Tag Archives: writer mom

Toboggan update, a war story and McMini versus Alexa.

It’s been a busy week this week. McMini is due to go on a school trip which involves two nights away. I have therefore been spending most of the week with a list of required clothing working out which items we have and buying the ones we don’t have. Pretty much all of them.

In order to try and train McCat out of some of his many behavioural problems, I have bought a thing that senses when he goes near the bin to flip the lid off and search for scraps and squirts a jet of air. Unfortunately, though this is working, the people who set it off 99.99999999% of the time are McMini and McOther.

It’s nearly run out already and judging by the cost of the refills it’s actual solid gold in there rather than the air the makers claim, or it’s liquidised diamonds or something. I thought one would do but with my menfolk, no chance, it’ll be hard put to last the week.

I also bought a static electric mat. Unfortunately it comes with no meaningful instructions. I think I switched it on but after an hour it started beeping and the battery died. I haven’t tried it since.

Ho hum … a partial success then.

Sadly, I also jinxed any chance of tobogganing joy this weekend by retrieving the one I had as a kid from Mum and Dad’s, barn, washing the mouse and spider pooh off it, along with the yucky, knackered crispy wood louse carapaces left by the spiders, and bringing it home. Turns out it’s a bit older than I thought as it’s a Flexible Flyer No 1.

It looks as if it may be Great Grandpa’s rather than Granny’s. Luckily, I don’t think that makes it any more valuable, so it’s still worth the same as a modern replacement, which means we can use it. Oh yeh.

Except for that bit about the jinxing. Yes, now that we have a slightly more McMini-friendly toboggan, we have had the usual boring Bury St Edmunds snow: chuffing cold, snows all day but doesn’t sit. Seriously I have no idea how it can be this fucking cold and still melt. It’s a bastard miracle. Climatologists should look into it because frankly, I reckon there’s something going on. Also, I’m getting a bit bored of being cold. I wish it would either snow properly or just piss off. It’ll probably snow properly tomorrow when I’m at my club dig out in the country at the bottom of a hill (note to self, take a tow rope).

Also this week, I went with Mum to the funeral of a lovely lady who used to go to their church. The chap doing the eulogy told a splendid story this lady used to tell about the time a ME109 was brought down on the Downs near Steyning.

The word spread like wild fire and everyone armed themselves with pitchforks, kitchen knives, pickaxe handles etc and went off to capture the pilot. Meanwhile, the gentleman in question unwittingly evaded capture and was discovered wandering local lanes by someone taking an afternoon constitutional, someone who was unaware that a dangerous armed enemy was on the loose. The pilot asked, politely, if they could tell him the way to the local police station. Unaware of the posse the other side of the Downs looking for him, he then calmly followed the directions he’d been given and handed himself in. Stories like these say so much about human nature.

In a bid to keep the screen time to quality time, I have given up doing the social media stuff in the evening in front of the telly in favour of knitting. I now have seven pairs of socks – and I’ve only shrunk two pairs so far – along with a smaller pair for McMini, and a pussy hat – but in red and light pink because militant use of pink is vile and gives me the boke.

Meanwhile McOther has purchased an Alexa. It’s quite good but not able to answer many questions. For example, I asked it how to make pasta the other day … about seventy times.

Try as I might I couldn’t get it to understand that I wanted it to make actual pasta, not a pasta dish. It came up with a whole variety of pasta dishes but not the ration of eggs to flour I required to knock up a few sheets of lasagne. It was like …

‘Alexa, can you give me the recipe for pasta.’
‘I found this recipe for pasta with meatballs on Recepidia.’
‘No, stop Alexa. I meant the actual pasta.’
‘I found this recipe for beef ragu with fusilli.’
‘Stop Alexa, please. OK, Alexa, if I have some flour and an egg and I’m Italian what can I make?’
‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that.’
‘Jeez …’ Recording of dull thudding sound made by MTM’s head beating against the kitchen work surface, ‘I just want to make a lasagne sheet, Alexa.’
‘Lasagne is a dish comprising tomatoes, bechamel sauce and-‘
‘Alexa stop. What are the ratios of egg to flour I need to make pasta.’
‘I found this great recipe on Recipedia for egg and spinach-‘
‘NO! Alexa STOP! Don’t they have the recipe for pasta on Recipedia?’
‘There’s a recipe for salmon and seafood with pasta shells, difficulty level, easy on Recipedia-‘
‘Alexa STOP! For the love of God, or I shall do you an injury.’

And so on ad infinitum. Alexa stores all these exchanges on an app on McOther’s iPad. I think he enjoyed reading that one.

This morning, I overhead McMini talking to it.

‘Alexa can you set a timer for cheese?’
‘I’m sorry I do not understand your question.’
‘Oh. OK. Alexa, set a timer for seven years.’
‘I’m sorry I can only set a timer for a time within the next 24 hours.’
‘Hmm … OK. Alexa, set a timer for seven hours.’

It might be sensible to occasionally say, ‘Alexa, stop timer,’ to it I think. Just in case.

In next week’s post I’ll be talking shop. I’m giving a talk called, ‘Real Life is underrated. Using mundane events to fuel your writing mojo,’ and since it’s 1,200 words long, I thought I’d reproduce it here, for your delectation, as I deliver it. And also because I’ll be actually doing the talk at the time, so I won’t be here to write a blog post … so … until next week!

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What do you see when you look at me?

You see a bad mother.

Church, if you want to do it, can be a bit of a conundrum with small people. McMini being a bit older now and more susceptible to boredom, it is not so easy to persuade him to come to the Sunday service. Furthermore, when he does, it’s probably no longer appropriate for a young gentleman his age to sit there with a huge stack of Beanos and a flask of tea, however quietly it is done. That’s why I jumped at the chance when the powers that be decided to introduce a more informal service during the week. Small church. It is called.

McMini is one of four to six small parishoners; the two youngest are girls, one of about eighteen months, one of three, then there is another little lad of five and McMini at nine. He enjoys the stories, the drawing and occasionally, when the vicar is around, and brave enough, to have a ‘mini mass’ he gets to serve. As he has expressed an interest in being the thurifer, we now have incense at this and take our lives in our hands as McMini enthusiastically wields a steaming hot thurible in our faces.

