Thursday, 31 March 2016

So, protons eh?

Without wanting to get too technical again... sometimes I absolutely bloody despair for the future of science.

We make an instrument called a Proton Transfer Reaction Mass Spectrometer. It's not our very own unique idea. In fact, it's a pretty well-established technique. The gist of the technique is that we (via magical electrical means that aren't important right now) take a load of water, and add a proton to every water molecule. Then we mix the water-with-a-proton (also known as protonated water or "hydronium") with the interesting stuff we want to analyse. The protonated-water then, very generously, gives up the extra proton to the interesting stuff. Hence "proton transfer".

Here's some little diagrams for you. Because diagrams make the world a better place.

Water-with-a-proton meets interesting stuff

Interesting stuff now has protons

You may have spotted that I have indicate the protons with a little "p", for proton. Now, obviously, I know that you are all beings of supreme intelligence, but just for now I'm going to assume you know about as much as my customers appear to know. 

Can anyone tell me anything at all that they know about protons? Anything perhaps about what charge they have on them? Yes, that's right, they are positively charged. (Are you sure? Yes, I'm positive!)* So I think it would fair to expose you to a little bit more science now (don't panic, stay with me!). One way of looking at a proton is as a positively-charged Hydrogen ion. OK, now non-chemists might think that's a bit weird, but Hydrogen is the simplest element there is - it's just one proton and one electron. And if you steal the electron from it, it's just a proton.

So we'll try those diagrams again, but in a more chemist-y sort of way.

Protonated, positively charged, water meets interesting stuff

See, it's not so bad is it? Instead of a "p" I've just put a little "H+", which also has the benefit of helping our feeble little brains remember that protons are positive. (I could have put p+ for the proton, but this is chemistry, so I've put H+, because chemists prefer elements to sub-atomic particles, even when they're the same thing**).

And again:

Protonated interesting stuff

So, I think we might have a good chance of guessing what charge our interesting stuff has, once it's laid claim to a proton. Especially now we've got the really technical diagram. Do we think it's a negative charge? No, no, we don't, do we? We think it's a positive charge. None of you delightful people would be so pig-headedly, obtusely, mind-numbingly stupid as to ask why their proton transfer reactor didn't make negative ions would you?

Who wants to guess what my customer asked me this week?

* Give me a break! There are so few jokes in physics, I have to get them in when I can.

** Yes, you're absolutely right, physicists do look down on chemists.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Skipping the middle man

Some of you, just maybe, have picked up the idea from this blog that occasionally I get a little anxious. I over-think things, I worry, I imagine the worst possible outcomes and then I fret, and panic and get upset as my mind spirals out of control. I also have a tendency towards feeling over-responsible. And a slight list towards stress.

Well, just at the moment I am buffeted by a perfect storm of stress and responsibility. Since being bought by a larger company, we've had a massive upsurge in work, with our parent company placing more orders than we can handle, on top of our "normal" customers. Added to that one of my colleagues left at Christmas, and we haven't replaced him yet, let alone expanded. Well, we've employed a delightful young man on a training contract. And he seems very nice, but eminently unqualified for the role. Inasmuch as a third-class degree in maths and no knowledge of physics or electronics means he's unqualified, but being the son of a friend of the MD means he's got a job anyway. And I get to train him, which obviously isn't adding to my workload at all. And we've employed our cleaner as an electronics technician, because that's the standard career path for cleaners*.

One of the (many) projects our parent company has initiated is for five compact mass spectrometers, of a completely new design, to be delivered at one-monthly intervals starting in June. This is a bit of a departure for us. Normally we make one instrument of a new design, then find all the stupid mistakes we've made, all the things we've forgotten, and all the sneaky bits of physics that were lurking to catch us out. We then completely redesign all the bits that were wrong, and generally the second instrument is a LOT better. This time we get to build five that are completely hopeless need refinement all at once, with almost no chance to modify the design.

I'm feeling slightly flattered that, for the first time ever, the MD has completely delegated the system-design and electronics-design to me. Admittedly, we're so insanely busy, I don't think he really had a choice but to delegate something, but it's nice to know he trusts me enough to allow me to be completely in charge of a project worth a quarter of our annual turnover. The cynical part of my mind knows that it wasn't quite so much "delegation" as "not getting round to it". I simply got on with it when he didn't bother. And I now get to screw up design five instruments at once, not just one.

The upshot of all of this is that I am both incredibly busy at work, and really rather stressed at the level of responsibility.

"Hang on a minute...", I hear you say. "Didn't this post start out commenting upon PhysicsBear's tendency towards anxiety?" Why yes, how astute of you, it did indeed.

