Thursday, 31 March 2011

Happy Mothers Day

This weekend in the UK we recognise ("celebrate" may be over-stating things a little) Mother's Day.

Mothers can put their feet up for a day while Dad and the kids take care of them - bringing them breakfast in bed and little pink trinkets, flowers, a restaurant lunch perhaps. So lovely.

I'm really looking forward to it. Especially since Saturday will be so busy - preparing. I will have to organise the Off-Spring to make their cards for me while I clean the house for Sunday's guests, then bake some tea-time treats, replace the broken vase in case anyone buys flowers for me and best of all, guide the Off-Spring away from the kiddie soaps and towards the chocolate/wine or books, in the local Waitrose as they search, my money in hand, for the perfect treat for Mummy. Then after long deliberations and purchases, which will serve to fray the nerves and delay the exit from the store, we will all grow more tired and more fretful (after a big week at school) and enjoy one of those walks home, replete with bickering and whining along the lines of "his gift is better" and "he always copies me" and "can we open it now and have some?" and "I can't walk another step" and "it's not fair, why are you so mean Mummy?".

What's there not to love about Mother's Day?

Maybe I'm building it up too much. After all, last year's passed without event. I have absolutely no recollection of what happened...

No - none at all.

I do remember the Australian Mother's Day last year which is observed in May. What a morbid and lonely day. I spent it with the delightful Off-Spring contemplating my dear mother (Mrs Springgirl) who died just three days after Mother's Day in 2009. Poignant and sorrowful is about all I can say for it. 


The truth is that I personally derive minimal pleasure from these socially appointed celebrations. Perhaps I'm a miserable kill-joy or a cynic. 

No - I definitely am a miserable kill-joy and a cynic, but nevertheless, the pink trinkets and the crumbs in the bed really don't mean that much to me. 

Admittedly, the special displays at the supermarket are very pretty and quite irresistible. Pastel marshmallows and Turkish Delight so temptingly offered to us (as if we would ever buy this for ourselves or our mothers on any day of the year), to tantalise us as we queue with our too-heavy baskets and to tug at our consciences as we finally reach the cashier and remember amidst all the other detritus cluttering our weary brains, that our mothers-in-law do like rosewater, don't they, and hadn't we better get a box just in case, ooh and a card, since Fred/Hank/Jim/Ian never remembers these things...

And where would we be without those displays, the full-page ads in the paper and the catchy jingles on the radio? We could hardly be expected to come up with a gift idea without them, given our mothers are such strange and unfamiliar creatures whose actual tastes and preferences are so mysterious and hidden. The safe (and sage) option is to buy pink and purple cards, sickly sweets and flowered coffee cups, little floral tea towels and bouquets of flowers for these most strange, yet cherished of people. 

Any excuse to spend a little money eh?

Some of you may wonder why I am so ambivalent - even negative - about Mother's Day. Let me assure you that I know all the tried and tested rationales for these special days.

They just don't resonate with me. Here is why:

1.  I am tired of being told what to think, buy and feel by the stores, the media and the pundits. I am weary of being guided in all of my choices by what B-list Celebrity-So-and-So will be doing, wearing or eating this Sunday.

2.  I rail against commercially motivated contrivances conceived to remind us not to take our loved one's for granted. The truth is that no matter what we say or spend once or twice a year, we do, and always will, take our mothers for granted. It's human nature to take the good things for granted. Not wilfully or maliciously; it's just how we are. Mothers, fathers too, our friends, our health, our good fortune, good weather, employment, safety, clean water. One day devoted to mothers/fathers will not change that.

3.  What about all the others whose contributions go unacknowledged? Those who do not have a "Day"? The unsung heroes? Mothers are just the tip of an immense iceberg made up of all those who carry the community - fathers (they have a day and various other perks, admittedly), teachers (despite great holidays), soldiers (some travel hardly makes up for death, mutilation and poor sanitation), nurses, scientists, rubbish collectors, cleaners and those lorry drivers tirelessly bringing all the pink treats to the high street for us? 

Where is the day for all of these people?