However, formal this sounds it isn’t. Last mini mass the adults tried to contain their laughter as the small parishoners wandered around, apparently oblivious to what was going on. One withdrew to the table to draw, McMini was sitting next to the radiator upon which he’d perched a cup of tea (next to the bread and wine) and was calmly drinking sips in between the responses. The two girls had a bit of a contretemps and we had ‘pencils at dawn’ until a smart adult realised they both wanted a pink and purple one and found a second pink and purple pencil so they could have one each. A few seconds later and the small plaintive voice of the three year old said, ‘down there’ and pointed to the grating. Her crayons had disappeared. Doubtless they are somewhere beneath the hot pipes but none of us dim-eyed adults could see them and so far, they have not been found.

Meanwhile, McMini had miscounted the amount of wafers – or sherbet free flying saucers as we blasphemously call them at home. This meant that, communion done, there were extras left. Quick as a flash, McMini chimes in.

‘Oooh look! There are some left over! Can I have another one?’
‘I’m not sure that’s quite-‘ I begin weakly, poker face in place, toes to curling silently.
‘Actually, as we have to eat them all up now, it’s quite acceptable for you to have another if I ask you to help me so, McMini, would you help me by eating another one?’ says our vicar as, completely unfazed, he proffers the platen towards my son.
‘Thank you, and the wine was delicious today,’ says McMini hopefully but luckily there’s no extra wine to finish.

I remember the day when McMini, after his first communion, stuck out his tongue and wiped it on his sleeve with a loud, ‘Yuck!’ to try and remove the taste of the wine from his mouth. Yes, well, at least he’s got used to it. Maybe I should thank myself for small mercies … possibly.

Usually, small church, is less eventful, indeed it’s rather like a normal Sunday school, a bible story, a discussion and some prayers, during which we all light a candle each and put it on the um … candle holder thingummy.

Two weeks ago, we were talking about thinking before we act. When prayer time arrives, my darling child comes up with the following gem.

‘Please guide Mummy to listen more and think before she acts so that she will be a good mother.’ He then places his candle in the holder with a very serious expression, to the sound of stifled sniggering from the grown ups.

‘Am I a bad mother?’ I ask afterwards, thinking that this might stem from my harrying him to clean his teeth that morning before school.
‘I’m afraid so, Mummy.’
‘Was it the teeth cleaning incident this morning?’
‘No Mummy it’s because you swear all the time and some of the language you use in front of me is very inappropriate, which is a pity, because you could be a very good mother otherwise.’

Damned with faint praise. What the right hand giveth the left hand taketh away so to speak, or at least, the other way round in this case, and also furnishing me with a very interesting insight into how his teacher talks when she is telling him off. I remember how much trouble I got into at school when I was a few years younger than him, for saying, ‘bloody hell is a very bad word, isn’t it?’ to my best friend and then, how mortified my mother was upon discovering that, when asked where I’d got such filthy language from, I’d told my teacher, ‘Daddy.’ And yes McMini has also done this to me with a similar situation centring around his use of the word, bollocks.

This last week, the theme was giving thanks for people who make the world a better place through their actions; folks who let their light shine in the world is roughly how the story put it. As we sat discussing this and deciding who we will pray for as folks who shine the light of kindly goodness in our lives, the small people all say ‘Mummy and Daddy.’ Except for McMini. I should be so lucky. Unfortunately, the fact that he got a laugh last week from chastising me hasn’t escaped his attention.

‘What about your Mummy McMini?’ says someone. ‘Aren’t you going to thank God for her?’
‘Regretfully, no,’ he says.
‘No?’ I say with mock affront. ‘Is that because ‘of the-‘
‘Swearing?’ He fixes me with a very serious look while the other adults snort with laughter behind their hands. ‘Yes.’
‘Have I not been better this week?’
‘No Mummy. Well, you have. You haven’t been doing it in front of me as much but it’s really not appropriate behaviour,’ there’s that word again, ‘in the presence of a nine year old.’
‘I don’t do it in your presence do I?’ I ask him omitting the ‘much’ that would make that statement a lot more honest.
‘True, Mummy, but you do it a lot in the other room when you think I can’t hear you.’
‘Then don’t listen,’ I tell him.
He shakes his head sadly. ‘You have a very loud voice Mummy. It’s difficult not to and you see, it will influence me.’

The lady who makes the tea and serves the biscuits, and who is trying so hard not to laugh she may, possibly, be in danger of rupturing herself moves away out of earshot.

When we eventually make it to prayer time, the other kids all thank the Lord for their mummies and daddies. Finally it is McMini’s turn. He says thank you for the ambulance staff, police and fire brigade who make the world a better place by protecting us and looking after us, and then says thank you for everyone and anyone working in the church. There’s a bit of a pause. He gives me a look and I start to giggle.

‘What about Mummy?’ asks one of the grown ups.
McMini heaves a sigh and then he finally adds, grudgingly,
‘Oh alright then, and thank you God for Mummy, too, because although she is a Bad Mother she is funny.’

The worst thing is, I know he’s doing it to take the piss out of me, no the worst thing is that I know it and I’m proud of him. But if he’s that sophisticated about taking the mickey out of me now, heaven help me when he’s older. I probably shouldn’t have played this in the car so much when he was tiny. I really don’t have a fucking clue about this parenting lark but it is fun.

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(Brandy)Butter balls; a bit of Christmas wittering.

It occurred to me that I should be doing a Christmas round up soon or at least a what’s on next year. However, I have spectacularly failed to get my shit together in time for it this week – ooooo there’s a surprise – so instead I’m going to give you a recipe … eventually.

As you know, I am the original Grinch, only slightly more bad tempered; think of me as the Voldemort of Christmas cheer – or possibly the Lord Vernon.

BUT there are bits of the whole sorry mess that even I enjoy. I do a number of Christmas parties including two corporate wife events which are a gas. Last night was at a Cambridge college which is, basically, supper at Hogwarts so what’s not to like?

Dinner at Hogwarts. A typical Cambridge dining hall (last year’s) … very like my school’s dining hall but without the mashed potato on the ceiling, although I think they’ve taken that off the ceiling at my school now, too. Young people are much better behaved these days.