I've made a new observation pertaining to my anxiety. By becoming incredibly stressed I have now skipped the middle-man of anxiety and jumped straight to rage. Where I would normally become worried about what other people think, or fret about what might happen next, or become panicked about the unknown... now I become instantly enraged by the hypothetical situations that occur in my mind.

When I start worrying about what other people might think about my mothering, I bypass the "worrying" almost entirely and instead am filled with fury at all those people who dare to criticise me, (see, for example the Bitter Parenting Aside I had not long ago, or even the hints of bolshiness I exhibited shortly afterwards. In both instances I was actually, genuinely, furious with all the imaginary people who were criticising me in my own mind.)

When my mind starts to wander into the realm of "what ifs" it then takes a shortcut to "I don't care! I hate you all and you can bugger off with your bloody opinions!" I become so cross with the opinions of completely non-existent human beings that I can't sleep for arguing with them in my mind.

When I receive an email from a customer who seems not entirely happy, my response is not to become shaky and panicked as I wonder how to handle it, instead I think internally, "sod you, you idiot, you don't deserve the awesomeness that is my instrument!"

I can't help but feel neither of these responses is healthy. My current level of stress certainly isn't, as evinced by the stabbing headache and knotted neck muscles. And I don't suppose my more "normal" anxiety is that good for me either. So I just need to harness a bit of the "screw you world!" attitude of the stressed-me and use it to fight the anxiety of not-stressed-me. Oh, and employ three more people, delegate some of the work, cease to take work so personally, make my manager aware that I'm not able to handle the work-load and develop some better coping skills. Other than that, I'm sorted.

* I'm being a bit harsh there - she used to be an electronics technician but has been out of the industry for a while, having left to satisfy an ambition to work with horses. After finding it hard to earn enough doing that, she resorted to cleaning part-time, and is now a full-time electronics technician again. As you do.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Happy Easter

I was woken this morning at one of those times that I refuse to acknowledge exist. Before 6:30 at any rate. And I was woken by a sobbing small boy, who told me swallowing hurt, and that he couldn't even yawn his throat hurt so much. Cuddles, water, a trip to the bathroom, some cough medicine, and a (hopeless) attempt to get some more sleep before our pathetic little scrap climbed into bed with us. It didn't take much snuggling to realise (a) he was not himself, showing no interest in playing, sitting on Daddy's head, attacking my bunny with a great white shark or otherwise causing havoc and (b) he was really rather warm. "Warm" turned out to be 39.5C. A quick trip to the Calpol bottle and Google, and we then spent another hour or so all lying rather pathetically in bed, and occasionally reading about sharks.

Once the Calpol had kicked in, and a small quantity of breakfast had been inserted, LittleBear's world seemed to be improving, to the extent that a large chunk of morning was gently passed playing with Lego. The planned trip to GrandmaBear and GrandadBear was deferred, as LittleBear's temperature was still a bit on the high side, and 4 hours in the car didn't seem like a great idea. Instead I popped to the shops to acquire lunch.

When I got back, it was to a truly pathetic sight. LittleBear looked even littler than usual, curled into a ball and tucked under BigBear's arm on the sofa. The fever was spiking again, and he complained of his head and neck aching. Naturally my mind went where every parent's mind goes when hearing of fever and head/neck ache, so after spooning ibuprofen into my baby, I was straight on the phone, getting a medical assessment and a referral to the out-of-hours doctor.

The ibuprofen did very little, but an hour later, the next dose of Calpol worked its magic and we had a lovely afternoon with a happy, funny little boy. He even helped me wash the windows. (Yes, that's right, when I'm at breaking point with exhaustion, my son is sick and I almost feel physically sick with anxiety over him, my first instinct is obviously to wash windows. Naturally.) At the appointed time, we popped down to the emergency doctor. And had to wait an hour. But we had a dinosaur sticker book, which amply filled the time, rather to my surprise. We didn't even have to wheel out the back-up dinosaur encyclopedia or Winnie the Pooh.

When we eventually saw the emergency doctor, he was reassuring about the state of LittleBear, full of information about what would constitute a panic-worthy set of symptoms, and also very firm that with a fever that high we had done the right thing in seeking medical attention. He did recommend dioralyte rehydration salts though. Oh dear. We tried to give LittleBear some, but once there were tears and snot smeared over every available surface and person and he was looking strangely red and blotchy with hysteria, the 15ml I'd persuaded him to ingest seemed more than enough. We promised that if he drank plenty of water we wouldn't make him have any more today. And I've frozen the rest in an ice-cube tray so he can crunch them up if need be. Just have to remember not to put those ice-cubes in my gin... <shudder>

And despite all of the above, I've had one of the nicest days I've had in a while. Whether this is a testament to how crappy the last few weeks have been, or whether it's the simple pleasure of having both my Bears home together for a whole day for the first time in three weeks, or whether it was just that other than being ill my LittleBear was a quiet, loving, lovely little poppet all day I don't know. But it wasn't as bad a day as a dangerously high fever, and an hour and a half in an emergency doctor's surgery should have made it. Happy Easter everyone!

