The Humans: 2013 365 Challenge #336

A very profound book

A very profound book

I finally started reading, and very quickly finished, The Humans by Matt Haig this weekend. If you haven’t come across the story (goodness knows how, as it flooded Twitter for a while during its release) it tells the story of an alien who comes to halt mathematical progress on Earth because Humans are deemed too violent to take the next step in technological evolution.

I was drawn to the book by its Twitter campaign and because I just happened to have read and enjoyed an early children’s book by the same author. The social media campaign was something truly incredible, with a lovely video trailer made by lots of different real people reciting lines from a part of the book called Advice for a Human (see picture below)

I started following Matt Haig’s blog, Twitter and Facebook, and found him to be a fascinating person, full of self-doubt and amazing insight, with a history of depression and attempted suicide. I couldn’t wait for the book to be released. I bought it in hardback (a thing I never do) and then bought the kindle version as well because I wanted to take it on holiday. That was in May of this year.

Since then I’ve tried to start it half a dozen times, but I just couldn’t get into it. The narrative voice is the alien, and the tone was so stilted and disinterestedly miserable, it put me off, even though I knew it was part of the story. Then, too, I started to feel pressure to love the book. Because the reviews were amazing, and because I liked the author as I came to know him through social media, I wanted to like the book, and felt bad that I didn’t. I had invested time and emotion into supporting its release and its author.

And then, worse of all, I started to disagree with some of what the author said on Facebook, and my faith took a wobble. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently, and is probably a topic for another blog post – about how our perception of a piece of art or literature changes when we come to know more about the author and was it maybe better when the author was hidden in mystery and unknowable. Anyway, as I say, that’s another post.

Some of the great advice (better read in context)

Some of the great advice (better read in context)

As a result of the emotional (and financial!) investment, though, I couldn’t give up on the book. So I started again on Friday, and couldn’t put it down. I read it with my fingers in my ears, while the kids decorated the Christmas tree. I finished it at 2am last night, leaving me groggy and grumpy for today’s family lunch. No matter: it was worth it. This is my (rather short) Goodreads review:

“It took me a long time to get into this story, after wanting to read it for months. I’m glad I persisted, it was so worth it. This is a deeply profound, yet funny and entertaining book, full of pearls of wisdom you’ll be desperate to share with people.”

As I read the story, I kept reading bits out to hubbie, much to his bemusement (that never works, especially when the recipient is playing Candy Crush or similar). It’s full of Tweetable bits of goodness. I could feel the author, and what I knew of his history, in every line, and it added to the authenticity, although I suspect it wasn’t necessary. The story rings true by itself. I wanted to find a nugget to share here, but there are so many. Instead I would say, read it. Even if, like me, you can’t warm to the alien and you find him annoying in the extreme. He grows on you. And it’s a book that will stay with you long after you read the last page. As an author I always think you can’t ask for more than that.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Thank you for letting us stay, Nana.” Alex’s voice wobbled between child and adult, as he gave Claire’s mum a rather formal embrace.

His face still showed the pallor of expended emotion; pale and drawn despite the tan he’d gained during his time in the South West. Claire wanted to pull him into a proper hug, one with feeling. The greeting they’d got from her parents was lukewarm at best.

I guess I wouldn’t like it if someone turned up on my doorstep and asked me to take in house guests. She thought about it and her lips twisted into a wry smile. Mind you, it’s no more than both my siblings have done to me this year. Suddenly Auntie Claire is the only one with all the time in the world.

She pushed away the bitter feelings, and turned to make sure Jack was alright. He’d been less affected by their father’s announcement, chattering excitedly on the long journey from Cornwall to Cambridgeshire. As they had neared their destination, however, he had become more subdued and, since their arrival, he had hovered in the background.

A quick glance showed her he wasn’t in the room and she went in search of him, leaving Alex to forge a stilted conversation with his nana. Her father, Claire noted, had also disappeared and Claire felt disappointed at his cowardice.

She found them both, eventually, hidden in her father’s study.

“There you are!”

Her voice made them jump and their faces flushed with guilt. She concealed a smile at how like naughty schoolboys they both looked, despite a gap of half a century between them.

“What are you two up to? You’ve left Alex battling on with Nana.”

“He’ll be fine,” Jack said brightly, “he’s good at charming the old biddies.” Then he realised what he’d said, and blanched.

Claire’s dad laughed – a loud guffaw – as much at Jack’s stricken expression, it seemed, as at his words.

“Don’t worry, son, your secret is safe with me. Your nana can be a tough nut to crack, but she’s soft underneath.”

Claire privately wondered if that were true, but said nothing. “So, what are you two doing?” She perched on the edge of the desk and looked at them with one eyebrow raised, her arms folded across her chest in an expression of severity that was all act. Seeing Jack locked away with her father gave her a warm glow of satisfaction, but there was a game afoot and she was prepared to play her part.

“Pops was showing me his book. Did you know he’d written a novel, Auntie Claire?”

Claire switched her gaze from Jack’s eager excitement to the look of sheepish guilt on her Dad’s face. “Is it finished then? I thought it was a thriller? It doesn’t sound like something a young boy should be reading.”

“Oh, Claire, I’m not a baby. I’ve read James Herbert and Stephen King.”