However,  unlike Hogwarts these places are properly cold. I went resplendent in a thick velvet jacket and trousers, a big warm shawl and thermal underwear. The meal was pretty good, especially the turkey and trimmings and, bonus, the waiter dropped a sausage on the table between me and the lady opposite and then served her another one ‘for hygiene reasons’ which meant me and the lady were able to cut it in half and enjoy a soupcon extra. Snortle.

On the way home we did the interesting road closed manoeuvre again – and we’ll be doing it tonight, too – but we went the right way this time so no single track roads, just country lanes.

This morning, through the hangover fug, it did occur to me that at all these events there is one aspect that lets them down; the brandy butter, or at least lack thereof.

Have you noticed how restaurants tend to serve brandy cream with the Christmas pud? Last week’s was good but many’s the time when it’s had an unfortunate tendency to taste like a mixture of methylated spirits and petroleum jelly – usually at school where they were afraid to serve brandy to the under-aged and were using ‘brandy flavour’ instead. Another favourite is a kind of custard. That sounds good on paper, but because it lacks the usual yellow dye it is white and a bit viscous and I’m afraid it comes up looking very like sperm. This is slightly unnerving when someone’s slathered it all over your food. You wonder what they’ve been doing out there in the kitchen. That said, it always tastes a lot better and since custard is always nice, no matter how jizz-like the colour, I’m game for as much as they’ll give me, which is never enough and … well … it’s not brandy butter is it?

When I was a kid growing up, my mum regularly made several hundred mince pies each year for church, the house (when we lived in the school) and any number of other events. She also made the pud, the cake, the stuffing for the turkey, grew the sprouts and the spuds and everything else from scratch. But then Mum is a kind of cordon-bleu-hunter-gatherer-Beth-Chatto*. The pud would be served in flames and the mince pies would be heated in the oven, all were served with brandy butter, and because it was so good, nobody was allowed it unless they had some pud or mince pies – or ‘little bleeders’ as we call them because when asked if he liked them at his first Christmas with us, McOther voiced all our thoughts by saying,

‘No, I hate the little bleeders.’

But I digress. Back to the brandy butter. OMG, as I believe young people say, that brandy butter was a slice of heaven. We’d have one mince pie and a dessert spoonful of brandy butter to go with, ie a lump of comparable size to the pie. Then you held the butter back when you ate the mince pie and would go in for seconds of pudding but this time, you’d done your duty and had some Christmas fayre so you were allowed to choose something you liked: a meringue. That there people is combo made in heaven – even if, most likely, it’s one that will swiftly see you in heaven, in a more literal sense, by blocking your arteries and giving you a heart attack.

These days, when I talk about brandy butter, hardly anyone seems to know what it is. That’s a crying shame and is a situation I wish to redress. However, Mum’s recipe for brandy butter is a bit generalist it goes like this:

‘Well darling, what I do is take some unsalted butter and some icing sugar, beat them in the mixer and add brandy to taste.’

You can try that if you like, it’s pretty much what I do, but I have managed to convert this, sort of, to a normal weights and measures type of thing.  I’ve stuck to weights and measures because everyone can weigh things out, but ‘cup’ size varies all over the world and doesn’t exist in the UK, so if I do cups no-one will have a fucking clue how much to put in. Mwahahahargh; not least of all, me!

I don’t have a picture of brandy butter so here’s a little fellow about to give you a warm hug. Yes, last night’s college was a target rich environment.

* famous gardener

Brandy Butter

75g/3oz butter left out first so it’s reasonably soft.
175g/6oz icing sugar
1 table spoon of Brandy – to start with, anyway but keep the bottle handy.
1 teaspoon of freshly squeezed orange juice – preferably from an actual orange.
A smattering of orange zest from the same orange.

The trick with this one is you have to taste it. A lot. Here’s the method.

1. Put the butter in a mixing bowl and sieve the icing sugar over the top.
2. Beat it – either by hand or with a mixer is fine. I use a Kenwood Chef mixer which I bought at a jumble sale (rummage sale) about 25 years ago for £5 and I use the beater attachment rather than the whisk.
3. Eventually it will go quite smooth, like butter icing (butter frosting?). This is where you add your brandy – slowly so it doesn’t curdle.
4. Have a taste. Add more brandy if you need to but remember putting liquids in this is tricky so keep it to small amounts at a time. Add some orange zest.
5. Have another taste. Add the orange juice and a bit more orange zest if you want to. I like it with orange because it makes it a bit less sweet but avoid over doing it. You just want a background hint, it’s not orange butter, after all. That said, Mum’s never tasted over sweet and she didn’t use orange but I suspect it had absolutely gargantuan amounts of brandy in it.
6. Once you’ve got it how you like it, put it in a dish and keep it in the fridge. If you put enough brandy in, I’m telling you, this stuff will keep for a sod of a long time. Like a year at least.

The basic gist is two parts sugar to one butter so it’s reasonably easy to scale up, or down, but the more you make, the easier it is to mix.

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Coming to terms with #dementia

For some time now, I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a blog, or a website, specifically dedicated to my experience of dementia; with my dad, mainly, but also, these days, with my mum since she, too, is getting very forgetful.

However, it seems far more sensible to do it all on here. The subject matter on here is so random anyway that I doubt many of you will take exception to the more detailed post about my dementia-related experiences every now and again. If you look at the menu, there’s now a dementia section and all the posts which mention Dad’s Alzheimer’s are tagged Dementia and should appear there. Obviously, in true M T McGuire form, it would be pointless talking about my situation if I didn’t occasionally share a list of things that have either worked to keep me sane or that I’ve fucked up royally so that you don’t have to. This isn’t exactly that list but below are some of my less than ordered thoughts on the subject.

Here are the golden highlights of coping with dementia, in yourself or in others.

Be not proud! And be absolutely up front with people.

Yes, you read that correctly. All will become clear.

The first sign that something was amiss with my dad was when my parents refused to come and stay. Our spare room was on the top floor and the loo was in the middle. Dad always needed a wee in the night and he began to wake up in a very disorientated state.  Mum didn’t always wake up too and she was afraid he’d fall down our stairs. So for three years, from about 2004, they refused point blank to come and see us. Mum never told me what was wrong, she just made up excuses. She’s bollocks at making up excuses so I assumed I’d upset her but she said I hadn’t. I got very down. I didn’t know what to do.

