Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year

It’s the end of another year, a time for reflection, for resolutions and for gratitude.
What a year 2011 has been. For many a time of radical change, some good, some bad and some as yet unresolved...
In our family, my daughter has lost two of her bottom teeth; my children’s grasp of Spanish is improving every day.
My son has learned how to tie his shoelaces and has read The Hobbit. They are both taller.
I have started to come to terms with using the past tense in Spanish (even though there seem to be a hundred different verb tenses)
The global economy has been in some sort of boxing competition where the euro, the pound and the dollar have each taken a good old battering.
I’ve been keeping a (fairly) regular blog
Life has been a strange blend of thinking about life and wondering what it means to be a wife and mother and grieving daughter (my mother is in the horrible stages of dementia that robs the personality and the mind leaving a strangely resilient physical body behind) and have a sort of career at 42.
Political rant (skip two paragraphs if disinterested)
Britain has been in the throes of Tory rule again. I can only read about Conservative policies and despair as Britain seems to return to the bad old days of social deprivation and cuts that have an impact on those who are most needy. The sad thing is that we can look back on Labour government and rue what was not attempted or achieved in the golden years of opportunity.... As a determined socialist, my heart will forever sway to Labour but historical hindsight can only leave us voters bitter at the opportunities lost...where else can our political hopes lie if not with the party that is meant to represent the people?
The world seems to be undergoing a change as the Arab Spring swept the Middle East and yet so many important things are still not addressed by our governments. The environment is increasingly ignored, people are paid ludicrous amounts of money for unintelligible jobs whilst others are paid a pittance and increasingly denied any workers’ rights that have been battled for over decades.
Come back here if you're avoiding political rant!
Importantly, a new year is a chance to contemplate the contents of our drinks cabinet. I am not a big drinker, I have always been a cheap night it is a bit silly for me to even look at the range of spirits available in our cupboard (most of which were gifts, or purchased for visitors..) because I will probably just briefly sup on a very very small selection.
So, husband has the champagne lined up, I fancy a nice glass of amaretto and maybe a small port, that’s probably me sorted for the night....
We are at home tonight with our kids. No visitors this year. We could have gone into Alicante for a venture into the Spanish territories of keeping the kids out late and celebrating in the streets...but our British sensibilities are more inclined to snuggle up safe and warm at home.
I am glad to in the bosom of our small family. Safe, content, warm. We have so much to be grateful for at the end of this old year, our health, our home, our children, our jobs. Our friends are far flung and spread across the globe, but they remain our friends and we love them all.
Best wishes to everyone for the New Year, may it be one filled with the simplest and best three wishes that anyone can ask for from the magic genie of the New Year: health, happiness and wealth (and a lovely selection in the drinks cabinet! – that’s four, never mind!)
Blwyddyn Newydd dda
Happy New Year
Feliz ano nuevo

Friday, November 18, 2011

Decades of Difference: In your lunch box

The First Decade
In this first decade your parents were probably very concerned, if not obsessed, by your nutritional needs. As a baby your lunch may be most conveniently attached to your mother in the form of her breasts, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee convenience in all respects because, let’s face it, people don’t really like to see breasts out in public when they’re serving their primary biological function of feeding a baby. Bare breasts on a beach? Yes! Breasts in a newspaper? Fine! Enormous breasts on the covers of dodgy magazines? As long as they’re on the top shelf, why not? Breasts feeding babies anywhere public? No thank you say the majority of the great British public.
Your first decade may be fantastic for you as you progress from milk to mush to puree and finger foods. You discover the delights of texture, taste and temperature on your tongue. You watch the varying expressions on your parents’ faces as you delightedly or accidentally fling food all over yourself, the floor, the table and your chair. Meanwhile your parents will be fraught with the childrearing debates: when to wean? Breast or bottle? Peanuts or not? When to try shellfish and honey, how much chocolate? Are crisps allowed in lunchboxes?
These nutritional debates and conflicting scientific evidence hover in the background as you discard the apple, eat sand and worms and soil and any insects you can find, or, in the latter part of the decade, buy chocolate and crisps from the corner shop.

A Birthday Cake = SUGAR!!

