Woke Kids

The other weekend, I joined in with the parade at Witney Pride, accompanied by our 10-year-old who’d expressed an interest in coming too.

It was her first Pride but she clearly got the idea, turning up with a wonderful hand-coloured poster she’d made which, in rainbow colours, encouraged the reader to “be kind”.

A Pride parade marches down a high street: Dan and his eldest can be seen in the very background.
You’ve seen pictures of Pride parades before, possibly even ones with me in them.

You know what: our eldest is so woke it makes me embarrassed on behalf of my past self at her age. Or even at twice her age, when I still didn’t have the level of social and societal awareness and care about queer issues that she does already.

A tweeny girl and a 40-something man with rainbows painted on their faces wave flags in a Pride parade. The child has coloured-in a poster saying "be kind".
I’d equipped her with a whistle (on a rainbow lanyard) and instructions that in the event of protests from religious nuts she shouldn’t engage with them (because that’s what they want) but instead just to help ensure that our parade was louder than them! I needn’t have worried though: Witney ain’t Oxford or London and our march seemed to see nothing but joy and support from the folks we passed.

When we got to the parade’s destination, the kid found a stall selling a variety of badges, and selected for herself a “she/her/hers” pronoun pin.

“It’s not like anybody’s likely to look at me and assume that my pronouns are anything other than that,” she explained, “But I want it to be normal to talk about, and I want to show solidarity for genderqueer people.”

That’s a level of allyship that it took me until I was much, much older to attain. So proud!

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Water Science #2

Back in 2019, the kids – so much younger back then! – and I helped undertake some crowdsourced citizen science for the Thames WaterBlitz. This year, we’re helping out again.

Screenshot from FreshWater Watch's slightly-shonky dataviewer, showing that 3 participants took a sample from Oxford Canal bridge 228 on 21 September 2019.
It really is “open data”. Look: I found the record that was created as a result of the kids’ and my participation back in 2019!

We’ve moved house since then, but we’re still within the Thames basin and can provide value by taking part in this weekend’s sampling activity. The data that gets collected on nitrate and phosphate levels in local water sources –  among other observations – gets fed into an open dataset for the benefit of scientists and laypeople.

Two young children assess the colour of some canal water, beneath a bridge.
The kids were smaller last time we did this.

It’d have been tempting to be exceptionally lazy and measure the intermittent water course that runs through our garden! It’s an old, partially-culverted drainage ditch1, but it’s already reached the “dry” part of its year and taking a sample wouldn’t be possible right now.

Two children wearing wellies stand in a ditch, breaking ice into chunks.
The ditch in our garden is empty 75% and full of water 25% of the time. Oh, and full of ice for a few days each winter, to the delight of children who love smashing things. (It’s also full of fallen wood and leaf detritus most of the year and JTA spends a surprising amount of time dredging it so that it drains properly into its next section.)

But more-importantly: the focus of this season’s study is the River Evenlode, and we’re not in its drainage basin! So we packed up a picnic and took an outing to the North Leigh Roman Villa, which I first visited last year when I was supposed to be on the Isle of Man with Ruth.

Dan kneels on a striped picnic mat with a 7-year-old and a 10-year old child alongside some sandwiches, iced fingers, Pepperami, fruit, and pretzels.
“Kids, we’re going outside…” / “Awww! Noooo!” / “…for a picnic and some science!” / “Yayyy!”

Our lunch consumed, we set off for the riverbank, and discovered that the field between us and the river was more than a little waterlogged. One of the two children had been savvy enough to put her wellies on when we suggested, but the other (who claims his wellies have holes in, or don’t fit, or some other moderately-implausible excuse for not wearing them) was in trainers and Ruth and I needed to do a careful balancing act, holding his hands, to get him across some of the tougher and boggier bits.

A 7-year-old boy in a grey camo coat balances on a blank over a large muddy puddle: he's about to attempt to cross a log to a gate into the next field (which also looks pretty wet). Ruth, who doesn't much like featuring in photos, has been digitally-removed from this one (she was standing at the far side ready to catch the balancing child!).
Trainers might not have been the optimal choice of footwear for this particular adventure.

Eventually we reached the river, near where the Cotswold Line crosses it for the fifth time on its way out of Oxford. There, almost-underneath the viaduct, we sent the wellie-wearing eldest child into the river to draw us out a sample of water for testing.

