a problem, I could consult him, but received rather short shrift if the solution was something that I "should" have spotted. It was a bit of an extreme approach, but I swam instead of sinking, so I suppose one could say it worked.

Recently the task of passing on the wisdom earned through my years of experience fell to me. And being a little more generous than my boss, I spent a considerable amount of time explaining what to do, how to do it, why we were doing it and what could go wrong. I provided a powerpoint presentation on the subject. I handed over examples of test documentation guidelines that I'd written in the past. I ensured my trainees were equipped with lab books and pens, and I recommended they take notes of what we were doing.

And so we tested our first piece of equipment, together.

A month rolled past and another, identical, piece of equipment required testing. I handed the job over to my newly-trained engineers. And was greeted with blank looks. I suggested they refer back to their lab books. I was informed "I didn't write any notes. I thought I'd remember." I was somewhat vexed. I went through the tests again, though Firm Words Were Had on the importance of note-taking.

It was not long before another two, identical, pieces of equipment needed testing. Again, I encountered blank looks, a complete, overwhelming absence of understanding of what we were trying to do and why, randomly incorrect attempts at undertaking the tests and (finally) a failure to complete the test sheets, despite assuring me they'd been completed.

And I am simply left thinking... I was never this useless. I didn't require telling half a dozen times. I didn't expect to be spoon-fed every step of the way. I was capable of listening, absorbing information and learning from it, quickly. I am finally, completely and utterly convinced that I was never this useless.

So there you go. If you want to feel an enhanced sense of self-worth - employ people more useless than yourself. But be prepared to accept a significant rise in blood pressure as a consequence.


Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Confrontation avoidance

Occasionally I have quite strong opinions.

Sometimes I have a tendency to froth and rant about my opinions.

Every now and then I become positively vehement in my opinions.

Unfortunately, I have a woeful inability to cope with other people having different opinions to my own. I can (more or less) cope when people on the internet disagree with me, though at least once a day BigBear is forced to say "don't read the comments...." to me, as he spots me perusing The Guardian website. And sometimes he has to wheel out the big guns.

What I really struggle with is having very strong opinions on something, and then discovering that a friend or relation has the outrageous temerity to hold a different opinion. You might think that this gets me riled up, and ready to start proselytizing, hovering and waiting to pounce with my killer arguments and persuasive rhetoric. You might think that me and my opinions are desperate to convert others to the rightness of our ways. You would think wrong.

Just recently I have discovered that a friend holds a diametrically opposing view on a socio-political matter. And instead of being happy to discuss the subject, or stand up for my own viewpoint, what has actually happened is that I have become fearful and anxious. I have lain awake at night worrying that she will no longer want to be friends with me, or that I will start an argument that irrevocably damages our friendship, or that my firmly-held opinion is in fact indefensible and not only this friend, but scores of others, will start backing gingerly away from the crazy-lady in the corner. I feel slightly sick and definitely panicky at the thought of the next occasion when we see each other - will the subject come up? Will she mock my views? Will she ignore me? Will she treat me with disdain? Are other people talking about the crass stupidity and ignorance of my outlook behind my back? Am I going to become a social outcast?

Do I think these things because this is how I treat any friend with a different opinion?


Do I think these things because this is how friends with different opinions have ever treated me?


Do I think these things because I'm an insecure mess who's capable of holding a strong opinion right up until the moment someone questions it, and then I want to run away and hide just in case everyone hates me after all?


This is what it's like to be me.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Not bad for an old woman

Yesterday I completed the Cambridge Town&Gown 10k. And I managed to break my own personal best, putting in a time of 56:35, which I'm still very pleased with. I also finished 64th in my age category, out of 178, which is surprisingly respectable.

I set out more or less convinced that I wouldn't manage to do so, having woken sniffling and sneezing, with an upset stomach, and gazing out of the window at the lashing rain. It may be that the two paracetamol and the phenylephrine I took before the start helped to overcome the pain that usually kicks in. So now I'm running on performance enhancing drugs...

