Monday, 31 December 2012

So What Cha Want?

On the Party Times blog it posed the question "What does 2013 hold in store for you and your family?".  My reply was that I didn't know, but hoped for health, happiness, and laughter.  As I don't normally make New Year's Resolutions there aren't any particular goals beyond not forgetting things like birthdays and deadlines, and booking our holiday far enough in advance that we have at least some choice of rain-soaked destinations from which to spend a week dodging showers and going to agricultural-based theme parks (Big Sheep or Farmer Palmer's anyone?).   Looking to the very long-term I feel certain about what I hope for, and am working towards, and on a day-to-day basis - well there's the 'Gruffalo Family Calendar' and the magic of Outlook to make sure that no balls are dropped or bills are missed but the coming year?  Hadn't given it much thought, until now.  So here goes, this is what I'd like:

If it ain't on here -
it ain't happening!

  • Laughter, loads of it, specifically of the 'tears streaming down face' variety
  • That our son and daughter continue to thoroughly enjoy pre-school and school and that they have lots of opportunities to be silly, funny, and carefree
  • That friends and family who have had bad health in 2012, have better health, or at least some respite from all the prodding, poking, and pills
  • That I've got my sums and savings right, and don't wind up with a massive tax 'surprise'
  • That we have enough money to enjoy ourselves
  • That we make the time to see more of the friends that make us feel happy, positive, and energised
  • That I come across a song that makes my hair stand on end.  A good example would be 'Welcome to the Jungle'.  It seems to set off some kind of primordial response in me.  Doesn't matter where I am - it's guaranteed to make me stop and empty my mind of everything except the sound of Slash's guitar riff.  I feel like I should climb up onto a rock and howl at the moon.  Spooky.
  • That I don't miss a massive hair growing in the middle of my face.  Like I did this year.  Sorry to mention such unseemly things but it was a uniquely alarming moment - how did I not see it growing?  After consulting with friends we are agreed it is something that really kicks in once you've passed thirty-five. Much closer attention will be being paid in 2013.
  • That on balance, we'll be able to look back and say 'it was a good year'.

So that's it, there's my list.  How about yours?  What cha want?

Soundtrack:  So What Cha Want by Beastie Boys

Saturday, 29 December 2012

I Believe in Father Christmas

Belief is a funny thing, a personal thing, and one that is thrown into sharp relief at this time of year.  Families that don't believe in God attend crib services and become teary-eyed on hearing 'Little Donkey', committed aetheists can be cajoled into putting their bum on a freezing cold pew for Midnight Mass, and everyone over the age of twelve pretends for the sake of the little ones that a jolly man in a red suit zips around the world on a sleigh pulled by animals devoid of wings to deliver their presents.  Factor in that our daughter lost a tooth two weeks before Christmas and we have had a festive season packed full of myth and make believe.

Our most magical moment came this year when we put the children's letter to Father Christmas in the fireplace.  Carefully written by our six-year-old and placed in the grate by our four-year-old, they mused on how it would reach Santa and whether we had left it too late (it was the week before, they had a point).  I don't know what distracted them but, for a moment, they looked away and by some incredible fluke, I managed to flick the envelope up the chimney where it caught on something and held fast (and still is - must remember to get it out before it comes back down, it would rather give the game away or make them think he didn't want their letter and I'm not sure we have enough tissues to deal with the flood of tears that would cause...).  I managed to stand up before the children turned around to see the letter had gone, but couldn't quite arrange my features to disguise my surprise at overcoming my left-handed lack of co-ordination in such an impressive way.  The look on their faces was priceless, and I think they took my open-mouth / raised eyebrows combo as confirmation that there was indeed magic afoot.  Eat your heart out David Blaine!

Christmas Dust. 
When porridge oats and glitter become one.

I know at some point they're going to rumble us, and that we'll have to confess to the staging, secrecy, and hiding of presents in ever more hard-to-reach places but on the basis of that one reaction, we're going to keep it going for as long as we can.  I wonder what the going rate is to hire a reindeer for next year........? 

Soundtrack: I Believe in Father Christmas by Greg Lake

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

I Can't Get No Sleep

One of my friends had a beautiful baby girl a few weeks ago and recently posted the following on her Facebook page:

It made me remember how you don't appreciate just how brilliant sleep is until you are deprived of it over an extended period of time.  For us, it was brought home very suddenly and forcefully when our daughter was born and of all the things that we thought we were prepared for, going without sleep wasn't one of them .  The change from being able to make up for getting in at 3am by staying in bed until 2pm to being woken every two hours to then stay up feeding for an hour is pretty challenging and more than a little mood-altering.  I am not ashamed to admit there were more than a couple of dark moments mixed in with the joy of our new arrival.

I was counselled by friends and relatives to 'sleep when the baby sleeps' and, of course, completely ignored it because I was going to 'carry on as normal'.  I scheduled myself silly but when it got to the point that I got lost on the way back from a hospital appointment (in the village where our daughter was born of all places) and had to call my husband to direct me home I knew that I had to listen to what these smart ladies (and my body) were saying.

Sometimes we need a reminder that there are times our body needs to rest for very good reason.  Times when we should switch off the phone, the pc, the outside world.  My reminder was in the form of going round in circles in Wallingford for twenty minutes feeling like I had lost the plot.  For other friends it was crying in the supermarket, being reminded by a bus driver that they needed to take their baby with them when they got off the bus and for some ticking 'those' boxes on the questionnaire you fill out at your six week check-up with the midwife. 

But this is 'Reasons to be Cheerful' and so I will end with another, happier, reminder.  It was the joy of waking up after a delicious two hour nap that was gifted to me by my friend Nimisha when my daughter was about two months old.  She arrived with a box full of home made Indian sweets rich in sugar and condensed milk to recharge my depleted energy levels then joined forces with my mother-in-law to send me to bed while they looked after the baby.  It was exactly what I needed and absolutely priceless. 

