Archives for category: personal

I’ve written a few new year blog posts over the years, in different styles.

As the year ticked over from 2014 to 2015 I remember thinking that my 2015 should be about authenticity. I should try to do things my way. I’ve come a long way as me so I must be doing something right. I didn’t blog much but I’ve tried to keep it in mind.

This post is different, I’ve written this over the last month, with my birthday in my sights. This year is the year I turn 40.

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In just a few days I tip definitively into what I used to think of as “middle-aged”.

This post is both an indulgence and an invitation. I will share my conclusions so far, and perhaps you will tell me your most challenging lessons learnt. I’m writing this for people I know well and for people I’d like to know better. I’ve enjoyed reading other women’s confessional pieces and I hope you enjoy reading this. Comments are welcome, but don’t feel obligated.

There are some very personal confessions in here, so I don’t mind if, having read this far, you’d rather not read any further.

Expectations

By way of introduction I should tell you that I spent many years thinking that anything popular was beneath me. I revelled in liking obscure music and books. People with 2.4 children and a white picket fence were living inauthentic, lazy lives. I expected a lonely but unique lifepath.

This was my favourite poem:
“Moonsoaked, she emitted a cold radiance, which made all who loved her turn away. As well they might. For hers was the single silver track, upmountain to the moon”.
Poetic. Serious. Pretentious.

I was a pretty serious teenager. I was very into politics, and fundamentally I am still very political, with a small p and a big P. I was alert to false consciousness and mindless consumerism. I was suspicious of being pacified by the trappings of life, of being sedated into normality. I still did drinking and dancing and boys, and I did have fun, both cerebral and less so. I went off to university to do philosophy and literature, and life started to fill up with people and responsibilities, and I graduated from teenager to adult.

The Downs and Ups

I never expected marriage, kids, a detached house on a newish estate paid for by a fairly secure professional job. And yet here I am. And I like it. And believe me, I know how lucky I am, on every measure.

My rock is my husband Tim. An amazing man that I met through work when I was 25. He ticks all the boxes on my shopping list, and more. He does more than half the house chores, he’s good at DIY, cooking and enabling me to buy stuff. We talk about everything and anything. He makes me happy and supported and solid. I’m lucky, but also I take some credit, because I chose well.

The biggest surprise of my life has been motherhood. I am that lucky woman who has had two straightforward pregnancies, and I loved the feeling of that life growing inside me. The first labour was 3 hours 45 minutes, gas & air, pethidine, healthy mum and baby. The second was 2 hours, gas & air, again fine. I took to breastfeeding after the steep learning curve. I loved both my baby boys. My body surged with oxytocin. I was exhausted and had my share of days when I climbed into bed feeling incompetent. I hallucinated out of tiredness, I feared falling down stairs with babe in arms. But I had a feeling of contentment and purpose. My mum and sister commented they’d never seen me so chilled out.

Something you might not know about me is that from the age of 13 I have had several bouts of depression/anxiety. Everyone has reasons to feel bad, whether a legacy from childhood or cirumstance of adult life or the cocktail of chemicals and hormones that nature injects us with to keep life varied. I have, in many respects, a charmed life. So I can only explain my low episodes as a legacy of a slightly troubled childhood, perhaps compounded by a genetic predisposition towards depression inherited from my bipolar father, now estranged. At several points I have sought help through counselling, self-help and an anxiety support group.

In my mid thirties, I hit a low. This time, with a husband and two kids, the stakes were higher. Looking back, it was when the oxytocin dropped, a few months after finishing breastfeeding my 10 month old, that I hit a wall. I was back at work, teeming with anxiety and guilt, concentrating on trying to be competent at work and home, and frequently failing. Things were challenging at work and my identity felt vulnerable. I lashed out at family a few times. I was full of anger and difficult to live with.

In desperation to find some kind of stability I started taking citalopram and that helped a lot. I started a new job and after 8 months of the meds I stopped them. I honestly think that the trigger for my episode was the drop in oxytocin, but citalopram helped me past it. I wish I’d taken them months earlier.

Which is all an unnecessary overshare. I think I’m saying this to illustrate that I am not a shiny happy person, or a stepford wife, or a smug married yummy mummy. My flaws include: lazy, disorganised, forgetful, easily distracted, overcritical and judgemental. And against any rationality, I often read my horoscopes. I’m as flawed as the next person.

Perhaps I’m saying all this in a big double bluff of self-deprecation to make you like me. I hear that hitting 40 means that I will stop caring so much what you all think. I look forward to that.

Good Things (I Made A List)

Here comes a list of some things I love, dated New Year 2015/6. Some of these things I’ve discovered I like even though lots of other people like them too. I feel that embracing the common things in life feels positively correlated to being happier. The me of my late teens to early twenties was, to be frank, quite hard work to like. I like myself more now, and I think I’m easier to like. Though still not everyone’s cup of tea. And that’s fine.

