Thursday, 29 July 2010

life on a plate

Nothing tastes of childhood to me like a stolen strawberry, filched straight from the plant. My father used to grow them and we'd come in from the garden, faces smeared red, valiantly denying eating them.
So that's my excuse for an afternoon raiding the local Pick Your Own, where we went faintly mad and came home staggering under soft fruit. My son loved it, but in all honesty so did I.
I like picking my own fruit in the same way I like buying eggs at the farm gate: no middleman, just you and the person who produced it. I love the way the eggs come still covered in straw, with the odd wonkily-shaped one: I love that there's an honesty box for the money and that 'free range' means the chickens scratching about on the driveway in front of you. (And yes, farm eggs are even cheaper than Lidl's).
Living in the country offers a different relationship with food than we had in the city, and as someone who loves to cook and also frankly to eat, that's great. But is it, I dunno, really progress?
One rough measure of the intelligence of a species is how much of its time it spends looking for food: the more spare time it has to play, the more advanced it's likely to be.
So primitive man spent long days hunting mammoths and scavenging for berries. Then we invented farming to save us going out and finding stuff, and a few millennia later evolution finally reached its natural conclusion: the Ocado delivery. Short of having someone actually eat for you (and who knows, possibly Posh Spice does this) it couldn't be more convenient.
So how do the pampered middle classes respond? We start wandering farmers' markets, growing our own, and doing complicated things with celeriac. We watch/read/blog about food porn: as the cliche goes, we make food the new fashion.
And so we make our foodie life as timeconsuming and as difficult as we can. We're literally back to foraging for berries - though admittedly in more convenient surroundings (our local Pick Your Own has en suite kids' adventure playground, something I doubt early homo sapiens enjoyed).
In evolutionary terms, it makes no sense. On the other hand, I'm eating these strawberries as I type and they taste amazing. Does anyone know what I can do with about half a ton of blackcurrants?

Saturday, 24 July 2010

competitive (non)holidaying

So we're just back from a big, rackety, extended family holiday: the blissful kind where small children run feral, and adults don't wear shoes for a week. Sand pours out of every bag I unpack and the fridge is full of sour milk, but even that can't dampen the general sense that all is once again right with the world.
Which is why one snippet in particular leaped out from my beach reading. A third of Americans don't take all their statutory holiday,even though it's a stingy (by European standards) 14 days a year on average. The most common reason is being too overworked to, well, stop work.
Friends working in the US have long grumbled about a corporate culture where, at senior levels especially, taking a vacation is frowned upon: the done thing is to be loudly and ostentatiously at one's desk all summer, at least if you're seriously ambitious. Now the lunacy seems to be spreading: this survey suggests at least one in five Brits has cancelled holiday due to work pressure.
I admit I've done it myself, in the days of having a Proper Job, and understand the feeling that there's no alternative: but the trouble with presenteeism is that it's contagious. Once enough people in an office waive their holidays, the pressure's on everyone else to do the same or risk looking uncommitted.
I'm reminded of an exchange a few weeks ago between the five candidates for the Labour party leadership, in which David Miliband appealed for a sort of holiday non-aggression pact where all the candidates took a break from campaigning in August to spend time with their families.
Everyone nodded virtuously, but I couldn't help wondering who might be tempted to get one over on their rivals by working nonstop through the summer.
Competitive holidaying - bragging about one's month diving in the Maldives, while everyone else is camping in the rain - may be irritating. But competitive non-holidaying, among those who can afford a break? Now that's seriously antisocial.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

on housetraining boys

ACCORDING to today's papers, a 29-year-old man has held his mother hostage at gunpoint on the grounds that she wouldn't do his ironing. He didn't want to do his own, apparently, because 'it's woman's work'.
Only in America, obviously. But it did set me thinking. I doubt my son will grow up into a homicidal loon with overly high domestic expectations (not least because I don't even iron his stuff now). But I wonder about the attitudes our boys absorb towards housework.
A recent survey from the Children's Society suggested most teenage kids now do hardly any chores: three quarters of 11 to 16-year-olds have apparently not loaded a washing machine, something a supervised toddler can do. It's unclear whether both sexes were equally useless or boys did less than girls, but anecdotal evidence usually suggests the latter.
I used to be adamant my son wouldn't grow up assuming domestic stuff was women's work, for the sake of any poor future daughter-in-law: my generation may have battled in vain to convince our partners the fridge isn't restocked by pixies, but we could at least bequeath housetrained sons to the next generation.
Three years on, I'm not sure I succeeded. The small boy's love of machines means for a while nothing thrilled my son more than stuffing washing in the tumbledryer, but the older he gets - and the more interesting machines he discovers - the more interest has waned.
More worryingly, with a female childminder and a mother working part time from home, it's mostly women he sees doing domesticated things. I won't be doing his ironing when he's in his 20s. But I'm a bit worried his poor girlfriend might.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

growing up

There is a pile of baby clothes on top of the tumbledryer, waiting to be folded and put away for my smallest nephew. The nappies my son no longer needs are already in the loft, shortly to be joined by the now scorned pushchair: and I can't put off the laborious process of converting his outgrown cot into a real bed much longer, even if I have lost all the relevant screws.
Time to face facts: my baby is, if not exactly grownup, definitely not a baby any more. The all-absorbing, intensely physical years of early childhood are over and while doubtless the next phase isn't exactly easy, I suspect it won't be quite so primal. For the first time in three years - more, if you count pregnancy - a bittersweet liberation beckons.
Bittersweet partly because I had always kind of assumed by now there'd be another baby, and the same cycle starting all over again. As time goes by however, it feels safest to assume there won't. Hope is invasive, consuming one's life: a certain sadness is maybe easier to live with.
But then again, there's an undeniable giddiness that comes with leaving the early motherhood years behind. Somewhere in the distance glimmers the prospect of a life where one wouldn't always have to get up at 6am, there wouldn't be weetabix soldered to every available surface, one wouldn't have permanent backache from picking up wailing small people, and leaving the house needn't necessarily involve a ton of wetwipes and spare clothing.
There's even the dizzying possibility of civilised conversation with said child's father: perhaps even some work involving rational thought. Who knew?
It's a miniature version of the sudden burst of energy I've seen older women get when their children leave home: as if the shackles, in the nicest way, were broken. Empty nests are painful but can also bring a relief from guilt, from the huge part of motherhood that consists of just being needed (which is both a joy and at times a struggle).
And it's a useful reminder that careers, like marriages, ebb and flow. There are times when it's easiest just to keep on keeping on, and times when you have the energy to change direction. Now feels like a good time for change.
If there are to be no more prams in the hall, that leaves room for something else. And for me that's going to be a book. It's going to be called Half a Wife, it'll be published in 2012 by Chatto & Windus, and it's going to be about the future of work and the massive changes in family life that are coming together now in one big bang.
I promise I'm not going to plug it endlessly here - although I'll be wanting to pick readers' brains from time to time. But I hope it's going to fulfil one of the conditions I set myself when I left my Proper Job: that I'd take the chance to do something careerwise that I'd never have done otherwise. It's time to get out of my comfort zone.
And to stop getting sentimental over baby clothes, obviously. They are going up in the loft: they really are. Any day now...