Tuesday 22 November 2011

New Coat

My first full winter in the UK I needed a proper coat suitable for the English weather.  Not entirely sure I know what this is now and I certainly didn't know what that was then given the broad spectrum of weather you are likely to encounter in the country during the months of October - March. 

In Colorado this is an easy questions to answer.  You either need a triple down for the blizzard like conditions or no coat at all.  I've worn shorts in February in that state but of course that was back when my blood was thicker and I was foolish.

In Germany you just needed a raincoat.  All year round.  End of.  You might add a scarf in January but you would definitely need to hang it up to dry every night.

In the winter of 1997-98 I was working in London on Old Bond Street above the brand new flag ship Calvin Klein store.  And I had money to burn.  During my lunch hour I popped in and invested in a gorgeous dark charcoal grey wool coat.  I paid nearly the same as my rent for this garment but I figured it was an investment for life.  It had deep pockets and was double breasted to keep the wind out (when I could get it buttoned).  It went with everything.  It could be fancy or casual.  It has served me well.

I very shortly lost the unsecured belt.  I knew that was going to be a problem when I bought the coat but choose to ignore this miniscule flaw in my investment.  I have stitched and restitched the lining of the coat more than a half a dozen times.  I lost nearly all the buttons and the replacements don't match exactly.  The arms are pilled and given I've gained considerable weight since then the coat hasn't actually buttoned up for some time.  Although I blame this on the ill fitting buttons we all know that isn't really the underlying cause.  The hem had to be repaired last winter just before the coats last outing and I knew then that after 14 years of dedciated service it was time to retire the old girl.

Which of course meant that I had to buy a new coat.  I hear squeals of delight out there from my shopaholic faction.  Regrettably, I am not a member.  Shopping is a competitive sport worthy of an Olympic gold medal best left to well trained experts.  I am not one of those.  I find no joy in shopping.  In fact it is high on my stress trigger list and if I didn't ever have to do it, I wouldn't.

This, however, was inevitable and necessary.  I entered the shop with my shields up and defenses on stun.  I was on a mission.

A long army green puffer coat was too small and made me look like a mouldy marshmallow and I swear those ladies I was sharing a mirror with were laughing at me.  The black shawl coat with the faux fur collar was about 4 sizes too big so it looked like a superhero cape and it wasn't lined so was going to be about as useful as a chocolate teapot in the dead damp cold of January. 

Nearing the point of throwing in the towel I found a long taupe down coat which fit perfectly and didn't actually look all that badly.  I knew if I hesitated I would freeze this winter so I headed for the till.  On my way there I also found a lovely winter satchel which I just couldn't live with out for the bargain basement price of £29.  SOLD!  It would match my new coat I practiced saying for my husband's benefit.

I put the coat on outside after removing the tags and stuffed the old coat into my shopping bag.  So much for respecting the old.  It looked great.  It felt great.

Soon I was sweating like a pig on a spit.  I found myself wishing I'd covered my entire body in anti-perspiration.  I removed the coat and carried it around.  It was a bit like carrying a king sized duvet.  This morning I took the dog for a walk.  I put on the coat and 5 minutes into the walk I had to remove it due to a reoccurence of the perspiration. 

I had executed my plan for a new coat and ended up buying a double sleeping bag.  The weather better turn to sub zero very soon or I will be needing to buy another less effective coat this weekend.  But the satchel is great!

Monday 21 November 2011

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost... I am hopeless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in this same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in... it's a habit... but, my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
--Portia Nelson

Friday 14 October 2011

Aunt Helen

On October 12, 2011, at 1:30 am my Aunt Helen lost her battle with brain cancer having fought valiant battle.

Aunt Helen represents a time in my life when everything was good and nothing could ever go wrong.  Adults were perfect up on their pedestals and children had no other purpose than to create mischief and keep their parents on their toes.  My mother and father were still married.  My aunts were are still married to my uncles.  Family dinners at my Grandmothers house were raucous chaotic events filled with love and laughter and usually a fair bit too much to drink (for the adults).  The tribe of 10 cousins encouraged each other to climb higher into the trees and set various things on fire.  Christmas Eve was magical and I wish so hard to be able to freeze that time and for none of it to ever change.

But the world kept spinning and it all spun out of control and nothing was ever the same again.  By the time I was 12 my parents had divorced.  Shortly, thereafter, Aunt Helen and Uncle Ed divorced. Uncle Bob and Aunt Sandy remained married but moved miles away.

Family gatherings became fraught with the tension of custody battle and alimony payments and we were never ever all together again.  The tribe of cousins flew out into the chaos of the world and went on to create some of our own chaos in other places.  We've struggled with addictions, broken marriages, custody battles and demons.  Every one of us has our own children.  But that time of childish abandoned joy ceased a long time ago.

I haven't spoken to Aunt Helen for years and years.  We had a bit of a falling out when I was in university which makes my grief somehow hollow and shameful.  I've seen her across rooms at matches (weddings), hatches (christenings) and dispatches (funerals) but more than a mere nod and smile little passed between us.  I wish I could have told her that she represented all that was good in my childhood and that she made the best chile con carne in the world!  Her laughter will be missed.

Monday 3 October 2011


Joyce Elaine (Carson) Smith
 October 3 1921-February 7 2005

Today would have been her 90th birthday.  I have been without her compassionate wisdom and gentle guiding light for 6 years.  I miss her everyday and every year I stumble today.

