Posted in Family, Personal life

Stressing The Importance of Gadgets

Stressed cat
Stroke it the right way and it’d just be a pussycat

Years ago, when I was a fresh young executive in the dog-eat-dog world of PR, it was the done thing to complain about your stress levels. Anyone in the office who didn’t was assumed to be not working hard enough.

Our boss Jim*, an ex-hack in his early 40s, was a kind man. Under pressure from the agency owners to maximise profits, he did his best to resolve our anguish, while still appearing to crack the whip. It can’t have been easy to be in sole charge of a bevy of ambitious young women, many of whom were prone to tears when losing a pitch for new business. Always the rebel, I was aghast when I overheard two women senior to me seriously discussing the merits of crying in the workplace: “It’s every professional’s  right to express their true feelings.” I suspect there were days when Jim could have cried himself.

A family man with three lovely children, Jim was married to a former beauty queen. Although she adored him, I suspect she couldn’t offer him much practical help for dealing with women in suits. She’d probably have suggested a manicure to cure our stress. Jim’s solution was to send us on a stress management course.

Managing Stress

Goodness knows how much the firm paid for that course. We were all shipped off to a posh country house hotel where our training session lasted all day. The cost of the coffee break alone must have run into treble figures. Inevitably, when we returned to the office, the training course made not the slightest bit of difference to our stress levels. All it did was salve Jim’s conscience that he was looking after us properly.

At the time, I was the only dissenter. “Cure the cause, not the symptoms!” I implored him. “Just eliminate the stress, instead of managing it.” I never did like wearing a suit.

Avoiding Stress

Now that I’m working mostly from home, stress avoidance, not stress management, is my mantra. So when a nice man from confused.com challenged me to choose a stress-reducing gadget, with the chance of winning one for myself, I jumped at the opportunity.  Jim could never have solved our problems with gadgets: they simply didn’t exist. In those days, the golfball typewriter was considered cutting-edge technology. If we wanted a gadget, we had to improvise. One of my colleagues infamously did so: she lobbed an ashtray at poor Jim in the middle of a difficult meeting. (Yes, it was that long ago: smoking in the office was still considered an acceptable way to manage your stress levels. Jim’s chosen prop was the cigar.)

My own approach to resolving stress is more constructive. I’ve pinpointed the early morning as the greatest source of stress in my day.

The Scream by Edvard Monch
Oh no, not the Today programme at dawn again!

The stress kicks off when  the radio-alarm wakes me up, ensuring that the first voices I hear every day are not those of my loved ones,  but Messrs Humphreys and Naughtie on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Much as I admire these fine broadcasters, being woken by the news headlines is about as soothing as fingernails running down a blackboard. It’s less jarring when their gentler colleagues, Justin Webb and Evan Davies, are on duty, but even my favourite radio voice of all time, David Attenborough, could not make those news stories less than stressful.

The Antidote to Stress

Instead, what I really need to sound the alarm is an iPhone, loaded with soothing tunes, in an iPod dock on my bedside table.  Music, not news, would wake me up: so that’s one  source of stress that would bite the dust.

Another stress factor is checking the weather, so that I can put out the right school clothes for my daughter. Summer dress or winter pinafore? Light cardigan or sweatshirt? Boots or shoes? Socks or tights?  I’d therefore also download a local weather app on to my iPhone.  Then, each night before bed, I could  check the forecast and lay out the appropriate clothes, leaving one less thing to worry about in the morning.

Knowing the weather forecast, I’d be able to ensure that it wasn’t just any old soothing music that woke me up in the mornings, but music chosen to put the most positive spin on the weather. (Ah, you see, all those years in PR were not wasted.) Whatever weather we woke up to, its accompanying tune would be a pleasure to hear. For sunshine, the choice would be easy: “Here Comes The Sun” by George Harrison. In case of rain, “It’s Raining Men” by The Weathergirls would never fail to lift my mood. For exceptionally bad storms, I’d pick “Greased Lightning”, from the movie Grease. Snow would provide the perfect excuse to play “I’m Walking in the Air” from The Snowman. If the weather ever got too depressing, I might cheat and load ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky”, a song that my daughter and I had on permanent repeat in the car last summer to raise our spirits while driving through pouring rain. But you get the general picture.

Less Stress For All

The word music, annotated
Has charms to soothe the savage breast (William Congreve)

My system would be endlessly adaptable to suit all tastes in music. For those of classical bent, there’d be Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, although to reflect the impact of global warming and its ever-weirder weather systems, you might want to play the Summer movement in Winter, and vice versa.

