Tuesday 29 December 2009

An excellent Christmas

I had a feeling this one would be good but it exceeded my expectations on several levels. I thought Jake would get a bit more from it but he really seemed to enjoy himself. For all the inevitable 'they're more interested in the paper' cliches, he actually seemed to like his presents. When we gave him his toy NinkiNonk his eyes lit up and started salivating, the same thing happened when we presented his Makka Pakka flannel. Anne Wood who makes up half of the production team of In the Night Garden must have made a fortune from creating a TV show which in the first place is like crack for kids and therefore a winner for parents trying to calm children before bed time and secondly spawns a range of affordable toys which continue to bring smiles to young faces when the show isn't on. And she was behind the Telly Tubbies. When you watch the show you think the writter must have taken a hit of acid before setting pen to paper but she's got a gift of giving toddlers exactly what they want; the noises, colours and characters do something to Jake when he's watching it and just our impression of one of them is enough to stop him wriggling when we're getting him ready for bed. Good luck to her!

Anyway, Jake had the added bonus of all four grandparents present on Christmas day. It was the first time for us too. For the last few years we've alternated Christmas and Boxing day between parents houses and then reverse it the following year. This year, however Clare's folks came to mine as a last minute boiler issue would have seen them eating turkey around an electric heater. So it was lovely, a full house, screaming, excited children, too much food, booze, Gavin and Stacey and my answer of 'giraffe' to the Family Fortunes' question of 'name a long legged bird' topped of the day perfectly.

For ages I've felt knackered in the mornings despite how much sleep I get but for the first time in a long time, I've felt more awake and energetic first thing and I think it's the combination of a few days off and the feeling that 2010 is going to be an exciting year.

Firstly, I can now reveal that Clare and I are off on a short ski break to Austria next week. It was a surprise Christmas present for her that I'd been working on in secret for some time. The bride and groom of the wedding we're going to on New Year's Eve aren't honeymooning officially until March but have a chalet booked and a few of our friends are going with them. Originally I tried to persuade Clare that it would be a good idea to join them and take Jake with us, however this was vetoed almost immediately. We didn't want to be the party poopers or the ones with the child keeping people up at night so I initially shelved the idea and resigned myself to another year without snow. For ten years I'd had a snowboard trip pretty much every year up until 2007 and nearly went in 2008 however Clare told me she was pregnant just after I'd paid the deposit so we never went. Had we not gone this year (2010) there would be the very real possibility that there could be something like a 6 or 7 year gap between winter sports' holidays and that, frankly, is unacceptable. So I realised that the only way to get Clare to agree to a trip was to go behind her back and that's what I've done. Jake will have an extra day in nursery and the mums have, very, very, very kindly agreed to share the looking after of him for the four nights we're away. Thank God for our amazing mothers! Twiglet is booked into the cattery, flights are booked and we go next Monday. We'll have three days skiing and will be back on the Friday....one of our closest friends, Fred is back from Canada, from where he cruelly absconded to 4 years ago and he is coming too so we can't wait and it'll do us, and particularly Clare, the world of good. A few days of fresh air, exercise and time off child care after a relentless (but fun) 15 months will be just what we need.

Also, we have plans submitted to the council for an extension to our downstairs which will give us a much bigger kitchen and an area for Jake to make as much mess as he likes. These will be approved or rejected late Jan / early Feb and then we can start building and that's a very exciting prospect, more exciting than moving in fact.

Lastly, I'm hoping that 2010 will be a good year for our business. I feel that we're due one. We've used the recession as a diagnostic tool, made all the right moves, done a deal and generally put us in a position to make some decent returns. I know you shouldn't cross your fingers in business but luck is involved (even Branson says a lot of his success was due to the right place and time) and if anyone is due some, it's us.

So there you have it. A great Christmas, lots to look forward to and I wish everyone a very happy, healthy and prosperous new year. Especially Ben and Izzy who become Mr and Mrs Ansell at 2pm on Thursday. Can't wait.

Monday 21 December 2009

Odd thoughts

I'm sure other married / partnered people have that conversation where you talk about living a long and loving life and then finally passing away together in each other's arms. Dying together being the ultimate finale to a lifetime's romance. No? Just me then.