Monday 14 February 2011

My Valentine

He's a very clever man.  He's funny (although perhaps not as funny as he thinks he is....) but he can always make me laugh.  He's built our son (and more for himself probably) the most amazing scalectrix track along with buildings like you have ever seen before!  Our daughter thinks he hangs the moon every night just for her.  He's crap at DIY.  He can't remember beyond the next 5 minutes so he doesn't plan.  Or rather he plans but it never happens according to the plan.  He loves gadgets and can teach even me how to use just about anything although I must admit I would prefer he would just do it for me.   He can fix any car anywhere no matter what breaks.  He makes a wicked creme brulee for Christmas dinner every year. He makes me coffee every single morning. And I adore him.  He is perfectly imperfect and perfect for me.

He's the best valentine in the whole wide world!

Monday 31 January 2011

New Month Resolutions

The start of a new year brings such optimism. Everyone dreams of fresh starts and new beginnings. They’ll be a better person.  They'll at least look like a better person. On 31st December, just about everyone I know makes some declaration that the coming year will be so different than the previous year.

And yet, fate, destiny, the hands of time doesn’t really know that the year has ended and a new one has begun. The sun set that night and will rise the very next morning on the New Year Day the same way it did on the old year the day before. It is also incredibly egotistical to think that just because 365 days have passed the next 365 days will be better because the stroke of midnight has encouraged you to declare it so.

Maybe just the act of wishing it were so may in fact make it so. If you don’t wish for being fitter you will never get fitter. The activities required to transforming a doughy blob to a svelte form require more than thoughts, of course, for without the thoughts and desires it would never happen. In fact, it is indeed the very determination driven from those desires that keep you running down the road in a driving, freezing rain or sweating in a gym that smells like dirty socks surrounded by others who have clearly been more successful in achieving their desires.

And yet, here I find myself nearing the end of the first month of the year and I’m not entirely certain I can even remember the resolutions I set for myself which clearly means I haven’t managed to keep a single one unless of course I wanted it so badly it has seeped into my sub consciousness and I am achieving without realizing. Somehow I doubt that.

I read somewhere that you were more likely to stick to your new year’s resolutions if you didn’t tell anyone what they were. I can honestly say that my survey size has proven this to be incorrect. Of course, the size may prove to be statistically invalid since it is just me. I consider it accurate enough to inform me that in the future I would do better to shout them out from a bullhorn in the middle of rush hour in Paddington Station (or Grand Central if you live over there).

I am disgruntled that this New Year so far hasn’t been much better than the start of last year. Whilst I am not bed ridden just struggling to breath from the fog of pneumonia, my husband’s car has died a death when we could least afford it and has put to bed any of our desires to avoid the 20% VAT penalty. Having received several boxes of chocolates as gifts my desire to lose weight was derailed. My day job consumes my thoughts and my writing struggles to find the wee little spaces of creativity that hide out in the darkness of a bad day at the office. I have managed to adhere to my pledges to just make sure that I clean my face every night before bed on at least 4 occasions. Yes, that’s pathetic but some nights I am just too exhausted. Or forgetful.

So far, 2011 is sucking. Major big time.

And yet I am not willing to give up on 2011 just yet. I think the problem lies in the length of time: 365 days, 52 weeks, 12 months. It all just seems like plenty of time to do all and be all we want to be. But you find yourself at the end of every year wondering where the time went.

So let’s break it down into more bite size chunks. Why can’t we celebrate the end of the month as an opportunity for a new beginning? Just imagine at the end of every month you sweep all that didn’t go so well that month into a metaphorical rubbish bin. That was then. Bye bye.

At midnight (or as late as you can manage to stay awake) of the last day of every month (keeping in mind the next day is more than likely a work day), you celebrate with a wee glass of bubbly (or hot milk) and imagine how much better the next month is going to be. Affirm your goals, aims, desires. Validate that the plan you’ve got for getting there is achievable. Make any necessary alterations and get busy. You might want to skip the fireworks. Or maybe not.

Bring on February! Happy New Month!

Sunday 16 January 2011

You call that an airplane?

Kosice, Slovakia in January? I can hear you all snickering at me. What was I thinking?

First off, let me just say I had to go. For work. Really.

Ok, so the choice of date was all mine but that is partly due to massive scheduling conflicts over the last 6 months and there was a genuine fear that if I didn’t get out there now I might never get out there. And I needed to be here.

But where exactly is here?

Kosice is the 2nd largest city in Slovakia and is only the far eastern end of the country near the borders of Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria.

To get here I flew Austrian Airlines from London, Heathrow to Vienna. Austrian Airlines deemed it acceptable on that leg of my journey to offer me a stale piece of neither sweet nor savoury nor fresh nor stale but rather just bland piece of white bread (although I use that term loosely). One bite was enough for me to decide I would work on my weight loss this week.

At Vienna airport, we had to make a dash for our connecting flight since we were late departing Heathrow (some things never change). As we went through security it appeared that there was considerable confusion over what the procedure was as each of us were subjected to various and all different degrees of search. Only 1 of us had to remove our shoes (me). Only one of us had to remove both scarves but not jewelry (me). Only 1 of us had to remove our coat (me). Only 1 of us had to take our laptop out of our bag (me). Only one of us had to remove our belt (not me). Only 1 of us had to remove our watch (not me). Only 1 of nearly missed the plane as security decided to unpack and repack their suitcase (eternally grateful, not me). I was feeling fairly secure as we compared notes on the bus taking us to the plane. (NOT!)

And then I walked off the plane. Trouble is I didn’t see a plane. OK, so there was there little tiny propeller type flying machine but this was most certainly not going to be the transportation I would be taking to Slovakia.

If you are new to my blog, you will be unfamiliar with my fear of flying which over the years has gone from bad to worse. I prefer to fly either dumb drunk or heavily sedated. Or perhaps both. This time I was neither and I was regretting that short sighted decision. Worse still, I was travelling with professional colleagues and trying desperately to hang on to any dignity I might have.

