Sunday, February 25, 2007

La Toot, Haltwhistle

After years of enjoying Maggie’s wonderful homemade soups I had forgotten that Knorr still made their unique mixture of powdered chemicals which, apparently, if you add hot water to and stir for a few minutes is supposed to resemble soup. It certainly resembles a vile, glutinous, chemical-tasting liquid, but to use the word “soup” to describe it is rather like using the word “chateau” to describe an outhouse.

La Toot gift and coffee shop in Haltwhistle, Northumberland, charges you £3.50 per bowl for this stuff that has an aftertaste that even garlic-stuffed sardines wouldn’t shift.

We won’t be going there again.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

If God has a message for us then He is an incompetent communicator

There are those who know that there is a God, a set of gods or a spiritual karmic system that makes sense of their existence in the universe. Either they have been brought up in such a way that they accept the doctrine as truth and don’t question too closely, or else they have had an enlightenment experience where they have personally touched the divine.

But for those of us without the upbringing or the revelation there is no way of knowing the Truth. There are over 10,000 distinct religions in the world, and Christianity alone has over 33,500 denominations. Even if I were to study a new one every single day, there are not enough days in a lifetime to come to a conclusion which, if any, are right.

Given that the adherents of many of these religions believe they are the only ones who have even half a chance of getting into heaven, and that unless I subscribe to their particular interpretation I have very little or no chance of getting there myself, then I can come to only 2 possible conclusions, if I am to accept the idea that there is some higher purpose for us beyond being purely vessels for the continuation of our genetic code: either God, the gods or the system is fundamentally incompetent about getting its message across, or it is integral to the plan that we should not know the truth, that is, we are deliberately given conflicting messages in order to keep us in a state of confusion.

Therefore anyone who tells me that they know better is either a liar or deluded. But even if, by a highly unlikely coincidence I end up talking to the one person who really does know, there is no way of knowing that he or she is in fact telling me the truth.

So either there is no higher purpose, or there might be something but I’ll never find out what it is.

I think I prefer the idea that there is nothing, because if there is a God, gods or karmic system that thinks the best way of communicating to the world is to give varying and contradictory messages to different prophets at different times and places in history, allowing them just enough information for their followers to proclaim holy war on their neighbours, then it’s no comfort whatsoever.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Week 104

2 years ago today, Maggie and I changed the way we ate forever.

No one intends to become considerably overweight, Sumo wrestlers aside, it just creeps up. You don't become obese overnight, but through years of eating too much of the wrong foods.

There are many reasons why a person will eat more than their body requires, and “greed” is an easy catch-all term that doesn’t in fact tell you anything. We are bombarded with hard-sell, high pressure advertising to consume foods that our body has evolved to crave – those high in fat, sugar and salt. We are taught from a young age to clear our plate, regardless of whether we are full up. We can suffer from food addictions without knowing it. Throughout our lives we associate sweet and fattening foods with times of celebration, so turn to them for comfort in times of pain and distress. We get into habits of consuming the wrong kinds of food at the wrong times of the day. And some of us even have chemical delays in the stomach letting the brain know it has eaten enough.

Many people become overweight and some become very overweight. And for those who become very overweight there can be several of the above reasons at play, so it is not as straightforward as saying “well just don’t eat as much then.”

Diets don’t work. Diets can never work because they are temporary and do not address WHY the person was overeating. Consequently, as soon as the diet stops, they go back to the same eating habits that caused the weight to go on in the first place, which is why between 95% and 98% of people who go on a diet end up putting all the weight back on within 2 years.

2 years ago, Maggie and I reached a point where we truly realised that our health was suffering, and that if we didn’t do something about it, our long-term future was in jeopardy. We decided that we wanted to be healthier.

On February 15th 2005 we began to eat healthily. This meant eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, cutting out as much processed food as possible, eating brown and wholemeal instead of white, and replacing snacks of sweets and crisps with fruit.

The primary aim was to be healthier; the side effect of this was weight loss.

And although there have been hiccups along the way, the overall effect has been dramatic. My starting weight was 19 stone 9lbs (275lbs) and in the 2 years since we started I have lost over 96lbs (almost 7 stone). And while a gentleman will never divulge his wife's weight, suffice it to say she has made a similar journey.

I am still overweight by about 25lbs according to the height-weight charts, but it doesn’t worry me that much now. I will continue to eat healthily and my body will eventually settle at whatever weight it will.

For those who are interested, you can track my progress from about week 35 through to week 104 on my other blog, Losing a Hundredweight, but I thought I would mark this 2nd anniversary with a few pictures.

The first was taken in January ’05, the second in June ’05 and the third was taken last September.