Oh, and what could say "Easter" better than a cuddly Opabinia? So here we go, a project finally finished tonight:


Thursday, 24 March 2016

Having it All

It will come as a surprise to absolutely no-one, that it is not actually possible to "Have It All" when it comes to motherhood* and a career. I cannot be both a brilliant, involved, loving, relaxed mother and a brilliant, involved, creative, productive employee. Instead I can be a bit rubbish at being a part-time mother, who is tired, crabby, stressed and torn; and a part-time employee who loses focus, leaves early, can't undertake site visits and misses meetings.

I'm feeling particularly grumpy about this at the moment, partly because I'm feeling particularly grumpy generally, due to the cumulative effects of failing to be either a full-time mother or a full-time physicist and getting exhausted trying to be both in only as much time as exists to do one or the other.

The rest of my grump come because of the asymmetry of the Having It All issue. BigBear's employers don't seem to stop and wonder what his childcare arrangements might be if they send him to the other side of the world for 9 days. Nor do they stop and ask if having an early-morning conference call with Japan once a week might cause a problem when it comes to getting LittleBear up, dressed, fed, tooth-brushed and driven to nursery. Nor do they question whether having two evening conference calls to California every week might make collecting LittleBear from nursery, getting him home, fed, played with, bathed, read to and tucked up in bed an issue. No, because he's still the same employee he was before becoming a father.

There is no question of how BigBear will manage to juggle fatherhood and a career. Instead it's assumed that he simply has to miss out on parts of his son's life. It's assumed he's living in the 1950s and has no interest in being involved in the day-to-day care of his child. It's assumed he has a willing and able partner who will "deal with" all of the inconvenient parts of childhood - illnesses, vaccinations, doctor's appointments, dentist's appointments and injuries at nursery that require immediate parental attention. A willing and able partner who will ensure that, even if he is sent hither and yon, or asked to stay late or come in early, his child is fed and clothed and bathed and loved. And if he does need to leave work a little early? He has to take half a day off - there's no gentle flexibility or understanding that actually, the work gets done, the hours get put in, the commitment is there. If he wants half an hour, he has to take half a day. Because that's how to run a modern, family-friendly company that appreciates its employees regardless of gender and assumes they have a life outside their work... oh no, my mistake, that's how to run a giant multi-national that chews people up and spits them out.

Meanwhile, I am distinctly not the same employee I was before becoming a mother. I am extremely fortunate to work for a much smaller, much more flexible, much more understanding employer than BigBear does. They know that if the phone rings, and there's something wrong with LittleBear, I will drop the hot soldering iron, abandon the meeting, or abort the experiment and run out of the door to be with him. They know that if LittleBear is sick, I will stay at home with him. They know that on the day of the Nativity Play, I will disappear for an hour to watch my baby be adorable. They know that I will arrive on the dot of 9 and leave at 5, irrespective of the state of the project, because I have to collect LittleBear. They know that they can no longer send me on site visits, or expect me to take clients out for dinner, or stay late when our backs are to the wall. But they also know that if they phone or email me on any day of the week at home, I will answer. And they know that when push comes to shove, I'll work at home, because I will not be the reason a project fails. And I know that I'm incredibly lucky to have a job where that works, and where my colleagues accept that way of working, and where my contribution is recognised as being worth enough to accept the limitations I impose. 

Motherhood has had a fundamental and detrimental effect on my professional life, in a way that it hasn't on BigBear's professional life. And that's not BigBear's fault. Some of it's actively my fault, which is probably another reason I'm grumpy. It'd be much easier if I could blame someone else. I chose to take a full year of maternity leave. I chose to have LittleBear in a nursery 200 yards from my office and 20 miles from BigBear's office, so it's hardly surprising that I'm responsible for his transport. I chose to return to work part-time and not full-time. I chose to attempt to be a cross between a stay-at-home mother and a professional physicist.

