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Amanda’s Column

More recent copies of Amanda’s column will soon be available on individual pages.  You can access them here. 

 October/November 2012

If the wind-chill factor hadn’t brought the temperature down well below freezing, I could have written this from the highest spot in Britain for a bit of variety. However, nothing was going to part my fingers from their fleecy coverings during the ten minutes I spent at the top of Ben Nevis recently.

If I’d expected to spend the day in quiet contemplation surrounded by the beauty of the Scottish landscape, I would have been sorely disappointed. Thankfully, friends had warned me that it was a bit of a walking motorway. In fact, it turned into quite an interesting study of the human spirit, surrounded by fresh air and some majestic scenery.

I guess most people were doing it for a personal challenge, although who knows? I was only there as training partner to my nearest and dearest who has committed himself to raising money for a charity by climbing Scotland’s three highest peaks within 36 hours. However, now that my six and a bit hours of toil are behind me, I’m glad I was cajoled into it.

Not so sure about the family of three we passed a couple of times who, from the lack of conversation and looks they were throwing each other, were finding nothing enjoyable about the trip whatsoever. I wasn’t there to witness it but maybe they danced a jig if they ever reached the summit, I hope so! The cheerful lady who assured all those ascending around her, as she was on her descent, that they only had 10 minutes to go and would feel amazing when they got there provided a generous lift to the spirits. Another lady assured me that it would have done more good tightening my buttock muscles than any aerobics class (I’d hope so as it was six times as long)!

But to me the real inspiration of the day came from a guy in training to be a Marine. According to the information boards at the start, the average expected ascent is four hours and descent three. We met him about an hour from the top in our money (15 minutes in his) and it had taken him one hour and five minutes to that point. He was hoping to do the total descent in 45 minutes! Considering the terrain goes from climbing over massive boulders and landing on jagged smaller rocks, to that of a large pebbly beach (on a 45° to 60° angle), to loose scree and then snow at the top; the prospect of running up and down this beast of a mountain was more than my head could comprehend. The thing I found most impressive was not how he did it, or even why, but just that he had such resolute belief that he could.

I don’t think his inspiration will turn me into a fell runner just yet … but maybe it’s time to tackle that hand knitted jumper and really believe that it won’t end up looking like I knitted it for a giant!

July/August 2012

Well, I seem to have survived another exam season. This one seemed to come round even faster than the last one. Having compared notes with other parents, I don’t think we realise how much the experience winds us up until we start to wind down and that seems to be regardless of whether our role is a placatory one, an organisational one or one of a constant nagger (that the various electronic distractions will still be there in a month and that, just at the moment, books and notes are more important – as is trying to get out of bed before midday during the aptly titled “study leave”). I’ll leave it to you to decide which category my role fell into this year!

A few weeks ago I realised that I only have to go through this exam period once more which must mean that my years of parenting school-age children is almost over. However, a couple of items on the news recently have made me wonder if we’re guided to put emphasis on the wrong sort of education for our kids. We’re led to believe that exams results are the be all and end all for our children’s future lives. In the competitive world we live in this may be so. However, in a recent survey of British 16 – 23 year olds 60% didn’t know that butter was made with milk from dairy cows. And whilst apparently less than 2% of British adults were obese in the 1970’s experts are predicting that, if we continue as we are, 75% of the population could be suffering from the ill effects of excess weight within 10 to 15 years.

So now that I and the young one have had time to relax after the formal examination system, I plan to spend the next year ensuring all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed in terms of his wider education before I send him on his way to the big outside world in 2013. Unless, of course, he decides to join that other scary statistic and become one of the 25% of British men aged 25 to 29 still living with their parents. Oh happy days!

May/June 2012


I’ve come to the conclusion over the past few weeks that computers are quite like children; I like them when they’re well behaved but have great difficulty saying anything civil about them when they start playing up! And like children, when they become poorly, you realise that all the things you had planned for that day are not going to happen and you end up asking yourself “why didn’t I pick up on the warning signs and put plans in place?”

My run of bad luck started when I got a call at the beginning of the month to let me know that there was a problem with the internet connection to the office which was going to take a few days to rectify. I wasn’t unduly worried as I know that I can do a lot of my work from home. I happily bobbed into the office and scooped up the necessary paperwork to work on the next day.

Sitting at home that evening in front of my computer, I got increasingly irritated at the length of time the simple domestic correspondence I had to do was taking … then I tried turning it off. Oh, the delight that the dreaded blue screen provides! And why does it only ever appear when you turn your computer off and are either running late for something or wanting to finish off for the night and go to bed?

So, there was a computer with no internet connection at work and an internet connection with no computer at home. As anyone who’s experienced my plight will know, like many things in life, you only start realising what you had once you’ve lost it – photos, letters, recipes, kid’s schoolwork … the list is endless. Some of it was backed up but I certainly couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say it was done religiously every Sunday.

My mother had a good expression which she used to quote at me whenever my daughter had discovered an irritating habit as a toddler, “it’s only a phase”. I decided I should use this phrase to deal with the interim period whilst the computer specialist discovered if he could salvage anything from our computer. Whilst pondering what I would do if we’d lost this or that, I found myself desperately trying to blank out the rest of mum’s expression. She would sigh and cheerfully add, “The next one will be worse”. Let’s hope that, on this occasion at least, she was wrong!

February/March 2012

I don’t know if it’s just me or did it seem like a very long time between your own or a close family member’s tenth and twentieth birthdays? Nowadays it seems that birthdays with a nought on the end seem to be two a penny. Perhaps it’s because historically we would have been lucky to see beyond half a century that we feel the need to mark the beginning of each new decade of our adult lives. Or even, that as you get older you mix with a wider age range of people which ensures that these special birthdays keep appearing with remarkable regularity.

The one thing I have noticed is the expectation that you will mark “a zero birthday” in some special way – and from my observations that means organisation and hard work. My worry is whether the person at the centre of it actually gets any enjoyment out of it at all. They are so busy preparing food, filling glasses and ensuring everyone from the different aspects of their past has someone to talk to that I wonder if they ever have time to do what it’s all about and catch up more than superficially with those very people that matter to them in their life.

Which is probably why my poor partner was met with an indignant “surely that’s just about us” when he asked what I wanted to do about our next wedding anniversary which, funnily enough, is one ending with a zero. Thankfully, he’s taken me at my word and planned a weekend away to a secret destination for just the two of us and I feel under no obligation to organise a party for friends and family in addition.

I knew that getting married on leap year’s day would have its advantages … not only is a wedding anniversary such an infrequent occurrence that neither of us has ever yet managed to forget one but with this only being our fifth “real” anniversary, a decision as to what to do for our Silver Wedding is an awful long way off!

December 2011/January 2012

I am currently in the middle of a gift magazine subscription which is lovely. However, I have a problem with it. Like most people who can’t find enough hours in the day, my reading time tends to be limited to that sacred 15-30 minutes before my eyes give in at the end of a day. So although having a magazine to read is lovely, it cuts in to the time when I would otherwise be starting to get through that massive pile of books on my “to read” shelf.

This was highlighted to me the other morning when I had finished my current magazine the night before and made a note to look out a book to start that evening. What should drop through the letterbox that day but the next copy of my magazine? It was the 16th November and the January edition had arrived!

Why do the publishers do this? As I see it I had two choices: I could either put it away somewhere safe until after Christmas. You know that safe place you put the Christmas cards you buy in the January sales, only to be found again the next time you move house! Or I could get on and read it now. I may be cynical but maybe if we all followed this pattern we could do away with the commercialism of Christmas altogether. As according to my current reading; now is the time to diet after the excesses we haven’t yet eaten in December, it’s also a good time to readjust our budgets having not yet gone overboard at the last minute before Christmas, not to mention tips on how to patch up that argument you haven’t yet started with that relative you’d rather not see over the festive season.