Things I love, and how long I’ve enjoyed them:

Being a mum (8 years)
Playing the piano (30+ years)
Disco music (3 years)
Running (2 years)
Losing myself in a good book (30+ years)
Making lists (30+ years)
Good food (20 years)
Feeling like i’m making solid progress at work (15 years)
Being part of a network of professional peers (15 years)
Singing in a community choir (2 years)

There are many things I’d like to do more of: enjoying my kids as they discover what they love, being outdoors, being physically active, making things, seeing friends, laughing. I will try to find time for them too.

Lessons learnt?

I admit it, I have googled around for advice on turning 40. Some of it seems unobtainable, at least to me. I can’t imagine myself fasting or giving up caffeine. I don’t think anyone would thank me for it. Some of the advice seems obvious. Be kinder to yourself. Prioritise what matters. Don’t sweat the small stuff. But knowing something to be true and really living with that thing in mind are qualitatively different. The best advice I’ve read so far is “how to be a moderately successful person like me” which basically advises not pretending, and failing, to be a superhero.

With that “like, duh!” in mind, here are my lessons learnt so far.

1 ) Own your own thoughts. I know as much about life as I could know, for someone who’s had my life. I’m as entitled to my opinions as anyone else. I am as flawed and irrational as anyone else. Some things that I think are things that other people disagree with, especially about politics and religion. I have been pretty consistent in my worldview since I began having opinions. I have a lot of them. They are valid as opinions. I don’t claim them to be facts. No-one’s opinions are facts, and I will not be “mansplained” by people claiming greater authority. Nor am I a relativist, or a wishy washy liberal who thinks anything goes. I like to discuss things, because I think things matter and are worth discussing. In other words, I am as entitled to my worldview as any other adult. Sit at the table, “lean in”, and join the discussion.

2) Don’t worry about what people are thinking about you because they’re probably not thinking about you anyway. I know this is true but I suspect I could live this more deeply. Because I know that everyone is secretly thinking about my stubby thumbs. Admit it.

3) Be thankful for the moments of rootedness, to family, to nature. Feeling like you belong isn’t inevitable so cherish it when it happens. I’ve known that sort of loneliness where you’re hanging in space wondering if anyone other my mum would notice if I disappeared. And the loneliness of knowing that only I will ever look out of these eyes and see what I see. Becoming a mum myself gave me a grasp of what it is to be needed, and more than anything that gives me roots. I like to imagine I’d feel that sense of rootedness if I’d been me in some other era, some other country.

4) Contentment is the aim. Joy is a bonus. Happiness is more like a warm, soft comfortable thing than like a sharp bright thing. The swell in your chest is the reward for living with your eyes and ears open to the good stuff. Big highs tend to be followed by lows. Mild highs are more sustainable.

5) I don’t have much to say about how I look and that’s probably as it should be. I’ve always been short and round, blonde with big boobs and wide bum and round tummy. If I exercise, it’s to feel better. Weight loss is a bonus. I just want to be happy in my skin, to be grateful for my moving arms and legs, my functioning lungs and heart, my operational senses. I wish I didn’t fret about my hairy chin and wobbly bits. I want to adorn my imperfect body in shimmery gold dress as a thank you for carrying me through life and nurturing two babies, and I want to take my body dancing.

6 ) Make time for the things that you can lose yourself in. For me, that’s books, piano playing, running. Single-tasking. Absorption. Flow. There are some pieces I’ve played on the piano since my early teens, and each time I play them connects me to every other time. There is something in rhythm and repetition in running and piano playing. Novels are about becoming other people.

7) If you’re feeling restless and fidgety, it might not be your mind that needs fixing. You might need to move your body. Believe me, this has been a revelation to me over the past five years or so. I always thought that restlessness required more thinking, analysis and planning. It never really occurred to me that thinking-it-through was the opposite of what I needed to do. Overthinking gives too much attention to thoughts and feelings that should be allowed to float past.

8) Finally, a lesson about who’s in charge. My life is better and bigger and happier than I’d dared to expect. My inner voice used to tell me that some things weren’t for people like me. It was sharp and bitter. “Contentment is the white picket fence that keeps you trapped in mediocrity”. “You’ll always be lonely: sociability is for people less intelligent than you”. “Your integrity will carve a difficult path for you”. Remember my favourite poem as a teenager? A lonely single silver track. I haven’t compromised anything, my integrity remains intact, I haven’t denied myself anything in the process of constructing my wonderful life. My inner voice was just wrong. I see it now as it is: a black-clothed teenager trying to define herself in opposition to the world. How easily I might have been in thrall to it and missed out on all of this. I apologise now to anyone that teenager sneered at or hit out at. I thank anyone who saw past her and decided to give me a chance anyway. You tolerated a lot of nonsense from her (me) in my teens and twenties. I think she was scared of you really. She’s still in here but she’s not in charge.

