Wednesday, 21 January 2015

RTFM - or not! With "Same Difference" Link Up

My brother and his partner have just given birth to a gorgeous baby girl - their first child, and I was reminded how simple life was with one little one. That is if you discount the hours screaming, refluxing, washing etc which was pretty much 24/7 with all four of mine, but it's definitely easier riding the reflux roller coaster the first time around, with only one to juggle!

In the lottery of life I pulled four straws all labelled "reflux", "gut allergies", "hypermobility", "ASD" and "ADHD", (and more, but the straws kind of ran out of room at that point... ) four straws - children - with many talents, gifts, personalities which enrich my life hugely on a daily basis.

Except first thing in the morning.

Mornings, are without a doubt, the most testing time known to parents. The knowledge that you are solely responsible for getting your brood to school with all they need, looking immaculate respectable  and clean is a tough call. Add in the necessary physiotherapy exercises, medications, normal teenage reluctance and exquisite ADHD/ASD-type screaming that only H can do and it's a potential recipe for disaster. But over the years, we have perfected survived and achieved this miracle on an almost daily basis. Which is actually quite impressive.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Nous sommes Charlie. But nous sommes so much more.

My first post of the year was going to be something along the lines of "Most Insane New Year's Resolutions Ever", for which I intended to offer my best contender of 2015.

In a moment of inspired positive thinking insane lack of forethought I decided to give up coffee and wine for January, and thereafter significantly reduce my coffee intake. I'm not sure what induced me to consider such a crazy notion or how I imagined I would function without the former - or recover without at least occasional doses of the latter, but suffice to say I lasted a week!

I also considered recording aspirations and intentions for the year ahead, but frankly life has never adhered to any carefully made plans and flying by the seat of my metaphorical pants whilst ricocheting off the usual (and unusual) obstacles life chooses to throw at me is, apparently, the only way to live. (Small wonder I never managed to ditch the coffee, in the absence of a crystal ball and personal Doppelgänger rocket fuel coffee is a survival prerequisite.)

It's been a hectic start to the New Year, my parents managed to both catch 'flu despite having the annual vaccine, and it hit them hard. Along with our usual health issues, school social issues and my rapidly reducing tolerance levels for such a high level of daily "excitement" it's small wonder I crashed spectacularly today. There is only so much adrenalin the body can take, today mine threw its toys out of the proverbial pram and dictated that I spend several hours sat on the sofa only moving my rm to drink tea, and perhaps my fingers to type in a kind of quasi-recovery. Blogging is without doubt the best sort of therapy there is.

I've read many articles today, several about the depressing events in France. One of the reasons I blog is because I do believe we all have a right to an opinion, and whilst tact and diplomacy is central to responsible debate there is never, ever an excuse for violence in disagreement. The massacre in the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo is indefensible, no matter what your religious beliefs are. The pen is, in the long term, far more powerful than the gun. (By pen I include typed words, and the power of social media.) The #JeSuisCharlie hashtag has spread across the whole world via social media platforms and millions unite to condemn the recent horrific events.

It is an important, valuable and human response to tragedy and extremism, but also evidence of something more - that whilst the articles written and cartoons drawn in responsive solidarity to these events demonstrate how the human race still values intelligent communication there is a parallel modern trend to over-simplify and reduce complex issues to a strap line, a buzz word or a slogan.

Once upon a time the tabloids held sway on such dumbing down of information, but it's ubiquitous now. No news article is complete without a basic infogram to explain "difficult" concepts to viewers, once complex science programmes sport patient, over-smiley presenters who patronisingly barely scratch the surface of the topic they present. Programmes look to their excessively large travel budgets to pull in viewers with as much excitement as possible. Worse still information for children is reduced to "bitesize" snippets of utterly unsatisfying, bland information. Quite honestly it's as insultingly bland and lacking in (intellectual) nutrition as a children's menu in family pub restaurant!

And I'm increasingly concerned that our children are offered less and less substantial information. We frequently hear how children are reading and writing less, becoming more reliant on Social Media by the day. Yet according to Helen Skelton, writing for Parentdish it is academics who are putting children off reading. That is rubbish. It is the modern trend towards a superficial, bland and insultingly unsatisfying way in which children are spoken too and interacted with - online, via television and through too many "fast food for kids" type books. Coupled with overly-full schedules there simply isn't the time, or information to really get "stuck in"to a topic anymore.