So maybe they’re doing us a favour, maybe this is the way we can all save ourselves the stresses of the Christmas period. I have to confess that in a strange sort of way I feel a lot more chilled about this Christmas than some Christmases past, as my mind is already in its January mentality of clearing out the rubbish and bah humbug to any excesses! Wonder if the family will approve of my new approach come the 25th December?

September/October 2011

Until last week empty nest syndrome was something I occasionally read about in magazine problem pages. The writer would have poured out their innermost feelings of grief and loss to which I’d mutter something along the lines of “What a shame but you can’t mess with the march of time”. Like many of life’s experiences, I now realise that I should most definitely withhold my opinion until I’ve actually been there!

Yes, one of my children has left the family home. Rationally, I know that in the natural order of things, if you have children, this is something which will one day happen. Let’s face it, you silently, or on occasion not quite so silently, wish it would happen on copious occasions during their youth. In fact, with my daughter it probably happened on day three of her life when she’d managed six hours sleep out of the seventy two available! Irrationally, however, it is something that you spend a good few years preparing your off-spring for but pay no attention to how you’ll feel.

We’ve spent all summer getting her organised and prepared for independent living which has involved many reminiscences on her father’s and my part of “When I was a student …” to which she’s listened with her natural patience and good humour. Sadly, neither of us has a parent who’s drawn us aside and said “When you all left home …”.

So, here we are. Daughter happily settled into her accommodation, making friends and getting used to university life – just as it should be when you’re eighteen and can’t wait to get out there in the “real” world. Meanwhile, her father and I are left bereft, knowing our family will never be quite the same again and realising that in two years time we really will be back to being a couple rather than a family unit. Perhaps it’s time to do more than look disparagingly at those problem pages and re-discover what we enjoy doing with the spare time we haven’t had for the best part of two decades!

July/August 2011

As we were just recovering from the worst winter we could remember it seemed like a breath of fresh, rather than freezing air … my brother announced he had decided to hold his next birthday party (one ending with a zero!) in a field in June. His birthday isn’t in June but June had been considered the safest month both in terms of the weather and people not being on holiday.

So a Scout field was booked, tents were serviced, bought or, in our case, hauled out of a wardrobe (where it had rested for the last decade with fingers crossed that the moths hadn’t got it!). Generators, firewood and barbecues were organised and, after much preparation, all the guests had to do was turn up.

Only problem was that on the morning of the party we woke to torrential and unremitting rain. It was the kind of day you only went out because the dog was laid across the front door with his four paws in a knot … and we were going to spend it in a moth-eaten tent in the middle of a field with said dog who’d never been camping before!

Still, there’s something about the British spirit which rises to the occasion. We arrived to a field full of adults and children in wellies and kagouls sitting under gazebos, almost as if they were taking tea in a country house garden – apart from when the wind blew the entire puddle off each roof onto those sitting all around the edges! Barbecuing went ahead with the cooks having umbrellas held over them; the food was naked but somehow still cooked. There was even a roaring fire later in the evening; mind you, I’ve never seen people disappear so quickly when the rain turned from a mizzle to a torrent.

We woke to a very damp field and it was not long before the rain started again. Tents were dismantled and cars re-packed. Before we headed off, my sister and sister-in-law caught me to arrange a weekend when just the family could get together closer to my brother’s big day. A weekend in August was agreed.

“What are we going to do?” I asked.

“We thought we could go camping, surely we can’t get weather like this twice?” was the unexpected reply.

Optimism, resilience or foolhardiness … only time will tell!

April/May 2011

A strange thing happened to the family home about three weeks ago … our broadband got cut off. Disaster, how could this happen, how would we function, how long would it take to rectify? All questions raised at the family crisis meeting which followed this discovery late one Friday evening. Turned out that it was one of the joys of your partner having a home office and therefore not anything you could solve yourself but would have to wait until Monday morning.

“Someone should turn theirs off and see how they like it” muttered my despondent son when he was told it had been a mistake and some head office bod had wrongly decided the line was no longer used. Unfortunately for him, some greater force was listening to his negative remarks and decided to twist the knife further, causing his mobile phone to lock terminally. “No mobile phone, facebook or email … now I’m a total social outcast!” Thankfully he’s not a tantrum thrower so computer and phone weren’t launched across the room, just remained a silent, unlit presence in the corner.

I found out how he felt the next day when I had to phone to book e-tickets for my daughter’s parent information session at her chosen university.
“You can book these on our website you know.”
“Yes, I saw the letter did say, it’s just that I don’t have internet at the moment”
“You don’t have access to the internet?”
Five minutes later and feeling about the size of a thimble, I came off the phone suddenly knowing how it feels not to belong to the same club as the majority.

I believe that, if everything goes to plan, we are to re-join the web-using population in a few days time, much to my two teenagers’ delight. However, for the record, I have noticed that we’ve enjoyed quite a few extra evenings of unbroken family time, my partner has spent fewer late nights in his office, and no-one’s uttered that awful phrase “I’ll just check my emails”. Oh, and in case you were worried, my son hasn’t turned into a social outcast and has re-learnt how to use a landline telephone (to my financial cost no doubt!). He also discovered a positive amongst the negatives … his forward thinking school has a web-based homework system – maybe a lack of home internet could become a new trend after all!

February/March 2011

I was complaining (surely not!) to a friend the other day that my short-term memory was getting worse, or rather that my lack of one was getting beyond a joke. My kids seem to have this unspoken rule that when I ask them the same question more than once within the same conversation, they don’t answer me and give each other knowing looks instead! It works in that I’ll look up from whatever else I’m doing and check “You’ve already told me that, haven’t you?” I then have to concentrate hard to see if what they said did actually register in my brain at all or whether I have to confess that I can’t remember their answer and ask for a repeat.

Having decided that there wasn’t much we could do about the age-related side of this problem; my friend advised that the best we could hope for was to keep our brains youthful by exercise. The solution she has come up with, which had in turn been recommended to her, was to watch “Countdown”, the afternoon word game show.

I tried the “I haven’t got time to watch daytime tv” tack, but she’s not one to take “no” for an answer, and told me to use the watch again facility on the internet. Well, I’ve now taken my medicine three times and it’s been a bit of a journey. First time round, I hadn’t even copied the words down before the 30 second timer went off and how anyone got that anagram at the end within 10 seconds was beyond me. Second time my concentration strayed listening to the cheesiness of the quizmaster, looking at the outfit of the numbers lady and pondering on the rumour that the dictionary corner lady was wired up and getting outside help (I have to confess that this latter one made me feel better as surely no-one could have such a vast vocabulary naturally?). However, programme three was a bit of a revelation and in one round I even saw a word one letter higher than both contestants and dictionary corner. I didn’t spoil my thunder by checking it was actually legitimate!

I’ve yet to notice a marked improvement in my memory and did catch myself making drinks for my son’s training session which he’d told me the day before had been cancelled. But at least I feel I’m doing something about it and with the weather we’ve had recently I’d much rather be exercising my brain than my body … after all, summer’s coming and Rome wasn’t built in a day!

November/December 2010

I have to admit to reading the recent articles about mothers favouring their sons with a certain amount of amusement and a huge pinch of scepticism.

