Mad Science

Mad scientist

Mad scientist (Photo credit: BWJones)

You know how the saying goes…if you fall off a horse, you’ve got to get straight back on again.  Well, it’s taken me 2 years but I have held another “Mad Science” party for my son’s birthday and I have survived.

Two years ago, this would never have seemed possible.  That party – twelve 7 year old boys in my house (first huge error), one mad scientist and two shell-shocked, utterly horrified parents – ended with me bursting into tears of sheer relief when they all left and only narrowly avoiding an extended stay in The Priory.  The only word I can think to describe that party is apocalyptic – “Lord of the Flies” South-West London style.

It was a seminal moment in my child-rearing – the moment at which we lost total control.  The boys were in charge and it wasn’t pretty. I genuinely think I suffered with a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder after that party.  One thing was certain – never ever ever would I hold a child’s birthday party in my house again.  I have kept to that.  The other thing I thought was certain – never ever would I wish to hear the words “mad” and “science” in the same sentence let alone combined with the word “party”. Somehow my resolve weakened on this.

That brings me to today – “Mad Science” party 2.  Not content with twelve 7 year olds, this time I upped the stakes and we had twenty four 7 year olds (all boys), one mad scientist (female) and four potentially shell-shocked, utterly horrified parents (yes, this time, I shared the annual burden of the birthday party).  Before the party, as I contemplated my idiocy in agreeing to endure another two hours of utter hell, I tried to work out what sort of person would choose to endure such a party again at a significant financial cost with absolutely no visible upside.  Clearly, I am a lunatic.

Well I survived and you know what….it wasn’t actually that bad.  Admittedly the memory is already fading at the edges thanks to the indecently large glass of wine that I am currently attacking like some sort of slightly deranged, dehydrated dipsomaniac.  The mad scientist certainly earned her money this afternoon and I am fairly sure she is reconsidering her career choice (she’s just completing her teacher training) after 2 hours with 24 boys, a load of goo, dry ice, bunsen burners, potentially lethal chemicals and a non-launching rocket.  I am also certain that being a mad scientist and spending 2 hours trying to control a roomful of crazed 7 year olds must be one of the most effective forms of contraception on the market.

I know I probably shouldn’t say this but I don’t believe I’m alone – children’s birthday parties are an ordeal, something to be endured, an annual burden.  But they are a necessary rite of passage and I remember (just) the excitement I felt in the build-up to my birthday parties when I was a child. Of course I wouldn’t want to deny my children that excitement and celebration.

Two things bug me though: firstly, children’s parties were simple affairs when I was a child – some games, home-made cake and a party bag full of nothing much.  Nowadays, we are expected to shell-out hundreds of pounds on entertainers or hold our parties in ever more exotic venues, buy in the cake (gone are the days when an 8 inch round with chocolate buttons on it sufficed; no, now kids expect an entire football pitch replete with favourite team and realistic-looking icing turf) and a party bag brimming with the latest must-have toys.

Secondly, “thank you” would go a long way. Not from the kids at the party – they were all very polite; from my own children.  After every party we hold for our children, the conversation goes like this: me: “Did you enjoy your party?”, child: “Yup”, me: “Do you have anything to say?”, child – silence, me: “It would be really nice if you said thank you after all the effort we’ve made”, child “thank you”, me “not now, before would have been good…”

Time to collapse in a post-party heap.  Ticked that box for another year.  Conquered my fear of “Mad Science” parties.  Yes, it has been a good day on the whole.

Your Cabin Crew Will Now Point Out Your Nearest Exits…

airplane in sky

airplane in sky (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Hello, anyone there…?  I’m back.  Have you missed me? Deafening silence…

You probably haven’t noticed but I’ve been away for the last couple of weeks and haven’t been blogging.  Before you get out the bunting, throw street parties and issue special edition stamps to celebrate my return, I don’t want any fuss, any fanfare – I’m a very modest, unassuming person after all – but it would be nice if someone had missed my blogging/whinging/musings about nothing very much at all.