But I'm still pissed off. I'm pissed off that nobody wonders how BigBear is going to "have it all". I'm pissed off with myself for attempting to do and be all the things that my genuine stay-at-home-mother friends do and design five mass spectrometers. I'm pissed off that I never have a choice to "just" stay an extra half hour at work to finish what I'm in the middle of. I'm pissed off that trying to do and be everything is leaving me so tired that I'm turning into BitchyBear and no longer managing to be the mother I want to be for my LittleBear. I'm pissed off that the result of attempting to "have it all" actually feels more like having the rump end of sod all. I'm pissed off with trying to keep so many plates in the air it's only a matter of time before they all come crashing down and I sit in the ruins weeping.

Did I mention I'm pissed off?

* I am aware that there are a minority of fathers also attempting to undertake this particular juggling act, of which BrotherBear is one. Since this blog is about me, and mothers like me outweigh fathers like BrotherBear, I'm going to talk about me. Sorry BrotherBear.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Milk of Human Kindness

In a bit of a departure, this isn't about work, or LittleBear, or the deranged frothings of my tiny mind. It's an observation on how kind people can be.

As I left work/nursery yesterday, I pulled up to the junction in the aftermath of a messy accident. A little car had ploughed into the side of another car, flipping it onto its side, and then in turn been shunted by a van. The whole lot was sprawled across a busy junction, so I, along with the other people arriving at the scene, leapt out to see what we could do. The men from the van immediately went to the overturned car to see if they could help whoever was inside. The lady who'd pulled up just before me was already on the phone to the emergency services. I acted as relay between her and the van-men to pass on the state of the lady trapped in her car*. Phone-woman couldn't bear to look and was shaking, hence the need for a relay.

Nobody panicked, nobody did anything stupid. A handful of burly men took over directing the traffic to keep a trunk road through WorkTown flowing until the police could come and take charge. Another couple of people lay on the ground beside trapped-lady to keep her reassured. And I cuddled the woman from the little car who'd caused the accident. Because it turned out she was E, one of LittleBear's carers from nursery. She's only young, only been driving for a year and was shaking in a way I didn't know it was possible for a person to shake. She was terrified that she was going to be in trouble, distraught at having potentially hurt someone, frantic about what would happen next. And she couldn't get hold of her parents or boyfriend and just wanted someone to come and get her and make it all better. And she'd hit her head on the door pillar and hurt her foot, but didn't seem to be thinking about either of those things. So I did what I could to be motherly (because, somewhat scarily, I'm probably old enough to be her mother).

Then the firecrew arrived and started making the overturned car safe and preparing to cut it open. And the police arrived and closed the road, and started working out who needed attention and who didn't. And the ambulances arrived to look after the injuries.

Once I'd made sure E was being looked after, I checked with the police that it was OK for me to leave and went back to my car, where my fantastic LittleBear was still calmly sitting waiting. Admittedly he had a chocolate hobnob and his nanoo, and could see me the whole time, but I was still proud of him for not kicking up a fuss. And I drove home thinking how lucky I am never to have been in a bad accident, and how terrified I am of being involved in one with my precious LittleBear. But most of all I was just gently impressed at how calm and kind and thoughful everyone was. Every single person appeared to be more concerned with others and not with themselves. There was no voyeuristic gawping, no taking of photographs, no selfishness. Complete strangers worked together for the greater good, trying to keep the traffic flowing, trying to reassure the injured and scared. It was almost enough to make me believe that there's hope for humanity after all.

* As far as I know, the lady trapped in the car was fine. She was certainly conscious, talking and not obviously bleeding when the ambulances arrived, she was just trapped.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016


I may have mentioned in the past that LittleBear and I play games in the car on the way to nursery. Many of these games are conversation-based - it being a little hard to play chase, or hide-and-seek, or build a marble run while strapped into a car. Not that LittleBear wouldn't give any of those his best shot, given half a chance. The current (long-term) theme has been Bunny (played by yours truly) being introduced to a variety of LittleBear's other toys. Often vicious, predatory toys. This week, it's venomous snakes.

Picture the scene....

Bunny is in a quandary... there are two venomous snakes on the loose, and only his friend Moray Eel to help him escape...*

Bunny: Perhaps we should show the snakes things outside the car window and they'll be distracted and not bite us?

Snakes: ssssssssssss

Moray Eel: But what if they don't like what we show them? They might get cross and bite us!

Bunny: Oh dear. Maybe we should stay very quiet and still and hope they don't notice us?

Snakes: ssssssssssss

Moray Eel: They can sense the heat from our bodies and can find us and bite us!

Bunny: Oh help! If we show them what's outside they might bite us, and if we stay quiet they might bite us.

<silence from the back seat>

LittleBear: It's a sandwich!