Anyway Clare and I have had that conversation, just frivolous pillow talk I guess but it would be the way to go wouldn't it? Not having to go on alone with nothing but memories. Except now it's different, we have Jake and someone needs to look after and out for him. When you open a bank account these days one of the features is often a free will writing service but I'm sure less than 1% take them up on it. Especially as we'd have nine tenths of sod all to pass on but a will is more than that. It expresses our wishes in terms of who we see will be best to take care of Jake and his well being as well as what he'll actually get.

Brittney Murphy died yesterday and whilst the inevitable tabloid rumours point to drug excesses, by all accounts she had a heart attack. She was 32. Stephen Gately was 33 and he died this year as well. Again, his death was subject to rumour but in the end it was put down to a tragic natural accident. The point is that people do start to die in the thirties even if it is a small percentage. This will sound awful but I've always thought I might as well....maybe the naturally pesimistic side comes into play here and of course I hope I live forever, but you feel what you feel. That's why I'm using the end of the decade as a wake up call to look after myself better. I've always done plenty of exercise but a life long devotion to beer and fags has left me less healthy than I'd like. We're going to our great friends' wedding on New Year Eve and any excesses will be left at the marguee door when I leave.

Of course resolutions are there to be broken but there are good intentions behind all of this. I remember my friend's dad dying when we were 16 and I guess his dad would have been 50 odd. At the time 50 was as old as anyone could be, now it's only 17 years away, just longer than the proverbial blink of an eye. We have a responsibility to our children more than to ourselves to get and stay fit plus it's a quality of life thing; I don't want to be wheezing around the garden while Jake is scoring goals against me, I want to beat him!

Anyway I'd like to apologise for writing about death during the happiest week of the year, just had the thought and put them down before we start a fortnight of drinking!

Merry Christmas everyone.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Jake's cleft and 2009 - in context

It's so weird to think how much of a big deal it all was when we were told that Jake would be born with a cleft. Understandable still, it was huge news after all, but it's funny how time levels everything out. Time and obviously the operations have helped put it all into context.

Finding out that something's not going to be quite right before the birth of your first baby will always (and rightly so) be difficult news to hear. I remember talking to a friend of a friend who was then pretty much where we are now in terms of the initial process. He said everything would be o.k and of course it is, but when you're the other side it doesn't necessarily feel like it will be. Experiences like these have to be experienced, empathy is impossible without experience. You can sympathise and try to know what people are going through but unless you've dealt with it first hand, you'll never get close.

I would say both Clare and I are different people. There would be differences anyway given it's been 18 months since we had the 5 month scan and we've become new parents but there are other changes probably directly attributable to the cleft thing. I think we're calmer (granted, not always behind the wheel) and smaller stuff bothers us less. We used to waste a lot of time worrying about what other people think, trying not to bruise egos, treading on egg shells. It's not like we go out of way to put noses out of joint but we have more of a feeling that it is what it is, let's just crack on.

I feel older certainly and I think a consistent lack of solid sleep will do that to anyone. People can stay looking young into their thirties but I think it's that decade that puts most years on and the link between parenting during that time has to be paid attention to. I find myself tutting at sections of society and then letting it all go in one fluid movement. I still get irritated at people but I also think that it's not worth worrying about because it's out of our hands. All that matters is your family, your friends and your wellbeing, be in health, finance or mindset.

Jake is growing up and I'm there for him. I want to protect him from the cynicism I have running through my veins. I guess it's only recently that I've started to accept that I'm not going to be a billionaire and that, in all likeliness we'll be living in a two bed semi (albeit, a very nice one) for the foreseeable future. I've mentioned on here before that Clare and I are always looking forward to the next thing, a holiday, the (bloody) extension, a new job, more money and so on, but I find I'm doing that less now. Which is good. Learn to enjoy now, chill. Life happens 24 hours a day and it happens now, not next week, month, decade.

I'm very much looking forward to Christmas. This year the physical break in the work calendar feels more welcome than ever. Since the disposal of the media division of the business I have been lugging desks around, chucking almost ten year's worth of collected cabling, client folders, out of favour secret santa presents and god knows what else and cleaning parts of the building never before cleaned and in short, I'm knackered. No matter how much five a side or squash I play, I still feel shattered most mornings and a few days off but that don't involve an airport or foreign travel, ought to do me the world of good.