Luckily, I have a brother so I rang him and asked him what the fuck my parents were up to. He didn’t know either but said he’d ask them. When he broached the topic with Mum she told him at once. So it was he who explained about the stairs, about Dad going weird in the night and Mum’s concerns. The last eighteen months we were in that house Mum and Dad started coming to see us again. We were in a small market town with a perfectly decent hotel and a lot of equally decent guest houses. We put them up in one, within walking distance of our house. The moral of this story then, be honest, because when trouble crops up, there’s usually a work around.

Mum could have saved herself and us heartache if she’d just admitted that Dad had a tendency to get dizzy when he got up in the middle of the night. She wouldn’t have even had to mention the dooh-lally part. Likewise, I could have saved myself a lot of heartache if I’d read the signs and worked out that something was wrong earlier or just asked my brother sooner. But hey ho, it all worked out in the end.

Act early.

These things are like the flight path of a landing aeroplane. You sink, level out, sink, level out and so on to the bottom of the chasm. If you can manage to think ahead a bit, to what the next level of deterioration might be, you can save yourself a lot of grief. It’s hard to look at the next stage of the illness when you,are losing your mind or when a loved one is losing theirs. Naturally you don’t want to think about it, but trust me, for the sake of everyone concerned it helps. For a long time, Mum and Dad seemed to be in denial. Mum kept a very close eye on Dad and I watched her sinking. Imagine if you are eighty and you are looking after someone who is, essentially, a giant two year old. As a mum with a two year old of my own, I knew how hard I found it to keep my eye on him all the time. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to cope when you are elderly.

Talk about it.

Mum and Dad are actually very good at this, they have talked to me, extensively, about being mortal, I know what kinds of funerals they want, what kinds of hymns, what kind of goodbye. I suspect they’ve willed money for a piss up wake. They also talked to me about what might happen if they went nuts well in advance of any dementia appearing. In Mum’s case we have talked about how she felt when she was in a similar position to that which I’m in now, looking after my granny. My grandmother had lots of small strokes, micro bleeds at the back of her head and as Mum puts it, ‘she just faded away’. For her last year my granny was lying on a bed in a home. In those days there were no living wills or powers of attorney for healthcare. Even so, when my granny got pneumonia, they asked my Mum what kind of treatment she would want, Mum said to make her comfortable. They did, she got better without the life prolonging drugs and died peacefully a few months later.

In her last year, as well as being bed-bound, my granny couldn’t speak and made no signs of recognising Mum’s presence. Mum used to go and see her and sit there crying quietly for forty minutes. The staff in that home were wonderful, and were wonderful to Mum, too. They assured her that my granny was different, more peaceful, even calmer, after a visit. They took the time to see that Mum was OK too. Mum and I still talk about this, and I really wish I’d been able to have the same kinds of conversations with Dad about his dad, who also ended up in a home. It’s hard to talk about these things, but if you can open up to someone you trust it will help and it will also give your carers a feel for what your wishes will be, and how you will want to be treated, when you are no longer able to tell them.

If you are the carer, it’s worth making sure you have someone to talk to and if the main carer is not you it’s worth finding someone for them. There is a lovely lady who comes to see Mum who is the deacon at her church. I saw the lady talking to Mum one time when she was in hospital and couldn’t speak. I asked Mum, afterwards, if it would help to see this lady often. She said it would. She never rang the deacon herself, so I did and now she comes to visit Mum regularly. I know it helps.

People want to help you. Let them and if you can’t let them down kindly.

There are a lot of people around my mum and dad who love them almost as much as I do. They are sad to see people they love and respect struggling. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that the people who love you may be even more upset about your illness than you are. So if you or a loved one are in similar poop, and people offer to help you, let them. Mum and Dad have a big group of folks who give them lifts, pop in to visit, pick up shopping sometimes or generally help out. I think they had a hard time accepting help from these folks at the start but now they revel in it. They get continuity in that these are people they’ve known for some years, yet they also have variety in that it’s not the same old faces. Likewise for the helpers, there are enough of them to avoid fatigue setting in. Despite his dementia, my father is a very social animal, and this has helped him stay with us for far longer. Likewise, Mum and Dad have a four carer team but they also employ a cleaning lady for a couple of hours a week and a family who work in the garden. These folks all give support that goes well beyond their job descriptions. They do this because when Mum and Dad were fitter and younger they were good to these folks. I’m a great believer in karma now that I’ve seen it in action on my folks. So if people offer help, and it’s useful help, let them. Pride has no place in this.

But at the same time, set parameters for your helpers.

If anyone helping you, or your loved one, gets too clingy or too overbearing, tell them. When you are ill and losing your capacity to process everything but your emotions, you don’t have time to put up with anything that will make it worse. So if someone who wants to help is … well … not helping, you have to tell them. Or if you can’t, you have to find someone who can and ask them to do it for you.

My mum loves her garden. She sees it as a living thing, an entity which must be treated with kindness and sympathy. However, she is very arthritic and once Dad had started to get really forgetful, it was too much for her to do on her own. There was a point where the chap who was coming to do the garden kept cutting down the wrong things, pruning stuff wrong, planting vegetables in the wrong places, forgetting to water them etc and you could see that something inside Mum was curling up and dying along with her plants, but she couldn’t let him go. She couldn’t face the hassle of finding a new gardener while she was trying to look after Dad, or, indeed, the hard task of telling the current one she no longer needed his services. Her heart was so full from the pain of seeing her soul mate, my father, her husband, in such distress.

In the end, after a family holiday, my Mum became very ill with pleurisy. At this point, Dad had reached the point where he was so forgetful that he couldn’t cook or look after her the way he would have done. My brother and sister in-law went to stay and they gave the gardener notice and employed the people who do it now. My mum almost cried with relief and the ‘new’ gardeners are wonderful and love Mum and Dad dearly.

Moral, don’t wait for the crash. Take action first.

Avoid being too proud.

Mum is of the old school where she believes that if Dad is ill she should look after him herself and that nobody should know about his disability for as long as possible. But actually, when you’re in your eighties, you can’t look after someone who weighs about eighteen stones, can’t wash himself and has to be talked through the process of going to the bathroom every two hours hours, every night. You need help.

