Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mugged

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Imagine how you would feel if, out of the blue one fine early autumn morning, you received a bill in the post for unpaid council tax for a sum of over £700, dating from 12 years ago. And when you phone up to enquire what on earth this is all about, you are told the onus is on you to prove that you paid it, and if you can’t legal proceedings will be put in place (so that bailiffs can come into your house and take your belongings to sell off towards your debt).

Does it matter that your own memory is fairly certain it was all sorted out at least 8 to 10 years ago?

No.

Does it matter that even the Inland Revenue only require you to keep records for 7 years?

No.

Does it matter that you don’t have cheque book stubs and bank account statements from that long ago, so there’s no way you can check?

No.

Does it matter that you moved away from the area over 5 years ago?

No.

Does it matter that you don’t even use the same bank, and haven’t for several years, so the chances of getting hold of statements are nil to minuscule (especially within the demanded 7 days)?

No.

Everything about it screams to me that this is a scam.

But with public spending being cut and less money available, Clackmannanshire Council are looking for ways to claw in money.

And unless we can find a way to prove we paid something they tell us we owe them from a dozen years ago, they have a whole pile of draconian laws on their side to destroy our lives, should we hesitate too long to stump up the cash.

We’ve been mugged by local government.
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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Naiveté

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There are times when I think naiveté is very likely to be the death of me.

“Naiveté about what?” I hear you ask.

Naiveté about people, I reply.

“Surely not!” you protest, “if anyone has a grip on the human condition, it’s you, oh great and wise bearded one!”

*cough* Ok, perhaps I’m getting a little carried away here…

Anyway, the point is, I have this habit of assuming most people are basically kind and decent if given the chance, and will listen to, and be persuaded by, a thoughtful, well intentioned and properly constructed argument.

And yet, this flies in the face of blog posts, noticeboard threads, Facebook status updates and news items I witness on a daily basis.

I forget not everyone spent 4 years studying philosophy so can spot a badly constructed argument at a thousand paces.

I forget that there are people who will ignore all the evidence to the contrary because their mate down the pub/ some tabloid newspaper headline/ a dodgy book they once read/ Fox News told them differently.

I forget that there are many, many people who never question their lives or the lies they are sold on a daily basis.

I forget that some people can turn quite nasty if you question their unquestioned beliefs.

I forget that nearly everyone insists on having the last word in any argument.

So I keep this cartoon from the wonderful XKCD permanently to hand to stop me getting too sucked into these things.


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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Studios

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We picked up the key for Maggie’s new studio last week.

Although Maggie has been using the front room in our house as a studio since we moved here 5 years ago, it’s not always been easy for her.

The big problem, of course, is that it’s in the building we also live in, and this means there are a 1,001 distractions and demands on her time that are difficult to avoid. Additionally, it’s been too easy to use the room to temporarily store things, which then end up permanently taking up space.

Then, 2 years ago, I had to give up my study so my son could get his own bedroom – see Homeless – which culminated in me taking over a corner of Maggie’s studio with my desk and laptop. Not only did this result in less room for Maggie, but it meant that neither of us had a real space we could call our own.

So when WASPS (Workshop and Artists' Studio Provision Scotland) - put out feelers a couple of years ago about obtaining a pair of buildings in Kirkcudbright (the next town along from where we live, about 9 miles down the road) to do up as artists’ studios, Maggie registered her interest.

A few weeks ago the building work was completed and we went down to look round the 15 studios of various sizes to see if any were suitable, and Maggie fell in love with one room in particular.

It’s a little bit larger than the studio at home, and it has 2 large south-facing Georgian windows letting in plenty of light.

Additionally, it means Maggie will now be in a building with several other artists. One of the things many self-employed creative people bemoan is the overwhelming sense of isolation that can occur. But here, there’s a real chance for contact with like-minded people and friendships to develop.

So Maggie and I have already started moving in boxes and tables, and assembling shelving units. And at the weekend we took the kids down to see it.






Although the extra rental costs mean we’re going to have to tighten our belts more than ever, another benefit of all this is I now get the front room at home entirely for myself, which means I can set it up as a photographic studio.

Watch this space...


If you'd like to read Maggie's feelings on her new studio, pop over to her blog and read A Studio of my Own
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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Crystal Wedding Anniversary

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Depending on where you look, it’s estimated that the average wedding cost these days is anywhere between £15,000 and £25,000

15 years ago today, Maggie and I were married on a budget of less than 1% of that

I was unemployed and we had no money, so every penny had to be accounted for.

We married in a registry office (neither of us are religious, so a church ceremony would never have happened anyway); we only had immediate family in attendance; we sorted all the food ourselves (I was still chopping carrot sticks when people started turning up); and even our wedding rings were silver Celtic-knot style bands that cost less than £10 each (which we still wear).

We’ve still never been able to afford a honeymoon.

But was it “less than”? Absolutely not. Our wedding day was wonderful and still ranks as one of the happiest days of our lives.

