Yesterday, Ruth and I attended a Festive Breads Workshop at the Oxford Brookes Restaurant Cookery and Wine School, where we had a hands-on lesson in making a variety of different (semi-)seasonal bread products. It was a fantastic experience and gave us both skills and confidence that we’d have struggled to attain so-readily in any other way.
The Oxford Brookes Restaurant is a working restaurant which doubles as a place for Brookes’ students to work and practice roles as chefs, sommeliers, and hospitality managers as part of their courses. In addition, the restaurant runs a handful of shorter or day-long courses for adults and children on regional and cuisine-based cookery, knife skills, breadmaking, and wine tasting. Even from the prep room off the main working kitchen (and occasionally traipsing through it on the way to and from the ovens), it was easy to be captivated the buzz of activity as the lunchtime rush began outside: a large commercial kitchen is an awesome thing to behold.
By early afternoon we’d each made five different breads: a stollen, a plaitted wreath, rum babas, a seeded flatbread, and a four-strand woven challah. That’s plenty to do (and a good amount of standing up and kneading!), but it was made possible by the number of things we didn’t have to do. There was no weighing and measuring, no washing-up: this was done for us, and it’s amazingly efficiency-enhancing to be able to go directly from each recipe to the next without having to think about these little tasks. We didn’t even have to run our breads in and out of the proofing cupboard and the ovens: as we’d be starting on mixing the next dough, the last would be loaded onto trays and carried around the kitchens.
The tuition itself was excellent, too. The tutors, Amanda and Jan, were friendly and laid-back (except if anybody tried to short-cut their kneading of a wet dough by adding more flour than was necessary, in which case they’d enter “flour police” mode and start slapping wrists) and clearly very knowledgeable and experienced. When I struggled at one point with getting a dough ball to the consistency that was required, Jan stepped in and within seconds identified that the problem was that my hands were too warm. The pair complemented one another very well, too, for example with Amanda being more-inclined than Jan towards the laissez-faire approach to ingredient measurement that I prefer when I make bread, for example.
The pace was fast and Ruth in particular struggled early on to keep up, but by the end the entire group – despite many hours on our feet, much of it kneading stiff doughs – were hammering through each activity, even though there was a clear gradient in the technical complexity of what we were working on. And – perhaps again thanks to the fantastic tuition – even the things that seemed intimidating upon first glance (like weaving four strands of dough together without them sticking to one another or the surface) weren’t problematic once we got rolling.
Our hosts, apparently somehow not having enough to do while teaching and supervising us, simultaneously baked a selection of absolutely delicious bread to be served with our lunch, which by that point was just showing-off. Meanwhile, we put the finishing touches on our various baked goods with glazes, seeds, ribbons, and sugar.
And so we find ourselves with a house completely full of amazingly-tasty fresh bread – the downside perhaps of having two of us from the same household on the same course! – and a whole new appreciation of the versatility of bread. As somebody who makes pizza bases and, once in a blue moon, bread rolls, I feel like there’s so much more I could be doing and I’m looking forward to getting more adventurous with my bread-making sometime soon.
I’d really highly recommend the Brookes Restaurant courses; they’re well worth a look if you’re interested in gaining a point or two of Cooking skill.
Wow, I was really blown away by OMGYes. The concept sounded novel but I wasn’t prepared for how completely engrossed listening to the interviews, watching the examples, and getting to practice the different techniques on the interactive vuvlas would be. This is genuinely an invaluable resource for folks looking to learn about touchin’ twats. OMGYes…
I’m not sure that there’s any age that’s too-young at which to try to cultivate an interest in science. Once a child’s old enough to ask why something is the case, every question poses an opportunity for an experiment! Sometimes a thought experiment is sufficient (“Uncle Dan: why do dogs not wear clothes?”) but other times provide the opportunity for some genuine hands-on experimentation (“Why do we put flowers in water?”). All you have to do is take every question and work out what you’d do if you didn’t know the answer either! A willingness to take any problem with a “let’s find out” mentality teaches children two important things: (a) that while grown-ups will generally know more than them, that nobody has all the answers, and (b) that you can use experiments to help find the answers to questions – even ones that have never been asked before!
Sometimes it takes a little more effort. Kids – like all of us, a lot of the time – can often be quite happy to simply accept the world as-it-is and not ask “why”. But because a fun and educational science activity is a good way to occupy a little one (and remember: all it needs to be science is to ask a question and then try to use evidence to answer it!), I’ve been keeping a list of possible future activities so that we’ve got a nice rainy-day list of things to try. And because we are, these days, in an increasingly-large circle of breeders, I thought I’d share some with you.
Here’s some of the activities we’ve been doing so far (or that I’ve got lined-up for future activities as and when they become appropriate):
Measuring and graphing rainfall We’ve spent a lot of time lately taking about calendars, weather, and seasons, so I’m thinking this one’s coming soon. All we need is a container you can leave in the garden, a measuring jug, and some graph paper.