When Mum finally agreed to let someone come and sit with Dad for an hour, three afternoons a week, so she could get out into the garden, she blossomed. And the lady who came round did the ironing and all sorts of other stuff that Mum was struggling with fitting in around caring for Dad. So it helped in all sorts of other ways she hadn’t anticipated. It also meant there was no longer the danger of Dad coming out into the garden looking for Mum and falling down. The carer would bring him out, with his walker, and sit with him.

Even if your loved one seems gone, keep searching.

Dad is very different to how he was. He’s the same person, but he’s a different incarnation of that person, the raw genetic make up. He has lost his filters, his ability to moderate what he says and he has become very much more self centred. Just as a child learns to think about others, so as he regresses to a more simplified state of self, Dad has lost that skill. It’s not his fault. It’s just the way it is.

He can no longer read, his ability to read a novel was one of the first things to go but he is unable to read even short stuff now. It’s interesting that Mum writes herself notes, but even at the start, if she wrote a note for Dad and put it by the clock saying, ‘went out to garden at ten to three back in for tea at four’ he would not think to read it or look at the clock. This was so early on, when he was just my dad with no short term memory. These days he can be a little boorish, which is incredibly sad because Old Dad would be horrified if he could see himself like that. But a lot of the times, the boorishness is asking for help. ‘I can’t get a word in edgeways,’ means, ‘your sentences are too long for me to follow, can you slow down.’ The answer is to speak in short sentences, starting with a shared memory and then as the conversation gets going, you can bring it forward to the now. Lo and behold! Before you know it, back comes Dad. Reaching Dad is all about trying new things. When the landscape of his mind changes, you just experiment until you get him back again.

It’s OK to grieve for someone before they go.

Although I’d recommend keeping it to short bursts. But sometimes you need to cry. Or just drive up to the top of a hill and shout your anger into the wind – my parents live near the South Downs so that’s quite easy for me. But yes, while my dad is still himself in some ways, I still pine for the refined non-raw version. But I also hear him, I hear him in the way I talk to my son, in the anarchic conversations we share, I hear him as I tell my son to get into bed! And that if he could manage to clean his teeth sometime before I die of old age it would be wonderful. I hear my dad speaking through me as I comfort my son after a bad dream. I remember who Dad can be, over and above the raw genetic version I have now, and it’s extremely important to me that I do, that I keep sight of the man who is in there still, but who the present Dad can’t be. And I cry. But that’s OK. Sometimes you need to cry. Ration yourself, though. Indulge your grief too much and it’ll take you under but bottling it up is also unhelpful.

Sometimes your loved one’s disease will speak more loudly than they do.

My dad says some seriously inappropriate things but it’s just his illness talking. It’s hard to accept that sometimes, especially when the person says something that upsets you, but you have to let it go. If you can, it will allow the relationship between you on good days to be much more similar to the old one before the dementia came.

Make the most of the good days.

Need I say more? Enjoy them. Do stuff. Go out on a whim. My parents are the most social dementia sufferers I’ve ever met. They still go out, visit friends, have lunch with people … It says a lot for their friends, too, that they are so accepting.

Pace yourself.

Being a carer is hard. It can fill up your life, suck up your emotional energy, sap your physical energy, your strength of spirit and your creative mojo. Alzheimer’s is a long, slow death of a thousand tiny cuts. To put it in perspective, Terry Pratchett was diagnosed four years after Dad began to deteriorate. Dad’s still around. It’s been about fourteen years, the last nine or ten that we’ve really known something was wrong, but … fourteen for Mum, definitely. Not a barrel of laughs.

The truth is, no matter how much you may love the person in your life who is ill, you cannot give your all for that amount of time. You have to ration how much you give. You have to look after yourself, leave time for yourself, or you will go under and then you’ll be no use to anyone. And if you aren’t the main carer and they are neglecting their own sanity and health, you have to make them understand this as well. As it’s often said, this is a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t run twenty four miles at the same speed as Usain Bolt.

Do what’s right for them: it usually works out.

There was a point when I would worry that Mum and Dad were so far away. It was difficult to get them into a home because Mum was far too well to go into a home and she refused to send Dad into one alone. My brother and I discussed moving them nearer one of us but if we did that, which one of us would it be? We live on different sides of the country. So they stayed put in their own home and I worried that if something happened, and I couldn’t drop everything and be with them, I would have to let them fall. Indeed, eventually, I did.

Mum had a stroke and went into hospital in March 2016. At least by this time we had the afternoon carer and an agency helping Mum and Dad get up in the mornings. I had to ring the lovely lady who would look after my dad in the afternoons and ask her to sleep with my dad so I could drive down to Sussex and be with my Mum. I remember sitting with Mum in hospital at three am. They asked her where she was, she said she was at home, they said she was confused, I told them no, she was having trouble speaking and that what she meant was, she was with me. They finally got her onto a ward at five and at six they told me I should go because the car park was free until six am. I slept two hours that night. Mum came home at three in the afternoon. I had to try and look after both of them. It was horrific. I slept two nights with Dad while Mum slept in another room. Then my boy needed to go to school and my husband to work. I had to go home. I hired a care agency for the following week and my brother came down for the next three nights.

There was a week of special hell while we got a care team sorted. Mum refused to accept she needed live in care, but she kept falling asleep with things on the stove and burning saucepans, and she was getting very forgetful. My brother and I wanted to move them near one of us but they both refused. Now that we have their lovely care team in place I realise they are so much better off where they are, where they have friends and where they have lived for over 40 years.  Once they had twenty four hour care, keeping them in their own home was a no-brainer. Thanks to their fantastic care team, they now enjoy a social life far and above anything I could deliver if they came to live here. They are in the right place for them even if there were points when my brother and I felt like it was the wrong place for us.

Make time for yourself.

When you have children, people say you must keep something that you do just for you; continue your career, a part-time job, a hobby, whatever; something that validates your humanity as something other than your little one’s mum. Something that is not about motherhood. Something that is about YOU. It is very hard to squeeze that in when you are trying to care for elderly parents and a small person at the same time.

That is why, even though I have to fight for the time to write and struggle to find ways of putting my head anywhere close to a place where it’s possible, I can’t give up on it. Because I have to hang onto something that makes me who I am; something that defines me as someone other than Mum and Dad’s daughter, or McMini’s Mum, but ME; Mary.

