Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Plum Chutney

As I entered the house last night I was almost knocked sideways by the heavy fumes of vinegar evaporating from the cauldron on the cooker. The alchemical process of creating Plum Chutney was underway.

My father-in-law has a plum tree which, along with the rest of his garden, has been lovingly tended for many years. Despite the fact that it is not huge, by any means, it does produce an inordinate mount of plums. You would swear he must have a secret plum orchard hidden away behind the greenhouse, but unless it is only accessible under a full moon when the clock strikes thirteen, I have to believe that they must all be coming from the single plant.

For as long as I have known Maggie, each year we have been loaded up with her mother’s plum jam, but not this one. With Maggie’s parents both well in to their eighties, it was of considerable concern to all when her mother fell over and broke her hip a couple of weeks back. “What - no plum jam this year then?” was everyone’s first thought.

So rather than receiving the plums in their cooked and sugared state, this year we have been given them raw and unprocessed. Personally I wouldn’t have a clue what to do with them, but fortunately Maggie is indeed her mother’s daughter and has immediately set about making vast quantities of plum chutney.

The work surfaces are overflowing with glass jars, the freezer is full to bursting, the children are complaining that they can’t reach their beds because of the crates of plums filling their rooms, yet Maggie still confessed to me this morning that there are more to come.

On what initially appears to be an unrelated subject, stage one of The Tour of Britain Cycle Race comes to Castle Douglas today, completing the stretch that begins in Glasgow (http://www.tourofbritain.co.uk/the_race_stages/stage1.htm). However, the cyclists will be passing our house barely 100 metres from the finishing line. Apparently, as they ride through Dumfries on their way here they will also be cycling straight past the front door of my father-in-law. I’ll be waiting with baited breath to see if any of these athletes are asked to drop off a few bags of plums for us on their way.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

American Express

I received a piece of American Express junk mail today announcing “The New Blue Card”. However it turned out not to be for paying for access to adult sites after all; the headline was in fact referring to the styling.

The dummy card enclosed with the letter was transparent plastic, with the name and number embossed in silver, and American Express written in a blue font. However, despite the claim that “The New Clear Blue Card is this year's clear must have” I just wasn’t tempted. There’s little point in looking at any credit card application that wants to know my gross annual income, as the laughter that normally accompanies the knock-back is quite humiliating.

After lobbing it on to the table, my daughter reached forward and picked it up, asking if she could have it.

“Fine” I said, “What are you going to do with it?”

“Go to the bank,” she replied.

“It’s just a pretend one, Meg”

“No, I’ll go to the bank!” She glared at me as though I was an idiot.

“Meg, it’s just a toy.”

“Hrmph.” She looked quite disgusted and tossed it back on to the table. “I don't want it now," she growled, "Put it in the bin.”

Do American Express have any idea just how much family strife they are responsible for?

A family portrait - South Park style

Our family

For a bit of fun, this really is a pretty good representation of the family. Every member has approved of their likeness.

For your own South Park version, visit http://www.planearium2.de/flash/spstudio.html and click on "South Park Studio."

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Weight Changes (part 3)

To see earlier entries on this subject click on these links:
Part 2, Part 1

As of Tuesday, I’m down to 15 stone 9 pounds, which means I have now lost a total of 4 stone since February - that’s 56 pounds for those who don’t use stones, just over 25 kilos for those who live in the metric world, or half a hundredweight for builders. I struggle to lift a 56-pound bag of potatoes, yet I was carrying that amount of excess weight around. And if I lose that amount again, then I should be moving into the realms of social acceptability. I fully expect the next 4 stone to take longer though.

One of the upshots of this change in my size has been baggy clothing. In fact it is now getting to the stage of being excessively baggy clothing. There seems little point in going out and buying a new set of clothes if they’re all going to be too large within a month or two.

As my size 44 inch waist jeans, for example, became a bit too big, it wasn’t too bad as I still had a couple of pairs of 42s about from when I was still on the way up. However, it’s been several years since I could fit into a size 40, so there were none of them lying at the bottom of the wardrobe. I finally went out and bought a pair of 38s while they were really a bit too tight so that they would last me a bit longer. They were at a comfortable size a few weeks ago, but it won’t be long before I’ll be eyeing up the 36s.

In the meantime, the 38s needed washing so I’ve been wandering around in the 42s today and it’s like I’m wearing clown’s trousers. Hmm… maybe if the writing doesn’t work out I could have a career as a children’s entertainer.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Raising a toast to Mark

At dinner this evening, we raised a toast to my friend Mark, without whom I would still be struggling like crazy to get my new wireless broadband connection to work. There are serious benefits to knowing someone with great and wonderful techie skills, and I’ve finally managed to take advantage of it.