4.  To spoil us one day a year is ultimately, unkind, inhumane. Like the last meal for the condemned man? For those mothers who do get a treat or a spoiling - some time out, a chance to relax or to be freed from the chores or the responsibility - the fall back down to earth the next day, week, month can be harsh. While it keeps the day itself special, of course, a thing to be longed for or savoured, it is not a kindness, in the long run.

5.  Despite point 2 above, despite the fact that we feel we are not acknowledged enough, feel neglected sometimes, long for peace, uninterrupted sleep or quality alone time, a day for mothers is unnecessary. Because every day is mother's day. 

Every day that they smile back, say thank you nicely and go to bed on time, is mother's day. Every day that they offer to help around the house, beg us to come to school and see their play, read them a story or play a game with them, is mother's day. Every day that they rush to greet us, ask our advice, roll their eyes at said advice or tell us dinner was disgusting - is mother's day. Every time we wave them goodbye and sigh with relief when they come back, is mother's day. Amidst the joy, frustration, pain, worry, heartache and despair that goes with motherhood, not a day goes by without a reminder of the love that they feel for us, of the love we feel for our own mothers, and perhaps most meaningfully, of the love we feel for our children.  A virtuous circle.

So - Mother's Day is not my cup of tea (-in-bed-with-toast).

Thankfully, it's only one day. I'll survive.


On a lighter note I am congratulating myself on being a very good mother this week.

For this week I learnt that:
a) Working mothers in the UK spend 81 minutes a day looking after their children and
b) Non-working mothers in the UK average 2 hours 35 minutes directly caring for their children each day. 

In the world of competitive mothering we all know that any information that validates or vindicates  choices to work or not to work are like manna from Heaven, so thanks to the OECD for commissioning this important survey.

But the results seem flawed. Is it just me or are these figures very low? For working and non-working women alike! Where on earth are the kids the other 21- 22 hours of the day? 

Of course I have done a back of the envelope calculation. I think it only right to aggregate my totals (i.e. times by 3) in relation to each of the Off-Spring. 

Now I should preface my comments by saying that I was (and at heart remain) a tax lawyer, so pedantically allocating time to activities is my bread and butter.  Accordingly, I have reached a somewhat higher figure of 48.38 hours/day which reflects what I consider to be "directly caring" for my children - namely:

  • shopping for their meals, 
  • cooking,
  • washing, 
  • ironing, 
  • cleaning, 
  • tidying, 
  • arranging their social and extra-curricular activities, 
  • attending meetings at school, 
  • Googling their foibles, 
  • leafing through Mini-Boden Catalogues, 
  • listening to other mothers talk about their kids,
  • scraping uneaten food slops off the floor,
  • running the PTA (this is a quiet period which may skew my final tally and does not take into account extraordinary events such as bake sales, fundraisers or big school gate gossip sessions...),
  • planning what to wear on the school run,
  • going on the school run,
  • talking to, bathing, feeding, playing and reading with the children,
  • thinking/worrying about some aspect of their lives or development (lawyers customarily bill for thinking time).
But all of that is beside the real point - which was the third Big Thing I learnt this week.

According to the FAST programme of parenting - 15 quality minutes a day for each child should just about do it (after a few weeks one can build up to more, apparently).

So reconciling the data - it seems that most of the guilt and angst mothers feel is unnecessary provided 15 minutes of the 81 (or 48 hours) is "quality" time. 

I am so happy because let me assure you that my tidying, Googling, worrying and direct play are all very high quality! In fact this blog post has taken almost 115 minutes...

So where am I now?

Celebrating motherhood, of course!

Just don't get me started on Valentine's Day or Halloween.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Short and sweet

I began Spring to Ming Blog exactly a year ago, in a cynical ploy to gain readers and followers and hopefully sell some books. But, it wasn't long before I discovered the joys of blogging for its own sake. Like chatting with an old friend. The discipline required to craft a post helped me with my writing and my work. Searching for a topic, framing my thoughts, plotting the tale, as it were, were invaluable in developing my sense of ease with blogging, as well as my interests and niche as a writer and a coach. The truth is, as I came to discover during this past year, wanting to write is like managing a dull thirst - one is not really sated until one has the drink. And I don't mean alcohol or managing an addiction. No it's more basic than that, more instinctual and imperative, like quenching one's thirst with water alone. 