Experimenting with non-Newtonian fluids
You can make a dilatant fluid with cornflower and water: it acts like a liquid, but you can slap it and grab it like a solid. Fine, very wet sand (quicksand!) demonstrates pseudoplasticity which also explains how paint ‘blobs’ on your brush but is easy to spread thin on the paper.
I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to play with magnets: we’ve started already with thanks to Brio wooden railway and talking about the fact that the rolling stock will attach one way around (and seem to jump together when they get close) but repel the other way around, and we’ve also begun looking at the fact that if you remove a carriage from the middle of a train the remaining segments are already correctly-aligned in order to be re-attached.
Different kinds of bouncy balls
We’ve had fun before measuring how high different kinds of balls (air-filled rubber football, large solid rubber ball, skeletal rubber ball, small solid rubber ball) bounce when dropped from a stepladder onto a patio and talking about how ‘squishy’ they are relative to one another, and speculating as to the relationship between the two.
Demonstrating capillary action/siphoning
Two containers – one with a fluid in and one without – joined over the rim by a piece of paper towel will eventually reach an equilibrium of volume, first as a result of capillary action causing the fluid to climb the paper and then using a siphon effect to continually draw more over the edge.
Illustrating the solar system (to scale)
It helps adults and children alike to comprehend the scale of the solar system if you draw it to scale. If you’ve got a long street nearby you can chalk it onto the pavement. If not, you’ll need a very small scale, but doing the Earth and Moon might suffice.
Batteries, wires, and LEDs are a moderately safe and simple start to understanding electricity. Taking a ‘dead’ battery from a drained toy and putting it into the circuit shows the eventual state of batteries. Connecting lights in series or parallel demonstrates in very simple terms resistance. Breaking or joining a circuit illustrates that switches function identically wherever they’re placed on the circuit.
I’m interested in trying to replicate this experiment into making different kinds of standing vortices in water, but I might have to wait until our little scientist has slightly more patience (and fine motor control!).
We’ve been lucky enough to get to talk about this after using a whirlpool-shaped piece of marble run, but if we hadn’t then I was thinking we’d wait until the next time it was sunny enough for outdoor water play and use the fact that a full bucket can be spun around without spilling any in a similar way.
Take a quadrant of garden and count the different kinds of things living in it. Multiply up to estimate the population across the garden, or measure different parts (lawn versus bedding plants versus patio, direct sunlight versus shade, exposed versus covered, etc.) to see which plants or animals prefer different conditions.
Caring for different kinds of plants provides an introduction to botany, and there’s a lot to observe, from the way that plants grow and turn to face the light to the different stages of their growth and reproduction. Flowers give an attractive result at the end, but herbs and vegetables can be eaten! (Our little scientist is an enormous fan of grazing home-grown chives.)
Mechanics and force
We’ve taken to occasionally getting bikes out of the shed, flipping them upside-down, and observing how changing the cogs that the chain runs over affects how hard you need to push the pedals to get movement… but also how much the movement input is multiplied into the movement of the wheel. We’re not quite at a point where we can reliably make predictions based on this observation, but we’re getting there! I’m thinking that we can follow-up this experiment by building simple catapults to see how levers act as a force multiplier.
Chromotography of inks
I’ve been waiting to do this until I get the chance to work out which felt tip pens are going to give us the most-exciting results… but maybe that’s an experiment we should do together, too! Colouring-in coffee filter papers and then letting them stand in a cup of water (assuming a water-soluable ink) should produce pretty results… and show the composition of the inks, too!
Mixing paint or play-doh is an easy way to demonstrate subtractive colour mixing. We got the chance to do some additive colour mixing using a colour disk spinner at a recent science fair event, but if we hadn’t I’d always had plans to build our own, like this one.
Structure and form of life
Looking at the way that different plants and animals’ physical structure supports their activities makes for good hands-on or thought-driven experimentation. A day at the zoo gets a few steps more-educational for a preschooler when you start talking about what penguins are able to do as a result of the shape of their unusual wings and a walk in the park can be science’d-up by collecting the leaves of different trees and thinking about why they’re different to one another.
The classic magic trick of poking a skewer through a balloon… with petroleum jelly on the skewer… lends itself to some science, so it’s on my to-do list.
Water’s such a brilliant chemical because it’s commonplace, safe, and exhibits so many interesting phenomena. Surface tension can be demonstrated by ‘floating’ things like paperclips on top of the surface, and can be broken by the addition of soap.
In the winter months when the sun sets before bedtime are a great time to show off stars, planets, satellites and the moon. Eyes or binoculars are plenty sufficient to get started.
I was especially pleased when our nursery kept an incubator full of chicken eggs so that the children could watch them hatch and the chicks emerge. We’d looked at this process before at a farm, but it clearly had a big impact to see it again. Helping to collect eggs laid by my mother’s chickens helps to join-up the circle. Frogspawn and caterpillars provide a way to look at a very different kind of animal life.