You cannot self actualise though the job you do, but likewise, you are more than the visits, the form filling, the planning, the admin. Give yourself you time. Allow yourself to be human. You are a person in your own right, you are important as well. Allow time to be you.

Conclusion

Well … that was a bit of a monster, wasn’t it? But in a short snappy sentence, I guess the nub of it is this: when a loved one is long-term ill then, if you want to look after them, you have to look after you.

Chilling is important.

 

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When it feels right but is … wrong. #writing #indiebooks

This week: you have another opportunity to benefit from the vast store of wisdom I have earned by royally fucking things up so that you don’t have to.  

It started like this.

Wednesday; visit the parents day, and this week I arrived in extremely dire need of a wee. It is fairly usual that the pint of water and two cups of coffee I need to kick start my day turn into about five pints by the time I’ve driven fifty miles or thereabouts and I drive the next ninety in some agitation. This Wednesday was no exception.

At Mum and Dad’s the downstairs loo is just off the lobby before you go into the house proper and I usually use it before I announce my presence, otherwise the ten minutes of hellos can be a bit excruciating for my poor bladder. Into the loo I rushed, and breathed a huge sigh of relief as what felt like about a gallon of wee went into the pan. Except that each of the lavs at Mum and Dad’s has a riser for people with dodgy hips, and if you sit on the riser in the downstairs loo wrong, the wee runs down the inside of it and despite being positioned over the bowl, the gravitational wonders of surface tension bend the wee round and under the edge of the riser and it then falls over the side of the pan onto the floor. Well, it came from a skip, still in its wrapping, you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. But yes, you guessed it. A significant portion of my wee deluge had missed the pan entirely and puddled on the floor.

Joy.

The original dribbly-wee loo riser of doom (centre) among other skip scored offerings.

There I was. I’d done the right thing, sat on loo, weed into hole but somehow, despite following the instructions it had all gone somewhat awry. I spent the next five minutes wiping it up with loo roll and anti bacterial floor spray. It’s not just me, the foibles of this particular loo riser are a known problem and I soon had it all ship shape again with no harm done. The point was, sometimes, even when you do things the right way it all goes horribly wrong.

So how does this tale of substandard urinary aim have any connection with writing?

Well, it’s like this.

There’s a quote that appears on something I use – my Kobo Writing Life dashboard, I think – that goes like this:

‘If you want to read a book that has not been written yet, you must write it.’

Way back in 2008 when I finally finished my first decent novel that is, exactly what I had done. But to be honest, while this is great advice, it only works if you are in touch with the popular Zeitgeist on some level. I sell my books on the internet which, to all intents and purposes, is American. It is devilishly hard to reach non Americans but back then it was even harder (except on Amazon at that point).

Therefore, I shot myself in the foot instantly by writing a very British book set, mostly, in a fantasy world but when it came here, it came to London. Yes Dr Who is like that but it was put on by the BBC and when they first did it, they had a captive audience comprising all of Britain. I wrote British because I was bored of books and films where the main protagonists are American and the setting America. I wanted to see some shizz go down in my own country. What I failed to grasp was that there is a reason the vast majority of books are about Americans in America. It’s to connect with Americans; the biggest and most easily reachable group of readers in the market place.

Yes, I’d done kind of the right thing but … wrong.

The problem wasn’t even that I was writing a book that could well hold more appeal to British or Australasian readers. It was that I hadn’t researched my market – I thought I had but, no. That’s why I didn’t understand how hard to find they would be. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I would be unable to reach British readers without taking special measures. OK so that was 2008 but even now, in 2017, you have to work at finding international readers and even harder at finding readers who buy from sites other than Amazon.

Likewise, I’d read a lot of Victorian and Edwardian fantasy: the Narnia Books, The Five Children and It, The Incredible Mr Blenkinsop (I think that was its name) the Borrowers, the Wind in the Willows, The Lord of The Rings. I’d seen films like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Mary Poppins and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, I’d read Harry Potter and Terry Pratchett. In most of those books, the writer has invented a completely new world, or a new creature, or a new something. The point is, while they may have broad themes that are similar, good versus evil baddie, etc, each one takes place in its own fantasy world or hidden world within this one, often there are specific and new creatures created for purpose of the story. The notable exception is Terry Pratchett, who took the tropes other people used and poked gentle fun at them.

In the same way that I thought, at my parents, that rushing into the bog, sitting down on the ice cold, thigh freezing riser and letting it all out was enough, and discovered that oh it so wasn’t, I genuinely thought putting my book on sale and supporting my efforts with advertising on the big promo sites was all it would take to find readers. It wasn’t. I wrote weird books, that are funny and I had covers made expressly to say, ‘this book is like nothing you have ever read’ because when people saw my books, I wanted them to think, ‘Pratchett’. When I got reviews that said that, I quoted them. I wrote my book the old way. The E Nesbitt way. And I sold that as an asset … the wrong way.

When people talk about wanting ‘different’ I suspect that what they really mean is that they want the same old ware wolves and sparkly vampires but with … say … slightly different lighting.

That is where Sir Terry cleaned up. He kept to the standard tropes, and spun them differently. If you want to succeed financially, I think, possibly, the trick is to write something bang on genre that has a different angle; a standard, boilerplate, trope made interesting enough to you for you to be able to stand writing in it.

When it comes to making choices, I guess it’s wise to think through the ramifications, but with writing it’s hard to anticipate what they might be sometimes. If you like writing wacky but want to produce a well edited book with a professional cover, it’s worth looking at how much cash you have to throw at it and how long for. When I started this game, the estimate was that once you’d produced six books you’d reach tipping point; momentum would be easier to maintain and sales would rise.

‘Great!’  I thought, ‘I have budget for six novels.’

Now that I’m writing my sixth book, that magic tipping point number is more like twelve! Things change and move. How long can you sustain your business without making a profit? OK now double it. Hell, quadruple it to be safe.

Likewise, when you plan what you’re going to do to reach readers, I’d thoroughly recommend keeping as much of it under your control as you can. This is why so many writers ask readers to sign up to their mailing lists. I had an amazing three months back in 2014 when I optimised my book listings for UK readers and started getting a ton of downloads on Amazon and, even better, a really good read through rate – seriously it was massive, about 20% of the folks downloading the first book bought the others But then Amazon changed the algo – which they do around April or May each year, it seems. Overnight the downloads of the free book ceased. And that was that.