Writing has become a necessity. One is not settled or at ease until the thoughts are outside of one - whether on a page, in a post or stored on some USB stick (in case of viruses and theft and what have you). The fact that at the same time as expressing a thought one can reach strangers and have one's words read almost immediately, is perhaps the greatest miracle of the digital age (discuss!).

So at this juncture - as Spring to Mind Blog turns 1 I feel many things, like a parent whose child reaches its first birthday. Well not as tired, perhaps, but with similar feelings of pride and wonder.

Seriously, though. 

Back in the real world I have been giving thought to ways of getting my work "out there". 

Accordingly, I gave away several copies of "Spring to Mind" to poor sweaty, unsuspecting exercise class attendees at my gym. Many thanks to Barrie - the super cool and super funny instructor, who like me was once a lawyer until something better came along - who supportively announced that there were "books to be had" if anyone wanted one. I was very relieved to find that I ran out of books the first week. My fear and shyness at the thought that all those women would run away from the crazy wannabe who brought her stupid book to Total Body Conditioning (TBC) to give away (Desp-er-ate!), proved to be Totally Unfounded. My visions of having to find a new gym or face Barrie forcing me to do 2000 one legged squats the following week as retribution for driving his class away with my blatant self promotion, evaporated (faster than my sweat after back-to-back Step and TBC). I chided myself on my self-limiting thoughts and began to plan the next Give-Away Assault.

Kicking myself that I did not get out to the march in London yesterday - thousands of people milling in Hyde Park and Parliament Square - and where was I? Not in amongst them with a pushchair full of books, but at the gym!

At the risk of boring you with my troubles (again) - I did a search of writing competitions in the UK last week only to discover a dearth of contests for anyone writing lengthy prose. Instead there are many places to showcase one's skills as a short story or indeed "micro-fiction" writer.

I had one of those "aha" moments that I so love, then. All of sudden I realised that the daunting prospect of another edit, another read-through and another tome to have to give away - would not be problematic at all if one were writing micro-fiction (anything from 50 to 250 words). Hooray!

So, desperate to win a prize or two at some stage in the span of this writing phase I got out the notebook and jotted down some ideas for very short stories. I had quite a lot of inspiration during the sermon at mass, it has to be said...

So I though I would share a couple with you here. I would love your feedback - micro-feedback preferably.

Beat Butter and Sugar to a Cream
And they all begin that way – as if it could be any different. Beat butter and sugar to a cream. Add wet ingredients, add dry ingredients. So simple. Yet it doesn’t always rise. Or it comes out dry and crusty or tasteless and soggy. Though soggy at least reminds one of cooking as a child, which is sort of fun, in the sad way nostalgia is. The sepia tones of cakes long gone. 

I barely taste it anyway. And they don’t care. Take it out. Cut it up. Shovel it down. Wipe up the crumbs. Wash it all down with tepid tea. Exchange remarks, as Gran would say. Pass the time. Comment on the weather, the news, the score. Plates back to the kitchen, washed up, put away. All done. For an hour or two. Then to sit with nothing to say, nothing to do; the silence oppressive. Why can I think of nothing to say? Nothing at all. So I sit and wait and smile a little, to seem relaxed. Pick up a book. Ponder. Put it down.

Oh, is that the time? Relief floods in. "Better start dinner, how the time goes." Retreat to the kitchen. Peace again. The next round begins in the grey war of attrition. Feed them, clean up. Feed them, clean up. All week. All year.

But Sundays, at least, are sepia days – beating butter and sugar to a cream.

What do you think?

I have another I prepared earlier:

Worker Bees
He drones. Literally. Like a worker bee.

And he smells. Not of charm. Nor success, nor desirability. Not even of man. Or of a man’s lunch. Meat, gravy, Coke. No - just noxious cologne sprayed too long on stale clothes, and of arrogance. And last night’s scotch. And cheap machine coffee. Reeks of that.

