Friday, December 29, 2006

Christmas in Devon

This is the first time ever that I’m spending Christmas at mum-in-law’s house.

I was really looking forward to a 'restful' time as recent poor-ish health has made me irritable and quite depressed at one point.

It was nice that we could look out of the window and see sheep wandering on the Devon hill-side. When we did go out, it was not unusual to see tractors (real ones, not Chelsea versions) holding up long lines of traffic.

There was no internet service. Ah....

There was also a lot of food.

We had brought with us a lot of fruit from our weekly organic fruit bag, not wanting it to go to waste. My ‘job’ on Boxing Day was to make a fruit salad.

With all that rich food, ultra-sweet Christmas puddings and all that, husband and I thought a refreshing and detox-ing fruit salad might be a good idea.

So it was a bit strange, as far as I am concerned, that mum-in-law kept asking whether she needed to make a (sugar) syrup for the fruit salad.

No, I said. And thought, 'Syrup on fresh fruit? How odd?'

Even when I was cutting up the fruit, I was asked, ‘Do you put it in water?’

No, I said.

She muttered something about the apple turning brown. There was sufficient acid in the satsuma, kiwi fruit, etc, to keep the apples from turning brown, I reckon.

When we came to actually eating it, I nearly died from shock when mum-in-law’s partner put a huge dollop of clotted cream (with crust) on the fruit salad. Mum-in-law ate hers with a chunk of ice- cream.

It reminded me of the countless times I had sat across from nice slim young girls at the refectory in a London university watching them eat a healthy green salad (while I pigged out on chips -- especially when I was pregnant -- I wanted to eat deep-fried chips, A LOT).

First they added one sachet of salt and then they added a second sachet of salt.

These slim young things might not suffer from obesity, but their salt intake could not be very good for their heart, I thought.

So I was thinking: Why bother with fruit salad when you must eat it with clotted cream or ice-cream?

I decided it is a generation thing. Mum-in-law often served us the sweetest possible desserts. I, being Chinese, usually only have some fruit after a meal and my husband has learned to do the same.

We knew a really wonderful old lady from church who had the sweetest tooth ever. She had been through two wars when sugar was scarce. She always had a huge glass jar full of sweets.

The other thing in Devon was husband and I were put in the ‘basement’. We had a ‘put-me-up’, a sofa that converts into a double-bed.

It was brand-new -- the mattress was still in its plastic wrapper -- and something about it was giving me headache. I was in the room for ten minutes and I was getting this headache.

I think I was suffering the effects of ‘outgassing’ from the new mattress and the rest of the sofa-bed. The headaches cleared when I left the airless basement room, but recurred soon after we returned to the room to settle for the night. The mattress also gave me a backache as it is too soft.

Then on the day we were due to return. Husband fell ill and we were delayed in coming home.

He spent most of the day in the upstairs bed that our son was using. He decided that we should use that bed instead. I was reluctant to let our young son use the basement room where I was sure the new mattress was still 'outgassing'.

So we made up a 'bed' for him instead out of cushions and a duvet on the floor and son seemed to have enjoyed it just as much. It was different.

The good thing about us being delayed in coming home was we got to meet my husband's brother's family.

They were three of the 200-odd passengers whose plane from Florida was diverted to Newfoundland, Canada, over Christmas (which explained the near unintelligible phone message from someone telling us he was stuck in Canada). They had finally made it back to British soil and dropped in on us. (Incidentally they say the newspaper report is a load of rubbish. They probably interviewed people who wanted to get lots of compensation from their 'misery'.)

Son enjoyed the time with his 'big cousin'. Husband recovered after a day in bed. We got home today.

We enjoyed our Christmas. Hope you did, too.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

The magic of Christmas

And peace and goodwill to all man (ie including woman).

This is supposed to be 'the season to be jolly', but do you see a lot of jolliness around?

Go into a supermarket carpark and you will find cars parked most indiscriminately. Shoppers do not bother to look for a space. They simply leave their cars where they think they should.

Getting in and out of a tight space in a supermarket is difficult enough at the best of times. When motorists choose to park in a non-designated parking area behind you, it is even more difficult to maneouvre out of it.

So I was stuck in a spot coming up to Christmas some years back because some moron was parked behind me. The woman driver next to me was trying to leave at about the same time. I indicated to her that she should go first as her path was not blocked by this other car.

She glared at me and through the window I could hear her say, "What? You can't reverse?"

I've lived with that for a few years thinking that my driving skills must be really 'rubbish'.

Well, a few weeks ago, on a rare occasion that we were at this same supermarket, my husband was similarly blocked in. He was fuming because due to the length of the car and the cars so tightly parked on either side, it would not have been possible to get out.

(If another car could be squeezed in there, surely the supermarket would have designated it a parking slot.)

Thankfully on this occasion the driver was waiting in the car and he moved it so that we could get out.

Up and down the country I imagine there are quite a few frayed nerves as queues seem to go forever at checkout counters and badly parked cars add to the misery. And all this for what?

Peace and goodwill to all?

It was even more galling for me to read of school teachers being chastised or even sacked for telling children (aged nine and ten) that Santa does not exist. (Articles here and here.)

Sacked for telling the truth?

Apparently some parents were aggrieved that these teachers have taken away the 'magic of Christmas'.

What is the 'magic of Christmas' when people are so rude to others? Why do parents wish to preserve a 'magic' that is based on a lie?

It strikes me as hyprocrisy that parents who dress up little girls as little women, and give very young children mobile phones and generally take their childhood away by letting them watch some unsavory soaps using even more unsavory language should turn around to accuse teachers of taking away the 'magic of Christmas'.

No wonder the young people in our country seem so lost and rootless. Grown-up enough to do some things (eg wear make-up), but no, don't tell them Santa does not exist? Which goes back to my point in a previous blog about rites of passage.

We, too, have been pondering the 'magic of Christmas' at church. It was wonderful attending the Advent service organized by my son's school. Some of the older boys put up sketches and my little boy was quite amused by the sketch where two characters kept shouting at 'the list of things to do', 'the Christmas tree', 'the presents', 'the food', etc that "We can't see Jesus!"

Why let the 'magic of Christmas' last only till one is eight or nine, or even eleven or twelve when even people like myself (whose age can be measured in 'decades' as my son pointed out) can still revel in the 'magic of Christmas' when we consider the miracle of 'God made man' at Christmas time?

We can still give gifts as the Wise Men bore gifts. We can still offer hospitality as the inn-keeper did. We can still have the lights as that special star shone.

Peace be with you this Christmas!

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

My name, her name, His Name

Husband and I hosted our annual champagne party last night.

Sounds a bit posh, doesn't it? Actually it is a very informal 'champagne and Cornish pasty' party.

Husband (who usually has more note-worthy role models) took the inspiration from a certain Jeffrey A. We had champagne and shepherd's pie one year, but shepherd's pie for 15-20 guests without a catering size oven was a bit difficult to manage.

Last year we experimented with Cornish pasties, bought from the best CP shop in the area (supplied by makers in Cornwall). This year we voted to have the same.

'We' are the eight or nine church members meeting fortnightly at our house as a 'fellowship group'. The party (a Christmas celebration, if I hadn't made it clear) normally includes those members who cannot usually attend due to class schedules, invited guests of the members and members of their families.

Last night started out alright. I had cooked the pasties in good time, unlike the previous year. (You see, experience always helps.) The warmer was switched on and the pasties were transferred into it, all ready and just waiting to be served when all the guests had arrived.

Son decided that it was a 'I am very shy' day and stayed away, but husband and I each half-expected that (thus making it whole!!). Son did make a couple of brief guest appearances, only to show off his newly-discovered skills on the piano.

But a guest, let's call her GR (grrrrr!), decided that there was something wrong with me because I mentioned that I am generally known by my maiden name at son's school. She then went on and on AND ON about how odd it was that I had not taken my husband's surname at marriage.

I said, "Look! My mum never took my father's surname. She was known all her life by her maiden name. We used the title 'Madam' to refer to her as a married woman."

Having also married very late in life it was natural for me to keep my surname especially in my professional life.

GR: "No, that's not right. When you're married, you should take your husband's surname."

Pardon? I then highlighted how in Hong Kong women tended to just add on their husband's surname to theirs. In several Scandinavian cultures, the couple double-barrel their surnames and BOTH parties use both.

As a Singaporean Chinese married to an Englishman my name sounds awful when linked to his English surname and I quite like keeping my identity, thank you.

She would have none of it, and went on and on and on IN MY LIVING ROOM telling me what I should have done.

I said, "Go ask my husband if he cares whether or not I have not officially taken his name."

Now that I am writing about this I remember with great fondness how my late father-in-law-to-be (the best father-in-law, in my opinion) smiled and agreed that it made sense for me to keep my surname. ("I can imagine you as a prime minister but not as a lecturer," he once said with a twinkle in his eye. He actively encouraged me to take up local politics, but I wanted -- still want -- a life.)

The point is: what cheek! To come to my house, come to my party, eat my food and drink my champagne and tell me I was wrong not to take my husband's surname!

And does it matter, really?

Nowhere in our marriage vows did I promise to take on my husband's name. We promised to live the biblical model of marriage to honour the Name of the Lord, but nowhere in the Bible does it say that a woman must take on the husband's surname.

Of course, surnames are a very recent invention in the western world. In biblical times, people are known as 'son of' and 'daughter of' so-and-so, often even after they were married, so that the genealogy could be quite clear. It would be logical to assume that the women kept some identity of their family of origin.

(Incidentally, Ruth was known as the 'Moabite'. Husband's grandmother referred to me as 'that foreign woman' when she was told about our engagement!)