These days, however many author lists readers are signing up to, I still believe that if you can make your emails personal, fun and interesting enough they will stay with you. Just don’t make them too fun or your readers will sign up for the emails rather than your books or if they do, be prepared to monetise your blog posts, newsletter etc – either as non fiction books or paid content. The great thing about mailing lists is that if someone doesn’t get on with your books they can unsubscribe so you should end up with a list of folks who might, eventually, read your books! If you’re really lucky, some will part with cash for them.

Once you have some readers, it’s also worth listening to them. I always sold my books as fantasy and when asked to cite comparable writers I’d suggest Holt, Prachett, Rankin … When people started reviewing them, the bulk of them cited Douglas Adams. I now publish them in sci-fi. They don’t sell as well there as they did in the days when I could put them in fantasy and they’d be actually visible. But now that fantasy is kind of, ware wolves and shifters with a small corner for epic, my books definitely do better in sci-fi! Sci-fi seems a bit less rigid in the genre factors required, too, hence the next series, Space Dustmen, is going to be sci-fi with the odd planetary visit.

To sum up, what I am trying to say, I guess, is that now, more than ever, you need to think long and hard before you even start to write that book and you need to keep pretty nimble afterwards. So, if you’re thinking having a pop at writing or are working on your first book, maybe you should ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who are you are writing for?
  2. Where you you find them?
  3. Can you find them easily and inexpensively?
  4. How often do the authors they read release new books?
  5. Can you keep up with book production rates for your genre? or to put it another way …
  6. How much time do you have? Even if you give up your job.
  7. What kind of writing career will fit with your life?
  8. How and where will you sell your books – it’s no good being wide if everyone in your genre whose books you like and who might like yours too and do mailing swaps or promos with you is in KU.
  9. How long before you need your books to start funding themselves to keep going?
  10. Are there other ways you can monetise your writing to support book production until such stage as your book business is self financing.
  11. How big is your social media following? Are you up to a kickstarter to fund book production?

The way I see it there are two broad choices about what you decide to write.

The first choice is to conform. You, write to market, so if it’s fantasy, you write about ware wolves or witches and yes you light them differently or whatever it takes and you write about six books (minimum) a year. And you thank your lucky stars you’re not in Romance where you have to write one a month!

Alternatively if you really can’t face the prospect of writing about creatures someone else has already invented or making your hero American, or 101 other must haves for the best selling book, accept that you are unlikely to earn diddly squat for a long, long time and just go for it writing the kind of stuff you love, that fulfils you as a reader and writer, stuff you want to read that hasn’t been written yet. But if you choose this route, you have to be extremely pragmatic about your chances of earning anything for many years and extremely lateral and original about what you do to earn from your books in other ways.

It’s quite good if you can avoid combining motherhood to a small child and trying to look after sick, elderly parents, at the same time as trying to have any sort of career, too.

This is where I am right now. But hey, my sixth book will be out next year and who knows, 2027 I may even have written twelve and if I market the hell out of them, well who knows, they might pay for the thirteenth book.

Mwahahahargh! I can dream.

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Mind Expansion Anyone? #McMini #kids #parenting #children

McMini ‘wearing’ a head warmer.

Over the holidays I thought it would be fun to tell some of the funny stories about my family. There is ‘Catching Socks’, ‘Night of the Homeless Man’, ‘Tale of the Drowning Toddler’ and a famous one about my Mum for which I have no title, as yet.

However, I thought I would leave that for later because obviously, it being the holidays, I have been spending a lot of time with McMini and at the moment, he is in absolutely tip top form.

Indeed, he is greater evidence than anything else I’ve encountered that anyone who wants their mind expanding should skip the drugs and just talk to a kid.

McOther has his usual pre-holiday work panic on so after managing to clear the decks for sports day he had to miss the pic-nic lunch.

So there we were, McMini and I, eating our sandwiches and chatting.

‘Have you licked that spoon?’ asks McMini.
‘Yes, sorry,’ I say. ‘It’s covered in my yucky saliva.’
‘I don’t mind Mummy. My saliva is 50% yours. Your saliva is called Lady Penelope, Dad’s Saliva is called Geoffrey. My saliva is called Geoffrey Penelope.’

McOther’s reaction to this was to ask me if there was a source of mind expanding drugs McMini has access to about which we are unaware. But I think this is probably just how he is. I’ve never needed them, myself after all and McOther’s imagination is just as fertile so I guess it’s a given that McMini will come up with the kind of double dose that surprises even us.

Sometimes, McOther and I worry about what we have spawned …

Then this one…

Yesterday, I was happily minding my own business, reading the Searcher magazine on the loo when McMini appeared. It’s not so much you’ll never walk alone in our house so much as you’ll never cr- you get the picture, I’m sure. Anyway

‘I had a dream about you last night Mummy.’
‘Did you?’ I say. Uh-oh, I think. Dreams about me tend to involve my turning into some grisly monster and ripping his head off, dreams about his father, ditto.
‘Yes. It was quite scary, or at least it wasn’t exactly scary because it was funny but it was scary too. I dreamed I was in a kind of fairy tale. Cinderella was there but she had a black horrible face with red glowing eyes and she was dancing around and I accidentally went into her territory so she decided to kill me,’ – yep, her territory. I think we may have been letting him watch too many animal programmes – ‘But luckily you turned up, Mummy, and saved my life.’
Well that’s a surprise. I thought. ‘Oh dear,’ I said. ‘Still I’m glad I saved your life. Usually I kill you don’t I? so it makes for a nice change.’
‘Yes. But you nearly died. Cinderella had some zombie assistants, her ugly sisters were with her and they had crosses for eyes like when I draw dead people* and the Cinderella had a terrible secret weapon, she farted and that’s when you nearly died, the fumes nearly killed you but luckily I was there to save you by dragging you away.’

Have a kid and you, too, can have a loo like this!

When McMini plays video games, he doesn’t usually play the game that much, he spends hours dressing the characters in different clothes etc. He is clearly perfectly normal in this respect as the more recent the game the more secondary the actual game seems to be to all the extras, places you can go off menu, costumes you can unlock etc. But I found him playing Fifa 13 the other day.