He talks of tax and accounting, but what does he mean when he says “above the Line”? What Line? The line on the wall behind his shining, pale, ridiculously high forehead? The line on the flipchart under his name? All slanty and uneven, like a child slipped in over lunch and wrote it for him. Then fell asleep in the corner, when the droning began. Or is it some other Line, only he can see?

He looks at me now. Does he sense it? Can he hear my thoughts?  Does he know I can smell his breath across the room? Has he any idea that the Line plagues me night and day? His squinty,dead eyes on me should be unnerving.

But he doesn’t see me. For what is there to see? Pregnant woman, greying hair. Old yet young.

A hand goes up. The droning stops, at last. He seems calm. But it’s an act; he hates interruption. He’s locked in an inner battle. The grey men in their poorly made suits wait, glance at the clock, their phones.

“Yes?” Convention prevails. He’ll answer the question. Appear normal. He caresses his ear with a finger. Then picks it.

“What if “above the Line” is “across the Line”?” I pause. 

“It’s your baby.”

So short can be fun - like hairstyles, skirts, coffee...

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Comfort food

It's been too long! I almost couldn't remember the password for my blog! I cannot claim to have been really busy this past 6 weeks. I've been writing and coaching and marketing both endeavours. I finished my novel - not in time to enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel competition - but in time to allow me to focus on whether to self-publish it or find an agent. Keen on seeing it in print (sooner rather than never), I opted to self-publish. Rather than read it a 387th time (even I am weary of the font and the characters now), I hit the "make public" button and it is now available

Much as I would love to extol its virtues here, I will save my rantings for another post. Suffice to say - I think it will amuse and entertain. Anyone who would like to review it - you would be more objective after all - I would be delighted to hear your views. Anything favourable can be posted to, or emailed to me at If in the unlikely case that you read it and take issue with it or have negative comments, I suggest you give it away to someone else. 

As a little aside, a good friend told me that she leant my first book "Spring to Mind" to a work colleague who was in fits of laughter and floods of tears as she read it at her desk at work. It was very gratifying. Right up there with the views of my neighbour who told me I was "ballsy" to write such a novel...

So where to start and what to say on other matters. I would love to comment on Libya, the tsunami in Japan, or nuclear reactors (or "nuke-ular" ones - depending from where you hail), but I am not qualified to venture a view. My heart goes out to all who have lost loved ones, homes or livelihoods and who face that loss and the eternal "why?" that accompanies it and the long and perhaps never-ending road to recovery. The devastation is incomprehensible.

Rather than confront that misery and the huge imponderables that natural disasters and armed conflict give rise to, I will focus on more pedestrian things - for which I am grateful. You see, for now, all is well. No chicken pox blights us as yet this Spring, there is no ghastly news from family abroad. We are well and safe and basically happy. We have merely the pedestrian concerns of the ordinary urban household (that pays over the odds for good chocolate and is fed up with the chewed up gum left on every spare surface in the city). 

But we are thankful nevertheless for only having such worries. I will not labour the point about perspective and gratitude yet again - been done to death. If you are new to me - read these earlier posts.

No - for today the topic is - Limits and Ambiguity.

I read some research today that said that people eat chips and chocolate because these foods give them comfort and alleviate feelings of loneliness - like a social connection might. Indeed the report stated that comfort eating is similar to the way people connect and bond with their favourite tv show. 

Well obviously! This is not news (so little is these days - but that's another post).

Suffice to say that favourite tv shows provide a rich seam of social connectedness. The cast of "Friends" are almost as dear to me as any real life friend. For a time my constant companions were Don and Betty Draper ("Mad Men") and the casts of "NCIS" and "The West Wing" are more than a de facto family. I care about Josh Lyman as I would a brother.

And yes - it will come as no surprise to any reader of Spring to Mind to learn that Green and Black's dark chocolate praline mini eggs are the greatest source of comfort in my life.

Read my blog and most trends in lifestyle research will eventually be analysed and revealed - and more cheaply and without nearly the same hoopla and publicity. Hey ho...

So, where was I? Limits and Ambiguity?

