Family meetings…

Sunday 12 January 2020

Small Boy slides into the kitchen, his face alight with excitement…and hope?

“Mum, can I have a corn snake for my birthday?

Well that’s a conversation stopper… at least for a moment! But we are all there. It is Sunday after all, the one day of the week when my culinary skills extend to breakfast. Prom-dress daughter breaks the silence with a simple ‘Whaaaat?’ My eldest starts Google-ing facts about corn snakes and their living habits. Small Boy waves pictures of ‘cute‘ snakes at us. I take a swig of my tea (wondering, not for the first time, why I thought Dry January was such a good idea) and soon something resembling a ‘family meeting’ is in full flow. But I think there may be a family out there that needs a meeting even more than we do today…

Although only one full week in, world events have seen 2020 explode into the annals. Australia continues to battle bush fires that have devastated the ecosystem on a terrifying scale. Tension between the USA and Iran, following the death of General Qasem Soleimani, has been intense and, at its height, the press did debate the likelihood of a third world war. In the UK however, the story that has dominated the news reels has been the decision of Harry and Meghan to ‘step back’ from their roles a senior members of the British royal family.

I am not a major ‘royalist’ but I do have a theory on the national fascination with The Windsors. To my mind, it stems from them being family. They do things that our familes do: they marry, they have babies, they get their first jobs, they celebrate landmark birthdays. The difference is that they do much of it publicly, with the ceremonial glamour and style that wealth and privilege afford. And in this light they become a family we all watch, discuss and debate (and because we all understand families, we all have something to say.) Is it a step to far to suggest that, for centuries, we have had our very own brand of the Kardashians in residence at Buckingham Palace?

More seriously, if we look back to the abdication of Edward 7th, less than 100 years ago, we see how rapidly the royal family have since adapted, reflecting the changing views of society on the family and other issues. Their role, in signalling acceptance of today’s more varied family unit is a really important one for me. The Queen, who has (nominally) ruled our land for 67 years, should also be admired for allowing the younger royals freedom to branch out and work on issue close to their own hearts. Princess Dianna shaking hands with an AIDS patient in the 1980s, Prince Harry more recently speaking out on mental health, both illustrate the power of the younger generation to challenge prejudice, to remove stigma and to make progress. Elizabeth 2nd is a true matriarch and I am sure she will be able to steer the family through their current dilemma, (which appears to be, an admittedly complex twist, on the age old problem of one son deciding that he doesn’t want to ‘join the family business’). In her long reign, the Queen must have dealt with far greater quandaries.

Could she spare some advice for me on the issue of the corn snake I wonder? My eldest announces that they ‘eat mice’. Prom-dress Daughter says ‘no way!’ I venture to ask if ‘any reptiles are vegetarians?’ Small Boy agrees to look into it and we head off to make some enquiries about non-mice-eating pets at the local pet store….

Dry January!

Saturday 4 January 2020

Last year, my January resolution was ‘No Man-uary.‘ Not the greatest of challenges I have to confess, as the first 31 days of 2019 did not often call upon me to beat a trail of eligible suitors from the door! So for 2020, I have taken on a much sterner test, ‘Dry January’

‘Dry January’ is not a new concept, indeed the first campaign, by Alcohol Concern, occurred in January 2013 and gathered momentum, as adults rallied to recover from the huge Christmas hangover. On our shores alone last year, the British Liver Trust report that approximately 1 in 10 of the drinking population signed up to a ‘Dry January’. And the phenomenon, of giving your body a 31-day holiday from booze, has spread globally too. Alcohol Change estimate that around 20 percent of downloads for its Dryanuary-tracking app are outside the U.K.

Yet I had previously thought it a ludicrous notion.

‘January is bleak enough‘; ‘Parenthood is tough enough’; ‘I don’t drink that much anyway?’; ‘Isn’t a daily glass of red wine good for your health?

were all reasons I’d used to opt-out. I reassured myself that I could do it if I wanted to, it was simply that I’d chosen not to join in. But this year, as I gaze upon the mountain of spent bottles in my blue bin, I decide that it is time. Time to ditch the hangover and time to see if 4-plus weeks without alcohol really do make me feel any different. Will it reduce the waistline? Will it boost my energy? Will it improve my sleep patterns? And, above all, will I be able to do it?

I have to say, I am feeling pretty determined, if only to silence the worrying chorus of incredulity coming my way as I embark upon my quest.