I'm not going to write a blow-by-blow account of this run, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I've done that once, and I wouldn't want to bore everyone. Secondly I didn't really notice where I was or what I was doing, so it would be hard to describe it all to you. I'm pretty sure my oblivious state was not down to the performance enhancing drugs. I think it was two-fold. Firstly, I'm sufficiently familiar with the streets of Cambridge that I ran round without really looking at anything. Secondly, there were over 1300 people running, so until at least the 7km mark I spent most of my time trying to steer my way round and between people - trying not to run too close to a pair of heels in front, trying not to be drawn into running faster or slower than I wanted, trying not to get jostled by over-takers. After 7km, the crowd had thinned enough that all I was really concerned with was finishing.

I do have a few observations though...

  • Perhaps it was the rain, or perhaps it was a symptom of everything that Northerners claim about Southerners, but running round Rochdale was a lot more friendly than running round Cambridge. There were people out in the streets, cheering us on, children high-fiving us, friendly banter amongst the runners, marshals and spectators in Rochdale. In Cambridge there were wildly disinterested students, utterly perplexed tourists and a wide variety of normal people completely ignoring us. At least nobody tried to run us over in Cambridge, though there was a luxury coach helpfully parked in the middle of the route up Kings' Parade.
  • Water bottles may be irritating to carry once you've realised you didn't want one after all, but they're a lot easier to grab, hold, and drink from than a poxy little plastic cup, which mostly leads to water all over your hands, face and the floor. Given it was raining, this didn't make much difference.
  • Maybe it's a north-south thing again, or maybe it's a small-race vs big-race thing, but the Cambridge 10k had a lot more aggressively competitive, pushy runners in it. Given that the overall winner has run for Team GB, perhaps that's not a huge surprise.
And now on to my major topic. The goody bag. That's right. At the end of a race, you get a goody bag. Though this was only my second race, I've seen enough of BigBear's goody bags to know the form. There's a bag (!) containing a finisher's medal, a t-shirt, a bottle of water, a snack of some description and occasionally the odd other thing.

And thus it was:

A bag

A t-shirt

A medal

A random snack

No, I didn't take a picture of a bottle of water. You know what one looks like, don't you?

I'm eating these now. They're quite good.

I confess there was also a different cereal bar, with yoghurt and cranberries and other tasty stuff, but I ate it while waiting for BigBear and LittleBear to collect me, and I haven't treasured the wrapper just to photograph. It was definitely tasty though.

So there we are. A reasonable selection, and rather more snacks than BigBear usually gets. Except that wasn't all. Next out of the bag was the mystery item:

Why should I love my age?

What's this all about? Did I get a special bag only for forty-something year old women looking rather as though they don't love their age? It looked as though there was just one heap of bags, but I was a bit tired and bewildered after crossing the finishing line.

10km runners are the target market for Lancome?

This is getting more surprising. I really must have stumbled upon the table of bags for tired-looking women of a certain age mustn't I?

Youth Activating Concentrate?

Oh dear. It's not just gunk for women who've been told they have to look younger. It's anti-scientific, over-priced gunk for women who've been told they have to look younger. Seriously, did they give this to everyone, or were they singling out the particularly haggard women? Fewer than half the runners were female, and even fewer than that were in the demographic who are accustomed to being told they need to stop looking their age and start trying to look twenty (or more) years younger.

How did an event that is all about using your body, celebrating your fitness and strength, and pushing your physical limits end up effectively taking sponsorship from a company who peddles the exact opposite? Who tries to convince women that being healthy, fit and strong is not enough, that what you need to do is look young. Never mind that twee "love your age" tag, what they really mean is "we think aging is an abomination that needs treating with expensive products". Sod that, I'm eating the crisps instead.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings

So here we are, back at swimming again. It's been a while since I've written about the stresses of swimming or eating, so it was about time wasn't it?

LittleBear is still having swimming lessons, and still loving it. He's turned into a proper little fish, and has even coped with multiple changes of teacher without batting an eyelid. Which is great. It does also mean his current teacher is completely oblivious to all our early trauma. Which is probably great.

Today, towards the end of the lesson, the new teacher decided to get the children doing a straddle jump into the pool, to keep their heads above water. They'd already swum across the pool underwater and dived to the bottom to collect a weight, so this was not exactly at the daunting end of what they'd been doing. But it was new. And LittleBear is not fond of new. As the first child attempted this new undertaking, LittleBear stood shaking his head slightly, hands clutched together, muttering, "I don't think I can do that...". As the second child jumped, LittleBear took a step backwards, away from the edge of the pool.

And then it was LittleBear's turn.