When was the last time you watched CBBC? Seventy-five per cent of its programmes are utter drivel, relying on the basic assumption that anyone under the age of fourteen has no interest in, or capability of understanding anything beyond vapid discussion of "Celebs", music or fashion. Yet children have a habit of rising to expectations. They are born curious, expecting no limits to their learning. Learning is eagerly anticipated and expected - but we are increasingly closing the door on intelligent discussion and reasoning and lowering the ceiling on their potential understanding.

This "dumbing down" of information and reduced expectation of understanding is everywhere. We teach to exams offering a finite body of knowledge as a means to an end. In our busy, hectic lives we rely on soundbites to inform ourselves of world events and make knee jerk assumptions based on precious little information. This is not only limiting our involvement, understanding and experience of life but is potentially dangerous, as evidenced by the inflammatory comments all over social media over the past couple of days. We condemn the terrorists who commit such atrocities but they too are probably responding to an over-simplification of their own world view. And in response, we distil events into a couple of hashtags on social media.  Yet tolerance requires education, and education requires the opportunity to learn.

It's time to stop selling ourselves short intellectually. Look beyond the headline, stray from the herd and inform, analyse, reflect and think critically. Don't jump on the latest hashtag bandwagon unless you are willing to delve deeper and investigate the underlying realities. #JeSuisCharlie is an excellent example of how we swallow the soundbite yet fail to think critically beyond it. Horror at such appalling events shouldn't require support for, or identification with what in actual fact were pretty racist and (to many) offensive cartoons. Too many confuse it with a license to insult.

Without knowledge and understanding, freedom of speech is worth little. A new generation is growing up believing that high speed, reactive social interaction is not only appropriate but the only way to interact. Yet tit deprives us of critical response and makes conflict more likely.

Nous sommes Charlie. But nous sommes so much more.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Rockin' Robin

This is not a paid post, I wasn't even asked to write about our forthcoming holiday at Potter's Leisure Resort. But sometimes, a spontaneous "Thank you, please keep doing what you do best!"  is needed. Just because.

I love Robins, we have a few tame ones here and they are really friendly. Too friendly in fact as our black panther cat managed to catch my husband's favourite last winter, much to his dismay! Robins do indeed "rock", they are wonderful birds but this post is more about the paper kind of "robin", that frequently enclosed in Christmas cards!

Photo courtesy of Jacob Spinks on Flickr Creative Commons 

We have received (and sent) fewer and fewer Christmas cards in recent years. Those I most enjoy receiving contain the "round robin" updates frequently sent to fill us in on last year's events. The modern version comes complete with colour photos, even the odd url to add detail. Those we receive are usually a lovely read,  I am always pleasantly surprised! Whilst I have been guilty of sending them myself in the past with everything pretty much online now I suspect friends see more than enough of my family the rest of the year, so I abstain. Anyway, to send one you need to write cards, and those left for me by the time the children have selected the best are barely worth sending!

Cartoon from Some eCards

The "round robin" reminds me of my childhood, of 1970s Christmases with appropriately sized Stockings, a meal that didn't break the bank and visits from neighbours to make the day special. We would spend Christmas Eve and Boxing Day with family friends, running riot with their children. I have memories of frenzied cheeseball fights and Twiglet fencing matches. Whilst they tasted pretty rank, there is little play value in Waitrose mini crostinis and filo tartlets.

But is it a good idea to hear all the high points from someone else's family I ask myself? Sometimes ignorance is indeed bliss.

A close friend from Cambridge days always sends fantastic letters, full of their activities over the year. Though one once made me wonder whether I had once again found evidence for some kind of parallel existence.....

OMG? Where did they order their kids from? 

I have to admit the thought of camping makes me laugh hysterically...... the twins would have been up at 5am yelling and running around the campsite and H would be at full throttle until his meds kicked in.... and no-one would be able to eat the same thing! My lot seem incapable of amusing themselves without fighting for approximately half an hour right now. A shared cottage holiday would be interesting too, I suspect we'd probably end up with the place to ourselves after 24 hours!

