Monday, 27 March 2017

How to Go Out

Yesterday evening, BigBear and I took the plunge. We went out. Or, as local vernacular has it, we went out out. Properly out. With each other. Without LittleBear. In the evening.

We employed a babysitter. She has, briefly, met LittleBear before, as she's my boss' daughter, and has been to the company barbecue at our house. However, she's quite shy and quiet, and LittleBear has traditionally had little interest in teenage girls, so I'm not really sure she'd crossed his radar much.

I've got some great top tips for trying to go out-out when you have a small and clingy boy...

1. Make sure you choose to go out on the day the clocks have changed, thus ensuring that your child is not tired and doesn't go to sleep when you put him to bed at what is essentially an hour before his normal bedtime.

2. Make sure you choose to go out near the end of term in your child's first year at school, thus maximising your child's emotional exhaustion and need to be with Mummy at all times, even when asleep.

3. Make sure that the story book your child brings home from school for his reading practice involves a child being left at home with a babysitter and his parents getting stuck in a snowstorm and not coming home.

3(a) Prior to step 3, ensure that your child is particularly sensitive, does not like even the slightest hint of peril, and is guaranteed to spend his time worrying about what happens in all storybooks. This will help maximise the impact of step 3.

The net result of this brilliant setup is that you can then go out for a whole hour and a half and spend all of it worrying about whether your child is sobbing in your absence, and merely the majority of your time talking about the child who might or might not be sobbing, which you could perfectly well have done while sitting at home. Except you wouldn't have done because he'd be happily tucked up in bed, and definitely not sobbing, and so you wouldn't have been quite so pre-occupied.

LittleBear did not sob all evening. LittleBear did not in fact disturb the babysitter at all. We had a nice curry, and did talk about at least two other things besides LittleBear. I hope that we will do this again, but with less clinging and desperation from LittleBear. I am aware that this may be a forlorn hope.

LittleBear saved up his sobbing and being distressed for this evening, when I had to repeatedly return to his room for extra cuddles and reassurance. LittleBear's bodyclock has unreasonably refused to instantly adapt to British Summer Time and so this performance continued for approximately an hour after bedtime. I am tempted to start one of those stupid online petitions lobbying for not changing the damn clocks. I hate changing the clocks. 

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Here we go again

It would appear that I have lapsed into a "Moog".

It would appear that I lapse into a "Moog" on a fairly regular basis.

You can probably guess from the sound of it, and the fact that one can lapse into one, that a "Moog" is not a flavour of ice-cream, and nor is it the classic electronic synthesiser. Technically, "The Moog" to which I refer is this one:

The Moog

A particularly gormless dog from a children's television programme of my youth called Willo the Wisp.

Somehow the combination of his name, his lack of brain and his rotund dumpiness sum together to express how I feel when I'm down quite succinctly. And telling BigBear that I'm "in a Moog" is quicker, and more emotionally accurate, than saying "I'm suffering a hint of existential angst, combined with fatigue, and a general dissatisfaction with the direction my life is taking, a lack of motivation to change that direction and a crisis of self-confidence." And fortunately, he understands The Moog. He has been known to experience The Moog himself.

The Moog is not the same as the Black Dog of depression; it is less severe, less all encompassing, and generally easier to shake off. But it still leaves me glum, prone to feelings of isolation and loneliness even amongst friends, tearful and with a sense of futility. It is The Moog.

Now that I've introduced you to The Moog, I can get back to where I intended to start, which was to elucidate on my current Moog...

It's about feeling stuck.

About having dreams and not realising them.

About spending my life urgently trying to get unimportant things done.

About repeating the same cycle of working and cooking and cleaning and eating and sleeping and playing week after week after week and never looking up. Never looking beyond the end of my nose for long enough to make a plan that extends beyond the end of the current week.

About watching my life trickle past and not seizing the day.

About being afraid that even if I lifted my head and gazed to the horizon I still wouldn't have the gumption to do anything.

Some of these feelings have been triggered by the pernicious influence that is Facebook. I know (really I do) that the lives presented to the world on Facebook only bear a passing resemblance to reality, and that most people only showcase the happy, good and beautiful moments. I know that looking at Facebook and thinking that it represents anything other than about 5% of anyone's life is madness. But it isn't other people's apparent perfection that has triggered The Moog this time. No. It's the wide variety of things other people are doing that remind me of all the things I'm not doing. It isn't so much that someone else is doing it that's the problem, it's the reminder that I have dreams and aspirations that I can't or won't or don't pursue that's the problem.