Putting baking soda into things
Different everyday kitchen liquids (water, vinegar, oil…) react differently to the addition of baking soda. This provides a very gentle introduction to chemistry and provides an excuse to talk about making and testing predictions: now that we’ve seen what cold water does, do you think that hot water will be the same or different?
Bubbles and foams
Blowing bubbles through different types of mesh (we just used different kinds of tea towels elastic-banded to the cut-off end of a plastic bottle) demonstrates how you can produce foams of different consistencies – from millions of tiny bubbles to fewer larger bubbles – because of the permeability of the fabric. And then we wrecked the last tea towel by adding food colouring to it so we could make coloured foams (“bubble snakes”).
Start with ice and work out what makes it melt: does it melt faster in your hand or in a dish? Does it melt faster or slower if we break it up into smaller parts? If we ‘paint’ pictures on the patio with them, where does the water go? I’m also thinking about ways in which we can safely condense the steam (and capture the vapour) from the kettle onto e.g. a chilled surface. Once we’re at a point where a thermometer makes sense I was also considering replicating the experiment of measuring the temperature of melting snow: or perhaps even at that point trying to manipulate the triple point of water using e.g. salt.
Take apart the bits of a flower, or look in detail at the parts of a bone-in cut of meat, and try to understand what they’re all for and why they are the way they are.
Next time the paddling pool is out, I’d like to start a more-serious look at which things float and which things don’t any try to work out why. What might initially seem intuitive – dense (heavy-for-their-size) things sink – can be expanded by using plasticine to make a mixture of ‘sinking’ and ‘floating’ vessels and lead to further discovery. I’m also thinking we need to do the classic ‘raisins in a fizzy drink’ thing (raisins sink, but their rough surfaces trap the bubbles escaping from the now-unpressurised liquid, causing them to float back up to shed their bubbles).
So there’s my “now and next” list of science activities that we’ll be playing at over the coming months. I’m always open to more suggestions, though, so if you’re similarly trying to help shape an enquiring and analytical mind, let me know what you’ve been up to!
[dropcap1]E[/dropcap1]arlier this year, my colleague Liz and I were talking – as I’m sure the staff of every academic library’s communications team have at some point or another – about the most-valuable survival skills for a post-apocalyptic world. Once it’s time to rebuild society, we probably don’t have much need for computer programmers, magicians, or social media experts, and the value of librarians is tertiary, so we decided that we needed to learn some new skills in order to improve our quality of life. You know, after the radioactive dust has settled/zombies are under control/firestorm has ceased/disease has passed.
Obviously we’ll need food, for which we’ll need farmers. But it seemed to us that anybody can learn to plant and harvest crops: we’ve all grown food in our gardens and greenhouses before… and there’s a far more-comfortable position to be had being the person who makes the tools for the farmers. And the builders, and the woodcutters, and the soldiers, and so on.
The correct career choice for the post-apocalyptic world is… blacksmith.
We arrived at the Avoncroft Museum, near Bromsgrove, early on Saturday morning. It looked to still be closed, but I asked a conveniently-nearby man, who had that certain look of a blacksmith, if he was the blacksmith, and the responded affirmatively. Liz and I followed him down through the grounds of the museum, between expansive model train layouts and the National Telephone Kiosk Collection (of course that’s a thing), to his little forge.
The smith gave us a brief tour, showing us the different parts of the hearth, the (140-year old) anvil, the slack tub, and so on, then went outside to gather up some kindling so that he could get a fire going.
Then, he showed us what we’d be making today: a fire poker (“here’s one I made earlier”). He pointed out the different elements of the work: the broadened tip with its sharp point, the tapered end and stem, the decorative twist, and the hook at the top. This, he said, represented the majority of the basic techniques of traditional forging (except for fire welding): upsetting, drawing out, and bending.
The talents of a blacksmith are actually quite broad and complex. There’s the ability to determine the heat (and thus malleability) of a metal by its colour (which in turn is affected by the type of metal: light steel, wrought iron, aluminium, brass etc. all have different thermal characteristics). Then there’s the skill required in accurately positioning and moving the metal, and the vision required to appreciate how it’ll behave when it’s more-or-less plasticine. And that’s without mentioning the physical strength that’s needed: forge-temperature iron turns out to be only a little more-flexible than cold iron, and it takes quite a wallop to make the impact you need… and all while trying to maintain the control you require to shape it the way you’re looking to.
Something quite magical about the process, for me, was that the work we were doing used effectively all of the same tools and techniques that have been practiced by blacksmiths for at least 3000 years. With only three exceptions – the striplights over our heads (rather than lanterns – although the blacksmith did have a good number of those around too!), the electric fan that pumped air into the hearth (rather than a nine-year-old boy pumping the bellows) and the angle grinder that the blacksmith used initially to cut us each off a chunk of steel to work with – what we were doing wouldn’t have looked remotely out-of-place to a blacksmith of ancient Rome or Greece. Well: except for letting a woman work metal, I suppose.