I suspect motherhood is a job that you can’t do without, at some point, having the fact that your behaviour has been inconsistent pointed out by a partner, a friend or, usually, one of your offspring’s other siblings. I know I’ve always aimed to ensure that “no means no” and tried never to change it to “maybe”. Because “maybe means yes, just keep working on them” was a stage whisper I once heard an older child utter and made a determined mental note that neither of my two should ever take it as useful advice, irrespective of their gender!

No, the reason that I found it amusing is that, at the present time, the difference between girls’ and boys’ motivations are being fairly well highlighted in my household. My daughter is at the very end of her school career and quite frankly it has been a fairly pleasurable experience throughout. She’s always worked hard and seemed to know instinctively that she couldn’t expect to get the results she wanted without putting in the necessary work. So my job as her parent in recent years has been an easy supportive one and not a constant nagger.

Enter my son who is just starting out on the formal exam years of his schooling. He’s lovely but has no real idea yet what he wants to do with his life and seems to think that the way to exam success is to leave all his books on the floor beside his bed and the necessary knowledge will seep in by osmosis! He can study sport league tables for hours, memorise them, analyse them and discuss them coherently but somehow the same stamina cannot cross over to his academic revision where apparently studying is something which can only be done in very short and irregular bursts.

So far from favouring my son at the moment, I have to keep biting my lip and not comparing his attitude towards study to his sister’s! During my calmer moments I manage to tell myself that it would be a boring place if we were all the same and remind myself that I wasn’t perfect at fifteen either.

I don’t know who they collected this data from but the only area I can see where I favour my son over my daughter at present is in the amount of nagging he receives … perhaps I should check with my daughter that she’s not feeling left out!

September/October 2010

I recently celebrated another birthday and looking at the various types of communication I received from family and friends led me to think how much I miss that old fashioned skill of letter writing. It was lovely to get text and email messages and to speak to people on the phone as well as to read the, mainly rude, comments to accompany their cards but it was the newsy intimacy of the two handwritten letters which I really savoured.

For me, a handwritten letter can’t be read when the usual early morning pre-school and work malarkey is reaping havoc in my kitchen or, indeed, in a public area at all. No, I like to digest the look of my name on the envelope knowing that when I do get a quiet moment on my own, the contents of it will bring me up to date with the writer’s life, or rather the elements of it that they have selected to describe to me. A letter just seems like a more gentle form of communication for which you don’t get instant answers and from which you don’t get answers at all if you don’t write back! I think it satisfies me that the memories I have of a calmer, slower paced world sometime before the internet was invented, aren’t necessarily a mirage!

I can remember when my kids were very young, just after my mother had died. I was living at the other end of the country from my father and they were too small for him to be able to talk to on the phone, so he used to send them handwritten notes inside Winnie the Pooh notecards and I used to read them out. It was lovely for the kids to receive them but it opened up elements of his character of which, until then, I had been totally unaware! It’s much easier to say things in a letter which you either wouldn’t feel comfortable vocalising or would just never get discussed.

An Aunt of mine was a great believer in writing letters to solve any of life’s problems; advice I can remember throwing back in her face as a teenager. “Get all your thoughts and feelings written in a letter”, she used to say, “it lets everyone know exactly where they stand.” I’d then argue that I’d make a prize fool of myself if I was making a mountain out of a molehill. “Oh, you don’t always have to send it” she’d reply “but at least you’ll have your feelings clear in your own mind!”

If only I’d taken her advice and gone into a quiet room to write a letter every time a situation arose which made my blood boil while the kids were growing up, instead of sounding off instantly in my usual fashion, there may not have been so many bridges needing to be re-built!

July/August 2010

Like most people, I have a couple of periods in the year when birthdays come in a cluster. I don’t know why September was the cause of so much celebration amongst my relatives, but suffice it to say I have four family birthdays in the space of ten days in mid-late June. This I’m prepared for, although they may argue differently given the fairly haphazard arrangements that I make year on year over their presents and celebrations! No, my grumble comes when every year, Father’s Day falls between my husband’s and my father’s birthdays which are exactly a week apart – why should I add this to an already over-full monthly calendar of celebrations? Fantastic as they are, why do they deserve two presents and cards in the space of a week?

I think my resentment of it all started the year my mum died, at the beginning of the week on which Mother’s Day fell. I can remember wandering the aisles grudgingly picking a card for my mother-in-law, surrounded by all the loving messages which just seemed to accentuate my loss. A passing writer of the soppy rhymes might have been cheered to see the sad woman on the verge of tears standing looking at the array of cards – little would they have known!

So, when five years on I didn’t feel any differently and Mother’s Day still really got me down, I felt enough was enough. That was the year I told my husband that if he wanted his mother to get a card he’d have to buy it himself, and my kids that under no circumstances were they to buy me anything. I did explain why and that I’d much rather they bought me a wee surprise as a thank you for something I’d done or because it made them think of me, than on a specific day dictated by card manufacturers and retailers – which would probably be the one day they didn’t want to talk to me anyway!

Since then things have improved greatly and I even found myself smiling at the supermarket checkout this year when the couple in front were putting through three bouquets of flowers which looked as sad and stressed as they did. The conversation went something along the lines of –

“We’ll go to your mum’s first and then do mine and if we hurry we could be home by 3pm.”

“No, we’ll go to yours first because otherwise she’ll never let us away and we can get away from mine by saying the flowers the kids bought me will be dead if we don’t get home to put them in some water.”

It’s true what they say, there’s always someone worse off than you. This poor lady had obviously just bought her own flowers for Mother’s Day as there wasn’t a kid in sight and there were three bouquets going through the checkout. At least a bit of honesty had spared me the fate of feeling so pressurised to conform that I had to buy my own Mother’s Day present, I felt quite liberated!

June/July 2010

Having heard about a recent study carried out by the University of Essex which tells us that as little as 5 minutes green exercise a day will benefit our mood, self-esteem and mental health; I was motivated to get outside and found myself in the unkempt wilderness which sadly passes for my back garden. Where to start? I was certainly spoilt for choice – it could have been the vegetable patch, the lawn, the areas which some people flatteringly call flower beds, the shed, the trellis or the patio. I daren’t look too deeply into how I make such decisions but, in these large project situations, I always start with the worst promising myself that I can then look forward to the fun jobs. In reality, I rarely get to the fun jobs because … well, just because!

So, the patio it was. I’d bought some “product” for it last year which was meant to produce amazing results after application and a little elbow grease. Reality was that after two applications and a lot of elbow grease there was no difference between the before and after samples. A friendly neighbour, who’d probably heard me taking various people’s names in vain (and has the most perfect garden you are likely to see outside of the Chelsea Flower Show), took pity on me and came round to suggest I try his power washer. I sold out fairly immediately, as having always held the view that they were terrible for the environment, I instantly discovered that they were amazing for my patio! I placated myself with the reasoning that water, after the winter we’ve had, is currently not a scarce resource in Scotland, and that although I was using unnecessary electricity this could maybe be balanced by the fact I was using no harmful chemical cleaners. Isn’t it amazing how easy it can be to argue yourself round a moral dilemma? Well, to be honest I’ll be using the other side of this argument as the reasoning for not cleaning it again for the next 5 years!

Anyhow, job done and I was feeling the benefits of my afternoon “in the presence of nature”, maybe not having exercised entirely as the University of Essex were suggesting but a resultant lift to my well-being was felt nonetheless. So, it was with a skip in my step that I trundled the “patio goddess” back round the corner to its owner. On arrival, I discovered him having a blether with a few other members of the local neighbourhood who made encouraging noises when they heard about my afternoon’s achievement and joked that a pair of wellies would have been more suitable footwear as the bottoms of my jeans and trainers were by now both filthy and soaking wet.

