Saturday, 8 December 2012

Daddy, my Daddy

My best friend's dad is dying. He's been battling cancer for over a year now and the last time I saw him he looked like a completely different person. He still has his spark and sense of humour, but he's lost an insane amount of weight, can't eat as the doctors removed half of his stomach, which is a big deal when you're Italian and can't eat pasta anymore. He's having another round of chemo and needs a bone marrow transplant. Despite being a massive wimp I am genuinely considering signing up to the Bone Marrow Registry in case I can one one day stop someone else's family going through what they are. This is a family that treat me like one of their children, not a guest. She has been my best friend, my evil twin, since we met age 11 at secondary school. Watching her suffer like this as her funny, kind dad fades away is horrible.
I promised her that I would be here no matter what, and I am. She finds it all really difficult to talk about, but I check in with her all the time and I've told her that whatever she needs, all she has to do is call me. Losing someone you love is horrible, and I hope he gets better and is with us a lot longer.
I am not really religious - despite my upbringing, but I am praying for Daddy Zenga to get better and not be sick anymore.
My own dad's health is deteriorating, but at a slower rate - he's got spina bifida, a heart condition and type 2 diabetes. Most of it is because he's not been taking care of himself, he blames my mum, even though she's tried her best over the years. But I think he's just scared of how much of a mess he's made of his body and his health.
I think the problem with dads is that they're so important, even if like me you're not a daddy's girl (that's my sister). They're the first men you ever know, your role model for the kind of man you want to meet (especially if they're good fathers and husbands). My parents marriage isn't perfect, but it works (they've been married 30ish years) and is the template for my relationship with The Boy.
My best friend and her dad are incredibly close, which seems to make what's happening worse. He used to come to parents' evening when we were at school, and they'd laugh their way round the school, with him asking whether any of the younger female teachers were their next appointment with a twinkle in his eye. He also use to come to the speech nights, where we read out poems under the direction of our English teacher, and were awarded prizes for our achievements.
Last time I was at their house he was advising us on where did the best curries locally, and what to order as he can't things like that anymore, and making us laugh with descriptions of a family party earlier that day, and how mad his relatives are.
I spent part of today with my dad as he put up shelves and hung my mirror in the flat I will be soon moving into with The Boy. He was quite funny about how rubbish the screws holding up the shelves are, and how badly put together the cupboards that the flat came with are. Then he really scared me.
He is going into hospital in January, just after his birthday, for a procedure on his heart. He's had similar ops before, and they've not been very successful. The last time he had one, his heart stopped on the table and he had to be revived.
Today he told me that he is getting his will in order, making my mum his beneficiary and me his executor. He asked me to look after my mum and little sister, and should anything happen to my mum, would I make sure my sister (who has learning and behaviour difficulties) is safe and looked after. He doesn't expect me to have her live with us, she doesn't listen to me, and can be difficult to handle, but to make sure she ends up somewhere where she will be looked after and treated well. She can't cope with money or changes to her routine, so would need to be in sheltered living for the rest of her life. Neither of my parents wants to make me her carer, but my dad said he has been kept awake with the worry.
My dad and I have a sometimes fractious relationship. I have spent my whole life trying to make him proud, and I finally saw it on his face as I walked across the stage at my Masters graduation ceremony in March. The thought of losing him scares me, I am literally crying as I type this.
I check in with him almost every day, asking him how he is, telling him I love him. I am guilty of taking both of my parents for granted at times, we probably all are, but I am incredibly grateful for the life they've worked hard to give me. For the home they created, the sacrifices they've made. My dad used to work incredibly long hours, driving up the motorway every day. Now he runs his own business, from our spare room, and still works just as hard as he did when I was little.
The title of this post comes from the end of E. Nesbit's The Railway Children, when Bobby sees her daddy emerge from the train, having thought him lost, and runs to him crying "Daddy, my daddy".  Which to me sums up the bond between child and father, the love you bear the people who are responsible for your existence.
I love you Daddy.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Something about Christmas...or whatever

