Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Is there any better feeling...?

...than finally hitting "order" on some photo project, either book or calendar?!  Such relief to be done with that activity, at least for another 2 months until my next round of Photobox credits expire just as Christmas approaches!

It's half term here, which should be relaxing but kind of feels just the opposite.  I had Monday off work, was working today, am off work tomorrow, am back in work on Thursday, and am off on Friday.  If you read that sentence again, you can commit it to memory as how NOT to plan a week using what limited vacation time you have left in the year if you want to feel at all like you're having a rest.  It's very stop-start on every front.  And, of course, Halloween is two days away.  I can't even go there right now...in fact the only place I feel that I desperately need to go is bed!

Pretty leaves and sweet boys

Starting the Halloween prep over the weekend

Sunday night in the kitchen...cooking up good times!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Throwback Tuesday

Check out this dumpling, right about 3 years ago...almost too hard for me to believe! 
I would be more nostalgic if I weren't in a race against time to create a photobook - one that is basically nearly 3 years overdue in its creation. For Blake I created a lovely little square photobook of his first year, made just after his first birthday.  For Noah, well...it's been on my to-do list.  Thanks to the clever sales techniques of Photobox, I paid already for credits (at a big discount) to do Noah's book, but I had a month to create it.  The month runs out soon so I've been hard at work reviewing the best photos from Noah's first year.  He looks so different at so many stages - sometimes with a teeny head, mostly with a chubby face and often with Blake right nearby.  That's the wonderful thing about photos - they really can transport you right back to the moment.  Even if most of my moments back then involved really tired eyes and skin and generally bad hair! Here he is this weekend after borrowing his friend Flora's witch costume.  He has always had a joker side!

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why is saying "no" so hard?

On Sunday it was pouring with cold, hard rain, from the moment we woke up until late afternoon.  I kind of didn't get my act together to make it to church on time ("gets me to the church on time..."church on time"!, ah Modern Love), so I had to think of some other way to entertain the boys.  I'm not very good about staying in and tolerating their preferred indoor activities: wrestling, taking all the cushions off the couch and then sliding down them, demanding bottomless bowls of Cheerio's, eventually deteriorating into an all-out war that would stump even the UN.  My modus operandi is to get out and about - so we headed down to a soft play area in Brixton.  Where, of course, half the population of southeast London had also headed.  When it comes to pastimes driven by extreme weather conditions, it's hard to be original around here.

The queuing system was unique and entirely unsophisticated: I was given a slip of paper at the front desk with the number two on it (did that mean second in line, or that there were two of them who wanted to get in?), and then we went and loitered around the entrance to the soft play area.  I didn't even have to encourage the boys to peer longingly through the glass doors to make others feel guilty - they did that just fine without any prompts from me.  When some people finally left, we had to head back to the front desk because we hadn't yet paid, their theory no doubt being that people would possibly get bored of waiting, or their kid would have a meltdown from ball pit envy, so you wouldn't want to take their money until entrance was a sure thing.  Finally we could go in.  My socks were soaked from the walk from the car and the place was freezing, but the boys headed off into the expansive and complicated sets of nets and foam structures where they played happily for about 30 minutes without needing my assistance at all.  It was cool.

After picking up a KitKat for each of them from the vending machine - it was, by this point, probably lunchtime and they'd already eaten the healthy snacks I'd brought, during the time time while we were waiting to get in - we made an ill-fated stop at the local TK Maxx because I am in the market for some low-cost workout clothes.  [for those US readers, no, that isn't a typo, but yes, it's the same store.  Pretty much, apart from the "K" instead of the "J" in the name].  What a mistake that was.  Noah immediately found the collection of random toys and proceeded to present the one he wanted to me; Blake then did the same.  I had no choice but to say "no" - for one, payday was still a few days off and these were like £20 items, but the second, more important one, was that I needed to teach them a lesson.  That lesson being that sometimes, you can't always get what you want.  Man, this did not go down well.  There were protests, defense arguments about fairness, suggestions that these be early Christmas presents, howling and rolling around on the floor, tears, pretty much everything apart from acquiescence on my part.  I had to stick to my guns here.  In the end the best compromise I could come up with was to tell them I'd take a picture of the toys to remember what they were, with a possibility that we could further explore whether these would be appropriate Christmas toys.  I think you'll detect a tiny bit of disappointment on their faces in the photo (ha ha, just a tiny bit...!).

