Wednesday, 10 December 2014

An unexpected visit...

The call came midweek, out of the blue.

An old friend, who had long since departed for brighter lights and bigger cities, was briefly back in the neighbourhood.  En route to her parents' place, she wondered if she could stop by quickly and say hello.  She was about twenty minutes' away.

My initial reaction of surprised delight was almost immediately replaced by panic.  I glanced around our - ahem - comfortable family home.  The detritus of our busy lives was evident for all to see: Rucksacks dropped haphazardly in the front hall, odd pieces of Lego littering the living areas and the smell of our recent evening meal lingering in the air.

Help.  This is the friend whose chic city home features glass and chrome, polished to perfection.  The kitchen boasts all the latest high-tech appliances and genuinely gleams with satisfaction. On the couple of occasions I have visited, I've felt as though I've been transported to a boutique hotel with only the two of us as residents.  Fleetingly, I wondered if I should ring her back with an excuse to cancel.

Thankfully, I have learned that there is quite a lot one can achieve in 20 minutes (Jillian Michaels eat your heart out).  I know my children's habits and my home's hotspots pretty well, so I focused on the essentials:  Replace hand towel in downstairs loo/wipe toothpaste marks from sink/lob hallway clutter into cupboard/throw kitchen windows open/light scented candles/whizz around with hoover/change self out of faded trackie bottoms + fleece.

By the time she arrived, I was flushed but smiling.  I managed to produce some unbroken biscuits to accompany our tea and we sat down to catch up on two years' worth of news.

Even when people's lives and physical appearances seem polished and perfect, that doesn't mean they don't face struggles and challenges like the rest of us.  It turns out that my friend was at a bit of a career crossroads.  She was eager for advice - but most of all she just needed someone to hear her out.

And so she talked. And I listened.  Through sheer strength of will, I managed not to be overly distracted by the inexplicable green smudge that had appeared at an eight-year-old's height on the living room wall, nor by the layer of dust that rested smugly on the arm of the sofa.  (Think that 20-minute run around was going to make the place a palace? Think again.)

Having unburdened herself - and proving once again that our friendship could be picked up effortlessly  - it was time for my friend to depart with a hug.  

I was so pleased she had come.  And it seems she was too.

Just half an hour later, I received this text:  "Thanks so much for the chat - it meant the world to me."

And to think I might have missed it for the sake of an untidy house....

At this time of year, we all tend to have increasing numbers of visitors to our homes.  It's worth remembering that real friends come to spend time with us.  Not to inspect the state of our skirting boards.

Does your home suffer from CHAOS (can't have anyone over syndrome)? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Monday, 17 November 2014

The big four ohhhhhhhh: Celebration or calamity?

I'm putting it out there before anyone else does it for me: A certain milestone birthday is approaching all too fast.

Having witnessed many of my peer group endure/enjoy (delete as appropriate) the occasion of their 40th birthday, I have come to the conclusion that there are several ways in which to mark this occasion:

1. The big bash
For party-lovers, this is the obvious way to celebrate.  Hire the local hall, invite as many friends and family as possible, supply a substantial buffet and Bob's your uncle. This is the ultimate people-pleaser as it avoids leaving anyone out.  I have thoroughly enjoyed attending - and indeed organising - many such occasions for others.  Sadly, throwing one of my own is out of the question:  The thought of the obligatory speech is just too much.

2. The girly getaway
I'm thinking spa break/vintage teas/cocktails and clubbing or perhaps a combination of all of the above. This usually involves piling on a train to an accessible city where lots of other new forties (or indeed hen parties) are pursuing similar activities.  Great fun but one should proceed with caution: By the time you've prepped your face, body and wardrobe for this trip - and indulged in some retail therapy while you're there -  it may cost more than your annual family holiday.

3. The great escape
Those who have an a) romantic and b) generous partner may find themselves whisked off to some luxurious location where they can gently ease themselves into their next major life stage.  This type of celebration has almost universal appeal, however there are several drawbacks: a) you have to have a partner b) they have to be romantic and c) they must not be permanently skint.  

I'll cross my fingers and avoid looking at the joint account, shall I?

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Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Family traditions - and why they matter

I've started to think of this time of year as the festival phase.  We've just had Halloween and as I start to write this post it's November 5th (remember remember?).  And we all know which BIG festival comes along soon after that...

Now that the little 'uns have reached the ripe old ages of ten and eight, we've finally established something resembling a pattern surrounding these big occasions.  Dare I say it, we're starting to build family traditions.  Some have seeped over from my own childhood, but most are ones that our average little family have created - albeit haphazardly and inadvertently - on our own.

I've really not made any conscious effort to do this. In fact, I hadn't realised what we'd done until junior voices started reminding me that "We must make the Christmas cake soon because we always make it during the October break".  Their delight as the familiar box of rather cheap and tatty Halloween decorations appeared was a sight to behold.

Although most of our small rituals are pretty mainstream, I've heard of many more quirky and unique traditions that families follow - and I think that's great. The wonderful thing about family traditions are that they are special to you and yours. There should be no pressure to live up to unrealistic expectations and standards.  If you can't stand craft or cooking, simply don't do it! Find something that works for you and your loved ones instead. Perhaps a new tradition for some this year will be an idea that's currently circulating on social media: wrap up 25 books in the countdown to Christmas and open and read one with your children every December evening until the big day. 