Not too long ago, while doing our Bible study together, this same member noted that it was God who 'set all the boundaries of the earth', who 'made both summer and winter' (Psalm 104:17). Wherever we are, people see summer and winter and they see God, she argued.

I said (just to wind her up, really), "Yeah, but in Singapore we do not have these seasons. We have the monsoons."

But she then went on to try to convince me that there are still the four seasons in Singapore.

I said, "I lived there 30 years, I should know whether there had ever been a winter there."

Considering the fact that she comes originally from a country without the four seasons I found it hard to understand why she was so adamant that winter does come to Singapore.

Why am I telling you this?

The church is imperfect. It is made up of people who are far from perfect. We have members like GR in every church and we accept them for what they are.

Jesus came to earth (which is what Christmas is all about) for people like her AND ME because we are imperfect human beings. Those who are not ill do not need a physician ... indeed. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Indeed.

GR will always be welcome at our house. If she does not mind occasionally exchanging verbal blows with me, she's always welcome. She has a choice of not coming to this group. The fact that she does, I hope, means that she can find some comfort in our meeting together.

We might never agree about the seasons in Singapore (hot, very hot, wet, very wet), but I hope that as we look into the Bible and discuss both the significant and the mundane she would also begin to understand better the principles with which believers should interpret the Bible.

That is the beauty of the church. The members are so different, not like the Christian university students I used to work with.

As they say: do not look for the perfect church. If you think you've found the perfect church, do not join it. You would make it a little less perfect.

How true.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Christmas Cards

Son came home today with a card from every other boy in his class.

To be fair, he also gave a card to everyone in his class.

So we ended up with a pile of torn envelopes and cards that he is not likely to look at again.

Why do we do this? This card-giving business?

When I was growing up we weren't so much into sending each other cards. Certainly we did not give cards to people we saw all the time.

What a waste of paper, especially of the envelopes which can't go into the recycling (because of the glue, unless your local authority specifically allows this).

Perhaps we should just put out one card for each child in the class, and everyone gets asked to send greetings (ie sign) to everyone else except himself/herself. Then each child takes that one card home before Christmas.

Personally I can't be bothered to send cards to people I see the whole year round. Why send a card when you could send personal verbal greetings?

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Have a go at the minister ... again

I remember once sitting at church in Singapore and felt myself getting hotter and hotter under the collar.

After the sermon I marched up to the preacher to say, "There wasn't ANY thing in your sermon for the single person."

The following week he told the congregation, "Last week, SP came up to me to say .... So this is what I have to say to the single person...."

Living in a 'family-friendly' culture, the singles can be forgotten even at church.

Last week I did it again, sort of.

I've been having some health problems. My husband was sorting out the screen projector for the service. The topic for the sermon was: How does God heal today?

"You're not going to give the example of the woman who was bleeding for 12 years, are you?" I asked the minister.

"Uh, well, yes I could have chosen that story from about 3 million examples, but no, I'm not using that story."

"Well, I was just saying to [husband], so many male preachers have preached from/about that passage and none would have a CLUE as to what it's all about."

I'm beginning to have an idea of what that woman was going through while I await tests to find out what's messing up my inside.

Meanwhile, it's iron tablets to the rescue.

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Non-stick uniforms

Do you, like me, take your children's uniforms out of the washing machine only to see them sort of 'stand' on its own and wonder what sort of material it is made of?

No matter how much they have been wrung in the washing machine, they are still wearable without ironing.

Convenience to you and me perhaps. But something about these uniforms scare me.

To make anything 'iron-free' is to make it 'non-stick' so that creases do not set in. Non-stick means using that stuff they have been using to coat your pots and pans.

My son is moving from short shorts to long trousers next year and I cannot bear to think of all that non-stick uniform next to his bare skin.

But where can one get old-fashioned school uniforms these days? Well some 'research' came up with Clean Slate, for organic cotton (yay!) fair trade (better still) schoolwear.

Parents should be aware (and wary?) of the PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) in the family of PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals) used in making non-stick uniforms. Put these letters into your search engines and you are likely to find industry-funded sites singing the praises of PFOA and downplaying its known and unknown side-effects on the body and the environment. So choose wisely which sites you wish to believe.

Make what of it you must this statement from a Washingtonpost.com report: "PFOA -- a key processing agent in making nonstick and stain-resistant materials -- has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals and is in the blood of 95 percent of Americans, including pregnant women. It has also been found in the blood of marine organisms and Arctic polar bears."

Well, you know how when children start school at the new term they all seem to fall ill with mysterious symptoms. Not severe enough to incapacitate them thankfully, but annoying enough to cause anxiety. It has been noted in various websites that the use of cookware coated with PFOAs often lead to flu-like symptoms. Apparently heating cookware to/above certain temperature results in certain fumes being released.

I put two and two together and wondered if it was the school uniforms that are making children ill at the start of the school term. My son wears organic cotton where possible or at least none of that non-stick/iron-free stuff, but when term starts, boom! suddenly it's all non-stick uniforms. And the boys in his class take turns to be absent from school from coughs and colds, etc.

Look what I found in this old newspaper item from Wales: Are school uniforms making kids ill?

Intelligent readers of this blog (yes, all eight of you!) must draw your own logical conclusions.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Dry Skin Oily Skin

When you've spent most of your adolescent life (and your twenties, thirties and forties!) finding 'stuff' to rid your face of the grease that gives you zits, pimples or 'youth spots' (qing chun dou as we call it in Mandarin), would you not, like me, be taken aback when you are then told that your skin is 'very dry'?

So it was that when I used mum-in-law's birthday gift money to treat myself to a salon massage and facial, I was told, 'Your skin is very dry.'

But I don't like the idea of slapping cream and stuff on my face.

I was therefore chuffed to discover this helpful page from Lyrae's Natural. Lyrae's and Hankettes formed The Good Life Collective some years ago to market their natural and organic products.

The advice here is to use oil, like jojoba oil which I happened to have, and work it into the skin with the help of water. Simple. So simple.

I don't know if my skin has got less dry as a result, but it is much more shiny at times.

Psalms 104:14-15: He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart.

Such irony. After all these years of trying to cut down the shine on the face, I am told it is now too dry. I put oil on it and remember: God gives us oil to make our faces shine!!!

Why do we spend so much money on anti-shine cosmetics then? Who decided that matt was better than shiney?

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Friday, November 10, 2006

My son, my pension

Last Sunday at church I commended one of our oldest members on her very smart suit.

'O! Thank you, my dear! I bought this in America.'

I knew she was recently in America. She's 90-something and she tells me she wakes up each morning saying, 'Thank you, God, I'm still alive!'

She then went on to tell me how her son who is soon to retire had bought a retirement home in Palm Springs. He had arranged for her to fly first class with a companion to see his new home.

She has one grateful son (amongst others) who is mindful of the sacrifices she made while he was younger. A successful businessman now, he has seen fit to make sure her mother travelled in the utmost comfort to visit him.

She then commented on how my own son was growing. (She first saw him at two weeks old.)

'Look after him. He's your pension,' she said.

The truth is I grew up in a family and generation where people had large families because 'our children are our pension'. My parents used to boast about the half dozen children they had and how we were to grow up and make sure they were well looked after.

I cringed at school every time my teachers at school asked how many siblings we had. In a class of 44 pupils, I always had the most siblings. I was embarrassed.

There was the family planning programme in Singapore during my most impressionable years: "Girl or boy, two is enough".

Traditional Chinese families are not complete until the mother is able to produce a son. With the universal education of girls and an ongoing campaign to reduce family size, this family planning programme became, with hindsight, too successful.

In Singapore today, the government is trying everything within their means to get young couples to reproduce.

The fact is when my dad was dying, I really appreciated that I have five siblings to take the strain of caring for him. We took turns to visit him at hospital, took turns to pay for his mounting hospital fees, took turns to baby-sit his grandchildren, etc. It was the same when mum died. She was in and out of intensive care at hospital and the children and in-laws were kept busy shuttling to and from hospital, making sure that she was OK. (By this time, however, I was living in the UK.)

Neither my dad nor my mum had any pension to speak of. But they had six children who appreciate what they had done. With no NHS, we also paid for their (albeit heavily-subsidized) medical care.

Speaking at a workshop on ageing issues in Oxford some years back, I noted that so many societies do not have a pension system. Children were their pension and maybe we had to go back to that sort of thinking.

Looking at the problem of poverty in some countries, some sceptics say 'if only these people did not have so many children, they wouldn't go hungry'.

Having many children is not the cause of poverty in these situations. Having many children is a symptom of poverty. Where poverty means a lack of healthcare, a prevalence of malnutrition and therefore poor physical development, where infant mortality is high, where children do not get an education, where many hands are necessary to farm or tend livestock, having many children is the key to survival. It is merely an outworking of the principle of 'survival of the fittest', for those who have faith in evolution.

The next time we think about how we could eradicate poverty, let's think also of what we can offer these people in terms of a 'pension'.

Meanwhile, in the 'developed' world, we must also be mindful of what might happen if we do not 'reproduce ourselves'. In a welfare state like the UK, who is going to pay the income tax to fund pensions?

In a country like Singapore we have the CPF (Central Provident Fund, a compulsory savings scheme we pay into almost as soon as we start working). People then draw a large portion of these savings to finance the purchase of a property. A certain amount is ringfenced for converting to annuities when one reaches retirement.

There is also the thinking that when one retires, one could 'trade down', buy a smaller flat, and pocket the profit from the sale. However, a property is only worth its resale value. What would these properties owned by pensioners be worth if there isn't a younger generation who would buy these properties?