What’s next?

Perhaps my next lesson, waiting in the wings of my 40s, is how to appreciate my life, to be mindful and thankful, without denying the reality of so many others. So many others are in bad health, in poverty, in grief and loneliness. How to reconcile the inner and outer worlds mentally so that I can be thankful for everything good without ignoring the bad. To live well with my eyes open. I invite you, with your happiness, integrity and wisdom, to tell me how!

Happy New Year

My youngest son is due to start school this September so I recently submitted my application for him to follow his elder brother to one of our local schools.

When I applied for my eldest’s school place I remember ringing the local authority. I explained that on the estate where I live some children went to school A, some went to school B. About 50/50 as far as I could tell. School B was closer as the crow flies and therefore easier to walk to, but I wouldn’t be walking, I would be driving. School A was still close, was faster to drive to and was on our routes to work. Also my eldest was at nursery close to the school so it felt like the most local school.So I asked: which do you consider to be our catchment school? The lady I spoke to would not look me up on her database and repeated it would be the closest school. I therefore applied for School A as my first choice, school B as my second choice. We got allocated School A, my eldest started there surrounded by friends from nursery. It all worked out well.

There has been a shift in catchment areas since my eldest was allocated his place which makes it clear that School B is now our catchment school. The local authority does endeavor to place children at the same school as older siblings, so even though my youngest might be treated as out-of-catchment, there’s a good chance he will follow his brother to School A.

If he doesn’t?

  • We need wraparound care between 8 and 6 so that we can both work 9-5 jobs. Two schools would mean two wraparound clubs, a logistically impossible journey to both clubs, which open at 8, then onto work by 9. We struggle with time as it is, this could be impossible.
  • Two schools means two school offices, two school management teams, two PTAs, two summer fetes, two increasingly complex calendars of fundraisers and non uniform days and cake sales which I already fail to keep up with.
  • Obviously, when the eldest goes to secondary school it will be unavoidable to keep up with two schools, but he will be able to walk or cycle to school so the logistics will be less fraught, and we’ll just cross that bridge when we get to it.

Having my youngest at the same school as my eldest is really very important to me. This isn’t about me being a pushy parent asking for my son to be prioritised over local children, it’s about my sons going to the same good local school, giving us a chance to manage our busy family life.

I heard about the Siblings and the Same School group through facebook and learnt through them that the council was considering a super catchment model which gives them the planning tools to allocate children according to all the important criteria. I wrote to councillors and officers to support the idea, and I was recently interviewed by Central News to illustrate the issue. [Hopefully the interview will be broadcast on Monday 13th January on the 6pm Central News].  My story isn’t unusual, but I hope that telling it will help draw attention to the problem of primary school places.

For me, this is about ensuring that local authorities have the power and resources to plan. Primary school places are not a new issue, I’ve heard stories going back decades. We live on a relatively new housing estate that is still expanding, with two similar estates nearby. There have been little baby booms on each estate. No wonder it’s hard to allocate everyone their first choice. There’s no easy answer, which is precisely why schools need some central planning. And yet so much education policy is going in the opposite direction: free schools and academies reduce or remove local authority control.  The relentless focus on parental “choice” undermines investment in educational infrastructure.

For me, this is about centrally-coordinated good local schools. Fingers crossed my local council will pursue the supercatchment proposal so that they can continue to help families like mine in the years to come.

The Lib Dems have announced a new pledge from government to make school meals free for 4-7 year olds.

School meals

I am a fan of school dinners. We pay £10 a week for my 6 year old to have school dinners, and my younger child would benefit from such a policy. I do think a well fed child is better able to learn.

Indeed the evidence has been there for a long time. A search on the academic database worldcat on “school meals educational outcomes” returns 544 results. There is a strong body of evidence that there is a link between diet and performance. But from the news reporting it sounds like it was two entreprenurial restaurateurs (we checked and there’s no ‘n’ in that word!) who were commissioned to create a report that finally got listened to. Ok, so maybe that makes the report more media friendly. The soundbite I heard was one of them saying that a pilot school they had visited was “transformed”. I have worked in education research and policy long enough to know that the first trial of any big change can create a big response: just being in the spotlight and having researchers take an interest can change the tone of the school. For a while. That first phase is not an indication of a lasting change of the same magnitude. (See “hawthorne effect“). That is why research methodologies need to be rigorous to truly assess the overall impact of proposed polices. I suspect that the literature agrees with the soundbite conclusions, but surely too much weight has been given to anecdote?