Changing faces

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Meg is 9

9 years ago today my daughter was born.

Apparently 40% of children born with Down’s Syndrome have heart defects ranging from a slight murmur that will never amount to anything, through to abnormalities that mean the child won’t last a few hours beyond birth.

Meg’s initial scans didn’t show any problems with her heart, although when she was about 3 months old the doctor thought she could hear a slight murmur. An appointment with a specialist was arranged and it was established that Meg had a small hole in her heart.

There was a time when children with this kind of heart condition would have been operated on when they were 3 or 4 years old, the idea being that it was important that they be strong enough for it. However over time it was realised that forcing the heart and blood vessels to work under these conditions for that amount of time caused irreversible damage, therefore it was concluded that operations such as this should be done sooner rather than later.

Any operation carries a risk and what parent can easily put their baby through an ordeal that requires her chest cavity being opened up and her heart stopped, sewn up and restarted? To say we baulked at the idea would be an understatement. But what was our alternative?

The first few months of Meg’s life were dominated by trying to get her to feed enough to keep her strength up. It would typically take up to an hour and a half for each feed, when she would need to be fed every three hours. Even then she would often throw up every second or third bottle, causing us to weep with frustration as every ounce of milk counted.

What would happen if she wasn’t operated on?

In essence, her growth would be a struggle, she would get steadily weaker and she wouldn’t be expected to live beyond 7 or 8 years old.

We had no choice, but it was an awful decision to have to go through nonetheless.

So at 5 months old Meg had open-heart surgery and I lost any vestiges of belief in a universe that made sense (see Losing my Religion).

It turned out that not only did she have a small hole in her heart, she had a large one too, and several tiny ones. But she survived the operation and her condition improved dramatically. She has now reached her 9th birthday and this has become a significant age to me - had we lived in a time where the medical technology was less advanced she would not be with us now. I don’t thank the universe or any gods - we were just lucky where many are not – but I am so glad she is still with us.

My heart is full of love, pride and awe for my little girl and today I will hold her a little closer, squeeze her a little tighter and try and keep the tears from my eyes.


Meg's birthday card

"You've had some great presents today haven't you?" we said to Meg during her birthday tea.

"Yes," she replied, "AND it's my birthday as well!"

I guess it doesn't get much better than that then.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sounds of the Seventies

Sometimes my children’s taste in music surprises me. As I sit here typing at my computer, they’ve got the stereo on in the living room, blasting away golden oldies – vintage music from three decades ago.

Despite two flights of stairs and a couple of doors between us, I can hear the base thudding through the walls, the thumping of their feet as they leap up and down and their voices screeching along in an altogether quite inharmonious fashion.

I am an antichrist
I am an anarchist
Don’t know what I want but
I know how to get it
I wanna destroy the passer by
Cos I
Wanna be

This then set off another train of thought about the music piped through the old folks homes. When they want their residents to drift off in a sea of nostalgic memories, they play wartime music from the 40s. I wonder if they'll be playing the Sex Pistols thirty years from now?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Gifts for a 9 year old...

My little Valentine’s girl will turn 9 on Wednesday, so Maggie and I were in Dumfries this morning searching the shops for potential birthday presents. Unfortunately I’ve never been great at buying gifts at the best of times, but trying to get into the mindset of a 9-year-old female is beyond me altogether.

Every shop that sells toys has shelves and shelves of pink and fluffy things, including many things that clearly don’t benefit from being pink and fluffy, like pink and fluffy wellies for example. Mind you, I can’t see how little girl’s wellies can benefit from having high heels either. Isn’t that an unnecessary attempt at the sexualisation of prepubescent girls? On the one hand society has made us fear the potential paedophile who seemingly lurks on every street corner, but at the same time young children are being bombarded with clothes, make-up, fashions and role models that are designed to turn them into hip and happening, sexually liberated ladettes before they even reach double figures. Am I the only one who finds this aspect of our culture not just distasteful, but obscene?

Perhaps it’s just my age. Maybe I’ll soon be filling this blog with entries of “it wasn’t like this in my day…” and “I remember when youth had respect for their elders…” and “call that music…?

But I do find the body shape fascism of girls dolls quite disturbing. We’ve never bought into the whole Barbie thing (see Death to Barbie), but there are other girlz on the block that are just as insidious. Bratz seem to be everywhere at the moment: Bratz dolls, Bratz magazines, Bratz clothes, Bratz pencil cases and Bratz school bags, Bratz pyjamas, Bratz wellies, Bratz computers, Bratz bicycles; it goes on forever. And that’s before you start including their spin-offs Kidz and Sisterz and Babyz.