“I’ll believe that when I see it!” laughs Small-Boy, as I announce my resolution. “A fiver says that you will never manage it!” adds my eldest.

Even the Tesco delivery man is doubtful,

Are your sure love?” he gasps, unloading the cans of Beck’s Blue Alcohol Free Lager, “How about starting next week?”

Hey I’ve already done 4 days. I have survived our annual girls’ night out at the Theatre without a glass of fizz and I have coped with our first nose piercing (Prom-dress Daughter) revived only by a strong cuppa! I have also drawn upon my experiences of other alcohol-free episodes, such as three 9-month pregnancies without a drop of liquor. Back then, my (now Ex-) hub would brighten our evenings by purchasing lots of exotic, non-alcoholic drinks. His thinking was, if you feel like a drink, have something exciting and delicious that’s alcohol free to choose. And so that is my plan. Alcohol-free beer in week 1, to ease me into the ways of abstinence and then enjoy exploring the wonderful world of elderflower presse, ‘aqua libre’, mocktails, smoothies …

Next week, it’s true, I am back to work, but bring it on! Me and my trusty Beck’s Blue have got this….

 

And so the year ends…

Sunday 29 December 2019

As I pull into Norton Canes, the service station on the M6 Toll Road, it seems as good a place as any to reflect back on 2019 and put together my final post of the year.

It is homeward bound after a lovely Christmas break in Oxford and Cambridge. My old university stomping ground as it happens, but on this occasion, just exciting to be visiting friends and family, as opposed to wandering around the dreaming spires. The closest we come to anything you could deem an ‘Oxbridge activity’ is breaking out of a Cold War themed Escape Room (with 5 minutes to spare.) We are the ‘Squad of Seven’ – move over Cambridge Five!

The Toll Road on the return journey, now that is my guilty pleasure! I loathe queuing. I am really not a patient waiter. In my time I’ve driven huge (and probably time-costly) detours to avoid the grim misery of gridlocked traffic. So paltry charge of £5.60 for the utter luxury of 27 miles of well-lit motorway, wide lanes and a joyous lack of other road users seems a very small price to pay! Eventually, of course, it will be a return to the endless cone-lined crawl of the 50 mph zone on the M6, but a coffee break delays that for another half an hour, so here goes…let’s review 2019. I take a deep breath, I fire up my blog on the laptop, click on ‘January’ and step back in time.

It is not just the end of the year in a couple of days, but also the end of a decade. As I re-read my blog however, re-visiting each month in turn, I realise that one year is more enough for me to look back upon. I try to decide if, as the midnight bells chime on Tuesday, 2019 will it count as a good year or one to regret? But there’s no answer to that…because it’s neither. What it is, is just one full calendar year… 365 unforgettable days of ups and downs. And I like that. There have been moments of great happiness; fun times, cloud-9 times, laugh-until-you-cry times. Equally, I’ve shed a fair few tears and I re-live days of disappointment, even sadness. I’ve met new people and I’ve had to say ‘farewell’ to others. I’ve relished new challenges and I’ve battled with the drudgery of daily routines. I think it’s called life! It strikes me that we don’t actually need significant temporal landmarks such as years and decades to make sense of our lives. In actual fact every day matters. And that is true of any year. The difference for me in 2019 is that so many more days have been captured and will be remembered. Because I have written their stories down and that’s one thing that is not going to stop.

Exactly one year ago, the blog was my New Year’s Resolution. Little did I know how much I was going to love it … just love writing again. It’s not enough to tell you that it’s fun to have a record of the year to re-read and share. It has been a complete joy. I start with a blank screen. I set off. I rarely know where I’m going or what I want to say. The words just dance on the page, then blend and reform into thoughts, sentences and stories. It feels exciting, it feels creative and it has been, without question, astonishingly therapeutic. I recommend it to anyone. Whether it’s building basket ball stands (Slam dunk – my most popular post of the year) or conversations with your friends that transform your outlook on life (Single parenthood necessity) any day or event can make a memorable tale.

Carrying on with my blog, that’s a definite ‘Yes’ for me. I would also add writing to my previous tips of running and reading, for any stretched and stressed parent. All three pastimes are free and flexible. They fit around you and your schedule and are fantastic for health and well being. Hey, reading, running and writing – the veritable 3R’s of sanity, for people of all shapes and sizes.