You could also use the system to herald landmark days and events. “Get Me To The Church On Time” from My Fair Lady would signal a wedding. My daughter would not be the only one looking forward to hearing Alice Cooper sing “School’s Out”.

I’d even use it on days when I didn’t have to get up. I’ve thought of the perfect song for a lie-in, by possibly the most melodious duo  of all time:  Simon and Garfunkel. I bet you can guess what it would be: “The Sound of Silence”.

Soothed.com? That’ll be me.

This post was written for confused.com’s New Year Revolution Competition.

*not his real name

Posted in Family, Personal life

Enter The Snow Cat

The calico cat on a cushion
Making herself at home already

(New post about how a stray cat turned up in the first winter snow storm)

On the first day that the snow fell during this latest cold snap, snowbound at home and idly dabbling on my netbook, I spot a notice on a friend’s Facebook page:

Is anyone in Hawkesbury missing a cat? quite a small cat -white with patches of colour? He/she is very hungry (just devoured 2 tins of tuna), and sheltering in my next door neighbour’s open garage. Please ask around, the cat needs to go home xxx

Feeling skittish, as it’s my birthday, I post my reply without a moment’s hesitation:

 If no-one claims her, I could have a cat for my birthday! Just need to persuade Gordon….

I’ve been thinking for a long time that I’d like to have a cat again. It’s several years since my last one died, but I’ve made a deal with myself that I’ll only do so if one decides to acquire me – i.e. a stray turns up on my doorstep. Turning up on a neighbour’s doorstep (where there live two big dogs) is the next best thing.

The reason for my wavering is that one of my very best friends is allergic to cats. It was a consoling factor when my last cat died that this friend would be able to visit me at home without risking hospitalisation.

The calico cat and its new bed
The calico cat and the lesser-spotted little girl

A snowy day is a quiet day, even with my daughter home from school, which is closed due to the weather. I figure that temporarily hosting this cat while we track down its owner will produce a welcome source of entertainment for us both for the afternoon. With the SOS already doing the rounds on Facebook, it surely won’t be long before we’re able to witness a happy reunion for the cat and its owner.

Another neighbour, also on Facebook, calls to check whether I’m serious.

“It’s a lovely little white cat, Deb,” he says. “I’d have it, but my cat wouldn’t like it.”

I nod and my daughter beams. Moments later, he returns, bearing cat.

It is indeed a beautiful cat, and not just white. Its thick fur is a multitude of black and ginger blotches, against a white background. It looks as if it’s been made from leftover bits of other cats. Its black-rimmed amber eyes remind me of Cleopatra’s.  Google advises me that it’s a calico cat, which I’m pleased about. I’ve always wanted one of those, without actually knowing what that name meant.

Speaking of names – what to call it? There’s no collar , although the creature’s immaculate, dense fur and easy manner in our presence suggests that it’s domesticated.

“I think I’ll call it Dora, because it keeps Exploring,” decides Laura, as the cat flattens itself to creep beneath our kitchen counters.

Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, from The Wond...

Dora later elongates to Dorothy, without us making a conscious decision. Perhaps the name has been subliminally suggested by the postcard, propped up on the dresser, of Judy Garland’s famous ruby slippers from the film of the Wizard of Oz. Or maybe, like the Cowardly Lion, it’s just got lots on its way along the Yellow Brick Road (a nickname given, incidentally, to the part of the Cotswold Way that runs behind our village).

I confine Dorothy to the back of the house (kitchen, utility room, bathroom), while we gauge its grasp of housetraining. Our neighbour returns with cat food, bound to be needed later, even though he’s just fed it two tins of tuna before he brought it down. Dorothy had apparently eaten them voraciously. No wonder she’s looking plump.

I put down on a dish on the floor the bacon rind left over from breakfast. Whoosh! With the speed of the dirt in a Cillit Bang advert, it’s gone. Dorothy looks up hopefully from the empty dish. Moments later, a sachet of cat food is inside her.

“Mummy, why does Dorothy’s tummy keep twitching?” Laura asks.

Gingerly, if you’ll forgive the pun, I encircle the cat’s tummy with my hands. It’s solid. And moving.

A new scenario pops into my mind.

“I hope she’s not been dumped because she’s pregnant.”