So if you're wondering what to give a new parent for Christmas, give them the best gift of all - some sleep :)

Soundtrack: Insomnia by Faithless

Thursday, 13 December 2012

I Want to Run

Well-travelled and well-worn, a bit like their owner!
Oh running, where would I be without you?  This morning I was greeted by a beautiful frosty-fringed scene and pure clean air.  For someone who loves the combination of this kind of weather and a canter through the countryside, it was like catnip: I did the school run and then went for a run.

For most of us our first encounter with running is an enforced cross-country trek in t-shirt and shorts while being barked at by your PE teacher and prevented from dawdling by another teacher at the rear.  For me this meant a red-faced, stinging-thighed, chest-flapping experience.  As we were more concerned about fashion than correct sportswear, we wore plimsolls instead of good trainers, Top Shop bra-tops instead of sports bras and character t-shirts instead of anything that would keep us vaguely warm.  It was a terrible combination and not something that inspired many of us to carry on.

But carry on (and off) I did. I joined the local athletics club and after coming last in every race I was entered into, I was put in the walking race.  That's right - the walking race! Where you must walk fast, but not run, forcing you to waddle like a Pearly King with his thumbs in his braces dancing to 'My Old Man's a Dustman'.  It is a terrible look, a terrible 'sport', and I came second to last because someone else had to pull out due to injury.  Not a natural sports woman but not to be undeterred by this lack of prowess in the competitive arena, I decided to try to keep fit with a friend who, like me, mistook her teenage curves (that we would kill for today) to be lard, by running with binliners under our t-shirts because we knew that was what boxers did.  We didn't develop six-packs, we just got sweaty.  And rustly.  We looked and sounded silly, so we stopped.

I decided from there on in to stick to the gym, generally going at silly-o-clock in the morning for an hour with an ex-Army PT instructor who had decided what he really wanted to do was shout at out of shape office workers.  And then my mum had heart failure and I thought I'd give running another go by signing up to do the Reading Half-Marathon, partly to raise money for the British Heart Foundation, partly to help counterbalance the amount of curry and beer I was enjoying at the time, and partly to hopefully reduce the chances of it happening to me.  Nothing like the prospect of having to run 13.1 miles to force you out into the elements with (very importantly) the right footwear and undergarments.  Once I'd run my first mile without having to stop I was hooked.  I don't think I'd quite appreciated how good it would feel.

That's not to say it doesn't have its drawbacks: I've lost toenails, got lost, fallen over, fallen into a bog whilst trying to 'guess' a route through some woods next to the Kennet & Avon canal, had to run with the equivalent of a snail trail on my running tights after mis-calculating a spit (sorry), been bitten on the backside by a dog called Billy, had upset stomachs, headaches, and farted in front of a fellow runner - hard to hold in a trouser cough when in motion (apologies again but sometimes your body doesn't 'do' polite).  I've developed blisters, chillblains, almost fainted from dehydration and am now addicted to glucosameine to try to combat the clicking noise that my hips make but I will keep doing it because I've found nothing that beats the mind-clearing, freedom-bringing, good to be alive feeling that comes with a nice long run.  Think I might go for another tomorrow....

Soundtrack:  Where the Streets Have No Name - U2

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Sweet Child O' Mine

During the course of a pre-Christmas clear-out I came across a box containing the tiny wrist bands the children were issued with when they were born; little strips of plastic containing a lot of important information.  Along with the relief that I will always have a record of precisely what time they were born (I confess I don't remember - a bit busy experiencing the 'special' sensation that comes with childbirth - first time - and thinking "oh no!  I remember this part and it's really horrible!" - second time - to check my watch), was that they read 'baby of Toni Kent'.   

So fast were the tags put on that their names were not recorded - and after all those months poring over name books and negotiating!  They just 'belong' to their mother and exist as nothing else officially until you visit the registrar and hope that they don't make a mistake and register your little boy as 'Sue' or your little girl as 'Frank'. 

Then come the family tours and the visits to work which boost the spirits and make you long to return and where nobody complains if the baby farts loudly or vomits on their black suit and instead they congratulate you on managing to hold it together for long enough to get out of the house (even if you did have a little cry in the car, and another one in the loos, and you might have one on the way home) and how you've 'sprung back into shape' when in fact you have rolled your stomach up and stuffed it into a pair of control knickers.  They might also remark on how much your offspring looks like you.  Or not in my case, but that's ok, at least they won't ever be greeted with "ooh don't you look like your mum!" - I've yet to meet an adult that feels 100% happy with that 'compliment'.

And as the children grow they are testing boundaries and asserting themselves in ways that we hadn't predicted would happen so soon.  Conversations at the dinner table switch from what happens after you've swallowed your food to what happens after you die, to precisely how old Yoda is.  It is like being in constant preparation for a general knowledge quiz..and they don't always agree with, or accept our answers.   

Refusals of some kind happen on a daily basis: having their hair brushed, wearing something that looks vaguely smart (even weather-appropriate would do - our son wears shorts almost without exception), doing homework, and sometimes we are not even permitted to hold our daughter's hand on the walk to school.  At each turn we try to hide our frustration or sadness in the hope that they might do what we want or would like.  Behaviour can be encouraged or resolved with a trip to the reward chart or the threat of pocket money deductions but on things like their opinion on what they wear or whether they feel like holding our hand we know we have to let them make their own decisions - we are kidding ourselves if we think we're in charge!  Each day sees their personalities building and each year brings more independence of action and thought.  They are growing up, and away.

We carry them round and cuddle them tight calling them 'mine' and 'ours', take endless photos and videos and post status updates on their achievements, but they might grow up to be embarrassed by this, by us, and our delight in the minutae of their youth.  Remember the shame of your mum getting the baby photos out in front of your boyfriend or girlfriend?  The school photos that were all over the living room wall charting the never ending horror of the home-cut fringe?  I like to look at them now but it's safe to say that my teenage self would have been quite happy for none to have existed as I strained at the leash to establish myself as appearing completely unrelated to my family.

Much as we love our children and give them everything we think they need it's likely that at some point they're going to think we're cramping their style or being frankly rubbish parents.  So I will try to see these little disagreements and differences of opinions as reasons to celebrate their individuality, be happy that they are building their own personality and hope that we are laying the right foundations for confident, independent, healthy, happy little people to grow up and away (whilst secretly holding on to the hope that they will let us hug them tight and call them silly names well into their twenties!).