I started to tremble and sweat and was having trouble breathing. I merely walked away from my colleagues hoping they wouldn’t notice that the blood had drained from my face and I was struggling to climb the steps onto the aircraft.

By the time I got myself seated, I was in a full blown panic attack. I tried to count. I tried to meditate. I tapped my forehead. I pinched my ear. I tried to breathe deeply in through my nose and out through my mouth. I entertained the possible positive outcome of fainting and losing consciousness. I had lost the power of rational thought. The aircraft taxied for what seemed like miles and miles at which point tears were dripping down my cheeks. I realized a complete stranger was sitting in the seat next to me and he was just staring at me. I looked at him and attempted a smile and then assumed the crash brace position.

Before I my low humming turned to outright screaming we managed to get airborne. I counted to 100 and then I was fine. Now, do not go leaving me comments about how safe it is to fly in airplanes. I know that. If any of this was rational I could get over it by the sheer strength of the statistical evidence. I blame my father. And my husband. And my children.

I have always had a moderate fear of flying but nothing that a fear of flying course taken over 20 years ago helped me to conquer or at the very least submerge. But when I became a mother and my husband and I were flying with our first born child to the USA and I realized the responsibility and danger associated with taking this child on this dangerous flying flame thrower without his explicit permission was very inconsiderate. I then thought really that we should not all 3 be on the same flight together so that at least 2 of us would survive in case of a catastrophic nose drive. Then I thought no I would prefer that all of us go at the same time so no one was left behind. I tried to warn you that none of this was a shining moment of clarity.

My husband makes the entire situation worse. You see, he loves flying. He really wanted to be a pilot when he grew up. Hell, he still wants to be a pilot. He loves watching the Air Crash Investigations on the Discovery channel, especially the night before I have to travel on my own.

My father has always been afraid of flying and I always used to make fun of him. Every single reply he’s ever given me, I now use. Don’t tell him that.

Luckily, the flight was long and after an hour or so we began our descent. I looked out the window and saw the landing gear go down. Actually I saw one small tire. And the panic returned and the whole scenario played itself out all over again although in a much shorter time span. I never noticed before how much more quickly you land than take off. I’ll bet the passenger next to me was grateful for this small mercy as well.

My communist bloc adventure had begun.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Stayover to Surpliced

This past Christmas holiday our family had to depart from our normal traditions and rhythms as one member stepped into a new role and had additional responsibilities.  Sebastian was to take on the full duties of being a chorister and this meant that the rest of the family were going to have to hang on for the ride.  I wasn't sure how this was going to work.  I mean he wasn't going to be home for our Christmas morning.  We were going to have attend more church in a week's time than we have all year.

Now normally, the biggest challenge this would present for me is that I would actually have to change out of my pajamas on Christmas day.  But since our daughter Abigail was born on Christmas Eve, we had the small challenge of a very excited soon to be 7 year old feeling like she was just as special as a chorister who needed to sing.

We dropped Sebastian back off at the boarding house on 20th December.  I saved every tear until he had walked through the door and I had heard it latch.  I thought my heart was breaking and I had one of those moments of doubt that all parents have when they second guess their judgment fearing they aren't doing what is best for their child.  The reality of the situation is I was doing exactly what was best for Sebastian.  It just didn't feel so great to me.  It was really this idea of me needing him more than he needed me starting me in the face and I was struggling to reconcile that in my heart.

We attended 2 carol services during the week.  One was sung just by the boy's which was fabulous because we rarely get to hear the boys sing without the lay clerks (men) accompanying them.  The other carol service was for the community of Windsor Castle.  That includes all the people who work and serve in the castle.  This was nice because the various fractions each did their own reading during the service.  So the Metropolitan Police and the armed forces were represented.  The chapel was packed for both services.

During the week, the boys attended a number of parties hosted in their honour including one by the Governor of the Castle and another by the Dean.  They performed at the City of London Club.  They played LaserQuest and went to the cinema.  Basically, they had a jolly old time and did a fair bit of singing (which is fun for them)!

I wanted to make the birthday celebration extra special since her brother couldn't be with us.  But who really wants to go to a child's birthday party on Christmas Eve?  Luckily, our friends rallied round us.  2 girls who Abigail consider to be her big sisters agreed to come round with their mother despite the inconvenience of the day.  1 of the sisters of another chorister who just happens to be about the same age as Abigail came along and even brought one of her cousins, also of a similar age.  We had the perfect party for a perfect 7 year old.

We then hung out and tried to stay awake for our trip to midnight mass,which isn't exactly at midnight but close.  This was unique because we got to go into the chapel whilst the choir was practising.  We never get to see the choristers practise.  Then the boys went out and the church filled up.

All the lights in the chapel were turned off. And magic happened.  The chapel is truly an ancient historic building.  Originally built in 1348, it is the final resting place of King Henry VIII and Jane Seymour amongst many others.  Because it is part of our daily life, I sometimes take this place for granted.  Doesn't everyone have an royal chapel in which to attend church?

But the lights have always been on.  Or the light has always streamed through the glorious stain coloured glass.  Never has it been dark.  So dark.

From the front of the quire, a lone chorister's voice sang out the first verse of "In Royal David's City".   You could have heard a pin drop.  It was one of the sweetest and purest sounds I have ever heard.

The choristers then processed down the centre aisle and sang like angels to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  There were not many dry eyes in the house.  Everyone had goose bumps.