“Really?” Claire was genuinely shocked. Even she didn’t have the stomach for some of the more gruesome horrors. She wondered if she should forbid Jack from reading books liable to give him nightmares. Then she looked at his face and had a flash of realisation. Whatever difficulties in Jack’s life, he had yet to experience real fear and horror and so the stories were just stories. They probably had less impact on him than on an adult who could read the truth behind the fabrication.

Suddenly she grinned. “That’s amazing, Dad. I’m so proud of you. Can I read it, too?”

Her dad’s grin was as wide as hers. “I thought you’d never ask.”

*

Back in the lounge, Claire saw that Alex was manfully trying to engage her mum in conversation, and her heart went out to him. Even she struggled to find a topic of interest when talking to her mum.

As she walked in, her mum looked up, and her expression was honey-laced venom. Startled, Claire took a moment to gather herself, then said,

“Jack and Pops are in the study, Alex. Why don’t you go and see if they’d like some tea and cake? It’s been a long time since lunch.” They had been offered nothing on arrival. If her mum wasn’t going to play host, then she would show her how it should be done.

Alex jumped up like a man given a reprieve on death row, and practically ran from the room.

“Okay, Mum, out with it,” Claire said, as she heard his footsteps retreating down the hall. Her words took the wind from her mum’s anger, and Claire had to swallow a laugh.

“I’m surprised you have to ask. You turn up, unannounced, with Robert’s boys in tow, and without so much as a by-your-leave tell me that they’re staying here for an undetermined length of time, because you saw fit to send their father home. I think you have some explaining to do, young lady.”

“I’m not a child, Mum, you don’t need to take that tone. Robert’s behaviour was unacceptable. He arrived two hours late, with a chit of a girl on his arm, and announced he was engaged to her. His treatment of the boys is disgusting and he’s so far up his own arse they have to ship in daylight.”

“Claire! Really!” Her mother’s face went pale. Then her expression changed and she became a frail old woman. When she spoke, her voice was querulous “I don’t know why you’re shouting at me; it isn’t my fault.”

For a moment Claire was almost fooled. But not quite. “Oh, give over, Mum. Quit playing games, I’ve had enough of that from Robert.” She wanted to add that yes, it probably was her fault, at least in part. If she’d taken time to teach Robert some manners he might not be a total git. Realising such a discussion with her mother was an exercise in futility, she took a deep breath and controlled her temper with effort.

“Jack and Alex are your grandsons. You should be proud of them; they are amazing boys. If I could, I would keep them with me longer, but I have trespassed on Conor’s goodwill enough already. I’m only asking you to let them stay for a week; take them to see Ruth and Sky. Poor Jack doesn’t remember his cousin at all. They won’t be any trouble. I have money to buy their tickets, and I’ll contact Francesca and ask her to meet them at Stansted.”

Her mother’s face remained petulant and Claire snapped. “For God’s sake, Mum, don’t be such a cow. I know you couldn’t give a monkeys about me or Robert, and I doubt Ruth gets a look in now she’s got her life back on track, but this is your chance to make amends and be a decent human being. Why don’t you give it a try, you might find you like it?”

Before her mum could answer, Claire stalked from the room.

***

“Kobogeddon”

First WH Smith then all KOBO

First WH Smith then all KOBO

A couple of days ago I wrote about online retailers censoring self-published and indie books, referring to WH Smith / Kobo in the UK. Despite including this picture of the BBC news headline, “Kobo pulls self-published books after abuse row”, I didn’t really appreciate that there were two distinct (though overlapping) aspects to the scandal.

The first part, to do with censorship of erotica, I covered in my previous post. I personally don’t have a problem with restricting books that might be considered inappropriate (or ‘sick’ as one commenter defined them. Although I think these days sick means good, yes? I’m over thirty, I don’t know.)

The other element, that had passed me by, was the fact that Kobo blamed self-published authors for the whole affair. I caught up when I stumbled across the hashtag Kobogeddon on Twitter last night. UK-based author Rayne Hall started the hashtag to bring attention to Kobo’s hypocrisy and back-stabbing actions. Her blog posts on Goodreads here and here explain the full story, for anyone who doesn’t know the details.

#Kobogeddon on Twitter

#Kobogeddon on Twitter

In summary, a UK newspaper pointed out to WH Smith that they had featured books on rape and incest alongside children’s books (I think we can all agree that something had to be done. Perhaps put an 18+ filter on all books containing erotica?). In reaction WH Smith took down their ebook website and their provider, Kobo, took down all UK books. (Not just UK authors, I believe US authors were affected, although their books are still available in the US).

Fine. They had to do something. I’ve worked in PR, I get that. But they only took down self-published books (and ALL of them, not just erotica): any traditionally published erotica is still available for all to see.

That was five days ago. As of now my books are still not available on Kobo, although I understand that books published directly through Kobo are starting to reappear.  Any of you who have read Dragon Wraiths, or Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes, or any one of the Claire installments on this blog that I collate into free books, will know there is nothing racier than a non-explicit sex scene or the occasional snog. Hardly risqué, Kobo.