Jealous, moi?!!!!

But we've now got holidays sussed.

A couple of years back we had a booking error with a holiday, and needed a last minute alternative. We ended up at Potter's Leisure Resort, with no idea what our short break would be like. That booking error was in fact THE most wonderful thing that has happened to us in many years.

Firstly, Potter's caters for my kids. For real. Nowhere else will provide three three-course meals every day with little notice for children on complex exclusion diets. And it's absolutely not an issue. Their staff are incredible, knowing the names of every child within a couple of hours (or maybe that's just mine because they are so loud??!) and there is non-stop all-inclusive entertainment for all ages.

So I'm not writing a Round Robin this year, and I've sent precious few cards. But this year we are once again off to Potter's for a mini break and I just can't wait.

But although there's no "Round Robin" from me, here's a real "Rockin' Robin Chicken"instead. A Christmas photo from last year,which always makes me smile! They say pictures speak a thousand words and this one certainly does, telling not one but several year's worth of news and progress in a single shot.

Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

It's all gone Pear Shaped

This over 40 lark is pretty cool, most of the time. But occasionally age sneaks up and catches you unawares, rocking the thirty-something boat you had been comfortably sailing in and dragging you back to reality. It can be quite a shock.

Of course, age, or "ageing" can be a beautiful thing. And whilst there is certainly a tipping point (I would deny embracing each birthday with the enthusiasm my children do) I have relished aspects of time's inevitable progress. Occasionally it even seems I get "one over" on the years - slipping back into my pre-twin pregnancy jeans a week after delivery was certainly impressive - but what matters most to me, and indeed to most women, is feeling in control. Surprises I can do without.

No longer shopping in GAP sale because your parenting style is less "Toddler Taming up close and personal" and more "stroppy tweens from a distance" is certainly liberating. But that in effect is taking back control a little, identifying with your own needs. So when there is a lack of reciprocal cooperation from the body you have (for the most part) completely ignored for most of the past twenty years it seems reasonable that it should just have been placed "on hold" until you had time to get back to it...... I never thought for a minute it might have started to change - at least a little.  After all , I'm IN it, I would have noticed, right?

Wrong. Gravity has struck back and appears to have taken the first round.

What is particularly infuriating, is that this hasn't crept up on me in a slow, inevitable process over a couple of years. Neither have I gained weight. It is simply a case of Middle-Aged Spread. Or more precisely.... Middle-Aged Spreading Out.

Photo courtesy of Kiran Foster via Flickr Creative Commons

I'm not that vain, I almost never weigh myself and barely cast a glance in any available mirror. I don't have time - or the remotest inclination. But I do expect the "me" that looks back when I DO choose to focus beyond the varifocals at my reflection to be somewhat familiar.

Is that totally unreasonable?

So yesterday I was brought up short (literally) as I saw myself in our full length landing mirror, actually pausing long enough to register the image reflected. At 5'9" I'm a pretty lanky sort of girl, the GAP "Long and Lean" variety when it comes to jeans. But yesterday for a fleeting moment I thought someone had swapped our mirror for a fairground one as I appeared shorter and, well... with a rear end more J-Lo than previously. More "pear" than usual you might say..... more "Curvy" than "Long and Lean" at any rate.

A quick weight check reassured me that I really hadn't been scoffing chocolate biscuits whilst sleep walking, so I am forced to face the inevitable. That it's time to start telling people tall and skinny is SO last year and I'm embracing my inner Pear. Booty is Bootiful.

Now I just need to book into that Latin dance class......

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

5 Common Misconceptions about Christmas

Seriously? Christmas? Already?

Those who know me know I have very mixed feelings about Christmas. I was supremely fortunate to have enjoyed many cosy traditional Christmases as a child and dislike the overtly consumer focussed festivities of today. (Whatever possessed John Lewis to blast Carols in their store yesterday clearly wasn't Christmas Spirit, since it's not even December!) Constantly torn between wanting a "perfect Christmas" and resenting the fact that it's yet another set of tasks and responsibilities I usually spend December flitting between states of anxiety and excitement.....

