Thursday, March 30, 2006

Giving Up Smoking - Part 2

I was at the folk session in Corsock last night - the first since the new smoking ban was introduced across Scotland. As well as being an enjoyable session, it was great to come home without stinking like an ashtray.

Back to how I tackled my addiction...

Before I began in earnest I started tackling the cigarettes-with-associations habit. For example, I’d always have a fag with a cup of coffee or tea, so what I did was decide that either I had the drink, or the cigarette, but not both together. To begin with, as soon as the warm liquid touched my lips I would instantly start craving, but I kept telling myself that at this point I wasn’t giving up – I could still have the cigarette - but only after I’d emptied the mug. Initially, in my haste to finish my beverage, it wasn’t unknown for me to scald my mouth and tongue, but within only a few days my body got used to separating the two actions and I no longer yearned for the nicotine the moment I began drinking. Likewise I always used to light up after a meal, but by delaying that satisfaction for half an hour, once again within a few days I managed to break that association.

When the time came to quit completely, I’d realised that going cold turkey wasn’t going to work (and this was in the days before nicotine patches), so I went down the route of cutting down. I pushed myself as far as I could between cigarettes, waiting until I could bear it no longer before giving in, and within a few days I’d dropped down into single figures. However once I was at 6 a day, I just couldn’t seem to get lower.

A friend of mine had heard of something he called “herbal tobacco” that you could buy at the pharmacy: you could smoke it, but it had no nicotine. When I lit my first roll-up of pure herbal, my body went into extreme reaction overdrive. The act of smoking without getting the nicotine hit caused my craving to increase a hundred times as my body started screaming WHERE THE F***'S THE NICOTINE YOU BAST***. It’s like the very first time you have a cup of decaffeinated coffee: as soon as you finish it you go “damn, I could do with a cup of coffee!”

My solution was to mix the herbal concoction with the tobacco to create a kind of nicotine-lite. I immediately went up to 9 a day, but with only half the amount of nicotine I’d made a net gain. As well as tasting foul it did have a peculiar smell, so I shouldn’t have been surprised at the odd looks I began getting in public places when I would place a thin layer of tobacco in a rizla, then sprinkle in this other stuff that was a different colour and had a weird aroma. After it dawned on me that it was probably just a matter of time before I got arrested on suspicion, I began mixing it at home and transferring it to the baccy tin before going out.

One of the upsides of doing it this way was that I could be more accurate with the proportions, thus each time I hit a wall with cutting down, I could increase the proportion of herbal to tobacco.

One day, a month or so after I embarked on this journey, in the space of 24 hours I had only one roll-up, and that was about 5/6 herbal. Figuring that if I could do that, then I ought to be able to cope with none at all, I made ritual out of smoking my last ever cigarette.

The following day was difficult, but I managed, and by late evening I was triumphant. The next day was 10 times worse. Day 3 didn’t seem any better; in fact I would say that it was somewhere in the region of about 3 weeks before I began to have occasional days where every waking moment was not obsessed with the yearning, aching desire for a cigarette. But gradually the moments where I wasn’t brooding on the withdrawal became more frequent and lasted longer, until after around 3 months I felt like I was finally in control.

One unexpected side effect of giving up smoking was that my sense of taste and smell came back with a vengeance after a few days. Because the dulling of the senses by smoking is so gradual you don’t notice it happening: whereas before I would slap down the pickle, thick and deep on my cheese sandwiches, now all I had to do was take the lid off the jar and waft it lightly over the top to achieve the same level of tanginess; suddenly I could identify the brand of rolling tobacco someone might be using by smell alone when they opened their tin; and most disturbingly, I could tell when my niece’s nappy needed changing before her mother did, even if she was sitting on my sister’s lap on the other side of the room. I do remember being surprised that in this fragrant world I had entered, there were far more pungent aromas than pleasant ones.

I went through such utter hell giving up smoking that I swore I would never do it again. If I took up smoking again, this time it would be for life. Friends and family around also told me that they were never going to put up with me giving up smoking again either, which caught me off guard as I hadn’t even noticed the effect I was having on those around me. I am grateful that any of them still speak to me.

