Getting my mojo back

We’re firmly marching towards my birthday [pauses to receive birthday wishes]. It is utterly alarming because June 1st means we’re half way through 2022. How can that be, already? As last year’s birthday was a bit of a post-surgery-recovery-write-off, I’m going to claim I’m 40 this year. Again.

It has been a mucky year up to this point but I feel like the last week has turned a corner. Let’s brush over the muck (brush off the muck? Hmmm, I think I’m mixing my metaphors because I’m out of blogging practice) and focus on the positives. Like the fact that the house is more or less complete now, following our move and renovations, so life is much calmer. Or that I’m regularly getting 6+ hours sleep now we’ve invested in one of those fancy, adjustable beds. Yes, we’re totally down with the kids.

In the last week, I’ve also refound my PhD stride. I’m back with my chums on PhD Forum (link) more often, when meetings allow. Also, I’ve gone back to old school methods and reinstated my bullet journal. It’s a really simple but effective way of organising the noise in my head, particularly when I’m juggling multiple things. Essentially, there are official rules you can check out online (link) but my system is simple:

  • a square bullet is a task
  • a circular bullet is a meeting or appointment
  • a dot means I’ve started
  • shading means it’s completed
  • an arrow means I’ve moved it to another day or week
  • a cross means it was cancelled

In addition to this, I lay out pages differently to organise work and diaries and the month ahead and plans and notes. I love how it gives me a sense of completion and that it helps me to break larger chunks of work into manageable actions. I am predisposed to spend far, far too much time making my bullet journals look pretty – but as I recognise that’s actually an act of procrastination, I’m avoiding it this time and keeping things plain.

Also this week, I’m on the final part of my data analysis and I’m so close to returning to the actual writing. I’ve also got to grips with the overall thesis structure. It’s a little like a jigsaw puzzle at the moment: I’m still scrabbling around for some pieces which are missing; I’ve done all the corners and most of the edges; there are a few wonky pieces where I tried to force them into the wrong spots; a few random patches of completed puzzle are dotted all over the table but I’m not yet sure where they fit in the final picture. But, still, it all feels like progress and I’m looking forward to discussing plans with my supervisors this week.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the privilege of working as a research assistant on a project within my department (www.EmbedEDI.com). I’ve landed myself in a brilliant team: knowledgeable, patient, creative and collegiate. The PI has a great approach in making us all feel equally valued. This week has been a period of firsts… Not only is this my first role in a project, but I’ve also had the chance to co-write my first conference abstract – fingers crossed we’re successful. Also, for the first time, I was involved in a presentation that isn’t focused on my own MA or PhD research. I’m loving every minute of it because the research is so important and it’s beginning to take on a life of its own.

A small but mighty win for the week is my desk set up. This must be my third or fourth work from home blog post but, in my defence, we have moved house. The details are dull – so I will be brief – but essentially I’ve managed to sort out my second monitor to a more reasonable height. In turn, this means I’ve been able to lower my desk chair. All of which has meant that my left hip has stopped raging in protest and I feel significantly younger. Although, it will still be a little achy if my wife asks about any chores or DIY!

Just masking my my teammate’s face as I didn’t ask permission to use the photo.

I know I need to tidy my desk but how’s that for a high-impact-low-cost solution? Took off the monitor’s fixed stand and I’ve rested it on a book stand I already had.

Anyway, the tiny cynic I carry in my head is cautioning that celebrating recent wins will mean I’ll tempt some sort of catastrophe. I’ve told her to shut up. But in an unpublishable fashion.

Um…

I last blogged in January. Rather than letting 2022 quietly enter the room, I’m pretty convinced that someone squared up to it and challenged it to do its worse.

When blogging, I am self-deprecating and sarcastic. My default mode is to look for the humour in life, particularly when writing about myself. I just don’t know how to write about my life, work and research right now because that voice, that tone, would be inappropriate. I am well aware that the terrible things which are a constant backdrop in my head at the moment are front and centre for millions of people. Who cares if I am navigating how to do a PhD, renovate a house, recover from a car collision and juggle work at the same time? I mean, could I display my privilege any more prominently? Oh, how awful for me trying to study whilst different trades-people are working on my new house… How terrible it is to wonder how to break up my day so I concentrate on data analysis (my PhD) and recruitment (the project I’m working on)… What rotten luck that I went without a car for a week because my insurer is less than helpful…

Really?

Can you hear yourself, Jo?

People are dead. Displaced. Under attack. In financial crisis and unable to heat their homes. Being let down by their leaders. Unsure of their futures. Scared for their children.

And now I’m meta-analysing whether this will be perceived as some ridiculous plea for permission or absolution. It isn’t. It’s just an explanation of why the blog has been quiet.

I am sorry to the authors who have shared pre-publications with me. I will make time to read and review as soon as possible.

Don’t make direct eye contact…

…with 2022. No sudden movements or loud noises, in case we spook it. Shhhhh, tiptoe gently into January, please.

This blog was going to be a reflection of the year, using our family Jar of Happiness as an aide memoire, like I wrote last year. But we’ve been pretty remiss with the jar since the start of the autumn so that’s not possible. Despite the fact that 2021 felt like the longest year ever, this will be the shortest round up and you’ll be pleased to note that most of it is in picture format.

***

THE GOOD

A surprising number of things brought me happiness this year. Pre-summer, when we were still under Covid-house arrest because of my vulnerable wife, lots of this happiness was food based! We had a meal dropped off by a private chef, a local curry chef and a baker have both delivered to our door (dangerous discoveries), our neighbour has kept us stocked up on cake (which she bakes but doesn’t eat herself) and we’ve even had fun doing a few online cook-a-longs.

Date night (homecooked) to formally mark 1 year locked up together, back in March 2021

One of the best things about this year, compared to 2020, has been our ability to actually see friends and family. Sure, it basically has to be outdoors no matter the weather but it has been such a joy to see actual faces and not just through ZoomTeamsMessengerSkypeHangoutsFacetimeWhatsapp. I’ve been hanging out online and studying with the best group of people since September 2020: The PhD Forum. Being able to meet many of them in person this year has been magical. We’ve also been blessed with the opening of The Crate Café in Bosham (check them out here), which has meant we can meet up with local friends and family in an outdoor space with food, coffee, heaters and shelter.

