Tuesday, 31 January 2012


Three pink waterlilies

I am looking forward to starting work by not doing all the things that I really ought to do before I start having only two days off per week. Here are some of the things I have done instead.

I have watched a real live auction, but online. It's amazing. Mum and dad have been unearthing our family heirlooms, and we went through the treasure trove ages ago (in 2009) but stupidly didn't give the stuff immediately to the member of the family who would be most useful in disposing of it. That has now happened, and some of it went into a real auction with an auction house. You can view the catalogues - the pictures made our items look a lot more glamorous than I remember them - and then view the actual auction, either text and images, or with sound, or with video too. It's amazing. Bids are placed in the room, by telephone and online, and it's quite exciting.

And another thing. Completely unrelated. Jamie Oliver's salads are terrific. I bought a Jamie Oliver cookbook for Mr A because he seemed to gravitate towards JO's online recipes when looking for something to cook. The stuff can be a bit over-fiddly (e.g. he grates everything for the fish pie) but usually turns out splendidly. I thought I'd try one of his salads, and his technique, which is to chop everything up quite finely. The first one (cucumber, lettuce, cress, avocado, basil) was astonishingly good, so I tried another this week (carrot, radish, fennel, chicory, lettuce, dill) and together, the ingredients provided a flavour than was far more than the sum of the parts. Wonderful.

The freezer is in its place, but has slightly reduced capacity compared with the built-in one - not surprising, given that there is a space all round this one where the previous freezer completely filled the hole. We are adjusting well to the challenge. It appears to freeze food very well. The new washing machine washes clothes better than the old washing machine. We continue to use our special remote control when we watch TV, and look forward to the next household item that fails.

Last unrelated observation: I noticed some green shoots in the garden, and remembered that I had planted daffodils. Until they sprouted, I had completely forgotten. The joy of gardening. Soon it will be spring, but the forecasters say we have an arctic February to look forward to first.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Party, and Occupational Health

Single stem rose next to an empty wine glass

Mr A and I have been to a party. In London. Where it is busy, and expensive, and alive, and where I find myself feeling a little lost, and foreign, and a bit old (although nowhere near as old as on New Year's Eve). It was a good party, though, aside from the fact that we were expecting dinner to start at 8.15 and dancing at 10, but by 11 o'clock we'd only been served two courses. We did squeeze in a bit of dancing, so Mr A is still suffering a little from his knees, and from staying up past his bedtime, and from spending all of Sunday wandering around the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.

We stayed with Lola II of course, who also came to the party, and even complimented me on my recent shopping achievement in the shape of a coat and a necklace. I took me a whole day to buy that coat, and two days for the necklace, but it was worth it. I won't have to do any more shopping for new clothes for ages. Sister D was also there, so we had a good old photo-fest, and took loads of pictures, some of which came out well enough to be suitable for the family calendar we produce every year.

On the work front, I have survived the encounter with Occupational Health. The nurse explained the current policy is to test everyone for overt and latent tuberculosis, whether they have evidence of BCG inoculation or not, and for measles, which is now classed as a threat (presumably because of the reluctance to immunise children following the MMR vaccine fiasco). Other than that, we discussed hand care, and confirmed that the soap used is paraben- and tocopherol-free, but now I am suspicious of the alcohol rub, having examined the ingredients of a small bottle the nurse had on her desk and found tocopheryl acetate. I will have to follow this one up.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
The Tenderness of Wolves
by Stef Penney

"1867, Canada: as winter tightens its grip on the isolated settlement of Dove River, a man is brutally murdered and a 17-year old boy disappears. Tracks leaving the dead man's cabin head north towards the forest and the tundra beyond. One-by-one the assembled searchers set out from Dove River, pursuing the tracks across a desolate landscape home only to wild animals, madmen and fugitives."
I liked the style of writing, interesting subjects, plot in the background, but so atmospheric. The cold, the wet, the isolation, the descriptions of people who would choose to move there (Norwegians and Scots - makes sense, I suppose). In a reversal of the usual routine, I'm giving this one to Lola II to read next.

Image of the book cover
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
by Jeanette Winterson

"This is the story of Jeanette, adopted and brought up by her mother as one of God's elect. Zealous and passionate, she seems seems destined for life as a missionary, but then she falls for one of her converts. Innovative, punchy and tender, this book is a few days ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession."
Mr A was having a clear-out and this book came to light, even though it was one of mine rather than his. Rather than get rid of it straight away (as I did with some of my university Industrial Sociology textbooks that appeared in the same clear-out) I thought I'd read it again. It's much better than I remember: kind, gently funny, highlighting the quirks of the slightly unhinged evangelical mother and her supportive daughter, who finds that her own convictions clash irreconcilably with those of the Church. Maybe Lola II will like this one too?