There are still occasions, nearly 16 years later, that I would still kill for a cigarette although fortunately they are very rare these days. But rather like the dry alcoholic, who will always be an alcoholic, even if they never have another drink, I can’t help but think that I’ll always be a smoker who just hasn’t had a cigarette for years. I know that if I was to ever give in and have one, then within a few weeks I would find an excuse to have another, then one more again a few days after that. It would soon be just one in the evenings and before I knew it I would be smoking regularly again. So it’s better that I never start.

Another unexpected, but extremely beneficial effect of giving up was that it enabled me to develop a relationship with the love of my life.

3 months after my final cigarette I returned to education at the local technical college as a way of meeting new friends rather than particularly to gain any qualifications. I knew a few people who were attending the college, but as they were all smokers at break times they went, naturally enough, to the Smoker’s Room. I joined them once, but became so overwhelmed with nicotine cravings that I had to leave and join the non-smokers in the cafeteria from then on. Maggie was on the Modern Studies course I was doing and as a non-smoker was a part of the group of people I would now chat to during breaks. Fifteen and a half years later and Maggie and I are still together, deeply and powerfully in love.

As an ex-smoker I have sympathy for those who are trying to kick the habit, but in this day and age, with the full knowledge of the lethal aspects of tobacco known to everyone, I have no sympathy for anyone idiotic enough to start smoking, or to take some kind of senseless pride in feeling that it is their right to not only poison themselves, but to poison anyone within breathing distance of them. I certainly have a lot of sympathy with the views expressed in this article Tobacco - the stupidest f***ing drug in the universe.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Giving up Smoking – Part One

The new ban on smoking in public places came into force in Scotland on Sunday. In my view this is a damn good idea: I don’t see why I, my wife, my children or anyone else should be exposed to other people’s cancer inducing, stinking smoke, just so that they can express their freedom to be addicts. With this in mind it seemed like an ideal time to reminisce about my nightmare experience of giving up smoking.

It’s a long post so I’ll split it into two starting with the background story, and the next post will go into how I actually went about it

Unlike most smokers, I actually went right through school avoiding the habit; in fact I was a well-known non-smoker. But when I left school I was recruited onto a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) where I sat around, eight hours a day in an Estate Agent’s, waiting for something to do. The highlight of the day was making the coffee, just because it occupied my time for a few sweet moments. 12 years of primary and secondary education just hadn’t prepared me for the sheer levels of utter boredom that “employment” had in store for me.

The government paid me £25 per week to not be included in their unemployment statistics while my “employer” wasn’t going to waste any of his precious time in actually involving me in anything.

One lunchtime, two months in, I met up with an old friend from school and we went for a cuppa. Just before she lit up, she offered me a cigarette. I naturally declined, but in the way a teenager will she nagged me, insisting that I should join her for a fag*.

Right at that point I felt low, I couldn’t be bothered to put up with the hassle, so I took the cigarette from the packet just to shut her up.

Oh boy was it good! Oh yes! This was just what I needed: a nicotine rush and a lung full of smoke and I was hooked. It felt like I’d been waiting 17 years just for that cigarette.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t start full time smoking straight away. To begin with I just enjoyed the shock value when people who knew I didn’t smoke would jokingly offer me a cigarette; I loved the look on their faces when I took it and lit up. Then I would only have the occasional one when I was at the pub, to be sociable, you know how it is. Of course, it was a bit rude to just take other people’s and never offer any of my own, so the occasional packet I bought was about playing fair and not being a scrounger. It wasn’t like I was addicted or anything. I knew full well that I could quit at any time.

7 years later I was on about 30 to 40 a day, rolling my own. I had tried giving up a few times, but never got beyond 2 hours. Within that time the craving would become unbearable, my emotions would be haywire, sometimes my eyesight would go funny and my skin would become hyper sensitive. I felt like absolute shit and knew that one little cancer stick would make me feel fine again. So I would give in, with the thought that I could always tackle it at a later date when I felt stronger.

Giving up smoking, or any addiction, isn’t about will power: it’s about motivation. If I offer you £5 to give up chocolate (or your drug of choice), then you’ll tell me where to go. If I were to offer you a million, you would find a way to do it. Likewise, knowing that if you failed to give up chocolate would result in a punch in the arm, you’d put up with the discomfort of the bruise, but if failing to leave it alone would result in the death of a loved one, then you would find a way to quit. With the right level of motivation you will put up with any level of pain, discomfort or even the loss of your own life.