The end of this year and decade is a real watershed for the company and it'll be nice to come back into work with a sense of opportunity and a new start and then perhaps I'll be able to make a billion or two.

Friday 27 November 2009

Walking AND talking

So Jake said a word the other day. An actual, decipherable word. He said 'car' and we both heard it. Until now the only word has been 'mamamamama' and actually that's more of a half hum, half babble which is more likely to be him exploring his vocal chords than knowing he was talking to his mum.

Every morning, one of the rituals the missus and I have is to ask Jake where his aeroplanes are and sure enough he points to the hanging mobile above his cot and then we ask him where Babar is and he duly points to Babar the elephant hanging on the wall next to his cot. Babar is also flying a plane in that picture so we're doing our best to confuse the lad. We also have a picture near his changing mat of a car. He's known the words 'aeroplane' and 'Babar' for months but couldn't get 'car' until recently, and only then the ability to understand the word and point, but now he can say it. Well, he said it, technically he can't say it as he hasn't done it since, despite Clare and I asking him, in the customarily high pitched patronising tone 'can Jakey say car? Car, car, caa-aar' over and over again.

He'll get there, but I find myself really looking forward to having a conversation with him. Now he'll come over when I call him and he'll put his legs up when I want to get his trousers on but he can't talk back. One of our accounts' ladies bought her two-and-a-bit year old in on Tuesday and I had a full on conversation with him about, funnily enough, his cars. He was carrying a bag around full of toy cars from the film, erm, 'Cars' and we spent a good five minutes naming them and playing with them and he could answer my questions and everything. I really enjoyed it and it made me look forward to doing that with Jake. And that's really just a year away depending on the speech therapy thing.

Separately we got the Clapa newsletter through the day before last. I still don't know how I feel about it. On one hand it's good that they organise trips away for kids and parents affected by clefts and on the other hand why should they bother? Surgery is so good, you can barely notice a repaired cleft lip (as long as it was done in the last 10 or so years) so why make these kids out to be special? It worries me that a) perhaps Jake's lip is not as well repaired as I / we think it is as we see him every day or that b) he will be singled out for it at school even if it is just a small scar.

Either way I can't see why loads of kids need to get together to have fun knowing that they won't get bullied because they've all got the same thing. I just can't see that all kids with a repaired lip will suffer terribly because of it. Maybe that's incredibly naive and perhaps I have a different mentality but so be it. I got teased at school for having big ears and yes it was upsetting. I had a particularly short hair cut one day and the entire class laughed at me and made me cry (I was very young to be fair) and yes I remember that and it wasn't nice. Once I remember two boys putting their brief cases up either side of their head to represent my enormous Dumbo-esque lugs and that wasn't a great day either, but I got over it, I got good grades, have a happy family, plenty of friends, a good job and I reckon I'm an o.k bloke. It probably helped me in some way. I'm not advocating bullying and appreciate that in the extreme it can be very damaging but all kids will be picked on, teased a bit at some stage and bullies will eventually get found out in the real world. Most bullies were also the jocks and there was one in particular at my school and the teachers seemed to be scared of him as well. He would never get called up for the harassment he handed out, mainly because he was the biggest and strongest member of the first IX rugby team but he wouldn't bother me now. And afterall, he's probably breaking rocks or flipping hamburgers - he wasn't what you'd call, a reader.

Anyway, I think that Jake will be o.k and we'll teach him to stand up for himself or learn to tell jokes to win favour or rise above it and walk away. Some days he'll have a hard time which is nothing to do with having been born with a cleft and that will be just what he needs to learn how to get through life and he'll be absolutely fine.

Monday 16 November 2009

The last few weeks

On a previous post I alluded to a situation at work which has stopped me blogging as regularly as I would have liked. That situation is still ongoing but I hope closure is getting nearer. As soon as I can provide the details of that I will and hopefully posting frequency will return. Maybe I've used it as an excuse, as we're still in our happy lull and there's less to write about and therefore the pre-blog thinking process is more of a forced issue than an easy outpour. Dunno.