For my own part, I'm looking forward to the usual messy debacle of icing the Christmas cake while the kids use the leftover marzipan as edible play dough.  I'm just as excited about dressing the tree as they are - complete in the knowledge that I'll balance up any lopsided efforts once they're safely tucked up in bed. I'll even welcome the holly-punctured fingers that are the inevitable result of my attempts to make a wreath for our front door.

Do you know the other great thing about traditions? It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but you can always introduce new ones.  This year we're going to attend the local pantomime on Christmas Eve (oh yes we are).  I was taken aback, but quietly pleased, when the children expressed dismay that they might miss our 'usual' Christingle service. (I'm now hoping we might manage both).

And there we have it.  The evidence that, in our own messy and average way, we're creating memories for the younger generation.  Traditions that they may even choose to incorporate into their own grown-up routines (though I don't mind at all if they prefer to create their own).

I will end with one cautionary note, though.  Take care not to get caught on the tradition treadmill. I have a horrible feeling that I'll still be hosting our Boxing Day party in my nineties...

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Thursday, 16 October 2014

The truth about bloggers...

I've had a bit of a lull in blogging of late.  There's no good explanation why. I'm certainly not going to put it down to lack of time because everyone suffers from that.  You just have to make time for the things that matter. But although blogging does matter to me, I simply haven't made the time.

Normally, I'm fairly disciplined about it.  As regular readers may have noticed (there are a few of you loyal souls out there aren't there?!), I tend to post about once a week - and I usually enjoy the process.

I say usually because I was thinking about my perception of blogging and bloggers before I started writing online myself.

For a number of reasons I thought blogging would never be for me.  In no particular order, these included:

1. Bloggers have to be brilliant writers.

2. Bloggers have to be an expert on something.

3. Bloggers have to be opinionated or - yikes - controversial.

4. Directly related to 3. above... bloggers are super-confident, strong personalities.

Well guess what? I'm none of the above (hence the blog title). Truth to be told, my little blog would never truly have seen the light of day were it not for a good friend who 'outed' me.  I'd just been quietly writing away in my own little corner of cyberspace when she decided to share the page with - gasp - other people who might read it.

After that, there was nothing really left to lose. I finished off the job myself by setting up the little Facebook page where I share these posts.  I even remember to tweet from time to time too. I'll soon have been blogging for a year and I therefore now feel ready to confess to some home truths about bloggers (well, about this particular one):

1. Bloggers frequently spot typos after they have pressed 'publish' and have to go back to correct them.  (In my case usually after everyone who was going to read the post already has anyway.)

2. Bloggers regularly feel faintly ill after pressing said 'publish' button, in case the world thinks that their post is really stupid.

3. Bloggers are terrified that they are opening themselves up to nasty comments or criticism.

4. Bloggers often fall off the blogging wagon.  But - with a bit of luck (and self discipline) - they get back on again.

After all, we do it because we love it too.  Albeit in a masochistic sort of way.

I promise not to leave it so long the next time. Bear with me, won't you?

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Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Farewell my summer love

To be fair, the last fortnight has felt like borrowed time.

In our little corner of north-east Scotland, we've recently enjoyed some lovely sunny days.  They're not like the genuinely toasty days we experienced in July though.  These early September days have started out with morning haze and shivers in sweatshirts before the sun gets up to speed and we cast off the layers by late morning.

I always feel a little nostalgic at this time of year.  Forgive me then, while I indulge myself by clinging onto the best sights, smells and sounds of summer in this mid-September post.  Because for me, these are what summer's all about...

The sights

Sun sparkling on the sea, gardens at their most colourful, bright clothing contrasting with conker-brown limbs...

The smells

Cocoa butter soaked skin, salty freshness after a day at the beach, mouth watering wafts of early evening chargrilling...

The sounds

Children's al fresco play peppered with giggles and laughter, ice cubes jangling in frosted tumblers, the unmistakeable 'thwack' of flip flops on patios...


It doesn't do to get too remorseful, however. In the interests of balance, let's not forget about the sad sight of the parched plants you forgot to water, the city's pongy drains in the midday heat and the predictable drone of lawnmowers whenever you attempt to open your paperback...

Suddenly autumn doesn't seem so bad. (I'm thinking golden landscapes, cosy roll-necks and warming fruit crumbles.) Whaddya reckon?

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Thursday, 4 September 2014

An open letter to my child's new teacher

Dear teacher,

The start of the new academic session sees my youngest child move to the upper stages of primary school.

This means a lot to my family.  A lot more than first meets the eye.  It's not just a transition to a larger playground and the opportunity to get involved in new school activities.

For my family, this move means that both my children will now walk themselves to and from school.

It means that they'll take responsibility for getting themselves out of my front door and into your classroom on time.

Sounds simple? Here's what else it means for us...

  • They'll need to grab the packed lunch they helped to make from the fridge.

  • They'll have to remember swimming kits and musical instruments. On the correct day.

  • They'll be responsible for looking the way we both expect them to look as a representative of your school and our family.

  • At the end of a long day, they'll need to transfer the notes and homework from their bag to our kitchen table.

And so I need to apologise now.

I need to say sorry for the potential late arrivals, unkempt appearances, forgotten play pieces and missing homework.  I need to say sorry for the disruption caused if one of them has to sit poolside in their school uniform while the rest of the class swims.

So why am I letting this happen, I hear you ask?  Because we've done the lists.  And I've yelled the reminders.  And now I need to let them learn.  Themselves. The hard way.  It's finally time to hand over the ropes.  I anticipate a period of confusion and frustration for all of us.  But I think it'll be worth it in the end. 