So what would my advice be for a successful Christmas?
  • Know your limits - and your limitations!
  • Start early  
  • Keep everything low key ... and 
  • Acknowledge the common misconceptions that invariably lead to disappointment! 
Failing all that wear a paper bag for the whole of December and pretend its not happening.

5 Common Misconceptions about Christmas

1) It's Merry

This really depends on how well stocked the drinks cupboard is. The true Spirit of Christmas might not be found there but by 1am on Christmas morning - when your little overexcited insomniacs are *finally* asleep - sipping Santa's brandy hardly cuts it.

I find underestimating the distress involved in actually making it to the Big Day is my biggest failing. I peak too early - the Christmas Spirit hits about mid December, but the unbelievable sense of relief when I know everything is done leaves little room for merriment. I'm exhausted, utterly burnt out and stumble incoherently through Christmas Day with or without alcohol!

2) Giving is better than Receiving

Tough one this. I do wholeheartedly agree, since I derive huge pleasure from planning, wrapping and giving gifts at Christmas. But context is essential. I'm not worried whether I receive any wrapped gifts, our family don't really give to adults but receiving a "day off", an invitation to dinner where someone else cooks or an unexpected bottle of Prosecco would win hands down. Every time.

3) It's precious Family Time

This one really makes me smile. In many ways I guess it is, and we've had our chocolate box Christmas moments in our time. But it's only "precious" if "family" is in small doses, carefully spaced and with strictly moderated interaction. And that's the immediate resident family. Adding anyone beyond that needs meticulous consideration as too much exposure to the usual fighting and squabbling that is commonplace here is likely to leave lasting damage. Don't get me wrong, my family love each other dearly - but from a distance, through closed doors and as long as they are not coerced into a long, drawn out meal around the same table.

4) It's the Thought that Counts

I think this one depends hugely on just how well conceived that "thought" was. A last minute "It'll do!" spark at 4.30pm on Christmas Eve is unlikely to count for much at all, but anyone giving serious consideration and bravely going one step beyond socks for him, smellies for her and something from Poundland for the kids (you know who you are!) scores highly in my eyes. Most of us have far too much and want for little, having someone take the time to choose something as a gift is genuinely giving so much more. First World problem it might be, but it's easier to solve than you might think. Give a night's babysitting for a busy family, a hot meal for an elderly neighbour or a week of dog walks to a working couple. For me it's TIME that counts. Thinking counts when it involves consideration of others.

5) It's White

Seriously? WHEN was the last time you had snow at Christmas? Unless you live in Northern Scotland, not many UK readers will have had a "White Christmas" in the past twenty years, the last one I remember was 1993. I mean, who associated the Festive Season with the fluffy wet cold stuff that usually falls in January or February? Or March. Or even April - but not December, or at least not for Christmas. 2010 was snowy, and cold - but all melted on 24th December just in time for Christmas.

I guess the only thing in Christmas's favour is that it's marginally better than New Year. But just don't get me started on that one..... Humbug anyone?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Respite, Recovery, Recuperation.... and RAIN!

At home, this weekend was mostly this.....

Endless rain, flooding and a really narked guinea pig who had set his heart on a nice dry day with his patch of grass. Not one to defer to adult suggestion, and with an opinion worthy of a restrained cat he goes out in most weather - rain being his least favourite.

This weekend we had the wonderful opportunity to escape to a beautiful, brand new log cabin in Dunwich. And getting away from it all was *just* what we needed.

It's been a rough Autumn, far too much going on and no sign of the calm after the proverbial storm, so we seized the opportunity and prayed the rain would stop!

It didn't.

But this -

-was definitely better than sitting at home watching the patio flood yet again!

We managed to fit a huge amount in to our weekend away and returned feeling we had actually "had" a weekend.  You know, that feeling where you suspended reality and did something else, something almost forbidden, taking your eye off the ball to have fun. Sometimes, you just have to stick two fingers up at the ToDo lists, the ironing basket, the cooking.... and run.

It's no easy task getting away with our lot. One doesn't sleep before midnight, one wakes before six every.single.morning and any one of the above could wake during the night. There are a million reasons why staying home is usually easier/preferable/safe and I am the worst culprit (being the key facilitator in all adventures) for deciding it's all too much and we should just batten down the hatches and stay put. 