Twelve hours later, Liz and I left – pokers in hand and ready to fight off any zombies we came across! – completely exhausted. We’d each gotten a few small burns and some memorable aches in our arms and backs, but we’d succeeded in the tiny first step of our plan to make ourselves indispensable after the apocalypse happens. In nearby Bromsgrove, we each devoured half of a pizza, then finally made our way to our respective homes.
Would I ever be a blacksmith by choice? Outside of an apocalypse, no: having heard the war stories (and seen the injuries) of our blacksmith tutor, I’d rather stick to safer activities, like skydiving. But if you’ve got the inclination to try your hand at blacksmithing, I’d thoroughly recommend that you give it a go, and the smith at Avoncroft is totally worthy of your attention: go make something!
This is the first in a series of four blog posts which ought to have been published during January 2013, but ran late because I didn’t want to publish any of them before the first one.
2012 was one of the hardest years of my life.
It was a year of unceasing disasters and difficulties: every time some tragedy had befallen me, my friends, or family, some additional calamity was lined-up to follow in its wake. In an environment like this, even the not-quite-so-sad things – like the death of Puddles, our family dog, in May – were magnified, and the ongoing challenges of the year – like the neverending difficulties with my dad’s estate – became overwhelming.
In the week of his death, my sister Becky was suffering from an awful toothache which was stopping her from eating, sleeping, or generally functioning at all (I tried to help her out by offering some oil of cloves (which functions as a dental contact anesthetic), but she must have misunderstood my instruction about applying it to the tooth without swallowing it, because she spent most of that evening throwing up (seriously: don’t ever swallow clove oil).
Little did she know, worse was yet to come: when she finally went to the dentist, he botched her operation, leaving her with a jaw infection. The infection spread, causing septicæmia of her face and neck and requiring that she was hospitalised. On the day of our dad’s funeral, she needed to insist that the “stop gap” surgery that she was given was done under local, rather than general, anasthetic, so that she could make it – albeit in a wheelchair and unable to talk – to the funeral.
Five weeks later, my dad finally reached the North Pole, his ashes carried by another member of his team. At about the same time, Ruth‘s grandmother passed away, swamping the already-emotional Earthlings with yet another sad period. That same month, my friend S******suffered a serious injury, a traumatic and distressing experience in the middle of a long and difficult period of her life, and an event which caused significant ripples in the lives of her circle of friends.
Shortly afterwards, Paul moved out from Earth, in a situation that was anticipated (we’d said when we first moved in together that it would be only for a couple of years, while we all found our feet in Oxford and decided on what we’d be doing next, as far as our living situations were concerned), but still felt occasionally hostile: when Paul left town six months later, his last blog post stated that Oxford could “get lost”, and that he’d “hated hated 90% of the time” he’d lived here. Despite reassurances to the contrary, it was sometimes hard – especially in such a difficult year – to think that this message wasn’t directed at Oxford so much as at his friends there.
As the summer came to an end, my workload on my various courses increased dramatically, stretching into my so-called “free time”: this, coupled with delays resulting from all of the illness, injury, and death that had happened already, threw back the release date of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest update to Three Rings. Coupled with the stress of the 10th Birthday Party Conference – which thankfully JTA handled most of – even the rare periods during which nobody was ill or dying were filled with sleepless nights and anxiety. And of course as soon as all of the preparation was out of the way and the conference was done, there were still plenty of long days ahead, catching up on everything that had been temporarily put on the back burner.
When I was first appointed executor of my dad’s estate, I said to myself that I could have the whole thing wrapped-up and resolved within six months… eight on the outside. But as things dragged on – it took almost six months until the investigation was finished and the coroner’s report filed, so we could get a death certificate, for example – they just got more and more bogged-down. Problems with my dad’s will made it harder than expected to get started (for example, I’m the executor and a beneficiary of the will, yet nowhere on it am I directly mentioned by name, address, or relationship… which means that I’ve had to prove that I am the person mentioned in the will every single time I present it, and that’s not always easy!), and further administrative hiccups have slowed down the process every step of the way.
You know what would have made the whole thing easier? A bacon sandwich. And black pudding for breakfast. And a nice big bit of freshly-battered cod. And some roast chicken. I found that 2012 was a harder year than 2011 in which to be a vegetarian. I guess that a nice steak would have taken the edge off: a little bit of a luxury, and some escapism. Instead, I probably drank a lot more than I ought to have. Perhaps we should encourage recovering alcoholic, when things are tough, to hit the sausage instead of the bottle.
Becky’s health problems weren’t done for the year, after she started getting incredibly intense and painful headaches. At first, I was worried that she was lined-up for a similar diagnosis to mine, of the other year (luckily, I’ve been symptom-free for a year and a quarter now, although medical science is at a loss to explain why), but as I heard more about her symptoms, I became convinced that this wasn’t the case. In any case, she found herself back in the operating room, for the second serious bit of surgery of the year (the operation was a success, thankfully).