Yet when I type in “School of” (as suggested by a comment on Rayne Hall’s blog) I get this selection of books (picture below): notice the erotic books School of Spank and School of Discipline alongside the children’s book The Clumsies Make a Mess of the School.

Kobo search results for "School of"

Kobo search results for “School of”

When I look down the list of categories on the left hand side there isn’t even an erotica category listed (although if you click in the book they are labelled as erotica, so the tagging is there).

I have restrictions enabled on my iPad to stop the children coming across things they shouldn’t (including books). Shame it doesn’t seem to work on any of the online retail sites. Smashwords at least has an adult filter, although it seems not all authors are using it. Self-published authors do need to take some responsibility for correctly tagging their books.

But Kobo has got it all wrong. Indie and Self-Published authors are not the only problem. Even if authors are not correctly labelling their books as ‘adult’, it still only represents a proportion of all books. By taking down everything, with no explanation (unless authors are published directly with them) they haven’t just chucked the baby out with the bath water, they’ve thrown the cash cow over a cliff.

Like it or not, self-publishing is part of the future of the book industry and pissing off authors is a really bad idea. I don’t need Kobo. According to my Smashwords stats I haven’t had a single book downloaded from Kobo since the beginning (although I might be in trouble if Barnes and Noble decide they don’t want to publish my books). I have other routes to market. Do they?

Please spread the word, whether you’re in the UK or not. If possible, buy your ebooks from another source. Direct from Smashwords is best. Support your Indie authors! We thank you for it.

Would You Walk? 2013 365 Challenge #194

Playing in the unusual British summer weather!

Playing in the unusual British summer weather!

There’s been an interesting debate on Twitter this afternoon about an incident in the Ashes cricket match, between England and Australia. Listening on the radio, it’s impossible to have an opinion on the event itself, as it’s all to do with a batsman not walking off the field when he was caught behind, even though the umpire said Not Out.

There is a video review system in cricket – DRS – which was introduced for just such moments and, had the Aussies not wasted their reviews on dubious LBW (leg before wicket – a way of getting out) decisions, they could have asked for a review and Broad would have been out.

The commentators are even saying Broad might have walked anyway if the Aussies had had a review remaining, knowing it would be reviewed. As I say, I don’t really have an opinion, although – as an English person – I would hope that he would do the sporting thing. The phrase Simply not cricket is a reference to the scrupulous morals of the game.

Look, Mummy, I found an egg

Look, Mummy, I found an egg

However, as many people on Twitter pointed out, this is his career. His job is to help his team mates win the game and the tournament. His runs may turn out to be the difference between victory and defeat. With the DRS system there to prevent such travesty decisions, maybe his staying put is a lesson to Australia not to waste them. (After the match, Broad said it was a batsman’s right to await the decision of the umpire.)

One of the more interesting discussions centred around whether an Australian player would have walked in the same situation (along the lines of – they would have stayed put so why shouldn’t our guy?). There, I’m less comfortable. Just because your opponent does something, doesn’t mean you should too.

In the end, the decisions in sport ebb and flow. By all accounts there were a couple of decisions yesterday that went the way of the Aussies rather than the English. These things tend to even out in the end. Of course if it had been the other way around I might have been more outraged, though I don’t think so.

The shift from amateur to professional status for a sport or sportsman must make it harder to take the moral high ground. You do see it, when a snooker player admits to moving a ball with his hand, or when a cricketer walks, but not so much. I ask the haters on Twitter, though, what would you do?

I dislike endless promotion from authors on social media; it doesn’t mean I haven’t done it, when there’s a free promo running or I haven’t had a sale in weeks. It’s my job and I have to grow an extra layer of skin and do things that go against the grain.

My turn to bounce, Mummy

My turn to bounce, Mummy

I used to struggle at work with office politics, because I have a writer’s need for honesty and explanation as opposed to poker-face lying and dissimulation. However, I knew I couldn’t change the way the game was played so I chose to leave rather than let the game change me. I was lucky to have the choice.

Hubbie is facing the same dilemma, knowing his family rely on him not to leave. I wish I knew the answer, for those faced with a game whose rules offend their sense of what’s right, but who must play by those rules or lose.

In Broad’s position? If I genuinely knew I hit the ball and was out (and hot spot doesn’t seem certain, so maybe Broad wasn’t) I would probably walk. But maybe only because my guilt would be writ large on my face. I couldn’t lie about my daughter’s age to get her into an aquarium without paying adult prices for a 4-year-old, but I didn’t correct the lady on the till when she made the assumption for me that my daughter was only 3.

Besides, isn’t it hard to be moral in a society whose leaders have the motto ‘What can we get away with?’ rather than ‘Let’s do what’s right’.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire walked up the path and felt a twinge of anxiety. The last time she had turned up unannounced she hadn’t received much of a welcome. Hopefully her week being helpful over at Ruth’s would ensure a cordial greeting.

The house lurked quietly on the subdued street. I guess six o’clock on a Sunday evening isn’t a noisy time in this kind of neighbourhood. Presumably the residents were all eating a Sunday roast or watching prime-time television in their sitting rooms.

The sound of the bell shattered the silence. Claire waited, listening for the familiar footsteps along the hall. Five seconds passed, ten. The wait made her ears ring and tightened a knot of tension in her stomach.