Motivation is an individual thing; you have to find the right kind for you. The health argument didn’t really work for me in my early twenties; in fact, if you were to show me a picture of a dissected, tar-covered lung, then I’d be quickly reaching for the tobacco to calm my nerves. Mind you, I think if I’d been more aware of the dangers of passive smoking back then, that might have worked as a motivator. I certainly would have baulked at the idea that my habit could be harming other people. However, this was 4 years before the high profile case of TV presenter and entertainer, Roy Castle, who died of a smoking related lung cancer, even though he’d never touched one himself. The issues for me giving up were all around the notion of control: the idea that this inanimate chemical had such a hold over me was intensely infuriating.

There were a few things going on my life at the time, which contributed to this feeling of lack of control in my life. My plans on creating a career in music were going nowhere; the group of friends I had built up were all disappearing to different corners of the country; and most of all, my sister had been beaten black and blue by her partner several months earlier. For long and complicated reasons that I might write more about one day, the fact that I was prevented from wreaking bloody and vicious revenge on the guy left me feeling frustrated and powerless. The fear of losing a grip on the rage within caused me to stop drinking alcohol, stop partaking of an assortment of recreational drugs, and even coffee had started to taste like black sludge. Tobacco and nicotine, though, were proving harder to gain control over.

Tune in for Part 2 later this week.

*Yes I do know what a fag is in Americanese, but I’m not American

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Proud Father on Mother’s Day

This is one of those posts where as a father I am about to wax lyrical about my offspring. It’s the kind of entry which mothers will read and think “oh, what lovely children”, other fathers will read and think “yeah, but my kid’s better”, and people who aren’t parents will probably get bored reading as all it’s about is a dad saying that he loves his children - big deal.

Firstly I’m going to mention my son, Rogan, aged ten and three-quarters. He is an incredibly smart kid – intimidatingly so, in fact. At school he’s good at everything – from maths and reading through science and music to board games and sport. He’s good looking too – takes after his father. But more than any of these things he’s great at concepts and sideways thinking. If you have an idea, it’s always worth running it by Rogan as he will give you an angle on it you’d never have considered.

A few days ago Rogan called me up to the kitchen to ask me what I thought of his idea for a Mother’s Day gift (which is today in the UK). He’d decided that it would be nice for his mum if he were to make her a “memory box”. The concept was to make a box, divided into 4 compartments (one for each season), into which she could place memories – things she’d written down, ticket stubs etc. Then at a later date she could pull them out and enjoy the wee memories. This isn’t an idea he got from the TV or from school; this has come entirely from his own thoughts. I was amazed at the concept and immediately knew it would bring a tear to his mother’s eye (the primary purpose of any Mother’s Day card or gift), so let him talk it through and develop the idea until he was satisfied he knew what to do.

He’s been busily working on it for the past few days and sure enough when he revealed it for his Mum this morning, it produced the desired result and we had to open a fresh box of hankies. These are the moments when you can almost believe that you aren’t completely screwing up your children’s lives and must be doing something right afterall.

But Rogan doesn’t get to completely hog the limelight this week as my daughter Meg, aged eight and one twelfth has also made me sit back in awe.

Those who read this blog regularly, or have investigated the side bar, will know that Meg has Down’s Syndrome. When Meg was born and we let people know that she had DS, one of the most common reactions was to say, “Oh, I hear that they’re very loving children.” This was always said in a way that made you think it was some kind of compensation. The real message behind the language was “Oh my God, you have a mentally disabled child – your life is all but over as you will have to dedicate it to looking after a freak. I couldn’t do that myself and would have had the tests and aborted, but hey, I admire your courage. But listen, it won’t be all bad – I hear they’re very loving children!” This isn’t paranoia – any parent of a child with DS will recognise being confronted with these sentiments, even if they are not always verbalised this explicitly.