And not knowing any different, the teacher called him forward, told him what to do and simply expected him to do it. And he did. Not only did he do it, he did it beautifully, arms outstretched, legs astraddle, head remaining completely above water. He was delighted with himself.

Then it was time to climb out and get warm and dry again. LittleBear trotted over to me and said, "I feel... so.... so... so... excited with myself for doing something I've never done, I almost feel like crying!"

Which is possibly the most adorable, emotionally-literate, tear-wellingly gorgeous thing my precious boy has ever said. I'm not sure if I'm more proud of him for doing something he'd never done before, or for being so able to express his feelings on the subject.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The perils of bad design

There's a really important element to good design. It's one that might seem obvious when I point it out, and yet seems to escape a surprising number of designers. That important element is understanding how your design will be used. That's right, for a design to work well, it needs to work well when it's used. Pretty simple huh? And yet so many everyday objects fall foul of this.

A couple of days ago, LittleBear and I opened up a pack of cards. We'd already been playing Gin Rummy and Patience with a real deck of cards, but LittleBear found a children's pack we'd acquired somewhere along the line, and wanted to play with those. They had jolly pictures for the court cards after all.

Inoffensive enough at first sight...

It was only when we opened them and I had a proper look that I was filled with utter rage. Rage at the idiocy that would allow these cards to be designed, produced and sold. I've turned into Mean Mummy and informed LittleBear that we are Not Allowed To Play With Them. I can tell you're thinking they must be pretty outrageous aren't you? You're wondering if they have something strangely pornographic or perhaps racist on them? Nope. They are simply not fit for purpose. They have been "designed" by someone who has seen a deck of cards, but has never actually played a single card game in their life. Let me show you...

All the cards. Can you spot a problem yet?
I'm expecting BrotherBear and GrannyBear, as fellow card-players, to have a reasonable shot at spotting the issue here. For those of you who didn't have quite such a mis-spent youth* as I did, I'll show you what happened when I dealt a hand of bridge and fanned it out in my hand.

What cards do I even have?
It might now be becoming clear what the problem is. For a start, all the numbers are written in black. Not black for spades and clubs and red for diamonds and hearts. No. Black for everything. But worse that that, is that there are no suit-indicators below the numbers, except on court cards. So with 13 cards, I can only say with certainty that I have the five of clubs, queen of spades and king of hearts. The others? Could be anything. This is what I had to do to be able to see my cards:

My hands are not big enough for this game
A particularly egregious offender is the Ace, where you need to expose the centre of the card to find out what suit it is. Seriously, who would do this to the Ace of Hearts?

Black writing and no suit-mark in the corner
And, for the record, here's what that same hand of cards would have looked like with a proper deck of cards:

Clear, succinct, unambiguous, compact

That is good design. That is design that understands how a hand of cards is held, how they are used, what the important features are. The children's pack? It's a travesty, bearing a vague resemblance to a deck of cards. It can't actually be used properly. And there's no excuse for it. The manufacturing costs of printing a bad design are no greater than printing a good design. This isn't a case of costs being cut at the expense of functionality. This is simply a case of bad design. And I won't have it in my house. Sorry LittleBear.

* According to letters written by my mother, the trouble with playing pontoon/vingt-et-un/blackjack with me aged 4 was that I had a tendency to win the bank and was then terribly slow at dealing the next hand. Aged 4. I almost feel I'm letting my family down in not having taught my son to gamble before the age of 5. Almost.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Art and science

My LittleBear is a very literal, very fact-based little boy. Stories are not his thing. "Fact books", ideally about dinosaurs, are where it's at. He flirts with other branches of science, but palaeontology is still his first love. And now he's started at school, and is having to adapt to the idea that, just perhaps, there may be other things to learn at school than just palaeontology. The good news is that he's absolutely loving it, and bounces home every day full of enthusiasm. And tucked into his bag every day are various pieces of "art" or writing that he has undertaken. And I'm continually tickled by his choice of subject matter.

Naturally, the overwhelming majority of pictures are dinosaurs. And of those, the overwhelming majority are pictures of Spinosaurus. For those who haven't been undertaking a rigorous indoctrination in late-Cretaceous carnivores, Spinosaurus is the largest carnivorous dinosaur ever to have existed*, and therefore holds top spot in LittleBear's heart. A typical depiction of a Spinosaurus has splendidly exaggerated teeth:

Spinosaurus with butterfly

LittleBear doesn't always draw dinosaurs, in fact one of the early pictures to come home seemed  somewhat underwhelming on first inspection...