I’ll count to ten, then I’ll ring the bell again.

Images began to flash through Claire’s mind and she had to resist the impulse to let herself in, unsure whether she expected to find them murdered in their beds, or a note to confirm her father was having an affair, next to a bottle of pills and an empty liquor bottle.

Come on, Claire, you’ve been watching too many Sunday-night dramas yourself. This isn’t Midsomer or an episode of CSI.

Her hands trembled as she raised them to the bell a second time. As the sound cut through the still evening, Claire knew that no one was going to answer. With a rapidly increasing heart rate, she decided to call her mother’s mobile.

Maybe they’re at the pub, or a party. The words sounded false in her mind: her parents never went out. Not together, at any rate.

A sudden vision of her mother stalking her father, spying on him to discover his misdeeds, rose in her mind, only to be banished.

Claire found her phone and dialled the number. It also rang on, unanswered. Claire ended the call and was about to find her house key when her mobile flashed back into life. It was her mother’s number, returning her call. With numb hands she lifted the phone to her ear.

“Hello? Mum? Are you okay?”

“Claire, darling. Sorry I didn’t catch your call, I couldn’t reach the phone.” Her mother’s voice bubbled down the line, easing some of the worry but none of the puzzlement.

“Where are you?” The clear fact that her mother hadn’t been murdered or taken her own life, caused anger to rise, sharpening Claire’s voice.

“Away, darling. At a spa. I left you a message. Didn’t I? Well, I meant to. Your father has whisked me away for the weekend.” She giggled, and Claire heard voices murmuring on the other end of the line. Her mother giggled again, this time in a tone of voice that made Claire’s cheeks flush red hot.

“Mum! What are you doing? No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

“Sorry. Your father’s trying to tempt me back to bed.”

“Eugh! I said I didn’t want to know! I take it you sorted out your differences then?”

“Yes. You were right, he wasn’t cheating on me. Fancy your Dad writing a book, at his time of life. I read it. It’s very good. Quite racy in places.” She gave a girlish titter that made Claire feel nauseous.

“I stopped by to see how you are. I’m standing on your doorstep.” Claire knew she was being churlish, but couldn’t help it. “I’m going to Oxford tonight.”

“Oh, are you, darling? How lovely. Did you have fun with Ruth? Thank you for helping out. I’m sure she’ll be fine until we get back tomorrow.”

Claire bit back the retort hovering on her lips. She knew her mother deserved a break, and was glad that she and her dad had sorted out their misunderstanding. Definitely time to look into hiring a child-minder for Ruth. Something tells me she might need one.

Unsure what else to say, and unwilling to continue the conversation, Claire wished her mother a happy holiday and hung up the phone.

Standing alone in front of the hushed house, she found herself drawn towards the door, keys in hand, an urge to let herself in and curl up in her old bed pulling at her like gravity. With a shake of the head, she turned away and strode back down the path to the car.

***

A Good Day: 2013 365 Challenge #156

Keep up brother

Keep up brother

I had a great day with the kids today.

I think that has to be said, to off-set the bad days. If you’re going to be honest about your failures you have to celebrate the successes. This wasn’t a super-mum day full of craft and baking, but a good parenting day.

A good parenting day (for me) is when the kids have had three meals that would pass an Ofsted Inspection (the UK authority that grades nurseries and schools, and insists no chocolate in a packed lunch box).

A day when the proportion of outside time to TV is at least 2:1 (we had three hours in the park this morning and another hour this evening, including a bike ride).

Taking Baby Annabelle for a ride

Taking Baby Annabelle for a ride

A day when littlest Martin has slept (okay, so he weed on the sofa but that was my fault for letting him sleep past the hour in order to pack away the shopping delivery and play a bit with my daughter).

A day when I’ve talked to (and listened to) real live friends more than I’ve read blogs and Twitter.

A day with no tears and plenty of hugs and minimal shouting (no shouting is unrealistic for the sleep deprived).

A day that started with remembering to brush teeth and ended with finally getting both children’s hair washed (I won’t admit to how long it’s been because I honestly don’t know. I’m guessing swimming doesn’t count.)

And, finally, a day when I didn’t get cross with hubbie for arriving home an hour later than suggested by his ‘I’m leaving now’ text message. Even though he got mobbed by the kids and dog and had to disappear immediately for some quiet time. I’m managing to walk the dog while writing this and even remembered to shove dinner in the oven on the way out.

All in all a good day. Let’s mark this and remember.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Will you have a hen night, do you think?”

Claire looked over at Kim with one eye-brow raised, a forkful of pasta halfway to her mouth.

Kim shook her head, her mouth full of Carbonara. When she could speak, she said, “No, what’s the point? You’re the only real friend I have. If I go out with the theatre crew they’ll expect me to get wrecked, and I can’t exactly tell them why it’s orange juice all the way.”

“You haven’t told them you’re pregnant?” Claire’s voice rose in surprise.

Kim shook her head again, more emphatically. “Lord, no. Remember what I said, about the Director being less than impressed? He’s already made some smart comments about me laying off the cakes. If I tell him I’m pregnant he’ll give the role to the understudy.”

Kim’s face twisted, as if her pasta was suddenly soaked in lemon juice. “Silly, jumped-up cow, she’d just love that.”