Glancing up from my reveries, I notice that it’s getting quite dark. I drain the last of my coffee and reluctantly, resign myself to the fact that my therapy time is up for today. If I ever want to get home again, I need to face the M6 ….

Its the most wonderful night of the year …

Sunday 22 December 2019

The best moment of any school holiday is the first Sunday night. In place of the usual grim evening of ironing, of planning lessons, of finishing reports, of last minute homework, of sorting out dinner money, bus passes and gym kits … in place of all of this is just an excited glow of freedom. Pressure and deadlines melt away and two weeks of seemingly endless time and opportunity spread out in front of me.

Christmas is a busy time of course and I still have much present purchasing and wrapping to do. I still have to brave the food shop for my contributions to this year’s big family Christmas dinner.(Thankfully, for all, I am put on desserts and instructed to ‘buy them’. Surely even I cannot go wrong with this one?) And my teens are a popular trio at the moment, which means lots of ferrying around to meals, movies, skate-dates and parties But compared to my usual day job …

So will I be doing any school work at all in the next 2 weeks? Of course I shall. But it certainly wont be in the next 10 days and it will only be finite and manageable tasks. I intend to start back in January, replenished and refreshed. And the experts agree with me. In her 2015 article, “It’s official, teachers must relax over Christmas to avoid burnout” , Sarah Marsh examines the evidence from a City University, London study of 90 teachers which concludes that time off allows teachers to “restore their emotional energy” . Those who fail to switch off and continue to worry about work were found to have made far less good a recovery from the demands of the term than others. Relaxation should be our quest and amidst all the tips from the teaching and health care professional come many of my familiar lifelines: reading, exercise, family time, trash TV ….and laughter.

A glance at the time tells me I have an hour to kill before I collect Prom-dress daughter from her a friend’s house. I think feet up, a mince pie and a bit of Daniel Craig sounds just perfect ….

Christmas carols, Christmas chaos….

Monday 16 December 2019

The last few days have been a hectic mix of the familiar; traditional Christmas carols concerts, parties and drinks, with the unfamiliar and definitely less festive challenge of University interviews for my eldest.

Friday takes us to Yorkshire. The University grilling takes almost 3 hours. The drive home, along a flood hit M62 even longer. The alpha-mothers in the parent room, whose knowledge of UKCAT scores and entry criteria for every Medical school in the land is encyclopedic, have left me feeling like a total failure as a mum. I am agitated by the motorway queues and lane-closure confusion. And my lovely girl is clearly deflated by her interview. Nonetheless upon our return, she summons up the energy to don her party dress and step out for the evening, and I rally enough reserves to drive Prom-dress daughter to another social gathering and feed Small Boy, before heading gratefully to bed.

My eldest gets to sleep somewhat later than this. She is home not long after midnight. And I am sure of the time because she stumbles into my room upon her return, a little the worse for wear, switches on the light and slurrily gushes ,

I really, really love you mum!”

I reciprocate the sentiments, persuade her that now not the best time to go and visit her brother, and steer her off to bed.

To her credit, by 10am on Saturday morning, both she and Small-boy are at Victoria Station in Manchester to play 2 hours of Christmas carols and songs with their local band. Quite a few of my family gather to listen, over cheery cups of Costa coffee and a catch -up on the latest news. It’s a lovely event that stirs the heart and replenishes the seasonal community cheer. I stay in town for a number of afternoon/evening drinks with friends and, as Sunday dawns and my eldest and I now pack our bags for a trip to University interview number 3, I have only a mildly banging head to contend with. We hit the motorway again and are checking into our hotel by 5pm.

Our Monday interview starts at an astonishingly early 8am but again it is 3 hours before my eldest emerges. This one is ‘the worst yet’ and feeling pretty sad and despondent we slink back to the car and set the satnav for home. I feel that sickening terror that every parents knows of wondering how we will cope with the disappointment if all the hard work, and I’d make that 3 years of hard work, ends with rejection and the end of my daughter’s dreams. But today it takes me less time than usual to shift this paralyzing dread. Because… she is such an amazing, driven and talented girl. And that means lots of alternatives, lots of choices and lots of ways to have a bright and happy future. Hey, at least when she’s tipsy, my girl ‘really,really loves her mum‘, I’ll make sure of it !