The Second Decade.
This decade is a time of choices. You will become increasingly confident in your eating habits and desires. You may deliberately move away from your parents’ choices towards more radical ways of eating. The teenage years may be a move to the quick calorific pleasures of fast food. The ingestion of salt and fat doesn’t worry you. The years of heart disease and weight gain concerns are a distant shore.
Your independent choices may lead you down new paths; vegetarianism, veganism. A love of processed white bread. You may become a devoted carnivore or a fast food aficionado. Your student years may be dominated by baked beans, cheese and bread and as many imaginative variants of those as are possible. In the latter part of this decade you may move away from lunch altogether with a love of snacks, pot noodles, cups of tea and biscuits the pleasures of your culinary day.
The Third Decade
These may be the experimental years. You probably have your own kitchen now and you may have requested some nice kitchen goods for your housewarming or wedding. The life and lunch experiment involves seeing which electrical goods lay dusty and disused in your kitchen cupboards and which ones actually get used. Sunday lunch for 4 or 10 may be an excited reality not an ambition. If you’re lucky, you will have disposable income to spend on quirky experiments like truffle oil, specialist salts, Spanish sausage and organic meat. Some of these ingredients may languish in your cupboards, whilst others will be loved and cherished and promoted from lunch time luxuries to weekly essentials. You will either delight in or desist from visiting your staff canteen, depending on the quality of food and drinks. You may even make your own lunch and take it into work, perhaps in an elaborate collection of Tupperware that includes hummus and other dips and bread with seeds. You will probably become more of a tea or coffee snob in these years, trying Earl Grey and tea leaves in a teapot , coffee may be ground and brewed and served in the smallest imaginable cups with froth...or the expensive coffee machine will be consigned to the dusty cupboard with the juicer and the dried sun blush tomatoes.
The Fourth Decade
You can no longer eat what you want, when you want and laugh at the consequences. You have to think about salt and fats and sugar and calories. The weight seems to accumulate far more easily around your middle without ever going away again.
Your taste for wines and exotic ingredients develops. You may order an organic vegetable box that gives you enough celeriac in a season to feed a family of twelve. You may start to source your meat carefully, buy organic eggs or maybe even keep your own chickens. If you have children, you care enormously about what they eat too. You like to eat lunch in restaurants and have friends around at the weekend. If you eat at work you probably bemoan the lack of quality of the ingredients and the fact that you don’t know where the meat comes from. Your hummus and dips have become low fat and you try to avoid bread when you can. If you are a mother you are traumatised between breast is best and breast is impossible for some mums. The guilt may be overwhelming. In fact feeding your children may become an overwhelming source of anxiety as conflicting headlines compete to tell you what’s best. It’s bad enough to make you buy a new coffee machine and enjoy more glasses of good wine at Sunday lunch time than you probably should. And if you don’t have kids, you have a couple of good glasses of wine or real ale on a Sunday afternoon and worry about your waistline or the size if your hips or your alcohol consumption per week or your cholesterol or blood pressure instead.
The Fifth Decade
Your lunch habits are probably indelibly fixed by now although you may, on occasion, attempt to convert to weightwatchers or healthier meals. Sometimes it’s just too hard to drag yourself away from the pleasures of alcohol and saturated fats and salts and sugar. Your doctor may be advising you against your traditional Sunday lunch but it may be the final ritual you share with the children who have left home and return for good food and company on a Sunday afternoon.
You may be divorced and lunch may have become a small delight for one or a treat you share with friends. It may also be a chore cooking for one after a life time of preparing meals for a family. Your appetite may be diminishing as your taste buds age. Your mid life crisis or menopause may leave you with unexpected intolerances to alcohol and coffee. You may have given up caffeine altogether because of the adverse impact it has on your sleep. You may still eat in the work canteen, but mainly salads. Or the work place lunch may have become your sole meal of the day as when you arrive home to an empty house and a kitchen full of dusty gadgets that have no use any more, you are too dispirited to do anything other than eat a crisp bread, or bite into an only slightly shrivelled apple before going to bed.
The Sixth or Seventh Decade and Later
Do you eat lunch any more? Do you cook? If you’re lucky you still love and enjoy food. Perhaps you still experiment with foods to find the exotic lunch. You may have turned the corner when worrying about what you eat seems nonsense and you may show a reckless disregard for calories, sugar and salt. Foods from your childhood may be a lovely comfort, fish and chips, rice pudding. You may have troublesome teeth and avoid anything that requires too vigorous chewing. Your fruit may be cut up.
If you are unlucky your food choices are made for you and are guided by institutional rules rather than your individual preferences. Meals may not have any flavour or texture for you when they are made by other people or you may enjoy the sweetness of the pink wafer biscuit that you never would have purchased for yourself but which is a staple with the tea at your old folks’ home. Your appetite may diminish completely in these years and you may have to be cajoled to eat anything at all. You may eventually lose the ability to feed yourself adequately although you may still enjoy a nice cup of tea.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fragments of family life.