But, we got out of the store (no, I did not get any workout clothes; I was ridiculous to even think I might find something, let alone with those two in tow), and they both fell asleep on the car ride home.  Naps sure do often follow closely after these large tantrums, it must be noted.  Later that afternoon Blake made and decorated about half a dozen paper airplanes, at the cost of probably 1p a plane.  My goal has got to be to spoil them rotten with love, but make them understand that they can't have whatever they spy in a store that takes their fancy. Not, then, modern love, but momma love.  It's not always easy. 

Autumnal boys

Just some quick snaps from the boys looking sweet recently...

Noah does "Janice" from Friends

Noah has always been a bit of a cheeky rascal, definitely the less serious of him and Blake.  When they're not fighting, they really can make each other laugh.  And when Noah is really amused, you'll know it from his laugh.  Blake was being silly in the bath the other night and Noah voiced his appreciation.
It always reminds me of Janice, Chandler's girlfriend in Friends, but it doesn't annoy me of course.  I hope you'll find it funny too. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Learning daze versus learning days

I've had a pretty intense two weeks on the learning and development front.  I got the chance to co-facilitate a quarterly leadership forum at work, and I was hopeful, excited, and a little terrified at the prospect of leading a discussion on motivation and performance for our UK managers and leaders.  I had prepared, and I feel like I (at least) try to live and breathe the philosophies we would discuss on the day, but I still worried...would the words come out right?  Would they ask me questions I couldn't answer?  Would sweat stains on my new dress be a giveaway to my nerves?  Those are the sort of thoughts that can sabotage preparation and create anxiety, ones that I used to feel a lot when I was doing more training to our clients.  Fear of looking stupid or not living up to my perfectionist ideals.  In the end all went well, and if at any point I did look stupid, well, I didn't notice it in the audience.  I learned a lot in the process, nobody died as a result of good or bad advice, and I had a sense of accomplishment that left me feeling good and satisfied at my contributions. 

Alongside this event, my massive open online courses (MOOCs) were ticking along in the vast online learning ecosystem.  If I could change one thing about myself, a bad habit so deeply ingrained in me that I consider it in a similar way to my height or eye color, it would be to not be a procrastinator.  Even there in that sentence is the essence of how that force has a hold on me: I don't just procrastinate, I am a procrastinator.  Is there anything more cruel than the ability to torment oneself by continually putting off something until the very last minute, usually resulting in a sub-par performance and a ton of unnecessary anxiety and eventual exhaustion? 

The past weeks have felt like a real throwback to my college days, complete with deadlines, readings that have piled up, late nights and the myriad options that present themselves when faced with a choice to meet, or to avoid, a deadline.  So far, here's my summary of what's changed for me as a "mature learner":

Beverages: Back in the college days, my paper-writing "journeys" often felt like more of a situation created to encourage the purchase and consumption of unhealthy, sugar and caffeine-laden beverages, and convenience store snacks to be consumed between the hours of midnight and 6:00am.  A bit like credit card debt, I feel like I'm sure it took years for me to actually burn off those egg salad sandwiches and Doritos that I feasted on at the Kiewit Computer Center's cubicles as the rest of the more diligent student population slept.  And the drinks - sickly sweet and caffeinated so much that they eventually made my brain twitch with stimulation: flavored coffee from Foodstop, 500ml bottles of ozone green Mountain Dew, blue Gatorade for hydrating effect (never water, how crazy).  Red Bull probably hadn't even been invented yet.  My drink of choice as a mature learner (on study nights) has been red wine, on assignment nights - a nice cup of tea!  How's that for maturity?  Interesting how the college days had alcohol as a distraction, whereas in my latest learning it's integrated into the experience.

Distractions: college days included late-night bike rides around campus in my pyjamas in arctic temperatures (again, anytime between 11:00pm and 6:00am, ostensibly to "clear my head for thinking"); trips to Foodstop to purchase above-referenced caffeinated drinks and sustenance; Jewelbox; maybe a game of pong if I could twist anyone else's arm to join me.  For the mature learner, distractions have included catching up the two Downton Abbey Christmas specials that I missed, and browsing around in the Flickr group of my online self-portraiture course, Now You.  I have refrained from online shopping, and perhaps most remarkably, and mercifully, I have not once engaged in any of the Angry Birds, Bad Piggies, or Where's My Water? apps that I know are on the iPad. 