Practicing circles?
... until, that is, LittleBear explained it to me. At which point I thought it was considerably more awesome than the Spinosaurus picture (which, being a doting mother, I already thought was pretty awesome). Starting from the left...

"That's the sun Mummy, and then Mercury is the little one, then Earth and Venus are the same size, then Mars and then Jupiter, which is the biggest, and Saturn has rings. Is it Uranus or Neptune next? It's Uranus and then Neptune. And then I've put Pluto there, because I think Pluto is still a planet, and they're wrong that it's not. And that's just the nose of the tenth planet there, that we don't know about properly yet."

And then, after a short pause, LittleBear exclaimed in some distress "Oh no! I missed out the asteroid belt!"

The solar system!

For those of you who are temporarily (or permanently) thinking that

(a) my son is some kind of freak or
(b) I am some kind of freak and
(c) I beat random science into him from an early age or
(d) I'm making all this up

He isn't; I might be; I didn't; and I'm not.

On the other hand, if you want to know how or why LittleBear knows this stuff, I do commend to you a CD of music by They Might Be Giants called "Here Comes Science". Not only are there lots of brilliant, child-friendly, relatively accurate songs about science, but they also come with a DVD with fantastic, funny animations. And by listening to and watching these so many times the whole family knows considerably more about such subjects as the composition of the sun, the order of the planets, evolution, states of matter and the circulation system of the human body than might be considered strictly normal or necessary.

And it is courtesy of this particular DVD that LittleBear took it upon himself to execute this next piece of art:

Yes, that's right, he made a sterling attempt at recreating an image of the double helix of DNA.

I think I'm looking forward to his first parents' evening in two weeks time. Though a little part of me is already cringing inside wondering what exactly the lovely Miss H thinks of him, and by extension his parents.

* According to some scientists, and only when considering total length. There's no arguing with LittleBear on the subject however.

Footnote: If you really want to explore the intersection of art and science, you should check out some of the stuff my friend Siân is doing.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Not like the other mothers

Through careful observation, I have concluded that I am Not Like The Other Mothers. And for once (it had to happen) I actually like the way I am, and don't see this difference as a bad thing.

My moment of revelation came a couple of days ago, outside school. It came when I found myself rolling around on the lawn of the Baptist Church, being tickled by an assorted gaggle of small children, only one of which was mine. I couldn't help but notice that I was the only mother thus engaged. The others were being all grown-up and sensible and standing on the path chatting to each other, occasionally casting a fond eye over their offspring.

How exactly did I come to be desecrating the coiffured grounds of the church lawns with such silliness? Well, LittleBear started by asking me to chase him and tickle him. How could I refuse? How can anyone refuse to play a game of tickle-chase with a four-year old moppet? And then obviously, it was his turn to chase and tickle me. Which was only fair. And naturally, being somewhat taller than LittleBear, it was only reasonable that I allow him to pull me to the ground for better tickle-access. And what could be more irresistable when an adult is lying on the ground being tickled that all available children join in the tickling?

And so there I was, rolling around on the grass, with an assortment of children I'd never met tickling me. In full view of the whole village.

I couldn't help but ponder how it was that I was the only parent to whom this happened, and I concluded that the divergence occurred at the point where I was asked to chase and tickle LittleBear. I have a sneaking suspicion that the acquiescence to this request, which I view as entirely normal, is in fact one of those things Normal People Don't Do. I fear Normal People might have a sense of dignity, or some other such nonsense.

Other mothers don't seem to take their shoes and socks off and paddle in streams.

Other mothers don't seem to climb the climbing frame.

Other mothers don't seem to roll around on the ground being tickled.

Other mothers don't seem to play hide-and-seek in the graveyard.

Other mothers don't seem to leap from boulder to boulder at the recreation ground in high heels.