This is Bobby, he is my daughter Aoife’s most loved toy. Sadly he is fraying badly on the ears, the hands and feet. If you look closely, you can see his rather chewed looking toes. My daughter doesn’t seem to mind. His blanket has fallen off numerous times and been replaced in a variety of positions. At present the blanket is back to the original setting, his tummy. His ears and nose have been fixed several times, only to have the cotton chewed off by daughter
He is adored. We realised quite early on (at six months – more on that later) that Bobby was becoming precious. So we bought another Bobby (named Bob Bobby) as a possible alternative in case of Bobby loss. It soon became evident that Bob Bobby would never replace Bobby. As you can see from Bob Bobby's picture, above, he is rounded and undamaged with no fraying bits at all.
Thankfully, we have never lost Bobby and at present, Bobby is under house arrest to prevent future possible losses and hysteria. Initially, we thought that Bob Bobby had been rejected because of the colour difference, so I was quite excited a year later to find Annie. Sadly, she too has never found a place in our daughter’s heart. Bobby is the teddy and for a few years, all other toys, when presented for naming, were named Bobby. If we had another child, male or female, my daughter would want to call her new sibling Bobby.
The reason for this enduring love? When my daughter was 6 months’ old she contracted meningitis, the scary one. Meningococcal meningitis. She had a nasty cold that didn’t go away, then one morning she was limp and grey and we rushed her to hospital. Everything after that is a bit of a tearful  blur. We were in France on holiday at the time, which made the whole experience more surreal.  

The facts I remember are: Leaving the house in the middle of breakfast with a half drunk cup of tea on the kitchen table beside a bowl of uneaten cereal and the dishes in the sink. Calling our friends (who were arriving that day for a holiday) to tell them why we wouldn’t be there. They still describe the scene they found as the Mary Celeste kitchen

Being told immediately that she was very ill and needed to be transferred by ambulance to another hospital with paediatric facilities. We followed behind the ambulance in our car

They gave her a lumbar puncture to take fluid from her spine. We were asked to leave the room.

Being told by a sympathetic doctor that yes, it was very serious, as I collapsed into a hopeless heap after they confirmed the diagnosis

Our friend Mark came to collect our son Owain, who was three at the time and pretty confused.

A transfer for Aoife from one hospital to another in a helicopter, there was only room for one person on the plane with her; the medic, so we drove.  The silence between us and the unasked question was whether she would survive the journey.

We sat with her, day and night, for 15 days. Thankfully our friends Nick and Nikki were able to look after their own two children and Owain, and us, in a kind of numb disbelief.

Aoife was put into a medical coma. Catheterized, put on a ventilator. Basically they shut her body down so that her brain could rest and try to fight against the meningitis, with the aid of lots of lovely modern medicines, antibiotics and opiates.

She had lots of tubes going in and out of her body. She was alive, surviving, fighting.

The high dependency unit for brain injuries can be a very sad place. Hollow eyed people pass each other wordlessly, not wanting to share hope or loss.

The medical staff in the hospitals in France were unfailingly wonderful.

When eventually she started to recover, we stopped holding our breath and started eating properly and started smiling. I still cried every journey to the hospital to take over from my husband, not knowing what to expect.

We were told that we could take toys into the hospital and put them in her cot. Bobby was purchased on the way home at an enormous supermarket.

Eventually the tubes were slowly taken away. Our girl started coming back.

We were lucky. Aoife is alive and well. She is a stubborn and determined girl of 5 now. She had health and developmental checks for two years after her recovery, to check her hearing and her progress. She is fine. 

                                      Aoife in the kitchen in France, a year after the meningitis scare

Aoife this year at home in Spain

And Bobby...well Bobby was there with her, not from the start but from the recovery. He has been her companion ever since. He is smelly and battered and falling apart at the seams (literally) but he is a best loved toy. Bob Bobby cannot replace him and Annie cannot replace him, he is her best beloved and we tolerate him and love him almost as much as Aoife does because of the survival that he represents.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Myth of Comfortable Camping

For Tom Palmer and Rory Sellar, whose enthusiasm is boundless and almost...but not quite... infectious
For Abbotsholme students past and present who have suffered, sweated, cried, endured, loved, hated and laughed their way through camps and hikes.
I started a new job at a new school in January 2007, after living for eight years in the Middle East; the incredibly warm and sunny country of Qatar to be exact. I had camped in Qatar but the sunshine was pretty much guaranteed. As a consequence of living in a hot country for eight years my supply of waterproof clothing was limited and inadequate and my collection of long johns, fleeces and hats negligible.
I was thrown into camping again as I was about to hit my 40s, after eight years of heat and sun. I am not colour blind but maps throw me into a small panic and a compass is a foreign object. I don’t mind a walk, even a long walk but preferably not in the rain and without carrying everything I could possibly need for camping in Wales on my back.
I panicked a bit.
I was working at a school that promoted independence, holistic values, leadership, teamwork and getting away from home comforts and creature comforts and any comforts at all really. The school promotes camping, walking long distances, cooking on small stoves, not using i pods or computers or Wiis, staying at places with no access to T.V. or internet and little or no mobile signal at all. Driving restive children long distances in smelly mini buses, getting wet, working together and perhaps, along the way, having a bit of fun.
The idea of camping is an abomination to every part of my comfort loving soul. Somehow, however, I ended up camping in the darkest stretches of distant Wales, for three nights, with too many teenagers and five other adults (the other adults were outdoors types who were quite comfortable with maps and compasses, with canoeing and climbing and pitching tents – I have a deep rooted fear of maps and an aversion to compasses- thankfully they didn’t make me use either). This torture I endured not once, but twice...
I am built for comfort not for speed
I am a joyful consumer of beautiful clothes and pretty shoes
I take pleasure in good food
I love feather pillows and a good supply of books beside my bed
I like a lie in on weekends and an afternoon nap
I enjoy a warm shower, body lotions, luxurious facial cream and a bit of lipstick every now and again
I drink water cold from the fridge on a hot day and good, hot coffee from the machine on a cold day
So, I was going camping, in Wales (I am Welsh by the way and love the place, it’s just that its bad weather reputation is fully justified, along with mountainous non mobile receiving areas , rural distance from commerce, and large camp sites with not so warm showers.)
I did what any self respecting consumer would do. I went to the shops.

