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Apparently our kids are spending less time than ever before 'outside'. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/25/three-quarters-of-uk-children-spend-less-time-outdoors-than-prison-inmates-survey This is a shame. Here's why: Now I'm not normally one to be politically or socially campaigning for a cause - but this issue is probably the one I feel most passionately about in all the world. Irrationally so, maybe! You see, what worries me is not scary places, heights, sharp edges, rocks, rain, cold, mud, dirt, germs, minor scrapes, temporary discomfort, or a bit of danger. What genuinely worries me a LOT MORE is bringing up a generation of young folk:
  • who cannot or will not take risks, or who haven't been shown how, or who simply haven't been allowed to, because they've never been let off the parental 'leash'. (Parents have no rational benchmark of what constitutes true danger.)
  • who have no daring spirit or sense of adventure (as in - "hmm, I wonder what would happen if I tried to do this....") and therefore underdeveloped self-confidence and leadership skills and poor resilience in the face of adversity. (Lack of independence and problem-solving.)
  • who have no practical hands-on knowledge of the natural environment in which they will live and eventually have to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us.
They are our future and they need to be equipped with the right skills and knowledge in order to make good decisions. Yes, some would argue that we will live in an almost 'virtual' world in the future, but for the time being we also inherit a very physical, natural world. This tangible one is full of unpredictable beasts, weather and soil. (Actually, it's the very unpredictability that makes it a gem!) Dynamic. Furthermore I find it ironic that today's youngsters claim to be more 'concerned' about the environment (animals, oceans, forests, blah-blah-blah) than any previous generation; yet it is interesting that they are the ones that seem to spend less time actually OUT in it than ever before! I guess they are informed by their screens. ;-) One of the profoundest observations I have made since my 6-year journey into being a mum has been that I can frequently be the only person within eyesight 'outside' - playing, walking, discovering - when the weather is anything short of summery. And that isn't just in the middle of nowhere. That can be in the heart of the densely-populated city, surrounded by houses and flats surely brimming with cooped-up young families. I can scream at the wild autumnal weather on such days, "WHERE IS EVERYONE?!!" "What are they all doing?!" Who knows.  If they are afraid of the wild, they are missing out on a lot of fun. My routine as a mum and a responsible adult is quite strict, I suppose. From Day One I have instilled in my family that fresh air is not 'optional'; it is happening at some point, somewhere, (preferably multiple times), regardless of weather or clemency. It is good for us all. I truly believe that. It brightens up the mood and at the very least fires up your brain in a creative-imaginative way, when you allow yourself to be plucked from being a passive remote-chewing zombie or mouse potato. Some days I have looked at the storm clouds brewing and the freezing wind and the child has said, "NO. I want to sit inside watching cartoons. Alllll day!" I then say, "Yes, but it's not just about you, is it? This is a two-way relationship. You've had your time. What about me? What about what I'd like to do?" Reluctantly feet are stomped as the TV gets switched off, we get togged up and we go off somewhere cool and exciting and adventurous OUTSIDE. Within minutes of getting out of the car I actually hear my wee boy yell (as he runs off scrambling up a hill into the foresty undergrowth): "WHOAH! THIS IS SOOOO EXCITING!! I JUST LOOOOOVE BEING HERE!" (Here I have to award myself a smug parental point.) There is an element of exploration there, a primitive "look what I have newly discovered!" (a tree with a den that's been discovered a thousand times over, haha) that is quite satisfying and rewarding to watch. "See?" I say, "I knew this would be better than just sitting on our backsides watching endless Peppa Pig or Power Rangers on loop all afternoon. We are going to have an adventure!" And adventure we do. We walk. We scramble. We rock climb. We play hide and seek. We pretend we are baddies. We see animals and people. We nature-spot. We go off the beaten track. We find new routes. We make dens. We try things we don't think we are sure we can achieve. We assess danger and effort level together, as a team, and come up with a plan. (Pretty much mandatory as I am usually carrying a 9-month-old baby on my front too!) We end up scrambling up some near-vertical cliff and we use each other as a push-up to get to the top. We are a team. "Take my hand!" "Now step there." "I gotcha." "Phew." OK, it's not Mount Everest, but it's still exhilarating to push yourself to see what you are capable of achieving. And just that weeeeee bit of daily risk and thrill of danger looking over the cliff edge makes life not desperately dull but worth living.... And the tea tastes better at the end.... We learn about gorse bushes ('owchy') and nettles ('stingy') and scree ('slippy') and good branches to hold onto, and good footholds, and where the wind is coming from and what the clouds are doing and where is a good place to shelter. Up trees we learn about risks of height and weight-bearing along with spatial awareness: "Mummy I don't think I can reach that branch; do you think I can jump?" A mother's place is to motivate and reassure. "You can. I think you can do it. Of course you can. You will do it. You are doing it. I wish I was up there doing it." I teach about trees and different species, we pick up different leaves and fruits and seeds and we look to see if they are 'the same' or 'different'. The deal is we get a 'treat' but only if we make it to the top of the hill together. We see rabbits and dogs and birds and a host of other natural curiosities besides. Our cheeks are pink, our hair is windswept and our hearts are pulsing out of our chests. We have made it. We check out the view. We are happy. On the way back down I let my boy roll all the way down the steep slopes (his idea) - "wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEE!" covered in grass and mud and lord only knows whatever else - oh to be a child. I don't think we do ourselves - or our children - any favours AT ALL by sheltering them, "wrapping them up in cotton wool" or keeping them indoors when it's a bit inconvenient to us (even if they want to). I am incredibly biased of course being an outdoors lover from the get-go and active-enthusiast and thrill-seeker, so unfortunately for me I just cannot see the charm or attraction in spending all day long sitting inside, playing kiddie indoor games, watching telly and messing up the house! I'd get bored senseless. Far better to get out there and see where your imagination takes you! I can accept screens and TV. They take up more of our 'leisure time' (bum time) than ever before. But they don't need to dominate our every waking minute to the point where 'outdoors' time constitutes a paltry 10 minutes of 'fresh air' in the back yard. We would not treat our pet dogs that way (at least I hope not!). So why do we let our kids/youngsters off the hook? I figure they need exercise and to run about and play and stretch their legs and see other people just as much as dogs do. Fresh air is good for us. Daily. It makes us smarter, sharper, fitter, healthier, more confident and mentally positive. Have a good day! Annie 

