Thursday, August 31, 2006

Roller Coaster Hell

I think I mentioned we went to Alton Towers while we were away. This is something new for me, I’ve never been a connoisseur of roller coasters. I have mild vertigo, and its always seemed odd to me to put myself in a position of activating that for “fun”. LL loves them, the faster, the wilder, the better. Ali Baba takes after her in that way, and I suspect the Princess will soon follow when she has a couple more inches of height. Pirate Pete takes after me, it all looks pretty scary.

So, to help him with his fear I’ve had to jettison mine. To let him try it and see if he enjoys it I had to be there beside him. Its been a good exercise for me, and though I can’t say I’ll ever be a roller coaster addict, once out of the trenches its not so bad.

In my teens, for an essay question I took a stab at answering what courage was. My feeble attempt was to pen that courage was doing what you know is right despite your fear. I have to admit, trying to classify going on a roller coaster as courageous is more than a little daft, but the essence is there. I knew my son found the things scary. I wanted him to do it, despite finding it scary, then see if he enjoyed it or not. To do that, I had to do it myself.

We’d had a few talks about this, and I had told him I didn’t like roller coasters either. The first breakthrough was at Lego Land when we tried some more mild versions and he found he liked it. The Alton Towers versions are a whole different kettle of fish.

So, to help him, I helped myself and just did them. Some where all right, if you know the place Air is this roller coaster that either has you on your back or hanging horizontally upside down. That one I liked, it was the feeling of controlled speed, something I always like, that did it. Oblivion was another matter. For the uninitiated, it’s a very short ride, but what it does is take you up to a hundred feet or so, then drops you vertically, face first, into a black hole before tossing you about a bit.

My wife thought I was stark raving mad, but I set myself a goal of calmness. To take the ride and not let my heart rate increase, and to do it with eyes open. Roller coasters as a form of meditation is something my father would have found hilarious, but would have approved of. I did it too, hung over the edge and took the plunge, yet kept my heart rate calm. LL thought that daft, the point is the adrenalin rush. For this time, I disagreed, but maybe next.

Pirate Pete? He did very well, took one of them that tossed him upside down in a look the loop. He wasn’t sure he liked that part, but he liked the rest of it. Next year he’ll be tall enough for the big rides. Will he do them? I await with pleasure to see. He may, and he may not, but now he knows he can.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Cottage

I have a running gag with my married in sister in law that we joined the family to get access to the cottage. It certainly couldn’t have been for their personalities (the family has a notorious temper, though with sterling qualities otherwise). Like any good gag there is truth buried deep under the humour.

The place was bought by my wife’s maternal grandfather just after the war for a pittance (if I told you how much you would cry, it really was a pittance). At that time it was a little two up two down cottage with a lean to kitchen. No running water, no electricity, no central heating. For a good long time it remained that way. My wife has childhood memories of going there and huddling around the roaring kitchen fire in summer holidays.

However, when her Grandparents decided to have their second retirement there (a long story in itself), it was “fixed up”. There is an architect in the far flung reaches of the family who specialises in renovating old buildings, so this was no cowboy job. Somehow the Peak District authorities where convinced to allow a long extention, so long as it looked like an aged barn, and the work was done (picture here.

With much argument and compromise the plans where completed and the house done up. It is now a still quaint, but much enlarged building with underfloor heating, double glazing, and a massive hot water tank to service the sometimes massive hoards that descend on the place.

So it’s a bit more comfortable for our children that what my wife remembered. Thankfully she is not at all nostalgic. For her it was the location, not the building, that holds the attraction of memory.

It really is a magic place, on a small plain with a cliff down to the river on one side, and a massive hill on the other. It’s completely remote, the nearest farmhouse is a comfortable five minute walk. Next to that it’s a half hour walk to the local village.

With our kids being the fourth generation going there, my wife’s mother grew up with the old farmer, my wife with the current farmer, and our kids play with the latest batch of farm kids. Every visit we pop by the farm regularly, for a cup of tea or a meal. The kids play football with the sheep dog and this time even helped with mucking out the cattle barn. They are of an age when that is considered “fun”.