Camping shops are great. They really do a very good job of promoting the myth of comfortable camping. They weave this illusion of the possible comforts you can experience in the beautiful outdoors. The photographs are all rugged hills and rugged people smiling or looking formidably determined. All the landscapes are sunny. The people wearing branded walking gear in the photos are looking happy atop beautiful mountains, sunny again but with just a little hint of snow peaked backdrop for romance. They have rosy cheeks and sun kissed brows, windswept hair and trendy sunglasses (they were looking a lot like the majority of staff at my school).

The clothes inside are colourful and comedy hats abound.
The labels on the clothes boast hyperbolically scientific facts. You’d think that all Scientific Endeavour over the last century had been devoted to finding the lightest, most water resistant, pocketed, windproof, warm yet cool and sweat sucking fabric in the world. These shops have it all, they can defend against wind, water, sleet, hail, mosquitoes, dust, sweat, sun. They equip you for deserts, jungles, crevasses, mountains, snow scapes, sludgy marshes and Wales.
In the shop I felt the pressure gathering like some dark natural force because when you start reading about what these clothes and kit can protect you from, the realisation starts o sink in, that you’re actually going to be walking for miles with nothing but your clothes and a tent for protection. And you could encounter blazing sun and torrential rain and high winds and sleet and maybe even snow. What would be worse – actually experiencing hail, sleet, wind and rain (all possible in June in Wales) whilst walking or in a tent -or, worse, encountering these weather conditions WITHOUT ADEQUATE CLOTHING AND EQUIPMENT?
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes” was the famous quote on display in the camping shop. It’s useful for them because it sustains THE ILLUSION...we can all camp comfortably if we just buy the right stuff. The bill may well run into hundreds of pounds but it’s worth it, isn’t it...
Yes, I bought the illusion, the myth of comfortable camping.  I couldn’t quite buy all I needed owing to budgetary constraints. Thankfully I was also able to borrow some pretty cool stuff from my generous weather beaten, experienced and well kitted colleagues. Unfortunately, being a 5’4’’ woman in the company of mainly taller men and women did not really help...but we cobbled together my list of comfortable camping necessities:
·         Very good (read expensive) waterproof top (with pockets and air vents and wire hood thing to keep drips off your face and Velcro for making the wrists fit properly and pull cords to make the fit cosy)
·         Very good ( guessed..expensive) waterproof trousers (with pockets and air vents and zips up the side for getting your boots on and a fleecy lining and poppers with a flap to protect the zips and stop water leaking in)
·         A few thin take your sweat away but also keep you warm tops
·         A small waterproof bag to hold the mobile phone, money and mini bus keys in while canoeing
·         A large waterproof bag to put all my clothes inside in my rucksack to keep them all dry in torrential rain
·         A good big ruck sack to carry all my stuff
·         A smaller day sack for those days when I wouldn’t be carrying everything
·         3 decent pairs of walking socks
·         Old shoes for canoeing and coast steering (sea level traversing)
·         A swimming costume
·         Skinny long johns in some sort of super thin but warm fabric
·         Magic fabric walking trousers that dry super fast and are also zip away shorts with multi pockets and handy zipped pockets for mini bus keys
·         A warm hat
·         A sun hat
·         Sun cream
·         The smallest, thinnest, most absorbent camping towel in the world
·         A good sleeping bag
·         Two fleece jumpers
·         A good pair of boots
·         A head torch
·         Another torch (bigger)
·         An inflatable roll mat for sleeping on
·         sunglasses

I borrowed
·         A good tent
·         A special thing for holding your glasses on if you roll out of the canoe
I fretted about the tent incessantly because of my inability to follow tent erecting instructions and my lack of spatial awareness (not knowing which bit went where and ending up with an inside out tent – not beyond the realms of possibility)

I also took along for comfort, knowing I would only have to carry them from the mini bus to my tent:
·         A warm fleece blanket (I feel the cold)
·         A pillow
Things I did not take:
A chair
A book
I did not think I would have time for sitting or reading.
Does it sound like a lot of stuff? That’s because it is a lot – and that’s the thing about comfortable think that if you’re well equipped you can make the whole thing fairly comfortable, with the things to keep you warm, things to keep you dry and some cushioning. You think it will work. In fact the myth of comfortable camping is just that, a myth, a story told by clever marketing people to make you buy stuff. It’s an illusion sanctioned by outdoors types who think you should tolerate discomfort as part of the learning process.
The truth is that camping teaches you many things; you can be over equipped and underprepared for everything.