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The Importance of an Outdoors Education

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It's politics time again in this country - a.k.a. The Battle of Whose Morals Are the Worthiest - which means it's time to sit back and watch as generations-old biases and insults and slogans get hurled at us from all corners. Plus ça change... If, like me, you prefer to stand back and view the electioneering spectacle as some sort of low-grade 'entertainment' sport of the morally decent 'good' vs 'EVIL', rather than holding out in the hope of actually hearing anything more highbrow and nuanced, subtle and greyscale, you might enjoy this. Quite aptly, I found this, from a good vintage book I am currently browsing, How To Speak and Think Correctly (1939), by C.E.M. Joad: (The book, by the way, is wonderfully of its time: early 20th century in style, firm, didactic, fastidious, full of plenty commas.)

"NEED FOR A MENTAL SPRING-CLEANING

Some habits of thought, therefore, we must have. But because they are essential we must not be led into supposing that they are foolproof. Periodically we should take them out and examine them, brush the dust off them, and see that they are still useful. An annual mental spring-clean would make the world a far healthier place than any amount of domestic spring-cleaning.

Such a procedure, requires courage and determination, but it must be adopted if we wish to clear our minds of useless lumber and turn them into efficient storehouses of knowledge.

As a first step we must teach ourselves to examine all the catchphrases and slogans that we use so freely, and on which our habits of thought are crystallized.

Slogans and catch-phrases exert a tremendous influence, which is of course, why they are used. The French and the Russian revolutions were both carried through on slogans, the former on "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity," the latter on "All Power to the Soviets."

Today there is not an election to a parish council or to the House of Commons that is not fought on a slogan. "Peace, Retrenchment and Reform," "Socialism in our Time," "A Living Wage," "Down with the Means Test," and so on, serve to remind us of how slogans control our political lives.

By no means all slogans are false, but many are false and all are dangerous. They are dangerous in that being the expression of habits of thought they usually have no basis in reason. They are accepted not because we have examined arguments for them and have found them to be true but because we have taken them ready made from our environment. In that sense then, they are as irrational as the decisions which they prompt and the actions they promote.

Why is it then, that slogans exercise such a fascination for us? Until we know the answer we cannot hope to break ourselves of their fascination nor free our minds from the paralysis they bring in their train.

In the first place, as we have noted, slogans are frequently no more than the verbal manifestation of our habits of thought. For this reason alone they are accepted without question. "Here," we would say in effect, "is something I have always believed."

In the second place, they are usually expressed shortly and succinctly and their meaning is easily grasped. This makes them easy to understand and easy to remember. They "catch on" with the greatest of ease and, as we have already seen, any idea that we can grasp easily and distinctly, we are prone to accept as true. A slogan fulfils those conditions: it presents us with a simple clear-cut idea.

In the third place, they are commonly designed to appeal to our self-interest, to our pride and to our emotions. As I have pointed out in previous chapters, these factors have a greater influence on conduct than does reason.

In the fourth place, slogans are constantly repeated. This in itself would be enough to ensure their acceptance, for everyone is immensely suggestible. I deal with this problem later.

SLOGANS IN POLITICS

Here then, are a number of reasons why slogans are popular, why in fact, every advertiser, and every political agent uses them. Slogans, indeed, are a political necessity. Without them no political party or cause would stand a remote chance of success. With a good slogan, on the other hand, the most unlikely cause may be carried to victory, for a good slogan wins popular support.

It is useless to expect sustained and close attention from political audiences. They do not wish to think: they wish to have their thinking done for them. The attitude is understandable. Every branch of human affairs requires special study for its proper understanding. Politics are no exception: yet few people have time or energy to devote to the subject after their work is done, and in any event, politics are concerned with things which touch people's pockets and pride too closely to permit them to study them calmly.

What people crave at political meetings are high-sounding phrases and simple ideas simply expressed.

It would be ridiculous to suppose that the Russian revolution was carried through without the support of the great majority of Russians. It would be equally ridiculous to suppose that a handful of Marxist theorists had succeeded in explaining the intricate political theory of Communism to this vast mass of uneducated people and won their support for it. In fact, the theorists were also acute political agents and they won the necessary support by their clever use of slogans. "All Power to the Soviets," "Peace and Bread," "The Land for the People," were some of them.

A dislike of hard thinking, a preference for the simple, easily understood idea may be natural, but it is also dangerous. It can, and frequently does, lead us into the most absurd errors. Whenever we are brought up against a complex idea, we seek to find a simple expression for it. Thus we describe Freud as a man who says "Everything is sex," Einstein as a man who says "Everything is relative." Similarly we think of Socialism as an attempt to make "every one equal."

Not only do we do this with ideas: we also do it with people. Thus "X is an honest man" and we vote for him. "Y is a squandermaniac" and we vote for him. The clearest illustration of our habit of giving labels to people is perhaps to be found in our simplified conception of historical characters. Thus John was a "bad" king, Richard I was a "brave" king, Henry VIII and Charles II were "gay" kings.

