Thursday, 16 December 2010

Unto us a son is given...

Did I mention something about life getting back to normal in October? Oh yes, I was just finishing work and looking forward to at least two weeks off to organise the house, stock up the freezer and buy baby stuff. Then little Toby threw a spanner in the works by turning up five weeks early! Which would put his birthday in... let's see... October. So much for normal!

For those who would like the gory details, here goes. If you are a mother who had a long and protracted labour, I advise you to skip the next bit - or if you don't, please don't start sending me hate mail. You have been warned.

You see, we'd been to all the childbirth classes (yes, just about managed to finish them) and learned all about the different stages of labour, and how many hours each lasted. We learned some relaxation techniques and various things Graham could do to help coach me through long periods of contractions. And then we turned out not to need any of them, because the entire thing was over in two hours!


So that evening, I'd been to work, got home about 9, and we'd just settled down in bed at 11 when I felt this kind of pop and some wetness, and realised my waters had broken. Graham has taken great delight in telling everyone how calm I was; to be honest my main desire was to go back to bed! Instead we rushed around packing a bag and trying to remember all the things our childbirth instructor had told us to pack. At this stage I was sure nothing much would happen for ages - I was picturing a long tedious night in the hospital being induced. But by the time Graham and I were whizzing down I-35 at just a tad over the legal limit, the contractions had started and were coming pretty steadily.

We were so thankful we'd had a tour of the hospital, with instructions for how to find Labour and Delivery in the middle of the night. Otherwise I might have been like the lady I heard about who had her baby in the hospital toilets, because they bundled me into a room, took a peek, and said, "You're 8 cm dilated - you can pretty much start pushing now!" They told me I was smiling through the contractions, but it was more of an incredulous grimace - this isn't how it's supposed to happen! By 1:20 am it was all over and we were the proud parents of a 5 lb 10 oz baby boy.


It was somewhat fortunate that Toby had to spend the first week of his life in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). Otherwise we'd never have had time to buy all the stuff we'd intended to shop for that weekend! As it was, we could leave him in capable hands (far more capable than ours) whenever we needed to. "My baby is in the NICU" sounds all serious and scary, but there was never that knife-edge worry of serious illness. Toby had an oxygen tube in for a day or so to help his breathing, and then had to be under heat lamps for a bit to help him keep warm, because he was so long and skinny. We will be forever thankful to the intensive care staff, who were wonderful, and to our friends who let us stay in their house close by, so we didn't have to drive half an hour to get home.




Exactly a week after he was born, we were able to bring Toby home - having purchased the car seat to bring him home in, the bassinet for him to sleep in, and several more sets of clothes to keep him warm. Since then he's been eating non-stop and putting plenty of flesh on his bones. In fact he's downright podgy - but still the cutest baby ever!

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Oklahoma!

So much for catching up, huh? Life has been pretty hectic for the last few weeks, though I'm pleased to report that after endless rounds of faxing, phoning and emailing the mortgage arrangements are finally coming together and we're looking forward to moving into our new house soon! Of course that entails packing, unpacking, cleaning and arranging, but we're hoping that life will be back to normal sometime in October... just in time for it to change forever in November.

With all that, I'm sure my future self will want to remember that, once upon a time, she did have peaceful weekends away with her husband, with hardly a care in the world. Weekends such as this one back in July, when we ventured north into Oklahoma.


Pool in Chickasaw NRA

The Oklahoma border is just an hour or so north of Fort Worth, but until recently we were under the impression that there wasn't much point in crossing it unless you wanted to go gambling (more on that later). Then a friend recommended the Turner Falls area. It appeared that maybe there was something worth seeing in Oklahoma after all. We decided to investigate.

Look, the water comes right out of the ground!
Chickasaw National Recreational Area has drawn visitors for probably thousands of years, due to its collection of natural springs which bubble out of the earth at a cool 68F. When the air temperature is 105F, it's impossible to overstate the bliss obtained by sinking into a cold, clear stream. Sitting there with the green trees overhanging and the curious little fishes darting around and the water gurgling was near enough the perfect way to spend a hot Saturday afternoon.