It doesn’t matter how warm your sleeping bag or how great your tent. You’re still sleeping on the ground. It doesn’t matter how sunny it is when you set off on your 7km walk. It will rain at some stage and if you’re really unlucky, you will put up your tent in the rain and be woken, at 3 am to the sounds of a thunderstorm beating harshly against your tent while pondering the probability of your tent being struck by lightning (low) and the possibility of you escaping a flaming thunder hit tent (extremely low to no chance at all).
Despite the rain and thunder likelihood, you have to take your sunscreen on the walk because it’s sunny when you set off. So you have the smallest possible tube of the stuff and, when you’re a teacher, make sure all your students are sun creamed too.
The bag will be heavy, you will probably be carrying your own teeny tiny scientifically engineered, lightest in the possible universe tent, but it will still feel heavy. Thankfully, in my experience, there are always willing students ready to help carry stuff, some people are happy packhorses, they like this stuff, they revel in the walk, the carry, the challenge. All credit to them, they don’t give the teachers who want to share the load any grief at all.
Sleeping outside is only made marginally more tolerable by good equipment and the fact that you are so exhausted at night that you fall asleep immediately and are only occasionally awoken in the night when you roll onto the uneven, rocky piece of ground that seemed smooth and flat when you pitched the tent.
Camping basically means loads of stuff to carry, pack, unpack, put up, clean, put down and re-pack and no matter how waterproof and technologically advanced your stuff is, if you’re mountain biking through the Welsh hills on a rainy day you are going to get wet – a moment of clarifying wet here.
Wet may conjure up images of getting out of a warm bath and wrapping yourself fin a nice fluffy towel.
Wet may also make you think of the sea or a swimming pool on a sunny day.
These are not the types of wet I am referring to. I mean wet as in soaked to the skin, waterproof drenched, next layer sopping and underwear cold and moist from the outside in. If you’re lucky, your socks may be dry but more likely than not, they are soggy too and enclosed in your wet, muddy boots.
Mountain biking with a group of reluctant teenagers in the rain is also great fun because it’s all your fault and they all want to unburden their misery on to you in an attempt to make you end it. Meanwhile, you are finding it difficult to cope with your own cold and wet, aching calves from cycling the first time in a decade. Thankfully I had a colleague on the wet cycling who loved it so much he was gleefully in his element.  Manically laughing at the rain, the cold, the wet and miserable students and carrying us all along the cycling trail with his boundless enthusiasm and promises or short cuts.

Finally, when you haven’t slept much, when you’re wet, feel sore and get back to your wet and cold campsite in your cold wet clothes and have to find some way of getting warm in your tiny space. There’s probably no hope of drying much of your clothing so the stuff you don’t need is thrown into a plastic bag to be dealt with at home. And then you have to cook on four gas rings for yourself and 6 hungry wet, cold adults and dish out food for 20 cold, wet students – if the students have had  a really bad day, you may have to cook for them make that four gas rings and 26 people, in a big tent, five saucepans and a lot of help chopping and washing up.
Was it comfortable? No
Did I enjoy it? Yes
Would I do it again? Probably
It’s not comfortable camping, it’s camping as an allegory for life because if you can go camping and survive and take a little bit of enjoyment from the process then you are on your way to enjoying life.
It’s also camping as an allegory for life because it’s the people around you that keep you smiling, as you exit your comfort zone and enter the scary world of cold and damp and wet and discomfort, the people around you who are doing the same, without moaning and with a smile on their face...they are the ones who make the discomfort worth a smile...they will never ever make camping comfortable, comfortable camping  will forever remain an illusion or a myth...but they will help make the process a lot of fun.

two wolves

An old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside all people. The battle is between two 'wolves' inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, lies and ego, the other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth and faith.
The wolf that wins the battle is the one we choose to feed.

There is a battle of two wolves reigning inside me at the moment. My one wolf is the one who wants to write a blog, write a book, sit at the computer and get something written every day. Draft and redraft and become a good writer, entertain other people and enjoy creating characters and scenarios that come alive on the page, in your head.
My other wolf is a procrastinator who likes surfing the internet, spends time on facebook, checks hotmail, reads forums. Likes sleeping.