Image of the book cover
The House of Silk
by Anthony Horowitz

narrated by Derek Jacobi
"Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are enjoying tea by the fire when an agitated gentleman arrives unannounced at 221b Baker Street. Intrigued by the man's tale, Holmes and Watson find themselves swiftly drawn into a series of puzzling and sinister events, stretching from the gas-lit streets of London to the teeming criminal underworld of Boston."
This is a Sherlock Holmes story written by a modern author in the Conan Doyle style, and it's better than the last lot of short stories I read by the original author. Half way through I started to think he'd opened too many different story strands, and I was having some difficulty remembering how we'd reached this particular situation, but it resolved very well in the end. Skilfully written, and worth reading.

Image of the book cover
It Just Occurred to Me...
by Humphrey Lyttelton

"The legendary band leader and jazz trumpeter, broadcaster and humorist looks back at his extraordinarily rich and varied life and the many colourful characters he has known and played with - from Duke Ellington to Louis Armstrong."
This was lying around after Mr A's book clear-out, and I started browsing it. I've actually read it before, just over two years ago, but didn't remember a word. Still good, lovely light reading.

Image of the book cover
Obesity: The Biography
by Sander L. Gilman

"An account of the history of obesity, looking at the changing attitudes towards the body, from regarding it as 'God's temple' to more mechanical and practical concerns from the Enlightenment onwards."
Not as interesting as I was expecting, it described the history of obesity as described in various lay and academic sources through the ages, both in the Western and the Oriental world. The view of 'acceptable' fatness has changed, although the side effects in terms of ill health and early death have been recognised for longer than I imagined. Still no answers, though.

Image of the book cover
The Light Fantastic
by Terry Pratchett

narrated by Nigel Planer
"The Discworld is on a collision course with a malevolent red star, and only one person can save it. Unfortunately, it's the cowardly wizard, Rincewind, who was last seen falling off the edge of the planet. "
I was led to believe that it was worth following up the fate of Rincewind (thanks, Hugh), and this sequel is just as good as the first, especially now I have come to understand the style and look forward to some of the jokes. Reminiscent of the wit of Douglas Adams, and clearly providing inspiration for the work of J K Rowling, the wizards, trolls, dwarves, dragons and luggage all have personality and a sense of humour, although I'm still not entirely sure why the Discworld wasn't hit by the red star. I'll probably read some more of this series.

Image of the book cover
The Lovely Bones
by Alice Sebold

"On her way home from school on a snowy December day, 14-year-old Susie Salmon is lured into a cornfield and brutally raped and murdered, the latest victim of a serial killer. Susie struggles to accept her death while still clinging to the lost world of the living, following her family's dramas over the years."
Another good one, with the notable feature that at no point did the story go where I was expecting, right up to the very last page. Not that it ended badly, but I was looking forward to the usual resolution - killer brought to justice, lovers in their rightful places and everyone happy, and it didn't happen. The movie of the book has an interesting cast and director, so I might watch it if reviews are good.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Parabens and tocopherol

A hothouse somewhere

I have now heard from my future manager that full time hours are available, at least for a temporary period, although the contract that arrived for me to sign shows it's a permanent job but only 2 days a week. I have an appointment with Occupational Health to go through my vaccination history, and I even have a provisional start date, which I'm looking forward to with some trepidation. Other than short periods of 12 weeks it's been nearly 5 years since I had to get up and go to work every day, and more than 6 months since I actually did anything relating to Dietetics other than being interviewed, so I'm trying to prepare for the shock to the system.

I've also been speaking to the Occupational Health department about my skin sensitivity. I've had eczema on my hands since I was a child, and tried a number of ways to deal with it, including skin prick allergy testing, where the only thing I reacted to was the 'hypo-allergenic' sticking plaster they used to tape the samples down. Mostly, I wore cotton gloves to help stop the skin drying out, cracking and bleeding, and I remember wearing pale pink gloves during my O levels, where there were obviously concentrated periods of handwriting, so my writing hand would get cramp because I had to grip the pen harder than usual.