After moving house over 3 months ago, I finally upgraded from Tesco Dial-up (painfully slow, but very cheap) to Tesco Broadband, which is also very cheap but a great deal faster. I’ve not gone for the 2MB deal that Mark has, as I reckon that the half-meg connection is more than enough for me to be getting on with, but I dare say I’ll discover its limitations soon enough.

I was, in fact, able to get the broadband connection sorted out myself. Tesco.net had sent me through the hardware, the software and the instructions. To my utter amazement, it all worked perfectly – so long as I didn’t mind having the computers sitting in the hallway, no further than 20 inches from the phone socket. Emboldened by my success I went trotting off to Comet and bought myself a wireless kit.

Faced with a bewildering array of options, I talked to the assistant, who then found me another assistant, and finally I phoned Mark who gave me sound advice on which bits of kit to purchase. By the time I got home I was fully expecting to have a wi-fi enabled house by lunchtime.


I followed the instructions, but there were bits that didn’t make sense. I made educated guesses followed by uneducated guesses, followed by random acts of hitting the keyboard with my forehead, but I still couldn’t get the bloody thing to work. I phoned the Tesco.net help and support line, but they were only able to give help and support for the modem they had sent me, and not wi-fi hardware that the support operatives had not been trained in.

By 9pm my wife insisted I try breathing regularly and to become aware of the world around me, before dragging me away from my corner of the hallway, to unheeded howls of protestation (quiet howls that is, as the wee one was in bed by then).

A couple of hours after breakfast I was still no further forward and realised that I needed to talk to someone who understood the arcane art of computing configurations. I called Mark who took time out of his life to talk me through all the various possibilities. Eventually, some 40 minutes into the proceedings, he managed to bring me to a point where I realised that I’d spelt my username incorrectly. After that, it worked like a dream.

And he’d even managed to help me find a manual override to open the CD drive on the PC, which has resolutely refused to discharge its contents for several weeks now. It transpires that there’s a tiny hole beneath the drive that you can slot a straightened paper clip into, which will release the mechanism by a few millimetres – just enough to be able to gently ease the tray out and rescue the CD ROM sitting in there.

What a guy! We are eternally grateful to Mark – my wife especially, as I now resemble a human being again – and he has been duly promised my fourth grandson in return for his troubles.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Losing My Wallet

There are some things in life that are so big, so scary, that you try not to spend any time thinking about them at all – death of a loved one, divorce, getting cancer, and the like. These are life-changing events that you pray you will never have to deal with.

However, there are other things that can happen to you that may not be quite as dramatic, but would top your it-would-piss-me-off-so-much-I-hope-I-never-have-to-go-through-it list, such as being stopped by Customs and Excise on the way back home from a holiday abroad and being strip searched. Fear of my wallet being lost or stolen has always featured pretty high up on this list. So as it gradually dawned on me that I had not just left my wallet in a different coat pocket, that awful sinking hollow in the pit of my stomach was as intense as the first time I lost my pocket money. OK, I didn’t burst into floods of tears this time but I could feel the panic rising at an alarming rate.

When did I last remember seeing it? The previous day when I bought us all ice creams at the Cream O’ Galloway Visitor Centre (damn fine ice cream, though). I didn’t remember putting the wallet back in my pocket, but that’s because I would have done it automatically. Could I have missed my pocket and dropped it by mistake? Could some thieving pickpocket have lifted it? Unfortunately the phone call and description yielded no results.

Where else had we gone? Down to the beach to look for interestingly shaped pieces of driftwood for Maggie. It’s not a busy beach; in fact sometimes the access road is closed, if the military are practicing manoeuvres nearby. And the area where we found the best bits were on a stretch that we’d had to clamber across a small stream to get to. However, maybe someone could have found it and handed it into the police… Another phone call, and I was still no further forward.

Damn, damn, damn! I wanted to use much stronger language, but the kids were within earshot.

There was no escaping it; I was going to have to cancel the credit cards. Where was that wee card that had the number to phone? Ah… that was in the wallet too. Oh no… so was my driving licence… Nuts! Fiddlesticks! Kids – leave the room and put your fingers in your ears; your father wants to swear.

Off to the bank only to discover that they were not allowed to cancel my credit cards there: I had to use the phone. At least they give me a phone number to call. Twenty minutes later and the cards had been cancelled and new ones ordered. But what about the driving licence?