Anyway, Jake's great and is a very happy little boy most of the time. He still has a moment or two every day when he'll cry or get crotchety but in the main he's toddling about, playing, eating well, laughing and enjoying being one and a bit. We took him to get his first shoes at Clarks a few weeks back, which was a real nostalgia trip for us. Despite the geniuses in the store planning division deciding the best place for the baby section is the basement, meaning all buggies having to be left upstairs, it was great to hark back to childhood memories of the width machine and thumb test to see where the toe was. They don't do that once you're grown but for everyone's first few dozen pairs of shoes you get used to it. Something I'm not sure I'll get to is the £28 for a pair of shoes which literally fit in the palm of one hand. You always hear about parents moaning about the cost of kids shoes, clothes etc but up until now I've found child care fairly inexpensive. We get £80 odd every month and I reckon half of that goes on food and nappies. The other half goes towards his one day at nursery so we're not massively out of pocket, especially when you consider what we save on not going out like we used to.

We went back to Stoke Park last Thursday for Jake's second bonfire night. He was much more awake this time and despite his initial misgivings about the noise and the rain, he seemed to enjoy it. It's crazy when an event comes round for the second time. You remember how you felt the year before. We were literally feeling our way last November, now we take it all in our stride. You do get comfortable with looking after a small child and as your confidence grows you get more time to enjoy your time with them. Whether it's feeling relaxed about leaving him in front of 'in the night garden' whilst warming his milk or letting him reverse down the stairs, it's all part of the learning experience of being a parent and eventually you forget you're still learning. Of course this is all made possible by the fact that he sleeps all night now so we're doing it feeling human and not like zombies.

This weekend was really nice. Even though it rained, we spent the majority of it all together. Saturday afternoon opened our eyes to a world we never knew existed before Jake came along. Soft play at Merist Wood golf club and a childhood adventure land for Jake to run around in. Despite the ball pit smelling of a freshly soiled nappy it was brilliant to see his face as he was sliding down the ramp into it. He was also obsessed with the fire engine ride, interestingly the only thing which cost more once we were in, proving that parents will pay 50p to entertain their child if the attraction moves and makes noise.

Yesterday was spent at the supermarket. Another rite of passage for me to push Jake around in the bit kids sit in on the trolley and let him play with the products before putting them in. Then a family roast and milk and bedtime. Cliche of family life perhaps but for all the right reasons.

Thursday 12 November 2009

Corsets and Canapes

Another friend of mine has started a blog. Corsets and Canapes is a wedding blog with a difference. The author is writing it whilst planning her own wedding which we are all very much looking forward to. Izzy and Ben (a.k.a Toerag) are getting married on New Year's Eve this year and we've always wanted someone to do that. The perfect way to makes sure everyone's at the same party to see in the new year! In fact we almost did it ourselves but as I proposed in January we didn't want to wait a full year. Anyway this popular couple seem to be at someone else's wedding every other week so Izzy knows a thing or two on the subject.

I'm biased but it is a really good read and epitomises good bloggery insofar as it's a journal of experiences in real time. I remember from that hectic time of planning a wedding that it can take over your whole life, so writing about it ought to help, if not provide distraction from actually doing it.

In time the hope is that hobby will turn into day job (the holy grail for bloggers) and hers is a subject which could do just that. The wedding industry is certainly more lucrative than the cleft industry!

Anyway hop over to Corsets and Canapes and see what I'm on about.

Monday 2 November 2009

Remembering Mickey Bray - a true gent

Long before Jake was even a twinkle in my eye, we lost a great man. I knew Mickey Bray all my life, he was my dad's best mate and right hand man in his business. Of all of my parents' friends he was the one who I liked best and who always took time to talk and play with me. He never had kids of his own, preferring to keep cats, and perhaps that's one reason he and Jill, his wife, were so good to us. Christmas and birthday presents were always a bit special and they always made us feel a bit more grown up than we were.

We went to Disneyland as very young children and Mickey always recounted the same story about that trip. I think I'd just been on a gentle ride of some sort and was busy guzzling some red coloured drink when the American lady sat opposite us remarked,

'Gee, what a cute kid'

And that was my cue to puke all over her. Between them, my dad and Mickey must have told that story 50 times and it always made them smile. Of course I don't remember it but it definitely sounds like me.