I don’t think it would be fair of me to bang on endlessly about white sand beaches, azure seas, cocktails and all the other holiday clichés.  There all true.  I don’t want to alienate my readers – particularly British readers who have endured the most vile of winters. So instead I thought I would share with you a couple of observations about the ordeal which is “travelling” – that time of huge stress which prefaces the white sand beaches, azure seas etc. I don’t know, maybe you are a cool, calm and collected sort of traveller…not me, despite my best attempts, travelling is always rather an ordeal, a case of the end result justifying the means.

Packing is a skill I still have not mastered after 40 years. It doesn’t seem to be particularly intellectually taxing or require any particular dexterity or co-ordination – I just can’t do it well.

I usually get off to a pretty good, controlled sort of start but as the deadline for departure approaches my packing becomes frenzied, bordering on manic .  I start packing things I could not possibly have any use for, just in case…for example, on this holiday I took not one but two full first aid kits.  Why?  Good question.  What is the likelihood of me needing the entire contents of two full first aid kits on one 10 day holiday? Remote but as I said, just in case…On this holiday I took enough Calpol to administer to an entire children’s hospital – enough to give each of my 3 children a 4-6 hourly dose for the entire 10 days and still only use 1/4 of my supplies – overcatering, perhaps, but just in case…On this holiday, I took 4 jumpers and 4 cardigans, to a place where the temperature at 3am never dips below about 24 degrees.  Why?  Expecting a freak snow storm in the Indian Ocean?  You never know, just in case…

I can only think that this extreme level of preparedness harks from my Brownie Guide days, motto “Be Prepared”.  If only I had known then how much excess baggage this would mean I would be forced to take every time I go away, then I might have reconsidered my promise “To do my best” etc and turned my back on the Brownies while I still could.  So those of you with daughters, consider carefully the potential long term effects of introducing your offspring to the Guiding Movement.

Airports make me behave in a very out-of-character fashion.  I am not a mad shopper normally – I like shopping as much as the next woman but for some bizarre reason airports turning me into some sort of supermarket sweep shopping freak. I feel like I am in a shopping version of “Countdown” – up against the clock, flight leaves in 45 minutes, got to shop, got to shop, got to shop…I find myself considering purchases that I would never even look at the other side of security – a combination, I guess, of tax-free, holiday fever and that old chestnut, preparedness – what if I can’t buy ‘X’ “over there” – ‘X’ usually being something that I would never ever have use for in this country so I have no idea why I feel it might be of use on a 10 day holiday somewhere else.

Finally, time to get on the plane.  Why, please tell me, do people queue at the gate to get on to the plane?  It makes me want to scream – “Weirdos, your seats are pre-allocated, no need to queue at this point.  We’re all going to get on eventually”. I guess this might be a peculiarly British feature – queueing being part of our national identity?

The days of fervently praying that you don’t get the seat next to the crying child are unfortunately a thing of the past for me.  I always get the seat next to the crying child…my child. The first 10 minutes on a plane (assuming you are turning right like me when you get on) are spent apologising…apologising to the poor person who despite their fervent prayers is sitting next to you and your screaming child, apologising to the person sitting in the aisle seat in advance for the number of times you are going to have to climb over them during the flight, apologising for practically knocking a fellow passenger out when attempting to put your bags in the overhead locker, then apologising again for having to climb over the person sitting in the aisle seat in order to reopen the overhead locker and get out the particular Peppa Pig book that your daughter wants right now and only now.

You take off – not before you’ve watched the safety demonstration avidly – as if you have never seen it before.  For me this is complete superstition – I could pass the British Airways safety demonstration test (if there is such a thing) word perfect – but I have this horrible niggle that if I don’t watch it, then this will be the time that I have to perform a complicated passing of the life jacket strings around my waist, securing them in a knot, fully inflating my life jacket (after I have gone down the emergency chute, having removed my high heels (?)), then using the little tube to top up the air before blowing pathetically on my little whistle  (in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean???).  I’m afraid I am also always that person who surreptitiously kicks under the seat just to check my life jacket is there. Goes back to the Brownies again, “Be Prepared”.