So, maybe I should not have doubted the wisdom of my parents. Our children are our pension.

Whether it is through providing directly for us (with or without first class flights thrown in), through maintaining the price of properties, or paying taxes to pay for my pension, our children are our pension.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Green Car for Husband ... Wow!

Must be doing something right.

Husband has decided that he will swap his gaz guzzler (not a Chelsea tractor) for a hybrid car.

He's finally seen the light!

Readers with a spouse/partner who does not seem to share your conviction about going green: hang in there!

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

A second car? You must be joking!

Everything in the house belongs to 'Mum and Dad'. But the car is 'Daddy's car'.

Somehow I can never think of the car as 'our car'. It's long, it's wide, it's a gas guzzler.

It also sits on our front drive for most of the week doing precious little. There's the weekly shop and the airport run for our hordes of visiting relatives ... well they do seem to visit all at the same time.

When son was in a push-chair, I pushed him everywhere. Then he started school and I found myself driving everywhere, and putting on weight, and feeling a lot less fit.

So I've started walking every where again. I feel much fitter and I get to meet more people, talking and chatting with my neighbours, etc.

I hate 'Daddy's car' and avoid driving it as much as possible. I have not driven it through a width restriction as I am almost certain that I would bash the mirror in. Being rather short, I have the seat pushed up right to the front to reach the pedals, but then I can't get the shade down when the sun shines into my eyes.

Also, I can't see where the car ends. It's true! I can't see where the bonnet ends. Reversing is a 'I hope I don't bump into anything too solid' job.

That, I think, is why you see so many small women drive those big four-wheel drives. They are able to see better, but few drive any better as a result of this. They just hope that other drivers would avoid them because they are so huge and intimidating.

Husband suggested that we bought a second, smaller car.

'Whatever for?' I've been saying.

It would just be a second car sitting on the drive as I still do not need a car except for the occasional journey I need to make when it is too far or too dark for my son to walk.

The only people who would benefit would be Mr Brown and the insurers.

Two things have persuaded me to re-consider a second-car option. The first is that my business is outgrowing our house. I will soon need to move to proper premises, or at least put some of the stock in storage somewhere else.

At the moment my 'school run' consists of a two-minute walk round the corner. Come next September, however, son will be required to do Games two afternoons a week at a location which will be too much for him to cover on foot at the end of a long school day. (He would still only be seven.)

There is a very good chance that I might be getting business premises across from these playing fields next year. A car will then become necessary to shift goods, equipment, etc between home, office, post office, etc, apart from picking up son (and possibly a mate).

So the hunt for a second, smaller, narrower, more eco-friendly car with enough room for goods and boys (even if not together) began.

I went to test-drive an electric car last Friday. It will be exempt from road tax, although it would still require insurance. It appears that I would also get free parking in 'controlled parking zones' (still checking on this one). The news from the business tax angle also sounds good.

Because the driver's seat is over the battery I actually appear to see much further from this driver's seat compared to 'Daddy's car'!

So, we're look set to get this little runaround -- glorified golf cart to some extent -- with ZERO carbon emission and I am getting rather excited. A green car for a green business. (Except that it would probably be silver, with advertising plastered all over it!!!!)

Brill!

(And then to persuade husband to give up his car.)

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Rant about Mobile Phones

Husband and I went to see our accountant last week to sort out our tax.

I'm a bit of what Singaporeans would call 'sua-ku', meaning 'mountain tortoise' with a very limited view of what life is all about. I don't often travel on the Tube now. (I used to have to Tube and bus to and from work. Tedium.)

The thing that struck me was the sheer number of people, especially young people, walking about with their ears glued to a mobile phone. OK, a mobile phone glued to their ears, maybe.

'How soon,' I asked,'would we have babies born with mobile phones stuck to their ears?'

'Don't be silly,' said husband. 'You know that is never going to happen. What might happen is that they would be born with ears modified to fit with the shape of the phone.'

'Ha-ha,' and a few minutes later, 'What about babies born with elbows crooked to keep their phones in place?'

People do not sit and wait any more. As soon as they sit down, out comes the phone either to ring or text: WHERE ARE YOU?

Whilst we used to make provision to be punctual at appointments, many now think that they could just phone to say, 'Sorry, stuck in a jam.'

Many do not realize that time is still being wasted, whether or not one knows the person he or she is meeting is going to be late.

I must confess to being a people-watcher. I love watching people watching people. That's my 'job', to a certain extent, as a social scientist (when I am not being 'Hankie-Lady').

Now people feel ill-at-ease if they have to sit for a moment without doing anything. The phone comes out, even if just to play games. Why waste time by doing nothing when you can do something?

Just because I APPEAR to be watching the world go by, it does not mean that I am REALLY doing nothing. I think, I explore ideas, I explore a connection of ideas, I multi-task (thinking about what to cook for dinner, eg), and so forth.

Is it necessary to be 'connected' all the time? I quite like to switch off from work when I need to. Sure, I have a mobile, but it is only a means of communication between family members in times of emergencies.

The mobile phone is something that has ostensibly freed us to do some things when in reality they have chained us to our work. It has made it more difficult for us to compartmentalize our lives.

Which is better? There was an occasion when a colleague went on holiday. He refused even to disclose where he was going. When 'his' work needed urgent review, action and decision (by a printer, in this case) we were at a total loss.

It meant that those of us not on holiday had to put all our own work on hold to sort out the mess he left us in. I felt that was very unfair to us.

At another place of work, before the advent of the mobile phone, we often made exhaustive lists of where we could be located in times of emergencies while on holiday. Colleagues were briefed on matters which might crop up in our absence.

This was critical when we worked for corporate clients. Sometimes only we have the information required by a client to make some crucial time-sensitive decisions. But colleagues and clients respected our time off and did not phone if things could wait till after the holiday.

These days, some working parents are on-call 24/7 even while on holiday. That is what I would call a paradigm shift.

No wonder their children feel that they too must have a phone plastered to their ears.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Raising Boys ... and Girls

After my last post I realized that some readers might think that I am really old-fashioned. What do you expect but for 13-year-old girls to be rowdy?

I don't know about that. I wrote this next section in my son's school newsletter recently:

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As I mentioned books for mothers last week, I should also mention a very good book for both mothers and fathers: Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph.

Biddulph divides boyhood into three parts. Age zero to six: the boy ‘belongs’ to the mother; age six to thirteen: their father becomes the ‘hero’; from thirteen onwards, with the second surge in testosterone, boys wish to ‘declare their independence’ and look for influences outside the home.

This division makes a lot of sense to me as a social anthropologist. We know in many ‘pre-modern’ societies, boys reaching puberty are taken away to undergo special tutelage by their fathers (and often mothers’ brothers). They go through a stage of ‘liminality’, of feeling ‘between and betwixt’. Then, when their training for manhood is complete, they undergo an ‘initiation’ to complete this ‘rite of passage’, after which they are treated and respected as men.

My earliest research was on adolescent girls. I concluded that these girls found it hard to be ‘adolescent’ because they are sometimes deemed adults (‘you are responsible for this’) and sometimes considered children (‘… because I’m your parent!’). This emotional turmoil has given rise to much literature about the ‘sturm und drang’ (translated loosely as ‘storm and stress’, for alliterative effect, I understand) in adolescence. There is no equivalent to the ‘rite of passage’ in most modern/western societies. Biddulph suggests an interesting modern version.

From age six to thirteen, the father (I hasten to add, in many matrilocal societies, the mother’s brother plays this role) is the hero. A chapter is devoted to what fathers can do with their sons. As for mothers … it appears that we must learn to withdraw … which is the perfect excuse for me to put my feet up with a nice cup of tea as I send my husband and son out for some ‘bonding’!
=======


So in my mind, my son's 13th birthday celebration will also be a rite of passage. We will take him to a nice restaurant. He would dress up smartly with shiny shoes and all that.

We will go to a fine restaurant offering proper food, not just the 'kids' menu', but 'grown-up food'. He would choose from the elaborate menu with names of dishes probably in French or Italian, but his Latin would help him understand most of what is printed. No problem.

Then Husband and I would congratulate him for reaching young adulthood and talk about his dreams and visions and what he would like to achieve for himself. What contingency plans would he have if his first options do not work out?

And don't forget that Mum and Dad will always be there. We will be his friends, forever.

Importantly, by this time he would have had frank and open discussions with Mum and Dad, either alone or together, concerning the morality surrounding sex, marriage and accompanying matters.

If son chooses to have a noisy party where they eat finger foods, he would have to pay for it himself.

Likewise I think it is completely wrong that 13-year-old girls are allowed to party like they are merely more physically mature versions of themselves from five years before. With age comes responsibility, and responsibility also means being mindful of other people in their presence.

Back to Organic-Ally.

'Rite of passage' thinking must be catching. According to the Times Cameron proposes a 'rite of passage' to adulthood at 18. But I think 18 is too late.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Girls Aloud -- very loud

Been feeling a bit down with the cold. Husband has been working the weekends. Son has got a golf lesson to attend. So we decided to eat at the restaurant where the golf lesson was taking place.

For the first half hour we could not hear ourselves think, let alone talk.

A few metres from us were a group of 14 to 16 young girls at a birthday celebration. They were talking so loudly -- you would think it was a hen night party -- with the birthday girl's brother and parents looking on.

Shrieks, screams, loud raucous laughter. Noise.

The parents looked on and even joined in conversation, sometimes shouting across the table. I stared and caught the attention of one young girl, but she pretended that she didn't see me.

Then I caught the eye of another diner and he shook his head in disgust. Our meal at this otherwise good restaurant was ruined.