Our dear Maggie also turned 13. Despite scaring us back in March with rapidly declining health, she’s bounced back and made it to another Christmas.

Cake from dog bakery before anyone complains I’m feeding her sugar

***

THE NOT SO BAD

Achievements wise, a few not too shabby things have happened this year. I’ve finished the data collection aspect of my PhD so now it’s all in my hands to finish 🤢. I managed to pick up some work at the University, doing GTA (graduate teaching assistant) bits – and I’ve secured some work for 2022 in terms of marking and RA stuff (research assistant).

I built several Lego sets this year, completed a paint by numbers and a diamond art doodah, and learned how to make sushi.

The biggest accomplishment of the year, if you speak to my wife, is probably my creation of The Wonky Bar: our at home pub complete with a cinema-style entertainment space.

We also got a new car – sounds fancy but it was a downsizing situation to save money. We managed to do a lot of the DIY projects we’d been putting off… and then promptly sold our house! It was on the market for 9 days and had 9 viewings before it was snapped up.

My reading challenge this year, set on Goodreads, was 36 books – I was aiming for an average of three a month. Managed to just nip over the line with 40 and there have been some crackers.

***

THE UGLY

This human…

Find someone who looks at you like Helen looks at hot chocolate

To clarify, I don’t mean my wife is ugly just that the ugliest thing to happen this year was in relation to her. Her asthma tried to take her from me back in July/August. An 8 day hospital stay, resuscitation, new meds and treatment plan, and 6 months of recuperation mean she’s still here. But, bloody hell, that was close.

We also said goodbye to Pinch, the last of our cat tribe. She was 14, dinky and incredibly opinionated. The house is definitely a lot quieter without her.

Other ugly things: I turned 40. FORTY?! Although, as it happened mid-pandemic and I couldn’t see anyone, I’ve grandly declared that I’m going to remain 39 until it’s safe to party. I also had a kidney stone removed just days before, so spent my birthday enjoying a series of infections, alarming reactions to medications and a very slow recovery. Multiple courses of antibiotics basically meant the universe gifted me my first ever experience of thrush, just in time for my 40th birthday. Joy.

***

I can’t end a blog post on the topic of thrush so, instead, there’s lots on the horizon for 2022. I should be turning 40 again and celebrating by popping across to Northern Ireland for a PhD Forum / postponed birthday get-together. I should be getting my other kidney stone removed at some point. We should be moving house. I should be completing the PhD 🤢 and maybe even popping up to Sheffield before I submit. Note the choice of modal verbs… two years into plague living, I think I’ve got the hang of avoiding firm plans.

When did it* sneak up on us?

I was stood in our bathroom last week and noted our array of dental hygiene products. When we were first dating, nearly 21 years ago, you’d find one toothpaste and two toothbrushes. That’s it. Now, we have hers and hers toothpastes for different oral needs, medicated mouthwash, regular mouthwash, two types of toothbrushes (that’s each!), floss, floss harps, tooth picks… and it struck me that this is a sign of being *middle aged, isn’t it?

To be fair, if you get the film reference, you’re also old…

My brain definitely liked that and has since been in overdrive during my insomnia, gifting me a plethora of other ways in which we’re clearly ageing. I’m pretty sure this isn’t an exhaustive list but maybe documenting it will bore my brain into a new hobby? Some are unique to me, others are shared experiences with my wife.

  • We don’t want to go out after 4 o’clock for errands – very specifically because we don’t want to lose our space out the front. The car parking wars are real.
  • When we like a pair of shoes or item of clothing, we buy multiple in different colours or patterns. Job done.
  • I’m able to hear my skeleton when I get out of bed or get up from a chair or bend over to tie my laces. Like a percussion band with no rhythm.
  • We’re very happy (nay, delirious) when plans fall through and we get to stay home. Despite having stayed home pretty much since March 2020.
If Anna Kendrick says it’s ok…
  • I don’t recognise a lot of music in the charts (my wife doesn’t recognise any of it).
  • I like the idea of a lie-in but my bladder / back / to do list mean I never get to laze about.
  • We had an existential crisis when we realised the gap between 1980 and 2021 is the same as 1939 and 1980 (so we shared it with friends to ruin their brains, too).
  • Our zombie apocalypse plan now involves less running or fighting and more hiding and recruiting clever friends with useful skill sets.
  • Life admin used to mean organising social events, maybe doing the food shopping and chucking some washing on… Now it means booking some sort of medical or vet appointment, updating some kind of insurance policy or looking at pensions.
  • We like some foods which actively dislike us in return: I love onion but it gives me heartburn; I like corn on the cob but it exits my system in under an hour; we both like braised meat but it gets stuck in our teeth; my wife loves custard but her stomach rumbles like a pair of trainers in the washing machine on a fast spin.
Food regrets
  • I have to turn the radio or music down in the car so I can see better. Especially if it’s dark and raining.
  • We both agree that 9 o’clock in the evening is too late to start a movie.
  • Gaming now means I’m doing a crossword or convincing my wife to play a board game.
  • We always do the dishes before bed because neither of us can relax if there’s mess.
  • I need a specific configuration of pillows for bed or I will wake up temporarily broken.
This could be actual footage
  • I shamelessly wear Crocs and I’ve even left the house without changing them.
  • We used to have a single box of painkillers in the bathroom. Then we ended up with a toiletries bag of various meds. Then a shelf. Now, we have a whole cabinet dedicated to our various pharmaceutical needs and a second cabinet ringfenced for the dogs. Not to mention the fact that we have small stashes of our go-to needs (asthma, migraines, heartburn) in the car glovebox and every single handbag. Just in case.
  • We’ll pop to the garden centre for something to do. And we don’t even bring down the average age, anymore.

Seriously, we were these wee creatures just two minutes ago?!

My patronus…

Actually, this is about my patronuses (Potter world plural spelling) or patroni (sounds better?).

A bit of a departure from my normal blogs and I very nearly didn’t write or publish this because it’s about my weight, which seems personal and unrelated to my professional / PhD life. But (as any plus sized person will tell you) if you are carrying extra weight, it consumes* most of your waking day.