Right outside the gates of the park is a crazy little guesthouse known as the Sulphur Springs Inn. We disturbed a sleepy dog from the doorstep and stepped into a paradise of knickknacks and artifacts - an ancient telephone, a full-size wooden Indian, a piano and a double bass, and much much more. It was tempting to sink down onto one of the couches and spend our entire weekend looking at everything and relaxing to the soothing strains of 1940s music (issuing, we first thought, from an actual 1940s radio, but actually streamed from a much more modern internet radio site).

Instead we followed our grey-bearded host, Charlie, up to our room, which had just as much character as the downstairs, and then investigated the outside. This consisted of a ramshackle kind of porch cluttered with chairs, bicycles, and dozing cats. There must have been 15 of them strewn over every available surface, and so fast asleep were they in the heat that the first impression was that there'd been some sort of feline massacre. Once the evening arrived they all came to life again, and I made friends with a little ginger kitten (you knew I had to!).


We refused an invitation from Charlie to join him and his wife and friends at a restaurant that evening in favour of spending as much time as possible in cold water, though we were quite touched to be asked. We appeared to be the only guests that whole weekend, and hoped we hadn't wrecked their plans by turning up at the last moment.

Next morning we enjoyed a delicious breakfast of eggs, potatoes and sausage, and then took a country drive along deserted roads to reach Turner Falls Park, crossing a very red river along the way.
After our peaceful surroundings so far, it was a bit of a shock to join a queue to pay $23 to get into a very busy park, and we very nearly turned around and left again. However, despite the crowds, it was an interesting place. We admired the falls from an overlook and explored a cave, splashed in the swimming pool and ate lunch by the stream. A group of people were being baptised to the strains of a capella gospel music; the idea of paying to get into a place to be baptised struck me as a bit odd, but there's no denying it was a beautiful setting.



And finally, the gambling. Casinos, you see, are legal in Oklahoma but not in Texas. The Native Americans of the Chickasaw Nation saw a business opportunity in this and built the biggest casino you ever saw right next to the border, and Texans travel up to this for their weekend's entertainment. We had no desire whatsoever to pour our hard-earned cash down the drain, but a place like that you at least have to stop and see. It's built to resemble famous landmarks from around the world, and inside is divided into zones for different cities. It wasn't quite what I expected; I had visualised something like Oceans 11 with lots of card tables and roulette wheels and croupiers wearing black suits. In fact it was row upon row upon row of slot machines with bored-looking people slouched in front of them. The dinging and beeping and chirping made an enormous din, and altogether it looked like about the least exciting way of spending money you could possibly devise. The decor, on the other hand, was impressive, so we wandered around admiring the furnishings, helped ourselves to a free soft drink or two, and headed back to casino-free Texas.
Big Ben à la Winstar Casino

A sample of the interior decoration

Monday, 23 August 2010

A Gneiss Weekend

I'm trying to catch up on a slight backlog of blog posts here - this weekend away actually took place back in June, but I never got around to writing about it. To be honest our weekends away tend to follow a predictable pattern which you are probably getting used to: realise on Friday that we have a free weekend, book a last-minute motel, drive several hours to some unexplored piece of Texas, visit a state park or two, spot some wildlife, and back to the city again. But this one was somewhat different in that the piece of Texas we went to was underground.


To be precise, Longhorn Caverns State Park, a stunning subterranean selection of stalactite clusters, smooth sculpted rocks and glittering calcite crystals. Our guide was a 21-year veteran of the caves and took us on a slightly longer route so that we got to appreciate even more of the wonders. Not least of these is that the caverns are 68F year-round, providing a welcome relief from the 95F heat outside. Before air-conditioning the relief must have been even more profound, and the locals have used the caves for various purposes over the years, including a church, a Prohibition-era speakeasy and dancehall, and a gunpowder manufacturing plant during the Civil War. You can still have a wedding or party there today, which is certainly unique, if perhaps a little gloomy.