You and me? I believe we have a common goal.  To encourage our children to be responsible, independent and well-organised young people.  If my expectations at home can echo your expectations in the classroom, hopefully we can all reap the rewards.

Meanwhile, I'd like to beg your forgiveness.  I realise, after all, that the start of a new term is a challenging time...

Yours sincerely,

A concerned parent

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Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Five Reasons To Take The Ice Bucket Challenge

You can hear the trademark noises everywhere. From suburban gardens to Facebook news feeds. 

The splashes. The shrieks. The howls of laughter.  (Usually in that order.)

I'm guessing that most people who read this post will be familiar with the ice bucket challenge for charity. Some of you may have subjected yourself to a soaking, others may have paid out a bit more to avoid the experience.  Others still may be choosing to completely avoid social media in a bid to side-swerve a nomination.

As with any trend that catches on, the ice bucket challenge has attracted some controversy.  It seems possible that, in a tiny percentage of cases, things may have gone horribly and tragically wrong.  There has also been a significant backlash against some charities for piggy-backing on someone else's idea.

I'm not going to explore these issues any further in this post.  I simply don't feel that I have the requisite background knowledge or analytical writing skills to do so.  What's more, this is a very peaceful little blog and I'd love to keep it that way.  

Instead, I'm going to write about my own average 'take' on the ice bucket challenge and why I think it's been an overwhelmingly positive thing.

1. Laughter
There are many days that I feel we simply don't laugh enough.  This challenge has a fun element to it. Yes, we're laughing at our friends' and relatives' expense but not in a cruel way. You can actually hear people guffawing at their laptops as they check out the latest drenchings during their lunch hour.

2. Novelty
In my last post 'Back to School...But What About The Parents?', I touched on the subject of comfort zones. I'm guessing that getting a bucket of ice cold water tipped over you isn't top of anyone's list of new things to try. And yet...Having been through the experience, there's something strangely exhilarating about gritting your teeth and doing something that you're dreading.  Particularly when it's for the greater good.

3. Bonding
Siblings throughout the land have bonded as they've teamed up to gleefully hunt down the largest possible receptacles to fill with icy water for their long-suffering parents.  My son was desolate when he realised that, having emptied his largest Lego box, there were two small holes in the bottom rendering it obsolete for ice bucket purposes.  No prizes for guessing who his lucky victim was.

4. Kudos
Mums and dads have gained new respect in their kids' eyes for doing something fun and, let's face it, something that's completely irrational and ridiculous.  Just because you're a parent doesn't mean you have to be sensible 100% of the time.

5. Charity
Don't worry, I've saved the best until last. By the time you read this, the challenge may well have peaked but it's safe to bet that millions have been raised for worthy causes. It will be a huge bonus if awareness levels receive a boost too.  Because in among the splashes, shrieks and laughter, we all need to take a moment to remember those who are less healthy and happy than ourselves.

Have you participated in the ice bucket challenge yet? Why not post a comment and let me know?

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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Back to school...but what about the parents?

The emboldened threat in the shop window displays of the past six weeks has finally come true.  As of yesterday, we are indeed 'Back to school'.

One of my little 'uns couldn't wait to get back; the other was somewhat cautious.  As for me?  I always feel slightly bereft at the end of summer, however I've come to the conclusion that a new academic year represents a great time to make a fresh start for both children and parents.

Many parents take up new work opportunities that coincide with their offspring starting school, or perhaps with them reaching a milestone where all parties are happy with mum (or dad) being away from home more.  

In that sense, it's down to timing.  As children spread their wings, so can parents - and lots do.  New endeavours need not be confined to work-related activities.  Over the last 24 hours, I've lost count of the face-to-face conversations and Facebook posts surrounding new courses, fitness classes and events that parents are planning to undertake. Good on 'em I say! I reckon that late summer is a far better time for fresh challenges than New Year, when all we really want to do is climb under the duvet rather than make resolutions. (Or perhaps that's just me?)

In my average little household, the start of a new term usually features some form of family discussion about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the kiddos.  I'm not sure if my advice reflects that of approved parenting manuals but it tends to run along the following lines:  'Seize all the new experiences that you can. It doesn't matter one jot whether you are the best or worst in the class. Just do your best and - most importantly - have fun in the process.'

As happens so often nowadays, the attitude I expected my children to adopt made me take a long, hard look at my own.  When was the last time I tried something new? Something that was a little outwith my comfort zone? Something that I was doing purely for the experience of trying something different rather than for immediate gratification, like taking on a project to earn extra money or cooking a dish to be devoured that evening?

Awkward pause.

At the end of our holidays, we were lucky enough to enjoy some of Edinburgh's festival activities.  One of my personal highlights was a family event as part of the Book Festival, which was led by Horrible Histories' illustrator, Martin Brown.  He started his very entertaining session by making us a promise:  By the time we left we would either feel that we could draw better, or we'd feel better about our perceived lack of drawing skills.  And do you know what? I reckon he achieved his aim.  My two immediately picked up sketchpads and pencils after grabbing themselves a bench in Charlotte Square gardens.  Me, I was left pondering some of his more challenging questions: Why do we stop doing things that we enjoy just because we think we're not "doing it right?"  Who decides what is wrong or right or good or bad anyway?

On our way home from Edinburgh, with less than 24 hours to go until the first bell rang to mark the new school year, we stopped at IKEA.  I bought myself a sewing machine. (Not very rock 'n' roll but bear with me.) I've always been convinced that I can't sew since my first disastrous tuition in primary school. But I've always secretly wanted to.

And do you know what? This year I'm ruddy well going to learn...

