Friday, 29 June 2012

For Your Eyes Only

Hands up who owns Fifty Shades of Grey?  You do?  You naughty monkeys!

But how many of you would happily leave it lying around the house within sight of the children / the In-laws / the new friend you've just made through the school run?

For years people have been disguising their reading matter, from the man hiding a 'specialist magazine' within a newspaper to adult Harry Potter fans concealing the original cover.  In the latter instance the publishers had the great idea of producing a more 'grown up' sleeve but by and large if you didn't want people to know what you were reading you had to hide it.

And then the Kindle came along and we didn't have to do this any more.  We can travel to work reading something subversive or sit in Costa consuming something rude with our latte.  Far easier to casually slip a Kindle out of sight or turn off its screen than try to force a 533 page copy of 'Mrs Spanky's Midnight Visitor' into your handbag before the person next to you sees it.

As a lover of books I was unsure that an 'e-reader' would be for me; there's nothing quite like the look and feel of a book, and to receive one as a gift shows that someone has really thought about you (unless perhaps you're a woman who has been bought Ian Botham's autobiography, or a pensioner who's been bought a Viz annual).  I think it's important to have books within reach of our children to encourage them to read frequently and widely and hopefully instil a passion for language.   That said, the advent of our daughter learning to read means that some books have had to be moved up high.  And if I have to climb on a chair to reach them, they're not getting read. 

With the introduction of a Kindle into our house I can now have whatever reading matter I choose without fear of it being stumbled upon by the children and my handbag is considerably lighter.  Sold to the lady who likes sweary fiction.

I thought that these were the two main benefits until I spoke to a friend who lives in the UAE.  She told me that 'Fifty Shades..' is banned in her country and whilst there was not the option of picking it up at the local bookshop she had been able to download it onto her Kindle.  It's not a revolutionary read, and hardly an important read - but right there was an act of civil disobedience - go Mrs!  I hadn't before considered the power of an e-reader to put content into the hands of people who otherwise might not be able to access it; whether that's due to a Government wanting to keep information from its citizens or being too old or infirm to leave your house.

So despite the well-reasoned arguments against them, I am all for e-readers for their ability to give more people access to more books, for helping make sure my children don't end up learning a load of swear words because I've left Frankie Boyle's latest book lying around, and for making saucy stories written for women more mainstream.  Which reminds me - there's a bit of reading I need to catch up on.....

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

If I had a Photograph of You

There are 586 photos on my phone.  Not content with managing calls, appointments and emails the phone has steathily become my camera.  On the PC, there are thousands of pictures.  In the photo albums there are a couple of hundred, and 15 have made it onto our walls; a wedding photo, baby faces and a first day at school all captured for posterity.

Most of the pictures are of the children.  A colleague wisely predicted that the birth of our first child would coincide with the purchase of a new camera as well as the mountain of baby-related goodies you actually need - he was of course correct. 

Of my first 10 years, I have about 30 photos.  Perhaps because there are so few, each of them seems to carry a huge amount of sentiment and capture a special moment in time.  This picture of the day I was going to make my 'Brownie promise' is a classic.  Not only do you get the visual joy that is early 80's curtains and the classic Brownie uniform - no hoodie or 'funky' logo here - you can also see precisely what my brother thought about his big sister on that day. 

It has made me wonder what will become of the endless shots that we take of our children; stored on hard drives, SD cards and SIM cards - sometimes shown but rarely printed.  When they get older, will the children want to see them or will they even be able to find them?  Will we ever make the time to look through them?  Our children will go to the extent of emptying the kitchen drawers to get our attention when we try to read the paper, let alone spend an hour taking a trip down memory lane.

What they do seem to really enjoy though is going through the albums where they can touch the pictures and take them out for closer inspection.  'Getting the photos out' is something that they find quite exciting - particularly when they get to see pictures like the one here.  I was so proud that day - they prefer their uncle's stance.

This has spurred me on to sort through the tons of digital pics, get the important ones printed and delete the duplicates.  I'm also resolving to spend more time 'in the moment' with them, rather than trying to document their every move.  If I was, or wanted to be, a great photographer it would be different, but what I'm aiming for is to be a better parent so I'm putting the camera, and the phone, down.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Fuzzy Logic

When planning to leave corporate life my husband gave me an ultimatum:

"I will support your decision only if you work out financially what it means to us."

This was very annoying and challenging to me as I used to feel a perverse sense of pride in saying "I'm not good at maths" or, even worse, "I don't do maths".  It was a smart move on his part as years of receiving a generous salary and benefits package had effectively divorced my brain from understanding the actual cost of things and the value of money.

So, I did as I was told, developed best and worst case scenarios and so far, so good.  However, what is interesting to me looking back is that my thought process was 'How much do I need to earn to keep the lifestyle that I enjoy?' 