I spent about ten minutes selecting options on the DVLA automated phone system only to end up with a set of options that didn’t seem to apply to me. However, I was assured that I could also find out pretty much everything I needed to know at their website (www.dvla.gov.uk). So on the computer went. However, before I could get to the website I found an e-mail from ticketmaster.co.uk telling me that the Eminem concert I bought tickets for my sister to go and see had been cancelled. Apparently Eminem was suffering from exhaustion (link to BBC news article). I briefly wondered if he’s lost his wallet too. Refunds were to be made to the credit card in the next ten days.

Hang on, I’d just had to cancel my credit card; what would happen to my refund? I couldn’t find anything in ticketmaster’s FAQs about this problem, so I phoned them up. Another ten minutes of following options on their automated phone system and I finally got through to a real person. He’d not come across this kind of problem before and had to put me on hold for a few minutes while he talked to his supervisor. Eventually I was assured that it should be alright and that the money would find it’s way back into my account, regardless of me having a new credit card number by then. I hope he’s right, but will be checking my next statement very carefully.

OK, what about the DVLA website? Well, it turned out that I could order a new driving licence by phoning up with my credit card details… Not a lot I could do about that then.

As I was pondering what to do next, I realised that the panic was subsiding; actually it was no big deal any more. New credit cards were on the way; I could get a new driving licence when they arrived; and other than a few petrol receipts I’d only really lost a supermarket loyalty card and the video rental membership card, and these could easily be replaced. A strange sense of calm descended: the worst had happened and it wasn’t the end of the world after all.

My mind now wandered back to the beach. I did fall over at one point, balancing on a fallen tree trunk that moved. If my wallet was to have fallen out of my pocket anywhere, then that’s where it would be. It was a deserted bit of beach that was awkward to get to. It didn’t rain the previous night. The tides wouldn’t have got that far up the beach. It was low tide right now. It was only 25 minutes drive away. Meg was asking if we could go out somewhere, as she wanted some fresh air. Now I realised that I wasn’t going to rest until I’d looked. A few minutes later Meg and I were climbing into the car and heading for the beach.

Meg’s not the most agile and surefooted of children so I had to swing her over my shoulder to traverse the stream, stepping carefully from stone to stone, a to avoid toppling headfirst into the water. There was the tree trunk I fell off, and there… there was my wallet: credit cards, driving licence and video rental card still in it. There was no cash, but then I’d used my last tenner to buy the ice creams the day before, so wasn’t expecting to find any left in it anyway. I scooped it up, sat on the tree trunk and laughed the deep laugh of relief. Meg found this highly amusing and chuckled at me for a while.

On the way back to the car I even had to make two trips across the stream, because we’d found a few more really interestingly shaped pieces of driftwood for Maggie, and I couldn’t carry them and Meg all in one go.

Two days later the new credit cards arrived and I destroyed the originals. No big deal, and I can’t understand why the idea of losing my wallet ever seemed so scary. A pain, yes, but frightening – no. Now, let’s just hope that I never have to go through losing my passport while overseas.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Taking the piss

A clear example of the world being far stranger than you could ever have imagined, dropped into my email box this morning from New Scientist. It appears that scientists have developed a pee powered battery cell.

Visit http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn7850 for more details

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Ross Noble Gig (part 5)

(Click on the numbers to go to parts 1, 2, 3, & 4, of this series)

Well I finally got to see Ross Noble last night (or Ross Snowball, as my daughter thought I said). Given a series of events earlier in the day, including the fact that I’d lost my wallet and had to go through that heart sinking process of cancelling the credit cards and ordering new ones, I’d almost become convinced that the car would break down, or the venue would catch fire at the last moment. However it all went ahead smoothly and Ross played to a sell out capacity crowd of about 150 people (effectively increasing the population of the village by 50%).

I probably would have bought some merchandise – a poster, t-shirt or even a signed DVD - but there wasn’t any, which was a shame because we weren’t allowed to take photos either. In fact, other than the crowd of people waiting to get into Dalry Village Hall, the only indication that the gig was going on was a single A2 sized poster, stuck on the wall with blue-tack by the front door, with a strip of paper stuck across it proudly proclaiming it to be Sold Out.

Ross Noble was as good as I’d hoped. There was the odd moment when I drifted away and started looking around the hall rather than the stage, but the majority of the time he had me chuckling heartily. Once or twice I even struggled for breath I was laughing so hard. He was at his funniest, clearly ad-libbing, when interacting with the audience and making observations about the hall and the village.

