There’s An Unexpected Item in my Bagging Area

unexpected item in the bagging areaI want to talk to you about shopping, those tiny exchanges conducted under strip light.

Buying stuff is the coal-face of human material desire,  the location of our drama about value and fairness.  It’s a simple and ancient idea, the swapping of one thing of value for another of (what we deem to be) equal value.

Buddha and lots of other enlightened beings tell us not to do it, but most of us do; we buy shizzle. We buy shizzle we don’t need. Singing fish, unwearable hats, items that go from gift to thrift store in days.

There’s the ‘necessary’ shopping, for food and pants, and then there’s ‘trigger shopping’ (for me, books, can’t resist the buggers). Then there’s what I call ‘human’ shopping where we’re telling stories with our purchases:  the new suit that reveals the first job interview in 10 years; the size 10 dress indicating small victories in the gym; the pots and pans for the kid who has just left home; the newly weds sheets; the funeral flowers; the fresh set of acrylics that give away a creative surge.

One of my favourite jobs was working in a health shop that smelled of patchouli and lemongrass. People would wander in like walking wounded and all with stories. Shell-shocked new dads looking for something to stop the wife crying, old men and their goiters, a lot of beleaguered eczema. 

So, it will come as no surprise to discover that I hate self-service tills. To me, they sum up the cold, hard, robotic vision of the future predicted in the 1950s. The self-service process offers no warmth, no humanity – for heaven’s sake, human experience is not binary.

Self-service scales are more sensitive and spiky  than a dopey end-of-season wasp. The SKU codes on items are unreadable, and loud accusatory alarms go off if you try to purchase a bottle of wine or condoms. Then, there it goes, “There’s an unexpected item in the bagging area”. Except there isn’t.

You shuffle your skin-thin plastic bag around a bit, as if re-jigging your items will somehow calm the hissy-fitting machine. You try talking to the till, escalating from reasonable to exasperated within thirty seconds. You wait to be rescued by someone in polyester, but help is busy manually inputting the SKU code for a fellow customer’s kumquats. 

I think perhaps it is the Ghost of Redundant Shop Assistants Past setting off those scales. Or an incumbent fly.  More likely however, is that the unexpected item in my bagging area is simply the unbearable weight of words unsaid, pleasantries unshared. 

Once you have extracted the lottery of coins from the obscurely-positioned change tray and fended off the vomiting of vouchers, you may think as I do,  “Fuck you Robo-Till and your cold, steel heart.”

I just want someone to chat about the weather with.  I want someone to say… ‘Oooh I love these too .. I ate them when I was pregnant with my first’ as they pass my jar of gherkins through the scanner. 

I want snippets of lives freely offered and freshly packed. I want a mutual exchange.

Give me a human, give me a human story any day.

You and Me are History: Archiving the Future

23 Snaps Photo book

My lovely 23 Snaps Photo Book…

The other day, I was asked to produce a baby photo of my youngest child, and I couldn’t. With a wave of nausea, I realised that every moment I have recorded of my youngest daughter’s life, has been digital. And I haven’t been organised about it either.

I sat on the floor with the defunct hard drive that contains the Biscuit Thief’s baby pictures. The connection needed to access the photos is not compatible with my latest computer. Other photos are on a PC that no one, apart from cavemen, use anymore. The rapidity of change in digital technologies is blisteringly clear in the difference between the photographic record of my teenager’s life (born 1996, box of photos in the attic) and that of my second child (born in 2005, diddly-squat in the attic). This problem is big, and it’s getting bigger.

So I’m worrying, I’m worrying about history. But I’m also wondering about whether it matters that I haven’t diligently archived my family’s past. There were, after all, generations before photography, video and audio recording and we can only guess what our ancestors looked, moved and sounded like. Is my lack of a tangible record of my children’s past any worse than the edited histories we have received down the years? Whole chunks of information and images have been discarded over time, deemed unworthy of preservation on (usually) racist or sexist grounds. History has always been selective, and the recording of it highly subjective.

I’m thinking that we live out a strange dichotomy. We think we are in an era of information saturation; that we are recording everything, enjoying this weird intimacy over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social channels. But actually, none of it is tangible… “all that is solid melts into air…” said Marx of modernity. This intimacy is fleeting, a firework in the night sky, a brush against a stranger. There is a disconnect between what we share, what is evanescent and what has permanence. History feels precarious at the same time as being collectively experienced over social media.