Here are some examples. First, I generally avoid public engagements with people I don’t know because I hate being judged and, let me tell you, as a fat person, I know full well when I’m being judged. In this regard, the pandemic-work-from-home-forever-and-ever has suited me because all my PhD related social interactions (conferences / public speaking / group studying) have been via video conferencing. Ta da, folks can only see me from the shoulders upwards. It took some doing and mental preparation to bring myself to meet new PhD friends in person, once it was safe to do so, without being emotionally wobbly*.

Second, whilst I hate exercising, I know it’s obviously good for me and I try to do it a few times a week. That can be dog walking or more recent strength and conditioning work, thanks to my friend and PT (James Dewar-Haggart). But as I’m carrying so much excess weight, even a 30 minute stretch of exercise will leave me shattered, potentially lead to a migraine, make me sweat so much I have to wash my hair (long-haired ladies will feel my pain). This means, on days where I exercise, I don’t start work until around noon and I’m so tired that I’m less productive. When you’re behind in your writing (hahahaha – when isn’t a PhD researcher behind in their writing?!) or have a fast approaching deadline, it’s hard to avoid pulling an 18 hour study session at the desk and delay exercising for another day.

The final example is about confidence. Being fat knocks your confidence – it’s the first thing people see about you. Not your skills, humour, loyalty, dedication, work ethic. Intersectionally, I’ve had many more unpleasant experiences as an adult because I’m overweight than I have because I’m queer. That could be a whole blog in its own right. I guess my queerness can be invisible but my fatness is always present. It makes me anxious in most settings. It’s tricky to explain without also sounding arrogant… but I am an excellent teacher. I spent years actively developing myself as a teacher. Therefore, in teaching settings, my confidence in my role outweighs* my lack of confidence about my body, so I can get on with the job. In this new academic setting, I have absolutely no confidence in my skills as a PhD researcher – most of us don’t because we’ve all slurped from the Imposter Syndrome water cooler. It means that I’m crippled by a lack of confidence in and about my whole being.

Without a long explanation of my personal, medical history… my extra weight also doesn’t make a lot of sense and has stumped a number of doctors and consultants. Suffice to say, it is not the result of junk food (despite what judgy people assume), poor diet, alcohol, laziness or recreational drugs. Recently, I’ve been fortunate to be referred to a specialist team who’ll be investigating all things weight-related to help me get to the bottom* of it. Alongside getting on with the PhD, I’m now handling my own data every day; it takes up a lot of time, ceases all spontaneity and makes me obsessive but it’s necessary. I’m also trying more intuitive eating and to change my brain’s relationship with food – inspired by some folks on TikTok (I know, it’s not just for comedy skits, it turns out).

* deliberate puns, it’s ok to laugh.

Ok, why patronuses / patroni? Well, my weight actually surprises those I’ve been brave enough to tell. I don’t know if they’re being polite or if I move/look/seem like a lighter person? It might even be because since the pandemic started, I’ve refused to wear baggy, dark clothes everyday and branched out into all things colourful? Maybe confidence (no matter the fact it’s a pretence) makes me seem a little lighter? I am not going to publish my actual weight but I did use Google to find out which animals weigh the same as me… and I was struck by how much I had in common with some of them. Thus, let me introduce you to my patronuses/patroni.

Andean Bear (males)

Spectacled-Bear-Andean-Bears
  • Also called Bespectacled Bear – I wear glasses.
  • Active both in the day and night – PhD studying happens 24/7.
  • Retreats from humans – say no more.
  • Pretty solitary but not territorial – yup.
  • Has massive mandibular muscles compared to its body size – if my wife is reading this, shhhhh! Don’t say it!

Tiger

Bengal-tiger-400-pounds
  • Tigers prefer to eat the prey they kill rather than carrion (which they’ll resort to in dire times) – I’m the same. I have an immense dislike of leftovers and I hate it when you eat out and the food is of a poorer quality than you could achieve at home.
  • They’re pretty nocturnal but will get on with things during the day if necessary – I’m an insomniac and will spend a good deal of the night doing things like the Tesco order, queuing up emails or writing to-do lists.
  • Although big, they’re fast but only over short distances – me, too! I move quickly and, surprisingly, quietly. Useful skills for a teacher and librarian.

Ostrich

How did evolution ever lead ostriches to hide their head in the sand when  an enemy approaches? - Quora
  • When facing a problem, ostriches don’t bury their heads (this is a myth) but they do run away / hide / lie flat – avoiding problems? Sounds familiar.
  • If directly threatened and they can’t run or hide, they’ll kick – metaphorically, I’m the same. If pushed, I will eventually kick back.
  • Teeny-tiny heads in relation to big, round bodies – sigh.

Common Dolphin

Common dolphin - Wikipedia
  • They’re really bloody clever – I’d like to think I’m smart, too.
  • But they also have massive noses (beaks) – mine is certainly a prominent feature of my face.
  • They’ve got lots of nicknames (Saddleback dolphin, White-bellied porpoise, Cross-cross dolphin, Hourglass dolphin) – I also have a fair number. Jo, Joanna, Joanna-Louise (if I’m in trouble), Jonarnia (I think my aunties started this one), Toe (thank you, brother), MC-Kenna (students over the years).
  • They don’t like it too hot and prefer a surface temperature around 10 to 28°C – I definitely can’t function when it’s too hot.
  • A group of dolphins is called a school – nuff said.

Donkey

  • If I don’t comment, one of my friends will… they’re also called asses.
  • They’re loud and can be heard from over 3km away – well, this is writing itself, isn’t it?
  • Apparently, they’re notoriously stubborn – in their case, it’s associated with self-preservation and, in my case, it’s probably my fierce independence.
  • Once you’ve earned their confidence, they can be quite biddable – yes, yes, I’m the same. Once I’ve let you into my inner-sanctum, I’m very loyal.

40 things…

It’s my birthday blog because, somehow, I’ve turned 40. Despite often being the baby of various friend and familial groups, I can no longer evade the fact that I’m an actual adult.

In an utterly narcissistic fashion, here are 40 things you might not know about me, in celebration of making it to 40.

1) My favourite film is V for Vendetta.

2) Kiwis make my throat itch.

3) Bananas make me sick.

Image pinched from here

4) I don’t have a favourite book.

5) I sometimes miss teaching and wonder if I’ve made a mistake.

6) After years of trying for a family, our only success ended in a miscarriage.

7) I have an abject fear of spiders, dentists and being sick (they’re not linked).

8) I like giving gifts more than receiving them.