Have you got any exciting plans of your own for the new academic year? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Sunday, 3 August 2014

Learning to dance in the rain...

It had been one of those weeks.  

All was not particularly happy at Average Towers.  A couple of bad parenting judgements.  A difficult anniversary to get through. Loved ones grappling with thorny issues that I was unable to help with but persisted in fretting over.

Too many days had been spent sitting indoors hunched over a laptop.  Both brain and body had become sluggish. My relaxed skinny jeans felt anything but.

As the week plodded on, the Scottish weather decided to come out in sympathy.  It was early evening as the four of us drove through the city and, in the words of Winnie the Pooh, the rain rain rain came down down down.

I looked out of the car window bleakly, wondering if I might muster up some negative remark about the conditions.  And then I noticed two things that stopped me in my tracks.  A female runner on the pavement was striding out at full pace, soaked to the skin and beaming.  A bike with a wicker basket was propped up against the gate of a cottage at the road side.  These seemingly everyday sights oozed optimism. There were at least two people in this city who weren't letting the weather get them down.

Which brings me slowly to my point.  We all have to deal with blips and upsets - and not just in terms of the weather.  No matter how idyllic others' lifestyles might seem on social media, everyone has their crosses to bear and their rough patches to cope with.

And so I reached a bit of a crossroads.  It had been a pants week but I could feel sorry for myself and hope for a miracle, or get a grip and deal with it.  And so I did (and I still am).  I found the strength to have some important conversations; I knuckled down and cleared out some of the physical and emotional clutter. And I forced myself out into the fresh air because exercise and the great outdoors are fantastic weapons against malaise.  I also reminded myself to look outward rather than inward.  Compared to those suffering in war-torn countries my life is a dream come true.

The whole scenario - and the onset of our traditional Scottish summertime weather - brought to mind one of my favourite sayings.  (I'm sure you'll have heard it before as it's plastered over many a canvas and pinterest board.)

"Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass.  It's about learning to dance in the rain."

I still consider myself a novice but the rain dancing lessons are well underway.

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Friday, 25 July 2014

The tiny things that tip you over the edge...

Maybe it's because it's the school holidays.  Maybe it's the heat (though please don't go away quite yet Scottish sunshine). Maybe it's because I'm working from home more.  Whatever the reason, my tolerance levels are eroding fast and it would seem that I'm not the only one...

In recent conversations with friends who also happen to be mums, we agree that it's often not the big misdemeanours that cause us to lose it.  Instead it's the cumulative effect of all the little ones - especially those petty crimes for which my own two are convicted repeat offenders.

So, while I still have the dregs of a sense of humour, I give you the top five countdown of parenting nerve-shredders here at Average Towers...

1. The pile at the bottom of the stairs

These items are at the bottom of the stairs for a reason.  Because they need taken up.  It's highly unlikely that any of them belong to you.  You have perhaps even performed an act of kindness by placing them there neatly on behalf of whichever junior member of the family they do belong to.  Will they be dutifully carried to their rightful place next time a barefoot child darts up the stairs? Will they heck.  If you don't do anything, by the end of the week this pile will have formed the foundation blocks of a precarious tower of similar items. All of which your offspring will continue to ignore.

2. The open doors

Summer's arrived.  For three consecutive days it has been warm in our little patch of the north-east of Scotland. I love the heat.  So do my children. (It's something of a novelty round here.) They love being outdoors.  And running back in again. And being outdoors.  And running back in again.  The soundtrack of my summer beats to a percussion of slamming doors.  Because no-one ever shuts the dratted things.  I mean - why would you? Breeze? What breeze?

3. What's for tea?

It's bad enough hearing this question on the way home from school.  It's even worse when it comes during the lunchtime clear-up.  What's more, it's the small person who eats the least and who is - ahem - selective about her food who always needs to know.  (I guess it's useful to gauge which level of rejection she will require for tonight's dish.)  Attempts to pre-empt this query by writing up tonight's menu on our kitchen blackboard have not helped - other than to provoke advance protests/sulks.

4. Problems, not solutions

Even as I write, I'm aware that the blame for this one may lie squarely at my feet. "I'm hungry/thirsty/too hot/too cold/can't find my hoodie/sunglasses/library book."  Repeat to fade. Captain Mum, it would seem, is expected to spring to the rescue.  Were my children pre-school age, I like to think I'd be a little more understanding.  At ten and eight, however, the novelty of responding calmly with: "Have a drink of water/piece of fruit/where did you last see it?" is beginning to wear off.  One day, I keep telling myself, they'll solve their own mini dilemmas. Ideally before I'm drawing my pension.

5. The unchanged loo roll

I think I can just leave it there, can't I? After a long hot day dealing with 1-4, the discovery of that innocuous little grey cardboard roll can push you over the brink.  While the rest of the family looks on in horror at your disproportionate and seemingly insane reaction.

But we know the truth, don't we ladies?

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The author would like to point out that she does still possess a sense of perspective.  It's just been temporarily misplaced for the duration of the school holidays.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Holidaying across the generations: Reporting back

My previous post 'Holidaying across the generations' was all about our forthcoming holiday.  It was to be our first week away with both our children and my mum.

Said holiday has now been and gone. I feel, therefore, that it is only fair to report back on how it all went...