Then off you go.  Within 3 minutes of take-off, at least one of my children has already asked me twice “Are we nearly there yet?”. Thank Goodness for inflight entertainment.  I swear my two boys, once settled in front of the screen, did not blink or utter a word for the next 12 hours. I don’t care whether that is bad mothering – flying doesn’t count, anything goes on a plane, survival is all that matters.

Destination reached – fanatical peering out of the plane windows to assess the weather.  Unbelievable, after 12 hours in the air – it’s raining…yes, we’ve travelled several thousand miles, endured so much…to step out into the identical weather we left in the UK, just warmer. Welcome to Paradise…

Those Two Old Friends – Anxiety and Fear

After Dark: Fear

After Dark: Fear (Photo credit: the_exploratorium)

Let me introduce you to two of my closest, long-standing and most loyal “friends”: fear and anxiety. We’ve been “friends” for so many years, I’ve lost count. Like all friendships we have had our ups and downs – sometimes almost unbearably close, other times we have been apart for lengthy periods of time.  In their absence, I have thrived, come out from their shadow.  As comfortable as I think I feel in their presence, fortunately I do have a wide group of other friends which counter their hold over me: humour, a sense of fun (and the ridiculous), determination and happiness.

I know there are millions of us out there who count these two amongst our nearest and (not so) dearest.  Over the years, I have come to understand that it is these two which actually allow me to experience and appreciate their opposites in sharp relief. They have certainly shaped me, but will never define me.  They have given me the ability to empathise with, sympathise with and understand others.  I am a more rounded person because of them.

Why am I telling you all this? Partly, I guess, because usually my writing is observational and light-hearted but not everything I observe is like this, life is more complicated, and partly in response to an article I read in The Times at the weekend about how you can deal with a child who worries incessantly, who is anxious, unable to relax.  Not only did I recognise myself as that child, but also similar traits in my own children – particularly my eldest.  It got me thinking…is this a trait peculiar to eldest children?  Does that burden of responsibility that the eldest feels from such an early age allow a burgeoning relationship with anxiety and fear which to different degrees stay with you through childhood and adulthood?

I am not just talking about obvious childhood fears, like monsters under the bed (although needless to say I had an veritable zoo under my bed as a child – snakes, sharks, lions, tigers – you name it, they were there – along with the whole cast of Ghostbusters).  No, I am talking about those more intangible fears – fear of failure, fear of not living up to expectation (largely self-afflicted), fear of the unknown, fear about taking risks.

In my experience, the second child, without the burden of forging the way like the eldest, feels a sense of freedom from responsibility and a freedom to take risks, throw caution to the wind, unencumbered by fear and anxiety.  This is, of course, not to say that fear and anxiety are solely the preserve of the eldest child but in my experience, the eldest is far more cautious and less willing to take risks, more concerned about failure and the “what ifs”.

It will come as no surprise then to you that I am the eldest of three children. My greatest wish for my children is that they do not allow my old “friends”, fear and anxiety, to determine their path in life. To that end, I try very hard not to allow my “friends” to stay in my house very often, especially when the kids are around.

Just because something is familiar, it does not mean it is healthy or not to be challenged.  The old adage of “familiarity breeds contempt” is certainly true as far as my old “friends” are concerned and I am finding as I get older (and wiser?) that I am moving away from this circle of “friends” and embracing my new friends – happiness, laughter and joy – much more.  Now, I’m 40, I am also ready to discover new friendships – success (as I see it) and fulfilment of potential.

I have realised over the year, that just because these two hanger-ons are familiar, that does not equate with being comfortable.  Fear and anxiety are largely self-fabricated and built on no real foundations, just years of being allowed to co-exist.  There is no real substance to them, you can just push them away if you really try. Fear and anxiety in a small measure are part of the human condition but you shouldn’t let them be your “friends”.  Real friends make you feel good about yourself, boost you, laugh with you, cry with you and support you.  Fear and anxiety are impostors – see them for what they really are.  Stand up to them and watch them fade.  Well, that’s my experience and that’s what I shall be telling my children.