Yes - relax  - there is a link to the topic. Given that tv provides us with rich social bonds - I refer you to "Damages".  This show is a real find. In the legal, crime drama milieu this show is unique in that every villain is likeable and capable of garnering our sympathy. "The Good Wife" does this to some extent - but one feels this is deliberate - a moral lesson, if you will. In contrast Damages seems real - less contrived. Every hero is flawed and corruptible too. The cast is superb, the acting consistent and likeable and even in their darkest moments we somehow relate to the actions of the characters. They are very human and vulnerable - like us. Not mere goodies and baddies through and through. And their behaviour is not attributable to some deep, dark, lurking, yet buried childhood tragedy, the revelation of which we eagerly await season after season. Rather, it would appear that people are complex and ambiguous and even "good" people make bad choices. 

We, the audience, are credited with the capacity to wonder and think and reflect - albeit in a different way to that required of devotees of "Mad Men" *(which draws on a time in history and the personal struggles of the characters with issues of authenticity and identity within that context) or "The West Wing" (which was as much about a system and the working of bureaucracy as it was about individuals within it). But it is very flattering to be treated as capable of reflection and thought. Perhaps I am naive or easily manipulated - but watching gripping drama in which the villain is likeable at some level is compelling, even addictive. 

Every day in ordinary social interactions we meet people who may also struggle with internal conflicts, moral grey areas and huge decisions that are plagued with ambiguity and uncertainty. Indeed, perhaps we face such situations as well. 

We raise our children hopefully to know and choose right from wrong, to have an internal moral compass to guide them through the trickier times. Yet, even in the playground, in primary school, they face dilemmas that are ambiguous. They grapple with choices every day - to tell or not to 
tell, to forgive, to trust, to be vulnerable. And they face them alone. 

And they survive.


Which is where "The Brady Bunch" comes in. 

How many times does one think back to childhood days when memories of what Marcia or Jan would have done guided us through a tough period at school. Children today need more of that! Once a week I coach two boys whose primary source of entertainment is "The Simpsons". I have no issue with this - though 17 hours a week (as they claim) may be excessive... But, the fact is - I am no stranger to sitcoms and tv drama, movies and books, and in all that I have watched, read and sampled over some 30 years - nothing much beats "The Brady Bunch" for good, sensible, family oriented entertainment. Yes, it's dated, But Marcia is still cute, Greg is still annoying, Peter is still compelling and Mike and Carol, still "real". While we know that everything will end up basically alright, in each episode the characters face a challenge or an opportunity and must make choices which have consequences.  

A timeless lesson.


A new film is released in the UK this week - "Limitless". I hope to see it. I know nothing about it apart from what is revealed in the trailer. The premise - what would you do it you were offered a pill that would make you super human - to see connections, understand the mysteries of the world, make shedloads of money... and so on.

A fictional romp... and yet...

What would one do?


Truth is, I quite like limits. I like knowing that if I run too fast I will fall down panting, at least based on recent evidence. I like learning from my mistakes and finding new ways of doing things. Yet, I also like not knowing something and trying to find out. I like ambiguity and the opportunities it provides for challenge and self-discovery. But I also like chocolate, writing and good tv. I like knowing where my pineapple comes from and knowing what might happen tomorrow. 

So there is a fine line between control and limits; between uncertainty and ambiguity; between comfort and loneliness.

Perhaps that's why the makers of "Damages" give the viewer a glimpse of the end of the season in the first episode. We already care and are bought into what happens. We have 12 weeks to come to terms with the how and the why. Not to say this is the only formula for TV success - the tension and suspense in "The Brady Bunch", when we only discovered at the last minute whether Cindy would conquer her fear of magic tricks and be Peter's assistant or whether Mike would keep his job after Carol insulted his boss - is second to none.

But these are not our real lives. These shows are our escape, our fantasy land where time can stand still for 39 minutes. So is it any wonder we turn to chips and chocolate? In the face of tsunamis and dictators and air strikes, random and chance events that steal families of loved ones, what else do we have to provide us with solace and a small, fleeting and illusory sense that we are in control and are safe.

Frankly - those praline eggs are not comfort food - but survival rations!