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Monthly Archives: February 2013

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A few weeks ago I started an experiment: getting a box of vegetables delivered every week. It was in the nature of laying down a challenge to myself – could I cope with planning and cooking meals with whatever came in this week’s box, without ending up with a lot of mouldy unused veg.

So far it has been easier than I expected. I soon graduated to Abel and Cole boxes, which are pretty good quality and so far have not contained anything I didn’t instantly recognize. I have to admit that good quality veg makes the process a whole lot easier: it is more inspiring, more satisfying to cook, and there’s less of a scramble to use up items before they become completely inedible.

I would say that you need a certain amount of confidence as a cook to use a vegetable box. I tried one before as a young woman and couldn’t handle the pressure! You have to have a number of basic recipes up your sleeve – soups, rissottos, stir fries and so on – that will use just about any vegetable you can think of. I do prefer to go for very simple dishes, largely because I don’t often have time to get a lot of other ingredients bought in. Sometimes that means having the experience to just guess at what to do with a new vegetable – will it roast, and how long for, or can you stick it in the microwave, or will it go raw into a salad? Of course the internet does help! It’s amazing how much more confidence you have once you’ve watched a few video clips.

Results so far seem credible. This swede is about to be made into fritters to eat with fish. We are eating substantially more vegetables as a family. There is always salad to add to sandwiches when lunchboxes are being made. I am not, despite predictions, frazzled and running late with dinner every night. The only glut so far has been onions. So, cautiously, so far a success.

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A mother is a machine for converting dirty laundry to clean clothes; discuss.

I don’t know how I came to be the only one that does the laundry in our home. We certainly never had a discussion about it. Probably, when we were a young couple, I offered to put his laundry in with mine. If there’s one thing I could say to my younger self, it would be this: it is not cute, it is not grown-up to share a washing basket, unless you also share the laundry task itself. Before you know it, you are a middle-aged woman, with a dodgy back, wrestling with six wet pairs of adult-sized jeans.

Saturday is my laundry day because it is the first day I do not have to work, and the first day the children take off their school uniform. There is just time to get it all washed and dried before they need it again on Monday. Of course, I have duplicates of most things, but there are always a few items that can’t be duplicated.

I know that laundry is no where near as dreadful a task for me as it was for my grandmothers, or even my mother with her twin tub and outside line. For me, most of the challenge is the logistics: sorting, planning the washloads so that we are not trying to dry everything at the same time, then sorting out the clean dry clothes back into cupboards.

But this is precisely the reason why it resists all my attempts to pass the chore onto the rest of the family. Brute labour might be something they can do, grudgingly, but the rules of laundry are as complex as the offside rule in football. As a set of individuals they are incapable of coordinating use of the various machines. None of them seem able to sort socks into pairs, or assign the finished pairs to their correct owner, without raging arguments.

I have tried teaching each person to do their own laundry, I have tried doing it collectively, I have tried rotating the chore around one person after another, I have even tried making it into a game, but to no avail. Laundry remains, fairly and squarely, a task for me alone.

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Here is the new laptop bag I bought for myself at Christmas. I bought it because of its big practical strap, making it much easier to carry my heavy laptop close into my body. But I’ll admit: it has a great colour and a fantastic print! I love wearing it, and not just because it makes the weight of my laptop less of a burden. It is unlike anything else anyone else wears at work. But I’m not expecting to hear compliments about it for a while yet.

“You’ve changed something about your hair.” said a work colleague the other day, and promptly blushed bright scarlet.

As a matter of fact my hair changed from mousy blonde to vivid red a whole nine months ago: nine months in which I have repeatedly visited the office, spoken to colleagues, and held meetings. This is the first time anyone has mentioned my hair, and knowing the people I work beside as well as I do, I am impressed that anyone finally summoned up the courage. This is because my colleagues are programmers, and this is what life with programmers is often like. They are first predominantly male, and second predominantly cerebral. Mere changes to appearance are an irrelevance; an irrelevance to be discretely ignored.

When I was a young woman, I used to blend in, in the way many young female programmers do, by wearing jeans and baggy T-shirts. My cover was blown when I became pregnant. My pregnancy was far from discrete: from the fourth month I could have been mistaken for a sofa. Maternity wear was not as varied as it is now and the only thing I could find to cover my vast and swelling form was a black and white checked pinafore. I wore this pinafore day in and day out for months on end until the birth and then, to my mortification, had to wear it for some months afterwards. There was no disguising to my colleagues the awful truth of what had happened to me – I had become female.