Soundtrack: Sweet Child O' Mine - Guns N Roses

Saturday, 1 December 2012

I Read the News Today; Oh Boy.....

Not currently part of the
Key Stage 1 curriculum
(c) Private Eye
In the week that Lord Leveson released his report on press regulation and the media is awash with comment and opinion on a Free Press; our daughter has become a Free Reader.

To be a 'Free Reader' is a much coveted title at school; it means that you no longer have to follow a colour-coded reading book programme but can instead select any book that you like from the school library.  We are justly proud of our daughter, and delighted with her teachers.

Her confidence increased, she has taken to reading anything that she can see, whether it's intended for her or not.  As a result, she has given us cause to reconsider where we leave our reading material more than once this week. 

It began with her asking us who the man on the front of Private Eye was, then reading aloud the contents of his speech bubble.  She was disappointed to discover that the 'cover star' Lord Leveson is not related to Father Christmas because his outfit 'looks almost the same'.  It's a fair point but as interested as she was, we're not entirely sure she's ready for political critique and satire and so we've put it out of her reach.

(c) Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty
This was followed by our son pointing out that there was a picture in the paper of 'Mary and Joseph'.  It was, in fact, an image of three Afghanistani women.  Taken on its own, it is a funny and understandable mistake for a child to make but for the fact that the accompanying story was about the murder of a young girl for refusing an arranged marriage.  Our daughter wanted to read the story.  Another paper gets put out of the way.

So we have agreed to make sure that we put anything that's not for little eyes out of sight and we think that we're doing ok.  And then I go to a shop in a nearby village where there is apparently great demand for 'adult' magazines.  I don't know what the legislation is on front covers at this point in time but apparently as long as there are stars over a woman's nipples then it is fine for it to be in plain view; even if she is attempting to lick the star off or is pointing at another part of her constellation-covered anatomy.  

As a child, The Sun was the favoured daily paper of my parents so rarely a day passed where I didn't see which 'lovely' had her baps out for the delectation of the British public.  There was also always a stash of 'dirty magazines' left in the local woods (with the internet not yet invented people took to the wilds with nothing but a magazine, a hanky and a furtive look) so I did not grow up unaware of quite how fascinating the female form is to so many, but I don't want it for my children.  You could argue that the magazines are out of their line of sight but that is to assume that they never look up or around them and that is also to assume that they cannot read.  For whilst the woman's breasts came with the requisite stars, her bottom half was concealed by the legend: "Footy Fanny!"  There is a part of me that wants to guffaw at its absolute shabbiness but as a mother I am appalled that a shop in the middle of a housing estate, and next to a nursery, is putting magazines like this just one display away from CBeebies magazine.  Thankfully our daughter didn't get the opportunity to look in that direction, she was too busy being led away with me muttering something about "they've run out of sweets"....

I remember hearing a woman who had not learned to read until adulthood say during an interview that it had been like someone turning up the volume on the world.  Whilst up until that point she had plenty of spoken conversation; the wording on signs, in papers, on the sides of vans, cars and buses, and the back of tins and packets had always been silent to her.  After learning to read she felt they were shouting out to grab her attention, crowding her brain with messages and urging her to read more.  This is how it is now for our little free reader, and it's our responsibility to make sure as far as possible, it's only the good stuff that gets heard. 

Soundtrack:  A Day in the Life - Neil Young, Live at Glastonbury 2009.  Makes my hair stand on end this one.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Down in the Country

Here's looking at Moo
Ah the countryside.  Peace and quiet, pipe and slippers, an absence of street lights and a sky full of stars.  Idyllic and boring as hell by turns.  Or is it?

I grew up in Basingstoke; a town that gets a very bad rap but actually has some nice countryside on its doorstep.  Walks down the farm were commonplace, as was being told off by the farm manager for touching the electric fence 'for a laugh'.

From there to Reading for a ten year feast of pubs, clubs, restaurants, and shopping.  Happy, happy, days but there came the point when the paper-thin walls of our Victorian terrace (we knew our neighbours far better than we wanted to, or perhaps they intended us to - rather like my friend in 'The Sound of...') and spending an hour stuck in traffic to travel eight miles lost its shine so we departed to a village on the outskirts of Newbury.

And it does tick all of the boxes you would expect.  Horses on the high street, tractors on the school run, sheep and cows coming up to the garden fence and visitors from nearby towns wandering the streets searching in vain for a mobile signal.  If you don't have a car, you are at the mercy of just six buses a day and if you are sick - best make it between the hours of 9 and 12 if you want to be seen at the local surgery.  So far, so predictable, except that lots of far from predictable things have happened in the eight years that we've been here....

The Weather.  Not to be messed with.
  • The bike ride where we encountered a full-blown rave happening in an underpass. 
  • The pig running purposefully up the road en route to who knows where but certainly escaping being turned into chops.
  • The 'Missing Llama' poster that appeared in our shop window.
  • The naked rambler who wasn't quick enough with his 'modesty screen' to escape a friend's husband from seeing his buttocks winking in the sun. 
  • The house that keeps a flock of ostriches in its garden.
  • School raffle prizes including donations from a certain Mr Walcott. 
  • The weather being something of real interest rather than something that just happens outside.  Snow closes the village off.  Torrential rain brings a normally dry river back to life and sends shoals of 'Monster' energy drink cans through the village (other heart palpitation inducing beverages are available....).  It also threw our trampoline across the garden with the gusto of a professional bowler going for a 'strike'.
  • Discovering the best way to break into your house after locking yourself out is with the help of a heavily pregnant woman and a 12-foot ladder.
  • Bumping into people we last saw 10 years ago at the Reading Festival at a Beaver-Scout meeting.
  • Being told that a pub in a nearby village was to be avoided due to the feistyness of the local jockeys and stable-hands.  Oh how I wished to see silks flying but we heeded the warning and relied on our imagination to fill in the blanks.