Ross Noble’s style of humour is rambling, surreal and you get the feeling that he’s making it up as he goes along. Indeed, part of what makes him so funny is the constant straying off the point into bizarre worlds. Unlike, say, Peter Kay, whose humour is based on observations of real life and the people around him, Ross Noble might start with an everyday notion, but within a few short sentences he has taken you into a world so far removed from reality that you are left with no sense of the ground rules to life anymore. In this way he is far more like the incredible Eddie Izzard but I think he takes it a stage further. I’d love to be able to quote some of the stuff to give you a flavour, but it would be impossible. All I can do is recommend that you try and see him live, or get hold of a DVD.

In an almost surreal display of provinciality, during the mid-interval break a raffle was drawn: first prize was a signed poster of Ross Noble; second prize was a bottle of wine; and third prize was two tickets for a Glenkens and Community Arts Trust show in a couple of weeks.

And as if trying to create an atmosphere of going to a local amateur dramatics production rather than a professional event, we were asked by the Glenkens and Community Arts Trust to fill in a form which asked for us to rate from 1 to 5 what we considered to be the quality of the event, and whether we felt it was good value for money (was it too expensive, about right, or would you have paid more for this event?).

However, in the end I was finally able to work out why Ross Noble had played such a small and obscure venue. From September he starts playing much bigger theatres with ten to fifty times the number of people in the audience. So doing gigs like this helps him to hone his act before he reaches the masses: if he goes too far or crashes and burns, his reputation can stand 150 people being put off far more than if he screws up in front of thousands.

But there was no sense that he was doing second-class work or that we were any less important. Everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves and at only £10 for the ticket I felt like I’d got a real bargain.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Downs Syndrome is Not an Issue

A tricky one this. Having started my own blog I have, naturally enough, begun reading others. It didn’t occur to me straight away to look for blogs connected to Downs Syndrome (or Down Syndrome – without the ‘s’ – as they say in the US), despite the fact that my daughter was born with it over seven and a half years ago. This is primarily because it is not an issue for me.

Of course sometimes it becomes an issue - like when we recently moved house and had to sort out her schooling needs, or on School Sports Day when she enthusiastically came last in almost every event (see Sports Day blog entry for more on that) – but on an everyday level Meg is just Meg in the same way that our ten year old son Rogan is just Rogan. Each has their own way of behaving and each brings their own unique set of complications and rewards. We deal with Meg’s needs in the same way we do with any of the other children, in the same way any parent does – doing what is needed, in the way that seems best at the time. It doesn’t become an ‘issue’ until someone else makes it so.

So why am I mentioning it now? Because I’ve been looking through some other sites where DS is one of the primary focuses of the blogs and two things have leapt out at me.

The first is that the vast majority seem to be by people who have a religious background that means that they now thank God for their son or daughter, and see their child’s DS as a blessing or a lesson. But as a profoundly atheistic father I winced intensely after she was born and a few people commented that having a child with DS was a blessing from God. I don’t need a god to tell me how special my daughter is. And I think, more importantly, I don’t need someone else trying to comfort me with their religion in what they perceive to be a difficult time for me. There’s a horrible patronising element to it that makes me want to scream/puke/thump someone (delete as appropriate).

The second thing is that, in my mind, one of the primary purposes of sites that are focusing on DS, is that it helps other people come to terms with the normality of the condition – whether that is new and anxious parents, or even friends or relatives who are coming into contact with DS for the first time. But undermining this noble aim is the lack of photographs about showing parents interacting normally with their child. There is a fear – perhaps understandable, but in my opinion unnecessary – that by having identifiable photos of themselves and/or their children, they could be stalked by some kind of pervert or weirdo. So as a bollocks-to-that gesture, below is a picture of my daughter and her very proud father.

If you would like to see a very well written and enjoyable blog about the everyday experiences of a father of a child with DS, then I would recommend you visit this site (http://downsyndromelife.blogspot.com/). There is only one mild reference to God, if you search for it, but his emotional experience of parenthood is tangible and warming.

Meg and her father

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Balance in the Universe?

There is indeed balance in the universe (or the Internet, at least).

One of the things that almost everyone does, once they get the hang of search engines, is to type in their name to Google, or their search engine of choice and see what comes up. Some people find that there is a baseball captain in some obscure mid-west US county with their name; others find criminals, accountants and even gravediggers. Occasionally people will find themselves – I once knew a woman who found her name on a list that someone else was trying to track down for a 40-year high school reunion. However, I must admit to a great surprise when I typed in my own name.