In the past 18 months that thinking has shifted to 'How can I have a lifestyle that I enjoy that isn't centred around earning money?'

A good example is my car.  Bought on a finance plan when in possession of a car allowance I chose the most highly specced thing I could find.  Forget servicing / tyres / tax - it all went on added extras like satnav and heated seats (as if my backside doesn't do a good enough job of keeping itself warm....).   Then a couple of months ago as I did my year end accounts I thought it would be a good time to look at our overall financial health and calculated how much I would need to earn before tax just to cover the finance repayments.  I nearly fell over.  Finally the penny dropped that I was working my (very warm) backside off to pay for a car that was only being driven 2 or 3 days a week and hardly ever with more than 2 people in it....I gave myself a slap around the face and a 'D-minus' with a big red pen. 

So the car is gone, swapped for a much cheaper, older model.  It doesn't have satnav, parking sensors or leather seats but I can read a map (ok, I can't - I get the directions from the AA website and write them down on the back of an envelope that then gets stuck to the dash), park by using my mirrors and if I'm that desperate for the feel of leather then I'll have to make like a Hairy Biker and buy a nice pair of trousers. 

The sense of freedom from having that financial weight lifted is fantastic - now my wages can go on the important things like the mortgage, the kids shoes, and (very importantly) wine!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Look of Love

The wedding for which I purchased special underwear (see 'Spanx for the Memories') was a triumph.  As you would expect it was filled with joy, happiness, and a room full of people sincerely wishing the couple all the very best for their future together.

The attention to detail was incredible; retro sweets to inspire a sense of fun, a photo & video booth to capture everyone's congratulatory messages in real-time (and to give the exhibitionists a safe place to bare their bottoms at midnight) and place settings made out of wooden hearts on pieces of string that the ladies tied to their wrists to add a romantic twist to their outfits.  There was even a dedication on each table to loved ones now gone and heart-shaped confetti that had been painstakingly cut out of books of romantic poetry.  Every tiny piece seemed to have a word like 'cherish' printed on it.

But the thing that really did it for me was when the groom was delivering a very emotional part of his speech, acknowledging the love he had not just for his wife and their son but also asking everyone to raise a toast to 'absent friends'.  At that point in time, with him and half the room in tears, his wife was calm and looking at him in a way that said "when you feel weak I will be strong", theirs is truly a love match.  It reminded me that outside of all of the things that we think we need and the money that we spend on baubles and parties to demonstrate our love (I love a diamond - don't get me wrong), there are times when a look like that says it better than anything else ever could.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Rage Against the (Washing) Machine

There is a conspiracy happening within my house.  Led by my husband's quest for perfection in all things technical, things that were once simple have become increasingly complex.

Our lovely little camera that we bought 6 years ago to document our first days as parents has been replaced by a Digital SLR monstrosity.  So large it requires it's own handbag, so complicated the instruction book could prop up a wonky table, so expensive it cannot be taken to the beach for fear sand will get into it.  Once cradled and cooed over it now stays in a cupboard, gets an airing on birthdays and Christmas and everything else is snapped by my (easy to use, portable, light, sea-side proof) phone.

The lawn mower is gigantic, petrol powered, and requires Popeye to pull the rip-cord.  On the ocassions where I have tried to use it I have been hauled up the garden like a 3 year old trying to walk a whippet that's just seen a rabbit.  It is a man's machine and I am not Hulk Hogan.  Complain away husband that I do not mow the lawn, or by me a Flymo and I will happily oblige.

There are other things - the thermostats for the 3 different heating systems we have, the hi-fi (do people still use that term?) in our bedroom and the television.  I am afraid to be left in the house on my own, for fear of contracting hypothermia but no-one will be able to reach me because the lawn will have reclaimed the path and grown up the front door.

So when it came to replacing the washing machine there was no way that decision wasn't going to be mine. 

The new addition to our kitchen is simple, elegant and does exactly what you need it to do.  And whilst I might perish because I couldn't work the oven or heat the house, when the paramedics finally cut their way to the front door with a scythe, they will find me in pristine knickers!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Picture this...a week of giving

I couldn't go a week without painting or drawing something. Whether it's a sketch, a full-on landscape or a picture of a monkey riding a tricycle for the children's entertainment, there will be a canvas or a scrap of paper with something on it by Sunday evening.  

This has always been an important part of me, but it became increasingly sidelined as I pursued a 17 year career in IT.   Creativity gave way to being a good 'corporate citizen' and whilst the money was good it didn't seem to compensate for the growing sense of dissatisfaction that I had.