Map showing the border between Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire as defined by the original path of the River Evenlode near Kingham, but the Evenlode has been redirected as part of the construction of the railway, putting two small bits of Gloucestershire on the "wrong side" of the river.
As far as Moreton-in-Marsh, the Cotswold Line out of Oxford essentially follows the River Evenlode. In some places, such as this one near Kingham, the river was redirected to facilitate the construction of the railway. Given that the historic Gloucestershire/Oxfordshire boundary was at this point defined by the river, it’s not clear whether this represents the annexation of two territories of Gloucestershire by Oxfordshire. I doubt that anybody cares except map nerds.

Looking into our bucket, we were pleased to discover that it was, relatively-speaking, teeming with life: small insects and a little fish-like thing wriggled around in our water sample2. This, along with the moorhen we disturbed3 as we tramped into the reeds, suggested that the river is at least in some level of good-health at this point in its course.

A 10-year old girl wearing sunglasses and purple wellies holds her skirt up out of the water as she wades up the muddy bank of a river carrying a tub of water.
I’m sure our eldest would have volunteered to be the one to traipse through the mud and into the river even if she hadn’t been the only one of that was wearing wellies.

We were interested to observe that while the phosphate levels in the river were very high, the nitrate levels are much lower than they were recorded near this spot in a previous year. Previous years’ studies of the Evenlode have mostly taken place later in the year – around July – so we wondered if phosphate-containing agricultural runoff is a bigger problem later in the Spring. Hopefully our data will help researchers answer exactly that kind of question.

Children stand around at a riverside stile while a colour-changing chemical in a vial does its thing.
The chemical experiments take up to 5 minutes each to develop before you can read their colours, so the kids had plenty of time to write-up their visual observations while they waited.

Regardless of the value of the data we collected, it was a delightful excuse for a walk, a picnic, and to learn a little about the health of a local river. On the way back to the car, I showed the kids how to identify wild garlic, which is fully in bloom in the woods nearby, and they spent the rest of the journey back chomping down on wild garlic leaves.

A 7-year-old wearing his coat inside-out and as a cape runs excitedly into a forest path overgrown with wild garlic.
Seriously, that’s a lot of wild garlic.

The car now smells of wild garlic. So I guess we get a smelly souvenir from this trip, too4!

Footnotes

1 Our garden ditch, long with a network of similar channels around our village, feeds into Limb Brook. After a meandering journey around the farms to the East this eventually merges with Chill Brook to become Wharf Stream. Wharf Stream passes through a delightful nature reserve before feeding into the Thames near Swinford Toll Bridge.

2 Needless to say, we were careful not to include these little animals in our chemical experiments but let them wait in the bucket for a few minutes and then be returned to their homes.

3 We didn’t catch the moorhen in a bucket, though, just to be clear.

4 Not counting the smelly souvenir that was our muddy boots after splodging our way through a waterlogged field, twice

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Dan Q found GC2W6AF Babel Fish

This checkin to GC2W6AF Babel Fish reflects a geocaching.com log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

The younger child and I had an initially fruitless search in, under and around the nearby bridge before we had the sense to insert our babel fishes, after which the hint item became clear to us. A short search later the cache was in hand. SL, TNLN, TFTC!

Dan sits on an iron bridge with a 7-year-old boy, above a raging weir.

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Dan Q found GC8TNPE Incy Wincy

This checkin to GC8TNPE Incy Wincy reflects a geocaching.com log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

The elder child and I are staying nearby and couldn’t resist coming to a nearby cache with so many FPs. The name gave us a bit of a clue what we would be looking for but nothing could have prepared us for for this imaginative and unusual container! FP awarded. Attached is very non-spoiler photo of us with our very own Incy Wincies. Greetings from Oxfordshire!

Dan, wearing a black t-shirt and a rainbow-striped bandana, stands alongside a 10-year old girl carrying stuffed toys, in a market square. Both are making "spider" figures with their fingers, towards the camera.

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Shiftless Progressive Enhancement

Progressive enhancement is a great philosophy for Web application development. Deliver all the essential basic functionality using the simplest standards available; use advanced technologies to add bonus value and convenience features for users whose platform supports them. Win.