Girl's father came back with a bin liner of birthday presents. Girl opened the presents in turn. I saw a card which declared that it was her 13th birthday.

Thirteen? And they are already behaving like that? Goodness! What would they be like at 18 and 21, I dread to think.

'If I had a daughter, she would be in serious trouble if she behaved like that,' I said to my husband.

'Pardon?' He couldn't hear me.

'Plebs,' he muttered at some other point.

When finally the girls went (and I felt like applauding), I noticed the father driving off with the son in a sporty looking car. Then the mother and daughter drove off in the green Jaguar we had noticed earlier was parked over two parking spaces.

'That says it all,' husband philosophized.

Welcome to the "don't-care-about-other-people" generation. Mark II.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

P&P ... again

Finally, the new structure is 'sorted' and put in place. I hope customers are happy with this.

I have 'agonized' over this for some time as you can see here.

Occasionally I still get the odd combination of purchases that make the postage unfair to either the customer or myself. Thankfully, these are few and far between.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Busy Bee-zy

The past few weeks went by in a bit of a whirl.

I spent a lot of time looking through someone's doctoral thesis. His PhD and career depended on my input, so I felt I needed to give it some attention.

Which meant a lot of other work could not be done. Including setting up the new P&P system for the Organic-Ally website.

Never mind, things are 'slowing down' a little. It is less of a 'blur' now.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

P&P Conundrum - Thinking Aloud

It's been some time now since the new Royal Mail postage charges came into effect . According to their publicity, "over 80% of all mail will cost the same or less to send".

Is it any surprise that over 80% of my mail to customers now cost more, quite a bit more, largely because they now fall into the 'Large Letter' (minimum 44p) or 'Packet' (minimum 100p) category even though something may weigh very little. I have had to stump up higher postage -- or 'post-rage' as I accidentally typed!

I run a 'happy' business. I am happy that Organic-Ally sells only what I believe to be earth-friendly goods made in people-friendly environments.

Customers are happy and they write to tell me how wonderful these goods (reusable hankies, cosmetic pads, gift bags, string bags, etc) are.

My son is happy that Mum is working from home and is there to pick him up from school.

And husband is happy that ... well ... husband is happy that I am happy.

This new postage structure however is causing a headache.

I have based my P&P structure on weight so that customers who buy lightweight items do not pay a hefty standard P&P. I believe this is fair.

I offer low and even no P&P to customers who just wish to try out 'single items' and require no 'minimum order'. Many retailers resort to using a 'minimum order' or standard P&P charge (pegged at the highest possible value acceptable to the customer) to make selling online worthwhile.

I'm in this business mainly because of my environmental concerns (though making lots of money will be great). Many customers have been put off buying a string bag because it normally costs £3.95 P&P. (I sell the tote string bag at £3.49.) It is therefore important to me that as many as possible get a chance to try our bags and hankies. So single organic cotton hankies are despatched free and single string bags cost 50 pence in P&P.

After taking into account the various overheads, there is very little, if any, monetary profit to be made. But it is OK, because every string bag sold means the reduction of hundreds of plastic bags used and this, as far as I am concerned, can only be good.

But while single hankies used to cost me 23 pence to send Second Class, they are now a whopping 37 pence (a 14 pence or 60+% increase), or 44 pence First Class (I don't even want to go there) because these hankies are rolled up and do not meet the 5mm maximum thickness to be sent as a 'Letter'.

The envelope + rolled-up hankie + delivery note weigh a grand total of 18g.

So until my supplier sends me single hankies flat instead of 'rolled up', I will resort to unrolling the hankies before sticking them in the post. I hope customers do not mind this too much.

It's in keeping my commitment to charging just 50 pence for a single string bag that poses the biggest headache.

I can now just about squeeze (and I mean squeeze) a single string bag into the 'Large Letter' category and squashing it into less than 25mm thick to keep its postage at 44 pence, or it has to go as a 'Packet' at 84 pence (up to 100g). Where customers used to pay £1.00 for two string bags and I paid postage of 84 pence for up to 200g, I will now have to pay £1.27 postage because two bags need to be posted as a 'Packet' (and I have not even factored in packaging).

It has been suggested that retailers like myself should just peg everything at the 'Packet' price (postage starting at £1.00), but this is utterly unfair to customers of flatter, lightweight items (like packs of hankies and table napkins).

Or how about including postage in every item?

This only penalizes customers who buy more. For example, one Box of Eight hankies would require £1.27 postage (ie excluding cost of packaging) but two boxes would require only £1.70 postage. Including postage with each item would mean customers having to pay, in this case, £2.54 instead of £1.70 (excluding packaging) when buying two Boxes of Eight .

What if I 'zero-weighted' the flatter, lightweight 'single items' (ie include postage in the prices of single string bags, hankies, gift bags, etc, but code these items as weighing 'nothing')? That way, customers buying 'single items' will not be overcharged. Buying more than one 'single item' cancels the 'single' status, and the customer would pay accordingly, thereby ensuring that I do not need to lose money on postage.

The one little, perhaps insignificant, problem with this is promotional discounts are calculated on order value, and if a customer orders several 'single items' that have been zero-weighted to make up x amount to capitalize on a promotional discount, they would end up paying more than other customers. Not fair!

Thus the past two weeks (when I'm not reviewing a PhD thesis) have been spent puzzling over which is the best way to calculate postage and packing so that all customers are happy.

One way around this (and I think I might be close to finding the solution) is to 'understate' the weight of certain items and establish several weight categories in the lower weight region.

For example, a string bag falls, in reality, into the 100g category, but by coding it as being only 60g, it could be charged as 50 pence in my '30g to 60g' weight category. Two string bags will take it into 120g at £1.40 (say) requiring postage of £1.27 as a 'Packet'.

Large Hankies and Table Napkins will be coded as '45g' even when they weigh more to take advantage of a 50p P&P. Two of these items will be still be only '90g' which I can despatch at 65p. (This, in fact, is a rare example of postage being cheaper in the new price structure.)

Apologies if you think all this is unnecessary gobbledygook. Or you might be thinking: why does she bother?

I'm only trying to make it as fair as possible to all customers.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

When it comes to climate change, I'll take a small bet that Pascal was right

It makes me feel good whenever I read of someone else in the press sharing my point of view. The title refers to a column by Gerard Baker who is basically saying what I said in a previous post.

Baker's full article can be found here.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

I'm Rubbish

At one point I was hoping to make my name as the social anthropologist to make the study of 'anthropology of junk' fashionable. Yes, people will say at my funeral, 'She will be remembered for her rubbish.'

As a mother, though, how does one respond to a six-year-old who is convinced that he is 'rubbish'?

Son was clearly distressed when I picked him up yesterday. The Form was preparing for a football match against another school. My son isn't any good at kicking a ball. Offers to start him on lessons (like many of his classmates have done) were turned down. He was just not keen on football. The school requires him not only to play football, but in inter-school matches as well. He was not a happy bunny.

Today they were supposed to have a first football lesson with the Games Master (or whatever his title should be). I was dreading the tears that would greet me at the school gates.

We did think perhaps he should impress on the Games Master that he is utter rubbish and that would increase his chances of winning a 'Best Improved' award. 'But that would be cheating,' son insisted.

'But we don't expect you to be good at everything,' we tried telling him ... like for the ten thousandth time. No, that assurance has not sunk in.

So I waited for him to be dismissed today, having first walked past the sports hall to the uniform shop and catching a glimpse of him trying to keep the furthest away from the Games Master, it seemed.

As usual, he was in a hurry to walk home.

'Mum, hurry, I've got something very exciting to tell you.'

'What? That you are rubbish at football?' I said with a smile and in a tone that was supposed to convey disbelief, support, encouragement, etc, etc. I could tell from his tone, though, that he was being positive.

'No! I'm not rubbish! I even managed to get one past Mr B in our one-on-one.'

'What?!!!'

'I managed to get the ball right past Mr B. I am not rubbish!'

'Thank you, God,' I said. 'Thank you, Mr B,' I thought.

Then son went on to talk about how the best shot came immediately after him, from D who's also not very much into football. I was in fact swopping notes with D's mother this morning, worried that our sons with their 'sensitive soul' might be crushed in spirit by the end of the day.

Son went on, 'But D's shot was the best of all.' Apparently the biggest cheer was reserved for D whose effort caused their 'team' (ie the whole class of 21) to beat Mr B's team (ie himself).

I am absolutely delighted that Mr B has the wisdom to impart -- in this first lesson -- this confidence in my little boy and others like him who clearly do not have a natural knack for football.

Now my son thinks that he can beat the world at football. I hope his head does not swell too much.

Well done, Mr B!

Back to Organic-Ally.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Organic Milk

Really pleased to read this piece 'Organic milk is healthier, scientists say' in The Times .

My husband and I were just mulling over how my hayfever this year has been 'so good'. Apart from three really bad days, it has been tolerable.

We don't know how much this is down to our 'detox' in the last six to seven years switching to organic food where possible.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Missing 'my boys'

Our church missionary to Spain was bringing a group of young Spanish people to the UK and we were asked to provide accommodation for them.

I had refrained from offering because I knew we were going to be just back from a trip and there will be lots of unpacking, laundry, cleaning, etc. But husband agreed when approached ('cornered'?) by the minister's wife.

Our two young Spanish lads, the only boys in the team, came on Wednesday and left yesterday. They were no trouble at all and now I miss them. (I say 'lads' and 'boys' ... they are in their early 20s. Yeah, husband and I are well old enough to be their parents.)