The girls laughed, but Claire felt heat rising from her stomach. “I think it’s outrageous. If Carl tried to sack me because I fell pregnant, I could take him to court.”

“So, it’s okay to try and force you to resign by making your life miserable, but sacking you unfairly would be illegal?”

Claire gave a wry smile. “Trying to make me resign is illegal too. It’s called Constructive Dismissal.” At Kim’s searching look, Claire nodded. “Yes, I spoke to an employment lawyer. I wanted to know where I stood. I do have a case against him, but it comes at a cost.”

Kim tipped her head to one side in mute question, her mouth too full to talk.

“You get a reputation, if you rock the boat like that. And it’s an incestuous industry. Oh, no one would ever say anything, but it might make it harder to get another job, if word got out.”

“Really? Now, that’s outrageous.”

Both girls chewed their food and sat considering the difficulties of their separate careers.

“Makes you think our grannies had it right, when they stayed home to raise the kids.” Kim’s face was thoughtful, and Claire wasn’t sure if she was serious or not.

She has to be joking. Spending all day with nothing but a couple of ungrateful brats for company and no money to call my own? Reliant on a man to feed and clothe us all. No, thank you.

“What will you do, once you’re on maternity leave? I’m guessing you don’t get maternity pay?”

“I’m self-employed, so I get statutory. Which actually works out not far off the pittance I’m being paid currently. It will be tough, though. I wonder if I could make some money as a live model?” She struck a pose, and they both giggled. “Or maybe the baby will be cute, and I’ll get her registered with a model agency.”

“Her?” Somehow giving the baby a gender made it all too real.

“Hopefully. I have this strange feeling it’s a girl. We find out in a couple of weeks. I can’t wait.” Her face lit with excitement, and Claire had a strange sensation that her friend was slipping away from her.

We’ve lived completely separate lives; different schools, different careers. This isn’t going to change our friendship. It’s just another alternative life choice, that’s all. She’ll still be Kim, even when she’s a mother.

The words rang clear in Claire’s mind, but there was something about the look on her friend’s face that gave rise to doubt. Motherhood was such a definite thing. A school could be changed, a career-path altered. But, once you became a mother, that was something you were forever.

A shiver ran down Claire’s neck, and she put her fork down on her plate, no longer hungry.

***

Let it Go: 2013 365 Challenge #145

Preschool Chicks

Preschool Chicks

Matt Haig, author of The Humans, recently ran a hashtag on Twitter asking people to give their best piece of advice to the human race. It’s worth a look at #thehumans, as there were some great nuggets of wisdom.

I liked, “Walk the wavy line between self control and abandon. Try not to fall over. Much.”

My advice was:

Learn to live life as dogs and children do: live in the moment, love openly, forgive willingly, laugh often

I really should learn to follow my own advice. Today I am struggling with one of my biggest faults, a severe inability to let it go. I hang on to mistakes, especially my own mistakes, forever. Particularly if it is something I feel I should have done and didn’t (like not buying my dad a heater, when he then died of pneumonia.)

Today’s gut-twisting mistake is not putting my children into a certain preschool when I had a chance two years ago (I know, get a grip, right?). We visited it, my daughter didn’t like the woman running it, and we never went back. Even though I heard good things about it. I did consider it, I even contacted them a few months ago, when we couldn’t afford our current childcare after hubbie was made redundant and we had to reduce our days. A lot of family stress came from that reduction in childcare, and some of it might have been avoided if I had moved the kids to the new (cheaper) preschool.

Blowing Bubbles at Nursery

Blowing Bubbles at Nursery

I lie awake at night all the time worrying about childcare, because I have so much choice. It doesn’t matter when I write. I don’t work shifts or have a boss to fit around. I need two or three days a week to keep on top of housework and work on my blog/novels/marketing. And to stay sane, away from the endless chatter and squabbling of a house of preschoolers. And there are lots of options, although none are cheap. When you’re not earning, that’s definitely a factor! I churn the options round and round until my head aches and I’m no nearer to a solution.

Anyway, it’s an old discussion. Today we visited preschools to choose one for my son, when my daughter goes to primary school in September. Nursery is not only very expensive, it is quite a small environment. I want space for Aaron to run and run, preferably outdoors.

We visited two preschools, the first near the primary school, so uber convenient, the other the one mentioned above. It’s in a village hall, surrounded by a large lawn and playground. It’s perfect. But, being me, I didn’t think, “Hurrah, we’ve chosen a great preschool for September and the kids want to start straight away, and they have a forest school and so much quiet space, it’s wonderful.” Instead of all that positivity, I’m mostly thinking, “why didn’t I try harder to get Amber in two years ago. It’s cheaper, nicer, there’s more space, etc etc.” (Not helped by Amber telling me she wants to go to forest school, which isn’t possible!)

I hope my Learning Happiness as a Second Language book will also help me learn the art of Letting Go. Live in the moment, love openly, forgive willingly (especially myself), laugh often.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire ran her eye down the list of links on the website and sighed. This is wearing thin. Go Ape – done that; country parks – done that; Spa Day – not allowed even if it is tempting; narrow-gage railway – done that though worth mentioning on the blog; country house – done that. Looks like I’m going to have to wait for Julia’s email after all. The only thing on the list that could be considered a high-adrenalin activity was karting, and Claire decided she’d sooner resign.