Screenshot showing starcharts in Three Rings. With JS disabled, all shifts within the last 3 years are shown, with a link to show historic shifts. With JS enabled, only shifts from the current calendar year are shown, with filters available to dynamically change which year(s) are covered.
JavaScript disabled/enabled is one of the most-fundamental ways to differentiate a basic from an enhanced experience, but it’s absolutely not the only way (especially now that feature detection in JavaScript and in CSS has become so powerful!).

In Three Rings, for example, volunteers can see a “starchart” of the volunteering shifts they’ve done recently, at-a-glance, on their profile page1. In the most basic case, this is usable in its HTML-only form: even with no JavaScript, no CSS, no images even, it still functions. But if JavaScript is enabled, the volunteer can dynamically “filter” the year(s) of volunteering they’re viewing. Basic progressive enhancement.

If a feature requires JavaScript, my usual approach is to use JavaScript to add the relevant user interface to the page in the first place. Those starchart filters in Three Rings don’t appear at all if JavaScript is disabled. A downside to this approach is that the JavaScript necessarily modifies the DOM on page load, which introduces a delay to the page being interactive as well as potentially resulting in layout shift.

That’s not always the best approach. I was reminded of this today by the website of 7-year-old Shiro (produced with, one assumes, at least a little help from Saneef H. Ansari). Take a look at this progressively-enhanced theme switcher:

No layout shift, no DOM manipulation. And yet it’s still pretty clear what features are available.

The HTML that’s delivered over-the-wire provides a disabled <select> element, which gains the CSS directive cursor: not-allowed;, to make it clear to the used that this dropdown doesn’t do anything. The whole thing’s wrapped in a custom element.

When that custom element is defined by the JavaScript, it enhances the dropdown with an event listener that implements the theme changes, then enables the disabled <select>.

<color-schemer>
  <form>
    <label>
      Theme
      <select disabled>
        <option value="">System</option>
        <option value="dark">Dark</option>
        <option value="light" selected>Light</option>
      </select>
    </label>
  </form>
</color-schemer>
I’m not convinced by the necessity of the <form> if there’s no HTML-only fallback… and the <label> probably should use a for="..." rather than wrapping the <select>, but otherwise this code is absolutely gorgeous.

It’s probably no inconvenience to the minority of JS-less users to see a theme switcher than, when they go to use it, turns out to be disabled. But it saves time for virtually everybody not to have to wait for JavaScript to manipulate the DOM, or else to risk shifting the layout by revealing a previously-hidden element.

Altogether, this is a really clever approach, and I was pleased today to be reminded – by a 7-year-old! – of the elegance of this approach. Nice one Shiro (and Saneef!).

Footnotes

1 Assuming that administrators at the organisation where they volunteer enable this feature for them, of course: Three Rings‘ permission model is robust and highly-customisable. Okay, that’s enough sales pitch.

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[Bloganuary] Landslide

This post is part of my attempt at Bloganuary 2024. Today’s prompt is:

What do you enjoy doing most in your leisure time?

Boo to this prompt! This Bloganuary already asked me how I like to play and about five things I do for fun; now it wants me to choose the thing I “enjoy most” from, presumably, that same set.

Dan, wearing a purple t-shirt with a WordPress logo and a Pride flag, sits in his home office and gives two "thumbs down" signs while frowning at the camera.
This prompt does not win my approval.

So I’m going to ignore this prompt.1 Instead, let’s go look up last year’s prompt from the same day:2

What is a song or poem that speaks to you and why?

Much better.

Landslide, by Fleetwood Mac.

I’ll save you looking it up: here’s a good live recording to put on while you keep reading.

At 5½ years older than me, the song’s been in my life effectively forever. But its themes of love and loss, overcoming naivety, growing up and moving on… have grown in significance to and with me as I’ve grown older. And to hear Stevie Nicks speak about it, it feels like it has for her as well, which just doubles the feeling it creates of timeless relevance.

In concert, Nicks would often dedicate the song to her father, which lead to all manner of speculation about the lyrics being about the importance of family. And there’s definitely an undertone of that in there: when in 2015 she confirmed that it was about a challenging moment of decision in her youth in which she was torn between continuing to try to “make it” as a musical act with her then-partner Lindsey Buckingham or return to education. Her father was apparently supportive of either option but favoured the latter.