What do your wolves battle about?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Decades of Difference: In your bedroom

In your bedroom
The First Decade
In your first decade you probably sleep in a greater variety of beds than at any other time in your life. In the next two decades, including a possibly promiscuous twenties, you may sleep in a great number of beds but they probably will not vary as much as the list in your first few years, which could include: cot, Moses basket, carry cot, floor, car seat (in recline position), pram, pushchair, parental bed, toddler bed, sofa, travel cot, sofa and ‘proper bed’.
As a baby, you probably don’t have your own bedroom at all, sharing a room instead with your parents and invading their privacy with plaintive cries of ‘feed me’, ‘wind me’, ’keep me company’, ‘I’m wet’, ‘entertain me’, ‘why have you put me in this little bed when yours is much bigger and you are in it and you’re warm and the food is there?’.
Your parents must be relieved to finally have some privacy when you move out of your Moses basket or cot or their bed into your own room.
Your own room has been made from new for you, with your baby bed, cot or Moses basket. A changing table, blackout blinds – essential for any parent wanting to sleep beyond the 5 am dawn chorus of a sunny summer’s day, the soft toys, your books with bold shapes to stimulate the brain, your mobile, the baby listening device. Even though you’re tiny, it’s a wonder you fit in the room at all.
Even when the baby paraphernalia is eventually removed, you still share your room with toys and books and eventually perhaps, horror of horrors, with a small sibling.
The Second Decade.
In this decade, the luckiest children have the most fun with a bunk bed. A bunk bed can become a cave with hidden treasure...or a dragon, a pirate ship, a hospital, a submarine, a bus, a school, an underwater labyrinth, a jungle, a rocket, a bunker, the moon, a tardis, a tank, a laboratory for cloning. With the helpful addition of some blankets, extra cushions and soft toys, the bunk bed can become anything and anywhere you want it to be. You’re probably old enough for sleepovers now, so your bedroom may become the sweaty haven of flushed excitement after too many electronic games, too much sugar, lots of tickling laughter and ghost stories.
In the latter part of this decade your bedroom becomes your solitary teenage haven. A place with, perhaps, your own t.v. and i pod dock. Maybe a computer and some games. It’s a place to try on different clothes because you just need to be wearing the right thing on a Saturday night. It’s a place to store your make up, your illicit drugs and cigarettes and booze – although your parents will almost certainly know about those things and perhaps steal them from you every now and again. Your bedroom is for sullen phone calls, reading books and sexual exploration. You still have sleepovers but now they’re more often drunken and occasionally philosophical and you only sometimes tell the scariest ghost stories and call them urban myths.
You can explore yourself and your friendships and your body and your sexual preferences in your own room and, if you’re lucky, you don’t have to share your sacred space with anyone else as you hibernate your way through those hormone years.
The Third Decade
How much time do you spend in your own bedroom in this decade?
You will almost certainly, by now, have your own bedroom, probably away from home, maybe in your own house. You will either have bought or borrowed or been given the decor, the bed and the pictures on the walls. You may have moved from posters and postcards to framed pictures and maybe some original artwork. You may have a bedroom that reflects your status as a singleton, a bachelor, a playboy, a married couple or parents.
You probably already have habits that need to be accommodated, ear plugs, eye covers, blackout blinds, a bedside light for reading and a pile of books beside the bed.
You may have sex toys in your bedside cabinet or gathering fluff unhygienically under the bed. You may have a t.v. in there, some music, an alarm clock. If you are a child of the 60s or 70s, you may remember this time as the move away from the heavy weight of childhood blankets to the liberty of the magical duvet.
The Fourth Decade
Perhaps your bedroom is all about decor now, your bed may have become more complex, with throws and scatter cushions and valance sheets. Are you married, divorced, single, re-married, parents? By now your bedroom habits will be firmly established and you may find it difficult to accommodate a new partner or child into your sleeping routine. You may have to tolerate sharing your own bed with a snorer, an insomniac, a sleepwalker, a baby, a crying baby, a sleeping baby a daily sloth and night gymnast.
You may delight in the pleasures that sharing a bed brings you. So much so that you tolerate or enjoy the foibles of your bed sharer.
Or you may loathe and despise the night time complications that you have to perpetually negotiate and so you:
·         If wealthy, have separate bedrooms
·         Fall asleep on the sofa in front of the tv
·         Divorce
·         Always sleep alone
If you have children, your bedroom is probably a place for trampolining toddlers threatening broken limbs with every bounce. Or tickling babies and squashing children. Your rest will be constantly interrupted, when you’re reading your book before bed or having sex or enjoying the warm solitude of bed or in your REM stage of sleep, by children who are hungry or thirsty, have chicken pox, or have wet the bed, have had a nightmare, lost the favourite teddy, would like a book read and are just plain AWAKE at 5.30 on a Sunday morning.
The Fifth Decade
If you have kids, they may be older now and if you’re lucky, allowing you some sleep. Your bedroom may be your sanctuary again, although your bedside cabinet may be a haven for HRT and Viagra.
You may also find that your older kids still call at bizarre hours to say hello, they love you, maybe after a drunken night out, or when they’ve broken up with the latest fling. Sometimes you wake up in the early hours; positive that you have heard little pattering feet and then realise they long ago left find that you are waking earlier, unable to get back to sleep. The books on your book shelf are hardbacks, or maybe electronic books whose font you can adjust. You may have bought a telescope to look at the stars, or maybe your tiny teeny computer comes to your bedroom now, for some illicit work or reading or porn.
The Sixth or Seventh Decade and Later
You will almost certainly have purchased a new bed sometime in the last twenty years, to stop your back aches. You may get a new bed, in this decade, with an electronic motor that propels you up and out in the morning, an L shaped modern aid to the shaky muscles of old age.
Your double may shrink into a single bed. It is a reality that death creeps in and you may now, once again, sleep alone. You no longer need a double desert of space and a single, smaller bed is easier to keep warm.
If you’re lucky, you will die in your bed, peacefully, in your sleep. You will leave the paraphernalia of your bedroom and your life for your spouse or children to sift through tearfully.
Perhaps everything shrinks as you move your whole life out of a house and into a room in a nursing home and your bedroom becomes your life as you wait for your death.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Bench