9) I’ve been to the Harry Potter Studios four times and I’m not even ashamed of it.

If you know, you know

10) I can touch type (badly).

11) I hate that Twitter doesn’t have an edit button.

12) I feel compelled to find solutions to problems.

13) I tackle work in one go rather than breaking it up (even if it’s carrying all of the shopping to the house in a single, Herculean effort).

14) I’m stubborn.

15) But I’m also loyal and trustworthy.

16) My first pet was a rabbit and I called him Mark.

17) I cannot stand mouth noises.

18) I should be chaperoned in book and stationery shops.

19) I hate public transport because it’s stressful as a plus-sized person who is made to feel unwelcome.

20) I vote in all elections where I’m eligible to do so.

21) I didn’t think I was clever enough to do an MA, let alone a PhD (and the jury is still out on the latter).

22) I don’t wear heels because I can (and do) fall over in flat shoes.

23) I love driving.

24) My favourite possession is my Waterman fountain pen (but I wouldn’t say no to a Mont Blanc).

My 30th birthday present to myself

25) As a child, I was terrified by Alice in Wonderland and The Labyrinth – and they seemed to be televised every Bank Holiday.

26) I met my wife in October 2000, in a nightclub, when I was just 19.

27) I’ve been with Helen for longer than I’ve been without her.

28) I love board games.

29) As a child, I hated that my birthday fell in half term; as a teacher, I was delighted by this!

30) I submitted my undergraduate dissertation on a floppy disk and as a spiralbound hardcopy.

31) I still have the hardcopy but I can’t bear to look at it because there’s a typo on page 1.

32) I have a very keen sense of smell.

33) I drink too much coffee.

34) In another life, I’d have loved to be a detective (which is strange, given that Helen would like to be a mastermind criminal).

35) Turns out, I’m quite obsessed with Lego.

Small sample

36) I have to sleep with the window open (which means Helen sleeps in a beanie hat, onesie, socks and jumper for six months of the year).

37) I have no idea when the bins are collected or which one has to be put out each week.

38) When painting, I can cut-in freehand with no masking tape.

39) I only learned how to do short division as an adult.

40) I spent a lot of Lockdown 1 playing Animal Crossing on my Nintendo Switch. Far too much of it. Like, most of it.

Cousin visiting my island

The bestest doggo

This post was written in 2021. Maggie gifted us another year of cuddles, walks and love before we had to say goodbye (19/01/2022).

***

Our eldest canine child, Maggie, is 13 on the 11th May. A beautiful English Springer Spaniel. She is seriously slowing down: her arthritis is getting to her, her eyesight is failing and she frequently forgets why she’s entered a room. A couple of recent incidents – where she’s clearly been in acute pain – have us worried that our time together is rapidly running out. She didn’t want to stand up this weekend so we had another trip to the vets who adjusted her pain meds. We’re actually grateful for the year+ stuck at home because it has meant uninterrupted time with her.

(You can’t see on a post blog but there was an hour’s break here so I could snuggle her and cry. Pets really do break your heart).

Anyway, I don’t want to write Maggie a eulogy after she’s gone; I’d much rather write her very own acknowledgements page whilst she’s still here and I can read it to her.

We got Maggie back in 2008. Helen (my wife) had been through a major health scare, serious surgery and subsequent emergency surgeries to stem internal bleeding. Afterwards, we got the puppy we had always said we’d have one day because we realised we didn’t want to put things off when tomorrow can be so uncertain. Maggie is our yay-Helen-didn’t-die dog. When we arrived to pick up 8 week old Maggie, we realised it was not a good breeder – the conditions weren’t awful but they weren’t great either. And the pups had been docked. We couldn’t leave her there because we were immediately in love.

Helen wanted to call her Cat – she thought it would be hilarious on dog walks. It was vetoed. She also suggested She-Ra, Mumm-Ra and Moog. All also vetoed. Although I conceded and allowed Moog as her middle name: Maggie Moog. It’s the origin of her nickname, Maggie Moo Moo, which was inevitably shortened to Moo or MooMoos.

***

Thank you, Maggie, for giving us a much better routine. We were both prone to working 16+ hours a day in the office / at school; once you were part of our family, one of us would be sure to get back early to be with you. I mean, the work continued but at least we were doing it at home.

Thank you not only for the interesting walks but also for the holidays. I know Helen likes to travel abroad but I’m happiest when you’re with us on a holiday… and that means exploring the UK. We’ve stayed in some lovely spots and visited loads of beaches. You haven’t once caught a bird but that hasn’t stopped you trying.

Thank you for being my insomnia buddy. I think my night time shenanigans are probably why you’re so good at your daytime naps. It doesn’t matter whether I’m powering through the night for a deadline, up as a slave to my bladder or just having an existential crisis… you’re there with a tail wag and a snuggle.

Thank you for being such an empathetic soul. You can’t bear it if we’re ill, if we’re sad, if we’re bickering or even if we’re just retelling tales from work with Oscar-worthy performances. You’re straight in there with a nose boop and a cuddle to make it all better. For five years, we tried to have a family. You saw us through all of those painful, failed attempts, the constant stress and the miscarriage that took me years to get over. I’m no good at speaking about how I feel but it has always been easy to speak to you. You’re the best listener, even though you always express your opinion very clearly with a trademark snort.

Thank you for being an absolute trooper. I’ve lost count of the surgeries you’ve had: neutered, cut paw (not your fault), knee reconstruction (not your fault), bladder operation (not your fault) and stitches for a barbed wire incident (that one was probably your fault). You’ve been the goodest doggo with all of those recoveries, even though you’ve wanted to spring and bounce because it’s in your nature. I’m pretty sure our insurance company isn’t your biggest fan. The bladder operation was scary: we were told it was cancer and you might not make it through the operation if the vet decided it was too much to cut away. It had all happened so fast and I was away for work. I insisted that Helen brought you home – the surgery was due to be the next day – so I could drive back from Sheffield (250 miles ish) to spend that night with you in case it was our last. Not a chance that I would miss a snuggle and a goodbye. Turned out not to be cancer and we’ve had many more years with you since.

Thank you for the many, many, many wonderful memories. Your willingness to dress in clothes and pose for a photograph. Your love of our (now diminished) cat clan. Your apathy towards poor Edith who we thought would be good company for you in your elder years (hahahahaha). Your sweet tooth*, which we discovered after you stole a dozen donuts when we were asleep and had to deal with a hyper-sugar-rush version of an already springy Springer for 48 hours.