Back down at the school, all the choristers had bags of goodies waiting for them on their beds and then it was quick into the sack so Father Christmas could come and go before they had to rise at 8:30 for the morning Christmas service.  Unfortunately, we had to get home and get Abigail into bed before Father Christmas could do his duty here.  7:30 came early for us and we were back at the school by 10.

After the morning matins we had Christmas lunch in the school dining hall.  I must confess it was odd sharing this most intimate of family holidays with acquaintances and some strangers.  But we were all in the same boat and we made the very best of it.  Luckily, we had a great table of fun and funny people and we laughed a lot and drank a lot and just generally had a wonderful time.

At 3, it was time for our final trip up the 100 steps (which just for the record is 123 steps).  I figure I actually lost weight over the holiday because I climbed those blooming steps so many times.  For this service we were allowed back into the quire (which is where we normally sit for evensong but because of the Christmas crowds we had spent the week sitting in the nave).  And to be honest, we were back to the staunch choir supporters.  The crowds were gone.  For the most part, it was the choir and the chorister's parents.  And they sang just for us.  And they sang beautifully.  And my pride bubbled over and dribbled out of my eyes and down my cheeks.

And when our son walked down the steps with us for the last time of 2010, I reflected on what an amazing journey this has been for both him and us. 

In February with a bit of good luck and a fair wind, Sebastian will be surpliced.  He does have to complete an assessment.  If he is successful at the final assessment it means he will transition from a novice to a full chorister.  He will get to wear a white robe over his red cassock.  He will get to wear a red tie (which only the 17 or so full chorister in the entire school wear).  He will have a special tie when he leaves the school that he can wear in adulthood.  Of course with all that, it means he will also board more.  He will have the additional responsibilities of Sunday services which will mean he will now have to board on Saturday nights and we will only have him home from 1-4 on Sundays.

But this is what he has been working towards for the last 18 months.  It is what he wants and he is darn good at it.  I just can't believe the little man he is becoming.  I am so proud.

When I dropped Sebastian off at boarding school Sunday night I asked him what was his favourite bit of the Christmas holiday.  I wasn't surprised when he cited the Christmas stay over.  Well, that's about the end of my guilt trip then.

Monday 10 January 2011

Roller Disco Queen

I took a sweet trip down memory lane yesterday.  My children went to a roller disco party and I was instantly transported back to the certain roller rink in Lakewood, Colorado on Alameda.

From the age of 14, my posse of girlfriends and I would spend an entire afternoon doing our hair and getting dressed for the big night that was Saturday night at the roller rink.  All week we whispered our plans, passed notes and agonised over what we would wear, who would be there and whose parents had drawn the short straw for transportation arrangements.  If we were lucky someone's older sibling had gotten permission to use the car but that rarely happened.  Clearly, we needed supervision.

We would be dropped off after feathering our hair (which could take hours) and spraying it down (a tornado couldn't move that hair).  Usually our makeup had to go on after we left home so it was straight into the ladies' room or I would try to plan on getting ready at someone else's house so my mom couldn't see how much makeup I put on.  Or how tight my trousers were.

I had saved every penny from babysitting and working at Wendy's Hamburgers to buy myself a pair of roller skates.  They were white with hot pink wheels and hot pink laces.  I loved those skates.  Every Sunday morning I inspected them for scuff and promptly applied white polish if there were any scuffs.

I was a pretty good skater but never brilliant.  I could skate backwards and go in circles but speed scared the living daylights out of me.  Still does!  I was always very impressed with those boys who could skate really well but they always ended up with the girls who could skate very well too.  That wasn't me.

It was a good night if the boy you fancied from the side asked you to skate with him during one of the night's 4 couple skates.  I didn't get asked very often.  One of the 4 skates was always ladies' choice where the girls could ask the boys.  Usually I fancied the best looking boy and by the time I worked up the courage to approach him, the boy I wanted to skate with had been swept away by someone else.  I usually asked someone else when there was less than a minute left to skate.  What a loser!

By 10:30 the evening was over and we were headed home.  No doubt one of us would be in tears, usually about a guy.  One of us was over the moon, usually also about a guy.  One of us was planning our strategy for next week.  That one was usually me.

Through the magic of Facebook I've actually found a couple of the girls that were in the skating posse.  Leisa and Robin will recognise the routine and anguish we went through but hopefully the giggles and fun we used to have.

Today's lights and music made me feel like it was all just yesterday as I watched my son and daughter take their first tentative steps on to a roller rink.

Le Freak, C'est Shiek!  YMCA!  Oh what a night, late December back in 63, what a very special time to me, what a lady, what a night!

Sunday 9 January 2011

Beware Advice

I used to think I was not good at getting or giving advice, which is not so good for a writer or a mother. Everything you write gets reviewed which is a form of advice. And as a mother I am constantly handing out suggestions to my children. OK, maybe they are more like commandments but you get the idea.

But what I have learned lately is that I am better at both getting and giving depending on the spirit with which the advice is administered.

I remember when my husband and I decided to start up our own business, 99% of the people we told in England were horrified and tried desperately to steer us clear of what they were sure was inevitable complete and total fiscal ruin. I couldn't understand this advice. They'd never even looked at our business plan. How could they be so certain based on such little information?

As a writer struggling to climb the mountain of getting a novel published, I find there are loads of people telling me exactly what I should and shouldn't do.  Some of it is priceless.  Funny thing is most of it is contradictory.  Much of it doesn't make any sense.  Bits of it are just outright rude, destructive and unnecessarily mean.

Great advice is not the same as being told exactly what you want to hear. What is said is less important than the spirit with which that advice is given.