I wonder if I could set up some rival toys called Gagz and Pukez.

We came home feeling slightly shell-shocked and no presents to show. A sensible pair of walking boots and perhaps Ice Age II on DVD, now seem the likeliest contenders.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


It’s the 4th anniversary of my mother’s death today. We’re dealing with capital punishment and war in the Intro to Moral Philosophy class I’m teaching tonight. I don’t know that I’m emotionally equipped for it. If it wasn’t for the fact that I have a great bunch of people on the course and I don’t do this for the money I’d probably phone in sick.

And the main computer in the house has decided it’s not going to bother booting up anymore so I have to use the laptop for everything.


Once I’m there automatic pilot will probably kick in: I’ll be fine for the 2 hours then be an emotional wreck as soon as I step through the door home. Hopefully I’ll feel better tomorrow.

Don't comment. I'm just venting.

Monday, February 05, 2007

An Enthusiasm for Rugby

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The other day I overheard someone using the oft-said phrase, “School days are the best days of your life…” and I wanted to throttle them. If ever there was a saying that should be consigned to the depths of hell forever then this one is it. It ranks up alongside “it’s only when you’re in intense pain do you truly know you’re alive” and “a hard kick in the balls is good for you.” Actually I don’t know whether anyone has ever used that last one, but it makes about the same amount of sense.

School was a place that alternated between utter boredom and complete terror. Suddenly and completely out of the blue, the environment could become extremely hostile from teachers on a power trip or bullies who had decided they didn’t like my accent, my name or the length of my hair.

But while school was generally something to be endured, PE was a punishment just for being alive. I never saw the point of it. As a relatively uncoordinated child, Physical Education seemed to be a subject designed specifically to humiliate me on every possible level, where the bullies were teacher’s pet and the teachers themselves were the epitome of narcissistic, sadistic, power mad bastards.

This is not the first time I’ve written about my pathological hatred for school sports (see Sports Day, Sports Day the Re-run, Rugby, and PE Teachers are Demons From Hell) and I think it would be fair to say that I carry a few psychological scars from this time in my life, which is why I am still struggling to cope with the idea that my son actually wants to give up his Sunday mornings to go and play rugby.

It’s as if he’s turned round and said, “Dad, I want to go to a club every weekend for 2 hours where I will be beaten up, demeaned, embarrassed and ground down into the… er, ground.”

And he wants to go back every week. No one is forcing him or twisting his arm; he is choosing to play rugby and comes home appearing to have enjoyed himself. I am struggling so hard to get my head around this.

I’ve sometimes wondered what form my children’s inevitable teenage rebellions will take against their parents, and at 3am, when the anxieties of the future play so prominently on the mind, I get this terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that he’s going to become a professional rugby player and I, as the dutiful father will have to accompany him to matches and cheer him on from the side.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Valentine Offers

Using broad stereotypes and clichés for the purposes of this post, we all know that the majority of men, and I include myself here, are pretty clueless when it comes to buying gifts for women. The male brain is wired to be more linear and direct. What’s the point of buying flowers or chocolates as a gift? They’re transient: flowers will be dead in a few days and chocolates will be eaten. A toaster, iron or drill set, on the other hand, could still be working years from now. And if you could buy an iron that could also toast and drill at the same time, well, how brilliant would that be?

I eventually learned that buying flowers for Maggie was a good thing, not because I ever understood why, but because she was always so delighted when I did. That and the fact that she made it perfectly clear on many, many occasions that the basic rule of thumb is, if it’s practical then she probably wouldn’t want it as a present.

So hats off to whomever in the Tesco Marketing Department came up with the slogan, Tesco Belgian Chocolates: HALF PRICE! Talk about an insightful piece of targeted marketing with Valentine’s Day just around the corner.

Most blokes have heard that chocolate is probably a good idea, although this is confusing as most women are also on a diet and worrying about the size of their posterior. However, these are suitably packaged in a romantic, girly kind of way to reassure the guy that it is exactly what he should be buying, but to make it HALF PRICE means it appeals directly to his practical nature. Genius.

The only thing left he has to work out is whether she will know about this offer. If she doesn’t he only has to buy the one, but if she does, he’d better buy her 2 so she doesn’t think he’s a cheapskate.

However, my guess is that awful lot of men will be sitting in confusion on February 14th when their partner is in a sulk with them after unwrapping an Impact Drill and Sheet Sander. In what I couldn’t help thinking was an even more cynical marketing strategy, I noticed that as my eyes came to the end of the bright red seasonal aisle, full of champagne and cuddly teddy bears with hearts on them, they naturally fell on the start of the DIY aisle where they were selling these items at £9.97 each, or 2 for £15.