I'll spare you from my rusty 'just getting back in the blogging saddle' writing by keeping my thoughts short and to the point:

Holiday highs: Scottish sunshine (a major and unexpected plus); long coastal walks; rock-pooling; self-catering accommodation that surpassed expectations; dining al fresco; tennis tournaments; harbour cafes; evening strolls; leisurely bike runs; views to die for.  My ultimate high - and perhaps the one most closely associated with three generations holidaying together - was the flexibility of this new family arrangement.  The kids bonded with their grandmother.  My mum and I chatted about some of the important stuff we never normally get around to.  Hubby and I squeezed in small but invaluable pockets of time to ourselves without the children.  Having another adult around gave us extra wriggle room. If everyone didn't want to head out to the park, they didn't have to.  We simply broke off into our preferred clusters, then regrouped later with fresh enthusiasm.

Family holidays: Not all plain sailing

And, in the interests of balance...

Holiday lows: Fresh-on-the-scene tween strops; summer colds (all of us); nasty fall from tree rope swing (youngest); tennis induced twisted ankle (me); hayfever sufferers x two (hubby and youngest); two very similar females who both like to be in control (no need to explain who);  small people who, exhausted after the end of term, decided it was their divine right to do as little as possible to help out or tidy up after themselves.

So, would we do it all again? We sure would.  I think the highs definitely outweigh the lows.  To be fair, the weather and our accommodation ensured that we had the ideal conditions for family harmony.  That said, I think both children and adults learned valuable lessons during the week about compromise, biting one's tongue and mucking in.  I'm still plugging away with the kids on that last one though. Perhaps I'll have nailed it by the time they leave home?

Happy holidays, wherever you are and whatever you're up to. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

Holidaying across the generations

In my last post 'Here comes Summer...' I wrote about my attempts to get organised for the long summer break that lies ahead.

This time round, I'm homing in on the actual 'holiday' part of our six weeks off. It's going to be a holiday with a difference because it's not just us.  Having dipped our toe in the water with an extended family 'mini break' earlier this year, my mum has agreed to join us for our time away.

Since this situation is new to us - and since summer holidays are sacred for all of us - we've thought this through pretty carefully.  And I've listened intently to the advice of others who've already trodden this path.

Here's how we're hoping to achieve a successful summer together:

Start small - We're not all going to Hawaii for three weeks.  Instead we're driving a few hours down the road to the East Neuk of Fife.  And we're staying for a week.  Even if we did have the budget for a long-haul trip of a lifetime, I think our first shot at holidaying together should be reasonably short in duration with manageable travel times.

Happy husbands - She's my mum but she's Mr Average's mum-in-law.  And we all know that there's a difference.  I've checked, double-checked and checked again that he's happy with this arrangement. We also have a safety net in the form of a second week off afterwards for just the four of us. Because it's his holiday too and I know he really needs it. 

Consider costs - If he (or she) who pays the piper calls the tune, others may be resentful at having their holiday plans dictated to them.  Instead, divvy up the costs in a way that seems fair and no-one will feel beholden to anyone else.

Sensible space - The budget may not have stretched to Hawaii but we've made sure that it's stretched to renting a decent-sized property. This means that we won't all be living on top of one another.  I have high hopes that, even with children in tow, the adults will be able to recharge our batteries a little thanks to the comfortable space that we've organised.

Time apart - I'm lucky. My mum is one independent lady.  She excels at sussing out bus timetables, local markets and golf courses.  Because although she loves us all, she may not want to spend an entire day rock-pooling with the grandkids. And we get that, we really do.  (Between you and me, I think Mr Average may be slightly jealous.  Particularly when it comes to the golf courses.)

Not-so-great expectations - The children will whine. And be bad-mannered. My mum will be shocked. I will be stressed. It will all go horribly wrong.  STOP!!!! We've already had this conversation. The children will whine and be bad-mannered. My mum knows this.  She'll understand. And she won't blame me.  (I hope!)

Exit route - This is going to sound utterly pessimistic. I try to think of it as pragmatic instead. If the worst really does come to the worst - if it pours down rain every day and everyone argues constantly - we're relatively close to home.  We accept defeat, pack up and head north.  I desperately hope that this doesn't happen.  But I think there's a comfort in knowing that we have an exit route if need be.

Now we couldn't do that if we'd gone to Hawaii....

How do you handle holidaying across the generations? Any tips or hints? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Friday, 13 June 2014

Here comes Summer....But are you ready for it?

Here in my little corner of north-east Scotland, we're hurtling towards the school holidays at a breathtaking rate.

Some of my friends regard the school holidays with delight, others with despair.  I think I'm somewhere in the middle.  One thing I have learned over the years, however, is that pretending they're not just around the corner, or deciding to 'wing it', does not make for a stress-free six weeks.

And so we (groan) come to one of my familiar topics: Planning.  Notebooks at the ready people, I feel some lists coming on....

The escape from it all

I tend to start with the nice bit.  Block off that precious two weeks when the whole family is going to be together - hopefully somewhere different from home.  (Not that I don't love my home but a change of scene works wonders for all of us.) This year we're holidaying in the East Neuk of bonny Scotland and hoping fervently for the same sunshine that blessed us last year in Arran.

The tag team

The next thing I do is work out how Mr Average and myself can juggle the childcare during the remaining weeks of the holidays.  As he often works weekends with days off during the week - and I'm self-employed - there's a certain flexibility to our schedules that means we can cover most, but not all, of the childcare between us.  Which brings me to....

The supporting cast

It might be grandparents. It might be friends with whom you can exchange favours. Or it might be a formal childcare scheme.  Regardless, with just a few weeks to go until school's out for summer, these are the people you need to speak to now.  For my little family, it'll be a combination of all three.  (Our local out of school club summer holiday programme is sitting reproachfully on the top of my filing *system* as I type. I really, really need to fill that in. Today if possible.)