There must be something new to do in Sherwood Forest. Her mind filled with images of men in tights hiding in the trees and the words of the song “Robin Hood” began to play in her head.

Right, so what is Robin Hood famous for? Archery? That’s a possibility. Or what about horse riding? A nice gentle hack through the trees might be nice. A quick search on the internet threw up several possibilities and Claire was soon booked up.

There we go, Julia, no need for you to lower yourself to the task at all. It’s all in hand. Though I don’t think plodding through the trees on a pony is going to humiliate me quite enough for you. Tough.

*

Claire stared between the horse’s ears at the rump of the pony in front, and tried not to cry. Her legs hurt, her bum hurt and, thanks to a moment’s inattention, her head hurt where she’d ridden into a low-slung branch. So much for a relaxing hack through the woods. The worst part was being the eldest in the group by more than a decade. Claire hadn’t enquired what group she’d be joining and it turned out to be a bunch of teenagers on some Outward Bound expedition.

Head low, Claire let the horse find its own path through the forest and tried to enjoy the sound of bird song and the occasional sight of snow drops deep beneath the trees. After an hour even the teenage chatter began to diminish. Through the foliage around her, Claire could sense the sky darkening and the humidity rising.

It’s going to rain. Bugger. I really must get in the habit of checking the forecast. She pulled up the collar of her coat and wished she’d thought to put the hood up underneath her hard hat.

Well, Julia, is this miserable enough for you? Hunching her shoulders, Claire was reminded of a character in one of Sky’s story books about a sulking vulture called Boris. The thought made her smile briefly, but the feeling didn’t last long.

The temperature plummeted as the sun disappeared behind a charcoal grey cloud, hovering it seemed only metres above the trees. There was a pause, then heavy rain drops began to splatter through the leaves.

Claire felt as if she’d fallen into the percussion section of the orchestra pit. The rain splashing on her hard hat syncopated with the clopping of the hooves on the path and the whistle of the wind through the trees.

The horse in front of her stopped and Claire craned her neck to see the problem. Horses had gathered in a group at the front and she wondered if someone had fallen off or been injured. I can’t imagine any of these plod-a-longs bucking. More likely someone fell asleep from boredom and slid off.

A whisper came back along the line to Claire. The teenager on the pony in front didn’t turn and share it with her, but she got the general gist. We’re lost.

Claire gave a quick kick to the ribs of her beast and on the third attempt it shuffled forwards, past the gaggle of teenagers. Eventually she drew alongside the guide, a woman no older than Claire, who was staring at a tatty piece of now-soggy paper, turning it this way and that.

“Are we lost?”

Claire didn’t mean to sound so accusatory, but cold and fatigue sharpened her voice. The girl looked up, her face woebegone. She nodded slightly without making eye contact.

“How can we be lost? Surely you know the route like the back of your hand? We’re not in the Amazon rainforest.”

“I’m new. This is the first time I’ve taken a group out on my own. I’m used to riding on the downs, these trees make me claustrophobic.”

Claire swore under her breath. I feel a hundred years old. There clearly wasn’t any point bothering with the sodden map. She pulled out her phone and prayed for signal. Luck was on her side. Frowning over the screen, trying to shield it from the rain, she fathomed the general direction of the stables.

“We need to head that way.” She pointed through the trees, but the rain had reduced visibility to almost zero. Shouting over the gathering wind, Claire added, “Though I don’t know how we find a path through this.”

The guide shouted back, her facing losing some of its gloom.

“Sorry?” Claire yelled.

“I said the ponies will find their way home, if we point them the right way.”

Claire nodded, then signalled for the guide to lead on. She let the teenagers past, and took up position at the rear again – this time to watch for stragglers rather than to mope.

Only I could come on a pony trek with the clueless newbie. Thank you evil genie Carl and your handmaiden Julia. I don’t know how you arranged it, but you managed to inject adrenalin even into this.

***

If You Can’t Say Something Nice… 2013 365 Challenge #121

If you can't say something nice...

If you can’t say something nice…

I’m constantly amazed by both the supportiveness and meanness of the online parenting community. Today was a day when I posted on Twitter the kind of comment that really meant Tell me I’m okay, tell me it gets better.

Because yesterday was month-end, and I needed to format and upload the free ebook, I didn’t get to bed until midnight. Actually I haven’t for a while as there is no time to write during the day and the kids have been going to bed a bit later since the shift to summer time (generally it means they get up later so we take the trade.) Unfortunately Amber came in at 6am this morning so it felt too short a night to survive twelve hours of parenting.

A busy morning at play and stay, a screaming child who wouldn’t sit in the hairdresser chair and a boy who shrieked every time he lost sight of his Mummy meant I was in constant tears of exhaustion by mid-afternoon. Not an unusual occurrence these, days to be fair. So I turned to Twitter for support. And found it.

My comment on Twitter generated lovely responses including a link to a great blog post: To Parents of Small Children:

If you are a parent of small children, you know that there are moments of spectacular delight, and you can’t believe you get to be around these little people. But let me be the one who says the following things out loud:

You are not a terrible parent if you can’t figure out a way for your children to eat as healthy as your friend’s children do. She’s obviously using a bizarre and probably illegal form of hypnotism.