Before you ask for anyone's advice and certainly before you take that advice, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Why am I asking their advice? Are they an expert on the topic? What qualifications do they have to give me advice? What experiences have they had that enables them to speak from a position of knowledge?

If you are asking someone who doesn't entertain what you should serve at a dinner party, the result will not be pretty.  If you are asking for interview tips from someone who has never been interviewed or hired people, find a different expert.  Make sure they are knowledgeable about the topic.  If you are asking someone you do not respect for advice, give that one a miss.

2. How important to them is it that I take their advice? What would happen if I just ignore what they say?

I struggle with this.  I have some friends who constantly seek out my advice.  Just as consistently they ignore our advice.  And then they complain to me when our advice proves to be the more beneficial path to have taken.  Now, when they ask, I don't have an opinion for them.  About anything.  I keep it to myself.  So, don't waste people's time if you know that what they have to say isn't going to be valued by you.  Talk about the weather. 

3. What's in it for them? 

I know an individual who for whatever reason just can't (or perhaps won't) agree with me on anything.  That being said she doesn't agree with most people.  She is always the rain cloud over everyone's parade.   Quite frankly, her opinion doesn't count because it is too coloured with whatever shit is driving her to be such a pooper.  Make sure you pick a circle you can trust to give you sound advice without prejudice.

4.  Finally, do you need advice?  Or do you need approval?

I remember when I bought my first car all by myself without my father's guidance.  I walked in, test drove it, negotiated the terms and price, and drove it home.  The first call I made was to my father.  He was furious.  He was gutted I hadn't asked for his advice.  His disapproved of my choice.  He disapproved of the price I paid.  Basically, I think he disapproved of my attempts at being independent and despite the fact that I was well into my 20s, what I really wanted was my father's approval. 

Do your own research.   Speak to experts.  Some of these experts should be friends but balance those out with the opinions of objective observers who have no skin in the game.  And then go for it!

Saturday 8 January 2011

Write a Letter

A few months ago my husband's great aunt Dorothy died. At her memorial service, her grandson, Simon, read a few excerpts from the letters she had written to him throughout his life.  Dorothy was a prolific letter writer.  In this day and age of modern technology, other than a few birthday cards and Christmas cards, I rarely receive hand addressed envelopes and certainly never receive hand written letters.  And I don't really expect to.  That would be like deciding to go back to horse and buggy.  I wouldn't be too popular on the motorway, I reckon.

And I am a big technology fan.  I text if I have to.  I love email.  It's fast.  I love Facebook.  It's even faster.  I love Twitter.  It's the fastest of them all.  Embrace change!

But there is something nice about getting an old fashioned letter.  It took time and you know that.  And there is something far more permanent and higher quality about a letter.  The stationary is special.  The handwriting is personal.  When my grandmother died, I found boxes of the letters and postcards I had written to her when I first moved to Germany.  It was a fascinating journey through my life as I watched myself change and grow and mature through those letters.  I can't imagine that if I had made that journey during the age of email that I ever would have had the ability or foresight to rifle through her email inbox.  Besides, I don't think she even would have kept them or I would have been able to find them.  And I was able to match the letters she had written back to me with the letters I had written to her and it is a strange sort of journal of our lives during that time from two different perspectives.

Listening to Simon read just a few bits from the hundreds of letters Dorothy had written to him over the years, brought smiles and chuckles of laughter from the assembled congregation.  Her thoughts about current events was captured.  Advice was liberally dispensed.  Her personality sang out.  There wasn't a dry eye in the church.

It was in that moment that I realised it was important to me to give a similar gift to my children.

Our son, Sebastian, has embarked on an amazing journey.  Over the last 18 months he has been learning how to be a chorister and during this time he spends less and less time with us at home.  By February of this year he will be boarding full time.  We will get to see him on Wednesday and Friday evenings and all day on Saturday but the rest of the week he will be far too busy to absorb the depth of my feelings.  Besides, he's 9!  Mom can't seem a bit heavy at times and we aren't talking about my weight fluctuations here.

Last school term I often wanted to tell him how proud I was of him and it seemed insufficient to just say it in the rush of homework, dinner, bath and bedtime routines.  And the last thing I wanted to do was ring him on the boarders phone and interrupt whatever might be consuming his every waking thought.  That would be a very uncool mummy thing to do.  So I started writing him a letter each week.

I found some beautiful stationary that I bought in Italy over 12 years ago in my long abandoned stationary box that I'd never had the opportunity to use what with the demise of letter writing and all.  I got out my beloved fountain pen which did require a new ink cartridge and I sat down and wrote.  When I handed him his first letter, I asked him to keep them in his trunk and not to lose any or throw them away. I thought he would blush but he didn't.

I drop the letters off at the school office on Tuesday afternoons when I pick up Abigail and Sebastian has already gone up to the song school for one of the days two rehearsals, right before the evensong performance.

I was surprised to find one pinned up on the cork board next to his bed the week of Christmas.  He was working so hard at being the best chorister he could possibly be and I could see the dark circles around his eyes but he assured me that he was having a blast. When I asked him if he was afraid that someone would read the letter and he would be embarrassed by it, he just shook his head, like "why would I think that?".    "Don't you really want to hide it away in your trunk with the other letters I have given you?"

"No," he replied, completely unfazed.  "that was the letter you wrote to me after you saw me perform The Messiah and I was just so proud to have a mummy who wrote to tell me how proud she was of me, that I wanted it to be up there.  No one else's mummy writes them letters telling them how proud they are.  And when I miss you at night, I can just reach over and read it and it helps me not miss you so much."

OK, so writing letters is a good idea.  Maybe I should do this a bit more.  Who could you write a letter to?  Will you?