It was only when I got back to my house and upstairs to remove my decidedly soggy legwear that I noticed it was not only my clothes which were mud splattered, my face and hair were covered in grit and mud too … and I had been happily chatting normally to several members of the local neighbourhood for I don’t know how long! Did the fact that no-one had pointed this out to me mean that they felt my facial appearance was no different to normal? Thankfully not, “Glad to see you actually wash your face at night” has become the local in-joke. Needless to say, I’ll be checking any dresses carefully before leaving the house this summer because a hem tucked into my knickers really isn’t a look I want to be told about the morning after the night before!

April/May 2010

There seem to be some events in life which jolt you into the realisation that time waits for no man more than others. I experienced one such event a couple of weeks ago when my elder child turned seventeen. It was strange that her sixteenth birthday didn’t seem to affect me – perhaps because of the sweet sixteen connotations or perhaps because, even though I knew she could legally get married, it was only mentioned as the subject of a joke between us rather than something that was going to happen in reality for a good long while yet.

“What do you want for your birthday?” we asked a few weeks ago.

“Oh, driving lessons, please!” came the response.

But it wasn’t until I put the voucher into the envelope that the reality of this paper token actually hit home. Many of you who have been through it will be ahead of me on this one, but the cogs in my brain went onto a driving, freedom, independence, how did this happen so quickly circuit. And then, as only parents can, into the eek, danger, she could kill herself mode. This one obviously best saved for the middle of the night worry slot!

Thankfully, I’ve moved fairly quickly from dwelling on how that small toddler became the “intelligent, self-assured young woman” her recent school report referred to, in what seems like a blink of the eye but when looked at logically has been a sizeable fraction of my life. I began to explore the positives this new skill could add to our lives. So far on the list I’ve got that she’ll no longer need my taxi service to get back from friend’s houses late at night; she could dash out to get the things I forgot whilst I carry on making dinner; and I’ll no longer have to snap myself in two to get both her and her brother to different places at the same time! I’m still working on it but I am beginning to see the odd benefit in this recent landmark.

A few days after my panicked “I’m not ready for this, please turn back the clock” moment, I was having a quiet cup of tea and catching up with the family’s day when the phone rang … it was my dad with the news that he’s finally decided he’s had enough of being on his own in the old family home and wants to sell up to move closer to one of his children. Could he come and stay to weigh up the positives of where I am?

After putting the phone down and slowly pulling my head off the table from where it had temporarily slumped, I had to smile to myself. I’d just about come to terms with my eldest becoming a more independent entity when my remaining parent, who I relied on all those years, decided to be a less independent entity … I guess this means I’ve officially reached middle age and have at last started to understand that “Circle of Life” people have been harping on about all these years!

February/March 2010

According to a recent survey two-thirds of people in the UK can’t tell you the first names of their neighbours. Quite a depressing statistic and one which I hope is now a bit out of date following the awful weather we all suffered at the turn of the year.

I’ve heard so many heart warming stories of people looking out for each other that it might just have been worth suffering the freezing temperatures in order to improve community spirit. And let’s face it there’s nothing the great British public like talking about more than the weather, so we’ve not been short of conversation starters. From tea breaks together whilst shovelling snow off the streets; to pushing neighbour’s cars when they got stuck; to doing communal orders for bread and milk; and digging out paths for older residents, neighbourly relations must have been at an all time high.

Talking about digging paths, I think my most bizarre activity over this period was having to dig a network of channels in my garden to allow the dog to relieve himself! The plaintive look on his face one morning when he launched himself into it and then discovered he’d sunk in too deep to be able to get himself out, will stay with me for a long time. He may not be able to say so, but I discovered from his body language that dogs really don’t like being laughed at. Mind you, I discovered that I don’t like being laughed at either. Trying to dig snow whilst your son, who’s grown a tad since the last heavy fall, pelted you invisibly with snowballs whilst neighbours looked on laughing was a bitter pill to swallow!

I hope that the new acquaintances started during this period whether with neighbours, at school gates, or wherever will continue whatever the weather, as it certainly adds something to daily life. And, as I sit writing this in my kitchen with the radio on, I hear it’s been snowing heavily for the past 8 hours over America’s east coast. The forecaster’s suggesting that it may be heading for the UK … bring it on, I think it must be good for the nation’s well-being!

December 2009/January 2010

The latest topic which I’ve spent an inordinate length of time pondering is whether we’re known as a nation who don’t complain because high standards aren’t important enough to us or because the stress and unpleasantness caused by complaining is quite frankly not worth the raised blood pressure it invariably causes?

It has to be said that the main cause of the complaints I am thinking about surround eating out – am I ringing a bell with anyone? A group of us found ourselves in a situation the other week where we had booked an early table for a chat and catch up, only to have our meal appear like a hurried production line, coffee cups snatched away, table cleared noisily around us, bill pushed onto the table without being asked for … and when none of these tactics worked, the waiter informed us they needed our table back as the next incumbents were waiting! Needless to say we won’t be back, but what action should we have taken? Complaining fell on deaf ears and it was evident that no apology was going to be forthcoming; it could have ruined our evening but we’re a resilient lot and felt much better once we’d discussed various virtual legal and illegal scenarios to get our own back!

It is, however, a topic of conversation which leads to some great stories. I heard one last weekend about a publican who had little competition within a small town. His food was renowned for being pretty unremarkable but he would refuse to clear a table’s plates if there was anything left on any of them with a “You’ll be finishing that up in a minute, I take it”. On being faced with a vegetarian one day, he plonked down a prawn salad. When he was told that they ate neither meat nor fish, his helpful response was “Well, eat the salad and leave the prawns”! He even threatened one lass who had grown up locally but by then was in her 20’s with “I know your mother and if you don’t finish up what’s on your plate, I’ll be giving her a call.”!

The reason I bring this up is that as this tends to be the time of year when we probably part with more cash on eating out than at any other, I would hate a bad experience to gnaw away at anyone and ruin what should, after all, be a time of peace and harmony. So, although I still haven’t worked out an answer to my original question, I do think that the way we handle these disappointments says a lot about us as a nation … and, although we may not complain as often as we should or, conversely, always offer the standards of service that we should; thankfully, our sense of humour is a powerful weapon and tends to see us through. Well, that and a strong belief in “what goes around comes around” … I wonder if their cavalier attitude has upset enough people for the “lease available” sign to have been put up outside the offending restaurant yet?!

September/October 2009

Weddings, or rather relationships, seem to have been on my mind rather a lot this summer. A few weeks ago we had a mad 400 mile dash to the other end of the country on a Friday evening to attend a family wedding on Saturday, just to do the journey in reverse on Sunday, ready to start the week un-refreshed and exhausted!

The day itself dawned sunny and warm but my mood sadly did not match the weather (or indeed my floral outfit)! You see it was my birthday and I felt that as it had fallen on a Saturday it should have given me the right to a late, lazy breakfast followed by a family day and a dinner treat that night. Instead, we were cooped up in a family hotel bedroom fighting for the bathroom, mirror space and straightener time (the girls only for the latter, you’ll be relieved to hear!) whilst clock watching and trying to work out where exactly the venue was on our small, pretty illegible map of a small, pretty university town.

As usual, it was my daughter who ‘made me grateful for what I’d got’ (I always thought this type of advice was a parent’s prerogative but was proven wrong once again!).

“I don’t know Mum,” said the young owl, far wiser than her tender years should allow, “I think you’re lucky. I mean you’ve had breakfast in a restaurant and opened your presents, are staying in a hotel, getting to dress up, will have a nice meal later on, will be seeing Dad’s side of the family, and getting to have a knees up tonight – doesn’t sound like a bad birthday to me.” Okay, well put like that it didn’t sound too bad to me either.