The fill-in fun

I'm a great believer that children need some free time to amuse themselves, however there is a balance to be struck. Summer holidays present a great opportunity for them to try new activities, catch up with friends and relatives and visit local places of interest (I love being a tourist in my own area!).

Here's what I'll be doing to prepare for some of the days that I'm in charge of the little 'uns but we're not officially 'away':

Grab a guide - My nearest city - Aberdeen - produces a wonderful guide to events for children and young people over the Summer. It includes sporting and creative ideas galore, including many free workshops and play sessions at art galleries and parks. Publications such as Raring2Go! magazine are usually stuffed with ideas and I try to follow useful Facebook pages too. (Local peeps should try Aberdeen for Kids and Aberdeen Inspired.  I've mentioned the Aberdeen for Kids page before but it's worth another shout-out here.)

Swap schedules - Now's the time for swapping mobile numbers with the parents of your kids' best friends - and for checking who's free for catch-ups when.  Of course you might not remember everyone's exact schedule but plant the seed now and others will feel comfortable contacting you when they're at a loose end too.

Whatever the weather - Here's where my control freak tendencies come into play.  Given our location, I usually draft up two lists (there's that word again) of potential activities - a wet weather list and a dry weather list. I like to think that I'll remember all those brilliant places that people have recommended to me.  In reality, if it's not written down, I probably won't.

Ask them - As in the kids.  It sounds risky but go ahead and ask them what they'd really like to do during the school holidays. You might just find they surprise you.  We spent a happy (if messy) half hour with an A3 sheet of paper and some coloured pens having a wee brainstorm about all the things the kids want to try - or repeat - but don't have much time for during the school term.  My eldest used the aforementioned Aberdeen guide for inspiration.  They both understand that we can't do everything but I have a clearer idea of their interests instead of choosing what I *think* they'd like to do.

And guess what? Turns out that mum doesn't always know best (shhhhh)...

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Friday, 6 June 2014

Something to believe in

In my last post 'Health, happiness and a remarkable teenager', I wrote about the importance of taking on board the incredibly wise and brave words of 19-year-old Steven Sutton who recently lost his battle with bowel cancer.

The sentiments discussed in this post have remained at the forefront of my mind over the past week.  In just over two weeks I will participate in my local Race for Life event for the third consecutive year. My daughter will run with me for the second year in a row.

Two years ago I ran with the fresh image of my father in a high dependency ward, having just had surgery to remove a cancerous growth. Last year I ran with hope for him - albeit a hope so fragile that I was scared to examine it too closely.  This year that glimmer of hope is in tatters. My very dear dad is no longer with us. But I continue to hope for all the others who are fighting this terrible disease.

My reasons for participating in Race for Life are therefore pretty obvious.  And I believe that most of us who have a cause that we are passionate about, and raise funds for, have a painful and personal story that accompanies it.

The verses below explain more than anything else why I'm committed to my cause.  Written in one of the many long dark sleepless nights following my father's death, they capture how I felt about my family's experience of suffering, illness and loss. I'm not sharing them to make other people sad.  And I'm not sharing them as a precursor to a fundraising plea.  I'm sharing them to urge you to all continue to fight for your cause.

It's easy to feel helpless in the face of some of the terrible diseases and conditions that our loved ones encounter.  But I firmly believe that our individual efforts really can make a huge collective difference.

As I line up to run on Sunday, 22 June I may no longer have the glimmer of hope for my own beloved parent. I do still have hope, though. In the supportive company of thousands of other women, many of whom will be fighting their own personal battles, it's impossible to feel anything less.

On a carefree Scottish summer day you tiptoed through our door
Back then we had no inkling of the pain that lay in store

You crept into our family and slowly took a hold
The horror of your presence would gradually unfold

When we knew that you’d arrived, a plan was put in place
It seemed that we would have to stare our worst fears in the face

The surgeons tried their very best to stop your grim assault
Despite their finest efforts, there was to be no halt

Then there followed treatment with more suffering on the side
Over time we realised that there was nowhere to hide

And as our options dwindled, your cruel strength grew and grew
As you callously invaded the loved one who we knew

He put up fierce resistance and fought on with all his might
But you were quite determined that you would win this fight

And so your ghastly presence was felt more and more each day
While we all looked on helplessly as you stole him away

Your mission is accomplished and our beloved one is gone
But our quest to find a cure for others goes on and on and on.

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Prose for Thought

Friday, 30 May 2014

Health, happiness and a remarkable teenager

For three weeks over the past month, I've been tussling with a cold/'flu bug.

Boy, did I let everyone around me know about it.  Whenever I'd an opportunity to have a little grumble or let out a dejected sniff, I used it. I even had a bit of a whinge online too (apologies to all loyal readers who were subjected to this). You could say that I'm not a particularly good invalid. If he gets round to reading this post, Mr Average will probably choke on his coffee and tell me that's the understatement of the year.

Fast forward to this week when I'm almost back to my - ahem - sprightly self.  I started to reintroduce the 30-minute lunchtime outing that I optimistically refer to as a run.  It was, as anticipated, rather painful after a three-week lapse but I enjoyed it in a masochistic type of way.  More than that, I felt grateful. Grateful to be outdoors, grateful that my energy levels were returning, grateful to be alive.