So eight years in, we're looking forward to at least eight years more and for a move that we thought was all about space, and peace and quiet, it has instead been one of discovery, amusement, and surprises.  Ravers, llamas, and naked ramblers - not so boring after all :)


Soundtrack: In the Country - Cliff Richard & The Shadows

Saturday, 24 November 2012

What will I be?

(c) Brute Labs
On the way to a soft-play venue today (terrible weather = trip to a building made of tin filled with more scramble nets and obstacles than the finale of the Krypton Factor) the children were having a discussion with their cousins about what boys and girls are able to do.  After 5 minutes on the merits, strengths, and abilities of girls and boys (including "girls can do sport if they are as strong as a boy" and "I'm never getting married!"), it was agreed that actually they can do the same things be it football, work, raising children, or the type of vehicle they fly/sail/drive.  With the children's ages ranging between four and seven-years-old, I was impressed that they had raised a topic, debated it openly (and forcefully at times) then come to an agreement.  

Given it was a discussion between two girls and two boys, I was especially delighted that they came to the conclusion that they did.  And then I remembered that children have an in-built sense of justice and fairness.  Whether it's a board game, handing out sweets, portion-size at dinner time, or discussing who could be an astronaut; they each want to be treated the same and see it is only fair that others are too.  What open-minded, smart, fantastic little people they are - I hope they carry this into their adult lives.

I am hopeful for this generation; they are the children for whom no stigma is attached to families where both parents pursue fulfilling careers, where mum has the more demanding / important job, or where dad stays at home to support mum's career.  Whatever our opinions about family arrangements and career decisions that are different to our own, these children see them as normal.  And in this I see that my son knows he can be an engineer, a teacher, a builder, a developer or a stay-at-home dad.  And I see that my daughter knows she can be an engineer, a teacher, a builder, a developer or a stay-at-home mum.  They can be anything, equally.  Except as it stands today, some 'grown ups' have decided that girls cannot grow up to be a Bishop in the Church of England.  I think they could learn a thing or two from these kids.   


Soundtrack: Que Sera Sera - Doris Day

Friday, 16 November 2012

How 'Mo' Can You Go?

There is a 'Mo' growing in my house.  Not quite 'salt and pepper', but definitely more than a hint of grey going on within the black; it is a blatant and bristly intruder.  The children complain of its itchiness when they kiss Daddy goodnight and I try not to stare in incredulity at the changed face of my husband, but we know that it is there for a good cause and so we wait patiently for December to arrive when normal service will be resumed and kisses will be smooth once again, all the while being grateful that the 'Mo' is there to support, rather than to remember.

I love the creativity and participation that Movember encourages, the way it tackles a serious issue in an positive way and the variety of spin-offs that it has created, from MoRunning (witness Mr French in the middle with his friends Dave & Paul at the Battersea Park MoRun.  So 'Mo', that they are doing a MoBot.  At a MoRun.  With big Mo's.  If you have a picture that ticks more 'Mo' boxes, please send it over)

to the individual efforts of people like my friend Gary who will recreate a moustachioed pose of your choosing, subject to a donation to his page.  If you like his '118 118 Man' , you can make a request by donating here:
I know that this topic, and this month, is much documented and so I didn't think I would have anything different or interesting to add until I came across a company that is run by a friend of a friend.  Just setting up in the business of selling condoms, one of their recent Facebook posts carried a picture that manages to combine sexual health and Movember in a way that some people thought was a bit close to the edge but I found very salutary and funny.  After giving it some thought I have decided not to publish the picture because I'd like to give you the choice as to whether you look at it or not, but I think you will be able to imagine it when I tell you that the gentleman's rather full and lustrous 'Mo' does not belong to him, rather it is the pubic hair of a woman.  It is well-shot, humourous rather than sexual, and supportive of women in that I think it is possibly the first instance I've seen where a company is using an image of a woman being anthing other than devoid of hair positively.  If you would like to take a look - you'll find it at 
Whether you check out (or agree with) the picture or not, I hope that you will join me in celebrating Movember.  Whether you grow a Mo, run for miles, donate dollars or simply acknowledge the efforts of your friends' and neighbours' facial hair experimentation in the name of cancer awareness and prevention - I salute you!


Soundtrack: Born to Hand Jive by Sha Na Na (Grease Soundtrack)

Monday, 12 November 2012

With the Ill Behaviour

So we returned from our half-term break refreshed, revitalised and having almost achieved a tech-free holiday (if you don't count the tv....) but wondering about something.  Why is it that our darling angels pick being on holiday with other people as the best time to try out their worst behaviour?  In the past few shared holidays that we've had there have been inordinate amounts of tantrums, shouting and point blank refusals to do as they're told.  Nothing more serious than that but a very tiring state of affairs and just a little bit embarrassing. 

There are plenty of explanations: they are excited, they are with their friends, they are free from the stricture of routines imposed by school and pre-school and the set way that we do things at home.  It always surprises us when we get back how much calmer they seem but if you factor in the point that mum and dad are not nearly as interesting as their friends and their normal routine does not involve going to the beach every day and getting to stay up late then it does make sense.  Equipped with such knowledge we now know to brace ourselves and try to relax a bit so they don't feel that for the entire holiday their surnames have been changed to "No" or "Stop it!".

Then the other day a friend was telling me that during the wee small hours of a particularly lively dinner party she was holding, her 19-year-old daughter got out of bed and stood at the top of the stairs to tell her off for making too much noise.  Tables turned, here was the parent being the naughty one, and classically she responded with a "no I will not!".  It was payback time. 

It made me think about what happens when I get together with my friends.  Some of this is documented (see Doing it for the Kids or The Kids are Alright) but I will also take this opportunity, in the spirit of reminding myself that it isn't just the children who muck around, to confess to participating in the following:

  • A re-enaction of a 'Spaghetti Western' using tinned spaghetti as our weapon of choice (out of the tin of course).
  • Making phone calls on behalf of the fictitious 'Friendly Society' which involved calling people to wish them Happy New Year.  Whilst our calls were unexpected, we did get a lot of bewildered 'Thank You's'.
  • Having a fruit and veg fight in a classroom.
  • Calling out to strangers from a moving car asking them in an anguished voice "When are you coming home?"
  • Stuffing a car full of leaves, including the glove compartment.
  • Whining at a DJ for switching the music off because we just want to dance, man! 
I have also witness people eating the entire contents of sugar bowls, 30 olives in one go, massively over-spiced curries (sometimes by choice, other times spiked) and pots of mustard for fun.  It's one thing to muck about but I draw the line at inflicting pain on my intestines - I'll leave that to the cast iron stomachs of my male friends.