I also remember the intolerable itching, and to avoid scratching the skin away I would run water from the hot tap over my hands until the pain of the heat obliterated the terrible itching. There were periods when the eczema retreated, although it never really disappeared completely, and there was always a background itch, which I must have learned to ignore. Habits we adopted at home included mum generously peeling oranges for me, because the acidic juice would sting the raw patches on my hands. I was reminded of that last weekend, when I peeled an orange for her! And I never washed the dishes without rubber gloves, and always washed my hands as little as humanly possible during the course of a day.

Things started to change because of a sunny holiday in around 1995. It was something to do with either the suntan cream I used, or some preparation I applied to sunburn, but whatever it was triggered the thought that it was the lotions that were causing the skin rash, not the heat. And I stopped using them, and the rash slowly improved, and I wrote down all the ingredients of the lotions. I don't even remember how I came to decide which ingredient to avoid - perhaps it happened again and I compared ingredients - but that was when I started to watch out for the paraben family of chemicals.

That seemed to be quite successful, until I reacted to an antiperspirant that didn't contain parabens, and shortly afterwards to a massage oil that was also paraben-free. Both of those contained tocopherol, otherwise known as vitamin E, and widely held to be 'good for your skin' and therefore added to many beauty products. I don't regularly use anything that might be classed as a product relating to beauty, but it occasionally pops up in other things - luckily (at least in the UK) all the ingredients of any preparation that comes into contact with skin are listed, except laundry powders and liquids.

So I now avoid any contact with parabens and tocopherols, which are often found in products like soap, shampoo, bubble bath, lip, face, hand, foot and creams for any other body parts, very nearly all suntan protection except ludicrously expensive stuff for babies, anti-perspirant and anything else you'd routinely buy from Boots to apply to the outside of your body. I stick to the same washing powder that has been OK so far, and still wear rubber gloves for washing up when I'm at home. And I've been almost completely eczema- and itch-free for about ten years, although I still have a large tub of emulsifying ointment in case of the occasional accident, and I will be forever thankful for product labelling laws.

The folks in the Occupational Health department are going off to check the ingredients in the hospital soap. "Of course, if you find that it contains parabens or tocopherol I can always use my own soap," I said. But no, that would not be possible. Apparently, it is forbidden. If that's the case then I hope that we could agree on some reasonable compromise, because I can't believe that my employment as a dietitian could be derailed before it's even begun just because I'm allergic to the soap they use in that particular hospital.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Choosing a university

A smart terrace of grey and white houses

For most of last Sunday I was battling with the chapter of the book I've been commissioned to write, aimed at potential students of Dietetics, and all about how to decide which university to choose. It has made me think about what exactly makes a university attractive to students, and also try very hard to remember what it was like to be aged 18, but not in the selfish and irresponsible way that I behaved when I was 18.

That's been one of the main differences I've noticed in the young students who studied with me this time round - they seemed to be mature for their age and have a sense of purpose, they knew their own minds, and were generally doing a Dietetics degree because they thought that being a Dietitian was something that would suit them. I was an Engineering student at the same age, and I was studying that subject because I was good at physics and maths, the adults advising me thought it would suit me, there was a very favourable male:female ratio, and there wasn't anything else that I particularly wanted to do.

I'm very glad that I had that experience and gained a degree and many lifelong friends, but it wasn't the right subject for me. But I couldn't possibly have done a Dietetics degree at that age - I wouldn't have conformed to the necessary professional standards of responsible behaviour, and I had no intention of settling down into a career at that point in my life.

The other factor influencing my writing this chapter is my experience since graduating, and the difficulty I had in getting a job. It is always possible that my age is a factor in interviews, although of course recruiters are not supposed to be influenced by such things, but actually I think it is more about how I answer the questions. Whatever the reason, it is clear that a solid past career and getting a First class Dietetics degree has not smoothed my way into my first job, although maybe it will lead to wider opportunities later on.

All degrees in Dietetics lead to registration and eligibility for a job as a Dietitian, whether from the 'best' or the 'worst' university, so in some ways the academic reputation of the university is irrelevant. But I can't bring myself to write that - surely there must be some advantage in doing four years at a university that sets high entry requirements, rather than a shorter (and therefore cheaper) course or one at another place where you don't need the best A levels to get in? I have to say that at this point of my Dietetic career, I really don't see what that advantage is, unless you are either a swotty swot like me (as Lola II so accurately describes me), or what you really want to do is research. In which case, you might as well do a different course, like Nutrition or Food Science, where communication skills and professional standards aren't such a high priority.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Weekend events

Pictures in the Barber Institute

The weekend brought a visit from mum and dad, which was really enjoyable. On Friday afternoon we drove to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, which I have visited before, but was new to the parents. It's not a huge gallery, but there was plenty there to look at, and we all found something we liked. After supper we all watched 'From Here to Eternity' with Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed, which also went down very well.