For the first few years of motherhood, my “mum” uniform was not too dissimilar from my old “programmer” uniform of jeans and T-shirts, but the cat was now firmly out of the bag. As I grew older and more confident, I began to wear more feminine clothes – brighter colours, skirts, rediscovering floral, lipstick earrings, and no more “building site” shoes.

And my colleagues were greatly embarrassed, scurrying around with heads down, and very little eye contact. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t go out of my way to embarrass them – I don’t show cleavage, I don’t do stilettos, I don’t have piercings in unexpected places. I don’t want to frighten the horses. I am, however, obviously not of the same world as they are. That bag is a statement that I am not, after all, unisex.

I don’t regret one bit that my colleagues work so hard to ignore my outrageous tendencies. It is a huge benefit to me: I have hardly ever felt that my gender matters at work. It is embarrassing to my colleagues that I happen to be a woman, but I have rarely had to worry abut sexual advances, or innuendoes. If I am in the middle of a lively discussion, the only thing I need to worry about is whether or not I am right, not whether my bra strap is showing.

A brief stint in a more “lively” office, with a strong masculine culture, was enough to make it clear just how difficult office life can be for a lone woman – there I was the constant butt of sexist jokes, comments about my appearance, and laddish pranks. It was impossible for me to work in that environment. I was very relieved when my stint ended and I was able to return to my office of mild-mannered, socially-challenged males. How ironic it is: because my gender is invisible there, I feel free to be as outrageously feminine as I please!

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Is there ever a good time to hear that question? Definitely not eight o’clock on a Monday morning. Not as we were all scrambling to get back to work and school, after taking the week off.

The honest answer is that I have absolutely no idea where the rugby tops have gone. I believe there are two in existence. Occasionally they pass through my hands as I do the washing, but not as often as a rational person would expect, given how often they are worn on sweaty teenage bodies. I have not seen either since Christmas, which suggests that they are in one of two places, places whose very names fill me with dread.

The first being the school lost property bin: a place close to purgatory.

The second being my son’s bedroom: a place closer to hell. You can see from the picture that his chair has become his wardrobe. Somewhere, on the floor of that room, under his bed, in a corner, there may well lurk some poor traumatised rugby top. Perhaps both of them, huddling together for comfort.

The only thing I know for sure is that this time I am not going to go in. This time, he’ll have to find it for himself…

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Highlight of our (very brief) trip to Paris? That would be the cup of tea in Mariage Freres’ tea salon, tucked away in a rather unprepossessing corner of the Carousel Galleries under the Louvre. Forget the glories of the Impressionist gallery across the road at the Musee d’Orsay, forget the pale colours of winter sunshine washing the face of Notre Dame, forget the slap-up “steak and frites” dinner later on that day. The happiest moment of the trip was, weary and footsore from sightseeing and shopping, clutching our flotsam of little packages and bags, we stumbled into the tea salon, to have one of the most refreshing cups of tea, hot, steaming, scented and gently smokey. Ah tea! Here is a snapshot of the mouthwatering blueberry and blackcurrent tart that went with it. I neglected to photograph the very handsome, very attentive waiter who was also a vital part of this experience.

And now we are home again, dispensing gifts to all and sundry, and with plenty of photos and memories to mull over. Did I feel a sense of relief in returning to my kitchen, and driving the men out of it again? I must confess, dear reader, that nice though it may be to eat in restaurants for a few days, I am glad to be back.

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I am taking my daughter away to Paris for a couple of nights. Each year, starting at the age when they began to appreciate travel and adventure, I’ve tried to take one of the children away alternately for a few days alone with me. I’ve used the small amount of money my mother left me to do this: she worked very hard all her life, before dying while still relatively young. It seemed a fitting way to use the money to remember her – she was always so full of life, and my most vivid memories of her are our travels together in Scotland during the school holidays. I can remember how wonderful it was to be just the two of us, the many things she used to teach me on these trips, and how I would see a different side of her, a much younger, funnier, more relaxed person.

The trips have served another important purpose that my mother might have appreciated, since she was the oldest of four children. I was lucky that as an only child, I took time alone with both my parents for granted, but I have two children, and even with two it can sometimes feel as if one of them is missing out. I use these trips to give each one special time with me for a few days, while the other gets special time at home with dad.

For the last few years I’ve taken my son to Paris, Rome and Lisbon – all much bigger adventures than I ever managed with my mother! But it has been a few years since his sister got her turn because she has been in and out of hospital herself. Last year, for example, we were all ready to go to Paris, tickets booked and planning done (and anything you do with my daughter does surely take a lot of planning because of her illness) when she had another relapse. I have been able to give her special time in other ways, but we sorely missed our adventure.