So … make free school meals universal. If they are so good for learning and wellbeing then all children should benefit. I find myself wondering which schools will get subsidised? all schools? state schools and private schools and everything in between? The boundaries are so blurred now that I fear that private schools are subsidised by my tax. I would not be happy with that.

But leaving that aside, a purported benefit of universal free school meals is to remove the stigma. Now, I remember at secondary school, there was a discrete system. I queued up with my cash-carrying friends and there was a dinner lady with a tupperware box full of plastic coin-shaped tokens and a clipboard. She handed me my token, and I paid at the till along with everyone else. I remember being curious about who else had tokens, but never felt stigmatised because it was handled sensitively. I can’t remember how it worked at primary school. And I definitely can’t remember how it worked at infant school. So, wait … is there evidence that 4,5,6 and 7 year olds suffer any stigma? And … wait … my 6 year olds meals are paid for in advance via an online system. So there is no distinguishing between subsidised and non-subsidised children in that school. There is already a way to remove the stigma: using a system like that not even the teachers or lunchtime staff need to know.

And now we get on to what I think might be the key issue here.

If you read about schools, Ofsted reports, league tables etc you will find mention of “proportion of children in receipt of free school meals”. There’s a reason for that: free school meals does act as a proxy marker for low income households. As I understand it schools don’t know the economics of a pupil’s home, the only signifier they get of a low income home is if that child is on free school meals. This allows them to direct funds for things like subsidising school trips, and rightly so.

It also means that when comparing an inner city school in an area of low income with a school from a wealthy suburb, the “proportion of children is receipt of free school meals” percentage signifies the additional challenges the former school faces. The “free school meals” marker is the main indicator of the uneven playing field between schools. It is part of how schools signal to the regulators that SAT results are not their only priority, that they are doing their best in areas where parents are out of work.

If 4-7 year olds all get free school meals what does that marker get replaced with?  I would like to think that it would just be a simple marker of “children from low income households”. There should be no shame in being on a low income. It’s not a moral issue as far as I’m concerned, it’s just an economic fact. There shouldn’t be a stigma attached to being from a low income household. (I’m less sure that the current government agrees with that, but for what its worth let’s continue to remember that being poor is not a moral failure).

My suspicion, however, is that the marker won’t be replaced by anything. Schools in challenging circumstances will not be able to point to evidence of their challenge. After all, that inconvenient fact that this is not a level playing field has made the present government a little uncomfortable. Gove would like to present schools as “businesses” that “with the right leadership and values can all compete and collectively raise their standards”. That is not an actual quote but I can imagine him saying it.

I don’t think the removal of the marker is the purpose of the policy: I think the Lib Dems probably want it for all the right reasons. But the side effect described above might be partly why the Conservatives are not challenging it. This is the government that is trying to reduce the number of unemployment claimants (which forms a major indicator of economic health) not by creating jobs, but by tightening the criteria for unemployment benefit. The government seems to treat economic statistics as key performance indicators (KPIs) to be met at any cost. I can well imagine that it would be a rather “beneficial” side effect of universal free school meals to make that marker disappear.  First for infant schools, then perhaps further. And then finally the government will be able to paint their picture of a meritocratic UK, where any school can become top of the league tables, and any child can rise to their chosen profession, if only they eat their greens and work hard. I hope I’m wrong

Free School Meals? Yes. But.

I wasn’t watching Jamie Oliver talking about poor people’s food habits last night, but I spotted some annoyance so I went to find out, and am 100% with Alex Andreou’s piece in the Guardian. I can testify that “poor people’s bread does not go stale, it goes mouldy”. In pursuit of the perfect bread-and-gruyere-topped onion soup, I made several attempts to catch my sliced wrapped loaf at the optimum staleness. I  eventually once bought a bread stick specifically to slice, leave out for the day. This for an allegedly peasant dish.

The point Andreou raises, though, is a serious one. It is all too easy to judge people and find them wanting.

Since becoming a mum I have felt pressure more than ever before to conform to other people’s views of how I should run my life. It adds up to a pretty lengthy list of things about which I feel guilty, inadequate and even neglectful.