Not being able to see LittleBear without craning my head to the point of no longer being able to see the traffic, this causes a certain amount of confusion. It's entirely possible Bunny is now sandwiched between two snakes. Or between LittleBear's hands. Or between any number of other peculiar objects - there are a lot to choose from in my car. It's not inconceivable that LittleBear has spotted the festering remains of an actual sandwich in the car**.

Bunny: What sandwich?

Moray Eel: A sandwich of problems! If we talk to them, they might bite us, but if we don't... they might bite us. And we're in the middle of two problems!

Never mind being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Never mind a dilemma, or a paradox or the lesser of two evils. Never mind a lose-lose situation, or being stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, or being in a tight spot. My world is now going to be defined as containing Sandwiches of Problems.

* For those who may concerned about what habitat is simultaneously inhabited by a moray eel, a rabbit and two snakes, these are sea snakes, and this bunny is currently a Sea Bunny. Sometimes he is an Arctic Bunny, sometimes a Prehistoric Bunny, very rarely a common or garden bunny, and on this occasion a Sea Bunny. 

** If you have a small child and you do not have an unspeakable assortment of crumbs, fruit peel, unidentifiable corners of something that might once have been edible, and equally unidentifiable corners of things you hope weren't ever edible, then you are either incredibly uptight about keeping your car clean or you sedate your children before inserting them into the car. In my experience, any journey lasting more than 13 minutes is almost guaranteed to require a snack. It only takes one journey in which you have forgotten to provide said snack and you will never, ever, ever forget again. Which is why my car has two packets of rice cakes, one packet of rich tea biscuits and assorted small tupperware boxes containing other (relatively) non-perishable snacks. And those are just the things I can reach from the driver's seat to cast over my shoulder to LittleBear. I'm not quite sure what's tucked into the sides of his chair at the moment. I don't think I want to know either.

Monday, 14 March 2016

One hour breakthrough

Sitting firmly in the realm of "first world problems", my cleaner is off work. She's had to have knee surgery, and is still on crutches, so won't be coming back to work for a while. This cataclysmic event has meant that I have had to rediscover how to clean my own house. I'd got relatively adept at the Wednesday-evening-whip-round, which allows to me to tidy generic clutter into cupboards the evening before Kath comes. What this skill has done however is create a large number of very full, very untidy cupboards and an unfortunate delusion that I'm keeping on top of things.

It's now been over a month since Kath cleaned, and I've just about got to grips with the vacuum cleaner, have bought some more furniture polish, and even wafted it around gently. I've kept the bathrooms from descending into complete squalor, and the kitchen hasn't actually caused an outbreak of any notifiable diseases (yet). But really, it was reaching the point of needing to knuckle down a bit. I'd been rather thinking that I'd merrily catch up with house cleaning in the evenings. But as it turned out, I have more or less been a zombie come evening-time for the last few weeks. Trying to do two people's full-time jobs in three days a week is taking its toll. So I tried Plan B...

This morning I informed LittleBear that he would need to play on his own for a bit, while I did a Kath-Clean in the bathroom and kitchen. I suggested that maybe he'd like to do some of his jigsaws, which received an emphatic "Definitely!" I then spent over an hour really cleaning in the bathroom and kitchen. I was interrupted occasionally by a LittleBear wanting to show me the next completed jigsaw, or to show me the physical manifestations of the dinosaurs depicted in the jigsaws (what else did you think they would be of?)

Nonetheless, I was able to Get On With Something, for one of the first times in the past four years. I even emptied out and cleaned one of Those Cupboards. Don't pretend you haven't got one. We've all got Those Cupboards. They're the ones that defy any particular description. It's not a pan cupboard, or a plate cupboard, or a food cupboard, or a cleaning cupboard. It's the Everything Else in the Kitchen That Doesn't Already Have a Home Cupboard. In my case it contains all those electrical gadgets that get used once every five years, the half packets of leftover paper napkins, the spare bottles of rinse-aid, the four sets of salad servers, in case I ever serve salad, the miscellaneous bottles, thermos flasks, lunch boxes, and ice-cube trays that will probably be useful one day, even if it's not today.  And a surprisingly large number of wooden bowls in various sizes.

So now, not only is my kitchen clean, but That Cupboard is also tidy. Admittedly, that means that BigBear has even less hope of finding anything in it than he did before, so when he next needs to find an ice-cream maker, or hand-blender, or large disposable tablecloth, or lawn-spiking wine-glass-holder, he'll be completely stumped.

And LittleBear was quite content. I could listen to him chuntering away to himself as he did his jigsaws, and every now and then he'd pop round the corner to tell me something important or ask me to come and admire his work.