I had my own surgery, of course, when I had a vasectomy; something I’d been planning for some time. That actually went quite well, at least as far as can be ascertained at this point (part three of that series of posts will be coming soon), but it allows me to segue into the topic of reproduction…
Because while I’d been waiting to get snipped, Ruth and JTA had managed to conceive. We found this out right as we were running around sorting out the Three Rings Conference, and Ruth took to calling the fœtus “Jethrik”, after the Three Rings milestone. I was even more delighted still when I heard that the expected birth date would be 24th July: Samaritans‘ Annual Awareness Day (“24/7”).
As potential prospective parents, they did everything right. Ruth stuck strictly to a perfectly balanced diet for her stage of pregnancy; they told only a minimum of people, because – as everybody knows – the first trimester’s the riskiest period. I remember when Ruth told her grandfather (who had become very unwell towards the end of 2012 and died early this year: another sad family tragedy) about the pregnancy, that it was only after careful consideration – balancing how nice it would be for him to know that the next generation of his family was on the way before his death – that she went ahead and did so. And as the end of the first trimester, and the end of the year, approached, I genuinely believed that the string of bad luck that had been 2012 was over.
But it wasn’t to be. Just as soon as we were looking forward to New Year, and planning to not so much “see in 2013” as to “kick out 2012”, Ruth had a little bleeding. Swiftly followed by abdominal cramps. She spent most of New Year’s Eve at the hospital, where they’d determined that she’d suffered a miscarriage, probably a few weeks earlier.
Ruth’s written about it. JTA’s written about it, too. And I’d recommend they read their account rather than mine: they’ve both written more, and better, about the subject than I could. But I shan’t pretend that it wasn’t hard: in truth, it was heartbreaking. At the times that I could persuade myself that my grief was “acceptable” (and that I shouldn’t be, say, looking after Ruth), I cried a lot. For me, “Jethrik” represented a happy ending to a miserable year: some good news at last for the people I was closest to. Perhaps, then, I attached too much importance to it, but it seemed inconceivable to me – no pun intended – that for all of the effort they’d put in, that things wouldn’t just go perfectly. For me, it was all connected: Ruth wasn’t pregnant by me, but I still found myself wishing that my dad could have lived to have seen it, and when the pregnancy went wrong, it made me realise how much I’d been pinning on it.
I don’t have a positive pick-me-up line to put here. But it feels like I should.
And so there we were, at the tail of 2012: the year that began awfully, ended awfully, and was pretty awful in the middle. I can’t say there weren’t good bits, but they were somewhat drowned out by all of the shit that happened. Fuck off, 2012.
Here’s to 2013.
Edit, 16th March 2013: By Becky’s request, removed an unflattering photo of her and some of the ickier details of her health problems this year.
Edit, 11th July 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s personal details have been obfuscated in this post so that they are no longer readily available to search engines.
Edit, 26th September 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s photo was removed from this post, too.
You know how when your life is busy time seems to creep by so slowly… you look back and say “do you remember the time… oh, that was just last week!” Well that’s what my life’s been like, of late.
There was Milestone: Jethrik and the Three Rings Conference, of course, which ate up a lot of my time but then paid off wonderfully – the conference was a wonderful success, and our announcements about formalising our non-profit nature and our plans for the future were well-received by the delegates. A slightly lower-than-anticipated turnout (not least because of this winter ‘flu that’s going around) didn’t prevent the delegates (who’d come from far and wide: Samaritans branches, Nightlines, and even a representative from a Community Library that uses the software) from saying wonderful things about the event. We’re hoping for some great feedback to the satisfaction surveys we’ve just sent out, too.
Hot on the heels of those volunteering activities came my latest taped assessment for my counselling course at Aylesbury College. Given the brief that I was “a volunteer counseller at a school, when the parent of a bullied child comes in, in tears”, I took part in an observed, recorded role-play scenario, which now I’m tasked with dissecting and writing an essay about. Which isn’t so bad, except that the whole thing went really well, so I can’t take my usual approach of picking holes in it and saying what I learned from it. Instead I’ll have to have a go at talking about what I did right and trying to apply elements of counselling theory to justify the way I worked. That’ll be fun, too, but it does of course mean that the busy lifestyle isn’t quite over yet.
And then on Tuesday I was a guest at the UK Bus Awards, an annual event which my dad co-pioneered back in the mid-1990s. I’d been invited along by Transaid, the charity that my dad was supporting with his planned expedition to the North Pole before he was killed during an accident while training. I was there first and foremost to receive (posthumously, on his behalf) the first Peter Huntley Fundraising Award, which will be given each year to the person who – through a physical activity – raises the most money for Transaid. The award was first announced at my father’s funeral, by Gary Forster, the charity’s chief executive. Before he worked for the charity he volunteered with them for some time, including a significant amount of work in sub-Saharan Africa, so he and I spent a little while at the event discussing the quirks of the local cuisine, which I’d experienced some years earlier during my sponsored cycle around the country (with my dad).