It’s happened round here before: city-dwellers abandoning unwanted pregnant cats in the village, assuming the poor creature will find a new berth catching mice on a farm. Call me cynical, but I don’t believe the cats make it out here on their own, Dick Whittington style, setting off from home to in search of streets paved with Whiskas. And certainly not in snow.

Teaching the calico cat to read
“Meet my new best friend”

We make the cat a bed in a cardboard box and turn an old washing-up bowl into a litter tray filled with dirt from a discarded plant pot in the conservatory (there’s no digging up the garden under snow).  Laura, ever the bountiful hostess, makes it toys to play with and reads it stories as they lie on their tummies together on the floor. She wonders how long it would take her to teach it to read.

Meanwhile, cleaning out the litter tray, I’m beginning to remember the disadvantages of cat ownership. I take a picture and put it on Facebook with the message:

If you recognise this cat, please notify its owners and put them in touch with me to reclaim it

One week on, and Dorothy must surely be thinking “There’s no place like home.”

Posted in Family, Personal life

2012 – That’s SO Last Year!

Mo Farah, Olympic gold medallist at London 2012
Mo Farah, 2012 icon (Photo: Wikipedia)

When I first started thinking about the imminent arrival of 2013, I didn’t want 2012 to end. For so long, 2012 had been a year to look forward to, full of promise, from that day back in 2007 when London, my home city, was awarded the 2012 Olympics. 

Then a couple of years later the build-up to the Royal Diamond Jubilee began.  Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a royalist, I was excited at the prospect of living through historic events that people would talk about for generations to come, like VE Day or Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  (I’m now rooting for the Queen to outlive her famous ancestor and set a new record that will be, by association, ours.)

2012 did not disappoint

These events created some very special memories for me. As the commentators said of the now legendary “Super Saturday” for British athletes, I will be proud to look back and say “I was there”.

Grandpa on his 80th birthday with a "Keep Calm You're Only 80" balloonNot all my favourite memories of 2012  relate to national events, but my other personally and locally momentous occasions, like the national ones, were planned and expected well in advance:

  • meeting my Canadian cousin’s daughter for the first time (I hadn’t seen her father since he was a child, in the 1970s)
  • a visit from my American schoolfriend’s daughter in July (I’d last seen her mother in the 1980s)
  • my father’s 80th birthday in September
  • the publication of my first book in October

As yet, 2013 will be more of a mystery tour. It feels odd to be on the threshold of a year of uncertainty, after a year of such precise planning and predictability.

It doesn’t help that I always find odd years disconcerting. 2012 always sounded like it was going to be neat and pleasing; 2013 just sounded messy and vaguely threatening.

But as it turned out, on New Year’s Day 2013 we awoke to blue skies and sunshine for the first time in weeks. This promising omen was echoed by a surge of optimism from my friends and family, cascading down my Facebook timeline and Twitter feed. Everyone seemed on great form and ready for another year of triumph

And all of a sudden, instead of being filled with foreboding as I take down the 2012  wall calendar and flip open the 2013 one in its place, I’m feeling excited and optimistic. It doesn’t matter any more that our national annus mirabilis has drifted quietly downstream into the history books. Starting to fill in my 2013 diary, I’m already at ease with writing the new year’s date – something that usually takes me months to get used to.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to be thinking to myself: “2012? That’s SO last year!”

Happy New Year and may 2013 bring you your heart’s desire.

Photograph of blue sky
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Posted in Family, Personal life

Goodbye Sun, Hello Fun

English: British version of the bugle call &qu...
“Sunset” – also known as “Retreat” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(A post about one of the virtues of dark winter nights – the excuse for the family to play board games and cards.)

Make the most of any late autumn sunshine, because now the clocks have gone back, we’re on the slippery slope towards the dark nights of the festive season.

“Sunshine – what sunshine?” I hear you cry. Optimist that I am, even I’ve given up on it this year. With uncharacteristic pessimism, I put my summer clothes into hibernation before the end of September. My cotton Union Jack maxi-dress, an investment in 2012’s patriotic occasions, never even made it out of the wardrobe over the summer. It was just too cold.

But I’m not letting our disappointing summer weather get me down. I know a way to ensure that no matter how sunless and cold the winter is, it will be a happy one in our household: I’ll hit the games cupboard.