All of this is silly, childish behaviour fuelled by being with friends and often by one too many shandies.  Replace the shandies with industrial amounts of ice cream and orange juice and you have the perfect small person's storm. 

So there it is, it's not just the children.  The desire to muck about is in all of us, it's just that for the most part our children are spared the embarrassment of our misbehaviour.  Next holiday I'll cut them a bit more slack. 


Soundtrack: Renegade Master - Wildchild (Fatboy Slim Remix)

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Hi, My Name Is..

What's in a name?  Your parents pick one for you and you either love it, loathe it, change it, or your mates decide that adding a 'y' on the end of your surname or calling you something entirely different would work better.  The latter point seems particularly prevelant among men; when I met my husband's friends I had to learn their actual names and their nicknames.  Some followed the classic 'y' model like 'Broomy' and 'Studdy' whilst others stemmed from in-jokes and shenanigans long before I knew them - like 'Queenie' and 'Shed'.  Never happened with my girl friends, our 'proper' names always won out.
So it was decided that I would be Toni, and whilst there have been a couple of attempts at variations from friends and the occassional shortening to 'Tone' my name has remained largely unchanged and problem-free.

  • Except that it is impossible for me to buy plane tickets or fill out a form without it being questioned.

  • Except that when I had short hair as a child, people thought that I was a boy.  

  • Except that sometimes, when my mother and father-in-law spoke to people about their son and me without explaining that I was a woman, some of them thought I was a man. 

  • Except that sometimes in business if I email someone prior to meeting them, they expect to meet a man (do you detect a pattern here?). 

Were it to happen after a meeting, I would be distressed but as that is not the case, the fact that my name creates confusion is something that I quite enjoy and so I thank my parents for giving me a memorable name.

So we skip through life with our first names then some of us become a 'Mrs' and change our surnames.  Big day, big admin task, then big thrill of being addressed as 'Mrs Kent' for the first time.  So rarely do we use our 'formal' names now I feel like I'm in Downton Abbey if I have to say it or reply to it.  It feels particularly strange to be called it by our daughter's classmates - like most of us I don't feel too much older than 25 (even if I look am much closer to 40) so it feels odd to be given such a respectable sounding title.

No 'muh-meee' on here
And so to those children.  Ah lovely little babies that you are, we await your first word with trepidation, punch the air when you babble 'mama' and are overwhelmed when you say 'mummy' properly.  Then you realise that saying 'mummy' gets you attention, and the urgency and pitch with which it is delivered can be extremely effective in causing your parent to appear at a moments notice.  Uh-oh.  Mummy becomes Muh-meeee.  Or Muuuuuuuuuuuummmmyyyyyyyyyy.  Or MummyMummyMummyMummy!  There are days when I think that I must be called it close to 50 times...oh the agony.  Sometimes it is cute, sometimes just about bearable, often absolutely maddening.  There is a special kind of restraint involved to swallow the primordial scream brewing in your chest when you realise that the sound of you shutting the toilet door will prompt a small voice to call your name in a way that suggests something needs your immediate attention.  Even an attempt to discreetly open a magazine at the kitchen table when you think your child is playing in another room gets picked up by their radar - how do they do it?!

I love my children and being a mum has enriched my life but oh how I cherish those moments when I am just plain old Toni.  Hang on a minute - I think I can hear someone calling from, I'm ok.  This time it's Daaaaaaaadeeeeeeeee :)


Soundtrack: My Name Is - Eminem

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Techno, Techno, Techno, Tech-NO!

This counts as 'tech' in our house
We are preparing to embark on our first holiday abroad with the children.  It's just a short hop to Spain but with the associated travelling to and from airports we're potentially looking at a 6 to 7 hour journey door-to-door.

Which means that the children need to be entertained.  6 to 7 hours is a long time to keep children quiet and happy but outside of the unavoidable screens on the aeroplane, I don't intend to give them a piece of tech to do it.  

You see I'm a bit of a laggard when it comes to technology.  I didn't get an iPod until about 4 years ago (and of course, immediately wondered how I ever lived without it) and no longer have sat-nav in the car but I am very much a tech-lover.  The launch of the Microsoft Surface excites me, I am teetering on buying an iPad purely for the 'Paper' app, and I couldn't get through the day without my smartphone.  With the kind of work/life blend that I have I can't not be connected to email when I need it and I love keeping in touch with people on Facebook and Twitter but this does not extend to wanting to put gadgets into the hands of my children.

Now of course we have a television, and of course the children are allowed to watch it but I would prefer that the majority of gormless gazing at screens and furrowing of brows is left to the grown ups in our house.  There is an impressive but annoyingly wonky line that has developed between my eyebrows thanks to this and I am frequently told by the children to "stop looking at your phone!".  And I think that's the way it should be - it's right that they should think distractedly looking at a screen when you should be paying attention to the people in the same room as you is wrong.

That's not to say the children don't access technology outside of our home.  The most depressing thing I read in our son's otherwise brilliant pre-school report was that he had good mouse control.  I couldn't give a monkey's uncle whether he can power up a PC, work a mouse, manipulate a touch-screen or pull the back off a server; I'd have been happier if they'd told me he can make a farting noise by sticking his hand under his armpit.  It is probably less than 5% of the time he spends doing other outdoor, physical, interactive, educational, fun stuff but it does make me a little bit sad inside that it is believed that children have to have some form of computer skills when they're not even old enough to write their own names.

Wow - that feels better, are you still here?  Yes?  Good.  Thank you for listening.

So, back to the journey.  How on earth are we going to cope?  We're relying on good old-fashioned pens, colouring books, Top Trumps, and in a nice twist; a card-based version of Angry Birds.  And if that doesn't work, we'll be conducting a mass sing-a-long on the plane.  Wish our fellow passengers good luck!