I have a sneaking suspicion that there are a host of parents out there who are wondering why it has taken so long for me to reach the point where I can achieve anything more than a ten-minute job while looking after LittleBear. The parents whose children play happily without constant interaction and company. The parents who have successfully conveyed to their children that every minute of every day does not revolve around playing. The parents who manage to do serious gardening, or re-decorate the house, or work from home, or all those other things I don't achieve. I begin to fear that perhaps somewhere along the lines I have screwed up, and am raising a child who perceives himself as the centre of the universe, who will become dangerously self-centred and inconsiderate...

And then Bolshy PhysicsBear remembers that LittleBear is the centre of my universe, and I'm happy for him to know that. To know that I am always interested in his life, his games, his thoughts and his ideas. The one gift that I can give him is my unwavering love and the confidence and knowledge that he is mine and I am his. The time will come all too quickly when he doesn't want to share every waking minute with me. So I shall continue to relish being the planet orbiting his sun, letting the warmth of his smile bathe my face and the strength of his love tug me tumbling towards him in an eternal circle. But in the mean time, I'm still pretty chuffed with getting to clean the kitchen. It's a step towards my independence. And his. And today I shall be happy about it, even if one day I may be heartbroken.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

More adventures in lego

Having become engrossed in building creatures from his own imagination, LittleBear seemed to suddenly take note of the little helicopter than BigBear had built. Which then reminded him that he did in fact own some more specialised lego. Including a helicopter. Now, we have built the helicopter before, but for some time, all the pieces have been repurposed towards making mythical monsters, improbable dinosaurs and startling sharks.

Today, LittleBear decided the time had come to build all of his Lego Arctic Explorer kits. Some were already complete, but he set to work, frequently unassisted as I cooked, cleaned etc, and we spent the whole day building lego. And this is what we ended up with:

Lego Arctic Explorers

As I said, some of it was already built, but I'm quite proud of the fact that we assembled these pieces today:

Today's efforts

Aside from the very large helicopter, which required a bit of assistance, LittleBear basically built everything himself. And the snowplough he built by following the instruction booklet without my help. I was busy making macaroni cheese and came back to find he'd made most of it already. I am ridiculously proud of by LittleBear for this*.

Obviously, once we'd built it all, we then had to construct the Arctic so that we could race our machines across the ice, catch fish (yes, there are little lego fish), and try and escape from polar bears. I'd been slightly dreading today, having had three bad night's sleep in a row, and having cancelled our plans for today after the other half of our plan developed chickenpox. I thought being at home with no plan might drive me up the wall. But actually, it was a delightful day, with LittleBear showing depths of concentration and focus that I didn't know he had in him. There are times when he seems to have the attention span of a flea, and yet today, he was totally engrossed. Just thinking about it makes me smile...

* Bitter Parenting Aside
I'm sure there are other people whose children build far more advanced lego models without parental help and who will be secretly looking down on me for being proud. I'm equally sure there are other people who will think I'm some kind of deranged parent to give my four year old such advanced lego. Because if there's one thing I know about parenting, it's that wherever you lie on any spectrum, there are people further in each direction who judge your actions and either privately (or tediously publicly) make their disapproval or superiority known. So, just in case any of you feel like passing judgement, don't. I do what I do with LittleBear, and we both seem to be pretty happy about it, and as far as I'm concerned, that's all that counts. No, I don't know why I'm being so pissy about this. I blame lack of sleep.

Daddy's Birthday

The day before BigBear's birthday, his beloved, but rather distant, football team were playing relatively locally, so he spent the evening going to watch them. And they won. But he didn't get home till gone midnight, high on adrenaline and caffeine. So what he really wanted at 7am was...

"DaddyDaddyDaddy, Happy Birthday Daddy! Do you want your presents Daddy? Where are Daddy's presents Mummy? Are you doing to open your presents Daddy? Do you want them now Daddy? I chose the wrapping paper Daddy, you should open this one first, but don't worry about the rattling Daddy, it's not broken, you should open it now. I'll help you Daddy. Let's open it now Daddy."

Followed by a couple of seconds of frenzied paper-tearing and then a small boy with a beatific smile upon his face, cuddling his Daddy's present and declaring "I love this Daddy. Do you?"

Do you love it Daddy?

(As an aside, I was delighted to be able to buy a nice big box of "standard" lego pieces. It has a nice variety of interesting pieces, and lots of basic blocks, in a variety of colours, from the classic originals to pink and purple too).