And you know what? I'm fine with that. I'm not other mothers. And other mothers aren't me. So I'm going to keep hopping from rock to rock, rolling on the church lawn and being silly with LittleBear for as long as he'll let me. And if I get funny looks from the other mothers? They probably weren't going to be my friends anyway.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Mile by mile

Well, I did it. I ran 10km in less than an hour. Only 30 seconds less than an hour, but it was still what I set out to do. And I also finished ahead of my 72 year-old father-in-law, so avoided complete humiliation. In fact, in the "Female veterans between 40 and 45" category, I came 10th. And no, there weren't only ten people fitting that description. There were 22. In fact out of a total of 303 finishers, I was 148th. So all told, mid-table mediocrity. But that wasn't really the point. The point was surprisingly well summarised in a trite Facebook meme I saw that said something along the lines of:

"I don't run to be better than other people. I run to be better than I used to be."

Unfortunately, I missed the mark slightly even by those standards, since the previous weekend I'd run marginally faster than that in training, but that's probably not the point either.

Meanwhile, here's my take on the 6.22 miles that I ran...

Mile 1

As foretold in the Writings of Husband, the race started off too fast. Combined with the Wisdom of GrandadBear, which stated there would be a jumbled melee of bodies weaving round each other getting over the starting line. Both these things came to pass. And despite the Meanderthals on the starting line, I ran the first mile too fast. Not massively too fast, but not the easy start I'd intended*.

Mile 2

Oh dear. A hill. Who put that there, and why? My home town has a certain hill-deficit, so all my training has been on the flat. This was perhaps An Error. The hill's not too vicious - about a third of a mile of steady ascent through the back streets of Rochdale, gaining a massive 70 feet. It's rather reminiscent of "Call the Midwife" with terraced houses opening straight onto the streets, grubby children running up and down, mothers in doorways with babes propped on hips. All friendly, with many waves, cheers and high fives at the lumbering, sweating bodies dragging themselves up the hill.

Round the corner and thunder down hill, only to find it then kicks back up again. Arse. The second mile finishes just as we begin to level off again. A disastrous time for that mile. My dreams of a sub-hour time are evaporating.

Mile 3

A levelish, easyish patch here, and I'm in amongst a group of people all running a fairly steady pace. This seems OK. We get to the water station, and I cruise through, not having been needing any water when training, even in much higher temperatures. Then I have a last minute panic - what if today's the day I need water? So I grab a bottle from the last person in the water line and keep going. Only now I've got a bloody bottle to carry, which is rather annoying, since I don't want a drink, there are no bins, and I'm far too British to litter.

Soon we're on to the canal towpath, which has the advantage of being flat (hooray!) but the disadvantage of being muddy, narrow and slow. No real chance to overtake the bumblers in front and suddenly it turns out my third mile is completed in a poor time. I realise that the group who are running a fairly steady pace are going a bit slower than I want to run. Time to shape up and set my own pace.

Mile 4

Some bewildering back and forth on a couple of roads, executing u-turns at each end. Clearly parts of the route put in to make up the exact distance, but irritating to run. Not helped by the muppets who've decided to ignore the cones, barriers and "Road Closed" signs, and not only drive along the roads we're running on, but do so while playing a constant string of obnoxious tones on their car horns. Sadly the race marshals are not armed and dangerous so aside for some brisk "tutting" not much happens. A good time for the fourth mile, and the comfort of knowing I'm on the homeward leg now. The water bottle is becoming increasingly annoying, though I've taken a few swigs, just to pretend to myself that it was worth grabbing.

Mile 5

Back up and down the hilly bit now. The good news is that the third of a mile that I laboured up in mile 2 is all downhill now. The bad news is that the short sharp stretch I "thundered" down is now an up. But I'm damned if I'm going to let it beat me, so I lean in to it, grit my teeth and drive on. And I overtake people all the way up, don't drop my pace and feel better about that 0.1mile than about most of the rest of the race. For a moment I felt a surge of pride as I overtook a much younger, much slimmer, much fitter woman in running club gear... and then realised she was pausing to use her asthma inhaler. There's a limit to how smug anyone can feel at overtaking someone having an asthma attack.

Why are there no bins for this sodding bottle?

Mile 6 (and a little bit)

We reconvene with the half marathon route and are confronted with a sign marking the 12 mile point. The very thought makes me want to whimper. But I've got three good miles under my belt, along with two poor ones, so if I can keep it up for the last mile, I might still break the hour mark. But it's hurting now. The heavy pounding of the hills has got me in the hips, so much so that I'm barely feeling the shin splints any more.