Thank you DoKHC
A watershed moment came when my brother-in-law's wife died.  She was just 40, with a daughter the same age as mine. We had become very close during our pregnancies, and in raising our girls, and her death made me face some facts about how I lived my life.  I was tired, stressed, unwell and unhappy and decided that if this was to be my last year on earth then I wasn't going to spend it feeling burned out and regretful for not giving more time to my children. So I went freelance thinking that it was a career destination when in actual fact it has been the start of a whole new chapter.

The past year has seen me become healthier, happier and more able to dedicate time to things that are so much more important than pay rises, stock options and annual reviews. That in turn has brought greater clarity about the things that I want to do, a greater sense of urgency to be authentic and to live the best life I can. The creative spirit that's been strapped into the back seat of the car for the past 17 years wants to drive......

Being creative is incredibly fulfilling but let's get real; with two small children and the need to contribute to the family budget, painting has to remain a hobby. But what to do with the work I create?  I don't want to spend my weekends manning a stall at a craft fair to sell them, and whilst my husband appreciates art, he doesn't want to live in a gallery dedicated to my imagination.

Then last week the perfect solution arrived.  I heard that the hospice that cared for my brother-in-law's wife so well during the final weeks of her life was having an auction to raise funds and needed donations. So I offered a piece of my artwork, they said 'yes' and I felt elated. Knowing that something I had created with love could help an organisation that gives so much, that relies on the support of volunteers, and that my family has directly benefitted from felt brilliant.

Inspired, the four remaining pieces were donated within the week to three separate charities and a local school to help with their fundraising efforts.

Being able to donate these works felt far better than selling them for my own personal financial gain - I cannot honestly say that I need the money more than these incredible organisations. It reminded me of the generosity that I have been shown throughout my life and how lucky I am that me and my family are in good health today.

This has been a lesson for me in how giving is not just about money, and on Friday, feeling great from dropping off my final painting, I popped into the village hall and donated a pint of blood. A fitting end to a week of giving.

If you're looking for ideas on how you could take steps towards a more generous life and proof that it isn't just about money, check out -

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Baggy Trousers Dirty Shirts

I was surprised to receive an apology from a member of staff at my son's nursery a couple of weeks ago.  Surprised because it was for something that I think is a normal part of childhood.  The adults and children had been out in the gardens puddle-jumping and 'looking for worms' which meant that I would need to put a set of the little man's clothes in the wash when I got home.

Checking that I hadn't mistakenly turned up at a Swiss finishing school, I told them that this was no problem at all.  My son is a child and, like all children, he loves getting messy.  Our washing machine is always on - my laundry basket literally runneth over - so this was no great shakes for me, but some parents had said they were not happy for their children's clothes to get dirty.  Hence the apology.

I find this strange because being messy goes hand in hand with learning and growing.  Some of the best photos we have of our children are of their first attempts to feed themselves; covered from nose to wrist in vividly coloured puree, and beaming with pride at having (sort of) got the weaning spoon into their mouth.  The pictures that we treasure are those first hand and foot prints created by chubby little palms and soles smeared with brightly coloured paint.  The major event that is baby's 'first trip to the seaside' stays with you for at least a week as bits of sand continue to turn up in their hair / ears / nappy. 

Then yesterday we were sorting through the children's clothes and my son put his 3 'proper' shirts on the 'too small' pile (they're not) and shouted "I don't like being smart!!".  Much as I would love to see him just ocassionally looking like a little Ralph Lauren model (in the vain hope that I might by association appear effortlessly chic and groomed)  I thought he did have a point.  He is happiest when comfortable, outside and preferably muddy.  And I love him that way.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Spanx for the Memories!

I have bought my first piece of 'control' underwear...  The forthcoming wedding of our friends necessitates the wearing of a dress, and its fine jersey fabric delivers a damning verdict on my behind. 

Were I a man, I would think 'this doesn't look right so I won't buy it'.  Not me; the dress is perfect, it's my body that needs changing.  So now I have this tube of nude coloured fabric that is distantly related to the black lycra skirts that me and my friends used to wear as 18 year olds, but it is definitely not to be worn as outerwear (unless things get very silly at the reception).

As with most things I am late to this game.  Long before 'Bridget Jones' I witnessed a friend putting on control knickers over control shorts so she could wear her size 10 trousers again after having her 2nd child.  Another friend recently told me that she is going to have 'She lived and died in Spanx' etched on her there's a brand ambassador!

Underneath his clothes, my husband will wear normal underwear.  Like normal people do - no blood flow restricting, horrible coloured, surprisingly expensive compression bandage for him.  Just a nice comfy pair of boxers.  Oh how I will envy him come the end of the night.

In writing this piece I see what madness this is but I will not be beaten by a dress!  And if you happen to be at the same wedding as me and you see me listing in a corner - it's won't be because I've had a drink too many (although I will have done), it will be because I have fainted - Victorian style.