The List of Things I am Supposed to Feel Guilty About

 

The Baby Years

  • I didn’t stick to a feeding/sleeping routine. Sorry, Gina Ford.
  • I dared to look my babies in the eye when I fed them at night. Sorry again, Gina.
  • I used disposable nappies. Because my house at the time didn’t have much radiator/airing space for cloth nappies, and because I worried about keeping up with the washing. And because £80 for a starter kit felt a lot more that the hundreds I eventually drip fed the supermarkets.
  • I didn’t make all my own baby foods. Sorry, Annabel Karmel.
  • I didn’t carry around a tupperware box full of blueberries. Or quartered grapes. Or mango slices. If they were hungry I bought them something. From a shop. A banana if the shop had one.
  • I bought rich tea biscuits instead of the cutesy packaged baby biscuits. Because they were cheaper. And actually healthier, since you raised your eyebrows.
  • I didn’t take them to tumbletots.
  • I didn’t do babysigning.
  • Some days the telly was on for hours. Some days we watched the same episode of Mr Maker twice.
  • I went out with sick on my jumper. Knowingly.
  • I parked in a layby while they slept in the back, and I slept too.
  • I drank coffee and tea during the phase I was breastfeeding.
  • I drank wine.
  • I drank guinness.
  • I breastfed with a glass of wine in my hand.
  • I went back to work at 10 months, for my sanity and my bank balance. Sure, I had choices, but they tipped heavily towards working, particularly because I’m fairly well paid.

Despite all the bad, bad, terrible things listed above, there are things I am proud of. I did breastfeed them both until they were 10 months, I weaned them to be adventurous eaters. I kept them safe, I got complimented on both of my happy, well behaved little boys. Apart from apparently poisoning them with toxins and neglecting their psychological development, I’ve done ok.

 

Chapter Two: The School Years

I had thought the worst was over, but I see now that it is just beginning. My eldest is 6 and my list is already growing fast.

  • Not dropping him off at school door, because he goes to before-and-after school club and does a 8:30-5:30 day
  • Not having insightful comments to write on his school report.
  • Not baking for the PTA cake sales. I did a tiffin once but suspect the cost:profit ratio only benefited tescos.
  • Not managing to go to the cake sales. I love cake. But I love using my annual leave up for quality time too.
  • Not going to PTA meetings because they clash with other commitments that my husband and I don’t want to sacrifice.
  • Not being able to have my son’s friends back for tea.
  • Not teaching him mindful meditation.
  • Not doing kumon maths.
  • Letting both my boys eat happy meals sometimes.
  • Letting my eldest drink cola sometimes.
  • Letting my eldest play computer games.

You see, not having delicious wholesome family meals around the dining table is the least of my problems. I feel guilty about everything. Everything.
Right now I’m writing this at the boys bedtime and should be doing that. Instead I can hear star wars on the PS2 in the kitchen and my youngest is jumping around, naked apart from socks. It is 7:40pm.

There’s always something I should be doing instead of what I want to do. If I did everything on my to do list, I would not sleep. I could not physically combine full time work and perfect parenting. By that I mean it’s against the laws of space and time.

All the time I am making these day to day terrible decisions, there is a whole barrage of lifestyle experts looking down their noses at me. And I’m middle class: I work, I pay taxes, I’m married, I have two children, two rabbits and two cars. (I’m not sure where the rabbits fit in that description, apart from a 2.4ishness). I live in a nice house on a nice estate, with nice neighbours. My life is good. And yet I am riddled with anxiety that my life is not good enough. Not healthy enough, not cultural enough, not social enough. To top it all, I am overweight. Health, food, size and guilt: don’t get me started. That’s a whole other yet-to-be-written-blogpost about the “how to be a woman” section of the List of Guilt.

And so we are back to the sins of eating chips in front of the tv. How dare they. Whats wrong with carrots and hummus sticks? And why aren’t they watching Film4?

There are too many ways to be judged and found wanting. What’s wrong with just good enough?

My son wrote a message for me this morning. Genuinely, this is not staged.

I heart mum

I heart mum

“I heart mum”. Written in dust. He obviously thinks I’m doing ok.

This year I turned down commissions from the TLS, the London Review of Books and the Observer, and decided instead to treat my publics to a free retrospective of 2012 culture here on my blog.

P.s This review is slightly limited by the fact that I don’t really get out much.

Films

Going out:
Madagascar 3 (2012): can’t remember, too busy eating sweets and telling my boys to ssshhhhh.
Skyfall (2012): Bang bang chase around bang bang the end. Meh.
My year has also been spent avoiding star wars in all its forms which is hard going with two boys obsessed with the films, the games, the lightsabres and the Lego versions of everything.

Staying in:
Insidious (2010): scary good
Idiocracy (2006): sci-fi clever good, not sure why I’d never heard of it
Little Fockers (2010) because Owen Wilson being smug in lycra is always good.

A special mention here for the frankly underhand strategy of lovefilm of harassing for a subscription like a menacing stalker, treating a short flirtation with a trial period as if I had given my hand in marriage, and sending tear-stained please-come-back messages every month. Just. Get. Lost.