My memory is lit up by palpable things; like my father’s handwriting on old birthday cards, or my aunt’s silk dress, still mapping the contours of her body. Nearly six feet tall, she must have been an elegant woman with exquisite taste to own such a dress. My great, great grandmother’s engagement ring reveals that the central diamond, cut in Europe, was at some point removed from its original setting and cast in another in New York in the late 1800s. It tells me more about her life than a photograph. Yet I long to see her, to know her face. I yearn to know whether it is from her that I get my freckles and strawberry blonde hair. I wonder about the quality of her skin and the way her mouth naturally set when she was unaware anyone was looking. Only a photograph can show me that.

Thinking about all this has inspired me to get my digital act together and create tangible histories by printing off photo books for my children. In search of solutions, I tried out 23 Snaps, an app and website which allows you to upload photos to a central server and share your photostream with invited guests. You, and anyone else you invite, can compile and order beautiful printed books, all from within the app. A friend of mine recommends Photobox, and every six months or so, she compiles and prints off another photo album. There are other services such as Jessops and Snapfish but I have yet to find a good way to preserve video. Any ideas? I’d love to know what works for you… how do you log your life?

Reward Stickers for Adults: Gummy Little Redeemers

The Averys

The Averys

It is time my friends. Time to pay homage to the couple who made the task of modern parenting/teaching/damage limitation possible. The inventor of the self-adhesive sticker, Mr. R Stanton Avery and his wife, Dorothy Durfee.

The Reward Sticker. Oh, how I have come to love these gummy little redeemers. These precious paper wafers, tools of compliance, delicate as gold leaf, and more loaded with meaning than a communion biscuit. Stickers are dispensed to our children like angel’s kisses by teachers, doctors, and parents alike.  Within our children’s adhesive universe, there is a hierarchy of reward, ranging from the simple gold star to the ultimate, much coveted gummy prize; the large, glittery, puffy sticker, enhanced with foam.

My own relationship with self-adhesives runs thus:

1970-1977 ~ Boundless enthusiasm for ‘sticker collections’ equating, over a lifetime, to roughly £2500 worth 0f bubble gum in order to find 100 stickers.

1980-1984 ~ an odd flirtation with Sticky-Back-Plastic (Every. Single. School. Exercise Book.)

1996-1997 ~ a brief, rave-related bindi wearing phase.

2001- yesterday ~ a Post-It-Note based stationary fetish.

Which brings me to now. It was only yesterday, when the Biscuit Thief came home proudly displaying an “I ate all my lunch today” sticker AND a huge, red, glittery, puffy butterfly one for ‘sitting nicely’, that I thought, I want stickers. I bloody want bloody reward stickers.  I want them plastered on my torso each time I complete a yoga class, I want them daubed across my face when I achieve edible meal provision, I want them glued to my weary eyelids when I have, yet again, kept calm and carried on. I want to be agglutinated, affixed, pasted to within a papery inch of my wretched domestic life with stickers that say “WELL DONE!”

In fact, why stop there: I could give my husband stickers too, ones that say things like, “Today, I have been amazing at not mentioning my wife’s ‘tache.” The Teenage Songbird could have ones that say, “I am not on drugs or pregnant. RESULT!”

It was in 1935 that ‘Stan Avery’  invented the machine that made self-sticking labels. His creation saw the light of day thanks to a $50 investment from a woman called Dorothy Durfee, a school teacher, who became Stan’s wife. Together, Stan and Dorothy ran Kum-Kleen Adhesive Products as equal partners. Today, nearly eighty years on,  I shall construct a small altar to them made out of Avery mini labels and give thanks. Won’t you join me? You’ll get a reward sticker if you do.

Top 10 Vegetarian Cookbooks or Why I’m Back on the (Cashew Nut) Sauce

veggiesHere are some things I don’t want to put in my mouth; Blue Peter pets, Bambi, trotters, Shergar. Which is why, after a seven year break, I decided to return to a predominantly vegetarian diet at the beginning of this year. My New Year’s Resolution was of the ‘lets pencil that in’ variety until the whole ‘there’s a pony in your pie’ story exploded and I thought I was going to gag up an equine kidney. Literally.