Ultimately she chose the former and it worked out well for her career… although of course the pair’s romantic relationship eventually collapsed. And so the song’s lyrics, originally about indecision, grow into a new interpretation: one of sliding doors moments, of “what ifs”. In some parallel universe Stevie Nicks dropped out of Buckingham Nicks before Keith Olsen introduced Lindsey Buckingham to Mick Fleetwood, and we’d probably never have heard Landslide.3

Stevie still sings Landslide in concert, and now it feels like it’s entered its third life and lends itself a whole new interpretation. Those lyrics about turning around and looking back, which were originally about reconsidering the choices you made in your youth and the path you’d set yourself on, take on a whole new dimension when sung by somebody as they grow through their 60s and into their 70s!

In particular, coming to the song as a parent4 is a whole other thing. Its thoughts on innocence and growing-up, and watching your children do so, reminds me of my perpetual struggle with comparing myself to the best parent I know. An intergenerational effort to be my best me; to look forwards with courage and backwards with compassion for myself.

All of which is pretty awesome for a song that under other circumstances might be just a catchy twist on a classic country rock chord progression with some good singing. Sliding doors, eh?

Footnotes

1 It’s my damn blog; I can do what I want.

2 This is my first year doing Bloganuary, so I didn’t get to answer this prompt last time around.

3 Nor, for that matter, any of the other excellent songs that came out of Nicks’ and Buckingham’s strained relationship, such as Silver Springs, Second Hand News and, perhaps most-famously, Go Your Own Way. I guess sometimes you need the sad times to make the best art.

4 Nicks, of course, famously isn’t a parent, but I refer you to a 2001 interview in which she said “No children, no husband. My particular mission maybe wasn’t to be a mom and a wife. Maybe my particular mission was to write songs to make moms and wives feel better.”.

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[Bloganuary] Attachment

This post is part of my attempt at Bloganuary 2024. Today’s prompt is:

Describe an item you were incredibly attached to as a youth. What became of it?

I really struggled with this question: I couldn’t think of anything that I was especially attached to as a kid.

A young boy and a less-young girl sit on a sofa in pyjamas and dressing gowns.
Our kids have very strong attachments to a knitted blanket from her babyhood and to a stuffed toy elephant he’s slept with since he was very young, respectively.

Maybe it was just that I couldn’t think of anything; that the memory was lost to time and age.

So I did the obvious thing… and reached out to my mum.

A white-haired woman sitting on a comfortable chair holding a mug.
“Muuuuum… where’s my… whatever I used to be attached to? Also… what was it?”

It turns out that apparently my recollection is correct: I really didn’t have any significant attachments to toys or anything like them. I didn’t ever have any kind of “special thing” I slept with. I recall in my later childhood being surprised to learn that some people did have such things: like all children, I’d internalised my experience of the world as being representative of the general state of things!

Why, I wonder, are some children different than others and get this kind of youthful attachment to something? Is it genetic?1 Is it memetic, perhaps a behaviour we subconsciously reinforce in our children because we think it’s “normal”?

A young girl asleep on a stone floor, her head on a doormat, napping alongside a French Bulldog.
Being attached to napping with a dog doesn’t count, right? (‘cos I’ve definitely done that at least once, although for obvious reasons I’ve only managed to take photos of others doing the same.)

I’ll bet that some clever psychologist has done some research into this already2, but that sounds like a different day’s exploration.

Footnotes

1 I’m not genetically-related to our kids: they’re biologically the children of my partner and her husband, but consider all three of us to be their parents.

2 And that a dozen other psychologists have reinterpreted this research in completely different and incompatible ways.

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[Bloganuary] Playtime

This post is part of my attempt at Bloganuary 2024. Today’s prompt is:

Do you play in your daily life? What says “playtime” to you?

How do I play? Let me count the ways!

RPGs

I’m involved in no fewer than three different RPG campaigns (DMing the one for The Levellers) right now, plus periodic one-shots. I love a good roleplaying game, especially one that puts character-building and storytelling above rules-lawyering and munchkinery, specifically because that kind of collaborative, imaginative experience feels more like the kind of thing we call “play” when done it’s done by children!

Composite photo showing a young boy rolling a D20 onto a character sheet in front of a tabletop battlemap, and three monitors in a dark room showing a video chat between people and a digital gameboard.
Family D&D and Abnib D&D might have a distinctly different tone, but they’re still both playtime activities.