Next day we were up on top again, sailing along the Colorado River with the Vanishing Texas River Cruise. The Colorado, which is not to be confused with the more famous river of the same name running through the Grand Canyon, is the longest river entirely within the borders of Texas, running for about 600 miles down to the Gulf. In the Hill Country, where we were, it has been dammed into a series of reservoirs. Our cruise boat was chugging its way across the highest and largest of these, Lake Buchanan.
At first the guide seemed concerned only to point out the various housing developments and holiday sites around the lake shore, but as the trip went on we spotted herons, egrets, pelicans and cormorants. As the boat slipped into the narrower confines of the river proper, we rounded a corner and were suddenly confronted by a pretty waterfall, all the better for being completely unexpected. Here we paused to let off a handful of kayakers. They splashed onto the marshy shore with their boats and belongings, and the cruiser was just pulling away again when they realised they'd left their paddles on board! Whoops...








The nice pun in the title refers to the fact that around this area there are various lumps of pinkish rock sticking up out of the landscape. These are known as gneiss islands, and support unique microhabitats for rare plants and animals. In Inks Lake State Park we followed a trail across some of these "islands" and admired some of the flora and fauna, though we aren't good enough naturalists to know if we were looking at anything particularly unusual. We're naturalists enough to appreciate the contrast between hot rock and cool lake, however, and plopped thankfully into the latter after trekking across the former. Aaaaahhhh....




Thursday, 1 July 2010

Maternity Leave

Read this: We Can Afford to Give Parents a Break

I am constantly amazed at how little regulation exists in the USA regarding the workplace. Most people are probably aware that American workers get less time off than their counterparts in Europe. In fact there is no federal legislation that requires businesses to give their employees paid vacation. I know a lady whose boss recently announced that nobody would get any more holiday - not Fourth of July, not Christmas, nothing. Difficult as it is to believe this is legal (far less in any way sensible) there is nothing you can do in such a situation but quit.

Sometimes this lack of holiday is explained in terms such as these: Americans opted for material goods over vacation time, so they have a better standard of living despite only getting long weekends off. It's true that many Americans live in bigger houses, drive bigger cars and watch bigger TVs than the average Brit. And they do, indeed, work to pay for all these things. Yet any "choice" in the matter was made years ago. If you want a job you have to work within the system, and there aren't too many places around offering 2 weeks' extra paid holiday in exchange for a smaller car. So you might as well take the big car and make your commute to work that little bit nicer.

But vacation entitlement (which is, after all, technically a luxury) pales into insignificance beside the lack of sick leave and maternity leave highlighted in this article. Let's compare the figures. If you get pregnant in the USA you have a grand total of 12 weeks' leave to play with, says the government. If you have pregnancy complications and have to take time off, that comes out of your 12 weeks. If your baby gets sick after you go back to work and you take time off, that comes out of the 12 weeks. Even if everything goes entirely smoothly and you take all of it as maternity leave, once your child turns three months old, they will just have to cope without you. And pay? Well, only if your company feels generous. Otherwise you just better hope to have some savings in the bank. Oh, and if you got a new job just before you found out you were pregnant, or only work for a small company, or only work part-time, none of this applies. Sorry.

So if you get pregnant in the UK? You're entitled to 26 weeks of Ordinary Maternity Leave plus 26 weeks of Additional Maternity Leave - that's one full year! Assuming you've worked for your employer for 6 months, you get 90% of your regular pay for the first 6 weeks, then at least £124 per week for the next 33 weeks. OK, not riches, but certainly something. Dad is probably entitled to a couple of weeks, as well, and you have 13 unpaid weeks to take off if you need it before your child is five.

The sad thing for the Americans is that it's not the UK that's unusual. It's America. Were it the other way around, the US might have a case in arguing that such liberal benefits are uneconomical. But when most of the rest of the world finds a way to do it, you really haven't got a leg to stand on. I was struck by Jody Heymann's phrase: "a unique private-sector experiment". This is pretty much what America is. Somehow in this country there has developed such a fear of socialism and governmental control that almost everything is down to the individual. If you can work your way up and pay your way, great. If for some reason you can't, you're reliant on the generosity of private companies, private charities or private individuals. And most companies are too busy making money to be particularly generous.