The best thing about the cottage? When there you have little choice but to kick back and relax. Oh, there are always chores and maintenance jobs on the place. Keeping the building in good nick is a communal affair. Mostly though all there is to do is go for walks, or reading a book in front of the fire, or have long meals with whoever else is there at the time.

The walks are the best thing. It’s up the hill to the top. A good march that rewards you with stunning views and a ramble around the mounds of an old roman fort (built on top of an old iron age fort or so local legend says). Or down the hill to wander along the banks of the river. Or in to the village which is more than a little picturesque (with one or two rather fine pubs). Princess is finally of an age where she can cope, if slowly, with a good ramble.

So, there is a little truth in my marrying my wife to get access to the cottage. Not much, I would have married her any way, but a little…

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The 10 Things of Holiday

It was a fine fine holiday. Much merriment, solialising, kiddie time and good food was had. I’m oddly tired but revitalised. A combination of nine to ten hours a night sleep and bad beds. Various things blew up at work while I was away, so it wasn’t entirely uniterupted, but all the same I’m feeling quite refreshed. As a summary, a bloggers list:
  1. Cave spelunked. Well, it had stairs and handrails, but I had to duck a lot.
  2. Mines explored, one lead, one coal
  3. Steam Trains ridden upon. My boys are steam mad, and we had to go and see and ride every one possible. IT was my first time to the National Railway Museum in York, and it won’t be the last. Great place that
  4. Roller Coasters twisted and twirled on. Gotta love Alton Towers. Pirate Pete got right into it, even going on one that twirled him upside down. He wasn’t sure if he liked that or not. Ali Baba loved them all, of course
  5. Kite flyings. We happened upon a Kite festival. Saw some truly amazing kites. Some where 30 feet long and inflated into bears and lizards. We bought the kids some kites, and its our new best activity
  6. Walks up the hill at the cottage. More to follow on the cottage I think. It is a place of real tranquillity, I can’t even get mobile reception there. Except at the top of the hill…
  7. Work related calls. Far too much went wrong while I was away. The problem with managing a major change is that too much rests on your shoulders. Got to work harder and getting others to step up
  8. Bottles of wine consumed, or was that nine, maybe ten? Could have been more, I don’t quite remember…
  9. Mornings where I was able to sleep in past eight without a child joining us in bed. Eight!
  10. Meals with other adults present. We got to talk about adult things and be social and everything
Now its back to work. The trains where on strike this morning so it was up far too early and in the car to drive in. I’ve got a sea of emails to wade through, so this post will be short. Still, I’m back and happy.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The boy has left the building...

Time for a wee break. Normal service will resume after the bank holiday.

Enjoy yourselves, I know I will!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Summer Blues

I am physically and emotionally exhausted. The minutes until I'm on holiday on Friday are literally ticking away in my mind. As a run up my first meeting today starts in a few minutes and I run solidly back to back until after six. Same tomorrow. Its been a good year mind, I'm not really complaining much, I just really need a break.

As such, I am at a loss of what to write. Besides few of you lot are commenting. No excuse, of course, but it adds to the blogger blues. So a short post today, as the day begins. Only one piece of news. The hand mirror I got LL for her birthday went down a treat. Much amused conversation on our mutual behaviours resulted.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Driving Ourselves Mad

So, you have three small children and a five hour drive planned. You can just load up and go, but that is a form of family torture. Kids can be lovely most of the time, but cooped up in a small space, unable to move about, they quickly become cranky and bored. There are car games, and those are good things, but they only fill up some time. They are GameBoys, but small children will even get bored of those, plus the batteries won’t last five hours.

There there is telly. This was once a pipe dream, our modern opiate in cars? Not possible. Until now. Modern flat screens and slim line DVD’s have opened up a whole new world of in car “entertainment”. We’ve had some real travel nightmares in our time, and I am determined this coming holiday will be smooth, calm and as joyful as possible. So I determined to go out and see what the market had to solve this new possibility.

The options are endless. Ranging from very tiny screens to frankly pretty massive ones, nearly every manufacturer has an “in car” option these days. They range from simple handhelds, to pretty complex systems that would do well at home. Thing is, you have to think about how all this is going to work.