I've written before about the conflict that exists between my dreams and my gumption. So even though I'm gazing jealously at exploring tombs in Egypt, visiting the Burgess Shale, climbing volcanoes, diving in the Red Sea, skiing in the Swiss Alps, swimming in the Caribbean or exploring Thailand*, I'm solemnly planning whether to spend 1 or 2 weeks in the Lake District this summer rather than anything more exotic or adventurous.

I excuse my lack of adventuring on the grounds of having a LittleBear in tow, but I know that's no real excuse. There are plenty of people who travel the world with a small child, or several such, tucked under an arm. My own parents did. My aunt and uncle did. My cousins did. My friends do.

I excuse my lack of adventuring on the grounds of not having time. But that's not really true either. I could book flights to Hanover as easily as driving to Hawkshead. But my own terrible fear of the unknown and unplanned means I can't, because I wouldn't just need to book the flights, I'd need to plan the details of where we'd go and what we'd do (and what and where we'd eat. The stress of what my LittleBear would eat in foreign climes is enough to make me feel sick with anxiety even typing about it...)

I read books and I watch television and I see what my friends are doing, and I wish that I could watch Nabucco at La Scala, or climb Machu Picchu, or explore the Amazon, or see the northern lights, or watch whales, or clamber around Angkor Wat, or hike in New Zealand, or sip coffee in Prague, or sail amongst the Greek islands, or stand on the Acropolis, or tour vineyards of the Loire, or walk along the Great Wall of China. And instead I stay right where I am. And if I think too hard about doing any of those other things, I get close to tears with the sheer terror of organising or undertaking something that doesn't happen within about 5 miles of my own home.

So, in an effort to combat The Moog, I'm trying to talk myself out of this negative spiral. I'm trying to remind myself of all the things I have done, and the places I have been. That I can do this. I can go to new places. I can try new experiences. I can be braver than this.

I've stood on top of Table Mountain and Pic Blanc. I've climbed the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum. I've explored Borobudur and Kinkakuji. I've swum in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans. I've taken a boat ride with dolphins in Australia and tracked lions on foot through the Zimbabwean bush. I've camped on an island in Lake Victoria, and rafted down the Kali Gandaki. I've watched the Cubs play at Wrigley Field and France play a World Cup match at Twickenham. I've been behind the wire at Los Alamos and to the bottom of a gold mine in the Witwatersrand. I've shopped in the souk of Marrakech and the Champs Elysee. I've walked along the streets of ancient Petra and the Via Appia. I've been beneath the Great Pyramids of Giza and floated on top of the Dead Sea. I've seen the Smoke That Thunders and scuba-dived in the Red Sea. 

By any reasonable standard, I've done an extraordinary number of things already. And, yes, some of them caused anxiety and stress. And some of them I know I wouldn't have done if they hadn't been organised by someone else. And I wouldn't have done them alone. But I have done them. And I can do things like that again. I don't have to give up. I don't have to let LittleBear's life be hemmed in by my fears. I don't have to take charge of every detail of every adventure I'd like to undertake. I can find ways of making it doable, possible, enjoyable, achievable.

But today, now, I'm going to hold onto the memory of the amazing places I've been and seen. The recollection that I am that person, that I have nothing to be envious of, and that being a forty-two year old mother of a 5 year old child does not have to mean I allow myself to stop and hide from the world.

I am PhysicsBear. Hear me squeak in a slightly less daunted way than I did yesterday.

* If you feel you resemble one of these descriptions, please don't feel that I don't want to read about what you're doing, or that I'm in any way criticising the fact that you're doing it. I'm just envious. Envious that you have the get up and go to get up and do. Envious that you're doing the things I'm not doing.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Public health services now offered

On Tuesdays I take LittleBear swimming. We have moved on from the "throw him in" teacher, and LittleBear has remained an aquatic bear. But now we go to a little pool attached to a primary school in a nearby area. An indoor swimming pool where the indoor area, including the changing room, is maintained at a temperature only marginally lower than that of lava. The experience of having to sit watching LittleBear is close to being in breach of the Geneva Convention. So by the time I've spent half an hour losing 3kg in sweat by the side of pool, I am feeling A Bit Flustered, and not usually in the mood for wrangling a clammy small boy into his clothes again.

So you can picture the scene...

... a small boy who has just spent half an hour exhausting himself attempting to swim front crawl, after a full day at school. He has entered Insanity Hour, where all sense and reason have departed and he is as likely to speak utter gibberish as anything else.