The Bench

When I picked my daughter up from school that day, she ran around excitedly, always armed with at least thirty seven new pieces of information to share with me. She was looking a bit strange but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was odd because she didn’t stand still for a moment. She carried on moving and talking, never seeming to run out of her ceaseless energy. She circled the room again and shouted to me from the opposite end of the room.
‘Mummy, mummy the bench has disappeared’
Sure enough the old style long wooden school bench had been moved out of the room. It had probably been commandeered for an assembly by one of the primary staff. Nonetheless, my daughter’s face was begging for a response, her body stilled momentarily as she waited for my conclusions on the mystery of the missing bench that held such fascination for her five year old self, so I played along.
‘Oh no, where has it gone?
‘I’ve eaten it’ she replied with a delighted laugh.
It was then, in a quickly disappearing moment of stillness before recommencing her flight around the room, that I noticed the rather large rectangular shape emerging beyond the sweater shape around her midriff.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Club

The first rule of book club is...’Don’t talk about book club’. I know, it’s stoles from the film ‘Fight Club’, but it was a rule comically invented for us bibliophiles who love reading so much that we can’t curb our enthusiasm until the book club night. We just want to chat about the book with our book club colleagues when we see them at work, at the supermarket. The danger is that talking about the book outside of the confines of ‘book club’ will take away the pleasure of the evening itself. So the first rule of book club is...’Don’t talk about book club’.
I love book club and sadly, I am not currently a member of one, although am in the early stages of trying to set one up.
The first book club I belonged to was in Doha. For many years it was super book club, with literate, well read people gathering together to eat and chat and choose books. I was teaching English at a British school and was invited to attend book club with Teresa, the school librarian. We didn’t really like the first book club we went to. Some of the people were a bit overbearing and although the discussion was interesting, some of the book choices were a bit odd.
Teresa was a vibrant and energetic woman. She introduced me to the joys of reading teenage literature LONG LONG before the advent of Harry Potter. She was also always up to date with modern trends and when I asked her if she had the latest new thing, she’d often just ordered it for the library. Living in Doha in the late nineties, this was a real feat for her, to be on the forefront of modern literature.
So, not resting on her laurels, Teresa decided to branch out and she set up her own book club, with an advert in school and word of mouth, we soon established a great group of women (men were welcome but only occasionally  seemed to make it). We were all ex pats living in Doha but with varied roots: British, Bangladeshi, Canadian, American. We had a range of jobs: teacher, librarian, telecoms, engineer, and our shared passion was reading.
We met at each other’s homes, cooked, ate, chatted about the books and had some fantastic evenings discussing, amongst other things, politics, religion, magic and women! The American in the group did get teased quite a lot when we read anything about the environment or war; she was teased for all of Bush’s sins. One of the most memorable evenings for me was when we’d all read a giant of a book called ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’, a great magical realism adventure. When we started discussing the magic in the book and suddenly the stories started coming out about myths and cultural legends in Bangladesh, about an encounter with a shaman in China. What a great night.
There weren’t any rules at book club; we just tried to make sure everyone contributed. Teresa had some terrific idiosyncrasies. At the beginning of book club, we’d all have to look at the front covers and as we had often bought our books in different countries, or had older or newer versions, the differences were often fascinating. Teresa loved to look at the visual aspects of the cover. Surprisingly with a Margaret Drabble book one year, we discovered that the American version had a completely different chapter added to the end of the book. We couldn’t quite believe that American publishing houses had been that patronising to their readers as to add another chapter to explain the story.
Teresa’s other funny quirk, often at the end of book club, was to ask whether we thought the book would make a good film. This often prompted us all into a whole different outlook on the book.  For some reason, the chemistry between the group members was great. Supportive, funny, thought provoking. We had some good, good years. Members changed, people came and left but somehow, we had a solid core of people and we loved to read and loved to talk about reading
Sadly, Teresa left Doha, I had two babies, people were leaving Doha and then book club dwindled away. I joined another book club when I arrived in the UK but felt frustrated when much of the discussion turned to village gossip.
I was excited when I found Teresa on Facebook last year and we shared a few messages about new books we’d read, The Hunger Games being one we’d both loved.
Sadly, last week, I found out that Teresa died unexpectedly. She is a great loss. Her vibrancy and absolute love of literature will be a lasting legacy. I hope to, one day, be a member of another lively, long term, entertaining and erudite book club but I have a feeling than any future book club will be measured against my memory of Teresa’s and found wanting.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Decades of Difference