The reality was that a lovely day was had by all including the grumpy, ungrateful one whose birthday it was! All the thought and hard work put into its preparation had paid off for the bride, groom and their immediate families who all seemed to have really enjoyed their special day.

As to the other relationships which have been on my mind this summer? Well, let’s just say they’re a tad further down the line than our happy newlyweds and none of the situations are of such an encouraging nature. Maybe, I should get the young owl’s take on each one individually … I’m sure there’s an optimistic slant she could eek out for the parties involved. Well, actually when I think about it, she does have a vocal opinion on each one but some things are perhaps best kept behind closed doors … suffice it to say though that, in most cases, she’s probably hit the proverbial nail on its head!

May/June 2009

I don’t suppose the conversation at our family dinner table was very different to many around the country a couple of weeks ago, such is the power of the media. The fact that none of us had actually watched the programme everyone was discussing, didn’t stop us having an opinion of it. The younger members of the family thought it was great that the judges of a talent show had had to radically change their initial negative reaction to a competitor once she had opened her mouth to sing. I have to confess that in my experience of our current “celebrity culture”, it is usually the other way round!

Sadly, the cynical older members around the table worried for the lady at stake. We mused that by the time the make-over artists and media had had their way with her, would her life be happier in any way except financial? Would her friends still be her friends for the right reasons? Would that previously eluded first kiss be given by someone who really cared or just wanted their five minutes in the limelight? You don’t have to look far for confirmation that although we’re financially richer than we’ve ever been in the past, we’re also generally emotionally poorer.

So, we were asked pointedly by the youngsters, what exactly is wrong with following your dream? Surely, they felt, she was better to use her gift and see where it would take her than carry on as usual and wonder at the end of her life what might have been should she have tried to make a career out of her voice?

It was at this point that I realised just how easy it is to become negative, particularly at this time, in this country. And that rather than envying the youth their joie de vivre we should all embrace it. Even if we don’t have our own dream to chase, we can at least react positively to others chasing theirs.

I have therefore decided that my own self-medication for the gloomy times we are currently living through is to try to be less cynical about good news stories and as my daughter advised “make your own luck”. Things were going swimmingly until the teatime conversation two days later when the budget had just taken place!!

March/April 2009

You would really have thought that by the time you’re the wrong side of forty, you would have learnt that unless you actually say “no”, people will think you mean “yes”. Sadly, it appears this is a lesson I have yet to learn.

It’s not as though I haven’t been in the situation where I’ve had to undo a smiled ‘I really don’t want to do that but can’t think of a valid excuse just now’, and uttered those words which invariably come back to haunt you of “that would be lovely but I’m not sure if I’m free, can I get back to you?”. I think my mistake is that I then prevaricate and instead of doing it straight away, leave it until close to said event by which time whatever reason I give for not being able to attend sounds like a well-rehearsed lie, even if it isn’t!

The plus point in these situations is that because I can’t bear the thought of letting anyone down and usually end up attending anyway, in probably nine out of ten occasions, I have an enjoyable time and am glad I went along. I’m just left with a Sunday night feeling of looking longingly at my sofa and realising that another week’s gone by without us spending any time together.

No, my problem really arises when I’m asked a favour. My lack of assertiveness, sensitivity to other people’s feelings, lack of quick thinking or call it what you will has over the years led me to sitting on more committees; helping at more school events; and looking after more people’s pets, houses and children than I care to think about. I even ended up making a friend’s wedding cake because the budget was running away with her and she knew I had done such things in a past life. The wedding was then totally ruined for me as I sat through the reception waiting for the tiers to collapse like a pack of cards before the bride and groom got round to cutting it!

I know it doesn’t make things any better but the older I get the more I hear people letting their guard down and feeling exactly the way I do. After my latest “do” last weekend when I ended up with two invitations to the same local event (yes, if I’d only said “no” first time round I would have been ready for the second one!), the person I went with said at the end of the evening “I’m actually glad I went to that, if it hadn’t been for the fact that you’d said you’d come along, I wasn’t going to bother”! Nothing makes you feel better than knowing you’re not on your own.

As this goes to print, I am left wondering if next month’s column will be about the perils of honesty or loneliness because I have a terrible feeling that anyone I know who reads this will never be inviting me to anything ever again! Does anyone know of any good social networking sites?!

February/March 2009

A belated Happy New Year to you, although I have to confess the words do seem quite hollow. I don’t know about you but it seems that on both a personal note for me and those around me, as well as on a more worldwide scale, we are constantly being reminded that there is little to be happy about this year. This got me thinking about our language and the daft phrases we often use without thinking.

Take for example the advice “You can’t have your cake and eat it”. This one has always confused me. What is the point in having a piece of cake if you are not going to eat it? What good would come of not eating it apart from it going stale, or perhaps you gaining a boost to your willpower? Maybe the advertising slogan “When it’s gone, it’s gone” would be more suitable.

One that’s a bit closer to home at present is “A watched pot never boils”. My kettle blew up a couple of days ago. As I haven’t yet had a spare moment to replace it, I have had to resort to the old pan on the hob approach. I can therefore report, with feeling, that a watched pot does boil eventually and also that a cup of tea tastes all the better for the anticipation created by the extra moments said pot takes to get there!

Then there’s “All good things must come to an end” … why? Does this message really help us come to terms with a situation? Perhaps the good thing might develop into a great thing or be replaced by another unexpected good thing. I prefer the old fairytale ending of “… and then they all lived happily ever after”. They probably didn’t on a day to day basis, but at least it leaves you with a positive feeling about their overall life experience.

How about “Barking dogs seldom bite”? I take the point but have certainly found it to be untrue in my experience (for both the canine and homosapien species). Apart from anything else, how annoying is a continually barking dog? My own four footed friend is always left with a toy lying close to his basket, so that when he does a Tom and Jerry style chase to the door on hearing an approaching threat (like a leaf being blown along the pavement outside!), he scoops up the toy en-route and continues barking. The funniest thing is the sound of the muffled equivalent of a dog swearing and the confused look on his face as he tries to work out why he’s not making the impact he so vehemently desires.

I shall end on a positive note which is of course my mission. Having lived in quite a few different parts of the country over the years and picked up friends along the way, I have got cynical about the old “we must catch up in person” or “will see you this year” on the Christmas card which I put my hands up and confess to having been guilty of writing myself in the past.

So, it was a lovely surprise when I answered the phone the other day and discovered a friend who I hadn’t spoken to for at least ten years on the other end. She too was fed up with our empty promises of getting in touch and had decided to do something about it. I’m too embarrassed to reveal how long the conversation went on for but suffice it to say it was my longest yet (those who know me will have their eyes on stalks at this point). However, you could say I discovered that despite all the negativity surrounding us “laughter is the best medicine” and hopefully the old “walls have ears” isn’t true in my house or it may not be me you hear from in the next edition!

December 2008/January 2009

I seem to remember promising myself last year that this year would be different. Well, it certainly has been but not in the way I was intending. This was meant to be my super-organized year, the year when my Christmas shopping and those dreaded eight December birthday presents were done and dusted in September. As I put pen to paper, it is now late November and my brain’s just beginning to register the fact that Christmas is less than a month away and I haven’t yet bought so much as a card!

There seems to be two ways I can deal with this crisis. The first is to panic and the second … is to panic a little more vociferously! Thankfully, the sensible voice in my head (who sadly speaks in a very quiet tone most of the time) muttered that there must be another way to get through this potential minefield.