Friday 7 January 2011

BBC License Fee Earned

In the UK one must pay for the privileged of having a television.  For the low low price of approximately £150/year you get commercial free broadcasting from the BBC.  Trouble is I pay this fee every year begrudgingly because there is rarely anything worth watching at all but the simple fact of the matter is I can't watch any television unless I pay this stupid tax to the BBC. 

There is the rare occasion that the BBC will play a film that I will watch and it is nice watching it without any commercial interruptions but quite frankly I've usually seen the film at the cinema or on DVD long before it gets to the TV.  Anything that might be a bit cutting edge or controversial tends to be on another channel.  Heck most things that are interesting tends to be on another channel.

This week, however, over 3 evenings, the BBC earned every penny, pound and shilling of their license fee for the year.  Stargazing Live was broadcast on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for an hour.  The ever so dishy and frighteningly clever Professor Brian Cox co-hosted the LIVE broadcast with Dara O'Briain.  Dara is an irish standup comedian and other than having a keen interst in amateur astornomy I'm not entirely sure why or how he was chosen as a co-host.  Professor Brian Cox, on the other hand, is a big brain: a particle physicist who has a remarkable talent for making the complex understandable for mere mortals like myself.  I won't mention that he was also in a band....oops, just did, but ignore that!   And that smile.....well, he was one of People magazine's sexiest men in 2009.

I believe the objective of the show was to get people interested in those little white lights that twinkle in the night sky and educate us about how much more amazing they are when you look at them through telescopes.  The photographs of Andromeda took my breath away. 

Unfortunately, since the show was broadcast from Britain and we are not exactly renowned for having clear skies the majority of the time, the show was hampered by trying to fill time when the sky was filled with clouds.  The best moment in the show came during the second broadcast when they were speaking with the man outside with the telescope.  He complained that not much was happening since the sky was so cloudy. Just as he was saying this, a large meteorite fell through the only clear spot in the clouds just behind and above his right shoulder.  Twitter lit up about the show and the producers were actually able to replay it towards the end of the live broadcast.  Classic!

There were some low points in the show.  The piece about the sound of stars was a bit fuzzy and not really science at all which dented the credibility of the factual nature of the show.  I loved that Professor Cox was very careful to identify those things we know for fact and those things we can only theorise about.

The show featured several female scientist showing my daughter that she doesn't have to be Hannah Montana when she grows up.  My son was fascinated and kept asking questions during the live show.  Luckily, we recorded it and have watched it back.  I fear it may stay recorded ready for reply as reference for a while.

We have a wonderful telescope which doesn't make it out as much as it should although we have impressed some dinner guests with a viewing of Jupiter but the planet did most of the impressing to be honest.  The telescope will be outside when the sky clears up and we are planning on heading southwest to do some star gazing during the half term in late February.  On the occasions we have looked through it, I have seen the rings of Saturn.  I have seen the gases of Jupiter and at least 4 of its 63 moons.  I have seen what looks to be faint pinpricks of light become swirling masses of blue, purple, yellow. 

I have looked at the night sky and the BBC has helped to remind me and all their lucky viewers that £150 is a small price to pay for the knowledge that we are tiny, insignificant beings in a small galaxy and we know very little of what is beyond it.   But finally, it is highly unlikely that we are alone.

PS  If you are in the UK, you can still catch the program on iPlayer.  If you are anywhere else, tough.  You will just have to be jealous and get a telescope of your own!

Thursday 6 January 2011

VAT in the Age of Austerity

In this age of belt tightening and austere living I have made a resolution to empty my house of excess.  My kitchen cupboards are stocked to overflowing with tins I haven't used.  My fridge is full of jars of sauces only half used.  Shelves are creaking under the weight of unread books and craft projects.  I have picture frames with no pictures in them.  We have too much.

The trouble is I stockpile.  I love a bargain and love to feel like I'm getting a great deal.  Costco is a dream made in heaven.  I buy vast quantities of monster size ketchup and olive oil along with over sized cubes of butter by the dozen frozen for future baking endeavours.  At one point, my husband noted we had 12 loaves of bread in the freezer and that the 4 loaves I had just brought were not going to fit.  I have drawers of fabric, old shirts, and sheets for all those future quilting projects I have yet to start.  At the height of the terrorist alerts when we all thought our water supply would be poisoned I stockpiled bottled water and if there is ever a drought, our garage is well stocked.

I realise this stockpiling habit harks back to my children.  I have a fair bit of anxiety around not having enough.  Or rather having enough and then suddenly, not.  My parents divorced just before my teenage years began.  My cushy private education uniform was replaced with state school wear whatever you want to wear.  I have painfully acute memories of eating generic puffed rice cereal without milk for breakfast and dinner whilst using state supplied pink lunch coupons for a free hot lunch.  Money was tight.

When I went to university I remember thinking to myself that this education was going to be the key to never having to eat puffed rice cereal again.  I picked a career where I would be financially secure and provide for myself and, now, my family.  Of course, something really bad could happen but trust me, my fears have led us to be quite possibly the most over insured household in the northern hemisphere.  It is entirely possible that I have an inflated sense of my self worth.  But I most certainly don't want to run out of anything I might need.

And I am a busy full time working mother of two.  I create weekly menus and make assumptions about the contents of my pantry.  When placing my online grocery orders I tend to order things which are perishable just for that week and buy pantry or freezer items in bulk, particularly if they are on sale, which explains my daughters comment at a dinner party when she politely requested that we eat something other than sausages occasionally.  You see, I had bought 16 packets of sausages on 2 for 1 special but noticing this stockpile I had created a menu that despite being subtly different dishes every day did, however, consist mainly of sausages.  I now only have 2 packets of sausages in the freezer.  And I will never serve sausage more than twice in 1 month.  Unless maybe there is a 3 for 1 special.....no, just kidding.