The Boy is sat on the floor watching NCIS and wrapping Christmas presents for his family and some friends, I have done most of my shopping but not got round to wrapping it yet, his activity is however, not spurring me into action. I am quite content to sit here and watch him go.
Christmas is not my favourite time of year, bits of it are nice (and I don't mean presents), but on the whole I would quite happily do without it. It's the longest holiday I'm taking from the office and most of it will be spent rushing around like crazy trying to fit everything, and everyone in.
Which is why I've done pretty much all my Christmas shopping in the last week and am now broke again, after paying bills and buying things for other people, there's nothing left for me. Which is frustrating. Now I know I'll be getting a few things from my parents (I ordered them for my mum), that I want, and The Boy had a look at my saved for later list on Amazon, so he might have got a few things I'd like, but there are some things I would have brought for myself this month, and now I can't.
I've probably spent the most on my lovely, but he deserves it, he's had a tough year, being out of work and struggling to keep everything going with his Masters degree. I've been there, it's awful.
Luckily now he's back on track, working all week and getting his studying done at the weekend. We're moving in together in January, officially. I'm here all the time as it is, and we both feel it's time to live in one place, rather than between two, so we've been making the flat more cosy, and livable for two people. It's arduous and stressful, trying to organise all our things and condense them into a small flat, I have a lot of stuff. Mostly books, which I can't downsize, I've tried but I either get sidetracked into re-reading them or so exhausted from lifting them off the shelves and putting it back and have to go and lie down.
Anyway, this Christmas will be our third together and we'll be dividing it between seeing my family, his family, catching up with friends, and curling up on the sofa exhausted watching movies. We're hosting a New Year's party at the flat, so it'll have to be extra tidy to squeeze all the people in, but getting our friends in one place can be tricky.
So if you celebrate Christmas, have a lovely one, I hope it's filled with the people you love, and laughter, and those little sausages wrapped in bacon.
See you in 2013.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Education reform and why I'm really glad school is a long way behind me

Today Michael Gove, the Minister for Education announced he was scrapping the GCSE qualifications and introducing an English Baccalaureate, starting in the next few years. I did GCSEs when I was 16, and if I had to sit anything more complex I wouldn't have ended up going to university. A few years ago there was a mooted Baccalaureate qualification to replace A Levels (which I sat at 18). In order to pass the Baccalaureate, which is used on the Continent, you need to be a good all rounder. You have to take exams in English, Maths, Science, History, Geography and Languages. Now, I'm rubbish at Maths, numbers do not stick in my brain. I had fairly crummy Maths teachers growing up, if you don't have an aptitude for it, you ended up with teachers who weren't allowed (or able) to teach Maths to the kids who understood it. However I was good at English and other Arts and Humanities subjects (languages, History, Drama, Religious Studies, I was even good at Geography) and I could get by in Science. I can't draw for toffee and why run around in the freezing cold playground in shorts when there's a perfectly nice, warm library indoors (P.E teachers are sadists).
If I hadn't been able to drop the subjects I was no good at (I did however get a C in Maths at GCSE, you need a D to pass - take that crappy Maths teacher who told me it wasn't worth sitting the exam as I was going to fail - the insane Maths tutor totally paid off!!) and do subjects I understood and could cope with, then I wouldn't have got any qualifications and ended up with an MA.
The other thing Gove wants to scrap is coursework, bane of all teenagers' existence. I remember being asked by my mum "What coursework do you have?" "Have you done your coursework?" over and over. Teachers were the same, nagging about it. But it meant that for those who struggled with exams (I have a big brain, but even it cannot hold that much information) there was a chance to pull your grades up by doing great research for your coursework and presenting that well. (Let's not talk about my A Level History coursework, ever.)
Basically Gove wants to make it nearly impossible for kids to do well, if you're not an all rounder, if you don't have the aptitude for something, that's going to be the thing that pulls you down, that makes you fail and leaves you unable to excel and go on to further and higher education.
That's just wrong and I am so lucky that my GCSEs were 10 years ago. Which sounds insane as I don't feel nearly that old and I can remember going in for my exams and rushing off with my friends after, either crushed because it was terribly hard and frustrating or elated as it was a doddle (like the German oral exam, my teacher had the answers upside down on her desk).
I want the children coming up behind us to look back and have good memories of their time at school, or mixed ones like mine, not ones where they look back and wish government ministers in their ivory towers hadn't tampered with their exams so they ended up falling behind.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