With three children in the back seat one screen is not enough, especially if its small. So that means a two screen system, one behind each front seat. OK, there’s lots of options there, but most have one screen slaved to the one which has the DVD drive. What happens to families like ours where a little girl wants to watch things quite different from her older brothers?

Well, you can get two DVD players, but then sometimes they will want to watch the same thing. Then there is headphones. Three sets of wires around three heads starts to sound like a safety hazard if you’re in an accident. There are now wireless headphones, but how do you deal with having different DVDs playing on the two screens? Finally, there is parental control. To stop arguments, and minise time expensive stops at motorway service stations you need to be able to control things, and more importantly change DVD’s from the front. Most handheld players are clamshell designs that are complicated to open. Not something you can easily do bent at awkward angles from the front seat.

Nextbase has thought all this through, and seems to be the only manufacturer that has. I settled on the SDV-185S series, which is a tablet design with 8 ½ inch screens. Bigger than average, but not so big it won’t hang off the seat. As a tablet, DVD’s load through a slot in the side, something you can manage from the front seat, or the children can even manage themselves. They come with remote controls, so you can do other things from the front seat as well.

The clever bit is each tablet has its own DVD drive, but you can also run a cable between the two and slave one to the other. That means two DVD’s showing on each screen or the same one on both. There is also a two channel wireless headset option. Now you can have each headset running off either screen. The kids can choose which one they are listening to.

Battery life is tested at 3-4 hours, but they also provide an adapter to run of 12v car power. Limitless viewing is now possible! Amazingly every option seems catered for. Plus, they come with a simple headrest mount, but also can operate as hand helds. You can actually take them out of the car, and use them where ever you go. Extremely useful when you’re going to granny and grandad’s who have a TV, but not a DVD. They arrive tomorrow! I shall update on the success of the choice when we return!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Bought Indulgence

I was reading an article this morning that said research had shown an income beyond £15,000 a year did not effect happiness. Though I would agree money can’t buy you happiness, and its possible to be in financial difficulty at any income, what money does is remove stress. If you have it, and are moderately careful with it, there’s a lot of things you don’t have to worry about. Also, though it doesn’t buy you happiness, it does buy you a certain amount of freedom.

Through a mixture of luck, hard word, and careful husbandry we’re in decent financial shape. We can buy or do pretty well what we want and not suffer as a result. That isn’t happiness, but it helps.

Take this weekend. It was LL’s birthday. Often I prepare for such things well in advance. This summer has been extraordinarily busy, and I left it until the last minute. Still, SN was willing to deal with the kids for a night, and I’ve got access to one of those concierge type thingies that helps you gain entrée into where you want to go.

We don’t have a written list, but we’ve certainly a few restaurants we’ve been wanting to try. Every year we try to find time to try out another one. This year was a bit of a surprise. Even my magic key couldn’t get me into either of the places at the top of the list. Yet my mate at the end of the phone did suggest an alternative, and I’m very happy she did.

The Vineyard is a restaurant with a hotel attached. Its owned by a man who has too much money and in his retirement has turned to starting up radio stations (Classic FM) and buying up vineyards and hotels. That is how to retire I think.

So, with everything organised we packed up, turned the kids over to SN and went. It was a lovely day, so we drove with the roof down. We turned up in plenty of time, strolled in and were whisked up to our suite. The hotel had been informed it was a birthday, so my mate had wrangled an upgrade with flowers and champagne. The afternoon was spent in the spa relaxing in the Jacuzzi and Steam Room, then back to the room for… well… a “bath” and a “nap”. We certainly weren’t going to waste an opportunity without interruption from the kids.

Much relaxed we strolled downstairs for a drink on the terrace before being led to the table. A chef with pretensions often has a special menu. It’s a show off piece where he can weave tastes and textures together. There are no rules, but generally, there are not less than eight and we’ve had as many as twelve courses. Each is very small mind, and the best prepared ones just leave you contently full, not bloated. Some day I shall tell the tale of the pigs trotter and the ruining of an evening, but not today.