There's an idiot running almost alongside me, except he's not, he's sprinting for twenty paces, then walking for ten, then repeating. Which means he's passing me, dropping back, passing me, dropping back, and driving me bloody insane. And then the race marshal steps off the pavement and right in front of me. As if the half-wits in cars on closed roads weren't bad enough, now the marshals are out to get me too.

I glance down at my watch... 0.3 miles to go... and I might just make it. Then I realise that's the same distance as from the pub to home, and I usually put my foot down and go flat out when I'm running the final stretch from pub to home**. So I give one last push, extend my stride, relax my shoulders and just go for it. As close to a "sprint" as I can manage after 6 miles. Round the corner, over the bridge and into the finishing straight in front of the Town Hall. BigBear is sitting by the cenotaph, but he doesn't spot me, and I don't want to waste energy with a wave. I'm in a clear patch as I head for the finish line, so the announcer has a chance to check my number and call my name out with a "well done" as I cross the line. 59 minutes and 30 seconds.

And because no analysis is complete without a graph, here's the profile of the run, with a few comments of my own:

 The Aftermath

I feel both relieved and disappointed. My breathing and heart-rate recover surprisingly quickly and I'm left with the feeling that I could have pushed myself harder, could have got a better time, could have, should have... Except my legs are wrecked. More wrecked than from any other run. It's the hills I think. Parts of me hurt that haven't hurt in training. I'm glad I did it. Glad I broke the hour barrier. But I wish I'd done better. Not to "beat" anyone else, but because I think there's better in me. So do you know what I've done?

I've signed up for a flat 10k in my home town in three weeks time. It was the only answer.

* For those wondering how I'm so confident about my times, distances and paces, I'm now the proud owner of BigBear's cast-off GPS running watch. It knows where I am and it knows what I'm doing. Which is kind of worrying.

** No, I don't train by running home from the pub, it just happens to be a landmark on the way back to the house from most of my routes. Honest.

Footnote: updated to remove some of the slightly fruitier language about people driving on the closed roads.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Highs and lows of starting school

Obviously, every "Mummy blogger" on the planet has written a post about starting school, about the pride and the sense of loss, about the fears and the hopes, and since I'm never one to shy away from a bandwagon, here's my version of all the cliches...

For the past six months or so, I'd been relatively sanguine about LittleBear starting school. He was so obviously ready to start learning more and discovering more, and having more opportunities. And then it started to get closer, and more real and more immediate, and instead of the hopes and opportunities all I could see was the little, fragile, sensitive, solitary child who struggles with new experiences and who I was about to dump in the ultimate new experience. And every fibre of my being screamed not to let go of my baby, despite knowing full well that this was a normal, healthy, necessary step in his path through life.

And so we got to his starting days. Blessedly, only half-days to begin with. And that first half day I felt sick with anxiety, terrified that my LittleBear would be overwhelmed and daunted. That he would be bewildered and upset. That he would hate it and beg not to go back. After all, we'd had four years of nursery, regularly punctuated by sobbing fits of "I don't want to go to nursery" and a limpet clinging to me as I tried to leave him there.

But no. School was brilliant. School was fun. School was exciting.

And then we moved on to slightly longer at school each day. And still he was happy.

And then he came home from school in alternative pants and trousers having had an "accident". This is my little boy who hasn't had any kind of accident in nearly two years. My little boy who went from nappies to dry in a week. But... he's also my little boy who always needs reminding to go to the loo as he fidgets, squirms, wriggles and insists he doesn't need a wee. And it sent me into a flat spin. He didn't seem even remotely bothered, and could barely remember what had happened, or where, or when. It was a complete irrelevance in his day, certainly compared to the sausages, mash and chocolate cake he'd had for lunch. But I was instantly and completely convinced that it was a Harbinger of Doom. A Sign. A Terrible Portent. It was irrevocable evidence that he was unhappy, unsure of himself and Everything Was Going Wrong. Because I never over-react to anything. Not me.

So then I spent the whole weekend intermittently weeping gently about my baby, about whether he was going to be OK, about whether we were entering a terrible regression into wetting himself, about whether he was actually afraid or confused or unhappy and I wouldn't be able to help.