So it’s all been “go, go, go,” again, and I apologise to those whose emails and texts I’ve neglected. Or maybe I haven’t neglected them so much as I think: after all – if you emailed me last week, right now that feels like months ago.
The other Three Ringers and I are working hard to wrap up Milestone: Jethrik, the latest version of the software. I was optimising some of the older volunteer availability-management code when, by coincidence, I noticed this new bug:
I suppose it’s true: Lucy (who’s an imaginary piece of test data) will celebrate her birthday in 13/1 days. Or 13.0 days, if you prefer. But most humans seem to be happier with their periods of time not expressed as top-heavy fractions, for some reason, so I suppose we’d better fix that one.
They’re busy days for Three Rings, right now, as we’re also making arrangements for our 10th Birthday Conference, next month. Between my Three Rings work, a busy stretch at my day job, voluntary work at Oxford Friend, yet-more-executor-stuff, and three different courses, I don’t have much time for anything else!
But I’m still alive, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about all of the things I’ve been getting up to sometime. Maybe at half term. Or Christmas!
On this day in 2005 (actually tomorrow, but I needed to publish early) I received an unusual parcel at work, which turned out to contain a pan, wooden spoon, tin of spaghetti hoops, loaf of bread… and an entire electric hob.
This turned out, as I describe in my blog post of the day, to have been the result of a conversation that the pair of us had had on IRC the previous day, in which he called me a “Philistine” for heating my lunchtime spaghetti hoops in the office microwave. This was a necessity rather than a convenience, given that we didn’t have any other mechanism for heating food (other than a toaster, and that’s a really messy way to heat up tinned food…).
It was clearly a time when we were all blogging quite regularly: apologies for the wall of links (a handful of which, I’m afraid, might be restricted). Be glad that I spared you all the posts about the 2005 General Election, which at the time occupied a lot of the Abnib blogosphere. We were young, and idealistic, and many of us were students, and most of us hadn’t yet been made so cynical by the politicians who have come since.
And, relevantly, it was a time when Paul was able to express his randomness in some particularly quirky ways. Like delivering me a food parcel at work. He’s always been the king of random events, like organising ad-hoc hilltop trips that turned out to be for the purpose of actually releasing 99 red (helium) balloons. I tried to immortalise his capacity for thinking that’s not just outside the box, but outside the known Universe, when I wrote his character into Troma Night Adventure, but I’m not sure I quite went far enough.
It seems so long ago now: those Aberystwyth days, less than a year out of University myself. When I look back, I still find myself wondering how we managed to find so much time to waste on categorising all of the pages on the RockMonkey wiki. I suppose that nowadays we’ve traded the spontaneity to say “Hey: card games in the pub in 20 minutes: see you there!” on a blog and expect it to actually work, for a more-structured and planned existence. More-recently, we’ve spent about a fortnight so far discussing what day of the week we want out new monthly board games night to fall on.
I got the chance to live with Paul for a couple of years, until he moved out last month. I’m not sure whether or not this will ultimately reduce the amount of quirkiness that I get in my diet, but I’m okay either way. Paul’s not far away – barely on the other side of town – so I’m probably still within a fatal distance of the meteor we always assumed would eventually kill him.
We’ve turned what was his bedroom into an office. Another case of “a little bit less random, a little bit more structure and planning”, perhaps, in a very metaphorical way? Maybe this is what it feels like to be a grown-up. Took me long enough.
This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.
As a trainee counsellor, I’ve had plenty of opportunity of late for self-analysis and reflection. Sometimes revelations come at unexpected times, as I discovered recently.
I was playing the part of a client in a role-play scenario for another student on my course when I was struck by a realisation that I didn’t feel that my “counsellor” was able to provide an effective and empathetic response to the particular situations I was describing. It didn’t take me long to spot that the reason I felt this way was her age. Probably the youngest in our class – of whose span of ages I probably sit firmly in the middle – her technical skill is perfectly good, and she’s clearly an intelligent and emotionally-smart young woman… but somehow, I didn’t feel like she would be able to effectively support me.
And this turned out to be somewhat true: the session ended somewhat-satisfactorily, but there were clear moments during which I didn’t feel that a rapport had been established. Afterwards, I found myself wondering: how much of this result was caused by her approach to listening to me… and how much was caused by my perception of how she would approach listening to me? Of the barriers that lay between us, which had I erected?
Since then, I’ve spent a little time trying to get to the bottom of this observation about myself, asking: from where does my assumption stem that age can always be associated with an empathic response? A few obvious answers stand out: for a start, there’s the fact that there probably is such a trend, in general (although it’s still unfair to make the outright assumption that it will apply in any particular case, especially with somebody whose training should counteract that trend). Furthermore, there’s the assumption that one’s own experience is representative: I know very well that at 18 years old, my personal empathic response was very weak, and so there’s the risk that I project that onto other young adults.
However, the most-interesting source for this prejudice, that I’ve found, has been Nightline training.
Many years ago, I was a volunteer at Aberystwyth Nightline. I worked there for quite a while, and even after I’d graduated and moved on, I would periodically go back to help out with training sessions, imparting some of what I’d learned to a new generation of student listeners.