When I was 11 or 12 we were living in a derelict dump on the corner of a plot that my dad was building our new house on. As a pre-teen it was an awesome place. We only lived in half of the house as the rest was damp and falling down in places. There were three or four rooms which were pretty scary places but fun to explore. There was no central heating and our back door handle was a toothbrush. My parents found it less fun for the two years that the new place took to go up and for the same reasons I wouldn't much fancy it now. There was the hole in their bedroom wall for one. Couple that with having to use the one room with a heater as lounge, dinning room, study and play area and you'll get the picture. There was one time (no, not at band camp) when the the electrics kept tripping out and we couldn't work out what was causing it. It continued on and off for a month or so until we realised it was the toaster. We'd been using the toaster on a daily basis ever since the electrics started to go. Eventually we found a dead mouse inside the toaster and I've not been able to eat raisin bread since.

There's no reason for telling you this other than to furnish my memory of that time. One Sunday afternoon Mickey and Jill came over to see my parents presumably for a cup of tea and a chat. Anyway I was outside playing and Mickey, a man who loved all things self built and mechanical decided to take it upon himself to build me a soap box car.

We spent the whole afternoon scouring the derelict garage for suitable items. We found a passable set of wheels from an ancient pram, a vegetable crate and along with other sundry pieces of wood, we (Mickey) put it all together and a fine feat of engineering it truly was.

The distance between old wreck and new build was around 50 metres and connected by a downhill stretch of flattened white chalk. Perfect for a soap box derby if we had a second soap box car which of course, we didn't. It didn't matter as my soap box car was more than enough fun for all of us. It actually worked and I spent the rest of the afternoon whizzing down the 'drive' and dragging it back up to have another go. Eventually, I crashed and it became a soap box write-off, sadly too far gone to justify a repair. But it didn't matter, that perfect afternoon is one of the clearest memories of my childhood and I'll never forget it.

In the mid-nineties Mickey, a man who never smoked and drank only on occasion, developed cancer. The cruelty of cancer is that it seems to affect those who deserve it least; those who have purposely put themselves at the other end of the asking-for-it spectrum sometimes still succumb to its indiscriminate clutches. Typically, Mickey fought it like a trooper, the bouts of sickness brought on by the chemo, endless therapy, biopsies, false hope, disappointment, every hurdle was met by a steely determination to beat this most horrible of plights.

A number of times when we all thought it might be beaten, the news came that it wasn't and eventually in July of 2006 it took him. He was very, very ill at the end and, sad to say it, I think the end was a relief for him. That he fought it so hard and for so long is true testament to a man who wasn't my uncle but who will always be my uncle Mickey.

His funeral was the day before we got married and the mixed emotions of that day and the one after are still palpable today. Although he wasn't there I like to think he was looking down and cheering Clare and me on.

Aside from my fond memories Mickey is remembered as something of a legend in the motor racing and hotrodding world. Always the tinkerer, Mickey raced Mini 7's and go karts and even built the original Pinball Wizard, a car he later sold to Keith Moon of The Who.

Below are a couple of links to the nice things people have had to say about this remarkable and universally loved man.


Friday 30 October 2009

A lull

The word 'lull' usually conveys a negative sense of not much happening. As if a bad thing. In this case the lull is exactly what I was after. I remember writing shortly after Jake's palate operation that I wanted the next year to zip past. Not that I was wishing away my time, but that years only tend to go by in the blink of an eye when nothing much happens. To clarify, again, I'm not saying I don't want anything to happen, but I don't want to change jobs, move house, get married, have a baby or take a baby to hospital again for a long time. Just some normality.

I'm even done with holidays; Clare and I always live for our trips to Spain but, having been away with Jake 3 times this year and separately once each on our own, it's nice to be able to enjoy now without having to plan.

So the lull is welcome but the lull is also a lull in Jake's development; again this is not negative. I'm not saying Jake isn't developing but he's just being Jake right now. He's walking so we're not waiting for him to walk, he's eating everything he can so we're not waiting for that and he's sleeping through 9 nights out of 10 so we're not waiting for that either. It's just Clare, Jake and I and we're just living our family life.