Breakfast for dad was a treat of bacon and tomatoes cooked by Mr A, which he doesn't get at home.  Then mum and I went into town and completed all our jobs while dad stayed at home and read his new book on the history of the biblical world. I took them to the station with a packed lunch and a warm fleecy jacket that's too big for me but suits mum very well - I don't think I've ever managed to pass any clothing in that direction before! A successful visit, but unfortunately when they got home they found that their house had been broken into while they were away. Luckily nothing was stolen, and there was very little damage apart from the window that was used to gain access. I hope it doesn't put them off visiting again.

The only other news of note was that my future employer left a message on my mobile phone suggesting that more hours may be available after all. Leaving such a message on a Friday afternoon has been tantalising in the extreme, leaving me no way of clarifying what she means until today. I haven't yet managed to get an answer, but I'll let you know.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Odd jobs

River scene with tree stump
There's very little to report - nothing much has happened at all for a week.
  • I'm moving slowly towards employment with an appointment to return all the paperwork for checking, and references being taken up
  • I've been following up an opportunity for three days 'work experience' (more like observation) at a different NHS Trust, where the personnel officer involved seems to have left his job without telling anyone - his email mailbox is full and his phone rings without voicemail or answer
  • Our vouchers arrived so we tried to buy a freezer, but the model we want is unavailable for at least a week
  • I've been re-writing the chapter for the book on Dietetics as a career, based on feedback from the editor
  • I've learned about our 'Rights to Light' according to rules surrounding planning permission
  • I've planned my trip to London and mum and dad's visit here
  • I've continued to sort out my financial situation, including reviewing interest rates for all my bank and savings accounts, and confessing to the Council Tax people that I'm no longer a student.
Along with the usual badminton and watching DVDs from the sofa, there's nothing of interest going on at the moment. I've been doing a lot of reading. No DIY yet...

Monday, 9 January 2012

An ordinary weekend

Red daisies close up
The weekend's news is not exciting. Mr A and I celebrated my new job by going out for a meal in a nice restaurant on Saturday evening, and then suffered all night from the effects of too much rich food and a salt overdose. We decided that in future we would celebrate at lunchtime. We took the old freezer to the dump, and watched films ('Attack the Block' and 'Kiss Me Kate'). I played in a badminton match, caught up with the laundry, and completed the plethora of forms for starting work. Mr A continued to grapple with website design, and bought some birdseed. We talked about our trip to London in a couple of weeks, and about a possible camping holiday in April.

When we moved into this house, exactly ten years ago, it came with a number of recommendations from the surveyor, and a few things we thought we might change. We made three lists: 'Now', 'Soon' and 'Eventually'. We've reviewed the lists a couple of times, and did so again at the weekend. I can hardly believe that we've very nearly done all the 'Now' and the 'Soon' jobs, and some of the 'Eventually' list was plainly fantasy, so there really are only two or three structural things to put right and the rest is cosmetic. Not that there isn't a whole lot of cosmetic stuff, but it's nice to know that the infrastructure is probably sound. I still qualify that statement with 'probably', because something may fall off tomorrow. I don't think it will.

I haven't yet started the next phase of DIY. It may happen this week, but I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you.

Friday, 6 January 2012


Lily pads and reflections in black water
I got a phone call the day after the interview offering me a part-time job, which I have obviously accepted. My career as an working dietitian is about to start, once references have been taken up, and criminal records have been checked, and occupational health requirements are satisfied... so I'm guessing February at the earliest.

It is wonderful, at last, to have succeeded in an interview, due in great measure to the coaching I received from our lovely neighbours. The first question in the interview was "Why do you want this job?" which was one that we had heavily revised. You'd think this would be an easy one, but you'd be wrong. I already knew that I shouldn't fall to my knees with tear-stained face and hands clasped and say "Please please give me a chance I need a job and this is just as good as any other but nearer to my home so I won't have to live somewhere else during the week," but we practised a number of more subtle ways to give the impression that this is the job that I've always wanted. The other question we worked quite hard on was the classic "What are your strengths and your weaknesses?" but that one didn't come up in the interview. I have some very impressive strengths and weaknesses now, if anyone is interested.