The bottom line is I hate running out of things.  I hate getting half way through a recipe only to find out that you have run out of corn flour or baking powder or sugar.  I don't have time to just "pop in" to the supermarket.  I barely have time to pop to the toilet more than once a day.

This economic downturn brings everyone challenges over which I feel I have little control.  Economic growth has stagnated, deficits are huge, taxes have gone up, benefits have gone down, inflation has started to soar.  Our money just doesn't buy as much anymore and this has got me to thinking, do we need all that we have.

Christmas really made our family evaluate this challenge (and my very real fears and anxieties).  We decided to have an electronic fear Christmas.  This meant nothing we bought for each other needed to be charges.  Only 2 things (coin sorters) given to the children by Santa Clause required batteries.  I don't think the children noticed although Sebastian did think he was getting a laptop he has only mentioned it once.

Over the Christmas holiday I made a concerted attempt to not buy more than we would eat and mildly succeeded.  I also tried to get everything down to having just one bottle.  You see I have such a tendency to over buy that I have 2 jars of everything just in case I run out of one which is unlikely since that one has probably lasted me for the last 2 years.  Spices are a common example.  There are 3 jars of mild chili powder and 2 jars of whole cloves.  No one uses that many spices in a year.  This year I used them up....and I didn't buy a replacement.  My new rule is unless the jar is over half empty and I have a plan for using the other half in the next month, it doesn't go on the shopping list.

I am finding a perverse sense of satisfaction now in using things up.  I used one of the 3 (that's right, 3!) jars of dark treacle in my cupboard which is good since one of the other ones apparently exploded from being out of date and had to be cleaned up - what a mess!  I have 1 bottle of maple syrup in the cupboard, down from 4 a couple months ago.  I used it in some Christmas sweet recipes.  I am down to one jar of cloves thanks to some generous lashings in the mulled wine.

There is now some white space in my cupboards.  Sometimes when I open them and see all this empty space I feel light headed and my heart skips a beat.  Feelings of not providing well enough for my children simmer in the back of my mind.  So I start examining every other tin in the cupboard and try to imagine how I might create more white space.  I have 10 tins of chick peas.  Any one have recipe ideas for using vast quantities of chick peas?  I have 6 tins of cream of mushroom soup.  Don't ask......

All of this creates loads more waste than it needs to.  I invariably come across tins with a use by date of July 2006.  The other day I found a half used jar of anchovies with a date of March 2009.  They were not far off becoming fossilized.  I couldn't find the Christmas presents I bought last April to give this December (trying to save time and money) because I clearly put them someplace safe and out of the way and now I can't find them under the weight of everything else.  So I bought new stuff.  Waste!
My commitment to our family's financial future is to use everything we got before buying more, get rid of that which we will never use, store in a sensible manner those things which might be useful and thrifty for the future.  I will certainly bin (or possibly eBay) those lofty scrap booking kits which will never never  ever find a place in my diary to get done (until the children have left for university, I have retired and then I doubt this will be my activity of choice).  I will try try try not to buy any new books until I have read all my unread books (ok, so this is never going to happen but I will at the very least remind myself of the size of the pile).

With a fair bit of luck and a good wind, we will have only what we need.  We will appreciate what we have much more and we'll save the net of the VAT increase over the next year.  Am certain this isn't what the government had in mind when they implement the increase but that'll teach them.  And my home will be tidier and clutter free (maybe not free but less).  Now all I have to do is get my husband to take a shot at the garage.....2012 here we come!

NOTE to non-Brits:  VAT is Value Added Tax and is like sales tax.  This tax increased on 4 January from 17.5% to 20% in an attempt by the government to lower the deficit caused by overspending during the last 10 years.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

On The Beach by Nevil Shute

Had never heard of Nevil Shute.  None of his books were ever on any of my must read reading lists.  I consider this a travesty and aim to single handedly correct this miscarriage of justice.

Back in November I attended the bookswap at the Windsor Firestation Arts Centre.  "What is a bookswap?" I hear y'all ask.  A bookswap is an event where 2 authors are invited to sit on a sofa and be "interviewed" by 2 literary aficionados (Scott Pack of The Friday Project and Marie Phillips, author of Gods Behaving Badly -more about that later).  The interview is not your typical book signing interview.  The audience submits random questions before the event begins and they are picked at random.  the questions have little if anything to do with the writing or the book and more to do with the human beings in front of us.  My favourite question remains, "What's your favourite cheese?"  The authors, as well as every audience member, brings a book they want to "swap".  You are asked to give a sales pitch, an elevator speech, about your book and then other audience members are asked if they have a book they would like to swap to yours.  If you don't feel your sales skills are up to scratch, Marie or Scott will skillfully step up and sell it for you.  Admission to this unique event is either £5 or cakes.  That's right....if you bake cakes to be shared amongst the audience, you don't have to pay to get in.

At the October event I managed a trade with Warren FitzGerald, author of The Go-Away Bird.  I brought the book Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud by Sun Shuyun with me.  A book group of mine had read that years ago and whilst I found the non-fiction account of this woman's quest to find the China of her childhood fascinating in bits, it wasn't a book I was going to read again.  And I wasn't going to recommend it to someone else.  The bits I found fascinating were all highlighted in my indomitable style and it was a hardback so I felt confident that my swap would be an easy pitch.