... I have removed as many clothes as is legal in public in an attempt not to collapse in a puddle of sweat.

... 8 adults and children, plus assorted siblings are attempting to get 8 soggy children dry and dressed in a space approximately large enough for 3 reasonable sized adults to move around without risking inappropriate physical contact with each other.

And I launch into a Joyce Grenfell-esque monologue:

"No, please don't tickle me. No, no tickling. Not with your foot either. No, tickling me with your foot while I'm trying to put your shirt on is not a good idea. Put your foot down. No, put your foot down on the floor. No, don't just swap feet. Don't tickle me with either of your feet. It's really not helping. See? Now you haven't got your arms in your shirt because you weren't concentrating. Where is your arm? It won't fit through the neck of your shirt. Please put your arms in your sleeves. One arm in each sleeve. Time for your trousers now. Please step into your trousers. No, step into them with your feet, not your arms. And don't tickle me. DO NOT tickle me down the front of my shirt. Why not? Because not everyone in the room wants to see my underwear. I don't know why they don't. Yes, I know it's pretty, but they still don't want to see it. I don't know, it's just how grown ups are. PLEASE STOP TICKLING ME while I'm getting you dressed. I just want to get you dressed so we can get out of this sauna. What's a sauna? It's a stupidly, stupidly hot room that no-one in their right mind would want to spend any time in. No, I don't know why it's so hot in here, but I'd really like you to stop tickling me until you've got your clothes on. No, I don't mean you can never, ever, ever tickle me ever again, I just don't want to be tickled right now. I want to finish getting your clothes on right now, and then when we're out of this room, then you can tickle me. Yes, really you can. No, please don't cry just because I've asked you not to tickle me. I stop tickling you when you ask me to, so please stop when I ask you to. I just want to get out of here, and THEN you can tickle me. Yes, really you can. As much as you want, as long as I can get out of here."

At which point a complete stranger came over to me, bent down and said, "It's such a relief to hear someone else having the same conversations as me. I feel less mad now".

I'll be providing a public health service in a swimming changing room near you any day now. Maye I need a new byline for my blog? "Making other mothers feel less mad, one swimming lesson at a time."

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

A weight swapped

My rash optimism yesterday that being liberated from Problem Employee would be a weight lifted from my mind was just that. Rash optimism. Unlike my colleagues, who tell me that they slept well and easily for the first time in months, I did not. I lay awake for a couple of hours after going to bed, and then woke early this morning. I feel unrested, unrelaxed and unrelieved.


Partly I feel terribly guilty. I have been instrumental in a man losing his job. Admittedly, he was ill-suited to the job, not fulfilling the requirements and making life very trying for everyone around him, but nonetheless, he's a man with a life and hopes and responsibilities who no longer has a job. What's more, I was one of the people who interviewed him for the post, and recommended that we appoint him. So I feel responsible for the fact that we chose poorly when recruiting.

Partly I feel like I have failed, that it is me that is not good enough. In the past 6 years, we've employed three new people to perform some of my job functions. Each time I've been involved in the recruiting. The first didn't last beyond his six month's probation. Despite a PhD in Physics from Cambridge University, part of which spent undertaking research at CERN, he quite frankly wasn't up to much. He didn't learn what we tried to teach him, he was arrogant, and he was unhelpful. So he left. The third (most recent) didn't last beyond his first year. Despite many years experience in electronics and engineering, he didn't learn what we tried to teach him, was arrogant and was unhelpful. Only the second was any use, and he's now moved on to a better job. (Hey M! Any chance you want to come back?)

Having read that, you're probably wondering why I feel as though I've failed. We've had two people who weren't good enough, or weren't what we wanted, and one who was just right. What's that got to do with me? Well, the common theme is that I was the one responsible for training and attempting to manage employees number 1 and 3. Employee number 2 was initially my maternity cover, so by definition his first year with us was spent in my absence.

So, what if it's me? What if it's that I'm simply totally crap at teaching people how to do what we need them to do? M did a great job when it wasn't me teaching him or managing him. The two men I was in charge of failed singularly. To fail to teach and manage one qualified candidate may be regarded as a misfortune; to fail to teach both looks like carelessness.

With these thoughts swirling in my mind, I lay awake last night, running over how exactly I do explain things. Testing my own understanding of the basics of ion optics and vacuum physics in pretend conversations. Teaching an invisible, imaginary person all about what I do. And I still don't know if I can do it. Maybe I'm like the teacher in Peanuts, and all my students hear is "Wah wah wah wah". And even if I do mange to convey the odd pearl of wisdom, I certainly know less than the square root of bugger all about managing people*.