These labels are very convenient: they fit things together and give us simple, orderly pictures. In fact, of course, they distort history most gravely; yet whenever we come across people who remind us that John had good points as well as bad, that Richard I was stupid as well as brave, that both Henry VIII and Charles II were intelligent as well as gay, we tend to be indignant and to protest that they are hair-splitting or that they are being too clever. We may even go so far as to say that they are distorting history.

Despite the fact that we all know how impossible it is adequately to sum up a person's character in one word, we nevertheless all attempt it.

Ideas that require five or six hundred words for their adequate statement are dismissed glibly in three or four. Most advocates of protective tariffs have usually found it very much more effective to say very simply: "Make the foreigners pay" than to attempt an explanation of fiscal economy. ... I repeat, we are lazy and we prefer simplicity, however false, to the complexity of truth."

*** The next chapter of this thought-provoking book then goes on to say expressly that the more we are fed a slogan in the public limelight - often ad nauseam over the airwaves - the more we are likely to believe it; regardless of how true it is. ! "Fairer..." "Stronger...." "Better..." "Equal..." "For all..." "A vote for change" - easy to come up with for a poster or the side of a bus, but what exactly does it really mean? That said, slogan-words are easy to come up with, and of course, they must fit easily and memorably onto a leaflet or campaign poster for the vast and diverse electorate, with their varying degrees of interest in political affairs, to be able to digest and absorb. However, I note on the radio and television politicians of all parties harping on with the same old silly mantras and catch-phrases of their 'side' - without being challenged on the veracity of those ideological mantras. Couldn't they step out of the ideological glass boxes for a moment and put their age-old party biases aside, and talk of the true complexity of the issues? Of figures? Of potential risks and unknowns? Is there any such thing as absolute 'right' and 'wrong' anyway? One man's 'fairer' could just as well be another man's 'unfair'. There is not much rational debate around this most fundamental concept, is there? - just facile 'debate' reduced to tired-sounding petty grievances with 'the other lot'. Well. Far be it from me to say which political party's SLOGAN is going to be a winner, but can we safely assume that they're all equally as lazy/bad/nonsensical?? Now, let's sit back and enjoy the final week of this debacle...... PS. As an aside, I have noted that during at least the past two, possibly three, general election campaigns, at least one political commentator writing in the newspapers has decried, "This has been a long and boring election campaign." - and I tend to agree. But - LONG AND BORING. LONG AND BORING. Wait. It is the political commentators' slogan of choice!! Perhaps when they don't know what to write. [Well, what else did you expect? Short, snappy and surprising?] Again, plus ça change.   Annie

