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