Well, I'm on the lucky side. I have a husband who is able and willing to support myself and our baby, and who even gets a week's paternity leave to help out. I won't be faced with the choice of having to farm a tiny infant out to expensive daycare or losing my job. Millions of others aren't so fortunate. Come on America - give your employees a break!

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Graham and the Giant Watermelon

Get that peach out of the way, James - there's a new contender on the giant fruit scene!


These mammoth melons were on sale for just $2.99, so we had to get one even if it takes a month to work our way through it. We put it on the bathroom scale when we got home. It weighs 23 lb. The alarming thing is that the average pregnant woman gains 30 lb, i.e. somewhat more than the weight of that watermelon. And I sure wouldn't be happy if you told me I had to lug that around everywhere for several months! Hmmm....



While we're on food news, I've been having a happy cooking day today. Several cayenne peppers ripened all at once so I made a giant pot of chili.



Martha's giant chili

1 big onion, chopped
2 big green (bell) peppers, chopped
4 home-grown cayenne peppers, chopped finely
3 lb minced (ground) beef
2 big cans chopped tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
2 regular cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups (16 fl oz) beef stock
3 bay leaves, spoonful brown sugar, sprinkle of cinnamon, salt and pepper, anything else you feel would add to the flavour

Find yourself a decent size frying pan and a good big stewpot. Put a bit of oil in the frying pan and saute the onions until soft. Tip into the big pot. Then saute both the peppers for a couple of minutes. Lob them in with the onion. Cook the beef until browned, and chuck that in the pot as well, draining off the fat as best you can. Now you're done with the frying pan. Everything else goes in the big pot. Stir it up well, bring to a boil and simmer for an hour or as long as you feel like. When you can no longer resist the wonderful aroma, boil some rice and dig in!



My herbs were looking a bit scraggly, too, so I gave some of them a haircut. Oregano and rosemary are now drying off in the laundry room, and I have plans for mint simple syrup.

Mint Simple Syrup

1 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

See, it really is simple! Put these 3 ingredients into a pan and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Boil 2 minutes without stirring. Leave to cool a bit then strain through a sieve, pressing the mint leaves to get the syrup out. Decant into a suitable jar or bottle and keep in the fridge for up to a month. Add to lemonade, soda water, iced tea, mojitos...


As if that wasn't enough, flapjack and a rosemary cake have also made their appearance. But you can have the recipes for those another day. Right now I have some eating to do (may as well get on and gain that 30 lb...!)

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Temperature comparison

Just for fun, although attempting to do this highlighted my lack of advanced computer skills and took twice as long as it was meant to. It still could be better, but you'll get some idea.


Data source



So then, Fort Worth starts off at a warm but pleasant 80F and heads pretty steadily upwards towards the high 90s, with a cooler blip around the 9th. Minimums are around the 60s-70s, ie about the same as Bristol high temperatures.
Bristol manages a minor heatwave around the 23rd, but otherwise ranges between low 50s and high 60s. Still pretty cool at night.
Now we're into June we're basically in the 90s and staying there. Haven't really hit triple figures yet - that joy is still to come. Whether or not you Bristolians are jealous is entirely up to you. Personally, as you will have gathered, I prefer my climates temperate, but I promise not to whine about the heat for at least, say, two more blog posts (or until it hits 100F, whichever comes first).

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Dragon Boat Racing

Well, I haven't posted for a while, so I had a quick virtual riffle through the photos to see what I could come up with. A few weeks ago we went to a dragon boat/kite flying/Chinese culture festival, which wasn't a huge affair, but all the bright colours were good for photographs.






Chinese lanterns, of course.

These are actually Aztec dancers. What the Aztecs have to do with a Chinese festival we couldn't guess, nor did we ever discover. I suspect if you turn up in a fancy enough costume they let you in.

One of the four dragon boats. Any group or workplace could register a dragon boat team, and they competed throughout the day. A lady we talked to said they only got about an hour to practise, so it was a good thing each boat had a competent steerer!

Launching a kite.

Formation flying. My stunt kite died its death a long time ago owing to the nose hitting the ground many times too often, but seeing this made me itch to have kite strings in my hands again.

WHATAKITE!

The Cambodian stall. See what I mean about fancy costumes?

A pretty parade of parasols.