Videogames

I don’t feel like I get remotely as much videogaming time as I used to, and in theory I’ve become more-selective about exactly what I spend my time on1.

Dan with his thumbs-up in front of the high-score table (with the top-ranking spot about to be filled) of Wonder Boy, on a generic "80s Arcade Classics" arcade cabinet.
I managed to beat Wonder Boy last week, and it “only” took me three and a half decades!

Board Games

Similarly, I don’t feel like I get as much time to grind through my oversized board games collection as I used to2, but that’s improving as the kids get older and can be roped-into a wider diversity of games3.

A girl, sat in front of an Agricola farmyard board, holds up a "sheeple" (small wooden sheep game piece) for the camera.
Our youngest wakes early on weekend mornings and asks to kick off his day with board games. Our eldest, pictured, has grown to the point where she’s working her way through all of the animal-themed games at our local board games cafe.

Escape Rooms

I love a good escape room, and I can’t wait until the kids are old enough for (more of) them too so I’ve an excuse to do more of them. When we’re not playing conventional escape rooms, Ruth and I can sometimes be found playing board game-style boxed “kit” ones (which have very variable quality, in my experience) and we’ve recently tried a little Escape Academy.

Ruth and Dan hold up an Alice In Wonderland themed sign reading "it went like a dream" underneath the sign for escape room company Escape Hunt. Both are wearing silly hats, and Dan is also wearing white rabbit ears.
Ruth and I make a great duo when we remember to communicate early-and-often and to tag-team puzzles by swapping what we’re focussing on when we get stuck.

GNSS Activities

I’m sure everybody knows I do a modest amount of geocaching and geohashing.4

Dan, outdoors in a field on a grey day and with the wind whipping his hair across his face, wearing a high-vis jacket over a warm fleece, holds up a GPS receiver which shows he's zero metres from his destination.
I’m out standing in my field.

They’re not the only satnav-based activities I do at least partially “for fun” though! I contribute to OpenStreetMap, often through the “gamified” experience of the StreetComplete app, and I’m very slowly creeping up the leader board at OpenBenches. Are these “play”? Sure, maybe.

And all of the above is merely the structured kinds of play I engage in. Playing “let’s pretend”-style games with the kids (even when they make it really, really weird) adds a whole extra aspect. Also there’s the increasingly-rare murder mystery parties we sometimes hold: does that count as roleplaying, or some other kind of play?

Guests dressed as a chef, a priest, and a librarian sit around a dining table at a murder mystery party.
A chef, a priest, and a librarian walk into a party… stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Suffice to say, there’s plenty of play in my life, it’s quite varied and diverse, and there is, if anything, not enough of it!

Footnotes

1 I say that, and yet somehow Steam tells me that one of my most-played games this year was Starfield, which was… meh? Apparently compelling enough that I’ve “ascended” twice, but in hindsight I wish I hadn’t bothered.

2 Someday my group and I will finish Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 so we can get started on Season 0 which has sat unplayed on my shelves since I got it… oooh… two or three years ago‽

3 This Christmas, I got each of them their first “legacy” game: Zombie Kids for the younger one, My City for the elder. They both seem pretty good.

4 Geocaching is where you use military satellite networks to find lost tupperware. Geohashing uses the same technology but what you find is a whole lot of nothing. I don’t think I can explain why I find the latter more-compelling.

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Local Expert

At school, our 9-year-old is currently studying the hsitory of human civilization from the late stone age through to the bronze age. The other week, the class was split into three groups, each of which was tasked with researching a different piece of megalithic architecture:

  • One group researched Stonehenge, because it’s a pretty obvious iconic choice
  • Another group researched the nearby Rollright Stones, which we’ve made a family tradition of visiting on New Year’s Day and have dragged other people along to sometimes
  • The final group took the least-famous monument, our very own local village henge The Devil’s Quoits
Dan, wearing a black t-shirt with the words "Let's make the web a better place" on, sits with his back to a standing stone. Four more standing stones can be seen stretching away into the bakground, atop a flowery meadow and beneath a slightly cloudy but bright sky.
Love me some ancient monuments, even those that are perhaps less authentically-ancient than others.