It has taken another year, but she is now finally ready to go. It has been three years since she has travelled anywhere. Many plans have been made and cancelled over those years, not just last year’s trip to Paris. So this is not just a few days away: it is a real celebration of how much stronger she has become.

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I lost my temper the other day. Isn’t that a strange phrase? What is this temper that you lose? Is it temper like temperance: do you lose your balance, your equilibrium? It certainly feels like that after the event, when the red mist clears, and you survey the damage.

I lost my temper at my fourteen year old son, and I don’t think any parent really wins when they lose their temper with their children. Apart from the practical fact that no teenager on this earth looks contrite and answers, “Yes, sorry Mum, I was wrong.” And even if they did, it would feel quite wrong – as if you had broken their spirit. Naturally enough, my son is my son – he gave me back as good as he got – which now I smile about, but which I could not see the humour in at the time. I did not lose the battle, but I did lose my dignity, and, temporarily, my peace of mind.

The fact is that my son is vulnerable, but of course he can be annoying too. He has Asperger’s, and I know, more than anyone else, how much crap he has to deal with at school because of that (why do his teachers care so much about handwriting anyway?). But he is also a teenager, smart, cocky, always right, keen to sort the world out. It can be funny, it can be distressing, and it can, of course, be explosive.

The bread in the picture was pain viennois, from a recipe by Richard Bertinet. As he suggested, I split one of the baguettes while still warm, popped in some thin bars of chocolate, and gave it to the children for a snack. Teenagers are not too old for such treats. Much contentment all round.

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I think about food a lot of the time, when I am not otherwise busy with my dayjob, and sometimes even then. Not thoughts about eating food, but about buying it, or preparing it. This is not because I am a good cook, but because I am quite the opposite. Putting three meals a day on the table for the family remains a major challenge for me. There are few other aspects of family life that I have found so difficult to master.

For years I have pored over books and food magazines, watched TV programmes, and searched the internet for cooking tips. On the whole I do not want to learn to cook fancy food: all I aspire to is to be able to cook good food. I want to be able to turn out a decent meal reliably, using a certain amount of skill, knowing that my family will eat it, enjoy it, and grow up strong and healthy. I want food to be the centre of family life, and I want to be able to cook as my grandmother cooked – plainly, instinctively, and with love.

(At the same time, I want to be able to hold an argument with my teenage son about feminism, the banking crisis, or the collapse of Soviet Russia, while I cook!)

Over the last few years, cooking has slowly become a more enjoyable task, and I have come to feel genuinely attached to the pots, knives and dishes I use every day. I feel a certain competance now, enough to be able to experiment, and to explore. I am ridiculously pleased each time I finally master a new skill, or work out a new shortcut for myself. But most of this wonderful process of discovery is done alone because I’m not a good enough cook to go round swapping recipes with other cooks. And in any case, I only just have time enough to do it – I don’t have time to talk about it too.

The most important ingredient it turns out, is time. When I worked longer hours, scrambled to pick up my babies from the nursery before it closed at six, and returned with them to a cold and empty house, I had to overcome my own hunger and exhaustion to put something warm on the table in twenty minutes flat. I still remember the desperation of those evenings – a mind-numbing feeling of panic and dismay and empty cupboards. Now that circumstance has forced me to cut the hours that I work, I rarely work after four, and reserve at least an hour every evening to producing an evening meal. It is my family’s biggest luxury, if they but knew it: the luxury of a homecooked meal almost every night.

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At the weekend and holidays I often begin a day by baking bread.  I am not sure why I do this: baking bread is a huge commitment in terms of time.  In fact now that I am experimenting with sourdough the whole process can spread out over two days from start to finish.  Not that any of the steps take much more than 15 minutes, but they are relentless, and sometimes it means that you can’t leave the house for more than an hour or two at a time.  Probably my fault for following Dan Lepard’s recipes, as recommended by Bakery Bits

i have gone for months, even years, without baking bread, but am always drawn back to it.  There is something magical about the simplicity of the ingredients – flour, yeast and water – transforming into this wondeful stuff that is dough.  When it goes well, and I have a good loaf – especially with a new recipe – I feel quietly warm with happiness.  When it goes badly I could cry (and have).  Whenever I catch sight of my sourdough pot quietly sitting there bubbling at the back of my fridge, I feel reassured that the world is fundamentally good and orderly.  Since this is a week that seemed chaotic – trips to doctor’s appointments with my daughter that had to come out of working hours, and then to crown it all, the drama of another trip to accident and emergency at the end of the week – I baked bread to restore order to the world.

"A NEW NORMAL" by Celenia Delsol (c) 2021

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