Though speaking little English (which was one of the reasons they are visiting the UK), we managed to communicate adequately, if slowly. They left early each morning and let themselves in whenever.

On the first morning they were so shy they did not dare eat anything more than a bowl of cereal.
On the second morning they learned to use the toaster and made themselves some sandwiches for lunch.

On the third morning (Saturday), they left before I got out of bed! We were in bed by the time they got home later that evening.

Yesterday at church they presented their special items at service. I was very proud of how well 'my boys' were able to sing in harmony. (The younger one is training to be a music teacher.)

They are such lovely boys I found myself wondering if my son, when he grows up, would also be lovely like these lads are.

My young son is disappointed that they had gone, 'I thought they were staying a few weeks.'

'No, a few days,' I corrected him. 'Would you like them to come stay with us again?'

Unexpectedly, from a boy who is normally very, very shy, 'Yes.'

So we said to them, they are welcome back any time.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Doing right, doing wrong

Our six-year-old son told us early this morning what he had been mulling over overnight: "There is no right in doing wrong and there is no wrong in doing right."

We don’t know how he comes up with thoughts like this, but he did. It appears that he was pondering the relationship between right and wrong and he came up with this new (to us at least) ‘thought for the day’.

His thought (maxim?) reminds me of Pascal’s wager:

  • You may believe in God, and if God exists, you go to heaven: your gain is infinite.
  • You may believe in God, and if God doesn't exist, your loss is finite and therefore negligible.

Or:

  • You may not believe in God, and if God doesn't exist, your gain is finite and therefore negligible.
  • You may not believe in God, and if God exists, you will go to hell: your loss is infinite.
Likewise I could apply son’s formulation to the environment.

Some people still insist: show me proof that my gas-guzzling habits (eg) are having a negative impact and I would start doing something about it. Or: there are as many scientists who believe in global warming as there are those who don’t.

For those of us who are already on the road to preserving this one God-given earth, these are mere excuses perpetrated by the likes of Jeremy Clarkson to keep themselves in a job, or people are just downright lazy.

But let’s start thinking: “there is no right in doing wrong” … if (IF) the earth’s precious resources ARE being depleted and global warming IS leading to disastrous effects including extreme weather, then there is no right in continuing to do those things known to exacerbate these effects.

“There is no wrong in doing right” … even if (IF) global warming is a myth and our selfish and excessive use of non-renewable resources do not affect the future generations one jot, still there is no wrong in being kind to those who come after us.

If you wish to quote or discuss my son’s maxim (for want of a better phrase), please attribute it to ‘LT, aged six’. The full identity of ‘LT’ will only be revealed when he comes of age and when I have his permission to publish his name.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Green with anger

There's been a lot of debate in Singapore in the last few weeks about how Singaporeans do not speak English properly. We speak a brand of Chinese-tinged English called 'Singlish' which is basically English spoken with a Chinese dialect (Hokkien) grammar.

I don't speak Singlish very well as I cannot speak Hokkien and so do not have Hokkien grammar to begin with (it's slightly different from Mandarin grammar, I believe). While I speak English quite well (I write it even better), what stumps me are the idiomatic phrases which I tend to confuse with Chinese idioms.

'Green with anger'. That's a new one. It's me being green and being diligent in the 3Rs -- reduce, reuse, recycle. It's me being angry that someone saw fit to walk onto my drive, removed the cardboard boxes in my green recycling box, dumped the cardboard boxes on my drive and walked off with my green box.

Yes, the audacity of it! This is the SECOND time in less than three months that our green recycling box has gone walkabout.

The borough has suddenly -- with little communication to the unconverted -- decided to institute fines on those who do not recycle, or put the 'wrong' rubbish into the main wheelie bin.

We've been separating our rubbish for years and so it does not really affect us. Suddenly my neighbours (obviously not immediate) realized that they need a green box to put their plastic bottles, jam jars, beer cans, newspapers, etc. As most of these have probably been used in the shed or house for other storage purposes, these people are now stuck.

The Council could not supply green boxes quickly enough and so some people STEAL other people's green boxes.

So now I am the one being stuck with a whole load of recyclable rubbish and nothing to store it in.

Bother!

Back to Organic-Ally.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Organic news

I don't usually get to read much of what is printed in the papers (when we do buy the papers), but there has been some interesting 'organic news' this last week or so.

I was delighted to read one journalist's view on Why we should buy organic milk. Jane Wheatley says 'It makes me furious to see two litres selling for the “bargain” price of 65p in my local corner shop.'

'It’s not a bargain at all; it comes at a terrible cost to farmers and to the cows that are endlessly bred, pumped, primed and medicated for higher yields in an effort to reduce the gap between the price the farmer gets for his milk — around 18p a litre — and what it costs to produce it — about 21p. '

We have been very blessed in being able to have bottled organic milk delivered to us once a week. Sadly our fridge can only take so many standing bottles and we need to supplement these most weeks with store-bought organic milk. But we do buy it from the supermarket chain that this report highlights as paying farmers a premium compared to other middle-men.

Another item of interest which I read in the papers but could not find online, but has since been reproduced here is about how ethical food stores are growing on shoppers. Clearly there is a growing interest in 'ethical consumerism' and someone in America (John Mackey) has capitalized on it, suggesting that there is no real contradiction between profits and ethics. His Whole Foods chain is about to open a store in Kensington.

I am always a bit wary of big players in the 'ethical' sector and I shall have to watch this closely. It will be tragic if such stores (with their fiscal muscle and therefore buying power) were to edge out smaller stores which have first opened up the 'ethical market'. On the other hand, such big players with their big marketing budgets can do much to further the cause of smaller ethical stores. We shall see.

What is exceptionally good news for me is that this report also suggests that 'the ethical shopping trend is growing so fast that soon it will apply as much to toothpaste, soap and tea towels as it does to organic milk, free-range eggs and chicken and fair trade coffee and chocolate'. If you have -- like me -- worked on the factory floor (in not one, but two garment factories), any progress towards the ethical and fair trade route as the only acceptable standard is a welcome change.

Finally, there is more good news about Indian farmers who go back to basics. Farmer suicide in India is common because small-hold farmers borrow money to buy seed, and if this is GM seed, they end up having to borrow even more money to buy fertilizers and pesticides. The only people who profit are the big international GM seed producers and the middle-men who act as traders and money-lenders.

When the harvests fail, as they often do, farmers take their own lives.

This report is another bit of evidence to support the advantages of returning to organic agriculture where farmers can make use of local knowledge and local biodiversity to control pests and fertilize the ground without the added eco-burden of long-distance transport.

But organic agriculture is only profitable if there IS a demand for organic produce.

We, as consumers, have a choice.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Friday, July 07, 2006

My son ...

Yesterday was Speech Day at son's school. Son was joyous that he had won -- second year running -- the 'Attainment Prize' for his Form.

Husband and I went in a bit later than most other parents although we were not late. The church where this took place was quite full. We were sitting second row from the back.

The Headmaster came round and said, 'Like your hat,' to which I politely muttered 'Thanks'.

I think he was just checking my presence as he called me up with a few other ladies to accept bouquets for the work we do for the school community. (I organize fund-raising projects.)

It was an embarrassing walk right from the back of the church to the very front. I was thinking, 'Hmm, the last time I did this was at my wedding!'

Later on, husband quizzed son, 'Why is it that you've got a prize, and mum has got a 'prize' but I haven't got a prize?'

Son, without hesitation, 'Of course you've got a prize. You've got a prize way before me.'

Husband looking a bit puzzled: 'What do you mean?'

Son: 'You've got your prize. You've got your wife of course,' giving me a sideway glance.

Am I allowed to be honest here? I was totally gobsmacked. How does a six-year-old come up with something like that?

Just to set the record straight, I do not actually fall into the 'trophy wife' category.

This morning he told me, 'Getting a wife is like getting a prize to me.'


Back to Organic-Ally.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Illegals against illegals

I was just entering the shopping precinct when I realised that a couple of guys ahead of me were fighting, with two appearing in support. People stopped to stare, but only one -- the guy in an ill-fitting suit who had earlier crossed a pedestrian crossing with me -- went forward, held out his hand and told them calmly and firmly to 'break it up'.

He appeared to be so casual, so cool, as if he had broken up many fights before. I guess at six-foot-something he was not in awe of the two smaller men fighting. One was a dark-haired Chinese and the other a very blond younger man.

It looked like things had quietened down as I walked on. I saw a couple of security guards for the shopping centre outside which this was taking place and told them. Obviously as the fight was 'outside' the building itself, it was not really their responsibility. Nevertheless they went to investigate.

I walked on a bit, stopped, turned and had a look. The guys were at each other again. I decided that it was time to put my mobile phone to use. Called 999.

Eventually (I had a choice of fire or ambulance) put to the police after my mobile number had been announced. Gave them a location, but they seemed rather confused as to where I was.

I kept going: It's two Chinese men and two white men. I'm not sure if it's broken up, O, they are fighting again.

Police Officer: Is any one injured?

By this time one of the men, a Chinese, was standing not ten feet from me. He was wiping blood from his face.

Me: One is wiping his face. He is bleeding a little.

PO: Is he on the floor?

Me: He's standing.

PO: Do you think you need police presence?

Me: I don't know. Wait, let me find out.

I walked over to the security guards who were now standing by the injured men. I asked one if they needed the police.

'Don't know. Ask him,' he pointed at the injured man.

So I turned and asked, 'Do you need the police?'

No answer.

Me: Ni xu yao jing cha ma? [Do you need the police?]

Man with blood on his face: Mei yong le, ta yi jing pao diao le. [It's useless. He has already run away.]