But that would be to miss out on all the memory making opportunities, the family experiences you can reminisce over in future years -not to mention the joke fodder for the months to come. We've certainly collect a few memories this weekend!

One of our highlights, from yesterday's visit to RSPB Minsmere, has to be our sighting of a Bittern - very rare, and yet so close! Apologies for the poor photograph, sadly I only possess an iPhone camera these days. if you are local, and are yet to visit the reserve is a real treat.

H had us in stitches in one of the hides on the reserve. Whilst admiring a twitcher's £5K 600mm lens he asked him if it's for taking Selfies! That boy's sense of humour is going to get him into trouble one of these days.... But we have all got the bird-watching and photography "bug" and will definitely be back.

So aside from the obvious fact that pretending we don't have a real drainage problem in our back garden, and that we might be starting cold weather rice trials soon in our very own paddy fields, there is the salient fact that sometimes "getting away from it all" is actually all you need to do to feel a million times better. So I would certainly add another "R" to that list - REFUELLED.

I haven't seen this little chap so happy for a long time!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A letter to myself ten years hence.

Ever wished you could charter a Time Machine and have a little word with your younger self? You know, maybe warn them that that many candles burning all at once in a biscuit tin on the carpet in your student room was *bound* to end in tears?

No, me neither. It would spoil all the fun.

I mean, knowing the outcome to all those impulsive, frivolous, immature totally EPIC student activities would take the shine off your youth, wouldn't it? Certainly the scarily few frivolous and immature fun I enjoyed as a student stood me in good stead. It was the one time in my life I felt "free", whatever that means.

Going back a little earlier..... maybe. A good dose of common sense and "focus on what matters" might have helped during those fragile teenage years, but let's face it, I did pretty well at school and was never going to win any popularity awards.

But how about ten years hence? What pearls of wisdom would a fifty year old me impart to her younger self? I could cheat and ask my other half, having already hit the big 5-0 he claims to have most of - or at least the essential - answers in life. Perhaps not the ability to act on them but knowledge is power, right?

I suspect my letter from the future would go something like this....

Dear Kate,

Calm down.

Yes, the free-from quiche languishing on your kitchen work top with the surface licked off by an over-enthusiastic cat with delusions of her own importance might indeed seem like the end of the world.... but - really? I mean, what ELSE would happen to it? It's not as if the kids are going to EAT it, is it?

There is at least a 90% chance of it ending up in the bin having been prodded and pushed around on the twins' plates as they bemoan the fact that tea isn't more exciting, whereas you just made your furry friend's day. You ROCK. No cat ever had it so good! And let's face it, there is a greater chance of years of consistent affection from the cat than any of the kids - and cats don't answer back!

And whilst we're at it - the cooking. It has to stop. There are umpteen off the shelf alternatives to make your life easier.... the kids are not even the teensiest bit grateful for the ridiculous amount of time and energy you invest in their future health. Short of gorging themselves on Haribo no amount of cheap fillers and additives in the supermarket free from food is going to cause too much damage - at least in relation to the bigger problems they are likely to face. Face it, the world has *had* it, and trying to save it one houmous pot at a time is likely to have as much impact as posting pictures of cats on Instagram.

And on the subject of making your life easier, you need to step back a little. Surprisingly, few people are held back in life by the lack of a second language anymore. Ever heard of Google Translate? Cut yourself some slack, improve the Health and Safety of your son's teachers and let the languages go. Let him drop French and his overall behaviour in school might move back into the yellow.
Green? That might take more of an Act of God. But yellow is a start, yes?

As for all the health cr*p you have going on, I hate to say it, but it isn't going anywhere. You are wasting your time having a nervous breakdown fretting over the various debilitating symptoms so I will let you in to a secret.

There are no answers. Still. Ten years on, no one has a clue. 

Surprised? You shouldn't be. The NHS was going belly-up back in 2014, things are considerably worse now. The light at the end of the tunnel has been well and truly turned off due to budget cuts, but no one's dead yet - and although there is serious room for improvement it could be worse. Possibly. My advice? Get across the Pond and get some serious genetic input whilst your husband has a job and his eyesight.

Oh... and that social life you keep hankering after? It will happen. If only because you are trekking round the country helping with the grandchildren. With allergies.

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