This was ten courses, some average, some absolutely exquisite. Set off with a Spanish White and an Italian Red, plus a good port for the pudding courses, it was fabulous. Three of the dishes were memorable, and head straight to the boy’s taste hall of fame. It’s unusual for a chef to put more than one aspect of a meal into my mental food heaven list, but this one had three.

The first was a small square of organic farmed salmon. If you’ve had that you know it has quite a pale colour. Because no dies are used, it almost doesn’t look like salmon. In this case is was just warmed though, so was translucent, then was placed on a bed of spiced lentils with a swirl of smoked banana beside. Don’t ask me how you smoke a banana, I haven’t a clue (though I will find out, its now a mission (a number of impractical suggestions come to mind)), but it was a superb taste on its own. The salmon mixed with the lentils and the banana was almost indescribable. Heaven, true art on a plate.

The second bit of memorabilia was a foi gras. This is one of my guilty pleasures, but it is also a dish with a bad reputation. From a reputable farm, the geese have a better existence certainly than a battery chicken, and probably of what passes for free range in this country (which is a marketing gimmick, often it means they’re loose in a barn, but can still have less than a square foot of space to live in). A proper foi gras goose lives most of its life free ranging outside, pecking at seeds, grass and insects (helps the flavour see). Only in its last few weeks is it forced. Even this isn’t so bad. I’ve deliberately gone to see it, and the geese are not forced at all, they quite happily come up and extend their necks to get the fill of corn down their throats, the greedy things that they are.

So, I eat foi gras. This dish shall live as the gold standard preparation. The liver was perfectly grilled, just caramelised on the outside. It was served with a truffle sauce and a cube of sherry jelly. I can still taste it as I write.

The third hall of fame item was a cucumber and lime ice cream. I’ve had these sorts of scientific taste dishes before, and often the supposedly surprising taste is overwhelmed. The cucumber wasn’t, it was a clear taste and smell of the ice cream. All I can say is that I shall experiment and experiment again until I can recreate it. Both of us thought it was marvellous.

So, the meal took four hours, two bottles of wine and two glasses of very nice port thank you. Plus hours of conversation. LL and I are blessed that we still enjoy talking to each other. Despite, or perhaps because of our history there is always lots to discuss. We went for a short walk in the balmy evening through the garden, then strolled back up to bed. No naughtiness was had, but we did fall contentedly asleep in each others arms.

Next morning we had a slow lazy wake up (ahh… some naughtiness was had). Then a perfectly prepared cooked breakfast and another fun drive home with the roof down. We got back to a quiet house, until the kids jumped out with cards and were led triumphantly to the table where a birthday cake, clearly made and decorated by children, was waiting. LL nearly cried.

So, money can’t buy you happiness. Three children singing heartily off key and a badly prepared cake did that. It can put you in the mood for it though.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Cowboys and Indians

I have bad builder karma.

I do, I really do. I know most people probably have a horror story or two hidden up their sleeve. I could write a book, a series of books. Its not all tales of cowboy builders, for the most part the people we’ve worked with have been decent, kept to estimates and been skilled at what they do.

Its our house you see. It actively resists things going right. If there is a simple plaster job to do, the underlying render will crack and fall off. If there’s a hole to be drilled in a wall it will hit a pipe. Nothing can just be simple. And to give them their dues, most builders have been solid, taking issues in stride and working with us to resolve it.

Then there was the builder from hell. I look back at the 19 months he worked on our house and just shake my head. Again, it wasn’t all bad, much of the work he did was to a good standard. The house just did its thing, and in correcting one job, three problems would rear their ugly head.

But he was a cowboy. Not in the “rip you off and do no work” sense, but in the fact he would far rather be riding the range and herding cows than keeping the books straight. Trying to figure out what I owed him for which piece of work was a nightmare. He also went bust midway through the job, though I naively didn’t know it at the time.

I got this letter see. It said “We’re moving offices, and changing names, and changing bank accounts. Isn’t it great?” Now if I had been at the office and in a professional capacity I would have smelled a rat. This was my home, see? I was working with him to resolve three separate problems, and he and his team was doing a good job to resolve it, so I didn’t see.