As I did this, a strange phenomenon began to occur: every time I went back, the trainees got younger and younger. Now of course this isn’t true – it’s just that I was older each time – but it was a convincing illusion. A second thing happened, too: every time I went back, the natural aptitude of the trainees, for the work, seemed to be less fine-tuned than it had the time before. Again, this was just a convincing illusion: through my ongoing personal development and my work with Samaritans, Oxford Friend, and others, I was always learning new skills to apply to helping relationships, but each new batch of trainees was just getting off to a fresh start.
This combination of illusions is partly responsible for the idea, in my mind, that “younger = less good a listener”: for many years, I’ve kept seeing people who are younger and younger (actually just younger than me, by more) and who have had less and less listening experience (actually just less experience relative to me, increasingly). It’s completely false, but it’s the kind of illusion that nibbles at the corners of your brain, if you’ll let it.
Practicing good self-awareness helps counsellors to find the sources of their own prejudices and challenge them. But it’s not always easy, and sometimes the realisations come when you least expect them.
On this day in 2004 I handed in my dissertation, contributing towards my BEng in Software Engineering. The topic of my dissertation was the Three Rings project, then in its first incarnation, a web application originally designed to help university Nightlines to run their services.
I’d celebrated hitting 10,000 words – half of the amount that I estimated that I’d need – but little did I know that my work would eventually weigh in at over 30,000 words, and well over the word limit! In the final days, I scrambled to cut back on text and shunt entire chapters into the appendices (A through J), where they’d be exempt, while a team of volunteers helped to proofread everything I’d done so far.
Finally, I was done, and I could relax. Well: right up until I discovered that I was supposed to have printed and bound two copies, and I had to run around a busy and crowded campus to get another copy run off at short notice.
Three Rings went from strength to strength, as I discussed in an earlier “on this day”. When Bryn came on board and offered to write programs to convert Three Rings 1 data into Three Rings 2 data, in 2006, he borrowed my dissertation as a reference. After he forgot that he still had it, he finally returned it last month.
Today, Three Ringscontinues to eat a lot of my time, and now supports tens of thousands of volunteers at hundreds of different helplines and other charities, including virtually every Nightline and the majority of all Samaritans branches.
It’s grown even larger than I ever imagined, back in those early days. I often tell people that it started as a dissertation project, because it’s simpler than the truth: that it started a year or two before that, and provided a lot of benefit to a few Nightlines, and it was just convenient that I was able to use it as a part of my degree because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have had time to make it into what it became. Just like I’m fortunate now to have the input of such talented people as I have, over the last few years, because I couldn’t alone make it into the world-class service that it’s becoming.
This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.
I mentioned back in October that I’ve returned to education and am now studying counselling, part-time. I thought I’d share with you an update on how that’s going.
The short answer: it’s going well.
I’m finding myself challenged in fun and new ways, despite my volunteering experience, which has included no small amount of work on emotional support helplines of one kind of another. For example, we’ve on two occasions now done role-play sessions in which the “helper” (the person acting in the role of a counsellor) has been required to not ask any questions to the “helpee” (their client). Depending on your theoretical orientation and your background, that’s either a moderately challenging or a very challenging thing – sort of like the opposite of a game of Questions, but with the added challenge that you’re trying to pay attention to what the other participant is actually saying, rather than thinking “Don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question…” the whole damn time.
It’s an enjoyable exercise, and works really well to help focus on sometimes-underused skills like paraphrasing and summarising, as well as of course giving you plenty of opportunity to simply listen, attend to the helpee, and practice your empathic response. The first time I did it I was noticed (by my observer) to be visibly uncomfortable, almost “itching to ask something”, but by the second occasion, I’d cracked it. It’s like climbing with one arm tied behind your back! But as you’d expect of such an exercise, it leaves you with far more care, and control… and one enormous muscular arm!
Amidst all of the “fluffy” assessment, I was pleased this semester to be able to cut my teeth on some theoretical stuff, as a break. The practical side is good, but I do enjoy the chance to get deep into some theory once in a while, and my reading list has spiraled out of control as each thing I read leads me to find two other titles that I’d probably enjoy getting into next. I’ve recently been reading Living with ‘The Gloria Films’: A Daughter’s Memory, by Pamela J Burry, whose existence in itself takes a little explanation:
In 1964, three psychotherapists walked into a bar. They were Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis and Fritz Perls. They had a few drinks, and then they had an argument about whose approach to psychotherapy was the best.
“I respect you both deeply,” began Perls, “But surely it is clear to see that your rejection of Gestalt therapy is rooted in your attempts to pretend to be accepting of it. It is clearly the superior approach.”
“You don’t need to get emotional over this,” said Ellis, “Let’s just go back and find the event that first inspired your prejudice against my rational emotive therapy, and re-examine it: there should be no doubt that it is the best way to treat disorders.”