And so it was that one of our eldest’s classmates was searching on the Web for information about The Devil’s Quoits when they found… my vlog on the subject! One of them recognised me and said, “Hey, isn’t that your Uncle Dan?”1

On the school run later in the day, the teacher grabbed me and asked if I’d be willing to join their school trip to the henge, seeing as I was a “local expert”. Naturally, I said yes, went along, and told a bunch of kids what I knew!

A group of schoolchildren in a mixture of white and blue shirts, and with most wearing sunhats, sit on a pile of rocks alongside a ring ditch and listen intently to Dan.
I’ve presented to much-larger audiences before on a whole variety of subjects, but this one still might have been the most terrifying.

I was slightly intimidated because the class teacher, Miss Hutchins, is really good! Coupled with the fact that I don’t feel like a “local expert”2, this became a kick-off topic for my most-recent coaching session (I’ve mentioned how awesome my coach is before).

A young girl, her hair wild, sits at a kitchen table with a laptop and a homework book, writing.
I originally thought I might talk to the kids about the Bell Beaker culture people who are believed to have constructed the monument. But when I pitched the idea to our girl she turned out to know about as much about them as I did, so I changed tack.

I eventually talked to the class mostly about the human geography aspects of the site’s story. The area around the Devil’s Quoits has changed so much over the millenia, and it’s a fascinating storied history in which it’s been:

  • A prehistoric henge and a circle of 28 to 36 stones (plus at least one wooden building, at some point).
  • Medieval farms, from which most of the stones were taken (or broken up) and repurposed.
  • A brief (and, it turns out, incomplete) archeological survey on the remains of the henge and the handful of stones still-present.
  • A second world war airfield (a history I’ve also commemorated with a geocache).
  • Quarrying operations leaving a series of hollowed-out gravel pits.
  • More-thorough archeological excavation, backed by an understanding of the cropmarks visible from aircraft that indicate that many prehistoric people lived around this area.
  • Landfill use, filling in the former gravel pits (except for one, which is now a large lake).
  • Reconstruction of the site to a henge and stone circle again.3
Ultrawide panoramic picture showing a full circle of standing stones under a clear sky. The dry grass has been cut back, and the remains of a campfire can be seen.
It doesn’t matter to me that this henge is more a modern reconstruction than a preserved piece of prehistory. It’s still a great excuse to stop and learn about how our ancestors might have lived.

It turns out that to be a good enough to pass as a “local expert”, you merely have to know enough. Enough to be able to uplift and inspire others, and the humility to know when to say “I don’t know”.4

That’s a lesson I should take to heart. I (too) often step back from the opportunity to help others learn something new because I don’t feel like I’m that experienced at whatever the subject is myself. But even if you’re still learning something, you can share what you’ve learned so far and help those behind you to follow the same path. I’m forever learning new things, and I should try to be more-open to sharing “as I learn”. And to admit where I’ve still got a long way to go.

Footnotes

1 Of course, I only made the vlog because I was doing a videography course at the time and needed subject matter, and I’d recently been reading a lot about the Quoits because I was planning on “hiding” a virtual geocache at the site, and then I got carried away. Self-nerdsniped again!

2 What is a local expert? I don’t know, but what I feel like is just a guy who read a couple of books because he got distracted while hiding a geocache!

3 I’ve no idea what future archeologists will make of this place when they finda reconstructed stone circle and then, when they dig nearby, an enormous quantity of non-biodegradable waste. What was this strange stone circle for, they’ll ask themselves? Was it a shrine to their potato-based gods, to whom they left crisp packets as a sacrifice?

4 When we’re talking about people from the neolithic, saying “I don’t know” is pretty easy, because what we don’t know is quite a lot, it turns out!

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Some Days the School Run is Easy

A video, in which I rant about the challenges of carrying two-childrensworth of school gear while dragging our dog, herding somebody else’s dog, and trying to stop the kids from fighting. Some mornings it’s easy. Today… it was not. Also available on YouTube.

Pencil sketch, on lined paper, showing a scooter, rucksack, guitar case, two book bags, two water bottles, filled poop bag, and a small dog. Above is handwritten "You took your time!"
A friend said that this story sounded like it belonged in an illustrated children’s book and sketched this while on her first call of the morning.