In your pocket
The First Decade
There are little, unnecessary pockets in babies’ jeans and dungarees and t –shirts. These pockets are too small for anything useful; except perhaps for choking hazards like some copper pennies or peanuts that you wouldn’t want to put in a baby’s pocket anyway, even if the baby doesn’t yet have the hand eye co-ordination to take the choking hazard out of the pocket and choke on the thing. These pockets are often decorated with gender specific items such as flowers and trucks, cars, trams or butterflies in pink or red or blue or glittery purple with the occasional unisex yellow duckling.
Babies have pockets even though they don’t really need them. The pockets are just a decorative flourish adding to the objectification of the ‘baby’ in our lives as a mini statement asserting our place in society.
Ever reached your fingers inside a baby’s pocket in search of loose change? What did you find? A useless, probably gender specific, fluff depository.
Ever seen a baby with their hand in their pocket? Thought not.
The Second Decade
Pockets become a bit more interesting in those middle and end of childhood years. You can use them for storing all sorts of interesting things like stones and acorns and pine cones, if you can fit them in, which you probably can if you’re determined enough.
You can also sneak forbidden toys into your school trousers to show them off to your friends, though God forbid you lose them ‘cos your parents will go nuts. Spare sweets get stuffed in pockets, though not often as they are usually scoffed as quickly as they are received and if they are stuffed unwanted into pockets they are usually found some weeks later fluffy but still edible. In the latter part of this decade, you will still keep your precious things in your pockets but they’re no longer likely to be acorns and leaves. Increasingly they’re small electronic goods that play music and films, double up as cameras and videos and phones and are probably still forbidden at school but you take then in anyway, with less fear and more fecklessness. They are fun and bleep but they don’t have the romance of football cars or Top Trumps.
As you get older, you will probably need, or at least think you may need, someday, the neat little small pocket at the front of your jeans that seems to be especially designed to hold condoms.
The Third Decade
You probably still carry your electrical toy in your pocket, although now it seems to be ‘important’ for work. You also now have a credit card and some cash. Perhaps, for sophistication or ease, a purse or wallet and maybe a lipstick. You will probably have many keys now, for a home, a car, maybe your bike lock, so they have to have a home too.
The condoms may still be there too and maybe a packet of cigarettes or some other form of recreational drugs that you want to keep close to hand. Your pockets have become a more essential accessory to your everyday life.
The Fourth Decade
 You may perhaps have a partner now or a marriage under your belt, so the condoms may have left the pocket for the security of the bedside cabinet. This decade may not differ much from the last, except that now you may carry headache tablets or heartburn remedies or maybe both together in a sign of your increasing age and inability to effortlessly cope with alcoholic overindulgence and too much food.
Possibly, your life will have dramatically altered, with the addition of a baby or two, In which case your pockets will have become depositories of many more essential things; like a dummy; fluffy and perhaps a bit careworn because it´s the only one your baby likes, in particular to sleep, and is, therefore, never placed on tables or shop counters when you are out for the fearful consequences of loss, but always placed in the pocket. Small plastic toys and acorns may also be found in your pockets, placed there by small friendly fingers, or by you when the small friendly fingers of your small friendly child have tired of them. If your baby is still small, you will probably carry all their stuff in an overflowing baby bag which never seems big enough for all you think you may need for a day stuffed into your pocket, with the dummy and the plastic toy and the stray acorn and the wallet, keys and phone, will be the smallest pack of wipes you can buy and some raisins for an emergency snack.
The Fifth Decade
If you had any kids, they will be older now and you may have been lucky enough to evolve through that detritus of baby and young child care, so you´re back to the wallet and the keys and the phone. You may even be wearing the same jeans as in your last decade or two, which means that you may have a faint rectangular imprint on your back pocket where you habitually keep your wallet or phone.
You may occasionally find an unwanted sharp plastic toy but mainly the pockets belong to you again although the credit card increasingly seems to be used by your children.
You may have a garden that you love a bit more so sometimes your secateurs may be shoved carefully, strictly in the back pocket, for safety.
The Sixth Decade
You always seem to have tissues in your pocket, there for you to dab with your tongue to use on your grandchild’s face. For gardening you have a multi pocket jacket which holds everything in it.
After this...
There are no pockets in shrouds, as my mum used to say. Although we probably all do our best to avoid inheritance tax, thus leaving our wealth to stay within the small minority of privilege.