In fact he’s a serial liquidator. Builds up debts in one limited company, shuts it down and immediately opens up another. When he says it isn’t deliberate, that he always means to do good, I half believe him. However, at the time I didn’t realise it (and believe me, I’ve given myself many a middle of the night sleepless kicking worrying about it). I’ve found all this out since the fact when alerted by one poor supplier who wasn’t paid for something he supplied to my house.

All this is well after the fact. The reason I’m writing this, my blood bubbling in an impotent rage, is he’s after me for a final payment to the liquidated company. Its all very odd. However I have a letter from the liquidator saying its full and final payment. I have taken legal advice and been told that so long as I have backup, that I’ve paid to the previous and current companies and properly informed, I’m in the clear.

Its just this, the builder, the one who folded the previous company, is chasing me. He would only do that if some or all of the money was going to go to him. I know there are creditors to the previous company unpaid. It just makes me ill. However, the law is the law, and it is not always just. So I’ll pay and be done with it.

I just don’t have to like it.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Hidden Aging

My wife and I are both introverts. For the most part we’re quite happy in each other’s company. Most of our interests are similar and it makes those precious times alone easy, as we can always find something we enjoy. That’s not to say we don’t like being social, its just the nature of our lives tends to mean we have to organise things to be with other people, and sometimes that’s too much like hard work.

Neither of us are big on parties. We both do the work doos, or go if a friend has organised something, but we never organise ones for ourselves. Particularly for birthdays. No, birthdays are meant to be quiet sedate affairs, maybe a cake with the kids, but certainly no major public affair.

We’ve been together long enough to have hit some of the “milestone” birthdays, and both of us have been quite content for these to be almost forgotten. Aging is bad enough without celebrating it. I mean really, do you want the world to know you’ve aged? Isn’t it obvious enough?

There is one thing we like to do with birthday’s though. Its our one excuse to get away with each other. We don’t like holidays away from the kids. A lot of our friends with family do that. I suppose I can intellectually understand that, particularly for full time mothers, but we both work away from the house. Holidays are times to be WITH our kids, not away from them.

Still, the odd stolen night away just being adults has its pleasures. We’ve used one of our birthdays a year to get away. To have a wicked weekend with good food and wine and a private room hidden away where we can sleep in and, ehemm… do other things.

Its that time, my wife is officially aging another year. So away we go, a quiet hidden away country hotel. For an afternoon, evening and morning we get to just be with each other. There’s massage in the spa organised, afternoon tea in the garden and a bang up meal. The place has a good cellar and organises a tasting to choose the wine for the meal.

I’m very excited, though I’m so tired I may fall asleep in my soup with a bit of wine in my belly…

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Tired tired tired

Oh I am tired this morning. Had to get up at 5 to make an early morning meeting in the city. A contract to sort out. My suppliers, they of the downing of tools variety, are starting another phase, and another of their artificial contract deadlines is looming. I can understand the argument of needing a contract given they have started the work, but we’ve proven ourselves a good client. Yet again threatening to down tools if we don’t sign is aggravating beyond belief. If they do it again I know what the internal reaction will be, we may very well throw them out of the building. It would be cutting off our nose to spite our face, but mine is not a company that takes commercial threats kindly.

And I have a cold, in the middle of summer. Its been too hot to sleep well, and now its cooled off I have a cold. Unlike a normal person, who would probably take a day or too off and recover, I’m up early to go argue with a supplier on issues that shouldn’t be issues. I will not likely finish the day until seven or eight and get home too late to see my children again.

For the most part I enjoy my job, but there are times when I have to look at myself. Why do I drive so hard that I miss out on the other things in life I enjoy so much? I deprive myself and my family of my time. Yes, I provide well for them, as does my wife, but is it worth it? I try to compensate and keep weekends sacrosanct family time, but that in many ways adds to the strain and I just end up tired all the time.

An unanswerable question. I work hard because I work hard. It has its own rewards, many not financial. So nose to the grindstone again boy.