Parlez-vous anglais?

French flag

French flag (Photo credit: Nebel)

8 years – that is how many years I learnt French at school. I got an A in my French O’Level. How have I started every conversation on my holiday in France so far? “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame parlez-vous anglais?”

It is utterly pathetic – no other word covers it. Can you imagine a French man or woman approaching me in England and saying “Good morning, do you speak French?” They’d be laughed out of town! So why is it deemed acceptable for me to expect someone to speak a foreign language in their home country just because my grasp of their language is so utterly feeble?

My memory of French speaking at school is confined to passing the dreaded 5 minute French oral component of the French O’Level. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that my 8 years of learning to speak French came down in the final analysis to the moment in my exam when I discovered whether the role play in my French oral would be buying tickets at a railway station or doing the weekly shop in the supermarket.

The emphasis in schools at this time was not on speaking a language but on reading/writing a language. I’ve lost count of the number of fictional French pen pals I wrote letters to over the years in my French lessons. Suffice to say that in my opinion the emphasis was all wrong. What is the point of being able to write a beautiful letter in exquisite French if you can only do an impression of a mute when actually faced with a Frenchman.

It is of course shameful that we, as a nation, have always expected others to speak English and therefore consider language learning as nothing more than a pleasant pastime, nothing to take too seriously as we can always speak English loudly and slowly (and patronisingly) and be understood.

Are things changing nowadays in our schools and more importantly in our national psyche? I can only hope so. My children are exposed to so many more languages than I was in their curriculum – both my sons are currently learning Mandarin – well, this term at least. I really hope that this does not amount to lip service to a variety of languages but results in a generation of children who do not expect English to be spoken by everyone around the world but who feel comfortable expressing themselves in other languages. After all how can you really understand other cultures without some comprehension of the main communication tool – language?

The world is a much smaller place now and the Internet has provided a whole new universal language and also wonderful opportunities for our children to communicate with others across cultural barriers. At school my sons recently skyped with a class of similarly aged children in a Chinese school – what a fantastic communication experience that beats hands down the endless contrived role plays of my language learning experience of the 1980s.

Political Rant

English: Helix pomatia, Helicidae, Burgundy Sn...

English: Helix pomatia, Helicidae, Burgundy Snail, Roman Snail, Edible Snail; Karlsruhe, Germany. Deutsch: Helix pomatia, Helicidae, Weinbergschnecke; Karlsruhe, Deutschland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“What do politicians actually do apart from talk a lot?” – so said one of my children the other day. It got me thinking (and unusually for me, thinking seriously).  When I was at university and in my twenties, I considered myself politically engaged and fairly well-informed.  Now? Well, at the moment, I feel about as politically engaged as the snail I am currently watching on my window ledge. Not to do snails down – for all I know this snail is actively involved in discussing the finer points of democracy with his fellow snails – but I doubt it.  So what has happened and am I the only one who feels like this?

I reckon I’m not. If I am totally honest I would struggle to name the members of the Cabinet at the moment and I’m not proud of that. I find myself switching off when political issues are on the news; I skim read newspaper articles.  I have totally lost any passion I had for politics. I do, of course, care deeply about the issues which affect the world I live in but I’m just not interested in the political angle.

What concerns me most about this is that if I feel like this at 40, then what about the generation below me? It seems to me that with the exception of a few, most are not just disinterested in politics but it goes further than that, they are deeply cynical about the motives of our politicians and their ability to effect real positive change in society. This generation can not even be bothered to vote – that is how little they care.  They feel far removed from the workings of Westminster; they do not trust our politicians; they do not believe in them or their motivations; they no longer respect them; they are totally “turned off” politics and the politicians who are elected to represent them.

I find this extremely worrying. It is crucial, I think, for politicians of today to find a way of re-engaging with young people.  Politicians need to find a way of galvanising the younger generation, of making them feel political passion again.  I have no idea how this can be done especially as scandal after scandal, misdemeanour after misdemeanour rocks our political system.  It is one thing to re-engage with someone like me who is suffering largely from political inertia (mixed in with a dose of cynicism) but quite another to re-engage with a generation who do not trust or believe in those who have been elected ostensibly to represent them.