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On Our Thought Habits

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11th May 2017 Middle-aged existential worries. “Perhaps the men of genius are the only true men. In all the history of the race there have been only a few thousand real men. And the rest of us – what are we? Teachable animals. Without the help of the real man, we should have found out almost nothing at all.” - Aldous Huxley   ‘True men’ have, perhaps, always interested me. I am fascinated by their fascination. What drives them to work at a cause ‘beyond themselves’? What rare insights did they have that allowed new doors to open up to the rest of us? What of their mind? Their intellect? Their habits and worldview? Ultimately, what motivates them? Now that I have started reading a few ideas in middle age, the more I have realised the less I know. About anything.   I have perhaps, a surface awareness of many things, a broad shallow knowledge, yet no intuitive understanding of any particular thing in depth. I suppose there is that danger that I see the world as a kind of jigsaw puzzle that needs to be solved, where all the various bits and pieces need to fall into place into some overarching model. (Not necessarily a geometric one; though perhaps a schematic one.) I am sure as children we would be very much drawn to that notion of everything falling neatly into place. It would appeal to our naïve desire for reward!   When we are children, we think we have done something really clever; really new. We are so impressed with ourselves. Our relative importance ‘in the world’ (our own little world) is high. When we get older and start reading more extensively, we realise our ideas are not very novel, our conclusions are all rather naïve, and our ‘great insights’ and clever questions have, in fact, been around and debated and addressed in a far more meticulous manner by ancient people who lived thousands of years ago! Hmph. And this process is recursive. As time travels on, I suspect I will feel even stupider. My relative importance in relation to the overall scheme of things will decrease.   Knowledge is a strange liquid. When you consume some, it doesn’t sate you or fill you up: it leaves you with a strange and bitter taste, a thirst for more. When I don’t know the answer to something, I instinctively want to find it out. I’m unhappy with my own patent ignorance about so many facets of life. In a way it is what drives me to start a new day. Alarm rings. “Great!! What can I find out about today??!”   But then that curiosity takes me along a corridor towards a junction with five new doors at the end of it. So I open each of them and have a look in each, where a new corridor rolls out in front of me to who knows where. Within each new corridor, would you believe it? there are five new doors each opening into another corridor in a different direction,…and so on…and so on… Fractal geometry. My life grows outwards from a centre more like an expanding snowflake crystal rather than progressing along a straight or wavy line. And so I am chasing something that can have no end. I get worried that my inbuilt curiosity outstrips my potential time left on this planet, and it sets me in a bit of a panic.   And yet, paradoxically, I often inwardly wonder why I am imbued with such a keen sense of curiosity if I am yet so dense and, as we have predicted, my sense of importance in the world will decrease as time marches on. What is the point of it? Some people give the appearance that they know, or have arrived, at least temporarily, at their place or purpose in the world, yet mine remains utterly elusive. It is a mystery. Or, if we want to be less pessimistic, certainly it is a work-in-progress. So, my self-knowledge is not great, either. I am a bumbling tail-chasing animal who does what he does ‘because he does’, without understanding why.   As a scientist I am probably inclined to think quite often about the notion of scale: and in different magnitudes of scale, both physical and hierarchical. I would say this is how my brain usually works. Dipping in and out of varying orders of magnitude is how I naturally think: from the microscopic (physics, chemistry), to the human scale of connections (humanities, society) to the macrocosmic and universal (maths and astrophysics and the metaphysical) - in the same way that you would wander from room to room in a library or museum. But that brings me no relief either, because I am now not an expert in any of them! How does one become an expert in anything? – Unwavering devotion and intellectual fidelity, I suppose. My mind, on the other hand, appears to be a fickle tart! Can you be taken at all seriously if you are not an expert in anything, these days? Hmm, who knows.   (In a similar vein, this is how I collect and read books: I start about fifty of them simultaneously and leave them on my bedside table, all with bookmarks in them around about the second chapter. My buying enthusiasm vastly outstrips the time it takes me to finish one. Eventually I will get there!)   A while back I realised that I had better stop collecting facts and ‘mere information’. That is not the answer to a better understanding. The more I read and explore ideas, the more I find I am less interested in answers, and the more I am intrigued by paradoxes and dichotomies. Apparent contradictions. Strange results. Patterns where there are patterns, certainly; but also where there are grey areas. Mind-games. Thought experiments. Back-forward-back-forward; how do we know which is right?   I follow a few prominent scientists and thinkers out of general interest, and I am frequently surprised by how they can appear to be so certain, and also by how quickly they can become quite dogmatic in their views. Particularly if their specialised field is ‘xyz’ and then they enter into a different topic of discussion - say, politics. Do they know some shortcut at arriving at the truth which I am as yet unaware of? So, at least I know I would not make a good politician, at all. I am slow to arrive at any particular conclusion.   A few years ago I decided to give myself a “List of Questions To Answer in My Lifetime” (for what more can a man do!). These range from the superficial to the profound; from the personal and psychological, the physical, scientific and technological, to the political and sociological, economics, morals, ethics, to the philosophical, and the universal. (As a mother I would like here to add in the phrase, “from episiotomy to epistemology” – just for fun; surely they must be quite close to one another in the dictionary, if nowhere else.) These questions are essentially about who I am and what I think. I have found it to be a useful exercise, (now away from university where you might have to do this kind of thing), because sometimes it is only when we challenge our own thoughts and assumptions that we truly get to the nub of the matter. And this is a work in process.   