You are not a terrible parent if you yell at your kids sometimes. You have little dictators living in your house. If someone else talked to you like that, they’d be put in prison.

You are not a terrible parent if you can’t figure out how to calmly give them appropriate consequences in real time for every single act of terrorism that they so creatively devise.

You are not a terrible parent if you’d rather be at work.

You are not a terrible parent if you just can’t wait for them to go to bed.

You are not a terrible parent if the sound of their voices sometimes makes you want to drink and never stop.

I felt so much better after reading it – problem shared, problem halved and all that. Until I read the latest comment on the blog from a parent of teenagers who said they hated the post for its “sheer blind arrogant silliness”.

[Y]ou might also hate it when people tell you to you enjoy every minute, (everyone says it to everyone, WE ALL had it so don’t be so uptight and melodramatic ‘it doesn’t help’ poor you)

In the spirit of fairness they did say the post was sweet and they liked its honesty, but the comment left me feeling sick to the stomach.

Anyone is entirely entitled to their opinion and I’m sure I’m just as capable of being sanctimonious and smug. In fact I know sometimes I see parents of one baby who are tired and part of me wants to say, Wait until you have two. Or Wait until they’re walking or something equally discouraging. The point is I don’t say it. Well, hardly ever, and then only as a joke to people I know. (At least I think so. Apologies if I’ve ever made another parent feel bad.) Generally, if I’m honest about the trials of being a parent it is to encourage other parents not to suffer in silence, rather than to make them feel bad.

Because even if it’s true, even if it is harder with two, what’s the point in saying it? Why do humans feel the need to share their misery in such a way? I remember when I only had one child and was struggling and a friend of hubbie’s said It never gets easier. My daughter was six months old. I couldn’t give her back. And instead of bolstering myself on bad days with the thought that one day I might just feel like it was going to get better I had this doom-laden future stretching endlessly before me.

It was already hard surviving teething and breast feeding and sleepless nights. Suddenly I had to face twenty years of pain. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, someone said It doesn’t get any easier when they leave home. Oh come on, guys, enough already.

...don't say nothing at all

…don’t say nothing at all

Some days, the only reason I don’t drive my car into a river is the thought that I’d leave my kids without a mother, and any mother is better than none. Facing the idea that I’ll feel like that until I do finally crack and drive that route isn’t helpful. When you’re low, and you’re turning to friendly blog posts for support and empathy, you don’t need someone belittling your experience by saying “Why do all new parents think they invented the feelings that go with it.”

So, however tempting it is to give the honest answer when someone asks if it will get better – however noble or genuine the motivation – try to resist. This advice applies to me, too. Because now I think about it, I know I’ve done it. I’ve been that person wanting to warn about the horror (although hopefully never in as arrogant or spiteful a way as the commenter I’ve quoted). From now on I’m going to try and find something positive to say, without actually lying.

As Thumper’s father teaches Thumper in Bambi, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Kim, Jeff, over here!” Claire put down her book and strode to the door to embrace her friend. As she grinned up at Kim’s boyfriend, she marvelled – as she always did – at just how attractive he really was. “It’s great that you were able to get a room here for the weekend. Have you eaten? How was the journey?”

“Hey, Claire.” Kim pulled back and stared with concern at her face. “You look tired, I thought you were on holiday?”

With a glance back to where Sky was watching mutely from the sofa, Claire shrugged. “It’s not a holiday, you know that. Carl would have my hide if he knew Sky was travelling with me for two whole weeks.” Besides, you don’t look so great yourself. Claire wondered whether to comment on her friend’s pasty complexion, stark against the pillar-box red hair. An odd tension between her and Jeff stilled Claire’s tongue. I wonder if they had a fight?

Kim walked over and sat next to Sky, perched on the sofa. She smiled the uncomfortable grimace of a person who has little contact with small children. “Hello, you must be Sky.”

Claire shuddered at the patronising tone in her friend’s voice. She’s six, not six-months old. Did I used to talk that that? God, do I still talk to her like that?

Sky stared wide-eyed up at Kim, but didn’t speak. Claire could sense the questions building in the tiny chest. Auntie Claire, why is your friend’s hair red. Auntie Claire why is your friend talking to me like I’m a baby. Wanting to forestall the inevitable, she went over and snuggled next to her niece on the sofa.

“Sky, honey, I’d like you to meet Kim and Jeff. I’ve known Kim since I was younger than you. When we first met she had long blonde hair, like yours. I thought she was a princess.”

As she spoke the words, two decades slipped away in an instant. She turned to share the moment with Kim, and was surprised by the expression on her friend’s face. Her attention was fixed on Sky as if an alien had wandered into the room.

She looks scared. Or, no, speculative? Don’t tell me she and Jeff are planning to have kids. Claire felt a shiver raise the hairs on her arm. The idea of Kim having a baby felt like a betrayal. Through all the years they had known each other – or at least since they finished their A Levels and went to University – they had shared an antipathy to becoming parents.