And now, I have to start all over again, advertising, filtering, interviewing, employing and training employee number 4. And I might just go through the whole process again and find another promising candidate who doesn't learn, won't listen and makes life difficult. And it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that it really is me at that point. That recalcitrance, obtuseness, stupidity and arrogance is all in the eye of the beholder, and that I am busy beholding traits that are not inherent in my poor, hapless employees, but are reactions to my failings. Perhaps I am the nightmare manager from hell from whom employees retreat. The one they go home and rant and weep about. The one who is unfair, and unjust and unreasonable.

Perhaps that is me.

And clearly, the only way to know if that is me that others experience is to lie awake at night worrying. Because a lack of sleep always makes things look better in the morning.

* This doesn't actually set me aside from many members of my company. Unlike them, I actually care about this deficiency though.  

Monday, 13 March 2017

A weight lifted

Among the many reasons* I haven't been blogging as frequently in the past few months as I have done before is that there's been A Thing. And The Thing has been Bothering Me. Once there's A Thing, my mind is more or less incapable of doing anything other than stewing on The Thing. And if I can't write about The Thing, I find it nigh on possible to write about anything else. And until today, I haven't been able to write about The Thing.

But now... The Thing is gone!

The Thing, in this case, being a Problem Employee. And today, his contract of employment was terminated. Despite my usual tendency to rant, swear, profane and otherwise let off steam, I felt professionally obliged not to write anything about this situation somewhere that is essentially totally public. And, actually, I still feel the same. Despite my frustrations, Problem Employee is a person with feelings and rights, and I don't think it's fair to write anything here about him.

So I shall draw a discrete veil across the matter and let you know only that my life is now, I hope, going to be considerably less stressful in one major respect. The fact that we've now got one less employee, and a chunk of his workload is going to revert to me is a totally different issue and one that I'm currently ignoring.

Last week I undertook a "work to rule" experiment, and refused to bring any work home with me. I ended up a much happier bear than I've been for several months, which was a salutary lesson. I didn't make very much progress on my design projects though...

So, I can foresee some quite serious conflicts between, on the one hand, my work ethic, my desire to go a good job, and my sense that I am partially responsible for the success and failure of the current projects and, on the other hand, my need to look after myself, my health, and my relationships with friends and family. I'm not sure there is a work-life balance that will see both demands satisfied, but I am going to try very hard to remember that nobody ever reaches the end of their lives and wishes they'd spent more time at work...

* Most of those reasons are work. If I am sat in front of a computer, I am working. If I turn my laptop on at home, it's usually to work. It's ten to ten at night and I've just finished writing a design overview as an output from a meeting I had to call today to prevent a project going off the rails.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Books for girls

Some of the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that LittleBear is a LittleBoyBear. And that he is the only LittleBear that I have. Those who've been assiduously paying attention will also have noticed a bit of a feminist streak in my views on life. So why would I consider writing about "books for girls" rather than just "books"? Well...

I was recently pointed towards a little video clip* advertising a book called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. The video showed a mother and young daughter winnowing a set of shelves in a bookshop - removing books that didn't have female characters; removing books in which the female characters didn't speak; removing books in which the female character's sole aspiration was to be saved by a Prince. And they were left with a pathetic heap of books.**

And this got me thinking. Because I suppose I am a Rebel Girl. I never aspired to pink. I didn't assume I couldn't do stuff. I never felt that women couldn't be whatever they wanted to be. I didn't perceive the books around me as showing me a limited world view. But maybe that comes down to all the other elements of my childhood. My mother, aunts and grandmothers were all intelligent, educated (and in some cases terrifyingly formidable) women. So it didn't really matter that I liked reading my brother's Tintin and Asterix books, despite their paucity of female representation. (Impedimenta may indeed have been a powerful female character, but she wasn't exactly a role model.) On the other hand, I've always had a tendency to immerse myself in the world I am reading about, to imagine myself as a character in it, and I certainly never imagined myself as a Princess in need of a Prince, so what did I read, and who were my female alter egos?

I don't think I can really remember that much of my early reading, though I know that Mister Men and Beatrix Potter featured, as we still have those books. And neither are particularly endowed with girls. But on the other hand, the gender of frogs and rabbits, or amorphous blobs, didn't really seem to matter at the time, as I wasn't imagining myself into their worlds. I may be odd, but I've never pictured myself as a squirrel or as a spherical yellow being largely made of smile.