Even if I hadn’t cheered myself up, back home the usual chaos is enough to distract anyone. Prom-dress daughter and Small Boy both have a Christmas concert to play in … at 6:30pm. In a last minute change of plan however, Small Boy has also been selected to make his debut on the school basketball team, in another venue…ending at 5:30pm. Fortunately it’s Monday. My mum arrives for piano lessons. We shelve these and she agrees instead to feed the girls and drop Prom-dress daughter at the concert hall. Without stopping for food, I head out to the basketball tournament to cheer on my tall, gangly bean of a boy. It just so happens that the venue for this sporting spectacle is about 3 minutes from my mum’s house…and I have a key. At the final claxon tolls, at 5:45 pm, I whisk him, off to mum’s. She is not there, because … you’ve got it … she is at my house! Small Boy changes with the speed of Clark Kent himself, I thrust 2 packets of crisps and a bottle of Lucozade at him and we speed off to the concert.

We arrive with moment to spare. Small Boy’s grinning face races off to take his place in the orchestra. Prom-dress daughter, already in situ, gives us a smirk and a wave. I sink gratefully into my seat and the carols begin. ‘Silent Night‘ … how lovely … and if only….

Poor Old Christmas Cards!

Sunday 8 December 2019

Henry Cole, founding director of the V & A, may have sent the first Christmas card as long ago as 1843. But tonight, as I sit down to pen my annual festive greetings, the reaction of my teens make me feel like the historic exhibit in the house!

Is my address book on the desk?” I shout up the stairs, as I prepare to settle down with three shiny packs of new cards, stamps and nice pen. Small Boy, who is in the study dashing off a bit of last minute homework, pops his head over the bannister.

What’s an address book?” he puzzles back.

Hilarious!’ I mutter, stomping up the stairs to ‘look for it myself’. But, as I dwell upon his words, it strikes me that I have never bought one for any of my children. Which means that they have never asked for one. Which means that the innocent address book, at least in hard copy, could well be becoming obsolete. And that is where I start feeling pretty outdated.

When it eventually turns up, I view my address book affectionately … as an endangered species in fact. I carry it carefully down to the lounge and open the page at ‘A’. True the corners are a little dog-eared but I smile at addresses crossed out and updated many, many times for some of my oldest friends. It’s a flashback to other times and places. It’s a visual reminder of past chapters of life and memories happy and sad. It’s …. I don’t actually have much time to feel wistful because my eldest now appears. She gives me a kindly smile

Aww, are you actually going to sit there going through your little book and writing cards? You are so cute!”

I now feel like an utter curiosity. Is it really so unusual to see someone spending an evening penning Christmas cards to their friends … and addressing them? Am I really such a quaint relic of a bygone age?

A glance at social media would suggest that I might be. Every year, the number of folk announcing to the world that they are ‘donating to charity‘ instead of sending festive cards grows longer. Many do this in a way that raises valuable awareness of, and funds for, great organisations. But I suspect that some are too-busy people and a part of me wishes that, for variety, a few would boldly say ‘Look I just can’t be bothered to write any cards this year. I think it’s all a bit pointless. Hope you understand!’ No-one would mind.

Poor old cards are not the only wasteful and unnecessary extravagance of the yuletide season? They do at least re-cycle, unlike the plastic tat in in our Christmas crackers. Poor old cards are not single handedly keeping funds from the charity coffers? You could, for example, cry ‘I am buying 3 fewer bottles of Prosecco and cutting out the tubs of Quality Streets this year, to give more money to good causes’ But we don’t often hear that one!

But card writing does eat into the evening hours. Ironically, it is said that Henry Cole designed the card as a way to save time in the hectic festive period. Would he, I ponder, have been keener than me to move with the times and speed things up in the 21st century with a witty e-card? I can only wonder! Do I think that we ought to give up a bit of time for card writing? Do I worry that if we abandon this tradition, we just replace it with … nothing of value and yet more consumerism and shopping? To be honest I really don’t. Call me an old romantic, but I chime with the opening scene ofLove Actually and believe that,

Love actually is all around‘.

I know that most people are busy at this time of year with social activities, making things magical for their kids and spending time with loved ones. So given this, why do I, even when my teens think I am a complete dinosaur, resolve to carry on penning and posting my seasonal cards. Simply this, I quite enjoy it. For me it is just one of our nicer Christmas traditions. A great way to quickly touch base with old friends and keep them in my thoughts. Each year I settle down with a nice drink, a cheesy movie, my pile of cards and of course my faithful address book. It’s familar, its comforting and … it’s time for me to get back to it! I am still on ‘A’ and that last posting date won’t wait ….