‘Watch this Mummy!’ he said. Then as the goalie about to take a goal kick, he turned and put the ball in the back of the net. The game is not designed for people to do this so the Goalie then proceeded to put his head in his hands and look really upset. Which was kind of funny, in a surreal way.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
‘I’m being Chelsea. I don’t really like Chelsea so I have set myself up as Cheese McPiggyface, their player manager and I am making them lose so they are easier to beat next time.’
‘I’m not sure games work like that.’
‘Only one way to find out, Mummy.’

Hmm… well, I guess it’s cunning.

He also has a Ferrari driving game. To start racing you have to do some practise laps with Tiff Needell. McMini has never graduated to the actual racing bit. He drives the wrong way, backwards, into the wall and basically trashes the car.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked him.
‘I’m smashing the car. It’s hilarious! Look! I’ve cracked the windscreen.’
‘Why would you break a lovely Ferrari.’
‘Oh it’s much more fun than doing it properly, Mummy. Tiff Needell gets really cross.’

Ho hum … and don’t get me started on the weird stuff he puts in the freezer.

A lego figure in suspended animation. Our freezer is full of this stuff!

I dunno what’s going on here, more lego being iced along with a Kinder egg toy.

 

* And how The Beano draws dead things, too. Which is where he got it from I suspect.

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Meh and un-meh. Thoughts, ramblings and a progress report.

It’s confession time. I’ve been in a bit of a slump recently because we’ve reached a new stage in Dad’s illness and I’m still adjusting to the grimness. If someone you love has dementia then there will be stuff they say when you know it’s the illness speaking, rather than them. Over the last three of four months, Dad’s condition has deteriorated rapidly to the point where his illness is doing far more of the talking than he is. It’s been pretty stark.

On the upside, there have been a lot of big events in the family and among friends to keep me busy, although some of them are going through tough times too. But there’s been less down time and no more than a few hours in any of the last five weeks to plan, gather thoughts and generally sort myself out. If I’m a bit maudlin, this is usually good. The more I socialise and the more stuff I do, the less time I spend in the Slough of Despond. Also we all know the writer who wants to get stuff out of their head has to put stuff in. I even have a book cued up to read for the holidays. I think it’s called put your pants on, or possibly pull your pants off but it’s about finding ways to plan your writing more effectively. I’ll review it when I’m done!

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, hectic life. When things get too busy the time for everything else but the household chores disappears and trust me in this house, even they are a bit, er hem, rushed. Or neglected. Phnark. And my house is hardly a smoothly oiled machine at the best of times. I mean, it has McMini and me in it. But if there’s not even time for chores or the myriad stuff I have to remember for McMini’s school (sad stuff there too) I do tend to get a bit flustered. And guilty. And sad. And on top of already sad, that’s not good.

And what with the state of the world right now, and the shit we’re all in, I slightly feel that if I can’t say anything positive it’s best not to say anything at all. Hence the significant lack of posts on here and the shockingly low quality of my email newsletters. Sorry anyone reading who also receives my emails. The interesting stories will return. Soon.

Because I’ve realised something.

It’s time to have a word with myself!

So, first of all, I apologise if my posts and emails seem faux jolly, as if I’m going through the motions (when they appear at all). In a sense, they are and I am. But it’s important that I continue writing them. A huge part of the trick of managing life-grimness, for me, is to keep on keeping on. The small every day things become harder and harder to do, but doing them anchors you in reality, in normality, and stops you from floating away into some kind of mad disjointed netherworld of despair. That’s why I write, of course. Because – don’t laugh – writing all this stuff that is madder than a box of frogs keeps the rest of me sane and grounded.

Keep calm and carry on. That’s my life and I’m this bloke.

Right, that’s that off my chest, let us move swiftly on to other things.

News

Mmm. The 10k short is with the editor, although she has RSI and due to the vagaries of the power companies where she lives she is currently in the process of going off grid – ie switching to solar – so I’m not sure when it will come back. Which reminds me, I must look and see if there was anything I was meant to be doing to it.

Meanwhile, McMini’s birthday party is finally in the bag so I must do an invite. It’d be much easier to draw one but the lamp in my scanner has gone so I suspect I will be doing something with clip art. Oh dear. He and 9 other little darlings are going to do den building and fire building in a local park. Luckily I have help in the form of my friend Jill so if it all goes tits up at least we can laugh about it later.

With this and the rest of the holidays fast approaching my writing may well slow but I’m going to try and do the 20 minutes a day thing because that worked really well.  Whatever happens, I will be doing some reading. Both the aforementioned keep your pants on book and one of my own for editing/developmental purposes. I’m 40k into a 60k novel. It’s not my greatest work because I’m experimenting with keeping both my plots and my books simpler and shorter so I can sell them cheaper. However, it’s not bad and I think it could well be better by the time I’m done with it.

If the pants book helps I hope to be doing a bit of outlining over the holidays. There have also been more developments with the one about the ex gigolo space dustman who lives on P deck. I’ve been working out how he gets there – I think that will be a long short that I can give away to folks who join my mailing list (or who are already on the other one). Also working on how he gets his ship – I think he builds it from scrap but I’m not sure. It may be a lease ship. And how Admiral Ash, the female lead, ends up being de-thawed from her stasis pod. Thinking she might be in his ship with him now, rather than in space. Depends if he builds it from spare parts. I also need to draw a cover for Jump because I can’t afford a proper one. I should be able to use the scanner in my parents’ printer for that one but the invite is more time critical. It has to go into school tomorrow because it’s the last week.

On the eyebombing book front. I am slowly getting there with working out kickstarter layers. It’s really hard to do because I have no cash so it has to be benefits in kind, like taking them for an eyebombing walk, so I’m scratching my head about international sponsors at the moment. All I can give them is books and their name in the front. I have to get about £15 for each book to be able to afford to have it printed and send it to them. Thinking this might have to be more of a local endeavour. We shall see. Might have to look at a different size too. I was going to do stocking filler 6″x6″.

Also, if anyone’s thinking of forking out for Escape From B-Movie Hell hold off, I’ll have some good news for you on that front next week!

That’s all for now, pipple toot!

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