Me: Bu xu yao jing cha? [No need for the police?]

Man's wife: Mei yong le, yi jing pao diao le. [It's useless now. Already run away.]

Me: Dao di shen me(r) shi? [What actually happened?]

Man: Ta tou le wo de yan jing yi ci, jai hui lai tou. [He has stolen spectacles (shades) from me before, and he came back to steal again.]

Me: Ni de yan jing? Ni mai de yan jing? [Your spectacles? The ones that you are selling?]

Man: Dui. [Correct.]

Me: Ni xian jai hai xu yao jing cha ma? [Do you still want the police?]

Man: Ta yi jing pao diao le. Mei yong le. [He has run away. No use.]

So I went back to the police officer on the phone: Chinese-speaking. Apparently the other man has run away. He had stolen some spectacles being sold by this man. It's all illegal any way. I don't know what you can do about it. This is happening all the time. Perhaps you need more policing here.

PO: We'll take your advice into consideration.

Me: Sorry to take up your time.

PO: That's OK. Thank you.

I do not know what I was most amazed by: that a man actually tried to break up a fight all by himself, that I managed to keep so calm, that the police officer was so patient and focused (if a bit confused), that I just switched between languages without thinking, that though the Chinese man was speaking a strange dialect with his wife, we could all communicate in the 'common Chinese language', or that this is possibly another scenario of illegals taking advantage of other illegals.

Of course one of those white men who allegedly stole those shades might be fully legal British subjects. (But this area of London is crawling with Eastern European young men who seem to spend all their time drinking expensive coffee at the coffee bars. Shop signs are now in Polish and Russian.)

It may also be that this Chinese man (who appeared to have his wife, mother and child in tow) is fully legal in the country, but was still hawking illegally. The former knows that the latter will not report the theft to the police. So he comes back again and again to steal. Man gets fed up. Man tries to reason with other man, but gets beaten up instead.

What can I do? First of all, is it my problem? No, at one level, because I could walk away and let six-foot-something men sort these fights out.

On another level, yes, because I cannot stand people bullying others.

Migrants bullying other migrants is bullying. Ministers not listening to what the people want being done are also bullying, because they are in a position of power to do something if only there is political will to do so, us the people by ourselves are not, but we have to live by the consequences of their inaction.

A fight here and a fight there and soon the neighbourhood will descend into a no-go area. I am not going to be bullied into this sitation, or am I?

The truth is our local MP has recently been sacked for his incompetence as a junior minister at the Home Office. Illegal migrants, often controlled by gangmasters, are harrassing shoppers in his very own constituency. Does he care? Perhaps. But not enough, obviously.

I am planning to complain formally to this MP soon, and I am going to contact a journalism student from China who used to live with us to see if it's worth her broadcasting station doing a story about the Chinese illegals here.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Mums Against Party Bags

Wednesday morning: Mum of son's mate stopped me to ask if son was OK with what she felt was a miserly show of a party bag. They had included a note to explain that instead of filling the bag with 'more toys', they had given the money saved to a boy they support in Africa through a charity. The amount given is enough to buy the boy a year of education.

What a good idea, I thought.

Was my son bothered? Did he complain that there were no expensive toys in his party bag? Or colour pencils? Finger puppets? Balloons? Whistle?

Not at all. He was pleased that he had sweets that he normally does not get from us. (And he's going through them very, very slowly.)

Compare that to the previous party where he was given a lot of goodies, including a tamagotchi (or whatever you call it).

Unfortunately the tamagotchi does not work despite our putting two expensive LR44 batteries in it and you can imagine the frustration caused.

Moral of the story: more expensive gifts do not necessarily mean greater enjoyment.

Hmm ... I wonder if I should start a 'MAPB' group: Mums against Party Bags.

Children don't leave parties these days without asking: 'Where's my party bag?'

Before they are 10 feet from the hostess (it's usually the mother) who's been handing out these bags, they will be rummaging through the contents to see what's inside, sometimes throwing away what they decided they do not wish to take home. Pity the hostess (it's usually the mother) who has carefully selected the gifts to put in and they are left behind after the party.

And I do so hate the colourful pla_tic bags they come in. These bags cannot be reused -- you never get enough of the same for your own party. They are too small to be really useful. Worse, some children love to hoard them.

Some parents worry that they don't put enough in the bags and go to a lot of trouble to fill bags with expensive toys.

But should someone buck the trend and put in items considered too pricey, other parents then worry that they cannot keep up with the new standard of party bag contents -- because the children now expect so much more -- and the anxiety sets in.

Or parents would feel guilty: Gosh, this is more than what we spent on the present.

And me? I like the idea of a party once in a while. I have the picture of Jesus teaching about inviting people to a banquet without expecting them to do the same. (This is very hard for us Chinese with our deeply held sense of reciprocity, a bit like the kula ring where gifts go round in a circle.)

Jesus's teaching was: don't bother to invite the rich and famous or the high-ranking politicians, but instead invite the paupers, the homeless, the orphans, the widows and yes, give them a treat. Don't expect any of them to return the gesture or any favours.

But Jesus did not say, throw a banquet and send your guests home with useless trinkets that only clutter up their homes!

Why bother with party bags if (1) the recipients (children) are not (always) happy with what they are given, (2) it makes the host parents anxious about what to give, (3) the guest parents could feel guilty about not giving enough, and (4) the contents are usually appreciated for not much longer than half an hour?

Dare I be the first mother in this group to dispense with party bags?

Oo-Ah! Check back in two years' time.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Hayfever Update (who cares?)

Hayfever bad over last weekend. It was so bad last Friday I used up all my hankies (could not turn them around quickly enough). Even borrowed some of my son's old hankies. When even these ran out, I had to resort to paper.

Big mistake. Nose was already pink from constant pressure of nose-blowing. Within minutes of using paper, nose turned a bright red. It was painful and I had to take to bed. Sunday morning was still bad and I had to take to bed instead of going to church.

Monday morning, met my ladies for prayer as usual and they prayed for some relief for me. Found myself saying, 'It's not that bad because I know it's not going to last forever.'

Have been trying a new regime now for the week:

(1) wipe nose with soft cloth hankie (organic cotton of course),

(2) smear Vaseline all over nose area to prevent chafing and inside nostrils to trap pollen, and

(3) slick on some Vicks Vapourub if necessary to clear the air channels.

High pollen count in the last few days but hayfever is still tolerable. A result?? Some days I only needed two or three hankies. That is not bad at all.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Trend-setting

Following from last post: my son has just received a birthday 'post-invitation'. We'd be invited, made our responses and now the map to get to the venue was given.

On it we've been told, the birthday boy is 'equally happy' to receive £2 towards a collective present.

So it's confirmed: we have started a trend.

Yay!

If you've done something like this, or plan to, do share your experience with us so we can compare notes. Thank you.

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

More blessed to give than to receive

It is a cliche. (Sorry I haven't learned how to put the accents in.) But we learned this lesson in a different way recently.

It was my son's sixth birthday. He is allowed a party on alternate birthdays.

My rationale is 'us Chinese don't celebrate birthdays'. We made it special for him last year by taking him and a mate to his favourite theme park.

The year previous to that, I went to a lot of trouble to organize a party with an entertainer, healthy food (as if children care!), nice party bags, and even issued parking coupons to allow parents to park on our road.

A friend was on 'traffic warden watch' as the permit does not kick in for 15 minutes after they arrived. Otherwise I would have had to give each parent an extra parking coupon at £1.50 each. I decided to be, uhm, miserly.

Son disappeared into the kitchen as soon as the entertainer began and kept away for much of the party. He was quite overwhelmed. I toughed it out for two hours and then sent the guests on their way.

Present opening time was 'fun' but it was soon obvious that he had been given far too much. There were duplicate toys and unsuitable books and puzzles, etc. A lot of frustration was manifested in the week following the party as he tried to play with all the toys. To avoid this situation, we hatched a plan.

We wrote on our invites that 'instead of presents, please could parents give £2.00 towards a present of son's choice'. We also noted that 'any surplus would be given to the charity that their school has adopted for this term in the name of the class'.

Party day. Children and parents came. Many parents gave £2.00. Several gave a lot more. Two brought presents. When son finally made his choice of construction set, we had £30.00 left over! It was more than the amont we needed for his chosen construction set.

I sent son in with the money for the charity (RNLI in this instance) with a letter explaining how we raised it. The older boys at school happened to be visiting the RNLI that week. They took the money and a poster drawn by son's classmate and presented these to them. That Friday, son came back with the School Shield -- again.

The School Shield is given to the boy for showing the most consideration to others. It is usually not won by any one boy more than once a year, if ever. Son had already won this early in the school year and we did not expect the Shield to come home again till next year.

In the school newsletter, the headteacher explained why he was given the Shield. This I found quite embarrassing as we were able to give only because of the generosity of the other parents. I went to the headteacher about this. I certainly didn't want to give the impression that a boy could 'buy' the Shield.

Her answer was: No, she stated clearly the money had come from the other parents, but son was very considerate to give up his other presents, etc, etc. Not many children realize just how much they are blessed and they want to encourage such behaviour.

Last week, weeks after his birthday, son received a personal 'Thank you' letter from the RNLI and three collar pins. Immediately, he gave one away to the boy who drew the poster for RNLI. And the thought that came to me was: a simple idea to avoid the frustration of unsuitable and surplus presents have actually turned out to be such a blessing for us.

At least another two parents expressed that they think it is a good idea. Husband says our son has started a trend. But we all agree that young children these days simply have too much. It does not hurt them to learn from a young age to start giving away.