The other Kim AyresThat the other Kim Ayres I found (www.kimayres.com) was female was no surprise – my life has been plagued by people assuming I’m female because of my name; perhaps, subconsciously, that’s even why I grew a beard – however, the fact that she was a body builder and fitness instructor gave this unfit, overweight, middle-aged bloke reason to believe that perhaps there might be some kind of balance in the universe after all.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Ross Noble Gig (part 4)

(Click on the numbers to go to parts 1, 2, & 3, of this series)

Hey, hey, hey! My ticket turned up in the post this morning, which is something of a relief. Given the muddle so far I was fully expecting to turn up on the night to collect my ticket only for there to be no record of me.

In keeping with the low-tech approach of Glenkens Community & Arts Trust (Linking the Communities of Glenkens), the strip of paper that is the ticket looks like it was done on a home computer and printer; the only thing lacking is the clip-art in the corner. If I were that way inclined it would be the easiest thing in the world to forge a few copies. No holographic biochip imprints on these…

Along with the ticket I got the wee A5 flyer that lists Ross Noble’s “Randomist” tour dates for August. Perhaps I will find out on the night why it is called “Randomist”, but at the moment it looks like he randomly threw 20 pins into a map of Scotland and decided to do his gigs in the towns or villages nearest to where they landed. He seems to have skipped Edinburgh and Glasgow altogether (unless he’s done them in a different month), although he has got Aberdeen, Perth and Stirling on his list. However, Inverness is also missing but he is doing Findhorn – a hippy community about 30 miles along the coast. Lochinver village hall can hardly be the biggest venue on his tour, but if you go to his gig in Tain, it looks like you get your tickets from “Ross the Chemist”. However, I still haven’t really got my head around the fact that in coming to Dumfries & Galloway, rather than do Dumfries, or even Castle Douglas for that matter, he’s chosen St John’s Town of Dalry.

Perhaps all will be revealed next Wednesday evening.

(Click here to go to the final part of this series)

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Trolls' Ontological Conundrum

Once upon a time there were 3 trolls who lived under a bridge: Mr Troll, Mrs Troll, and little baby Troll. Every morning they would eat each other up for breakfast.

One morning, after a particularly fine feast on the other members of his family, Mr Troll sat staring out from under the bridge with a thoughtful expression on his face. “You know”, he said, picking a bit of Mrs Troll out from between his teeth, “I’m not entirely sure that gobbling each other up every morning is the right thing to do.” Mrs Troll rolled her eyes and turned back to do the washing up. She felt that Mr Troll was doing entirely too much thinking these days.

Baby Troll let out a long, growling belch and then said, “Well Dad, our behaviour certainly sets up something of an ontological conundrum. Do you think we should consider eating goats instead?”

Weight Changes (part 2)

(For part 1, click here)

I’ve just dropped below the 16 stone mark by a couple of pounds, making me as light as I have been since I graduated as a mature student 10 years ago. My old leather coat now almost fits: if I breath in a bit then I can just about do the buttons upon it, which is the state I was at just before I stopped wearing it.

With the exception of an exercise regime I embarked on for a few months seven years ago, where I lost about eight pounds, my weight change has been in an upward direction constantly since around the age of 21. This means that losing weight has become almost a kind of time travel: each stone that I lose, takes me back to an equivalent weight earlier in my life. Strangely, however, I don’t appear to be looking any younger this time around.

(For part 3, click here)

Monday, August 08, 2005

Ross Noble Gig (part 3)

(Click on the numbers to go to parts 1, & 2, of this series)

We’ve been away for a week. I’ve had my mobile phone with me but despite the promise that I would be called I have heard nothing from Karen or anyone else about my Ross Noble ticket. So I phoned up.

“I’m calling about tickets for the Ross Noble Gig.”

“That would be the sold out Ross Noble gig then,” said the lad with a certain air of smugness. I guess the Glenkens Community & Arts Trust don’t sell out very often.

When I mentioned that I’d called about the tickets over a week ago and had been promised that I’d be phoned back, but had heard nothing, the smugness left his voice as he quickly said I’d better talk to Karen.

Karen said she didn’t have any record of my name, but there was a hint of uncertainty in her voice. But now the advantage of dealing with a small, locally run event kicked in. Karen is presumably one of the people in charge and so has to think about the reputation of the Trust in the local community, rather than just being an anonymous call centre operative. This meant that rather than shrugging me off with the fact that I didn’t appear on her computer screen, after a short pause she told me that she had four press passes that she’d been asked to keep back, but no one had asked her for them. So rather than let them go to waste, and disappoint a local person, she was quite happy for me to have one of them, but I would need to send her a cheque and I could pick up the ticket on the night.

The cheque for £10 was posted within the hour – after I’d had to phone her back to find out how much and who to make it out to.

(Click on the numbers to go to parts 4, & 5, of this series)