And then Monday rolled around, and not only was it the first full day of school, but it was also the first day to involve half an hour at the "breakfast club" before school to give both BigBear and I the chance to get to work on time. And we both felt like complete heels leaving our little scrap there, looking small and lost and confused.

I wept on the way to work, missing my constant companion, missing his little voice piping up from the back seat asking for stories, missing the silliness and the happiness we used to share in the car. I'd had four years in which I'd always had LittleBear with me on the way to work. There had been plenty of times I'd been desperate for some peace and quiet, when I'd longed to just listen to the radio and not have to pretend to be a particularly ill-informed bunny rabbit, when I'd wished to be able to stop telling endless dinosaur stories, but after three days of peace and quiet, I missed my boy. Couldn't we just wind back the clock and I could have him with me again? I felt bereft. Alone. Lost.

Meanwhile... LittleBear had a lovely day. Breakfast club was apparently splendid, and the drawing he produced (of a dinosaur) was so incredibly awesome that the lady there took a photocopy of it to keep for herself*. And lunch was fishfingers and chips, and he got to play on the trikes at play-time and he couldn't remember anything else.

And though I miss my time in the car with my adorable boy, I've discovered that I have something better. I collect him from school at 3pm and we have nearly three whole hours to play together before dinner. None of the frantic rush that work days used to involve - sprinting through the door, dropping bags left, right and centre and hastily trying to throw together dinner in six and a quarter minutes. I no longer have a whole Monday and Friday at home with him, but I do get a great big chunk of time every day.

So while I haven't exactly stopped worrying about my baby's wellbeing and happiness (after all, he told me today "I prefer playing on my own at school, because then other people can't annoy me") I am going to relish the fact that I get time to play every day. I'm going to be grateful that I'm lucky enough to have a job that will allow me to collect him from school every day and sweep him up in a cuddle (for as long as he will allow such an indignity). And I'm going to try to stop imagining the worst. Because I'm sure you've all noticed how good I am at that.

* This is LittleBear's interpretation of the event. I'm not entirely sure what actually happened.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Who am I and what am I doing?

I seem to have forgotten to blog. Perhaps for longer than I have forgotten to blog so far. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given we've been confronting Starting School, which has been marginally stressful (for me at least). For a start it involved LittleBear being at home for a week between the end of nursery and the start of school. And then he spent four "afternoons" at school, which actually consist of four one and a half hour sessions. And now he's undertaking mornings. And only next week will he actually properly start school in a full-time sense. All of which also coincided with the continuing complete and utter failure to function of everything I'm working on at work. And for reasons best known to myself I have started trying to teach myself HTML and CSS so I can write my own website. And the cat has brought fleas into the house. And my cleaner has been off work with severe morning sickness. And I'm training for a 10km race next weekend. And there's been an unnecessary quantity of hot weather, making sleep a distant memory.

The upshot of the above has been that I've been sleeping badly, ferrying a small boy to and from school by bicycle in nasty sticky weather, and then re-designing circuit boards, writing a website, running, cooking, cleaning, washing carpets, and generally stressing about more or less everything.

On the plus side, LittleBear so far thinks school is wonderful and he loves it. He is full of bounce and joy and excitement. Mostly he is enamoured of playtime. He is also very much his father's son. And he bears striking similarities to his uncle, BrotherBear. BrotherBear has always been noted for working on a "need to know" basis. He does not share unnecessary information, such as interests, hobbies, thoughts, opinions or his whereabouts with his family, unless he deems it necessary. Extracting information from LittleBear beyond the fact that he had a lovely time is proving challenging...

Did you have a story today?
What was it?
I don't know

Did you do any painting today?
I don't know

Did you play with Tom today?
I can't remember

Meanwhile, when I meet a fellow mother in the playground I am told, "Oh! This is LittleBear! I've heard so much about LittleBear, MyBoy is always talking about him!" Really? I've heard that LittleBear has a new friend, whose name might be MyBoy. And that's it. I had the same experience at nursery with SweetGirl, who apparently talked about LittleBear all the time. I'd never even heard her name until her mother introduced herself. Ah well, I can't be surprised, given the nature of his father, who is distinctly reticent about sharing information, or his uncle. It's just me that shares every passing thought with almost everyone I meet.

So I am still here, and more or less still functioning, but this is the first evening in a long time where writing here hasn't felt like a profligate waste of time in light of the enormous list of Things To Do that was following me around the house.