To my 16 year old self

As I turn 26 in a week, I thought it only fitting to write to you, 16 year old me back in 2003. You're studying for your GCSEs and already having to make decisions that will affect your future, but it's ok.
You'll do fine in your exams in the summer, but don't be complacent. The maths tutor Mothership hires to help you will be a bit eccentric, but more encouraging than Ms Auerbach, ignore her.
Your A Levels are important but they will not matter in a few years, drop History, do Drama instead. I should have done. Although Mr Jones will leave halfway through. You'll love Mr Livingstone's lessons, and will one day get a hug from him at a sad occasion. Daniella will still be your best buddy, your evil twin. We talk everyday.
Things will get harder, turning 18 will be painful, you will be in hell. Ask for help. Ask Mum, ask a friend, ask a teacher. Do not suffer. You are not alone. I love you.
There will be dark days, truly, utterly wretched ones. You will go to some horrible places in your head, reach rock bottom and fall apart. But you will get better. It won't be easy but books, music, your friends and Madre will help. You don't feel like that forever. Promise. Hating yourself is easy, it's taken me this long to start loving myself, you will have help.
You will go to university, it won't be the one you think. You will not love everything about it, but you will learn a lot and be completely inspired. Your mind will expand and you will read hundreds of books, some of them will become your favourites, others will not.
Your friends will change, but you won't lose everyone, but gain some truly wonderful people in your life, they will be the best you will ever know. Those you lose will not be worth worrying over.
You will have a lot of adventures, always say 'yes', a life of regrets is not worth it. I wish I had said yes more, but I have let go of those regrets.
You will not get everything in life you want right now. Things will not slot into place the way you imagine. It'll be a slog, but so worth it. You will meet the most amazing people, see wonderful things, go to some great places and learn so, so much.
One day, when you least expect it, and are thinking you're ok being alone, you will meet a truly wonderful man. He will love you completely and utterly, burgeoning insanity and all. You will begin to plan a life together and you will be happy.
Be nice to your sister, but teasing is ok. She needs you on her team. Take care of everyone, you're good at that, but don't neglect yourself. There will be ups and downs, but all the tough times lead somewhere good. Don't get rid of your books, it's annoying trying to track down replacements.
Embrace your weirdness, it's part of you.
I love you, weird, messed up 16 year old me. Take care of yourself. We need you. xx

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Meet the superhumans

Tagline of Channel 4's coverage of the 2012 Paralympics, starting tomorrow.
 I didn't watch a huge amount of the Olympics as I was at work the whole time, but I followed it in the paper and through The Boy, who got incredibly into it. He's even more excited about the Paralympics, perhaps because he has represented his country at the same international level, and has membership of BOA.
The trailers for the TV coverage look fantastic, the GB team stand an excellent chance of doing really well, and we're going, twice! I didn't get any tickets in the great ticket raffle fiasco, but The Boy lucked out with day passes this Saturday and the following week. Which means we can explore the Olympic Park this week and hopefully see a variety of sports including wheelchair fencing, basketball, archery and some other stuff. The following week we'll be going to the Excel centre to see some more events, and soak up some more of the tremendous atmosphere that seems to have been a highlight of many people's Olympic summer.
I'll try and post about the days we spend at the Paralympics, but my blogging has been terribly sporadic recently, so I make no promises! I hope you're enjoying the summer and making the most of all the exciting things it brings.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Bad Books

Danger, these books may seriously lower your IQ.

 There are a lot of badly written books out there, books where the editor was clearly high when they left all the mistakes in, books no one can salvage. But in the last few years some of these terrible books have been making their way into the bestseller lists instead of the remainder pile.

Dan Brown’s ghastly Da Vinci Code books are serial offenders. Riddled with inaccuracies, and bad (non-existent) research; including the belief that it takes about an hour to drive from Scotland to London (try at least a whole day if not longer). Now most of his books can be found on the shelves of your local charity shop, destined to moulder until an enterprising volunteer chucks them in the recycling and replaces them with one of these other offenders.

Harry Potter and the case of the Absent Editor.

The first Harry Potter book is very badly put together. The editor (whoever that culpable fool may be) did not do their job properly. At some universities, students are set the challenge of identifying the grammatical errors on the first few pages alone. It doesn’t take them long, there are so many. Remember that Bloomsbury (who published this garbage) were sued for plagiarism several times over these books (they won, mostly because they paid off the claimants). JK Rowling insists she dreamt this all up in a café in Edinburgh, shame she didn’t bother to invest her millions in a dictionary and a grammar check.

