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?