I first became a veggie in my late teens on the grounds that  I didn’t approve (in the way that only a 15-year-old can ‘not approve’) of the Diet of Diminished Responsibility as I called it. I had the idea that I would only eat what I could kill. Having experienced gut-spewing hours on the water, both lake and and sea, with just my dad, a fishing rod and a thunderous sky for company, fish were totally on my menu. Dad taught me how to reel in the thrashing creatures, unhooking their bloodied mouths before stopping, in a moment of bizarre reverence, to admire the rainbow-beauty of their silvery scales. Dad would gaze at the gasping fish, his eyes moistening, reading the scales like tea leaves before administering a merciful clout to the fishes head. Queasily, I’d watch the perfect silver ring of the fishes eyes retract making way for the wide black pupils of stillness. It felt raw, but somehow natural and oddly ok to skin, gut and cook ‘em up with garlic later that night. But maybe I’d just  read too much Hemmingway.  But so it was that my diet was veggie/pescatarian for some twenty years until the traumatic birth of my second daughter, the Biscuit Thief.

Within hours of the emergency C-section I had undergone, I became desperately anaemic and needed a blood transfusion. I still remember the sensation of a stranger’s blood seeping into my architecture like tar through a straw. It crept into me like a burgundy, life-saving syrup, carrying with it so much heat that I could trace its path around my broken body. Over the next few days, as the anaemia ebbed away, a gnawing started in my belly. My husband came to visit me in hospital and I looked at him like a shark looks at tiddlers.

“I think I…I…I think I need…I need a fucking steak!” I said, horrified.

I was like Alex the Lion in the Madagascar films when he imagines the lemurs and zebras turning into little sirloins such is the intensity of his meat-lust. Since that moment seven years ago, there has been nothing I wouldn’t do for a sausage until recently, the smell of meat, let alone the taste of it, started to make me feel unbelievably squeamish.  Thank fuck I’m not French.

And so I am back;  back to the demanding cooking, back to the endless peeling of root vegetables, back to the exotic adventures with cheese, back to endless reconfigurements of falafels and humous. Unfortunately for a vegetarian/pescatarian, I am not on speaking terms with eggs after a salmonella incident on top of a mountain in Spain where I puked and also pooed in front of a pop star and my new born baby had to sleep in a suitcase ~ but that’s another story. So without eggs, I have to work hard to get my protein.

Having been out of the quinoa-loving lifestyle for some years, I asked Twitter and Facebook for some vegetarian cookbook suggestions and these ones came out top. Enjoy!

TOP 10 VEGETARIAN COOKBOOKS

The Mystic Cookfire by Veronika Robinson

River Cottage Veg Every Day Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Sundays At Moosewood Restaurant Moosewood Collective

Plenty Yotam Ottolenghi

Gaia’s Kitchen Julia Ponsonby

Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Cookery Rose Elliot

River Cafe Cookbook Green Rose Grey

The Vegetarian Pantry  Chloe Choker & Jane Montgomery

Paradiso Seasons Denis Cotter

The Accidental Vegetarian Simon Rimmer

Letting Men into the Cult of Motherhood

HiResI’m having a dilemma.

Am I a parent, or am I a mother?

Am I a uterus, or am I a person?

It sounds funny, but actually, it’s quite serious.  From the age of eleven, I have been reminded every few weeks of my ‘reproductive potential’. Now, in my mid-forties, the odd sweat emanating from my left armpit as I embark on an apparently one-sided menopause, reminds me of that potential coming to an end. Now more than ever, I am consciously unpicking what it means to be a woman. What it is that really constitutes the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’ beyond body parts and hormones?  What are the scientific facts about ‘gender’ and how many of my assumptions are the result of nothing more than cultural mythology and social conditioning?*

I have always bought into the idea of ‘the feminine’ as a universal principle. I absorbed the western interpretation of Taoist yin/yang thinking from childhood and have never really questioned it until now.  This idea of the feminine representing the creative dark, the yin, the nurturing principles of community and communication has much appeal, but I am beginning to understand the ways in which this concept as a subtle cultural principle polarizes men and women. It narrows the economic, social and human potential of both sexes.  I have been thinking a lot about whether it would be helpful for women’s equality if I played down what I feel is my ‘difference’ from men; the fact that I birth and breastfeed, the fact that I bleed.