Later on I read Swallows and Amazons, where (to my mind) Titty was clearly the most important character, and Nancy and Peggy ran a close second/third. Or the Narnia books, where it was Lucy who was the real leader of the Pevensey children. Or Anne of Green Gables, which describes itself. And the girls, even when they got married, were feisty, determined, self-assured and adventurous. And then Anne McCaffrey, where there were plenty of women and dragons I could imagine I was. And I'm sure there were others too, but the more I think about it, the more I realise that it doesn't really matter if there were. Because even reading the Wizard of Earthsea books, I was quite capable of imagining myself as the (male) wizard Ged. And the fact that Dick Francis had some pretty unreconstructed views, and wrote exclusively about men, didn't stop me imagining that I was the champion steeplechase jockey. And I could be one of Gavin Lyall's adventurers with no problems, or le Carre's spies.

So it turns out that I probably didn't have a surfeit of literary female role models, it turns out I had a family of strong, determined, intelligent, competent women and an imagination that was quite capable of flexing the world to accommodate my place in any story, no matter the author's original intent. Which is probably a reassuring thing for any of you raising slightly peculiar girls with an overactive imagination and an ambivalent view of gender. But perhaps not much of a counter argument to the issue of a lack of decent female characters in books.

I'm not sure I really had a point here, since most of the children's reading matter I'm currently exposed to is firmly in the category of dinosaur or wildlife reference works, which don't seem to place much weight on the sex of the dinosaurs, sharks or leopards involved. I can't really claim to be much of an expert in current trends in children's literature, and it turns out my own recollections of my reading habits as a child (which have persisted into adulthood) are that if I want to "be" the protagonist in my own mind, I will be, no matter whether they're written as male, female or dragon. I have a sneaking suspicion that this fluid approach to gender and species might not be completely normal...

*The link might, or might not work, possibly depending upon whether you are a Facebook person or not.

** Accompanying the video are statistics about the distribution of these features in published children's books.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

International Women's Day

I was going to just write a short paragraph on Facebook to give a "Woohoo!" to the many awesome women I know, and then, as I composed said short paragraph in my head, it became longer, and had more sub-clauses and explanations, until I realised it was probably worth more than a Facebook status update.

So, here is my "Woohoo!" to the many women I know who are awesome, often in the face of huge challenges thrown in their path...

... the women who have been knocked down, but got back up again, gave a swift two-finger salute to the world, and built themselves amazing new lives, often returning to university, or starting their own companies, or launching into new careers in midlife. You are my Wild Women of Worth and you stand as an amazing example of how not to be beaten down by the vicissitudes of life.

... the women who have refused to accept "women can't build IKEA furniture" or "Mummies can't mend things, we'll have to wait for Daddy" and have rolled up their sleeves and shown the world, and their children, that women certainly can make, mend, build and do.

... the women who have taken a leap of faith, trusted themselves to spread their wings and fly high and left behind a safe, known career and gone where their passion has led them.

... the women who are carrying the burden of caring, both for their children and their parents and still finding time and energy to be their own person too.

... the women who fight, and fight, and fight to get the best for their children, often against systems that don't accept difference, systems that want to pigeon-hole children and won't flex for the needs of the individual.

... the women who are holding their families together, caring and nurturing and loving and cleaning and cooking and working and collapsing at the end of the day only to start again the next day.

... the women who went before me, especially those in my own family who made it completely normal for me to got to university and become a physicist. To my mother, my grandmothers and my great-grandmother, who paved the way for me as university-educated women.

And, if you're a man reading this, and you think that there are plenty of men who do all that too, you're right. Men do. But they don't do it against a background of being told they're the weaker sex. They don't do it being afraid of walking home alone. They don't do it while being told that how they look matters more than what they can do. They don't do it knowing that if they wear the "wrong" clothes they will be blamed for what happens to them at the hands of criminals. They don't do it while worrying that if they travel on crowded public transport they risk being groped. They don't do it in a world that wonders if they'll still be able to do their job if they become fathers. They do it all in a world where their sex is privileged above mine. And if that still doesn't cut any ice with you, wait until November 19th and you can rejoice in International Men's Day.

And, while I'm here, there's another "Woohoo!" to all the men who value me for who I am, and what I can do. The men who know that women are not lesser beings. The men who are raising awesome daughters. The men who are cheering on the success of their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. The men who recognise their privilege and recognise that feminism is not about dragging men down, but about raising women up, so that we are all treated as human beings, and what we keep in our trousers is not the most important thing about any of us.