Thank you for being the absolute best girl. You’ve done so much for us.

***

* we do not enable her sweet tooth but it doesn’t stop her hopelessly begging if we have cake.

Insomnia: a one act play to be performed at least 5 nights a week

In bed, window open, no lights. Approximately 1 a.m.

Brain: This is nice. Let’s nod off, Jo, and dream of happy times to come.

Jo: Sounds great (takes a relaxing, deep breath and slowly exhales).

Bladder: Um. Sorry to be that guy but I need a trip to the bathroom.

Brain: Oh, come off it. You went an hour ago.

Bladder: Yeah but now you’re thinking about it, Brain, aren’t you?

Brain: (Mutters something inaudible).

Back: Yeah, I’m with Bladder. If we fall asleep in this position, it’s going to mess up Neck.

Neck: Huh? No fair. Come on, Brain… it’s one trip to the loo. If Back screws with me again, I’m sending a migraine your way in the morning, Brain.

Brain: (Exasperatedly) It is the bloody morning. (Resigned) Up you get, Jo, we’re off for a quick wee.

Intestines: Possibly.

Brain: Oh for pity’s sake.

Jo heads to the bathroom in the dark and performs a wee. She hangs around for a minute or two to establish that Intestine is, in fact, being an attention seeker. Jo heads back out of the bathroom and enters the kitchen because Victorian houses have strange layouts.

Cat: (Screams).

Jo: (Turns on light).

Brain: Great, now you’ve done it. (Bitterly) I’m awake again.

Cat: (Screams continuously).

Jo: (Fetches cat bowl and empties cat food into it, getting some on the side and on her hands).

Brain: That’ll do, Jo – straight back to bed.

Conscience: (Outraged) No, no, no. Clean up the kitchen sides and wash your hands. Really!

Jo: (Cleans sides and washes hands. She notices the sink isn’t looking sparkly, so cleans that and puts on a load of washing).

Conscience: (Impressed) Nice one, Jo.

Brain: (Stroppily) Can we get back to bed now?

Jo: Sure. (Turns off lights and sets off for the bedroom).

Foot: (Yelling) WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!

Brain: (Sighing) One of Jo’s shoes. She left it there earlier, remember?

Foot: No. (Sulkily) That’s your job.

Conscience: Perhaps Jo should put it away –

Brain: (Interrupting) NO! Not now. Bed!

Jo heads back to bed and spends at least 30 minutes trying to make sure Back and Neck are happy.

Jo: Are we all set?

Bladder: Yeah, cheers for that.

Back: Sure.

Neck: Yup.

Brain: Well, actually, now you mention it, I’d like to run through the plans for tomorrow. And what do you want to eat? What time is the puppy going to daycare and have you figured out when we need to leave and when you should wake up? Remind me, why are you doing a PhD? Did you text your friend to see how she’s doing? Whose birthdays are coming up? Are you smart enough to do a PhD? When is the dog’s next vet appointment? Oh, did you put the ointment on the dog’s tail earlier? Actually, doesn’t the puppy need a worming tablet this week? What’s your PhD even about? I don’t think you’ve charged your phone but you shouldn’t check because the light will wake me up even more. Did you see that article about blue light and the impact on brains? I wonder if we should get Eyes some of those light filtering glasses. Or maybe they’re just a scam? Talking of purchases, have you got a Hermes tracking number for the Hoover yet? Well, we should say vacuum cleaner because Hoover is the brand. Like Sellotape. And Post-Its. Ah, stationery – you need to order new fountain pen cartridges, you’re running out. And the printer said its black cartridge is low. Was it the black? I’m sure it was. We can check. There’s a button on the printer or you can use the software on the laptop. Might need to run laptop updates this week before it gives up completely. What will you do for work if you complete the PhD? Ah, have you backed up all your recent analysis? And password protected the folders? Because, if you –

Netflix: (Interrupting) I’ve got at least two new releases that would shut Brain up for a while.

Brain: How rude.

Jo: (Relieved, grabs phone) Yes, please! (Checks phone) Oh, only 8% battery.

Brain: (Smugly) Told you.

Jo: (Scrabbling around in the dark) There’s no charger, I’ll grab one from downstairs.

Brain, Bladder, Back and Neck: (In unison) Do we have to?

Jo: It won’t take long.

Downstairs, in the dark, Jo goes to the dining room and locates a charger. She turns to head back up the stairs.

Cat: (Screams, continuously and louder than before.)

Jo: You’ve just eaten.

Brain: You know she won’t stop until you feed her again.

Jo: She might.

Cat: (Screams and jumps on kitchen side).

Brain: Told you. Again.

Jo: (Prepares more cat food and this time, doesn’t spill any. Turns to head back up the stairs).

Conscience: Excuse me? You need to clean the kitchen sides.

Jo: But I didn’t spill anything!

Conscience: Sure… but Miss-Kitty-Shout-A-Lot just tap danced all over it.

Brain: Oh, come on!

Jo: (Dutifully cleans the sides. Again).

Back in bed, Jo charges the phone and spends a few minutes settling Back and Neck into comfy positions. She watches one episode of a new series and decides, responsibly, to leave it there for now).

Netflix: Good, right?

Jo: Yeah, seems promising.

Netflix: Another? Ah go on, they’re only 45 minutes long.

Jo: No, let’s sleep.

Netflix: You sure?

Brain: You heard her!

Netflix: (Placatingly) Alright, alright.

Relaxed and calm, Jo starts to fall asleep.

Ears: What was that?

Brain: Shhhh.

Ears: No, listen.

Dog: (Politely) Whimper, huff, huff, snort.

Ears: Huh?

Brain: (Runs canine translation system) She needs the loo.

Jo: (Gets up, causing Back and Neck to grumble, and opens door). There you go.

Dog: Whimpers.

Jo: You know how to use the dog flap.

Dog: Huffity huff.

Brain: She doesn’t want to go on her own or in the dark.

Jo upsets Back and Neck by staggering downstairs and into the garden with the dog. The dog takes 15 minutes to find the perfect place to pee and then poops in 3 different locations.

Conscience: You should –

Jo: I know!

Jo bags up the poop and cleans the dirty patio areas with the hose. She heads back indoors.