Despite what those who are ignorant of the condition fear, actually it’s no big deal. OK, so she has special educational needs and when she was a baby had to have heart surgery, but as a parent to more than one child (and stepfather to three more) you soon realise that every child has their own unique set of needs, talents and potential, and you work with it. There are times when Rogan is far harder work than Meg – don’t believe the propaganda of the eugenicists.

One of Meg’s special talents is that she is, in fact, incredibly loving, but not in a clingy, puppy kind of way. Meg takes love to new and incredible levels that leave the rest of us mere mortals behind. When Meg snuggles into you for a cuddle, she doesn’t just give you a hug; she caresses your soul. And she puts us to shame with her generosity of spirit in a way that I’ve seen in few adults, let alone 8-year-old children.

For example, a few weeks ago she came across a wee stash of chocolate bars left over from Xmas – four mini flakes. Maggie and I were both in agreement that when we were 8 we would either have devoured them without telling anyone else or lorded it over our siblings, making a point of eating the chocolate in front of them while making it perfectly clear that they wouldn’t be getting any. Meg, completely unprompted however, decided that we should all have one each. And when Rogan (with more generosity than I would have shown as a ten and three quarter year old), began to refuse, saying that she should have the chocolate herself, Meg started to get upset. Far more important to her than having the chocolate was that we all shared it together.

But the big thing this week was the teddy bear. Grandma had been in hospital for a week or two, and while there had become quite attached to a teddy that one of the nurses had placed on her bed. She was quite reluctant to leave it behind so Meg, once again completely on her own initiative, decided that Grandma could have one of hers. Maggie’s mum was out of hospital this week so when we popped over to see her yesterday, Meg took one of her teddies to give to her. As a child, wild horses would not have been able to drag one of my teddy bears away from me but for Meg, making Grandma feel better was far more important.

Like any child, Meg can be awkward, stubborn and a right pain in the arse sometimes, but unlike any other child I have ever known, she has extraordinary levels of caring, compassion and generosity, that sometimes brings a tear to her father’s eye too.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Thanks for the Memory

I’m enjoying a wee smug moment just now.

Before Xmas, I went on a course to train as an Adult Literacies volunteer tutor, which means I’m now able to help adults to improve their reading and writing skills.

Having said that, I’ve been helping my first learner (I’ll refer to him as ‘J’) with his memory for the past 3 months or so. We weren’t given any training for that, but the principles are the same and teaching isn’t new to me.

The first thing J wanted to work on was how to remember people’s names. I had to stifle a groan as this is one of those things that I’ve never been that great with. However, I read books, used the internet, made use of my kids game of “Guess Who” and over a few weeks we both made remarkable progress.

Shopping lists followed using the journey method, where you visualise the items on a well-known route. To recall the list, you just picture the route in your head and you’ll see the items. The stronger you create the image, the easier it is to recall

Next up J wanted to remember telephone numbers. I’m usually pretty good with numbers, but the techniques I use personally were no good for him, so I had to come up with a different strategy. Firstly he created visual associations with numbers (in his case they were items that were shaped like the numbers: so a soccer ball for 0, a swan for 2, a snowman for 8 etc), then we placed the items around a person’s body, starting from one foot, going up to the head and down the other side. So if the number starts with, say, 01812, then J pictures the person with a football at the foot, a walking stick hanging off the belt loop, a snowman in the hand, another walking stick hooked over the arm and a swan crapping on the shoulder. When it comes to recalling the number, you pull up the image of the person and follow the images around the body. Amazingly it seems to work very well for him.

Anyway, the latest thing I’ve been trying to figure out for J is directions. At his work he’s often given them when it’s impossible to write them down, and this causes all sorts of difficulties. Over the past few months I’ve found numerous techniques for remembering names, numbers and grocery lists, but none on how to remember directions.

So what we did this evening was combine a couple of techniques again. A few weeks back, we set up the association of the colour red to represent left and blue for right, as a primer (and delaying tactic) while I tried to figure out what to do next. By combining it with the number sequence he already has in place and a planned pathway through his house I think we’ve conquered it.

For example, suppose he’s got a sequence such as 1st right, 3rd left, 2nd exit at the roundabout, 1st left. He now pictures a blue walking stick at the door, a pair of red handcuffs (open handcuffs look like the number 3, ok? - don’t question this too closely) in the dining room, then a swan standing on a football (the roundabout) in the kitchen, followed by a red walking stick in the living room.