TV

Downton combined with the series about Servants (read more) have been very satisfying. And Maggie Smith does have some great dry lines “parenting is hard enough, even when you like each other!”.
(P.s talking of period dramas, I made the mistake of watching Call the Midwife on xmas day: what’s with all the flour on everything?)
Horrible Histories, brilliant brilliant.
But my absolute highlight is True Blood. For the sexy vampires, for the gratituously naked chested men, for the music, for the pace, and for the dialogue. When Sookie swears with such perfect timing, when Tara warns someone the gore-splattered floor is “slippy”, when Jason is wide eyed stupid, it is just wonderful.

Books

50 Shades of Grey trilogy. I think I read some other stuff too, not sure. They’re blanked out by the image of Christian in those jeans. I used to read proper books you know.

Music

Staying in:
Adele is pretty good. who knew? (Apart from the general public who kept buying her music thus signalling to my cultural snobbery that she mustn’t be that good. Well I was wrong. Lesson learnt).
The XX coexist, ethereal loveliness but less sexy than their first album.
Finding Joanna Newsome’s recording of Ca the Yowes on youtube. Hauntingly odd.
Randy Crawford’s greatest hits. I know, I surprise myself. But as I am loyal to both Dolly Parton and Stevie Wonder, one more cheesy icon won’t hurt.
Current karaoke favourites for solo car journeys: “get here”, “close to you”, “you’ve got a friend”.

Going out:
I did actually go to a gig thanks to my friend Emma. Rufus Wainwright at Birmingham Symphony Hall was fantastic, complete with Adam Cohen leading a singalong to his father’s So Long Marianne. The encore was amazingly operatic too.
My music highlight of the year was the Warwick Folk Festival Scratch Choir: seven rehearsals, two performances, I got a solo, but most of all being exposed to music I wouldn’t otherwise of heard. Thank you to the choir leader Bruce Knight 🙂

Theatre

Room on a broom, tiger who came to tea, we’re going on a bear hunt. Can you see a theme emerging?
(I live 20 minutes from the RSC in Stratford upon Avon and am a little ashamed of myself)

Food

Eating in
On my second coffee machine of the year. Big story is I have cut out sugar from tea and coffee, just to prove to that bitch dentist that I am not “a nibbler”.
I have so mastered risotto, which makes me a proper grown up.
Too many meal deals and accompanying overly sulphuric wine.
Also on the cheats list: Paw paw warwick and spice hut warwick have both kept chez Dumbleton-Thomas supplied with what-the-hell-its-a-school-night-but-why-not.
Hendricks gin and fevertree tonic (I blame Suzanne Hardy for recommending that combination).

Eating out
7 course tasting menu with wine flight at the Manor Hotel, Moreton on the Marsh, an anniversary treat with my husband.
And a new favourite is my mum’s new local, the Urban Reef in Boscombe near Bournemouth

Fashion

Going up: other people buying me jewellery because left to my own devices I only buy reduced crap from Claire’s accessories and that is not the route to elegant chic.
Going down: generally my coloured tights that require vigilance and frequent re-hitching which I am rather indiscrete about.
The whole 1980s revival makes me feel jaded. Lets face it, the Sweater Shop was a low point in history not to be repeated. Unfortunately I seem to be alone on that matter.

Looking ahead

I would make predictions for 2013 but you’d laugh at me.

Happy New Year!

I have been busy editing my blog to prepare for 2013. I have added pages (at the time of writing they appear in the top right hand corner but who knows what wonders future themes will bring). I have three pieces of work from my JISC time yet to come to fruition, all very exciting. And I have started a new work blog ready to go for next year.

Interesting times, looking forward to the new year 🙂

 

It’s Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating women as engineers, scientists, technologists and mathematicians.

I’m an arts, humanities and social sciences person who ended up working in technology really, so I feel a bit cheeky joining in. But I’ve watched the day grow every year so thought I’d join in this time.

I remember at school being taken to a WISE day and I have a very vivid memory of an animation of the algorithm that creates the pattern of a fern leaf. I never felt engaged with science at school but I did like maths. I got an A at GCSE but when I asked my maths teacher if I should do maths A Level he said I’d probably do well but I might not like it. Looking back, that seems odd. Don’t get me started on my computer teacher. But I remember the awe of watching that fern leaf appear and its only now that I’m starting to address my alienation from the world of numbers and bring myself back to it. So first of all: thank you WISE.

I love the stories about Diane Fossey’s work with gorillas, and a few years ago started to read about other women primatologists. Theirs is an interesting story. This extract from the wikipedia page on Leakey’s Angels describes it:

Leakey’s Angels is a relatively recent name given to three women sent by archaeologist Louis Leakey to study primates in their natural environments. The three are Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birutė Galdikas. They studied chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans respectively.