Full transcript of the audio (except for the ocassional snorting sounds of our noisy Frenchie as she snuffles about in the background):

The morning school run is never effortless. But some days it’s easy.

Today was not one of those days.

It’s a Wednesday. So, for some strange reason, that’s the heaviest-laden day. And so, with the eldest child on her bike and the youngest on his scooter I set off, pulling the dog, and carrying a PE kit, two book bags, two water bottles, and a guitar.

I should have realised early on that today wasn’t going to be a day that the universe smiled on me when the dog immediately ran off into a ditch to take a dump and I had to clamber down into the ditch with a poop bag to fill it.

But while I’m coming out of the ditch I discover that the youngest child has zipped off up ahead in an effort to ram into his older sister and in doing so has inevitably flipped himself over the handlebars of his scooter and is now lying, crying, in the middle of the road.

So I go over to him dragging the dog and carrying a PE kit and two book bags and two water bottles and a guitar and a bag full of poop and as best I can, carrying all those things, console him and eventually, with some encouragement he’s able to get back up and carry on walking to school, but says he can no longer scoot, so I have to carry the scooter.

Now I’m dragging a dog and carrying a poop bag and a PE kit and two water bottles and two book bags and guitar… and a scooter… and that’s when the oldest child manages to throw the chain off her bike.

Now she’s had little experience, in her defence, of the chain coming off her bike. And so she does the absolute worst thing possible which is tries to pedal as hard as possible to solve the problem which makes it much worse. By the time I get there the chain is royally snarled between some of the sprockets and their housing, so I put down the guitar and the bag of poop and I hand the lead to the younger child so that I can try to unpick the older child’s chain from her bike, getting myself covered in oil.

And that’s when I notice the commotion up ahead. There are some workmen who are rebuilding the wall outside Letterbox Cottage, and – up ahead of them – barking furiously, is a small dog. This dog is Lovey, and she belongs to a friend of ours. And she’s probably the best example of whatever the opposite of nominative determinism is. Because Lovey is a truculent little bitch. Lovey is a tiny small yappy dog who will start a fight with other dogs, try to see off workmen (which is what she’s doing at the time), and she’ll bark at passing cars. And right now she’s running free, unattended, in the middle of the road. And one of the workmen says to me, “Oh, do you know who’s dog that is?” and I have to admit that yes, I do.

So, dragging our dog and carrying a PE kit and two book bags and two water bottles, a guitar, a scooter, and a bag of poop, I have to help round up this lost dog, who – if it gets too close to our dog will start a fight – and get it back to the house where it lives.

So the younger child and I manage to succeed in our mission and return this lost dog and get back on our way to school and it’s there that we finally catch up with the older child who’s gotten bored and cycled ahead. And when we catch up to the older child with me dragging the dog and carrying a PE kit and two book bags and two water bottles and a guitar and a scooter and a bag of poop… she looks up at me and says, “Ugh! You took your time!”

Suffice to say, it’s a good job I Iove those children.

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Normal for Children

Lacking a basis for comparison, children accept their particular upbringing as normal and representative.

Close-up showing tentacles of a sundew plant.
“Feed me, Seymour!”

Kit was telling me about how his daughter considers it absolutely normal to live in a house full of insectivorous plants1, and it got me thinking about our kids, and then about myself:

I remember once overhearing our eldest, then at nursery, talking to her friend. Our kid had mentioned doing something with her “mummy, daddy, and Uncle Dan” and was incredulous that her friend didn’t have an Uncle Dan that they lived with! Isn’t having three parents… just what a family looks like?

Dan, wearing a black jumper, sits on a green chair in a brightly-decorated bedroom. On his chest, a 2-year-old girl has fallen asleep, clutching a woolen yellow blanket and with her thumb in her mouth.
You don’t have an Uncle Dan? Then where do you nap‽

By the time she was at primary school, she’d learned that her family wasn’t the same shape as most other families, and she could code-switch with incredible ease. While picking her up from school, I overheard her talking to a friend about a fair that was coming to town. She told the friend that she’d “ask her dad if she could go”, then turned to me and said “Uncle Dan: can we go to the fair?”; when I replied in the affirmitive, she turned back and said “my dad says it’s okay”. By the age of 5 she was perfectly capable of translating on-the-fly2 in order to simultaneously carry out intelligble conversations with her family and with her friends. Magical.