Conscience: You need to –

Jo: I bloody know!

Jo washes her hands and heads to the stairs, surprised the cat isn’t screaming again. She starts up the first step.

Brain: If we get to sleep in the next 5 minutes, we’ll have 3 and a half hours of rest.

Bladder: Um, actually, whilst you’re up…

***

Pinch: the shouting cat

Bye, 2020. Shut the door on your way out…

Can you imagine reading a story in 2019 with the plotline of 2020? Implausible premise. Farfetched narrative. Unbelievable characters. Do not recommend.

Back in January, as has been tradition for a couple of years, we started our Happiness Jar. Despite my bout of protracted illness in early spring (not Covid, I’ve since had an antibody test to confirm) and the ensuing shitshow that was 2020, we maintained the Jar. Even though we joked that there would be nothing to fill it, the Jar was stuffed.

The nature of the entries definitely changed after March!

For posterity’s sake, I’m noting down some examples from the Jar, organised by month.

January

When we didn’t know.

  • Andrey (excellent lad I tutored) got a Grade 4 in his GCSE English resit.
  • Helen (wife) started a new job – and was all excited for the year ahead. HA HA HA.
  • I suppose I should mention my MA graduation and prize (flicks hair).
  • My chums, Soo and Luke2 (yes, there are two of them and, yes, they are married), saved graduation. They stepped up when Edith got sick and couldn’t go to kennels. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the pomp and ceremony. (Cut to camera, dramatic voiceover: it wouldn’t be their last favour of 2020…)
  • Connor started his Japanese lessons, whilst looking forward to using what he learned when travelling in April. Ha. Ha. Ha.
  • I went to a Qualitative Research Symposium at Bath University and heard Virginia Braun speak (and fan-girled her on Twitter).
The Badass Bibliophiles

February

When I made life decisions which I wouldn’t have made in hindsight!

  • My last day working at Brinsbury College so that I could focus on my PhD. Lots of lovely farewells and gifts.
  • Mum-in-law and Pa-in-law visited and we made them sit outside at a café in arctic conditions so that we could also take the puppy. (Cut to camera, dramatic voiceover: little did they know this would be excellent training for 2020 living and the last time they would see one another face-to-face that year).
  • Helen dazzled at a formal event in a red dress. An actual dress!
  • “A Monster Calls” at the Chichester Festival Theatre with Connor and other young people.
Please note: I prepared a hot water bottle for them.

March

The boundary month which straddled normal life and the start of lockdown.

  • Several cinema visits (remember the cinema?): “The Hunt,” “Emma,” “Military Wives” and “Onward.”
  • Helen hosted a private box, for work, at “The Mountbatten Festival of Music.”
  • Luke2 came into the house for food, laughter and games.
  • I hosted the March book club meeting at my Aunty’s house with lots of baking; obviously, these have moved onto Zoom now and also involve very little book talk!
  • Edith and I went to the wrong puppy class and ended up in a session with astrophysics level dogs… whilst we bumbled our way through basic obedience in the corner, feeling inadequate.
  • Lockdown happened and Connor discovered how to use the jet-wash, promptly using it on everything in the garden.
  • Food became quite* important as Helen was shielding, we couldn’t get out and supermarket looting panic buying had started: we celebrated when Tesco delivered everything in our basket; friends dropped bits at our front door; we planted a herb garden; Connor started baking bread, cookies and breakfast treats; Helen was smug that she had started a Brexit box of basics in the garage, like pasta and flour, that saw us through the darkest days! We’re very grateful to Soo, Will C, Will L, Luke2 and Jo Jarrett who have continuously ensured we can eat and wipe our arses (Health and safety voiceover: not at the same time).

* very, very, very

Our last outing, before lockdown, was to the garden centre…

April

The month when we tried our hardest to keep ourselves entertained… as the year progressed, the novelty wore thin.

  • We turned our kitchen into a Mission Impossible style laser system to annoy Connor when he first stumbled to the bathroom in the morning.
  • The Easter Egg Hunt we created for Connor took him over an hour.
  • Edith undertook an online tricks course (with human help)… which was basically about keeping Connor occupied.
  • Zoom quizzes. Remember them? (Dramatic voiceover: whatever 2021 brings, let us not resort to Zoom quizzes. Ever. Again).
  • We had the first BBQ of the year. It was a little cold and for reasons we still don’t understand, Connor served it in a bowl.
  • Connor and I relearned the cup song and also did it with random items from around the house. Not sure Helen enjoyed this.
  • You know those American Chefclub videos? They usually feature odd tins of liquid “cheese.” Anyway, we recreated their spaghetti carbonara bake thingy which features an entire Camembert in the middle. Helen and Connor ended up eating it for several days as it was huge.
  • We painted stones: you can tell things were getting dull.
  • I baked for the dogs. This may have been the point at which I started to mentally disintegrate. It was around this time we started making what-have-we-got-in-the-house cocktails, as well.

May

Yup, the novelty had worn off as you can tell from the few Jar entries. Connor and I were working to deadlines. Well, I was…

  • Helen let me give her an undercut – totally down with the kids.
  • I set up my second work from home space with a new desk. And a sign that was designed (but failed) to keep Helen and Connor away from me whilst I was working.
  • I joined in with the Harry-Potter-Downton-Abbey crossover quiz with Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter – organised to raise funds for Marie Curie.
This lighting masks the grey.

June

Because Helen has been shielding this whole time, we stayed in our own lockdown even as the country was “let out” again.

  • We started doing dog paddock walks again with Helen joining us as her daily exercise.
  • We discovered the Costa drivethru had opened in Chichester and promptly became known as the-ladies-who-brought-their-own-straws-and-wore-masks-when-ordering-and-who-slathered-everything-in-antibac-gel.
  • My birthday went on for a few days: Connor and Helen created me a Harry Potter Den, I started my obsession with Lego and we did a virtual escape room with Emma and Rob. Discovering Lego as an adult is expensive and perhaps not the best way to spend my student loan.
  • Dylan, my epic 10 year old student, made such great progress over the year. The height of which came when he wrote a book review (read it here) which was then celebrated by Bella Swift (the author) and Cressida Cowell (absolute legend) in Twitterverse! He even ended up with some free books gifted to him by fans online.
  • Helen and I started doing date nights – we didn’t leave the house but we did make full use of the Harry Potter den whilst it was up in the garage. (Romantic voiceover: activities included eating food, playing board games, watching TV and generally hiding from the teenager.)
The Castle was my second ever Lego build… 6020 pieces.