My questions, I have since found, are not unique or original, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to be able to provide some channel, some focus, to my analytical and critical mind. I have a document sitting right here on my desktop that contains these questions, jotting new ones down as and when I think of them, and revisiting them as and when I decide to add to their possible answers. I fully predict that some won’t ever have satisfactory answers, but they help to focus on careful consideration and rigorous thought-process. They might even fuel my reading and study in later years of my life. Maybe in reality, that is all we can hope to achieve in our lifetime: to set about answering those fundamental questions about ourselves and our universe. “The unconsidered life is not one worth living” and all that. (Socrates)   One of these questions is, obviously, “What is the best use of our time? – what is the best work we can do in our lifetime?” I toy quite a lot in my own head with the relative merits of human discovery versus creation; put another way, of science and the universal versus a more imaginative approach, the creation of the original and the unique. I wrestle with which is better, in a state of permanent flux between the two; forcing perhaps a false dichotomy of existence when we know that human beings are capable of achieving both. Which is better use for a mind? – seeking truths about natural knowledge (reality), or using the power of man’s imagination (the imaginary)? Of course, the imagined can become reality (design, technology, engineering, to name but a few). We live in hope.   In the history of mankind, and of our heroes, they talk of ‘a beautiful mind’ – and that could apply to any ‘great man’ or genius, whose work was either making some scientific breakthrough or creating some new visionary work of art. Is one inherently better than the other? - or is that a poor question? What is the nature of that mind, I wonder? As I read more about some of these discoveries and inventions, I realise I am standing on the periphery looking in voraciously and a little enviously and understanding only the very edges of such a person. Imagine what it must actually be like to be one of these beautiful minds, though. [One of my questions in my list is simply: “Bach. WHAT was actually going on in his brain??!”] * In a state of stasis the best we can do is keep our ears and eyes open.   The other night on the radio I heard part of an essay, ‘The Work of Local Culture’, about a bucket of soil growing and decaying, by American poet and farmer Wendell Berry. In the essay, he talks about ‘growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world.’ The descriptiveness of it, its precision, this focusing in on one small detail of life, of time passing via the metaphor of an organic process, observed by a calm, casual observer, seemed to talk of the profound. I thought: It is alright to be a farmer and a poet, when you stop and observe the nature of things; that is fine. He is aware of time, he is aware of questions. That constitutes a ‘good’ use of our time.   The desire to make, to create, to be original, to take something we’ve observed and to weave it into something new, unique, and ‘of ourselves’, is so fundamental to our human condition that I don’t think we can or should ignore it. Tools are made, crafts are made, decorative arts are made, literature is made. But my worries as a middle-aged person continue. Originality relies upon some degree of excellence and skill, surely; and so far my efforts are entirely amateur and unrefined. I know this because whenever I put pen or pencil to paper I am generally displeased with the results. Inventiveness surely takes some huge prior amount of practice and level of dexterity with one’s chosen medium that feels intuitive and ‘second nature’. Have I got what it takes? Will I run out of time?   And even if I did - I think one of the hardest things about being very passionate and dedicated about your chosen field or lifetime’s work must be accepting that no matter how much you read, how much you study and know, how much you research, how much you practise at your art, you may just not have that final ‘edge of inspiration’ that sets you apart from your peers. Hmm. So we can just look and wonder. We will be consigned to the title-referencing ‘anonymous grave’.   One of my favourite works of fiction is Ulysses, not because it’s a ‘difficult, literary book’, or necessarily a great storyline, (famous parody review: “Man goes for a walk. Nothing happens.”) but because to me it’s almost this intellectual exercise in working through various strands of accrued knowledge, a brain unable to give up. It’s highly inventive in language and structure, teasing, playful almost, with its linguistic dexterity and broad-ranging reference material; and it pays a high attention to detail. Somebody who couldn’t stop describing things… I can identify with that. It’s almost a riddle and a mystery, a puzzle. But no; I am far, far outside that league.   A month or so ago I wrote down this quick thought: “Invention. That is what we need, no – we MUST do. It is this which makes us creative and fundamentally social human beings. It is what we want, it is what society is looking for, it is what brings the most social change, it is what we most value.   It is all good and well studying and memorising a lot of facts and poring over books, out of interest in a subject matter, merely looking and exploring – indeed we must and should, to know we must understand – but what is MORE interesting is thereafter determining what valid output we are going to create with that knowledge.   It is the way the natural world has always been, and is the way it steadfastly continues to be. Society rewards the most creative individuals in its ranks, because they have the ability within them to bring about the most change or improvement for the greatest number of people.   To our work, then; what is it? What is our purpose? To explore ideas, to solve problems, to turn an idea or a sketch into a practical reality. Once you realise that this fundamental exploratory activity lies at the heart of every truly great human being, whose thought manifestations we now revere, you start to slowly realise that every other possible way of spending your short time on planet Earth is at best, second-rate, and at worst, a total irrelevance; a complete waste of your time and brainpower.   We rarely decide how fortune is going to treat us. It is not for us to know whether a career success shall be made by our mere thought processes. Should we not then be inventive anyway?   Inventions are no more than successful dabbles in the unknown; experiments. Experiments undertaken for fun or out of our natural sense of curiosity are rarely paid for upfront. The question is not, then, ‘What should I create or invent?’ – but rather, ‘How am I going to support myself while I work on my creation and my invention?’ So go ahead. Invent something that allows people to spend more time in bed! Make something that allows people to free up more quality time! Invent.”   Perhaps there is so much uncertainty in anything that all we can do is try.   Do what you will with this.     Annie Copland