And yet I have surprisingly mixed feelings about the job. While I am delighted, I am also a little bit disappointed, because working 2 days a week is wonderful but I actually want a full-time job. And it is a post based entirely in a hospital, and I'd much rather work in the community. And it is probably a fixed term post (although it may be permanent), but all this may change over the next 12 months. So I shouldn't be churlish and ungrateful, but I can't help it, I am, a little bit. The two full-time posts were given to candidates who were already working as dietitians, so I should just be glad that the part-time one came my way.

I expect to have about a month of full-time freedom left, which means I should really get on with all the jobs around the house that I find so difficult. I have been working on a better deal for our house and contents insurance, and moving money out of various savings accounts that are paying no interest, and the dead freezer is now outside and our TV-watching points vouchers are on their way here to pay for a new one. I have a mirror and new light fitting for the shower waiting to be installed, and we'll see just how long they have to wait - eventually I'll have to pick up that drill and get on with it.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

New Year's Eve

Warehouse before the crowds
New Year's Eve was a very big day. The lovely neighbours across the road had kindly offered their services for interview practice, so on Saturday morning I dressed up in all my proper interview clothes (including Lady Shoes) and knocked on their door at the appointed time. The next two hours were spent in honing my interview skills to such a point that I could have cut myself on them. I don't think I have ever spent two hours more usefully, and if I don't get the job this time it will only be that I fail to apply the lessons I have learned from them.

Then the new washing machine was delivered, and while we scrabbled round trying to turn off the mains water and disconnecting the old machine, the delivery men stood about wondering why we didn't anticipate that it would save time if we'd done this before they came. Buoyed up by the joy and wonder of having a new (and effectively free) kitchen appliance, we extracted the dead freezer from its built-in state to the middle of the kitchen, so we could measure it. It remains there, getting in the way, until we can be bothered to take the door off and put it in the garden out of the way.

It became clear that we would have to stop messing about with white goods if we were to get away and to the New Year's Eve venue as planned, so then there was a bit of packing and an attempt at fancy dress. The theme was 'Apocalypse', and I'd hoped to be able to get to town and charity shops, but ran out of time. So my best effort had to be limited to choosing all my black clothes (also advisable since we hadn't had a working washing machine for about two weeks) and my black leather bike jacket. Mr A couldn't do much better either, so it would have to do.

We checked into the hotel then went out for something to eat, followed by a drink at a random pub we found. It would actually have been very entertaining to have stayed there - they had a little dance floor and a DJ, and just before we left they had started some sort of game involving horse-related music (we didn't quite understand it fully) and everyone was very friendly and wished us a Happy New Year when we went.

We were on the guest list at the door of the gig, and were greeted warmly: "Oh! you're The Boy's dad, aren't you! I've been looking forward to meeting you!" The venue was an old warehouse, and in the yard outside they'd set up various tents, portaloos and stalls with some shelter, because it was raining quite a lot at this point. There weren't many people there when we arrived, but it filled up nicely. Luckily for us, The Boy's DJ slot had been moved forward to only 1.15 a.m. - it had previously been scheduled at 2.45, and we weren't sure we'd be able to stay awake that long.

We were the oldest people there, probably by about 20 years on average, and although there was very little light, we really stood out. As the night progressed, it became clear how obvious we were, and it was a little like being a celebrity - we were greeted by people as if they knew us, they took our photo or asked to have their photo taken with us. We did a little bit of dancing (most of the music wasn't really suitable for dancing), and that really seemed to impress the crowd - one lad actually asked Mr A how old we were, and others just said things like 'well done'. It was weird. But fun. We sat down for a lot of the time, just watching what the Young People were getting up to and all the costumes - the best by far was a proper Dalek outfit, including a hood, which must have been extraordinarily hot.

We did manage to stay awake for the start of The Boy's set, then wandered back to the hotel, where I fell asleep and was woken only occasionally by the other hotel occupants running up and down the corridor, shouting and banging on doors. Unfortunately Mr A remained awake throughout, so I drove us home as soon as possible.

2011 has been an interesting year. Half the time I was a student, doing very well, getting a great degree, and then spending the other half of the year mostly unemployed. I have done a few small dietetic-related jobs - the Communication Skills lecture in September, contributing a chapter to a book about dietetics as a career, and trying to set up Store Tours for people with coeliac disease, and then the turkey farm job. If my interview goes well today then 2012 may be the start of a 'real' dietetic job, and if not, there will be other interviews. Mr A and I are pretty happy together, we make each other laugh quite a lot, and that certainly makes all the other stuff easier to manage.

Party-goers swarm over a scrap car