When I started driving, and in particular my first few times on multi-lane carriageways, something felt “off” and it took me a little while to work out what it was. It turns out that I’d internalised a particular part of the motorway journey experience from years of riding in cars driven by my father, who was an unrepentant3 and perpetual breaker of speed limits.4 I’d come to associate motorway driving with overtaking others, but almost never being overtaken, but that wasn’t what I saw when I drove for myself.5 It took a little thinking before I realised the cause of this false picture of “what driving looks like”.

A boxy 1979 white Ford car, number plate DSS 657T with a badly dented and somewhat corroded front wheel arch on the drivers' side, sits empty and parked at the side of an otherwise empty asphalt strreet. In the background, under grey skies, a city skyline can be made out with houses, tower blocks, and a church steeple, on the other side of an arched river bridge. The leaves are early-autumn coloured: mostly greem, but with some brown appearing and a handful of bare branches exposed.
How my dad ever managed to speed in this old rustbucket I’ll never know.

The thing is: you only ever notice the “this is normal” definitions that you’ve internalised… when they’re challenged!

It follows that there are things you learned from the quirks of your upbringing that you still think of as normal. There might even be things you’ll never un-learn. And you’ll never know how many false-normals you still carry around with you, or whether you’ve ever found them all, exept to say that you probably haven’t yet.

A small child, sitting on the floor, uses a mobile phone to watch a cartoon of two people struggling to pull a fishing rod. A feminine hand with brown-painted nails and rings on two fingers reaches in to offer the child a minature model of a human brain.
I wanted a stock image that expressed the concept of how children conceptualise ideas in their mind, but I ended up with this picture of a women offering her kid a tiny human brain in exchange for her mobile phone back. That’s a normal thing that all families do, right?

It’s amazing and weird to think that there might be objective truths you’re perpetually unable to see as a restult of how, or where, or by whom you were brought up, or by what your school or community was like, or by the things you’ve witnessed or experienced over your life. I guess that all we can all do is keep questioning everything, and work to help the next generation see what’s unusual and uncommon in their own lives.

Footnotes

1 It’s a whole thing. If you know Kit, you’re probably completely unsurprised, but spare a thought for the poor randoms who sometimes turn up and read my blog.

2 Fully billingual children who typically speak a different language at home than they do at school do this too, and it’s even-more amazing to watch.

3 I can’t recall whether his license was confiscated on two or three separate ocassions, in the end, but it was definitely more than one. Having a six month period where you and your siblings have to help collect the weekly shop from the supermarket by loading up your bikes with shopping bags is a totally normal part of everybody’s upbringing, isn’t it?

4 Virtually all of my experience as a car passenger other than with my dad was in Wales, where narrow windy roads mean that once you get stuck behind something, that’s how you’re going to be spending your day.

5 Unlike my father, I virtually never break the speed limit, to such an extent that when I got a speeding ticket the other year (I’d gone from a 70 into a 50 zone and re-set the speed limiter accordingly, but didn’t bother to apply the brakes and just coasted down to the new speed… when the police snapped their photo!), Ruth and JTA both independently reacted to the news with great skepticism.

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Note #21196

I bought Zach Weinersmith‘s Bea Wolf for my kids (9 and 6, the elder of them already a fan of Beowulf). It arrived today, but neither of them have had a chance to because I wouldn’t put it down.

My favourite bit is when Bea and her entourage arrive near Treeheart and the shield-bearer who greets them says “Your leader sparkles with power and also with sparkles.” The line’s brilliant, clever, and accompanies the most badass illustration.

Inked pencil sketch showing a resolute-faced young girl - Bea Wolf - in a teddy-bear hat, flowerprint dress, and star-spangled boots, standing cross-armed amongst four of her friends. Above, a line of text ends a quote, reading "Your leader sparkles with power and also with sparkles."
I’ll give it to my kids… eventually. But if you’re looking for a book recommendation in the meantime, this is it.

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Note #20578

Kids: We want porridge for breakfast.
Me: How do you want it?
Kids: Surprise us.

Presenting… oatmeal, honey and sultanas with a toasted marshmallow.

Two bowls of porridge with sultanas, each topped with a jumbo marshmallow (one pink, one white) being toasted by a blowtorch (mostly off-camera).

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