Before any reader even thinks of trying this, please ensure that you first have your child's full cooperation. This is probably not suitable for very young children, used to seeing friends receiving many presents.

It was easy for our child because he has other doting relatives who would buy him anything he wanted. (This year's list included a stopwatch, roller skates and Roald Dahl books.) So he was not entirely deprived of the opportunity to open some lovely presents.

(I want to say 'Thanks' to a reader who asked if my failure to blog was due to my hayfever. (Yay! I do have a fan club!) Actually I'd been rather busy with organizing a Summer Fair at my son's school. We raised about £1200 last Saturday. That's not bad for a school with fewer than 200 students. Hayfever is keeping me awake at night and I'm therefore often tired in the day.)


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Monday, May 29, 2006

Hay fever plus

It's that time of year: watery eyes, runny noses, wheezy chests, etc. Some expert says the pollen count would peak at 6.02pm today.

It's been a funny sort of day weather-wise. We've been out at an expensive 'theme park'. It was sunny, and it rained, it cleared and was sunny again, and it rained, then sunshine, and just a few minutes ago at home, we had hailstones.

My hay fever has been tolerable so far this year. (In any case I think I usually have it bad later in June/July rather than May). I am not complaining. I have a couple of bad sniffles in the morning and later in the evening, and that's about it. It's pretty much what I had when I first moved from Singapore to Amsterdam years ago.

I was well-known amongst my friends for having a constantly runny nose. I never left home without stacks of paper tissue. It was not uncommon for me to go through a whole box or two of tissue in a day. I even had a 'pattern' in the way I folded the tissue, blew my nose, and then rolled it up till the next dry bit. Urgh!

A change of location and climate seemed to have cured my hay fever. When I talked to my mum on the phone, her first question was often, 'How's your nose?'

I was feeling so blissful about the situation I got a bit smug and used to laugh at a colleague. Well, then about five years after I moved to London, the hay fever set in again, this time with a vengeance. (Ironically, I get a reprieve from the symptoms when I return to Singapore. How very odd.)

I remember waking up one morning about four years ago and felt like my eyeball had been detached. It scared the hell out of me. The GP assured me that it was merely an effect of hay fever (that was new to me).

Then I started drinking honey regularly. Husband puts it in my tea. And I think -- after all these years -- it has helped to some extent. The other thing we've been doing -- since our son was born six years ago -- is to consume a lot more organic food, fruit, milk and juices. Yes, the food bill has gone up, but since we do not usually indulge in 'junk foods', it is affordable.

What puzzles the scientists is why there are many more people suffering from hay fever these days. For someone whose nose could be set off by the smell of certain (cheap as well as expensive, brand-name) perfumes, I have no doubt that particulates in the air (from exhaust fumes, eg) could be a likely reason.

Take the smell of freshly-laid carpets. Nice smell? Not to me. It's formaldehyde. I think of it as 'brain-addling' fumes. I recently walked into a shoe shop, was overwhelmed by the smell of 'new shoes' (formaldehyde) and couldn't get out of the shop quickly enough.

There is no scientific basis for what I have to say here, but I think chemicals (eg pesticide residues) entering our bloodstream and the stuff that now fills our lungs with every breath we take could cause our bodies to over-react to give us hay fever.

Meanwhile the only people who benefit from this phenomenon are those who make potions, pills and sprays that purport to alleviate the symptoms. I am more interested in getting to the root of the problem.

Consider the shampoos and skincare one sees being advertised in the media. When I was growing up, we read 'teenage magazines' that advised us on what (not) to eat to get healthy hair, nails and skin. Diet was the route to clear skin, strong nails and shiny hair.

These days, hair shampoos are loaded with silicon to make one's hair smooth and tangle-free, and make-up utilizes light diffusers to make wrinkles disappear (at least temporarily for the cameras). As for nails, people just go get a false set in nail bars that stink of brain-addling solvents.

Even washing powders do not clean like they used to. Whiteness is merely an illusion brought about by 'optical brighteners', chemicals that reflect light, making clothes look cleaner than they are. (They also cause an irreversible chemical bond with the skin without actually increasing the hygiene of the wash.)

So, I'll let readers draw their own conclusions.

If, as the Chinese say, bing cong kou ru (illness enters through the mouth), then there's a lot to be said about what we eat to control our wellness.

Well, it's past 6.02pm and if this is indeed the worst day for hay fever sufferers (which I don't believe is the case), then there is hope for me! But I won't be celebrating till after mid-July. That was when I had the worst symptoms last year.

For those interested, there is also a new hay fever forum at: http://www.hayfeverforum.co.uk/

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Bullied

I had long wanted to run my own business. Part of me thinks that if Richard Branson could get his Virgin empire started with Tubular Bells (the CD), then surely all I need to do is find that one product (or two) that is really worth selling.

When I learned about the harmful impact of conventional cotton growing on the earth, I knew had to do something. Coupled with my personal desire to cut down on non-essential paper usage, it all added up that organic cotton hankies are the one good earth-friendly product that I had been searching for. (Other earth-friendly products like string bags were added along the way.)

I am not a risk taker usually. So, silly me, you might say, but I actually went and bought goods unseen, bought website space when I knew nowt about designing websites, printed leaflets, bought advertising space, etc, to get the business going. I knew I had something 'worth' selling. Not only from the point of making a (small) profit, but in terms of making a difference to the environment.

The business has been trundling along quite happily. Despite the initial reluctance by this generation to try something not-so-disposable and the mythical 'yuck!' factor that cloth hankies seem to have acquired, the business was doing alright. I am proud to be the first and only person to bring organic cotton hankies to the UK.

Then a certain international conservation charity took interest in 'my' organic cotton hankies. My initial reaction was that this huge organization was muscling into my territory. I didn't like it. Surely they are going to undercut me.

Look at it positively, my supplier said. With their marketing clout, they could be doing us a favour. Knowing full well that there is no way they could do better than me when it comes to customer service, I went along and we talked about their stocking some goods from my range.

Then came the news that they do want to stock my goods. Why was I not jumping for joy?

I was sent a questionnaire not only on the goods concerned, with questions like content of recycled material in the packaging, is it covered by liability insurance, etc. I mean, these are hankies. Is someone likely to meet any danger using a hankie?

Of course, there's this case of a woman who went to the hospital, dropped a hankie and picked up the MRSA bug from using the same hankie. If people do not use their common sense, then what can you do? I won't ever use a hankie that I have dropped on the floor/ground. Would you?

The questionnaire also wanted to know: Have I got a corporate environmental policy? If so, please attach. Do we produce an annual environmental report? Are we certified to any environmental standards? Are we on a green energy tariff? etc, etc.

As the answer was 'no' to all but one of the questions (why did they not also ask me what kind of car I drive, or rather what kind of car I do not drive seeing that I usually walk or use public transport instead of taking the car?) I decided that this environmental charity is clearly not interested in doing business with 'small' producers and traders like me.

I source my products mainly from co-operatives who in turn source from other co-operatives. The whole ethos of our business is people and the environment.

We work on principles that allow women (especially) and other marginal people to work around the needs of their families (or disabilities) and at the same time make a positive difference to the environment. We believe in keeping alive the traditional skills like hand-weaving and keeping it a skill rather than moving the manufacture to large factories, etc. which is so easy to do for so long as you find a willing financier.

We work on the basis of trust. So if one organization says 'please do not undercut us' by selling their products on too cheaply or at a loss that would take retail business away from them, we comply, even when that means it is more difficult for us to shift our goods (ie we can't profit from a lower profit margin but gain from a higher turnover).

We think not only in terms of the monetary bottom-line here and now. We think also of the long-term impact of our decisions on people up and down the supply chain.

We do not have whole departments of university graduates vetting other companies' 'ethical policies'. What would their donors think if they knew that this organization makes it so difficult for people like me to jump through hoops they have set up and that effectively means 'little people' do not matter?

There is a place for bureaucracy of course, and yes, when dealing with other large corporations, putting would-be suppliers through this vetting process would present at least a veneer that this organization cares enough to make their suppliers comply to certain ethical standards.

But surely there is also a place in such bureaucracies for small traders? We do not sit in our offices all day long devising 'ethical sourcing policies' or 'environmental policies' just so to trade with other big corporations. We ARE the embodiment of these policies. We keep our organization structures flat and simple, awarding no one company cars, eg, to maximize efficiency and benefits.

The 'bottom line' is I felt well and truly bullied by this organization, whether or not they had intended this effect.

So, in return, I want to know what policies, if any, does this charity have in supporting and working with 'little people' like myself. Could they please attach a copy?

Looking at their website I realize that they now endorse some of the big names in businesses in return for grants from these companies to support their work.

You know how big corporations are now buying up fair trade and ethical brands. It seems to me every major food company now has some 'fair trade' brand in their stable and every bank has adopted some 'ethical' cause. Even big cosmetic companies are taking over fair trade and cruelty-free brands. Department stores and supermarkets are stocking fair trade goods to up their 'ethical credentials'.

The fact is, the size of this fair trade element or grants given to conservation projects are just a tiny insignificant fraction in the profits made by these corporations. But instantly it would take their 'ethical score' from zero to positive.

Why do big companies go 'fair trade'? Because it is worth it.

So consumers -- especially those who care for people and environment -- can decide for themselves: have these big corporations really bought and internalized the message that 'fair trade', 'organic' or 'ethical' are good for people and the environment in the long run? If so, why are these 'owners of the means of production' (to borrow a Marxian phrase) not using their economic clout to influence the style, manner and fabric of production?

Or have they simply used their resources to buy publicity and privilege?

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Molar of the Story

My right forearm has been hurting again, which explains the time away from 'non-essential' writing of every kind.