The problem, as I see it, is that if we stick with the feminine and masculine principles as cultural rather than something housed within each individual, how can men ever meet us in the domestic sphere so that we ‘parent’ our children together? If we assume that women are innately better at nurturing, we tie ourselves to the kitchen sink and limit our possibilities, at the same time sentencing men to a life outside the home, chasing some intangible goal that takes them away from their families and the hard work of bringing up children. Men too can be nurturing, intuitive, loving, and caring; these qualities are not somehow innately bound up in motherhood are they? Before you say it, men get a hit of the love hormone oxytocin when they hug their children too!

Does it empower mothers and increase their status in society of we say they are nature’s homemakers and innately nurturing?  I am beginning to see how this helps to keep mothers in a place of cultural servitude, maintaining nothing but status quo. Equally, does it really ‘empower’ men to have a social script that says they should be ‘out there’ earning money, locking them into a lifetime of ladder-climbing and provider-stress that keeps them away from their offspring?

Yet, I am left with a glaring issue if I deny the glory, power and mystical wonder of my uterus!  HEAR ME ROOAAAR! The issue is where to put the fact that mothering my daughters has been the best, most enlightening and empowering experience of my life. Of all the ‘careers’ I have had (and there have been many) mothering my children has been the most natural fit for my personal strengths and weaknesses.

But I have begun to question whether I am ‘mothering’ my children or actually just ‘parenting’ them? What, when we go beyond birth and breastfeeding, am I giving them that my husband does not, other than some experience-based empathy about periods? If I’m honest, my husband is a better shoulder to cry on. He is the ‘nurturing force’ of calm in our home. I am not innately better at laundry and finding lost homework folders. I am far more the outwardly-focussed forager-spirit traditionally associated with masculinity. My partner and I have found ourselves in different (and I would claim, the wrong) spheres as a result of our own social/cultural expectations, education and upbringing.

I despair when gentle fathers who are great with their children, get derided for ‘being in touch with their feminine side’ as if it’s a bad thing. Surely these men are simply evolved human beings. If I hear one more excuse for friend’s sons being allowed to hit me with sticks because, “Oh! They’re just being a boy,” I might choke on my yin/yang necklace. How limiting, how sad. LET’S SHAKE IT UP!

If you take the gender-based social conditioning out of parenting (as in the case of many single sex couples) things get really interesting. It becomes a question of individual temperament, laying the groundwork for a more equal distribution of the task of bringing up children. Plus, a whole load of women can unburden themselves of the guilt they carry about the fact that motherhood, for them, is not enough.

I have found motherhood to be very tribal and divided, with no unified or unifying political voice. Part of the problem is that we see ‘the other’ woman’s choice as the thing that holds us back. Stay-at-home mothers view full-time working mums and nanny-culture as part of the reason motherhood is not valued, and working mums see the stay-at-homers as upholding cultural stereotypes that maintain inequality in pay and rubbish parental leave legislation. We are at a paralysing impasse.

Can and should ‘motherhood’ be absorbed into the word ‘parenthood’, or is it more important to raise the status of motherhood as a ‘career choice’? Can we ever go beyond gender and simply be humans, together, doing this thing called life? Do we need to let men into the cult of motherhood and bridge the divide, one dirty nappy at a time?

I’d love to know what you think and especially hear about any good books on the subject; I’ll compile them into a reading list and share.

*Gender Delusions by Cordelia Fine is a good starting point on all this.

How to Get Your Kids into Poetry: Granny is a Vintage Cheese

I’ve been a lifelong fan of poetry. My love of it was instilled in me by my dad who called it ‘poultry’ and for years, I thought the written word was closely linked to chickens.

When he wasn’t reading poetry aloud in a wildly theatrical voice, my dad would be listening to it and crying.  33rpm vinyl Dylan Thomas crackled into my childhood dreams as he played the records at midnight.

My father left behind reams of his own poems, written in his spidery handwriting, the wiry, right-leaning slant of which I inherited. It is because of him that I love words, and it’s something I wanted to pass on to my own children.

This is a great game to play with your kids as soon as they have developed any kind level of symbolic imagination. I call this game, Granny is a Vintage Cheese. I find it works best from about age 6 plus, but it depends on your child.