I read somewhere how it’s no coincidence that these were strong women who managed to get close to the groups of wild primates, to observe and understand, and to create strong bonds. Each of them were passionate scientists who dedicated themselves to an almost anthropological practice. Each of them pushed forward our understanding of the higher apes. So thank you Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas.

Next up: Florence Nightingale. She may not have invented pie charts but but “she may have been the first to use them for persuading people of the need for change” paper by Hugh Small,1998. Quite right too – sometimes the presentation is as important as the facts when it comes to influencing decisions. Thank you Florence Nightingale.

Now on to TV presenters. My favourite academic presenter is Kathy Sykes. Really compelling in the way she presents, authentic and engaging, I really enjoy her programmes. I once said something fawningly incomprehensible to her at an event in York. Sorry about that, Kathy Sykes.

Closer to home: my mother, Sue Thomas, cyberspace historian and technology early adopter. Thanks, mum.

In my work world, it’s hard to know where to start! Technologists, information scientists, project managers and experts with specialisms that overlap with technology: it’s a multidisciplinary field. Great women I work closely with: Rachel Bruce, Lorna Campbell, Sheila McNeill, Jackie Carter, Sarah Currier, Laura Shaw, Suzanne Hardy, Lou McGill, Naomi Korn … women I’ve met briefly and am in awe of, like Cathy Casserly and Frances Pinter … and women I hope to meet one day, like Audrey Watters, Cathy Davidson and Heather Piwowar. I’m lucky to work in a field with so many excellent role models and colleagues.

I’m bound to have forgotten people so I expect I’ll be editing this several times!

Visual literacy has been a big theme for me this year.

A long time ago my very forward-thinking English A Level teacher, Mr Carr, taught us John Berger’s Ways of Seeing which gave me respect for visual skills. Yet I tend not to think of myself as a very visual person. I take a terrible photo, I probably prefer music to the visual arts, and I think I have a better memory for what people have said rather than what they look like.

Yet for me, 2012 has been the year of the visual.

  • I love infographics: information is beautiful has been a revelation for me: I’ve realised that I think quite spatially, so seeing information represented as patterns and shapes and relationships really works for me
  • Timelines work so well too, Lou McGill’s OER timeline is great, it is so much more accessible than the same story told in prose
  • I love data visualisations: i first met social graphs through Tony Hirst’s OUseful, and that partly inspired Lorna Campbell and I to commission Martin Hawskeys Visualisation of the UK OER programme
  • I like the way visual.ly works: another example from Wizard Hawksey was the ukoer vs score twitter analysis
  • I loved Suzanne Hardy’s suggestion (during a chat) that we should understand colour theory so as to read statistical visuals more carefully: that effective colour use sways the way we read graphics
  • I listened to a great podcast recommended, I think, by David Flanders, by Dan Roam. He suggests that we think visually and verbally with two different parts of our brain and that being able to take an image from verbal to visual and back again is a useful tool to hone the real meaning of what we are thinking about
  • I can’t tell you how much I love the animations from the OER IPR Support team, the one on turning a resource into an open educational resource, (and there is a new one on licensing open data, not yet launched* UPDATE: here it is!). I love the humour in the line drawings and the way they communicate some quite tricky concepts in a digestable way.
  • A while back I sketched a diagram and realised that rather than spend hours making it all proper and glossy it might be better to just take photos of my sketch as it developed and use it like that. That became my work post on connecting people through content.
  • I’ve also wanted to do more polished images though, so I have had a good play with easel.ly, which reinforces how much I have to learn.
I used easel.ly to make this:

C21st_Scholarship_and_Wikipedia title=
easel.ly

Brian Kelly recently wrote about the strong feelings people have about infographics, responding in part to discussions around the one I made, above. Various people said it wasn’t an infographic. He concluded that:

The accompanying image does, in the depiction of the education level of Wikipedia users, a certain amount of ‘infographical’ information, but the remainder is a poster. I think we can conclude that there are fuzzy boundaries between posters and infographics.

This is probably, however, less fuzziness between those who find infographics useful and those who dismiss them as marketing mechanisms for presenting a particular viewpoint, but hiding the underlying complexities.

In his post Brian referred to an incident where two of my favourite people, Tony Hirst (Open University and amongst other things, maker of social graphs) and Mark Power (JISC CETIS mobile web expert and a photographer) were snapped earlier this year having a mock argument about infographics 🙂

More seriously, I think there is a really interesting technology story here too.
It’s very fashionable in tech circles to sneer at QR codes. This tumblr did make me laugh: pictures of people scanning QR codes (the inference being, of course, that no-one uses them). Regardless of whether QR codes are useful of not, I have a theory that the real legacy of QR codes will be that that have driven image recognition apps on my mobile phones. They have connected the marketers, the hardware, the software and the smartphone user skills that are required for a richer visual technology stack.