Since BigBear's birthday was a work (and therefore nursery) day, but BigBear was treating himself to a day off, I had to drag a tearful small boy away from his Daddy. Or from his Daddy's birthday present. And his Daddy had to absolutely  promise to not play with his new lego until LittleBear got home. So I managed to bunk off work half an hour early so we could scoot home and play with BigBear, and his lego. I don't care if we're busy, there are only a few birthdays in a little boy's life.

BigBear built this little helicopter with his birthday present:

Rather sweet isn't it?
You may think that's underwhelming for a 42 year-old to build from such a large box of lego. You didn't, however, see the Napoleonic land-grab undertaken by LittleBear on the contents of the box. It was extraordinary that BigBear managed to build anything with the meagre leavings he was allowed to choose from.

LittleBear has now done his best to use all the pieces in the box to construct some awesome creatures. First of all, built entirely on his own when I was cooking dinner, is a mighty Tyrannosaurus rex:

T. rex

I just love the claws. And the eyes. And the fact that I didn't help with any of it.

Next up was an as-yet-unnamed creature who has taken three days to complete, in fits and starts. It has wheels, and flippers, and spectacularly enormous teeth. Slightly less obviously, it also has a completely enclosed stomach just behind the mouth.

Rather in the manner of Nursie's udder fixation in Blackadder, LittleBear has something of a tooth fixation, to the extent of reaching a total loss of structural integrity in the underlying creature. Marvellous and magical though this beast is, you only have to look at it askance and the top jaw falls off. I still love it though.

(Fortunately for BigBear's potential enjoyment of his birthday present, he's now in San Francisco for the next 9 days, which should give LittleBear the chance to get over the excitement of New Lego and allow his Daddy to have a play as well when he gets home.)

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Reading List 2016

...has been cancelled.

It's March already, and I have failed to keep note of the books that I have read so far this year. I don't feel inclined to start now, or to stare, bewildered, at the bookshelves and wonder which things I read when.

And I feel a strange sense of relief at not keeping track. What started as a matter of interest for me became a source of stress once I decided to make it public.

I began to worry about what other people would make of my reading choices.

I started choosing what to read next based upon what other people might think.

I stopped gorging on one author for weeks on end in case people thought I was odd.

I feared that BrotherBear would look down upon anything that sounded dangerously like chick-lit. (He wouldn't, and even if he did... so what?)

I was anxious that my English-teaching cousin would condemn my failure to read Works of Great Literature. (She wouldn't, and even if she did... so what?)

I wondered whether my friends who are published authors would think my choice of reading matter was tediously mainstream and boring. (They wouldn't, and even if they did... so what?)

I chose books that I thought I "ought" to read, instead of books that I wanted to read.

I felt guilty if I didn't read "enough" books in one month.

In short, I found a way to make something that had been a whim to satisfy my own idle curiosity into a stressful endeavour in which I attempted to prove myself in some way worthy or good to other people, when reading is the one genuinely utterly solitary activity that I undertake. The one activity that really is absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what other people think. My joy, pleasure and escape. My chance to immerse myself in a different world and a different life, just for a few hours at a time. And in 2016, that's what it's going to be again. If you want to know what I've been reading, what I've been enjoying, what I've discarded in disgust... ask away. Have a chat in the pub. Compare notes over tea and cake. But don't look for An Impressive List at the end of the year. There won't be one. Reading isn't about Impressive Lists.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Not that page again...

Along with every other parent on the planet, there are books that make my heart sink. Books that I wish I didn't have to read. Books that I contemplate accidentally "losing". Books that actually make me want to find the author and bludgeon them to death with their own stilted prose, woeful illustrations and inexcusable sexual stereotypes. Or sometimes just books that I've read so many thousands of times I can't quite face forcing my lips to enunciate the words again. And then there's this book.

It's called "Sharks" and is in the Usborne Discovery series. A really, really great series of books, well-written, well-researched, well-illustrated, pitched at the perfect level for an inquisitive toddler. And the "Sharks" volume is a fine example of the series. Loads of fascinating information, brilliant photographs, great diagrams. So what's my problem with it?

LittleBear's favourite section, to which I am firmly directed every time we read the book is entitled "Pup producers" and has the following paragraph:

A baby shark starts to form when a sperm cell from a male shark joins together with an egg inside a female shark. Before this can happen, a male shark has to push sperm into a female's body using a part of its body called a clasper. The sperm enters the female's body through a hole called a cloaca. This is called mating.