For those who love a tale of romance and want to know why we got married, take a look at my blog post from 5 years ago – Tin Wedding Anniversary. And for those who are interested in what our lives were like in 1995, or wish to see what we looked like, then visit my blog post on our 14th wedding anniversary, which I wrote last year.
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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Because I can't think of a blog post and sunsets are pretty

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Click on image for larger version

Taken on the 3rd of September at 7.43pm about 4 miles up the road from where I live.
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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Listening to the inner voice

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I think we all have an inner voice, deep inside, which will guide us if we can just shut out all the noise and clutter from our lives. If we listen to our inner voice, it will always tell us the right thing to do,” said a friend recently.

So I stuck on a DVD for the kids downstairs and retired to the bedroom to sit in quiet contemplation.

What truth would my inner voice reveal?

It didn't take long for my inner voice to make itself heard. In fact I was somewhat surprised by just how loud and intense it was.

According to my inner voice, what I’m missing in my life is a big bar of chocolate...
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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thinking too much

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“I’ve realised why you don’t find ‘Chuck’ as funny as I do,” said my 15-year-old son recently.

“Why’s that then?”

“Because you spend all your time analysing it! Within 2 minutes of every episode you’re already predicting what’s going to happen before the end!”

“I don’t spend all my time analysing it. Besides, I’m usually right. Go on, admit it.”

“That’s not the point!”

“What is the point then? It’s fairly predictable…”

“The point is you don’t just let go and enjoy the episodes. You’re too busy working out what’s going to happen next.”

“I’m not working it out. It leaps out at me as clear as one of the ‘Flashes’ Chuck experiences when The Intersect in his head throws up information into his conscious mind.”

“But you’re still thinking about it.”

“In other words,” I say, “you’re accusing me of thinking too much.”

“Yes. Absolutely!”

I sigh inwardly. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told this - by friends, colleagues, other bloggers and, when she was still alive, even my mother.

It always seemed like an odd thing to say. I mean, of course I had thoughts. Lots of them. All the time. How could I not? Didn’t everybody? What was thinking too much anyway? The idea didn’t make any sense.

The irony of Rogan’s accusation is, these days my brain is only working at a fraction of its previous capacity and I’m so very aware that I don’t think anything like the amount I used to.

When my brain used to fire on all cylinders, bouncing all over the place, I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I was always making connections and seeing patterns between bizarre and unlikely things. If someone suggested an idea, I could run it through empire building scenarios, which if followed would result in global domination within 3 years. This was all perfectly normal.

But over the past couple of years, the CFS has taken its toll on my cognitive abilities. I can’t do heavy duty thinking for any length of time now without wearing myself out.

I miss thinking too much.

I miss having the energy that allowed me to.
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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Guest Post from Erika

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I recently started thinking about getting the Guest Blogging idea up and running again, and I knew instantly that Erika would be on my list of bloggers to approach.

Erika’s blog (Flight of our Hummingbird) was one of the great discoveries of last year. She is an extraordinarily gifted writer who can lure us into her world from the first sentence.

Even more extraordinary is her ability to keep drawing us back when her world is largely filled with vomit, mucus, hospital visits and the Kafkaesque dealings with insurance companies.

Erika’s daughter, Izzy, has Angelman Syndrome, and it is dealing with the consequences of this that dominates her blog.

But while there are times of heart-wrenching sadness, Erika and Izzy’s indomitable spirits keep bouncing back. No matter how mucus filled the long dark nights are, the next day, the sun always rises.

I could easily rabbit on for pages on why I love Erika’s writings, but I need to shut up and let you read for yourself.

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When we moved to Southern California two years ago, my daughter’s lease was expiring soon in my belly so we spent a couple weeks hunting for a place that would accommodate life with a newborn. We found an apartment complex in a small coastal town where palm trees, beach blond surfers and small fluffy dogs dominated the landscape. After some high-pitched oooh’s and aaawh’s evoked by my tummy and its tenant, Traci from the leasing office showed us one of the available apartments and pointed out its great features with convincing confidence. Upon leaving the place, she causally suggested that we check out the beach, which was practically in the backyard of the apartment complex. We were city-dwellers from a landlocked country who would never decline an opportunity to see an expanse of salt water, so off we went to see the ocean.

The path to the Pacific led through a perfectly groomed park and we were careful not to step on the bright green grass that grew at a right angle. We shortly arrived at another park on top of a knoll that looked over the cerulean waters that seamlessly blended into the cloudless sky. As I sucked in a longer-than-average breath in quiet awe, Phil and I looked at each other and we both knew that it was the perfect place for our baby. In my mind’s eye I saw my daughter sitting in her stroller happily babbling away while I pushed her around the park. A soft lyrical tune started playing in my head as I imagined her sitting and crawling in the lush grass surrounded by fellow babies and friendly spotty dogs. I imagined her first awkward steps taken in the safety of soft sand, and as the music got louder and faster-paced, I saw her running after the white waves and chasing those sly thievish seagulls on the beach while Phil and I smiled at each other in parental bliss.