Soundtrack: No Limit - 2 Unlimited

Monday, 22 October 2012

Doing it for the Kids

I used to think that getting married was just about the couple involved.  You meet each other, fall in love, there's a proposal (or tequila and falling down some stairs whilst attempting a fireman's carry in my case) and the rest of your life awaits.

This has been challenged in recent years as more of my friends and relatives have married after having their children.  Some met in their 30's and prioritised babies over tying the knot, for some an important reason for marrying was to ensure they had the same surname as their children and, more poignantly, some married due to a diagnosis of cancer or to celebrate the great relief of an 'all clear this time' post-cancer check.

In almost every case, and in those where friends and relatives have had their marriages blessed, the children have been part of the ceremony.  They have been ushers, bridesmaids, ring-bearers and generally 'stars of the show'.  My nephew got to sign the register at the wedding of my sister-in-law and her husband.  He was just five at the time and wrote his own place in his family's history - how cool is that?    

My children often ask about our wedding day and we get the photos out and chat a bit about what happened.  There are some things that we leave out - like the half-naked man at the end (thank God it was the top half..), the people in the unlocked bar helping themselves, the 'missing' silver platter that re-surfaced a few years later at a friends buffet, the 'naughty table' who had drinking games as their starter, the person who asked if they could 'crash in our room' because they had forgotten to book one and had run out of money...  The answer to the last one was a resounding "no" accompanied by the throwing of money at the situation - what were they thinking?!.  Let's just say it was a reception at which people got stuck in to the refreshments.  

Around the time of our twelfth wedding anniversary, the conversation came up again and my daughter asked if I still had my wedding dress.  When I said "yes", she pleaded with me until I agreed to get it down from the loft and then (after getting through the two massive boxes and reams of acid-free paper it was stored in) instructed me to put it on.  Not that I minded - I had given up on the idea that either me or the girls would arrange a 'wedding dress party' like the one Monica had in 'Friends', so it was good fun to wear it once again.  And what a laugh we had.  My daughter put on a party dress, my son put on his favourite Spiderman pants (well, what else would a modern Page Boy wear?), they picked up the train and we pranced around the house, up and down stairs and through the kitchen while they chanted "wedding, wedding, wedding".  My husband was bemused although not entirely surprised; being stuck in with the children on a rainy day often results in one of us being dressed up, painted on or 'turned into something' for their amusement.  

Once the children felt suitably entertained, and they had coerced us into showing them our 'first dance' (it was a classic - shuffling round in a circle with one or two twirls to make it look like we were putting in a bit of effort), the dress went back in its boxes and up into the loft.  The shoes were put away and the discussion turned to more important things like 'do babies wear clothes when they're in their mummy's tummy?'.  

Our hour of make-believe was not quite a wedding, or a marriage blessing, but it was a lovely family moment and, if my husband would like to buy me another dress and some more diamonds maybe we'll do it for real.....  Actually I know the answer to that one, better pencil in 'trip up into the loft' for 2024 :)


Soundtrack:  Kids - Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue

Saturday, 20 October 2012

I Can See Clearly Now

Been a long time since
I've needed one of these.
From my 'Because You're Worth it' post you might think that I would shy away from having a bit of 'work' done but that is not strictly true.  

A few years ago I was woken in the night by a great deal of crashing and banging coming from the kitchen.  Concerned that the noise would wake our sleeping baby (and given she was a baby that didn't go in for sleeping at night very often I definitely did not want her to wake up), I decided to go downstairs and find out what the source of the noise was.

On reaching the kitchen I discovered that it was being created our cat;  Phoebe.  She was streaking across the room, leaping from table to work top, her back legs skidding and knocking everything within reach onto the floor before she finished with a flea-like leap to the top of the cupboards.  My soothing calls for her to come down succeeded only in her hurling herself towards me.  She glanced my elbow, skimmed the kitchen floor then threw herself up the stairs and into the bathroom where the crashing of pans turned into the thumping of shampoo bottles hitting the deck.
Phoebe.  She was a 'fashion forward' cat.

By this point my husband had woken up and followed me to the bathroom to find out what the hell was going on.  I explained the situation and he switched the light on to reveal Phoebe balancing precariously on the shower.  Mr K took one look and said, "Toni.  That's not our cat.", before heading downstairs to get a broom to usher the invading feline out of our house.  The thing was, you see, is that I was very short-sighted without my glasses and so mistook the aggressive, long-jumping mad-cat for our passive, timid, lazy-puss on the basis that they had vaguely the same black and white markings.  It was then I decided to get my eyes lasered and a couple of years later finally summed up the cash and the courage to do it.

Much as having your eyelids held apart a la A Clockwork Orange is an unpleasant sensation (especially having it done after you've seen the film), and having to put eye drops in every day for eight weeks is a faff, the results are astonishing.  Within a couple of days the world had gone all HD on me and for the first week or two I was in complete awe at the detail I could see.  It does wear off a little when you realise that you also get to enjoy crystal clear rendering of other people's nasal hair and dandruff but even with that I am still amazed with, and delighted by, what eight minutes of lasering can achieve.

It's something that I've recommended to friends and, because my husband is short-sighted, we did discuss the potential for him to have it done.  He's decided against it but that's not such a bad thing as it does mean that when he takes his glasses off, it doesn't matter if I've not 'L'Orealed' myself to within an inch of my life - because to him I'm in soft focus.  In fact, perhaps that's why he hasn't....maybe I ought to dig out that Volume Million mascara after all....


Soundtrack: I Can See Clearly Now - Jimmy Cliff

Friday, 12 October 2012

Music is my Radar

Year ago, I would have waved
my hands in a laser light
not dissimilar to this..

As you'll know from the majority of my post titles and the 'Soundtrack' page, music is a big part of my life and, like a lot of us, I can categorise certain parts of it by the music that I was listening to at the time.  