“It feels like you’re being quite cold to one another,” said Rogers, father of the humanistic approach, after a moment’s pause. “I wonder what we could do to explore this disagreement that we’re having… and perhaps come to an answer that feels right to us all?”
And so the three agreed to a test: they would find a subject who was willing to undergo a single therapy session from all three of them, and then it’d be clear who was the winner. They’d film the whole thing, to make sure that there could be no denying the relative successes of each approach. And the losers would each pay for all of the winner’s drinks the next time they went out to the Rat And Bang, their local pub.
Now that story is complete bullshit, but it’s far more-amusing than any true explanation as to why these three leading counsellors were filmed, each in turn, talking to a client by the name of Gloria – a 30-year-old divorced mother of three concerned with being a good parent and how she presents herself to men. I’ll leave you to find and watch the films for yourself if you want: they’re all available on video sharing sites around the web, and I’d particularly recommend Carl Rogers’ videos if you’re looking for something that almost everybody will find quite watchable.
Gloria died fifteen years later, but her daughter “Pammy” (whose question about sex, when she was nine years old, gave so much material to Gloria’s session with Carl Rogers) wrote a biography of their lives together, which was published in 2008. The focus of “The Gloria Films” was on the therapeutic methodologies of the practitioners, of course. But Gloria herself was intelligent and compelling, and I was genuinely interested to get “the rest of the story” after she left that film studio (made up to look like a psychotherapist’s office) and got on with her life.
Hence the book.
And so hence, my example of how I keep reading (or in this case watching) things, which lead me to find more things to read, which in turn give me yet more things to read.
It’s actually a qualification I’ve been looking at for several years, but it’s only recently that I’ve lived somewhere even remotely close to somewhere that it’s taught: while there’s a lot of counselling theory that can be learned by distance learning, there’s naturally a lot of hands-on counselling practice that demands a classroom or clinical setting, and for that… you really do need to be within reach of a suitable school.
Not that Aylesbury‘s exactly on my doorstep. It’s not even in the same county as me (it’s just barely over the border, in fact, into Buckinghamshire). And this can make things a little challenging: whereas many of my classmates walk or cycle in, I have a special little dance that I have to do every Monday, in order to make my study possible.
I arrive at work early, so that I can get out of the door by 4:30pm. I then leap onto my bike and pedal furiously through Oxford’s crowded afternoon streets to the East side of the city. There, I lock my bike up and hop into a borrowed car (more about that in another blog post), pick my way out between the growing pre-rush-hour traffic, sprawling 20mph zones, and deathwish cyclists, and hammer along the A418 in order to get to class for its 6pm start.
Three hours of theory and roleplay later (as well as a break to eat a packet sandwich), I’m back on the road. It annoys me more than a little that now that I’m not in a hurry, the roads are usually clear and empty, but it’s a good excuse to crank up the volume on Jack FM and enjoy the ride back through the villages of East Oxfordshire. Back in Oxford, I pick up my bike and cycle home: I’m usually back before 10:30. It’s quite a long day, really.
So what’s it all for? Well: ultimately, if I stick with it, it leads to a Certificate in Counselling, then to a Diploma in Counselling. If you take that and couple it with a stack of distance learning modules, it adds up to… well, this Foundation Degree in Counselling, perhaps.
But that’s not what you wanted to know: what you wanted to know was, “What are you doing, Dan? What’s wrong with the degree and career you’ve already got?”
But also, it’s about the idea I’ve always had that a good mid-life crisis ought to benefit from planning: it’s too important to leave to chance. And I’ve been thinking that a career switch might be a great mid-life crisis. The social sciences are fun, and while counselling might not be exactly what I’m looking for, there’s some doors opened by studying it. With less than a decade before I’m 40, and with part-time study being an ever-so-slow way to get things done, I’d better pull my finger out.
Doubtless, I’ll have more to say about my course as it progresses, but for now, I’m just glad that it’s half-term week, which means I get a week in which I don’t spend my Monday running around like a headless chicken… and I get twice as long to finish my homework.
[this post has been partially damaged during a server failure on Sunday 11th July 2004, and it has been possible to recover only a part of it]
I feel kind of odd. And no, I’m not just referring to my (still kind-of burny) Lariam headache:
I’ve just had my final exam. And I mean ever.
I know I’m not a graduate yet (assuming I even pass these buggers), but… there’s something kind-of final feeling about leaving that exam room. It took me a good few minutes walking down the hill before it really hit me that this is the end of it.
I’ve been a student here at Aberystwyth for almost five years. That’s over a fifth of my life. That’s pretty much all of my adult life (going by the legal definition of ’18’).
I’ve been in apprehensive anticipation of this moment all year. Perhaps longer. I’m not trying to cling on to it – I know when it’s time to let go and get on with other things – but I still feel a certain… sadness… at something having passed by. It’s not unlike… the death of a pet. Or a loved-one moving away. It’s just a hole in me that waits – not fearful… but: presentiment at what is to fill it.
When I was in my first year, I talked with folks like Rory …