A "whimsy" from a nautical-themed wo...
A “whimsy” from a wooden puzzle by Wentworth Wooden Jigsaws (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Situated next to the wood-burner in the middle of our living room is a huge stash of old-fashioned board games, playing cards and jigsaws. I have fond memories of learning such games from my beloved grandmother, so just the thought of a round of Scrabble gives me a warm glow, even if the wood-burner’s not alight. I love losing myself in a jigsaw (preferably a children’s one so it’s not too hard). I’m always astonished how, mid-puzzle, my subconscious takes over and I find myself slotting a piece into place before I’ve consciously realised that I’ve found the right place for it. Weird, but magical ly meditative.

My playing card collection is also a source of happy memories. I bring back packs with scenic views from places I’ve been on holiday, so sitting by my fireside, a game of Patience transports me to New York or Greece or Hong Kong. And sun.

So forget the wonders of the Wii . Never mind the excitement of the X-Box. Give me old –fashioned game technology any day and I’m happy. Cosy winter evenings, here I come!

This post was originally written for the Hawkesbury Parish News, October 2012.

Posted in Travel

A Funny Thing Happens When I Run: Introducing the Reverse Raindance

Me and my daughter in a summer fun runI’m a fair-weather runner. My running shoes hibernate in the wardrobe from November to February, to spare me from running in the worst of the winter weather. But with the wettest April since records began now segueing into an equally soggy May, there’s a slim chance of dodging raindrops on the run.

Or so you might think. But in the last few days, I’ve discovered I have a King Canute-like ability to turn the tide of imminent downpours, simply by donning my trainers and hitting the road.

Raindrops falling on water
Raindrops falling on water (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last Saturday, I was scheduled to take part in a four-mile fun run in the next village. On the preceding Thursday and Friday, the rain had been falling in torrents. I wondered whether I’d be better off in a swimsuit than a tracksuit. I carefully packed a raincape for the run and a complete change of clothing, expecting to peel off sopping kit as soon as I crossed the finish line.

I drove to the starting point, windscreen wipers on full speed, headlights on, careering through puddles half the width of the roads. The race had been limited to 30 entrants, for fear of overcrowding, but thanks to the weather, only three, apart from me, turned up. The other three looked very pleased to see me. I gulped. There was no turning back.

And yet, by the time we padded off up the hill at the start of our four-mile circuit, the rain had just about vanished. We plodded on companionably, enjoying the inimitable freshness that emanates from fields after heavy rain. The weather was cool but comfortable, and when we arrived back at the village hall, we were pleasantly warm – and dry. Yet on the drive home, I had to turn my windscreen wipers on again.

Français : Temps d'orage sur la Vézère, en Dor...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then last night, I went to join the local running club’s evening run. As I drove down the hill, steely grey clouds were hanging ominously over the clubhouse. It was drizzling as I parked the car. I took this to be an overture to a drenching. But once my run began, the same thing happened as on Saturday. The storm clouds held back; there was not a drop of precipitation. On the return leg, there was even a glimpse of the sun. But no sooner had I got home and kicked off my running shoes than great sheets of lightning began to fill the sky in the direction of where I’d been running. Thunder rumbled on for some time.

So I’m coming to the conclusion that my running has the effect of a reverse raindance. This could come in very handy.

Rain dance - NARA - 285623
Rain dance in Kansas, 1920 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, I realise that by going public with my new-found talent, I’m probably going to jinx it. (First rule of Reverse Raindance Club: Don’t Talk About Reverse Raindance Club.) Expect a follow-up post from me any time soon detailing how I’ve been struck by lightning on my latest run or had to swim home through a monsoon.

But I hope not, and just for selfish reasons. Think of the public good that I could do! This Wimbledon season, the British Lawn Tennis Club could hire me to run round the courts whenever the weather looks murky. If I sprint about Lords Cricket Ground now and again, rain need never stop play. And as to the London Olympics, well, let the sun shine.

Badminton Horse Trials logo

It’s a shame I didn’t discover this talent earlier. I live near the  Badminton Estate, where the most famous equestrian event in the world was meant to be taking place this weekend. For the first time in 25 years, it’s had to be cancelled because their land is waterlogged. If they’d just let me run around their course for a bit, I could have saved them the bother. But it’s just as well they didn’t ask me – I’m not sure I’m up to the jumps.

Some of my other posts about running:

Running In Wonderland (You Can Call Me Alice)       Keeping Up With My Sporty Daughter

And if you enjoy any of these posts, please consider sponsoring my Bristol 10K run later this month! I’m raising money for research into a cure for my daughter’s Type 1 Diabetes here. Thank you!