My musical journey started as a child where my parents weaned us on The Jam, the Steve Miller Band and Blondie.  I wanted to 'be like David Watts' and look like Debbie Harry.  Other early highlights include singing 'I Feel Like I'm in Love' by Kelly Marie at primary school whilst doing a handstand, and when 'Hey Mickey' was released by Toni Basil I was thrilled that there was a (somewhat) famous female singer called Toni. See - it's not just a boy's name!

Why would you do this?!
Pre-teenage years I forgot all the cool music that my parents had and dived headlong into an obsessive attachment to Duran Duran (yes, I did practise signing my name as 'Toni Le Bon'...) who were then ditched in favour of Bros.  I am now distanced far enough from those years to confess to wearing Grolsch bottle tops on my shoes to signify that I was a 'Brosette'.  What the hell was that all about?  Did Matt, Luke and Craig have some really lean years where they couldn't afford laces and had to 'make do' with bottle tops to hold their shoes together?  They were singularly responsible for our local pub putting up a sign to say they most certainly would not be giving them to children.  Not unless you looked over 18 and were prepared to pay for a bottle - as our friends sister did.  Result!

By the time that I had worked the "when I grow up I want to marry Simon Le Bon" phase out of my system and started using appropriate devices to keep my shoes on my feet, along came Indie and how my tastes changed.  My school books went from being decorated with love hearts to being covered in lyrics from the Wonderstuff and the Happy Mondays and my Clarks school shoes and smart jumper were switched for monkey boots and a very tatty cardigan.  I felt like a right rebel, and I looked like a right jumble sale. 

Is that a Microsoft team
getting down to my music?
I'm-a kick their asses!
After that, there followed brushes with heavy metal (I wanted to look like any of the women from Heart and almost got knocked out at an Acid Reign gig), Swingbeat and RnB (I wanted to look like Louise Nurding and thought that the lyrics of R Kelly and Bell Biv DeVoe were romantic, until I learned that they are, in effect, a smooth way of saying "oh baby, please get yer knickers off or else I'll shag your best friend") and then on to Hip Hop which gave me the twin adolescent joys of expressing my anger at adults and dancing.  These feelings never completely fade, as evidenced by a room full of white, middle class IT workers in black tie dancing to 'Get Low' by Flow Rida at a Microsoft conference in Washington 3 years ago.  At the time it felt GREAT!  To anyone watching it was probably SH....AMEFUL! 

From Hip Hop I went to rock and then onto dance music.  These last two genres have been my steadfast companions right up to today and I could bore you with tales of bad fashion, raves, gigs, and house parties but the point is that music was, and is, always there for me when I want to celebrate, commiserate, forget, remember or just let off a bit of steam.  I remember our wedding reception as a series of songs, our children were born to music (and a bit of screaming but I prefer to remember Elbow playing....) and if ever there's a chance to leap around in a vaguely rhythmical fashion I'm on it, be it in the kitchen or at a ceilidh.  

So when tonight my six year old daughter got back from her school disco beaming, rosy cheeked, and stating "my feet hurt from all the dancing", it made my day.  She's at the start of her musical journey, and I hope it will be as joyful and interesting as mine (but without the house parties - definitely no house parties).


Soundtrack:  Music is my Radar by Blur

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Lost in Translation

Part of my day job is delivering training courses.  It's something that I started doing after becoming a freelancer and is one of my favourite things to do as it plays to my love of standing up in front of a crowd (see Tonight Matthew....) and helping other people.  It also offers the opportunity for new and interesting experiences like the time I delivered a course in Prague.

I had a class of 25 people from 7 different countries to train, all of whom spoke English as their second language.  We calculated that between them they spoke 13 different languages - and I spoke just the one.  It was nerve-wracking at first but with some patience, willingness, and good humour, we spent the first day together discussing the finer points of financial statements and I went back to the hotel feeling it had been a good job, well done.

With the evening to myself and the hotel boasting a gym and pool I thought I'd head downstairs for a swim.  The guy on reception informed me that there was an aqua aerobics class taking place but that I didn't have to participate if I didn't want to.  I only wanted to do a few lengths but the 'pool' as it turned out was only 10 meters long and full of women waiting for their workout to begin.  As I couldn't very well hop on an exercise bike in my swimming costume without causing hilarity or offence, and as the aqua aerobics instructor was motioning for me to take an empty spot between two depressingly attractive Czech ladies I had no choice but to join in.

Tables now turned from the day's training, I had to rely on reading the instructors movements to tell me precisely how I was supposed to combine the floats, weights, and arm and leg movements to exercise without drowning myself.  He stood poolside, shouting instructions in Czech and showing us what we were supposed to be doing.  The challenge (apart from the language barrier) was that he was on 'dry land' and we were in the pool so when we were supposed to be lifting two legs, he could only lift one.  Once I caught on to this fact things started to go a little better and the rest of the lesson passed without incident or embarrassment.

Impromptu aerobics over with I thought I'd treat myself to a sauna but what I had failed to remember is that we in the UK are a somewhat uptight nation and of course, the way you sauna throughout the rest of Europe is in the nude.  All I can say is thank heavens for glass doors as it afforded me the opportunity to see the occupants and make a quick swerve away from the door with a look of mild alarm on my face rather than entering a sauna full of butt-naked people.  The swerve did not go unnoticed however, and through that one movement and without a word spoken I was saying "I AM BRITISH AND I DO NOT SAUNA IN MY BIRTHDAY SUIT!". 

Think this was the last of my communication challenges that day?  Think again...

The presenter's friend
After having some dinner and returning to my room I thought I'd check my presentation slides for the following day.  Now, one of the most useful items you can have as a presenter or trainer is a 'clicker'.  It gives you the freedom to move about the room and control the presentation rather than having to stay at your laptop.  It is a key piece of equipment for me and as I was wondering up and down my hotel room practising, the clicker stopped working.  Not good.  I figured out that it had run out of juice and so called reception to explain that I specifically needed two AAA batteries.  They said they would check and duly called me back to say 'yes, they did have some and would I like to come down and collect them?'.  I dashed down, the receptionist handed them over and said I was very lucky as they were the last two and then gave me a bit of a funny look that involved a half-smile and a raised eyebrow.  I smiled broadly, thanked her profusely and then skipped off back to my room. And then I realised what that funny look was for.  It was 10.00pm and I had dashed down to reception to collect some AAA batteries and been really happy about getting them.  I didn't tell her I had a broken clicker - but that look on her face told me exactly what she thought the batteries were for.....