My lyrically underscored dream was reminiscent of advertisements that try to sell us a certain feeling and exploit our deep, inherent desire to belong to a tribe. You want to be a member of a tribe where you ‘just do it’, or ‘think outside the box’ or where you are a ‘rebel by choice’- or just simply a parent of a happy healthy baby who incidentally wears Pampers. When you get pregnant you become a candidate to join the mommy tribe and you have nine months to learn its language, customs and laws. You have nine months to learn to navigate the world of Diaper Genies, sippy cups and Boppy pillows before you acquire the tribal mark on the day of your initiation.

But what if your day of initiation does not end with the postpartum idyll depicted in life insurance and diapers commercials? It’s hard to feel like a full member of the mommy tribe when your baby is locked up in a hospital and you stroll around in your lonesome for weeks or months. It’s hard to believe that you have full membership when you are not only unable to breastfeed but you can’t even commit the ultimate mommy crime of bottle-feeding because your baby gets her nutrition through a tube. You wear all the tribal marks, you display the typical tribal behaviors, you carry around a perfectly gorgeous baby, all of which trigger happy recognition in your fellow tribe members, but you know deep down that you are a whale among the fish, a tomato on the vegetable stand.

I used to feel the need to come clean and tell these starry-eyed strangers about my daughter’s disability but now I just go along with the secret winks and handshakes pretending that there is no chasm lying between us. Not because I’m in denial, I just don’t feel like watching how comradery evaporates from their eyes and get replaced by distance or pity. I’m a member of a different tribe, a tribe that nobody wants to be a part of voluntarily, a tribe that you don’t join by choice. But once you are in, you find that it’s a group of tenacious fighters, valiant warriors and indomitable spirits. The tribal marks that draw my eyes include wheelchairs, walkers, feeding tubes, trachs and various other medical equipment.

The crispy green park and the soft sandy beach is still the perfect place for my daughter, even if the film frames of my dream are moving in slow motion. I’m still in the first part where I keep pushing the stroller around the park, almost in a Bill-Murray-in-Groundhog-Day fashion. The part in which my daughter sits and crawls in the lush green grass is many frames away, and the step-taking part is even farther. I have high hopes that the wave-chasing seagull-harassing bit is also on the reel, because I have every intention to watch her awkwardly run around while I smile at Phil in parental bliss to the sound of music.

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Do leave a comment, pop over to Erika’s Blog, have a root around her posts, say hi and add her to your favourites.
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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Bramble Hunting

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The Great Bramble Hunt is an annual tradition in our family.

Each year, Rogan, Meg and I trek out to our favourite spot to try and fill some tubs with this most wonderful berry, staining our fingers purple, while trying to avoid spiders and maggots and getting scratched and stung by gorse bushes and stinging nettles.


Meg usually eats more than she saves

Usually I manage to fill my tub, Rogan half fills his and Meg covers the bottom of hers while managing to plaster herself in more purple mulch than you would have believed possible.


Meg's tub filling up

This year, however, I filled mine in record time; Rogan filled his; and Meg managed to ¾ fill hers by the time we had to head home for lunch. Some will go into bramble crumble, while others will be frozen to be used for Maggie's bramble ice-cream at Christmas.

Our favourite patch is on the coast, and while I was waiting for the other two, I wandered down to the water’s edge where I saw a seal poking its head out of the sea, watching me. It didn’t take long to get bored and disappear, but I just managed to catch a blurry shot of it on the camera.




Are you looking at me?

I then just sat on the stones, watching the waves crash on the shore. Not huge waves by global standards – probably little more than about 3 feet high – but larger than usual. The geography of the Solway Firth and this bit of SW Scotland means it’s quite sheltered from the roughest seas.



But it reminded me why, if I ever win the lottery, I will buy a house overlooking the sea. Although if I did, it’s quite possible I would never leave.
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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Meg is growing up

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When I recently asked for blogging suggestions, several people badgered me for more about my daughter Meg.


At 12½, Meg is not such a wee lass anymore

Last week she started high school. A big step for any child, but for one with Down’s Syndrome in mainstream schooling…

So far she’s coping with it in considerably better spirits than me and her mother. While our guts are churning with all our fears and nightmares clamouring to make themselves felt, she’s heading off to school with a smile each morning.

At the weekend, Meg and I went out for a walk in Laurieston Forest, and took the cameras.

I gave Meg my first Fujifilm digital camera to use. It’s a good camera to learn on – you can set it to auto and it works well as a point-and-shoot, but it has several manual over-ride options so you can ease yourself into learning things like shutter speed and aperture. It even has a macro lens built into it, which allows you to focus really close up on things - something my much more expensive Canon DSLR doesn’t.


Meg looking at the light coming through the trees


Enjoying the ability to get close up.

Here are a some of the photos Meg took:


Large toadstool


Growing out of a rotted log


Dad is instructed to turn his head towards the camera and smile.

Sometimes it’s difficult living in Meg’s shadow.
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