It might sound strange, but it worked a treat. We’ve plotted out a simple 10-stage journey through his house and with a combination of red swans, blue walking sticks and footballs J can now recall quite complex sets of directions.

So despite the fact that I couldn’t get any help from the usual sources, I’ve still managed to create a system that works for J. Therefore this evening I’m allowing myself a wee smug moment.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Perfect Diet

I have finally conceived of the perfect diet. It's simple, it's easy to remember, it requires no charts, calculations or complex points systems.

It’s the Eat As Much As You Like So Long As You Don’t Like What You’re Eating Diet.

Because you can eat as much as you like, you’ll never need to go hungry; but because you’re not allowed to eat anything you like the taste of, you’ll have to avoid all the chocolate, crisps, sweets and home baking products that pile on the pounds. You’ll steer clear of large portions and you’ll never be tempted to have second helpings.

But what if you find that you start enjoying the delights of hitherto unpalatable foods? Simple – eliminate them from your diet.

It can’t fail. You will lose weight and never be troubled with comfort-eating again!

Anyone want to offer me a book deal?

I could start a Channel 4 TV series with this one. Oh yes. Gillian McKeith watch out – there’s a new food guru in town…

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Rewarded for what, exactly?

Amazingly, this posting is my 100th. I would guess that there are very few, if any, who have read every one. My ego, of course, likes to think that my contributions to blogdom have been great and far reaching, that people’s lives have changed for the better because of the insights they have found in my ramblings. Realistically, the best I can hope to have achieved is a few minutes distraction for a handful of people a couple of times a week.

However, for my 100th entry I’ve pulled out all the stops. This is the post that could change your lives forever if you sit back and reflect on what I’ve written here today and how relevant it is to your own behavioural patterns.

Then again it is a long one, so you might want to just read the first couple of paragraphs…

…you’ve left already haven’t you? Curse you “next blog” button…

It dawned on me the other day that my entire reward system is based around failure, thus I am doomed before I begin anything. A strange thing to realise after 39 years, but then I think many people never realise it at all.

A reward is a fulfilment of a desire based upon an action. This could be money, fame, respect, satisfaction of a craving, a sugar-rush or caffeine-high, an assured place in heaven, attention from a parent, a sense of achievement, or the dulling of a pain. Our lives are led by the idea that if we do the right things, say the right words and perform the right actions, then we will be rewarded either with a better life or a better after-life.

But our desires come in all shapes and sizes and frequently our wishes are conflicting: the immediate craving for chocolate is often far stronger than the long-term desire to lose weight; the extra money spent on better quality toilet paper is more tangible than saving for a holiday next year; the instant gratification of the cigarette is more real that the potential avoidance of cancer in the indefinite future.

What we desire at any particular moment is dependent on a whole raft of physical and emotional states of mind, beliefs and objectives. Oftentimes our long-term goals are just too distant and ethereal, so it’s easier to fulfil our more immediate aims instead. The clearer and more tangible our desire, the more likely we are to seek to realise it, as the more immediate cravings are far easier to satisfy than vague long-term ambitions. If I think about the chocolate, I can almost taste it – it is very real – but the idea of walking around with a fit and healthy physique feels more like fantasyland.

So what happens when I’m feeling low is that rather than think about how I can set about changing my life for the better, which is neither easy nor quick, I just want to dull the pain in the fastest, most effective way possible and will resort to my drug or distraction of choice. For some this could be a physical drug such as cannabis, alcohol or glue sniffing, for others it might be an act to induce the body’s own endorphins such as extreme physical exercise, sex or self mutilation, and for others it can be distractions such as watching TV, excessive Sudoku or blogging.

The upshot of all this is that over a long period of time I have managed to fulfil far more immediate desires than long-term ones. My success at self-fulfilment has been at it’s strongest when I’m low and miserable. It is only when I am feeling lousy that I do something to make myself feel good – treat myself to sugary-salty-fatty foodstuffs, watch too much TV, blog gratuitously. At the time I am indulging, I feel better, but do I feel good after doing these things? No, I feel like I’ve wasted a few more hours of my life, never to be regained. Does that stop me doing it? No, it just makes me do it even more: I feel wretched, so I seek to blot out the pain with the drugs and distractions all over again.