Now, normally my vocal stylings verge on the animated. The speed of the Mako Shark! The peril of a Tiger Shark attacking baby albatrosses! The extraordinary jaws of the Megamouth Shark! But there is no end to the monotony and subdued expression of my voice as I read about a shark's cloaca. There is no length to which I will not go to make the physical details of Selachimorpha intercourse sound utterly tedious, humdrum and not even slightly worthy of any questions whatsoever.

I am, quite frankly, not ready for conversations about cloaca, nor whether other animals have such a feature. I am certainly not interested in any curiosity regarding the presence or absence of a cloaca about my own person. And I am definitely not ready for any other questions involving eggs and sperm, and Mummy and Daddy. Ideally I'd leave it for another 16 years or so.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Over-fertile imagination

I'm not entirely certain that I'm the only one in the Bear family whose imagination runs away with them to the point of managing to upset themselves. In fact, I might go as far as to say, I'm certain that it's either an acquired or hereditary trait, as LittleBear is showing excellent skills in my own self-destructive technique.

This morning, it being a Friday and therefore a day that LittleBear and I spend at home together, we played in bed before getting up for breakfast. It's our Friday and Monday ritual, and it's one of the highlights of my day. I get to stay horizontal, under a nice warm duvet, and can usually get away with "Yes", "No" and "Really?" in various inflections to participate in whatever LittleBear wants to play.

Today's game was a convoluted one, in which his sharks had a birthday, so my bunny and his dinosaurs and penguins had to provide (imaginary) birthday presents. This is a game we've played on many occasions, and they usually act as an excellent weather-vane for what LittleBear would really like as a present for LittleBear. And the final present is always "Arctic Zero", a fictitious lego set, based upon the other Arctic Explorer lego sets he already owns. So the denouement of the game is to assemble the imaginary lego set.

Building imaginary lego

Bunny was instructed to build the tail and wings of the "flying machine", while the penguins assembled the cockpit, propellers and rotor. But then, disaster struck! Bunny had missed a page in the instruction book! So, I solemnly helped Bunny to turn back in the, completely-invented-and-not-actually-there-at-all-book to find the right page. Apparently I still got the page wrong. At which point, LittleBear began to get genuinely upset that we would never be able to finish the lego machine if we couldn't find the right page.

That's right, my son almost brought himself to the point of tears over the fact that we couldn't find a non-existent page in an imaginary book to provide fictional instructions for building a make-believe model of a fantastical flying machine.

Do you think he gets it from me?

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Waking dreams

Anxiety saps the colour from life.

Feeling anxious about things that I can control makes me feel inadequate, as I fail to control them, or fail to control my own anxiety. Because if I were a worthwhile human being I would be able to take control of these things.

Feeling anxious about things I can't control induces panic and sleeplessness as I wonder how to escape from a trap with no functioning tools. Because if things are outside my control, then the most productive solution is to go over, and over, and over, and over things in my head, wondering which combination of ineffective things I should choose to do.

Feeling anxious about totally random stuff that I make up inside my head does all of the above and I've made it all up.

That's what I did last night.

To start with I had a monumentally irritating and stressful day at work, in which (as always) I had to leave on the spot of 5, no matter what I was in the middle of, as I had to collect LittleBear from nursery. Having no option to stay on a bit later, just to finish a task, manages to make tight deadlines and overwork even more stressful. And my boss is away so had delegated all his work to me, on top of my own. And I found a major lurking disaster waiting to trip us all up, and haven't found a way to fix it.

Once I got home, and had got LittleBear fed, played with, bathed, read to, tucked up and myself (and Big Bear) fed, I then had to tackle the World Book Day costume. No, I didn't leave it until the last minute. The costume was all done. Except LittleBear asked for a minor modification to it, and I, being the complete and utter moron devoted mother that I am, agreed. And naturally, this "minor modification" took several hours.

And then BigBear decided to sleep in the spare room, not because I'm a nightmare stress-bunny (which I am) but because he's pulled some major muscles in his back and getting comfortable enough to sleep is a challenge best accomplished without worrying about elbowing me in the face.

Once I finally went to bed, I was tired, stressed, cross and didn't even have a BigBear to reassure me. Once I'd been lying awake for an hour and had convinced myself (on the basis of no evidence whatsoever) that BigBear was going to have some kind of breakdown, leave me, refuse to parent LittleBear and my whole life would descend into a spiral of loneliness and despair, I was beyond the point of being able to escape from the anxiety-pit.

So there we are. Not only am I able to lie awake feeling anxious about things that happened years ago, or about neighbours I haven't met, or about making a simple phone call. It turns out I can also lie awake, in tears, feeling desperately anxious and upset about something that is entirely a figment of my fevered imagination. You wouldn't want to be me would you?