And enter the news that Facebook was buying instagram. Photographs are rich in data, about what people are wearing, eating, reading, making … If I was a company trading on data about consumers, I would want to get access to photos too. Instagram is trendy, and people use it on  their smartphones, so there is plenty of geo-tagging too. How long before our photos are scanned for logos: car brands, soft drinks, fashion labels? The amazing thing is that as well as those brands being placed in films and TV to convince us to buy them, the marketing people instead will be analysing our photos to find out who their consumers really are. Images are data, and speeding up the ways to decode, tag, map, correlate that data is big money. “A picture is worth a thousand bucks”.

As an aside, I’ve said on this blog before, I am not opposed to the Facebook business model, as long as we understand the trade-offs we’re making. I’m pointing out the instagram story because I like to understand the way technology things develop. This is not a rant, it is an exploration. I’m not really interested in comments about the pros and cons of facebook and instagram.

Back to talking of images as data … I find it really interesting that at the same time technology is/will make it possible to derive text from data, we are also seeing text being mined and represented as visuals. Text becomes data becomes images becomes data becomes text. (“A thousand books is worth a picture”?) Technology is gradually going to enable much fluidity between formats and I find that really interesting.

All of this fell into place for me this evening reading this thought experiment: essay on a universal language of images by Trey Ratcliff. Imagine the human race had never started writing things down, and instead developed photographic techniques. I recommend this essay to you.

As we’re sliding through the second decade of the new millennium, something new is happening. We all have cameras in our mobile phones and taking a photo of something is far more efficient than typing a sentence about it …

As our streams become more about imagery than words, all of us will evolve a new sense of visual literacy. It is important to note that imagery is not better or worse than text — it is simply different …

Billions of people now have a totally new way to communicate, and we will all discover this new visual literacy together. Now, finally, our ideas and thoughts and feelings and stories can effortlessly travel across borders, cultures, and time …

If that doesn’t make you curious about the way the technology is developing to support visual literacy, I don’t know what would.

(This is not a pun or a euphemism)

Today we settled in two rabbits.

We’ve had rabbits before but had a long break, and I recently became obsessed with having some again. I rang a lady that rescues rabbits and she had two with a back story. They are just over 1 year old, a bonded pair of a girl and boy. They had been left to roam in a garden and breed like, well, the proverbial rabbits. The local fox was the chief beneficiary of this lifestyle choice, and it sounds like they’d lost as many bunnies to the fox as to the unfortunate effects of overbreeding. When the owners, a couple with a young boy, decided things weren’t working out they gave them to the rescue rabbit lady. 6 months later I called and it felt like fate: two rabbits, neutered now, used to children, confident despite their rocky start. The catch? They are used to roaming, to space, a lot of space. A hutch is not enough. So, with advice from the rescue lady, I searched the web for options and we decided on a small shed (£100). with a run, that a local guy built to order (£50). With extra wood and wire, my husband Tim hammered and sawed and hinged away for hours to fix it all together. I ordered a “hide house” (£30) and the magic ingredient is a cat flap.  Thus was the rabbit palace born.

They were called something else when they came to us, but since they’re lops, they are pretty deaf so we had carte blanche to change the names.

So may I introduce …

Princess Leia

and Chewbacca

I have long been interested in how it feels to think. How it physically feels to think. Some conversations feel like they set my whole head buzzing, in an exploratory, freethinking kind of way. I feel like my consciousness extends a few inches around my head, especially around the back of my head. Sometimes, one of those conversations turns to a topic closer to home, reminding me of things I have to do, or of challenges I’m very consciously dealing with. The pleasant buzz disappears and instead I feel like my frontal lobe takes charge. Things come into clearer focus, in a visual and auditory way. My head feels different. That switch is always unpleasant, like being awoken from a nice doze. What I find fascinating is how I feel it, in a very real way, as a switch in the location of my thinking.

My husband used to be a careworker for people with brain injuries so he knows a bit about the brain. He tells me that because there are no nerve endings inside the brain, the phenomena I am describing is not quite explained (yet?).

A piece in the independent caught my eye yesterday, with the word “braingasm” in the title. It is about people seeking out a relaxing buzz from watching videos of often mundane things. It introduced me to the concept of ASMR: auto sensory meridian response. At last, a name for that sort of tingly-headedness! The ASMR website describes this sensation as caused by external factors like hair stroking, and internal factors like a response to a soothing voice.

I’ve asked members of my family over the last 24 hours whether they recognise this ASMR phenomena. With mixed responses. So now I’m even more curious!

Do you get a fuzzy feeling when someone strokes your hair?

Do some people make you feel nicely tingly in a reassuring non-thinking way?

Do you “feel” it when you think in certain ways?

Would love for some comments here 🙂