Friday, 5 October 2012

You can Say What You Want

Arriving at the Awards
On Thursday night I went to the Cosmo Blog Awards in London to find out if I had won in the Next sponsored 'Best Newcomer' category.  From thousands of entries I was short listed as one of the final 15 and, suitably excited and dressed up, I headed to London Town.

The evening started with me walking into the Three Tuns, a pub around the corner from the venue (the Rose Club on Orchard Street, in case you're interested).  It was heaving with people having post-work drinks, slaking their thirst before the journey home or settling in for an evening of sherbets and shenanigans.  There is something about going into a pub in London at 5.30pm that to me is very thrilling, in a way that the same drinks in say, Reading or Slough would not be - can't think why.... Anyway, amongst all the suits I spotted two ladies who looked from their outfits like they were headed to the same place as me, so I grabbed a beer and wondered over to them to say 'hi'.
Goody Goody Yum Yum

Luckily for me I was right - they were two lovely fellow bloggers Miss Budget Beauty and Dolce Vanity.  We formed a trio, hung out for the evening and when Dolce Vanity was announced as the winner in the Best Established Beauty Blog category it was fantastic to celebrate with her.  As it turned out she was the only one of the three of us to walk away with a prize but I had a great night and tottered home with a goodie bag that was chock full of rather nice things.

I met lots of new people, made some good connections, and have since spent some time reading a few more of the shortlisted blogs as well as catching up on some old favourites.  The range of topics is incredible with some people sharing pretty much every waking moment of their lives and others specialising in one field.  What really stands out in their writing is not product reviews, fashion tips or best cupcake (oh when are we going to be free of the damn things!) recipes, but when they speak from the heart about things that are important to them.  I have read moving accounts about mental health, hilarious posts on childbirth and passionate pleas for us to be kinder to one another.  It's not all ultra-earnest either.  One of my favourite blogs is from a shepherd who runs team building events built around herding sheep

Pretty much everyone of these blog authors feel absolutely free to write about whatever they like - something I only felt confident to do after becoming a freelancer but something I now wish I'd started sooner.  Former colleagues have said to me that they would love to blog too but don't think they can whilst being part of a corporate so until they're 'free' they won't write at all and what a shame.  I know so many interesting, funny, smart people and a whole host of them are locking this part of themselves away but until when?  There are books, poems and posts unwritten, ideas for podcasts left in the sock drawer of someone's mind and paintings that never make it onto a canvas.  Someone I spoke to recently about publishing options told me that the most interesting thing about me had been that I used to work for Microsoft (oh dear..) but (and thank Christ for this!) it is my writing that is now my most interesting asset.  

I am very proud of my career but don't want it to be my defining quality - how sad would it be to be remembered or known only for the company you work for?  So if you have got a writer within or an artist hiding away in your heart - don't keep them trapped under a corporate bushel - let them out!

Soundtrack: Say What You Want by Texas

Monday, 1 October 2012

Oliver's Army

Cheat's Pizza = fire
Oh Jamie Oliver, with your winning smile, infectious enthusiasm and genuine commitment to changing the relationship that people have with food.  You make us thoughtful, inspire us to want better nutrition for our families, and challenge our largest institutions to do better by our children.  You also made me set fire to my kitchen.

I am not a natural cook, but neither am I a 'microwave mealer'.  My repertoire (if you were to call it that) includes a mean lasagne, spaghetti bolognese, cottage pie and if there is no mince to be had I can cook a rather lovely roast chicken.  But that's pretty much it and because of that almost all of the cooking in our house falls to my husband who reads the Leith Cookery Bible for fun and who must be some kind of sorcerer for he magics up fine meals without swearing, shouting at inanimate objects, or injuring himself.

There are times when I feel that I should make more of an effort, and during one such period I dusted off the 'Jamie's 30 Minute Meals' cookery book to learn to start rustling up some more exciting meals than my usual 'mince wonder'.  Some of the dishes, like the 'Tasty Crusted Cod' on page 140 were rather good, delicious even, but they require me to have "absolute silence!" in the kitchen and created an hour's worth of washing up.

What was somewhat less successful was the 'Cheat's Pizza'.  Apparently I was supposed to be able to create one pizza, three 'delish' salads and a squashed cherries and vanilla cream dessert all within half an hour.  Based on my previous experience I thought I'd go just for the pizza and set all of my ingredients out.  At the appropriate point, I followed the instructions to put the frying pan on a high heat whilst putting the dough ingredients into a food processor, whizzing them up, taking the dough out and rolling it flat.  In Jamie's calculations I think this should take less than a minute.  It is entirely possible that in 'Toni time' this equated to five or six minutes and so when I 'drizzled some olive oil' into the pan I was met with a sheet of flame.

Not the right thing to do when
the kitchen's on fire.
For a moment I stood there looking at it, and somewhere in the back of my mind I felt compelled to start dancing in homage to 'Tales of the Unexpected' but then realised that if I didn't extinguish the fire quickly, it would set off the smoke alarm, wake the children and quite possibly set the entire kitchen alight.  I can cope with a kitchen on fire but not children that have been startled out of their slumber so I gathered my wits about me, fetched a wet tea towel and took the smoking pan into the garden where it would prove less of a danger to my family.

After eating a sandwich for my supper because bread = no fire, I brought the pan in, scrubbed it and got rid of most of the damage.  There is still a black crescent left behind that mocks me every time I fry some garlic and onions (again) to make the base for my lasagne sauce (again).  I realised that if you are a cook or a chef then yes, 30 minutes is entirely do-able but if you are an easily distracted person who has a whole list of other things you'd rather be doing than cooking, it is not such an easy task.  So from now on I'll be sticking to what I know, and taking the 'Jamie's 15 Minute Meals' book off my Christmas list....mince for tea again kids?


Soundtrack: Oliver's Army by Elvis Costello - watch it here