I really feel that this is an issue that needs to be addressed with some urgency before another generation – that of my children – grows up disillusioned and cynical about our political system and those who inhabit it.   My child was right – stop the rhetoric and start doing something to inspire the next generation, to spark their interest in the political arena, to make them want to vote, to care who represents them and most of all to make them respect and trust again.

Political rant over. I realise that you may be thinking this is rather “serious” for my blog.  Fear not, I am sure I shall be able to lower the tone in my next piece.  However, sometimes things just need to be said and today I felt like saying them. Do you agree with me?  What do you think about this issue?

 

January Blues – not me!

January seems to be a universally hated month which has always seemed a bit unfair for those whose birthdays fall in this month.  Not only do they have to deal with the joint present for Christmas and Birthday thing but their birthday celebrations are always a bit of a damp squib since most people are neither drinking nor eating. Well, I wish to redress the balance – I like January – a bit left field I know but that’s me, glass half full.  So banish those January blues and here are ten good reasons to like January (as far as I am concerned).

1. The children are back at school – this is far and away the best thing about January for me.  Having suffered the school holidays in shocking weather where not even the most insane mother would force her children outside, I have to admit that, although I love my children dearly, I was literally counting the minutes until my children became someone else’s responsibility between 9am and 3.30pm.  Since their return to school a couple of days ago, I have finished every single cup of tea I have made for myself (first time since mid-December) and I have managed to speak on the phone without conducting a parallel conversation with one or other child.  These are good things.

2. Christmas is over for another year – I know this sounds a bit bah humbug but it’s true – Christmas is a right palava and yes, there are some wonderful bits especially with young children but there are also some really irritating bits…

3. …which brings me onto “tinsel” – regular readers will know that I am allergic to tinsel – I hate the way it looks, the way it feels, the way it is omnipresent in the festive season and I actually hate the sound of the word, it sounds, as it is, tacky.

4.You can take the jumper that Aunt Maud gave you back to the shops and buy twice as much thanks to the sales.  I love a bargain – I really love a bargain and nothing makes me happier than exchanging something I don’t like for twice as many things that I do like.

5. It is perfectly acceptable not to entertain, not to cook for anyone and if you are as bold/odd as to invite people round in January, it is perfectly acceptable to have a take-away (maybe not pizza, but the local Indian or Thai restaurant fits the bill). In January I no longer have to pretend to be the offspring of Delia Smith, Nigella, Herman Blumenthal or whoever the chef du jour is.

6. It’s nice to do nothing – since I don’t fall into the camp of people insane enough to invite others around in January, I get to spend my evenings in January either watching the boxsets I got for Christmas or watching strangely fascinating “real-life” TV programmes that I wouldn’t go near at any other time of year.

7.The supermarkets are empty – the Christmas “Preppers” have gone and it is actually possible to pop to the shops for a pint of milk without running headlong into the panic-buying marauding masses who make

1024x768 Tree  - January 2012

1024×768 Tree – January (Photo credit: iluvgadgets)

buying even the simplest thing a herculean effort.

8. My credit card bill for January is the lowest of the year. January is the month when my credit card cools down after an extended period of overheating and just at the moment when it is about to spontaneously combust, it is allowed its “day of rest” – January.  If there is such a thing, I can say that January’s credit card bill is my favourite bill of the year.

9. The days are getting longer.  Always one to look on the bright side, we are on the way to summer – a long way off admittedly, but we are now the right side of the end of the year.  The odd snowdrop lifts the spirits further still. Am I pushing the point a bit…?

10. Everyone else in on a diet or having a no drinking alcohol month except me. Ergo they are miserable and however miserable they are, I am less miserable by virtue of the fact that I am still eating and still drinking. Cheers!

So there you have it, ten reasons to be joyful in January.  Perhaps I’ve stretched the point a bit but it’s not all bad and it’s only 31 days (744 hours for those who are counting) and as of today we are a third of the way through. Happy New Year all.