But what happens when I achieve great deeds? To be honest, I don’t do much. It’s wonderful if someone else notices and tells me I’ve done well, but if there isn’t anyone to say anything then the moment passes without being significantly marked. When you’re self-employed for example, no one will give you a pay rise or stick your picture on the employee-of-the-month board, or pin a medal on your chest. If you’re lucky your client will pay you on time, and pass your name on to one of his friends, but it’s hardly throwing a party in your honour.

So what we end up with here is a way of life that rewards things going wrong, and ignores things that go right. Is it any wonder that while I am fantastic at coming up with ideas and getting things started I have a problem completing things, or that I can so easily get overwhelmed with a sense of failure? Of course not – if things go wrong then I can retreat into my comforts. In fact it begins to make me wonder just how much in my life I have subconsciously, but deliberately, sabotaged in order to retreat into the warm comfort of depression, where it’s OK to eat tubs of Ben & Jerry’s Choc-Chip-Cookie-Dough ice cream, lie listlessly on the couch and not have to deal with anyone else’s problems.

I don’t know about you, but to me this is a real revelation and potentially explains a great deal. And it opens up the chance to change.

Simply put, we need to reward ourselves for success and deny ourselves our comfort rewards for allowing things to go wrong. Simply put maybe, but I’m under no illusion that it’s going to be easy: I have a lifetime of conditioning to overcome. I have to stop depression from being safe and dependable, from being the easy option.

Instead, I need to create a system that rewards success, and positive thinking; I need to look at how to frame actions in a constructive light; I need to find ways to affirm living. If I want life to be good, then I need to retrain myself to be rewarded when it is, that way I will strive for the positive and cease sabotaging myself: everything from acknowledging when I make a nice cup of tea through to publishing my first best seller.

So now Maggie and I are going to draw up a plan of action, a list of rewards to attach to set goals, while we try and build a new set of habits; a new way of life that focuses on achievement and feeling good rather than feeling lousy.

A new life begins.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Snow has arrived in Castle Douglas!

At long last, snow has finally arrived in Castle Douglas. Just before heading for bed I noticed that it was beginning to fall and settle, but was convinced it would turn to rain through the night, leaving no sign of it come the morning. But I was wrong.

Much to my surprise about 8 inches of snow settled and the garden was covered in a soft white blanket. Not only is this my first real snow of this winter, but it's the biggest amount I've seen in one go for years.

I was quite amazed at the intensity of feeling I was overwhelmed with. It tapped right into the pathways laid down in childhood and I could barely contain my excitement. So after breakfast it was out into the garden for a snowball fight with Rogan. Meg came out for a while and the three of us built a snowman while Maggie watched from the cosy warmth of the house.

While making a snow angel, Rogan discovered that with the snow this thick he could literally throw himself at the ground without it hurting - as the snow compacted beneath him it absorbed the shock.

After a tentative experiment myself, it wasn't long before the two of us were running around, hurling ourselves at patches of virgin snow wherever we could find them in the garden.

It was so much fun I was giggling like a child again. I really need more things like that in my life.

You can click on any of the photos below to take you larger versions. The first two are of the main street in Castle Douglas and the final one is of the snowman and triumphant builders that I promised a couple of posts ago.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Family Tree

I’ve been trying to trace my family tree.

I don’t have roots. I don’t have a hometown that I can return to that has loads of my relatives kicking about, sharing my eyes, my nose, my barbecue. For that matter I’ve never been aware of having that many relatives at all. Oh there were vague stories here and there, but I was always given the impression that most of my distant family travelled - either off to Canada or Australia, or even to different towns within the UK.

I was always a bit envious of people who seemed to be a part of an extended family, people for whom the clan was always there as a support. I never had that and still can’t really imagine what it would be like.

We always moved a lot: my father’s a particularly restless soul and usually after around 3 years or so in any one place he’d start getting wanderlust again. He’s pretty certain we have gypsy blood in us somewhere, although I wondered if this was just a bit of romanticism. However, he recently pointed me to a website that claimed that Ayres is a more common surname among gypsies.