There are often times when I don't particularly want to drag myself outside to exercise.  But, once I'm puffing my way up that hill, there's a regular occurrence that always gives me a much-needed wake-up call.  While I'm out running, it's not infrequent for me to catch sight of others who no longer have the opportunity to run any more.  They may be elderly, or walking with the support of a stick.  They often give me, the red-faced panting one, a smile of encouragement. And it's then that it hits me how fortunate I am to be able-bodied and physically capable of enjoying sport and exercise.

Over the past few weeks, I think that many more people have had similar wake-up calls.  The news agenda has been awash with the remarkable story of the inspiring young man, Stephen Sutton.  

Even through my own fug of self-pity and Kleenex, I did not fail to notice the uplifting public response to this amazing youngster.  £4 million has now been raised for The Teenage Cancer Trust via Stephen's JustGiving page. His uplifting statement "I don't see the point in measuring life in terms of time any more. I'd rather measure life in terms of making a difference," has been shared and reported on worldwide.

As I write this, a two-day vigil to Stephen is underway, including a social media 'thunderclap' - a message posted simultaneously on Facebook and Twitter (#ThumbsUpForStephen).  His mum has asked people at 11am on Friday, 30th May to take a moment to give a thumbs up for Stephen:

"This could be via the thunderclap or you could give the thumbs up to a stranger, have a cup of tea and a slice of cake, think a positive thought, clap, cheer, or even perform a random act of kindness.

"Do something that makes you and others happy in Stephen's memory."

It's 11am on Friday, 30th May. I'm writing this blog post and raising my cup of tea to a teenager who has inspired a nation - and given many of us a much-needed sense of perspective.

I hope that Stephen's legacy is long-lasting and that we continue to be inspired to make the best use of our minds, our bodies and the opportunities that life presents us with.  We owe it to Stephen, we owe it to others and we owe it to ourselves.

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Thursday, 22 May 2014

Decisions, decisions: But how best to make them?

Big life decisions. We've all had to make them, whether they're to do with relationships, careers or lifestyle.

I'm not a particularly calm or swift decision-maker.  I really wish that I was.  It's an agonising process isn't it? Swaying back and forth between different scenarios, desperately trying to come down on the right side. The words 'quandary' and 'dilemma' spring to mind.  If I was more of an optimist, I would use the words 'choice' and 'opportunity' instead.  Because, in all fairness, big life decisions are usually about choices and opportunities even if the process of making them feels more like a quandary or a dilemma.

In the next few months, it's likely that I'll have to make a fairly important decision.  I'm not pushed for time (yet), however I've already started some of the processes that I'll need to go through to help me make it.

Pros and cons:  Yes, that old chestnut.  But, in all honesty, whenever a friend comes to me in this sort of situation, it's exactly the starting point I would suggest.  Take a clean page. Put a line down the middle. Write those pros and cons down.  Scrutinise the results in black and white.  If you're lucky the answer might be staring you in the face.  If not, the process of putting your thoughts down on paper will hopefully have nudged you a little further along the decision-making way.

Consult others:  Particularly those whom your decision might  affect. (Hint: Toddlers are not the most insightful of confidantes).  Has someone you know gone through a similar decision-making process? It might be useful to talk to them. Trusted, clear-thinking friends can also be immensely helpful.  Take their thoughts and ideas on board. But be prepared to take responsibility for the decision you eventually make - whether you follow their advice or not.  (My sister once apologised to me for advising me to take a job that didn't work out.  I was genuinely astonished. My decision. My fault. And valuable lessons were learned along the way.)  

Defining moments: Sometimes - and particularly if you're a procrastinator like me - it takes a trigger to make you realise where your head and heart lie.  A friend recently confided that it wasn't until her boss started making  plans for her at work that she knew she was ready for a change. Brilliant parenting blogger, Amy Ramson, confesses in a very honest post how she and her husband made their decision to have a third child. Her defining moment? An unplanned third pregnancy which ended in miscarriage made her feel that nature was telling her 'no' to a third child. The thought made her so miserable that she's turned it into a 'yes'. Happily, she's now pregnant again and expecting a new arrival soon.

Relax: This is rich coming from me as I am one of the least chilled-out people I know.  However, Amy Ramson has another piece of advice within her post that makes a lot of sense. Sometimes the best thing you can do is not to overthink the big decisions.  There's an ancient Buddhist saying:  "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."  Perhaps when the mind is relaxed, answers will present themselves more easily too?  I like to go running to switch off when I'm stressed out, others might enjoy yoga or walking. Regardless of how you do it, a relaxed mind is surely a strong foundation for moving forward.

And on that happy note, I need to decide whether to flick the kettle on or pour myself a glass of red. Think I can just about handle that one...

How do you make big life decisions? Please share your strategies by leaving a comment below.

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Wednesday, 14 May 2014

How non-dieters shape up for summer

I've had the same conversation with several friends since the Easter holidays and May bank holiday weekend.

It goes like this.

"Did you have a good time?"

"Brilliant thanks but I've really overdone it.  Ate too much and dropped my usual exercise regime. I really need to get back into it before summer."

I'd like to add that I'm in exactly the same boat.  And, to a certain extent, I think that's what holidays are about.  It's time to relax (or to be a different kind of busy), time to try different kinds of foods and certainly not time to obsess about whether you've missed a spin class or exceeded your normal daily calorie allowance.

Nonetheless, no-one likes the feeling of sluggishness and too-tight clothes that accompany a little weight gain. I don't really do diets and I tend not to weigh myself as I can generally tell by the fit of my jeans how I'm doing.