So, in a moment of unexpected calm, my mind was re-wound to a Friday evening a few weeks ago. To paint the picture, we’ve had a difficult few months at home with, amongst other things, a very poorly child. As tends to happen in these situations, my other half has taken the brunt of my low morale. The lift I therefore received the evening he arrived home laden with all sorts of goodies, which constituted the ingredients for a perfect Friday night in, was immeasurable. It was a small gesture but such a thoughtful one it would have been impossible to place a monetary value on it.

Why, it occurred to me, don’t I try to replicate this thoughtfulness with my Christmas presents this year? Would the effort of visiting our elderly relatives and taking some attractively wrapped home baking, not be more welcome than yet another ornament they don’t need (or probably even like!) or another pair of slippers when their collection already resembles that of a centipede! I tried my new strategy out during a phone call to an elderly aunt last night and said “I don’t want to just give you a gift this year, what can we get you that you would actually like or need?” After coming clean and telling me about her cupboard full of unused soaps, jumpers … and sheepskin slippers of Christmas past, she said “Well, what would be best would be some first and second class stamps because getting to the Post Office now is so difficult and I do still like to write to a lot of friends”.

Result – I suddenly felt a lot calmer and more positive towards this season of goodwill to all. Maybe I will get through it without losing my marbles and actually make some people happier in the process. Perhaps there was more sense to my mother’s “honesty is the best policy” than I ever gave her credit for. Although it was usually used when I had to go and apologise to a neighbour for my ball landing in the middle of their prize cauliflower than in this context! However you’re spending the Festive Season, I hope it brings you peace and happiness.

October/November 2008

Do you ever experience that rare moment of gloating satisfaction when you tick a long-overdue item off your domestic to-do list? By rights, I should have enjoyed two such wondrous moments recently but sometimes life just doesn’t run to plan; and my personal history dictates that I should have learnt by now that gloating satisfaction and I are a rare coupling!

One experience involved a long struggle over furniture being delivered with two items arriving in a size larger than ordered. Not only did they then not fit into the spaces available but the newly decorated room, which was amazingly ready and waiting to receive said furniture, has now been turned into a general furniture, cardboard and china store. So ten weeks on from ordering, the little matter of “sort the dining room out” on the to-do list remains and the dining room door stays tightly shut as I felt a chilly change of mood occurring every time I saw the disaster zone.

My other experience involved a car service; I smile to myself as I write as I’ve yet to meet someone without a story to tell on this subject! Yes, you’ve guessed it; the car went in running fine and has come out with some very weird creaks and groans. The members of staff at the service-desk always ask if there are any problems I’d like them to look at during the service. As soon as I take breath however, their smile changes to the look I see on holiday when I try to speak to a local in their language! “Well” I said, “the lock on the driver’s door screeches each time I lock it.” It’s now 2 weeks since the service and I still wince every time I press the central locking button. Apparently it needs … a part they don’t stock and don’t know when they can get in, so the issue continues.

All in all, I suppose the lesson of my past month is that to remain in a positive frame of mind, I should apply the DIY law to everything – attempt a project, double your budget (if only for the cost of phone calls to chase people up) and triple the time you think it will take to achieve. One consolation I’ve just discovered though, you don’t half feel a lot better for writing it down and getting it all off your chest!

August/September 2008

As I sit writing this month’s contribution, the school holidays are drawing to a close. I always find this period a bit of a sweet and sour experience. On the plus side there’s been 7 weeks liberation from constant clock-watching, the pressure of firing out meals at specific times, and not having evenings interrupted by dropping and collecting kids from various clubs. Not to mention the fact that I haven’t given a second thought to the dreaded morning routine of ensuring everyone’s up, dressed, with bags at the ready and packed lunches made – preferably before the school bus leaves the end of the road. It has to be said that I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been transformed from Mary Poppins (although a glummer, tone-deaf version) into Penelope Pitstop and hared after the school bus before finally catching up with it several stops down the road. Thankfully, the bus company always uses its worse specimens for the purposes of the school run which ensures they never go above 25mph!

On the negative side of the long summer break is the continuous organisational tug-of-war ensuring the domestic side of life is balanced with keeping the kids occupied, the headache of arranging any necessary childcare, and the fact that your bank balance takes a pummelling. Now that mine have reached an age when going out and about with your mates is much more enjoyable and far less embarrassing than the same outing with your mother, I seem to have handed over a lot of money this summer without actually gaining any enjoyment from the trip involved – mainly because, other than financial, my only contribution has been as a drop-off agent!

I’ve even worryingly found myself thinking back to their younger days and those carefree afternoons spent in the garden. A colleague was telling me the other day that her son passed an entire afternoon playing with an old washing-up liquid bottle and sending rivers of soapy bubbles (lava) from the top of his slide (volcano) down into the grass (deep ravine) below. Simple pleasures but the kind childhood memories are made from. My mother’s budget used to stretch to one fun afternoon outing each week of the holidays and I still treasure those memories now.

So as the new school year beckons and my hatred of its routine strengthens, I’ve noticed something odd. The image of kids dreading going back to school whilst parents count the days down on their calendar isn’t true in our house. Mine are really looking forward to seeing those friends they haven’t seen for weeks while I feel a bit like a turkey before Christmas. Why? Because when all’s said and done (& they better not be reading this) I really enjoy their company and the extra time the holiday allows us … and I’ll miss having them around!

June/July 2008

It occurred to me the other day, as I was cleaning up walking boots and scrubbing mud off waterproof trousers whilst their owner soaked herself back to civilisation in a hot bath, what a well put together scheme the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award is. It covers all the areas we keep being told are necessary for a well-balanced life and it seems a shame that it’s only available for those under-25. Perhaps the reality is just starting to sink in that age restrictions don’t just occur because you’re not old enough; you can also be too old!

For those not familiar with the scheme, you can progress through 3 levels – from bronze to gold; and have to complete four areas within each level – skill, service, physical recreation and expedition. So as I see it, you have to have a hobby, do some voluntary work & take part in a sporting activity. In addition, you have to organise, train for and complete an expedition of varying length to complete that award.

Having watched my daughter and her friends go through this process over the last year has been both hilarious and rewarding. The expedition, in particular, certainly turned into an experience they’ll never forget. Initially, I think they thought it would be like a camping sleepover with talk of taking a big cool box to keep their midnight feast supplies fresh. Then the realisation that you would have to carry it 25 miles over rough terrain, with a rucksack the same size as you on your back, whilst having to have your hands free for map reading, crept into the equation. As did many other of life’s questions such as – how do you plug in straightners in a tent? They were also faced with the quandary of turning into camels or getting on and answering their calls of nature in the open air (although hopefully for their fellow hikers, behind the nearest tree or boulder!).

I felt so sorry for them when the day of the real, rather than practice, expedition arrived. After nearly a month of dry, almost pleasant weather, we woke to torrential rain which carried on all day and into the night. However, they’re a determined group and nothing was going to stand in their way. According to one of their instructors, they were heard before being seen at the finish, walking in a linked chain and belting out Spice Girl numbers to the long-suffering mountain range.

Realising from such an early age that you can’t just take from the society you’re living in, as well as learning how rewarding giving something back can be, not to mention the feel good factor of succeeding in both individual and group activities can only bode well for their and our futures. It just seems a shame that there isn’t a refresher award for those time-pressed over 25’s who want to improve their lifestyles to the same degree!