I think I’ve always been left with a feeling of being out there on my own, with no roots to return to for support. It’s connected to a sense that I’ve come down a somewhat isolated strand of our family. My father was an only child and my mother had one surviving brother, who was responsible for my only 3 cousins, and I’ve seen them in the flesh barely half a dozen times in my life.

So what’s with the fascination about my ancestry now? I think as we get older, and more aware of our own mortality, we inevitably reflect on those that went before us, who we can’t talk to anymore. Only as an adult can I begin to think how much I actually had in common with my mother’s father. I would love to sit down and chat with him now, but he died 20 years ago.

When you’re a child, all adults get grouped together as “other” – a strange breed of human being that you don’t understand. But as a grown up, I start to realise that these people were not that different from me; that they struggled with all the questions about family, work, life and meaning that I do; and that I share some of my blood with them. If it wasn’t for the decisions they made, I wouldn’t even be here. As an adult, I have a different view of them, a newfound respect for what they had to deal with.

So who were my clan? What were they like? I really have very little idea.

I was aware that my mother’s mother came from a very large family, but I didn’t know much beyond a couple of first names of siblings. However, after meeting with my uncle at my mother’s funeral, he gave me an email address of one of his cousins in Australia, Doreen. She has managed to fill in a few gaps and it turned out that my Grandmother was one of somewhere between 16 and 19 children and her mother’s parents owned the Huggins Brewery.

On the other side of the family, my father had notes of a newspaper article written in 1936 about the diamond-wedding anniversary of his mother’s grandparents. Apparently they had 12 children.

So out there somewhere are loads of relatives I’ve never met and it all feels a little odd. Part of me wants to find them all, contact them and say, “Here I am, your long lost cousin! Embrace me as part of your own!” While at the same time I’m aware that no matter how much blood I share with any of them it doesn’t meant that we’ll necessarily have anything else in common. I mean, I don’t have that much to do with my brother and sister, and they share exactly the same bloodline as me.

I don’t know how far it will take me, or whether I’ll get bored and it will all fizzle out in a few days, but part of me wants to try and create some kind of record for my children to refer to, if nothing else.

There’s a site called that allows you to create your family tree online, for free. I don’t know what the professionals use, but I found it to be a pretty nifty tool. If you want to sign up for a fee of £10 (approx $16US) you can take a look at other people’s trees if they give you permission. It looks like there might be one or two other people on the site who share a common ancestor, so I’ve decided to pay the membership and see if I can extend this tree a bit.

Infinity stretches out behind us and infinity stretches out in front of us. It’s a very small snapshot of time in which we exist.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Where’s the Snow?

Snow storms have been sweeping the country, apparently, but there is not a flake to be seen anywhere in the few square miles surrounding my house. And this is a shame, because I love snow.

Now I know there will be readers of this blog who regularly get 6 feet of the stuff, and for whom the novelty of the first snowballs of the season seems like a lifetime ago. But I haven’t had any this year, and I’m itching to build a snowman.

This past week I’ve been eagerly watching the weather forecasts as the snow has swept across Southern England, Northern England, Northern and Eastern Scotland and conspicuously bypassing the SW corner of Scotland. This morning, however, the forecasters confidently predicted snow to be falling across Dumfries & Galloway. Indeed, I’ve heard that schools have been closed less than an hour’s drive west of here, but still the skies here remain stubbornly clear. I’ve just picked up Meg from school and although there’s a bitter chill in the air and darker clouds far off on the horizon, there will be no snowball fights in the garden with the kids today.

During my student exchange in Canada, I loved the massive amount of snow that fell endlessly for months. The only problem was when it began to thaw and you got hundreds of puddles of icy water, just deep enough to go over the top of your boots, caught in walls of compacted slush that would take weeks to finally disappear. But it was worth it for the sheer amount of the white stuff across the winter.

I think I would be happiest living in a place where we had long hot summers and cold, snowy winters, rather than tepid rain or cold rain, depending on the season. But until such time, I will make the most of the slightest bit of snowfall. If it does arrive and there’s enough of it, I will post a picture of my first, and probably only, snowman of the season.