Deadlines: if there's one thing that has changed the most, it's got to be my attitude toward deadlines.  In college, these dates and times always had an arbitrary feeling to them.  [nb: I should add here, I'm sure that the deadlines were crystal clear, and it was me who applied the arbitrary sentiment to them, much to the angst of my fellow classmates and no doubt, the professors].  Whereas now, there's no messing about with the times you need to get your stuff handed in by!  Because everything has to uploaded, and not printed out and deposited into the professor's office dropbox, every submission will have a time stamp.  Quite remarkably, I submitted a final project for my Foundations of Business Strategy course several hours before the deadline of yesterday, midnight GMT.  And for my Organizational Analysis paper assignment, I submitted it before coming here to the blog - a whole day and a few hours before the deadline!  This last one is perhaps even more remarkable when I explain not just what I had to do, but what I had to avoid in order to get that one done.  The Organizational Analysis class is about applying different models of organizational theories (or is it different theories of organizational models? hmm, not sure now) and for the paper assignment we had to complete a paper that had been started using the massive online game World of Warcraft as the organization to analyze.  When I saw the topic, I am sure my eyes widened as a realized the temptation that lay teasing me from the screen.  You want me to write a paper about a computer game that I have never played before, but that I know I could probably be playing in about 5 minutes if I went and signed up for it?!  And 7 million people play it, but so far I haven't...nor have I even been tempted, until now?!  Sheesh, I could close my eyes and see those colored gem combinations twisting and hurtling down the Jewelbox screen like it was yesterday.  So I had a choice: get into method acting mode, go sign up to World of Warcraft "in the name of research", and write a much better paper because I had a much deeper understanding of the game, or just recognize that it wasn't the detail that mattered but rather the general understanding of how the game works, and get on with writing the paper.  There's no doubt in my mind that College Meg would have done the former, but the older and wiser learner in me applied reason and judgment, and turned to Wikipedia for what I needed to know.  In her Moranthology, Caitlin Moran had an assignment to write a piece about the game, so I knew it would be best if I just didn't go there - her take on it was very funny though. 

Connections: for all the amazing benefits of the online learning community, most of my recent work was done in isolation, save for a few tentative forays into the discussion threads.  The pre-recorded video lectures give me a sense of interaction with the professor, but that part is still one-way.  And here, I arrive at the conclusion that for all the ways in which I've grown as a learner in the 15 years since I started college, there's no substitute for those 4 years I had, and for the friends that I made, people who helped shape me and my experiences as a person, for life.  Although I wasn't always - ok, ever - there to study, I sure did enjoy seeing people in Baker Library.  I could usually find a willing accomplice for late-night fun (up to a certain time in the evening, at least, and no doubt those people had already done their studying).  And there was always a friend who would check up on me if I hadn't yet emerged from a post-all-nighter slumber, and wake me up by dancing on my bed to "Man in the Mirror". 

I heard this line recently from a Dr Seuss work that I wasn't familiar with, but it sure did bring a wry smile to my face:
“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon. December is here before it's June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”

How did it get so late, so soon...?

Monday, October 07, 2013

Another one about the library

Someone forwarded me this and I was blown away - the writer is NINE!  Amazing...

Today I went to pick up some books from the library that I had reserved online - it was like hitting the reservation jackpot.  Our pitiful library carries on in its temporary location, 2 years after numbskulls stole all the copper off the roof and therefore rendered it un-usable.  The library where we can currently go is really the "old library", while the neighbourhood awaits with hope the renovation of the "new library" by the backers of an arthouse cinema chain.  Now that really would be the ultimate!   

Here's what I'll be reading next...most of which were recommended during my recent creative writing workshop.  These join the stack of about 15 fiction and non-fiction recommendations on my bookshelf....too many books, too little time!

The hobbyist's life

I think it was my good friend Katie who once described me as a "hobbyist".  And I guess it's true that over the years, I have tried my hand at a fairly varied range of extracurricular activities, including amateur singing, creative writing, triathlons, and photography (to name the ones I can remember!).  Now, it seems, I have may have met my match in the hobbyist life, which for me is about being challenged and learning something new, but with an aim of improving and hopefully becoming somewhat decently skilled at the hobby in question.  I introduce you to the story of my adventure with African dance...