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Grave Concerns

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On Work

  To set the record straight, seeing as a few people have been asking, "so what are you actually doing with your time these days?" "And are you working?" Here goes:   *SHORT ANSWER* On Saturday Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday I look after my 3 year old all day full-time. That isn't really a job though is it. As it happens, I'm also the full-time housekeeper, cleaner, launderer and home-style cook (just like many other mums and/or dads I suspect). I don't employ any staff, cleaners, nannies, childminders, babysitters or grandparents, and don't have any relatives that live nearby so by and large, day-to-day, most days of the year, it's just us.   On Thursday and Friday (the days he's in nursery), I get up at noon, then lounge around in my pyjamas all day watching TV and eating biscuits before checking my Horoscopes to see which lucky balls I should choose to play on the National Lottery. There. Will that do? (And I'll leave you to decide whether or not that last bit is true.)     Read on for the Long Answer: >>   ::LONG ANSWER:: In terms of career, well, I was self-employed at time of starting a family so don't have a regular job to go back to. If I don't work, I can't earn. If I can’t sit down at a desk, I can’t work. However, ‘not working’ implies a laziness that I would always eschew - so I prefer the phrase, "I am working, just not earning!"   One thing I have learned over the years is that when you’re in a career doldrums or no man’s land, no one likes Vague. Precise and with an apparent (even if it is as yet undefined) Goal is far better. People prefer Simplicity and Easy Answers over the Infinitely More Complex. So, don’t say, “I’m going out for a bit of a run to get some exercise!” (sounds a bit gratuitous) – say instead, “I’m training.” (Ooh! worthy.) Don’t say, “I’m reading on my days off.” (sounds woolly and lazy) - say, “I’m studying.” (sounds hard) Don’t say you’re “thinking” about things and having a few ideas (too vague) - say “I’m researching into xyz right now.” (far more targeted)   *   I used to have a home office where I could work but now my lifestyle's changed quite a bit, and so it’s had to go to make way for my son's bedroom. My "desk"/"quiet" study is now in my open plan living room dining room which also serves as the TV/cartoon-watching playroom.   I always tell people who are kind enough to enquire, it is actually easier to “work” from home (e.g. check emails, read, write; indeed, think) when you have an under 1-year-old baby than it is to do anything of the sort once you are looking after a 3-year-old child awake and needing entertained, fed and emptied all day long. There is no down time now; no naps when you can grab some free time and peace and quiet during the day. My role has totally changed beyond comparison to what it was during a normal woman’s “maternity leave”. I shall describe that in a minute. Maternity leave is like a trip to a cupcake factory by comparison: not enough credit is given in society to those women (and men) who persevere beyond the cozy Maternity Leave barrier to the “Terrible Twos” and the “Throw-Me-A-Line-I’m-Sinking Threes” and God knows what follows in the Fours. It’s like an Army Assault Course, day in day out, seven days a week.   Do you know, I was out and about the other day standing at a coffee kiosk behind two lovely smiley new mums out carrying and pushing their tiny babies. My son was making the babies laugh - aww, how cute. I enquired how old these two young babes-in-arms were, as they doted doe-eyed upon them. “Erm, 3 months old!” said New Mum One. “And mine’s 4 months! Aww,” cooed New Mum Two. I said, “Well, wait till you’ve got a lively one like mine, at three and half they’re all over the place, you begin to wish they were still in the pram!!” – Much ooh-ing and ahh-ing and a bit of nervous laughter was shared by both the new mums. They turned to look at each other, “Aww!…I can’t imagine what they’ll be like when they’re crawling or moving about! Someone said to me the other day, ‘You’ll need to get a playpen!’ I said, 'A playpen? I can’t even begin to imagine what it’ll be like having them when they can start to roll about the floor, Oh, eek!'” WELL. I thought. YOU’D BETTER START IMAGINING!! AND QUICKLY! Silly women!   In the evenings therefore, winding down, I generally have protracted baths, eat homemade food, read, watch documentaries, and listen to interesting wee things on the radio, and there is little energy or will left for anything more than such passive activities.   After being a full-time mum for a while, I feel rewarded / exhausted / bored / brain-dead (delete as appropriate), and this has affected my thoughts on what I'd like to achieve in life, both for me and for my son. I'd like a different career now, of course, but the field or fields I'm interested in pursuing would require serious re-training and further qualifications costing at least £10,000 (postgraduate) as my original degree is virtually redundant and probably irrelevant to what I want to study anyway. This is not something I am considering lightly. It is a big decision. I may have another 30 years of useful work ahead of me to contribute to society and I think it’s a reasonable human desire to want to do something meaningful with that time. That said, I am unsure whether even when my son starts school next year I would be able to pursue this change of career as it might just be too costly. And are there other potential barriers to success along the way, such as being older/not fresh, out of the loop, and being a mum/woman? Who knows. The route seems fraught with uncertainty at the moment.   To talk of what I think about establishing a decent career and juggling bringing up kids would require a whole essay, but let's just keep it brief. I have watched as my role has grown from milk-provider to biscuit-provider to buggy-pusher to nurse to full-time nursery educator, life teacher and now extremely physical PE coach and outdoors education person (*A.K.A. Things They Don’t Teach Them At Nursery For Health & Safety Reasons But Are Much Funner Than Soft Play Areas). - Arguably the only tangible benefit of mumhood right now is that I am much fitter and much stronger as a result of deadlifting 3 stones about with me at all times and running after him like Usain Bolt when he escapes. My heart races past its maximum heart rate to 180 bpm on a daily basis - and that’s just when I turn round when I’m standing still and realise he’s gone out of sight. My goal used to be to look like Kate Middleton, all stylish and happy and perfect. Haha. That was in the old days. Now my goal is realistically more likely to be ending up looking like Sarah Connor the radge mom out of Terminator 2. I’m not even joking.   The opinion of others on full-time mum-ism is broadly split down the line by age, a bit like the Brexit vote. All the older generation love it and heartily approve, and say you should spend "every minute bonding, that's very good, they need it" - while almost all of the younger generation of women I survey (my own age group) say they'd rather not, and would rather have a job to go to as a meaningful respite and social life away from the hard work and monotony of motherhood. Both respectable views. It's interesting. Some always trot out the same line: "it's the most important job in the world…good for you!" - usually as you're wiping snot away with a spare sleeve while shivering in a rusty playpark - but if that truly were the case, then why do millions of women vote with their feet the other way and elect someone else to do that "most important job" on their behalf? Money? Or preference slash self-confidence?   Someone's lying. There's no perfectly right answer. I'm sure nurseries are great places for children to develop. They get a lot of social activities and things which mums on their own just can’t provide or tolerate, like glitter and mess. Then there are realities of life that are equally valid learning experiences, like doing the weekly shopping, finding out about work, and being content with your own company, that they might not get at nursery. We feel plumped for a second when we hear older mums and grandmothers praising our worthy "noble" actions for being so stay-at-home (irony: I must be the only stay-at-home mum who goes out of their way to spend the least time I can staying at home! Spare me the cartoons!), yet at the same time I always guard against feeling too pleased with myself as I consider that for their generation things were much different: they weren't always expected to have a degree, to have invested so much of their time and reading in higher education, or to hold down a career job just to be able to get on the housing ladder. Times are different now. Expectations of what women can and want to do with their lives are different. I think we've got to respect that and maybe be honest with ourselves that we haven't all reached the 'perfect' solution. Ambition, if it does exist, either intellectual, sporting, or entrepreneurial, should be addressed, perhaps as a natural feeling that comes from owning a talent, not dismissed as unimportant 'at this time'.   Just as those working mums don't necessarily all want to go back to work but feel they have to, we mustn’t assume that all mums who are in the playpark day and night don't actually want to work. (follow me?) I don't mind who looks after your children - you, your partner, family member, or a paid nursery 5 full days a week: I think it's up to you, as long as it works for you. The point is, for some, it's a carefully organised operation, managing maternity leaves and government childcare entitlement with precision around suitably flexible jobs: for others, such as myself, we just kind of find ourselves in this ‘primary caregiver’ position by default or by accident, not by any conscious choice.   “What is work?” As Bertrand Russell observed, Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relative to other matter; second, telling other people to do so.”   How I love this quote, it is so incisively accurate, so precise, and falls like a gavel on the sound block, waking up the dim-witted and the slumbering; and every time I see the economy in action, whether down the street or with politicians on the television, I always think of this quote, visually happening right in front of me.   I'd like to work, though more of Russell’s latter kind than just “shifting stuff” like Minion pants and Lego shrapnel from room to room. There is a sheer futility to it all that makes a mockery of one’s inner sense of self and dignity that rages against one’s dormant creative intellect. All I can think of is that one day when I’m old and crinkly we will look back on all these mundane repetitive tasks we once used to weep over that robots will be doing with relish with that same sense of sneering laughter that we do when we see old footage of horses pulling ploughs across a field. Hahahah! How we used to …. !   Invention lies at the heart of all societal improvement.   I'd like my son to know and think of me as someone other than just his personal sprinting coach!, but right now my current skills and knowledge and expertise in a particular field (one that would intrigue me enough to want to work in it - perhaps research-based?, and certainly locked away in a quiet room) are, I am realising, so far removed from what I would need to work in such a field that my only options right now are: temp work for the short-term sake of earning money to pay someone to do the cleaning I wouldn't be doing, or F/T mum with the long-term view of finding a way to educate myself to enable me to use my brain again.   In the meantime, therefore, it looks like shifting Minion pants it is.   --- Annie Copland