July

This was the month when we made Connor take over the running of the household. We were working; he was furloughed and had completed his college course. Many, many things went wrong but this post is only about the Jar of Happiness… so we shouldn’t mention the DIY errors, erratic Tesco orders or cooking disasters.

  • I was bemoaning that we couldn’t get a good afternoon tea because I am gluten free… which was clearly considered a rallying cry by my friends. We enjoyed an afternoon tea delivered by the Millstream Hotel, courtesy of the Clays (for my birthday in June); a stealthy front door drop with a scones mix, jam, tea and clotted cream by Stella and Naomi; and a full blown afternoon tea by post from Emma Sweeney (surname needed as I have three lovely Emmas). I remember July as the month where I practically ate cake once a day.
  • Helen’s workplace (The National Museum of the Royal Navy) received their emergency Grant In Aid from the Government. After four months of wondering whether or not she would lose the job she only started in January (whilst supporting my full time PhD and Connor), this came as a massive relief. Aunty Emma-Jayne (see, another Emma!) and Uncle Kevin-the-pourer surprised her by sending a delivery of cider.
  • In July, I had to start my confirmation process for the first year of the PhD. This was a presentation. I’m really grateful to Dr Emma Fields (see, yet another Emma!) and Natty for listening to me practise the presentation via Zoom and asking me preparatory questions.

August

The month when we’d all had enough but didn’t realise how good we had it… because at least we could sit in the garden. The winter lockdowns, just around the corner, were not as forgiving.

  • Part of the confirmation review process is submitting a 20,000 word mini-thesis covering everything you’ve done so far: intro, background, aims, literature review, methodology and so on. I made my deadline and managed to stay under the wordcount. By five words.
  • We celebrated both of Luke2 birthdays (about two weeks apart) in the garden. Many metres apart.
  • Connor discovered he’d achieved triple Distinction Star – and also had confirmation of his university place and complicated finance.
  • Helen earned her own salary. It’s a fundraiser thing – it’s expected that each year you should fundraise at least as much as you earn and then some. The fact she’d achieved this in 8 months and during a pandemic is impressive.
  • As the result of a webinar, I discovered the Writer’s HQ and Virtual Writing Retreat which completely changed the way I work. I’ve blogged about them here.
  • With everything confirmed, Connor started online university shopping and packing (Irritated voiceover: it wasn’t until Connor had moved out that Helen and Jo discovered the chaos in the loft or the 87651 discarded cardboard boxes).

September

A month of changes.

  • Connor moved out. Hahaha. That’s not the Happy Thing, honest. He got to Uni… something we weren’t all convinced was going to happen, not least because of the pandemic.
  • With his permission, we turned his bedroom into a proper office space. It can also function as a bedroom when/if he wants to come back.
  • We built a daybed as part of the office renovation and Edith has decided it’s hers.
  • On the 23rd September, I discovered and joined the PhD Forum. Basically, I live there now. (Check it out on Twitter @PhDForum or here). Helen has pointed out that since joining PhD Forum I have got more work done and drunk more alcohol. Honestly, who would have thought you could make actual friends during a pandemic and without seeing any of them in person? I’m so grateful to them all for supporting / entertaining / motivating me. Sometimes simultaneously.
  • The final part of my confirmation review was the dreaded defence, which turned out not to be dreadful at all. I’m very grateful to Dr Emma Fields (friend), Dr Iain Hall (brother-in-law), Dr Paul Hanna (the brother of one of the Lukes!), Dr Briony Birdi (supervisor) and Dr Kate Dommett (supervisor) for helping me to prepare so thoroughly.
  • After 6 months apart, we visited The Flying Foot* to see Aunty Emma-Jayne, Uncle Kevin-the-pourer, Holly and Dave. I had my first, masked cuddle with baby Rose.

* The outdoor pub that Kevin has built – open sides and big enough to spread out by several metres in all directions. Man is a genius.

October

The first month of the pandemic on our own.

  • We celebrated 20 years together and 14 years married. (Weary voiceover: yes, Helen yet again cracked the “joke” about getting less for murder).
  • We got tickets to see Billie Eilish in concert, obviously virtually. Then realised how old that made us because we preferred watching it in PJs, on our sofa with tea and popcorn. Rock on.
  • I completed the ethics application for the first stage of my data collection and got the go ahead really quickly because it was “exemplary.” (Smug).
  • More food related adventures: I figured out how to make poutine and it was gooooood (although very bad for you).
  • I got to see my Nana, briefly. The absolute highlight of my year. She is the best person I know.
  • The brilliant Jo Jarrett moved back to Bosham so we got to have coffee and cake in the garden. Jo also popped to Ikea and surprised me with a mattress (needed for the daybed). I honestly have the best friends.
  • We managed to squeeze in a few garden socialisings before the weather and pandemic turned. Lots of layers needed, with the chimnea and jacket potatoes. Edith met Nelly – the newest puppy in the family.

November

Still a pandemic. Another lockdown and something to do with tiers. By this point, we realised we weren’t wholly paying attention to the rules because we just don’t go out, nor do we go into anyone’s houses or in any shops.

  • Off you f*ck, Trump.
  • Thank you to Lewis and Ross for doing our electrics and providing light!
  • I treated Helen to a virtual evening with Tom Kerridge and a copy of his book – basically, it’s a stealthy gift for myself as I benefit from her cooking his recipes.
  • Poor Helen. All she wanted was a pint in the pub. But, pandemic… so I recreated it for her in the garage. It wasn’t perfect but she was happy.
  • We hung out online with Natty and Chris, doing another escape room.
  • I managed to get my data collection off the ground and I’m so grateful to my friends, family and PhD Forum fiends for being my pilot testers and giving me brilliantly critical feedback.
  • We redecorated the dining room. For all the people who aren’t coming over?! And it is accidentally grey (not calico) because we used a tin of paint without noticing my Pa-in-law’s label on the side.
  • We celebrated Jamie’s birthday in style: timing a Deliveroo, doing an online escape room and surprising her with friends and family (virtually) so we could all play the most twisted drawing game. Lots of rib-aching laughter.