The Twilight Series: A whole heap of wet blankets

Vampire stories have been around a while, from the historical (Elizabeth Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins to preserve her youth, Vlad the Impaler drinking the blood of his enemies) to the fantastical (Dracula – arguably the most famous creature of the night). They’ve been black and white nightmares (Nosferatu), allegories for the horrors of teenagehood (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and cartoons (Count Duckula). But clearly Stephanie Meyer lives in a pop culture free zone, coming up with this pile of badly written, cliché driven balls about vampires who don’t want to drink your blood, they want to go to high school. In the daylight. Where they don’t burst into flames. Huh? It would be bad enough if it was just an attempt to rewrite hundreds of years of folklore, but to be this drippy and to have another editor who doesn’t understand how syntax or grammar works (maybe it’s the same one!) is more than just bad luck.

50 Shades of Really?!?!

So now we come to the most recent offender. EL James’ pile of crapola started life as Twilight fan fiction online, and that really is where it should say. It’s bad enough that it rebuffs feminism, revelling in the idea that all women really want is a rich older man who spanks them and sexually degrades them, too naïve to tell him to stop. There are so many problems with the frankly laughable ‘plot’ that I don’t know where to start! To top it off it really is badly written. I read a few pages of the first one, itching to get a red pen and edit it properly. Self-publishing has a lot to answer for. The clichés, the wet heroine, the frankly misogynistic male ‘fantasy’ figure. Time for James to go back to school and learn the basics – syntax really isn’t that taxing.  (For a laugh, read the Amazon reader reviews).

Now, I know the arguments for these books; ‘they get people reading’, ‘sometimes you just want something light’. But, you have to wonder what they go on to read. If these books are on your level, then you probably could have done with some more reading lessons at school.
I also appreciate that not everyone wants to read Dickens all the time (I certainly don’t, but that’s a post for another day). There are better writers, better books out there, and honestly they can usually be found without much hassle. Ask someone, if you’re a friend of mine (or even if you aren’t – Tweet me) I will happily recommend a selection of books that are more enjoyable, well written, entertaining and hardly taxing instead of picking up a ‘bestseller’. The continued existence of reality TV shows such as TOWIE and Made in Chelsea illustrate that the general public cannot be trusted as arbiters of taste and quality.
As someone who has spent a long time reading for academic purposes, there are times when I too want to switch off my brain, and just indulge. Usually I reach for a thriller or an old favourite to unwind and not have to spend all my time analysing the language, the use of syntax, the style and the plot.
But there is a difference between reading something to unwind and switch off and reading this sort of brain rot – open 50 Shades of Gray and your IQ drops by 20 points every time. If you honestly think this is great stuff, you really ought to write a letter of complaint to your former educators, somewhere along the line they let you down severely.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Defying Gravity

I recently finished the last in Gregory Maguire's Wicked Years series, Out of Oz. The series began with the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in Wicked. Maguire's spun an epic, complex, sprawling saga, spun out of Frank L. Baum's Wizard of Oz books.
Elphaba's story ends much as it does in Baum's original, but the story of her descendants, friends and country continue in Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men and finally Out of Oz, which gathers together characters from the previous books, including a certain Miss Dorothy Gale, as Oz enters its own end game. War has broken out between Munchkinland and Loyal Oz, Elphaba's half brother Shell sits on the throne the Wizard once held, and a ragtag band of strangers will be drawn together to find a solution and save Oz from rending itself apart as it has been doing since before Dorothy's house fell on Elphaba's sister, Nessarose.
Liir, Elphaba's son, his wife Candle, the Cowardly Lion, Brr, a strange little girl called Rain, Mr Boss, the dwarf who accompanies The Clock of the Time Dragon and other assorted peoples of Oz journey across its expanses, searching for a safe place to hide the Grimmerie, the book that gave the flying monkeys their wings. Swept up into the political maelstrom raging across the grass plains, marshes and towns, chased by militia and fate, this disparate gang need to find a way to bond, to connect with their pasts and with the power hidden inside them.
Funny, clever, and bursting with life, I raced to finish this book, desperate to know if Elphaba really was coming back, or if Rain would learn to be part of the world instead of a distance from it.
I suggest you read the previous books in order to fully follow what is going on - Wicked the book differs a fair bit from Wicked the musical, although it inspired it, so don't rely on having seen it. You get a greater sense of the depth of the writing from having read the rest of the series, the complex, detailed plot often harks back to previous storylines and the characters back stories aren't explained in any detail, as Maguire is assuming that you've read the previous volumes.
An excellent series from a talented writer, with a skill for retelling older stories, it's fun, clever, and well worth the read.