May 2008

I’ve got a guilty secret … I was silently hoping that the strike at the oil refinery in Grangemouth was going to linger longer than it did. I hasten to add that this wasn’t to score any political or environmental points. No, my reason was more selfish, I just thought it would give us all a chance to s l o w d o w n. I can still remember (yes, I know I’m showing my age!) the excitement as a child of power cuts and racing around finding candles before the lights went off, as well as getting days off primary school because the heating had had to be shut down.

Now, as an adult, I can see the serious side that bringing the country’s transport systems to a standstill would bring. However, I’m also acutely aware that much of all our busyness wouldn’t exist without the freedom to jump in our cars to do x, y or z. It seems that a whole generation of kids are growing up thinking little more about where their food originates than from the local supermarket.

I thought that perhaps a week or two of us all being at home experiencing difficulty in doing the basic things in life without having the luxury of taking the basics for granted and getting on with our usual hectic routines would have been a wholesome experience.

However, it wasn’t to be. So as I was filling up at the local petrol station watching the other drivers’ looks of relief as they poured fuel into their depleted tanks, my thoughts turned to how driving habits have changed as our lives have speeded up.

Gone are the days of waving or tooting your horn at someone driving the same model of car as yours. I reckon if you tried it these days, you may receive a hand gesture in return but it wouldn’t be a polite one! There just seems to be a lot of anger around with drivers getting very animated with the car in front for the most ridiculous reasons as their destination time becomes more important than anything or anyone else. I regularly see the most ludicrous over-taking stunts going on near my home because a tractor has the audacity to travel at 25mph in a 40mph limit.

I obviously haven’t moved with the times on this one as, although I do find driving more stressful than in the past, I am unable not to see the funny side of grown adults in motorised metal boxes getting so upset with their fellow homosapiens about such trivialities – maybe fairground bumper car attractions should be set up in our towns and cities to allow over-wrought drivers to off-set their built up aggression in a more suitable setting?

April 2008

I’ve just returned from a well deserved Easter break in a remote part of Scotland. However, no holiday would be a holiday without a few events to mark it as unique (well, in my experience anyway!). This holiday has become known in the family as the “Smoke Alarm Break” … not a disaster I hasten to add, but a lesson learnt the hard way.

We’d had a couple of days rest when we got a message on the mobile one evening. It was from a neighbour at home to say one of the smoke alarms in our house was going off but that there was nothing untoward to be seen. Knowing how loud these things are and being slightly concerned as to what had set the alarm off, we decided that leaving it for another five days was not really on. So, five and a half hours later, my nearest and dearest phoned from home to say that all was quiet and that nothing suspicious bar a faulty smoke alarm had been found. Some time the next day, having left a key with the aforementioned neighbour, he rejoined the family holiday.

It led me to thinking why we hadn’t had the foresight to leave a key with a neighbour in the first place, thereby avoiding this hassle. The answer was probably twofold, lack of organisation and the‘t’ word. It’s fine passing pleasantries across the street but a different thing entirely to entrusting someone you don’t know very well with the key to your home. It seems these days that you automatically think the worst case scenario and err on the side of caution rather than the more old-fashioned belief of thinking the best of someone until proven otherwise.

Luckily, the locals where we were staying were still very much of the latter school of thought. Before we left for this holiday, I had phoned to order food from a shop which delivers twice a week to the remote area we were staying. I offered to pay by card on the phone but the owner was having none of it and said if we weren’t in when he delivered, we should just phone the shop to arrange payment on our return and he would leave the goods outside the property. Luckily, we were in when he called and it was obvious he didn’t just think of his job as one of delivery man. He walked straight in, explained exactly what he’d got for us if an item was in any way different from my order, as well as being very chatty and knowledgeable about the area. Payment, although important, took a back seat to a friendly, personal service.

I think it was this attitude on top of the ‘smoke alarm experience’ that made me realise how much stress can be taken out of our everyday life by being a ‘truster’ rather than a ‘doubter’. Life may have moved on a pace from the days of food delivery from a grocer rather than a supermarket but maybe that’s when we also started to miss out on knowing our local community and the benefits those relationships can offer.

So that was my lesson for this month … I wonder what May will have in store?

March 2008

I’ve come to the conclusion that DIY decoration should carry a Government health warning something along the lines of “The small project you are about to embark on will take over your life for its duration; have implications to all other rooms and members of your household; take twice as long as you’ve assigned to it; and cost at least twice your original budget.”.

Does this sound at all familiar? Sadly, one of the items on my New Year To Do List was to turn my daughter’s room into a teenage study-bedroom from its current girly pink palace state. As February hurtled towards March, action was necessary if a study sanctuary was going to be achieved in time for revision for the end of year exams.

I knew I’d been putting this whole project off because it wasn’t just a simple case of painting some walls – no, it was a full de-clutter, try to get the furniture re-housed as I couldn’t bear to see it go to the tip, find some suitable new furniture, curtains and bedding (which were agreeable to both daughter and parents!), decorate the room and then put everything back together.

In essence, nothing sounded too difficult. In reality, I fail to see how I’ve reached the age I have and still be so naïve! Every step of the way has had problems. When we were moving the furniture out, we thought it would be sensible to re-assemble the bed coming out with its twin bunk across in her brother’s bedroom. It was almost achieved until we realised, when we tried to put the ladder on, that the bottom bunk needed a 180° rotation. The problem being that this room hadn’t been emptied and was full of a 12 year old’s clutter. There then followed a Laurel and Hardy style ladder routine to correct the problem!

We’re now nearly there but are having delivery problems. Firstly, that although ordered together, everything is now coming separately. Secondly, although we were told we would have delivery date options, they now can’t offer us any and can only deliver the one day in seven that no-one except the dog’s at home!

Still, I do now have an incentive for getting it finished – she’s having a birthday sleepover for 6 in two week’s time. If it’s not finished they’ll be sleeping (or not) in the living room which is directly under my bedroom!

What really takes the biscuit is that we never seem to learn. And that similar to forgetting the pain involved in that other ‘labour of love’ you experience at the start of each little one’s life, DIY seems to have the same effect. So when my son asked when his room was going to be brought up to scratch, I found myself saying “Oh, we’ll try to get that done before the year’s out.”!

February 2008

It occurred to me the other day whilst standing in a queue in the men’s department of a high street store, that there weren’t many men around, in fact the only ones to be seen were in female company. Why, I wondered, is it okay for the male of the species to delegate this activity to the fairer sex (apart from us having better colour and dress sense and an eye for a bargain!)? The answer, it seems, is stereotypical – men hate shopping whilst women love it.

Well, I admit to having enjoyed shopping as a regular weekend activity in an earlier life – around the time when you earned money and spent it on yourself! And if the truth be told, the enjoyment even then was mainly in the company and quality of lunch or afternoon tea. Now time is a more precious commodity, I tend to bank up shopping items until I can put it off no longer, hit the high street with far too long a list and get in a very bad mood when it becomes obvious all will not be achieved.

I tried the internet but was always out when the items tried to be delivered. Once they were eventually received, they invariably ended up going back because they either didn’t fit or the image that had looked great on the computer screen didn’t live up to expectation in the real world.

No, the answer for me lay in finding a personal shopper who knew my taste and enjoyed nothing better than spending a day on the high street … so now when my teenage daughter announces that she’s “going down town with Vicky”, I happily reach for my taxi driver’s jacket and boots. Instead of charging a fare, I hand her a list and some money. I’m happy because I miss a shopping trip and she’s happy because it’s more shopping without having to spend any of her money. I think they call it a win-win situation!

January 2008

Am I alone in wondering if the new postal system was put into operation without a care for the customer or if it was, in fact, designed by a very clever money-making machine?