December

The month when we have been punished daily with Facebook reminders of seeing (and touching) family and friends.

  • Data collection stage 1 is completed, so I have all that lovely analysis waiting for me in the New Year. I’m grateful to the 70+ people who took part all across West Sussex.
  • We saw three shows, all from the daybed or sofa. “A Christmas Carol” at the Old Vic was glorious. Then, through The Show Must Go On (see here), we enjoyed “Kinky Boots” and “Dick Whittington.”
  • Helen convinced me to watch “The Mandalorian” and I have to agree it was very good.
  • In contrast, I convinced Helen to watch her first ever Hallmark Christmas film or, as she calls them, shit Christmas movie. (“Operation Christmas Drop” on Netflix.)
  • We did another escape room online as a date night and a boxed one on Christmas Day. (Black Mirror style voiceover: they enjoy the satisfaction of getting out because they live in fear that they will never get out again… Escape rooms have become the new escapism. It’s all very meta.)
  • We had a second visit to The Flying Foot which has enjoyed a massive extension. Edith met the giant dogs and no one got eaten.
  • I cut myself a fringe. Why not?
  • Our epic brother-in-law defended his thesis and became Dr Iain Hall.
  • Jo Jarrett baked and secretly delivered gluten free mince pies.
  • Helen enjoyed a big work success in the days leading up to Christmas. I am not allowed to mention it but all will be revealed in 2021.
  • Cheese.
  • We had ordered M&S Christmas food imagining there would be four of us here for a few days. So we had enough Christmas food for approximately 8 people. Thank you Luke2 for the delivery service.

There you have it. Not like our 2019 mix of movies at the cinema, live events, a disproportionate number of things with the lovely Dr Emma Fields, outings, human contact and eating out; nevertheless, some moments to cherish.

I refuse to say Happy New Year aloud as it seems inauspicious. But I’m sure most people will join me in telling 2020 to go fuckity-bye-bye.

Entertaining myself (work avoidance?)

This has nowt to do with books, studying, work or libraries. It’s a random one.

We’re sharing the cooking and I’ll readily admit that Helen, my wife, is cooking the most. She and I have been figuring out the shopping orders and meal planning. Connor, the man-child, has been helping out with lunches and has now begun to join in with cooking some of the evening meals.

We’ve been talking, quite openly, about how cooking in different contexts requires versatility and an ability to adapt skills. Connor is an excellent competition and industry chef. If you want something fancy and complicated, he’s your guy. It will take him a long time and he’ll use every tool available in the kitchen, but it’ll be worth it. If you want someone to work as part of a team to deliver multiple covers at the same time for sustained periods, he’s your guy. Since working for Wahaca, and now Zizi’s, his approach to brigade cooking, minimal wastage and preparation is impressive. Both restaurants have an open kitchen and – before the apocalypse started – we loved eating in both and watching him work: controlled, efficient and fast.

But we would also watch him – eating our lovely, discounted food – and comment that he is just not like that at home! When cooking, he’s messy, slow and forgetful. As he’s recently completed a reflective essay for college, we talked about this at length. He and I have decided that context is key and he doesn’t adapt his mentality to suit the situation. For instance, he’ll rush at college because he’s used to working at pace in industry kitchens for fear of the wrath of the Head Chef! At home, he isn’t mindful of equipment use or mess because he’s used to cooking in teams at college and work, the latter with the benefit of a KP. I did point out to him that at Wahaca, the chefs took turns at being the KP and he hated being KP when the other chefs were chaotic… Also, any chefs who were too messy or wasteful during their shift had to do an extra KP stint as punishment! The fact he doesn’t apply that memory to cooking at home is evidence that he finds it hard to adapt his approach and learn from experiences.

Anyway, Helen and Connor cooking across Monday 4th to Wednesday 6th of May led to some disappointing results. I amused myself my writing each of them a Trip-Advisor-style-review… Apparently this is now going to be a new game and we’ll each be reviewing one another’s meals moving forward 😂 I have no doubt I will suffer their revenge!

Date: 04/05/20

Chef: Connor

Dish: chocolate brownies

This is a tried and tested, gluten free recipe by Leon. It uses haricot beans in lieu of flour; whenever Helen and I have cooked the brownies in the past, no one could believe they’re flourless. They’re rich, chocolatey and gooey in all the right places.

Connor’s attempt: chalky, savoury, flat, crumbly, unrecognisable, soul-destroyingly-disappointing. Somehow, he had baked them for 4 hours and they were still undercooked. Indeed, the portion gifted to his best friend was tasted, spat out and unceremoniously binned. Even Connor thought they were dirty. They are currently festering in a tin, uneaten and ignored.

Date: 05/05/20

Chef: Helen

Dish: Pad Thai

A firm favourite, I was excited to have Helen’s famous Pad Thai for dinner. Sigh. There were no nuts, it was super dry, the green beans were very obviously the frozen kind and the beef Quorn pieces were a disaster. It was filling and the cauliflower pakoras served on the side (which I later discovered weren’t gluten free) were delicious. I do hope Helen returns to her older, more reliable recipe.

Date: 06/05/20

Chef: Connor

Dish: tomato soup with mozzarella and fruit toast

The soup was tasty and the chef is handsome… There endeth the positives of this less than mediocre experience.

The soup wasn’t hot enough and all the cheese had coagulated into one rubbery lump of sorrow. Also, I ordered fruit toast (all my gluten free bread is stored in the freezer) but the chef didn’t pay attention and tried to coerce me into eating regular toast. He wasn’t at all professional when I refused. For those of you who don’t know, all gluten free bread is significantly smaller than its normal equivalent, so I requested three slices. The third slice was burnt and I was told the chef would “scrape the black bits off.” I insisted upon a fresh slice so, all-in-all, the chef had used six slices of hard-to-obtain gluten free bread to provide me with the necessary three.

Imagine my horror (given how hungry I was due to the human-error-induced-delay) when I discovered the new slice of toast was, in fact, also burnt! The chef had served it pale side up: an old and nasty trick to mask ineptitude because you are blissfully unaware of the toast’s true nature until you bite into it.

My wife enjoyed her dirty toastie (leftover chilli and cheese) but commented that service was slow. When I complained to the chef, he was unapologetic. We are eating in the same venue tonight – due to limited options – so we hope there’s an improvement.