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On Work

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Here is an excerpt from The Aeneid of Virgil (from the translation into English by E. Fairfax-Taylor) that caught my eye recently: It is from book 1, verses XII and XIII: XII. So spake the God and with her hest complied, And turned the massive sceptre in his hand And pushed the hollow mountain on its side. Out rushed the winds, like soldiers in a band, In wedged array, and, whirling, scour the land. East, West and squally South-west, with a roar, Swoop down on Ocean, and the surf and sand Mix in dark eddies, and the watery floor Heave from its depths, and roll huge billows to the shore. XIII. Then came the creak of cables and the cries Of seamen. Clouds the darkened heavens have drowned, And snatched the daylight from the Trojans' eyes. Black night broods on the waters; all around From pole to pole the rattling peals resound And frequent flashes light the lurid air. All nature, big with instant ruin, frowned Destruction. Then Aeneus' limbs with fear Were loosened, and he groaned and stretched his hands in prayer: * Mm. This evocative pair of verses makes me think of two things. Firstly, some poem by P Larkin which sounds equally ominous and full of foreboding; and secondly, it reminds me of something I once wrote about an imagined storm quite a long time ago before I had read anything. As someone who has grown up by the sea and spent many a day watching storms being whipped up into a frenzy out of seemingly nowhere, I find this short excerpt really captures my imagination. This is a very visual passage full of vivid descriptions of cause and effect; for that reason I like it. The drama and potential violence of a storm is at once fearful and exciting - well, at least it is to me! Here nature in all its fury can be seen wreaking chaos and fear on the human lives so dependent upon its various moods. In this translation, creak is a great word, it sounds quite scary and sinister. - Creak itself is quite a quiet sound, yet it usually doesn't bode well when we hear one, does it? Then we get cables and cries and darkened and drowned and pole and peals, frequent flashes and lurid. This is stormy language and it has a powerful 'designed to be read aloud' sound. And - 'frowned Destruction' - what an interesting way of putting it! Good passage, I enjoyed this.

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Excerpt from The Aeneid of Virgil