Here is what you do to play Granny is a Vintage Cheese

  • Grab a pen and paper.
  • Ask your child to think of a person they know and keep them in mind. Get a photo out if it helps.
  • Then ask your child what colour that person makes them think of .
  • What kind of weather would the person be?
  • What kind of road, fruit, sound, flower, music, country, smell, sky, animal, temperature would they be? What kind of journey, what texture?
  • Write everything down.
  • Ask any questions that inspire your child to think symbolically.

You will end up with a list something like this ~ The Biscuit Thief aged 6 describing one of her friends:

Yellow, Strawberries, Bells, Scotland, Sunny day, A muddy path through a field, Chilly, A cup of tea.

Then, you put the images into some kind of shape like this:

MUDDY FIELDS

I loved that sunny day in Scotland,

When the yellow light helped the wild strawberries grow.

We ate them until our cups of tea,

turned chilly in the wind.

We walked home;

a muddy path through the fields,

to the sound of distant bells.

Voila! You have a poem by a 6-year-old (with a little help).

Give the poem title by picking one of the images, or just using the person’s name. Obviously, the more images you get out of your little one, the richer the symbols in the final poem will be.

The poems make great presents by the way! (Unless the all the associations seem to be about poo, wee, and plop.) Just print them off or get your child to write them out and then frame them.

Here’s another one, based on the images the Biscuit Thief associates with me:

MUMMY, by the Biscuit Thief, aged 6.

I ate old bananas,

In the heavy rain storm.

The pig smelled of roses

and an old rusty car that had broken down

In Guernsey.

Thanks Biscuit. Please add yours in the comments…I would love to see them!

When Did I Become the Oracle at Bollocks?

The Family Trivia

Confession: I am held together by Post It Notes

In ancient Greece, the area of Delphi contained a sanctuary where Apollo was said to speak through an older woman ‘of blameless life.’ This woman, Pythia or the sibyl, was the priestess of  ‘the Oracle at Delphi.’ She would fall into a trance and her ecstatic ramblings would be interpreted by priests who put them into neat rhyming verses. People consulted the Oracle on all sorts of important matters from the timing of wars to personal and political crises. That Pythia had power…such PowHer!

And I too,  a woman of <cough> blameless life, am consulted regularly by my offspring and husband.  They wait until I have entered a trance-like state fuelled by caffeine and the therapeutic vapours emanating off Liz Earle products (hopeful brand mention, fishing for freebie) before asking me questions of vital importance such as:

“Do I have any clean pants?”

I take a moment to gaze into the small crystal monkey that I won in the school tombola and, before I know it, cryptic couplets just, like, materialize. Enlightenment comes pouring out of my gob. My wisdom positively SPRAYS FORTH like spittle from a cross footballer’s mouth.

“Do you have clean cacks? I’m not sure what you mean,

But there’s this thing in the kitchen called a washing machine.

You put in dirty pants and clothes that you have worn,

Put in soap, turn the dial and press the button orn.”

Or:

“What’s for dinner?”

“I’m not sure, 

it’s hard to discern

But it will be something you don’t like

and very likely burned.”

Or:

Muffled voice from behind locked bathroom door:  “Argghhh…<ruffling sounds> Do we have any more toilet roll?”

 “If the silver roll thing is empty

The answer my child, is no.

When did I become the Oracle at Bollocks?

That’s what I would like to know.”

Etc etc, you get the picture. And so my question is, when exactly did I become the Oracle at Bollocks? The Font of all Shizzdom? When did I become the receptacle of all family trivia? I am like a human fucking cork board. I am the person equivalent of a fridge covered in crappy notes and timetables held on by crappy miniature Eiffel Tower magnets and those ones that say ‘I Love Ibiza’ on them. Post It Notes should come in flesh colour so that  when I stick them on me, from a distance it will just look like I’m one of those really cool women with lots of ‘up yours’ tattoos all over my body when actually I am a walking To-Do List of Trivia.

I’m tracing back the moment in time where I became the Oracle at Bollocks. Ah, there it is. The moment I had a baby. The baby came out of me. My partner was sent home while I, broken yet enjoying the opiates, was left holding her. Yes, my partner went home and ‘got some rest’ and I was taught my first bit of bollocks ~ how to put a baby grow on a wriggly new born whilst still looking sexy.  Women’s work don’t you know.

And I didn’t wholly mind it, for a while. Being the Oracle at Bollocks. When my children were very small. But now, they’re both at school and I have time and a brain. Can someone else hold one of my bollocks now please? I’m tired and I want to do something clever.