Kim might not earn the same as me, but her career is equally if not more important to her. She and Jeff aren’t even getting married until they can afford it. No, it can’t be that. She raised her eyes to observe Jeff and was relieved to see nothing odd in his expression. He leant over the sofa and looked at the game Sky had been playing on the iPad.

“Ah, Angry Birds. My nephews love that. What level are you on?” He squeezed on the seat between Sky and Kim and opened himself to the eager words pouring forth in response to his question.

Soon Sky and Jeff were deep in conversation, discussing tactics and cheats for a game Claire barely understood. She felt Kim’s eyes on her and, when she looked up, saw the slight jerk of the head that said Let’s leave them to it.

“Shall we go and make tea, Kim? I’m sure you must be parched.” She half-expected Kim to suggest something stronger. Instead she stood up and nodded. “Yes, I’m dying for a cuppa and a gossip.” Linking arms with Claire, she led her from the room as if she couldn’t get away from Jeff and Sky fast enough.

***

The Power of Perspective: 2013 365 Challenge #107

My Sleeping Angels - Holding Hands

My Sleeping Angels – Holding Hands

Were it not for the tragic events that happened in Boston yesterday this would probably be another ranty post about the horrible day we’ve had; how I’m sick of (what I now take to be) Flu and sky-high temperatures, flushed cheeks, pale husband and endless snot.

How I want to lie in bed and be ill and feel sorry for myself. Or else yell at everyone for the fact that it has to be me that’s last person standing, even though I’m barely able to remain upright. How my head feels like a vice is clamped to it and there are nails through my sinuses. How the kids have gone from whiny-cuddly to mad energy and back as quickly as the clouds blowing over our house.

All those things are true.

My Precious Boy

My Precious Boy

But, when I logged on this morning, and read about the horrific events that ended the Boston Marathon, none of that mattered any more. My sister and her family live close to Boston. Thankfully they’re all fine. How many families are not fine, though? How many families wish the worst they had to deal with was a flu virus, some back ache and shivering? I made the mistake of clicking on Twitter photo links without fully understanding what had happened. I saw images that will haunt me because I tend to shield myself from horror. The bane of a writer’s life (and a parent’s life I guess) is far too vivid an imagination. Those could be my kids. My husband. My family.

The posts that have helped today (all listed below) are the ones that don’t talk of revenge: they talk of making a difference. We can’t necessarily help the families across the pond who are suffering. But we can help people around us. Begin small. I tried to keep my temper today and look after my family, grateful that they are mine to hold. Tomorrow I will look wider. Try to help someone near me, even if it’s buying a Big Issue or donating to a homeless shelter. We can all make a difference, we can all turn our back on hate and bring good to the world. Of course we want the people who did such a thing to be brought to justice, but hatred breeds hatred. There is enough darkness in the world: we must strive to find and bring forth the light.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire reached for her phone and blinked until she could focus on the time. 4.07am.

“Urgh, seriously? Surely it must be morning already?” Her voice, made rough by dryness, sounded strange in the silence. She felt around until her hand clasped the bottle of water by the bed. Once the sand-paper in her throat was soothed, she rolled over and slid a hand onto Sky’s brow. It burned. The girl’s hair was matted and damp with sweat and Claire resisted the urge to find her hair brush and restore the bird’s nest back to its normal glossy mane. Tangled hair is the least of my worries.

Rolling back over, she felt on the bedside table for the in-ear thermometer the woman in the room next door had lent her for the night. I have no idea why someone brings a piece of kit like this on holiday, but I’m extremely grateful. Taking care not to wake Sky, Claire slid the thermometer into her niece’s ear and pressed the button. The green light flashed bright in the near-dark and the beep – signalling the reading was ready – echoed loudly.

Sky twisted her head away and coughed. Claire held her breath, praying she would go back to sleep. The girl shifted restlessly, kicking at the sheet wrapped around her legs. At last she was still and Claire felt able to shine her phone at the thermometer to take a reading. 38.8C. She knew from reading the NHS website that anything over 39 was cause for concern. Claire sank back against the pillows and tried to think. Her own head felt muggy. Please don’t let me get sick too.

A quick calculation informed her she could give Sky more Calpol if she wanted. But that would mean waking her up, even with the handy syringe the lovely lady with the baby had lent her. My first stop tomorrow is to a chemist. There’s obviously a reason why mothers carry such a well-stocked first aid kit with them. I wonder why Ruth didn’t provide one? A mental image of the last time she saw her sister flashed into her head.

Poor Ruth, she wasn’t thinking much of anything. Besides, I don’t suppose they venture more than ten miles from home. From what I can gather she and Sky have never been on holiday. Shifting up, so she could sit against the headboard, Claire thought that was probably wise: Travelling with children was nerve-wracking and Ruth was a nervous parent at the best of times.

Something stabbed deep beneath Claire’s ribcage, like cramp. She analysed the pain and realised it was guilt. They probably couldn’t afford to go on holiday, from what Sky has told me. I never realised things were so tough. Her planned trip to the Maldives seemed like an unholy extravagance. When this is over, and Ruth is better, I’m going to take my sister and niece somewhere nice. Warm and Sunny. Five-star. Room service. She looked at the sleeping child. Medics. Baby sitters. A fully-stocked bar.

***