Last Friday son and I went to the dentist. It was a belated routine visit as two months ago I was trying a treatment that could mean my not using glasses or contact lenses in the day and I didn't want to risk driving to the dentist with dodgey eyesight. When it was clear (pardon the pun) that the treatment was not working on my poor old eyes, I switched back.

And the next available dentist appointment was ... last week.

'No wobbley teeth?' I asked casually. Of course I knew my son had no wobbley teeth. It was driving him nuts that he was not losing his milk teeth like all his mates. He can't wait to get his new teeth so that he could learn to play a wind instrument.

With no sign of new teeth, he has gradually come round to accepting that it has to be the piano or violin and not the saxophone.

Imagine my shock when the dentist then let on that son's new molars have sprouted.

'What?'

'Here! You can take a look.'

Sure enough, behind his milk molars are white enamel that has just broken out of the gums. These molars are still being formed. More importantly, these are his permanent molars.

I didn't realize till then that little children get new teeth before the milk teeth fall out.

'We call them the six-year-old molars'.

You can call them anything you want, I thought, but why is it that parents are told so little about these teeth that sprout so early and need to be carefully cleaned?

Sometimes when trying to decide if son gets more chocolate, we say, 'They (the teeth) have to come off any way.' Sometimes we are a bit lax about teeth-cleaning because, yes, 'they have to come off any way'.

Not any more.

Trawling the internet I learned too that these six-year-old molars are crucial in shaping the lower face and are important to the position and health of other permanent teeth. If these molars move forward (as they would if the teeth at the front have been lost) then the new permanent teeth might get rather 'crowded' and that would require lots of orthodontic treatment (wearing of braces, etc).

As we talked about it over dinner and we remembered what it was like when his milk teeth sprouted -- O! how he used to love the homeopathic teething granules we used to pour into his mouth -- I suddenly remembered that son was suffering a slight fever and had complained about pain in his cheeks.

We dismissed that pain, knowing full well that it could not be mumps. With hindsight we now know that that pain must have been due to his new permanent molars breaking through.

Molar/Moral of the story: Don't think that just because children must lose their milk teeth we can be slack about cleaning them. They could have permanent teeth long before the milk teeth first go. And the milk teeth are crucial in shaping the jaw.

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Making paper work ... and work

I've taken to sewing again as I've noted previously. One of my more difficult tasks recently was trying to buy thread and zips that match the colour of fabric.

It caused me to remember what my mum used to do whenever an item of clothing got too worn out. She removed the buttons and zips so that they could be re-used elsewhere, or by someone else.

It was the same with umbrellas. Most of us would be familiar with umbrellas turned inside out and the metal frame is bent backward beyond repair. Most people would simply throw these away. Mum carefully removed the cover bit from the metal frame, so that if/when she found a metal frame with a broken cover, she might marry the two again.

My latest 'research' into recycling concerns paper. I've never understood what is meant by 'handmade paper' that I come across often in catalogues. I now realize that this is made from used paper or clothes, commonly found plants, etc that have been pulped and shaped into sheets and dried in the sun. Because of the different ways that natural materials like flowers, leaves and grass can be added to it, such paper are very distinctive and popular with people who make cards and those who are into scrapbooking. (Scrapbooking is something else that I do not understand. Perhaps in another blog....)

Commercial manufacturers of such 'handmade papers' are often found in India, Nepal, North Thailand and some African countries. The capital outlay to start up such businesses is low and there are lots of women who are happy to do this kind of work. The climate means there is no shortage of raw materials (lokta, mulberry, silk, etc) and the constant sunshine makes drying the paper naturally possible.

So I'm planning to try paper-making myself in the summer with my son during the school hols or even before. Nothing like letting him get messy and enjoying the result of our labour.

There are lots of unwanted paper coming through my letterbox all the time which needs shredding because of personal details printed on it. Anyone who gets hold of these details can simply phone up the company concerned and make orders in my name. All the companies ask for in terms of identification is one's full address. This is clearly pre-printed on every bit of promotional material they send out.

So what better way to make use of this unwanted paper than to convert it into handmade paper again. I somehow can't see myself doing this as a commercial venture, but I think it will be very therapeutic to see the mountains of wasteful paper in my house being turned into something useful again.

There is one catch though. Water is required in the process. I've read about how some manufacturers in India recycle their water. I imagine that the water used in paper-making can also be reused in the garden.

Any advice from other paper-makers out there will be welcome.

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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Where's my baby?

Milestone today as son celebrated his sixth birthday.

Six years have zoomed by just like that. Where has my baby gone?

In six years' time, according to his 'little red book', he would be about my height.

And then of course another six years after that when he's eighteen, he'd be ....

God willing, he'd be doing something worthwhile with his life.

Fathers don't take birthdays as mothers do, I think.

I can still remember many of the little details surrounding son's arrival.

Being an older first-time mother meant being asked numerous times whether we wanted to test for Down's. I felt under a lot of pressure to test. It was as if the NHS did not want another Down's baby to burden the system or that they wanted to make sure that we do not turn around and sue them for not discovering early enough that baby could have Down's.

Signs of our time.

Baby was so-oo overdue. Seventeen days to be precise.

By Week 41 I was begging the midwife to have it induced because I was in constant pain from 'symphysis pubis dysfunction' (hip girdle separating in preparation for baby's birth) causing pain with every movement of the legs -- walking (waddling actually), turning in bed especially took a lot of effort. Excruciating. I won't wish that pain on my worst enemy.

They tried and they tried but they could not find a date in their diary! They could not get staff for the Easter weekend, so ... sorry, you have to carry the baby for another week.

Finally on a Friday morning scheduled for induction, I headed for the hospital determined to return home the next time with a baby. I was so naive I thought that 'induction' meant they would induce me on Friday morning and the baby will appear Friday evening, at the latest.

Saturday morning, no baby. Labour started in earnest. Panic, they have no room in delivery suite. Contractions getting more frequent. Weather getting warmer and more humid.

Get the baby out of me!

Sorry, delivery suite busy. No room.

By some miracle, the contractions became less frequent. But still, no room in delivery suite.

Sunday morning. Early morning, midwife who had been really nasty to me the previous night decided that I must get to delivery suite. Out of the blue I was quickly wheeled to Delivery, with midwife going, 'By hook or by crook I'll get you there before somebody gets the slot.'

Gosh! I thought, 'I'm having a baby, not running a race.' But this was how ridiculous the NHS had become, six years ago.

So more drugs, more of whatever they pump into you to get your contractions going. More internal examinations. More blood tests, at the end of which they discovered someone had given me an infection. Quick, put her on antibiotics.

Many hours later with a husband getting really, really bored, lots of pain and an epidural later, 'Your cervix has not dilated enough.'

Wait. Change of shift. Another midwife in charge. 'Your baby is getting distressed.'

'What?'

Every time I had a contraction (and they were very frequent), baby's heartbeat shot up.

'I think we might have to go into theatre. But we'll have to wait for a surgeon.'

Soon, surgeon came. Read the charts. Yes, baby's heartbeat not looking good.

'I'm afraid you'd have to join the conveyor belt,' guffawed said surgeon. He was a very black man with very white teeth and a very, very infectious laugh. (He was wearing wellies.) You can't help but like Mr. Williams. I needed to go into theatre immediately.

It happened so fast. I was so exhausted by then I could not imagine where I could summon the strength to push. So I was actually pleased to learn that they had made a clinical decision to give me a C-section.

My only concern then was: 'Does my husband have time to get a coffee?'

He did.

Papers signed. Someone had to remove my nail polish -- I had wanted to look elegant when my baby was born! Rushed into theatre. Husband gowned up. Epidural topped up.

Asked the young anaesthetist if I was going to feel much pain.

'You'll be fine. You might feel like someone's doing the washing-up in your belly.'

'How do YOU know?' I barked at him. 'You've never tried it.'

'O, that's what I've been told,' he smiled.

I don't know what they were doing, but it did feel like someone washing up down there. (After the event Mr. Williams told me that baby was very deep down the birth canal and his head was lodged there. They had to pull him back up. Poor lad.)

Then horror of horrors, I felt pain.

'Help! I can feel pain.'

Anaesthetist called out, 'Hey guys, stop. Let's check.' Seconds later, some more prodding.

'Can you feel this?'

'No.'

And they continued to do the 'washing up'? (Without Fairy liquid, thankfully.)

Till finally, as if by magic, like a breath of much-needed fresh air, it felt like a large weight had been lifted off me. All 8 pounds 11 and a half ounzes of baby -- and 'strings' attached!

I felt wonderful? tired? relief? (Answer: All of the above.)

We were congratulated for now having a baby boy.

I had asked the staff to clean up baby a little before showing it to me. Husband took a peek while they did that, came back and whispered.

'Bad news.'

'What?' I asked with whatever energy I had left. 'What's wrong?'

'He's got your nose.'

If I could move my arms, I would have slapped him. We had been wondering whether baby would have a nose like mine (small and flat) or his (let's just say not very small and not very flat). And let's just say at that very moment I was not concerned with what baby's nose was like.

When they showed me my baby I thought 'drowned rat'. Ugly, drowned rat.

And felt guilty. All the magazines tell me I was supposed to feel my baby was the loveliest living thing I have ever seen. But no, he looked ... ugly. His dark hair was still plastered in some birth fluid and being seventeen days overdue he was wrinkled. Very, very wrinkled. Red.

While they were sewing up my many layers of fat, muscle and skin that they had cut open, I fell asleep on the operating table, exhausted after more than 30 hours of labour.

And snored.

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