How to tackle those few excess pounds without investing in a new wardrobe then? I try to follow some common-sense, easy-to-integrate lifestyle ideas, many of which I've learned from my mum. She's one of the few people I know who seems to achieve self-discipline without self-denial. And because she should probably have a frugal blog of her own, none of it involves signing up for a weight management club or gym membership (although by all means go for it if it works for you and you can afford it).

In no particular order, and bearing in mind that I have zero nutritional or fitness qualifications (!), here we go....

1. A little less - Note the emphasis on little. If you cut down your intake drastically, you'll be miserable and permanently hungry.  I'm talking about half a slice of toast instead of a whole one, no cream on your pudding and less Parmesan on your bowl of pasta.  Little changes over time = noticeable results.

2. A little more - Again, I'm talking minor changes.  This time I mean exercise. I know that some people cringe just at the thought of it, so I'm not dictating full-blown workouts here.  Baby steps people! Replace one of the daily school runs with a walk, stride round the block for ten minutes at lunchtime or force yourself to do twenty sit-ups each morning.  Whatever is manageable and sustainable for you.

3. Shift the balance - Think about your plate proportions.  Is it do-able to adjust the balance slightly so that there's more veg and less chicken smothered in sauce?

4. Treat swap - I'm guessing that most of you know about this one. Apparently we crave textures as much as flavours.  When I'm cutting back, I'll have a really nice low fat yogurt or sorbet instead of ice cream. It works for me because I genuinely enjoy them.  Why not experiment a little and see if you can find some acceptable treat substitutes?

5. No bans - While I'm suggesting treat swaps above, I try to never completely ban anything.  Perhaps it's a sign of my contrary personality but I simply end up craving it.  Everything in moderation. Bans are banned in my average kitchen.

6. Mint - Bit of a strange one this but it genuinely helps me out.  I often get to the end of my meal craving something sweet or feeling I'm owe something extra.  In reality I don't need it.  So, I make a deal with myself: I'll have a cup of peppermint tea and if I'm still hungry half an hour later, then I'll have something more.  I rarely ever need the extra.  I think this works because the mint tea is the psychological equivalent of brushing my teeth.  Also, I was full up in the first place.  (Don't like peppermint tea? Try a mint tic tac instead.)

7. Focus - We're all wired differently but for some people having a target event to work towards can really help them to focus on healthier choices.  Summer weddings and beach holidays instantly spring to mind.  For my own part, I have a gala dinner to attend next month. I am excited and terrified in equal measure; I'm delighted to be attending the event but terrified as the only suitable dress in my wardrobe is completely unforgiving...

Guess I better start practising what I preach then?!

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Shared on Works-For-Me-Wednesday (WFMW).

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

How to crack children's chores - part 2

In my last post, I wrote about the challenges of getting children to tackle household chores - and why it's something I feel we have to at least try to crack here at Average Towers.

This time round, I promise to get down to the nitty gritty of our new(ish) system and how it is (sort of) working for us. Before I do so though, here's one of my all-too-familiar disclaimers: I genuinely don't want to put our system across as a one-size-fits-all solution.  What works for us may not necessarily work for you. There are many, many variables that will affect how your own family chooses to treat chores: The ages of your children, their skills/personalities and your own priorities in terms of what you feel you most need help with round the house. 

Some of what we're doing might not feel right for your family. The chores I list might seem like "givens" in your household. Others might feel far too tough.  And that is absolutely fine.  I may not have spelled it out before but this blog is not here to foster comparison or competition. That way lies madness. I like to hope that it's more of an online equivalent of a chat with friends over a cup of coffee.

So, without further ado, here's what we're up to...

Our children's chores system has two parts to it: The everyday tasks and the weekend specials.

The daily chores consist of jobs that may well be expected of children younger than 10 and eight (the ages of my two) but which, rather embarrassingly, we'd let slip.  I also used the opportunity to sneak in a couple of school/learning related items like homework/reading and musical instrument practice. Maybe these shouldn't be classed as 'chores', however constantly reminding my two about these things was becoming part of my daily nag repertoire.  Now it's there in black and white instead. 

An unexpected bonus of this list is that my ageing brain no longer needs to remind each child about several different things every day. Instead I enjoy a far easier refrain: "Have you checked the chart?" Result.  

Each of my children has a copy of this list in their bedrooms. Another copy is pinned in a prominent place in the kitchen, where we tend to congregate.  

The second part of our system is our weekend chores lucky dip (renamed the unlucky dip within around two minutes by my youngest).

Based on the chore roulette game described in the wonderful We Are THAT Family blog, our lucky dip consists of six tasks, three of which must be tackled by each child.  They already have a *least favourite* (empty bins and recycling, since you asked) and we've had to invoke two additional side-rules:

1. If you don't do it properly, you do it again.

2. If you complain, you get an extra task. (Call it a bonus. Hah!)

So how are the early weeks of the new regime going? To be brutally honest, any initial enthusiasm from the younger members of the family wore off after about, say, five seconds.  I've discovered many sticky bowls post-dishwasher cycle due to questionable stacking techniques and I've had to call the little 'uns up on countless other attempted shortcuts.

"Why bother?" I hear you say. Well, here's the thing.  Now that we've entered week five, the complaints are becoming more subdued.  There is a growing realisation - dare I say acceptance - that this system is here to stay.  If we stay with it, so will they.

In the short-term I anticipate many more sticky bowls and sullen faces.

In the long-term I'll be glad I didn't give up.  Won't I?! 

How does your family tackle chores - and how do you combat resistance? Leave a comment and let me know.

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