Gone are the days when you had a few first and second class stamps in your purse and the only conscious decision you had to make was how quickly you wanted your envelope to arrive before sticking on your stamp and taking it to the nearest post-box. Now it’s like a Blue Peter activity with scales, rulers, a chart with holes cut out of it … and invariably a trip to the not-so-near Post Office to get it checked and buy the extra 1p or whatever stamp to add to your first or second class stash.

No longer can you just run out to get that nearly forgotten birthday card with ten minutes to go before the final postal collection of the day. I did for a friend’s child and was quite chuffed I’d managed to find a decent one at the last minute with an age badge on it. However, woe betides me if I’d just written it in the shop and sent it off with a first class stamp. No, according to my local postmaster, the badge tipped it over the allowable 5mm thickness. This put it into the large letter category, not in terms of length, breadth or weight but depth – requiring an additional 12p! Had I not checked, the recipient would have had that inevitable postcard through their letterbox requesting underpaid postage before my card could be released.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to go to our local sorting office since the summer and hand over cash for items which have been sent with the wrong postage. Usually £1.01 – the penny for the amount it was under-stamped and the £1 for a “service charge”. Last time, when I mentioned (nicely, of course) to the member of staff that it was a bit excessive to have to go to all this bother for 1p, I obviously hit a raw nerve. “Tell me about it!” he exclaimed and proceeded to show me all the mail waiting to be collected by people in my position. He reckoned the work involved by all the different postal staff to collect the money, not to mention the extra storage space required, would be costing more than it brought in – but apparently it was progress, wasn’t it?

However, I’ll finish on a happy note and with a word of caution to anyone, like me, who has decided just not to bother claiming their mail in future. My colleague, Ellie, had such an experience with her Christmas mail. After making the sorting office trip and humming and hawing over whether to bother paying the charge, she was ever so glad she did when she discovered a rather nice wee monetary gift in the awaiting card … it certainly made her trip worthwhile!

November 2007

This summer saw me eventually put into practice something I’ve talked to friends and family about doing for a long time. In fact, so long that in the meantime, it has become a very trendy pursuit … I grew my own vegetables.

Well, that’s slightly misleading, I don’t want to give you any false images of my becoming like Felicity Kendal in “The Good Life” (more’s the pity as far as my other half is concerned!). However, this spring I did manage to get my vegetables patch both dog and rabbit proof. A challenge in itself as my dog manages to urinate over most plants irrespective of whether they’re at the front or back of a bed (wouldn’t you fail to appear at your best after such treatment?), and the kids are convinced the wild rabbits bounce around on the trampoline at night (“Well, how else do the droppings get there?”). I then spent forever digging over some totally weed-ridden soil before finishing up with what rather surprisingly looked like a vegetables patch. The next problem was what to do with it!

Never, has anything seemed so satisfying as planting my little seedlings out (yes I chickened out and visited the local nursery) against a straight string and standing back in admiration at the area all marked up with rows of sprout, leek, broccoli, beetroot, cauliflower, carrot and potato.

Never, has anything seemed as disappointing as the summer rain lashing against the window, the slugs coming out in abundance and the pigeons finding an appetite rarely witnessed.

Ah … the highs and lows of an inexperienced vegetable gardener! Despite many setbacks, I experienced the wonder of strolling down the garden to cut what I needed for the evening meal and having it cooked and on the table within the hour. I made the kids do the same as I wanted it to be a memory they’d take with them to adulthood (I told them they’ll thank me for it in the long run and it wasn’t just because it was raining that they were being sent!). I’ve got a few jars of home-pickled beetroot in the cupboards and still harbour a dream of cutting a Brussel sprout stalk on Christmas morning for the meal but I think the insects may have a different agenda between now and then.

All in all it’s been a very therapeutic experience and one which I’d recommend to anyone looking to escape their everyday stressors… well, as long as you’ve got a good sense of humour and don’t expect miracles to happen overnight!

August 2007

“Holiday” – a subject that in my younger carefree days used to take little planning (i.e. choosing somewhere I’d never been before and fancied going to – oh, and could afford) and would involve nothing more than putting a few things in a case, making sure I had some money and, if required, my passport and getting to the airport or station in time. Things are a bit different these days. I have a bit of extra baggage (excuse the pun) in the form of a partner, two children and a dog. The word “holiday” now throws up images of moving my life into fast-forward for at least a week beforehand and an operation that seems to require military precision and planning!

It wasn’t until the first day of our family holiday this year that I realised I hadn’t actually communicated with my husband during the previous week in sentences not beginning with “Did you remember …?” or “If you get a minute could you ….?” or the dreaded “It was you who was going to …?”

Things you didn’t even give a thought to before can suddenly become potential disasters. My fourteen year old this year managed to lose her boarding pass between having it checked at the departure gate and getting on the aeroplane (despite my matronly cries of “and look after that with your passport”). After a fruitless two-minute search (aren’t cargo pants a wonderful invention – so many potential pockets to lose something in!), the kind aircrew decided to let her on the plane since I had my boarding pass and her passport confirmed we were mother and daughter. Needless to say, brother and father seemed oblivious to the fact that the annoying couple holding up the queue at the aircraft doors were anything to do with them. They’d found their seats and were happily snorting over a “Simpson’s” comic by the time we finally joined them.

There then followed ten blissful days of relaxation and exploration and the usual resolutions which you can’t help spouting when you’re surrounded by a different language and culture. From the determined “I want to be fluent in Spanish by the next time we come”, to the wishful “We should adopt their laid back approach to life”, to the highly unlikely “We should all promenade at 10.30pm together like the Spanish families”. In our defence it would be 11pm and bedtime by the time we’d put on layers of jumper, fleece, anorak, and wellies and looked out the umbrellas!

Needless to say, since our return the resolutions remain – I was thinking about them only yesterday as I loaded yet another pile of our catching up laundry into the washing machine before cutting the grass which hadn’t been touched for three weeks … they’ve just slipped a little bit further down the on-going “to do” list!

June 2007

Isn’t it wonderful when a routine event has unexpected, positive side effects? I had one such experience the other weekend. Having carried out the normal Saturday morning duties of a parent with children of a certain age (housekeeper, social secretary and taxi driver rolled into one, have I missed anything?), I decided to create some valuable space in the garage by taking the various rapidly mounting piles to the local recycling centre.

I managed to dispose of the tins (simple), cardboard (almost as simple although a few more do’s and don’ts to read) and the plastic (nightmare)

Then, almost finished, I trudged over to the glass recycling. I don’t know what your glass recycling is like but at my centre you shoot the bottles down a tunnel about twenty metres below where you’re standing. If you’re tall you can see the bottom, I have to make do with the satisfactory delayed smash. Needless to say, I was a bit miffed to discover a retired gentleman already at the glass section with two huge cardboard boxes full of bottles at his feet. Muttering to myself that queues ought to obey weekday hours, I politely waited behind him.

However, he turned to me with a smile sixty years his junior and said “The secret is to feed the next tunnel with a bottle before the last bottle’s had time to smash at the bottom! Here, do you want to share mine? You do the green ones.” His enthusiasm was contagious and it would have been churlish to decline. So we spent the next couple of minutes firing bottles down the tunnels, making a right old racket. I even entered into the spirit of the occasion and invited him to smash my brown and clear bottles.

As I left the glass recycling, I swear my shoulders had dropped to a more relaxed position and I smiled to myself on reading the notice at the entrance/exit – “Children under 12 years must remain in vehicles”. Too right, I prefer to think that far from this being a health and safety issue, the council had the well-being of their older residents at heart!

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