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Here is an article from the Guardian website that I stumbled upon, incidentally while researching "What to do when you can't cope being a mother" (well, I'm sure we all have doubts) - http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/mar/31/mothers-stop-moaning-about-motherhood Mothers - Stop Moaning About Motherhood.  Right. * Crikey. I had no idea my 'moaning' was so offensive! (Well, perhaps I did, but not to such an extreme extent...) Lordie me, by that rationale, presumably then we are not allowed also to moan about "how annoying it is to have the builders in at the moment" and having to put up with a chaotic dust-filled kitchen with no running water (- wow, I would love to have a large, presumably period, family house to call my own to do renovations on, thus increasing its value and having some sort of economic honeypot!) Nor to grumble about our "long and stressful daily commute" (- wow, I would love the opportunity to have some high-flying mentally challenging position that didn't involve changing nappies for a living!) Nor to moan about the "exorbitant house prices in the capital or our area" (- shut up, I would love the chance to live in a thriving cultural global hub full of economic opportunity, the highest forms of culture, successful people, world class education and liberal ideas!) Nor to moan about "what ridiculously long hours I have to put in at the office" (- Gosh. I'd love to have your secure full-time job and a regular salary that paid all the bills each month with more to spare for a holiday!) Nor to moan about how freaked out you are in your freelance job(s) while you try and set up your own business going self-employed (- wow! I'd love to be able to work from home and not have a boss to answer to all day...) Nor legitimately to moan about feeling lethargic and run-down with man-flu and the stresses of everyday life (- well, be reasonable. At least you are alive! Some people are living hand-to-mouth existences out of a tent in a war-torn zone, don't you know.) If you've a hyperactive child that's pushing you to your wits' end, you have to "pull yourself together and be grateful" that you don't have a child with a severe disability. This reasoning is perverse, and online I have noticed seems to be getting worse. You can't say your true feelings (whether they be joy at, for instance, a new pregnancy, or genuine misery at the prospect of another day's childminding) for fear of upsetting someone somewhere. This is not only an affront to free speech and liberal values (actually: just the word 'honesty') but also a surefire way of making people even more reclusive and introverted. And more likely to bottle up their society-unenhancing problems. How is that progress? To paraphrase what I thought when I initially read that woman's article;
"god! Make me feel even more shit about feeling shit, why don't you!"
Is this approach helpful? So, it seems, we cannot moan about anything that our 'own life choices' have thrown our way, for fear of 'offending' someone that doesn't have that particular thing. The message seems to be: "whatever; get over it, BE GRATEFUL." {Internet memes are incredibly silly. The only reasonably good one is the one that says something along the lines of: "You have no idea what battles the person you are speaking to is privately dealing with. Be kind."} Now look, I love my little son to bits. I am grateful he is in our lives. I know that I am indeed 'blessed' to have a brain, a child and my health. (There is a far better article written online somewhere all about this, by the way, about being a mum and Being Grateful; far funnier than this. Seek it out.) My son is bright, energetic, smart, outgoing, brave, funny and affectionate. Oh, I'm sure one day he'll grow up to be a tall strapping ginger-bearded explorer or sportsman or a commanding team leader, I can see all those natural qualities in him already (mainly the ginger-bearded bit), and he's only just turned 3. What a legend! And that will be our legacy. HOWEVER, that doesn't take away from the fact that RIGHT NOW the job at hand is absolutely exhausting. Please see me and see how run down I am through CCF (Chronic Cartoon-Fatigue). You don't flog a dead (or dying) horse. Any idiot knows that. Into the Eye of the Storm.... It is relentless, thankless, isolated, emotionally-heated, manual, shitty, tiresome work bringing up a pre-schooler who is energetic yet still not disciplined: emotionally and mentally more than physically. You try doing it alone every day. Then see how you feel. Hhhhhhh. How many times do I have to say this?:
Babies are NOT just about changing nappies and taking those cute naked photos on a sheepskin rug. LISTEN UP. THIS SHIT JUST GOT SERIOUS.
Thinking about 'happy families' and the need for people in our lives, I would say it is easy to imagine that the grass is always greener. But we need to stop being delusional and doe-eyed about it all. For every 'cute snap' you see of some miraculous 'achievement' of the child, or some funny face they made that amused you for 2 seconds, there are probably about 20 hours of utterly mundane crumb-sweeping and mindless cartoon-watching beforehand and after it that nobody wants to know about. Why? Because it's utterly, UTTERLY boring. And, I would be cautious of using the mild jovial term used to describe mothers, "moaning" (you know, the low-level background hum of Twitter and Facebook feed that really grates with folk who don't have kids, I would imagine) when, what we probably mean (at least sometimes) is actually, "struggling to cope". Rearing a kid is not a job, it is a huge irreversible responsibility you take on that won't ever leave you. Even if you want it to sometimes. You can't just hand in your notice. But this activity of procreating and home-making has being going on for generations, as kindly mothers like to keep reminding us (- why thank you, I hadn't noticed! I really did think I was the first mum ever to find it a real struggle!) So what's different, why are we special? (or demanding more attention?) Well, a few factors. Now here is our 21st century reality for western humans. We live increasingly in social 'pods' (ah, the Life Online), frequently physically isolated from other working mums and dads and stay-at-home people and extended family and relatives to help share the burden of bringing up youngsters. Meet-ups tend to be more social than help-ful. All seemingly in the name of 'progress'. That much is different from older generations. Some poor soul online once commented (truthfully, wisely) that it takes "a whole village" of people to bring up a child, yet today frequently that burden can fall primarily to just one. Or, maybe, that is just our own self-imposed, proud, folly, expectation. We are just unrealistic in that regard, it would seem. In a traditional community a baby would be seen as an asset to that community; now, it is a discrete lifestyle 'choice' of the individual and we pay out through our noses for services accordingly. Very few parents I know of have a child so they can keep the family business going. Right now I would swap all the trappings of my affluent western society for any village, however remote, as long as there were entertaining faces and enough pairs of kind hands to take turns with my child. Hee-hee! I don't see people without children as being any different from those who have had them. I don't think they're lesser beings. I hope they don't think that of themselves either. Unlike what this poor woman thinks, I don't ever play the "you don't understand, you're not a parent!" card. Stress is stress, whatever the cause, and to dismiss it as being inconsequential or non-existent is, frankly, bizarre logic as well as being rather immature and petty. Not to mention arrogant. It is as tasteless and insensitive as grading grief. What I would say to this woman who doesn't like to hear people moaning about their own offspring is this (and I'm sure she was just trolling): If you are lucky enough to not feel easily stressed out and like you always feel that you can somehow summon up the moral courage to meet your day's responsibilities with good humour, then good for you! - you are strong and deserve an MBE for services to Jolly Hockey Sticks. Hoorah! Likewise, if you have a great 'system' that somehow works and a great support network to cover all bases of your childcare, then bully for you! However, don't judge others who are less well-equipped and who may be struggling, either now, sometime in the past, or sometime in the future. Along the way I have learned some seriously hard lessons in life, simply by listening to other people: you can't just go around dismissing and "categorising" people's bad patches in life by saying, oh but they're rich, oh but they've got lots of help, oh but they are really clever/smart/physically fit, oh but they've got lots of friends, oh but they've got a great job to fall back on, oh but at least they've GOT kids, etc, etc, they don't have anything to worry about. If people are struggling, they are struggling. Is moaning more of a social thing now? I think possibly yes, it is. I think I do realise that grumbling and psycho-analysing and endlessly discussing the whole parenthood thing is a rather Middle Class pursuit. (I avoid Mumsnet. It scares me! Everyone on it seems to be called JollyHockeyStickFee73 or something which makes me want to run a country mile...) It seems to me that the trad working class / lower income groups and younger mums don't feel inclined to participate in this navel-gazing self-pitying pursuit quite as much. Where I came from the norm is to have a baby aged 18 and by 21 you'd be considered late to motherhood. There, the expectation is - like their practical and stoical parents beforehand - to just "get on wi' it". Without much hoo-ha. They love their kids. You see them in the street, and online, they are great mothers. Now, having moved away to the big bucks of the big city, I see a whole industry built up around middle aged, middle class mums endlessly worrying and discussing the trials and tribulations of late motherhood in posh coffee shops. Such is life. We must "get on wi' it". (Hypothetically, if this woman from the Guardian article did somehow become a mother, I'd like to see how she coped being a mother and whether she was able to "resist" all temptation to moan!) ;-) Annie x (who is incredibly lucky, blessed and grateful! - AND coughing and spluttering through this article, with man-flu and general winter-related toddler-related exhaustion...)

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Mothers: No Right To Moan? (a response)

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