On our holiday in France this year, there was a clubhouse/bar at the caravan site where we stayed, and they featured an event each evening - karaoke, live bands, an appearance by a magician, things like that.  They even had a mechanical surfboard (of course I had a go!  If you must know, it was hard and I fell off after about 2 seconds, and I was too embarrassed to try again because I was the only adult who was trying it - it was being monopolized by the kids!).  Blake was fascinated by this nightlife scene and by the middle of the trip would be begging by the late afternoon to go to the bar.  "Lower your voice," I kept whispering to him urgently.  Although as I write that, I wonder if he was calling it "the bar" or something else - I may have to ask Matt to check if my memory is serving me right there.  A couple of nights there was a disco and there were a few songs which seemed very popular, in the way that songs can be very popular in the summers and ski seasons in continental Europe but be completely unknown to the rest of the world.  One of the songs that he really loved was one that I didn't recognize at the time, but which turns out I feel like I should have heard before: Shakira's Waka Waka which was the theme song for the FIFA World Cup in 2010.  You can listen to and watch it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRpeEdMmmQ0
Anyway, Blake and I got pretty good at some of the basic moves - or what I now know as "basic moves" - and after dancing around the kitchen one morning after we were back from France, I thought to myself that maybe I would have fun doing an African dance class.  I should note here that I seem to really gravitate toward the work of all female performing artists who manage to make it big using only their first name (I'll throw Cher into the mix of the main one you'd guess, Madonna, and of course I do like Shakira).
Well, would you believe, that due to the miracles of the internet, I was able to discover, only a few moments after having this idea that an African dance class might be fun, that there was one starting up within a few weeks at a local museum that's only about a 10-minute drive away.   And that it was on a Sunday - so I would generally be free to attend provided I could get Matt on board to watch the boys while I perfected these energetic and vibrant moves.  I've just realized that I should blame this adventure on the internet. Surely before the web was so popular and pervasive, people would have ideas like this one, make a mental note to research it when they had time - maybe by looking at a community board in their library [love a post where I get to mention the library!], or something that required more effort to research - then promptly file the thought away to be forgotten about in light of more important and pressing matters to attend to, like laundry, or sleep. 
"I have no prior experience of African dance but the music and movement really look and sound exciting, and I love dancing in general," I wrote in my email enquiry.   All of which is, I might add, true.  Their reply included this: "You say you love dancing in general, which is a good start..!"
And I was signed up! 
The first class was 2 weeks ago but I had to miss it (I was on a creative writing workshop - see first line of this post).  So last Sunday I arrived at the class, slightly apprehensive but still excited.  There was a lot of mingling, smiling and general chit chat happening before the class as we waited for the instructor; one woman was stretching and I no doubt wondered to myself whether I should be doing the same.  We began with a warm-up; 10 or so minutes of imitating the instructor, this incredibly strong and agile man with a full head of dreadlocks; he had about 40 or so moves that just emanated innately - and strongly, fluidly, skillfully - from within him.  After 10 minutes I realized this was going to be quite a good workout, but it was somewhat as I'd imagined it - easy enough to follow and I was learning some funky moves.  The hard part occurred when the warm-up stopped.  We got some water, and then got into lines and things got all a lot more...organized.  As in, dance class style, which, I started to recognize, involved coordination among all of us to do the same moves...at the same time.  And of course it was at that point that I remembered reading that the final session of the class would be a performance.  Something inside of me kind of squeaked in fear as I suddenly understood that this was super hard, I had actually never really even been in a dance class before, and the one I picked to start with involved getting my cues to move from the beats produced by the live drummers.  Not even any words in a song as a cue from which I could remember to go down to a crouch, and then up into a cat-like style leap, and then land lightly on my left foot before going into a pivot from my right foot.  No, I had to get that cue from a drum beat.  Which the instructor described to us as "Chee dang ba, BA BA BA, chee dang ba."  The sweat on my back which had previously been from exertion quickly changed to a kind of cold one; Oh man, I thought, I am in over my head here.  I had a flashback to lesson 4 of my driving lessons here in the UK, the one where I broke down in tears because I had gone backwards in progress and was certain that I would never understand the interplay between the clutch and the gearshift in a manual car.  Strangely, that ended up being a reassuring thought, because as it turns out, something like 35 lessons later, I did manage to pass that driving test and can now confidently drive a manual.  Hopefully it would be a similar thing here...apart from rather than 35 more lessons, I only had 8. 

So overall, the lesson was a bit of an eye-opener.  To the fact that I had had a mismatch of expectations, and that the reality of it was going to be pretty challenging.  I was aching, sweaty, and slightly defeated.  But, I had to remind myself that all great artists have to start somewhere, and from within I was going to have to call upon my inner African warrior princess to get me through this.  The good news is, she's easy enough to spot: she's the one a beat behind the rest of her warrior tribe.   

Noah also demonstrated his innate rhythmic talents in a song and dance that still doesn't make much sense to me.  He has clearly inherited my coordination and rhythm.  http://youtu.be/zkJqvcRmY5U