But I had competition.  When Mr FitzGerald pitched this book by someone named Shute I was dubious about the plot but felt the description of the writing style would be worthwhile.  And the swap was agreed.   At home I added the book to my To Read pile and thought I might never get to it given the teetering size of that pile which isn't even one pile but more like 7 piles.

But the book called to me from its place and I kept picking it back up.  Finally, I dove in and finished the book the night before North Korea started acting up as a bully to its neighbours.  And I'm certain this book has changed me forever.

Nevil Shute was a British aeronautical engineer whose work on aircraft technology helped to win WWII.  He emigrated to Australia in 1950 when he became disenchanted with Britain and many of his later novels are set in Australia.

In On The Beach, the world is ending, actually the world has ended, it is just a matter of time.  World powers have detonated nuclear weapons and everything in the northern hemisphere has been destroyed.  There is considerable vagueness about who did what to whom and why and where the weapons came from.  I think in the event of an escalating crisis, there would undoubtedly be considerable confusion about who and what and where and why.  Just read Wikileaks.

Set in Melbourne, Australia, air currents are bringing the radiation to the southern hemisphere and the last humans on earth are dealing with their inevitable fate.  An American submarine commander whose vessel was underwater at the time of the explosion has found himself hastily promoted as everyone in his chain of command dies, explores the planet looking for signs of life, a fruitless and dispiriting endeavour.

Every character deals with the inevitable in different ways.  The alcoholic, wild living Moira, cleans up her act and imagines her life lived in sober happiness with the US commander.  The Holmes family ignores the entire future continuing to renovate their house, plant trees and a vegetable garden that will never ripen.  The US commander denies his family in America are dead and buys them gifts to take back when he returns from his tour of duty.

Unlike any other book I have ever read about the end of the world, there is no small group of survivors to carry on the legacy of mankind.  No one survives.  No one.  In the end cyanide pills and injections are dispensed for people to use to avoid the ugly and painful death of radiation poisoning.  And so the decision must be made. 

How does one decide to inject their infant daughter before taking the pill themselves?  How does one spend the last few days of the end of the world?  I have nightmares still despite reading the book months ago.  After watching the film with Armand Assante (which is in no way near as good - not even in the same universe) with my husband, he is having nightmares - hey, at least he watched it since I can't ever get him to read a book!

When North Korea started playing games the very morning upon my finishing the book and governments all over the world were screaming for restraint, I felt like I personally wanted to deliver  copies of this book to all the leaders with the codes and keys to the nuclear detonators. 

I have now reserved other books by Shute at the library and must pop in to pick them up today.  I hope Mr FitzGerald enjoyed his Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud as much as I enjoyed On The Beach but somehow I think I got the better end of that trade.  I strongly urge you to give it a go.  You will never be the same.

Saturday 1 January 2011

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I'm not entirely sure where my education has let me down but let's just say there is a huge gap in my awareness of the finer points of World War 1, or possibly any points about WWI.  So, I know Germany was there on the wrong side and I know England and America were on the other side.  I know France was the battle ground on which the worst of the battles were fought and I have heard whisperings of the horrors of the Battle of the Somme.  I know the war started with the assassination of some Archduke Ferdinand dude but the details were ever so fuzzy.

The 2nd World War held no such vagueness in my educational history.  I have detailed knowledge of who the bad guys were and who the good guys were.  I know all about the D-Day landings.  I know how it started and how it ended.  I was ashamed of the lack of such clarity around WWI and felt I needed to do something about it.

Let's face it though, me and non-fiction aren't such great friends.  I'll read it if I have to say to learn something about my job or a medical release form but I do find it rather hard going and not enjoyable.  So several friends recommended Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.  Now the trouble with that recommendation is that I had tried reading Human Traces by said author a few years ago and am afraid I couldn't get beyond page 47.  Given such failure I had not embraced any other books by him but given the repetitive nature of this recommendation I decided to give it a go and checked the book out from the library.

I started it just a few days before Christmas after finishing Hotel du Lac, regrettably a nice novel but didn't live up to the hype and my perhaps unreasonably high expectations.  Birdsong starts off like a romance novel.  The first part is before the war and contains some erotic sex scenes that made me feel uncomfortable when I read them in the presence of my children.  I was confused and really unsure what any of this had to do with WWII.

The second part lands you on the battlefield and in no uncertain terms you quickly come to grips with the unspeakable atrocities and conditions of that war.  The reason for the first part of the novel becomes abundantly clear and you desperately yearn to escape.  But there is none.

It was at this point that I decided given that is was 1 am I should really get some sleep and turned off the light.  The images so eloquently drawn though kept haunting me and I found it difficult to find sleep.  At 2:43 am I woke after what I reckon was only 30 minutes of sleep having had a disturbing and frightful nightmare.  Sleep was never going to come.  I picked up the book.  Faulks continues to hammer home the relentlessness of the battle but by 4:56 am I had finished it.  I tried to sleep a few more hours but knowing what I had learned from those pages, my sleep was never the same.  Every muddy trench and tunnel came alive in Faulk's able hands.  I flinched when wires were detonated.

I now know slightly more about how the war started and ended and am now more convinced than ever that I will find out more.  Although some scenes do seem to go on and on and on, I can't complain given that my trauma lasted no more than a few pages compared to the soldier's years and years.  I found the ending as disturbing as the telling.  This war didn't end in 1918 with Armistice Day.  So many veterans never recovered; some lived in homes without ever speaking another word.  An entire generation of men were wiped out.  The technology simply outpaced the tactics.

I highly recommend reading this novel if you haven't already.  I cry every time I tried to tell my husband about it over the last couple days.  Don't expect to be happy about reading it.  That's not the point.  The point is given all that we now know, why are we still fighting wars?