There's some stuff at work which has stopped me making more blog posts and added some stress but other than that it's pretty much normal. We're looking forward to Christmas but only in the regular sense of needing a break and wondering how Jake will find his second festive season.

At some stage next year Jake will either start talking coherent words, or, of course he won't, but it's not until then that the cleft thing will be raised. I am what some would call pessimistic but what I would call a realist, so knowing that 50% of cleft affected kids require speech therapy I'd bet on Jake being in the needing-it group. But that's cool, he'll get the therapy and will be able to speak fine soon enough, there's no hurry.

So there you have it, a blog post about having nothing to blog about. Which is exactly what I wanted!

Monday 26 October 2009

21st Century Mummy - a blog for mums (and dads) everywhere

A friend of mine has started writing a blog for mums everywhere. She's just quit her job to concentrate on a new career as a journalist (something I always wanted to be) and from what I've read so far, she won't struggle to find work.

She's writing about everything that affects mums everywhere both old hands and new. From pregnancy and birth to childcare, shopping and travel and of course, everything about being a mum in the 21st century

The link is below, please feel free to hop over and check it out.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Never say 'I can't' again...

I saw the following video on a Facebook post and I defy you not to be impressed. The link I saw (which I can't find on You Tube) started with a series of statements before this video. They were as follows:

This is a true story...

A son asks his father, 'Dad would you run a marathon with me?'

Despite his age and a heart condition, his father says 'Yes'

And they run that marathon together.

Then the son asks him 'Will you run another marathon with me?'

Again his father says 'Yes' and they run a second marathon.

Then the son asks him 'Would you run the Iron man with me?'

For those of you who do not know, the Iron man is the world's toughest triathlon. A 4Km swin, followed by a 180Km cycle and finished off with a 42Km marathon.

Again, the father says 'Yes'.

This story may not have touched you yet. Now watch the video below.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

"Jake" - coming to a theatre near you...

Recently I spent a small fortune on a new pc. I thought, early last year, when I spent a small fortune on a laptop that this wouldn't have been necessary, at least not as soon as this. The laptop was £800 which is a lot of dough for me and had all the features I needed: 2Gb Ram, dual cores for improved multitasking, dvd burner, fast graphics etc, etc. What I hadn't realised was that when I bought my HD video camera it wouldn't be man enough to edit the footage.

I always do a lot of research when it comes to tech purchases and the Canon HF-10 was no exception. My basement is fully HD'd up, 40 inch flat screen, PS3, blu-ray, the whole charabanc. I have an OCD-like predisposition which forbids me from buying anything which is either functional-but-bottom-of-the-range or that has the potential to become out of date within the year I purchase it. This, unfortunately means that I end up buying items which are more expensive and often, prone to faults. See my posts on buggies for instance.

Part of my research was to look into video formats and what was the most user friendly for the novice editor, i.e. me. I wanted something which I could connect to my pc, let me download the footage and make something nice. I hate home movies with a passion; they're all the same. Endless panning of views, zooming in and out, the same unaccomplished commentary, the standard hands covering the face of embarrassed women and so on. I think that home movies are only interesting when spliced, cut together, overlaid with titles and put to music. Cue new hobby or so I thought.

Being a keen amateur photographer and a brand loyalist, I chose the Canon. Canon has adopted the AVCHD ('Advanced Video Codec High Definition' if you care) format for tapeless HD recording. As a piece of hardware it really is impressive and the quality of the footage is excellent when viewed on its monitor or via an HD cable into the telly. The problems only start when you transfer it to your pc.

I appreciate that Canon is not a programming company but it has chosen to ship what is a very advanced hardware product with woefully inadequate software. Given that you could easily shoot professional quality video, the editing tools which accompany the purchase allow you to do little more than view and cut chunks of the footage out. There is no timeline, video transitions, effects or sound options etc. I have a 20 minute rule when it comes to software which means that if I can't get my head around something in that time, it's clearly not been designed properly. This is normally more about me and my lack of skill than the developer's interface design shortcomings, however in this case the software lasted about half that time until I uninstalled it.

I'm sure everyone's had that moment where they buy something they thought they really wanted, for more than they could afford (£650 in this case) only to discover that it doesn't live up to expectations or that they needed something else to make it work. It's like when you're really out of your depth, like buying an expensive sailing boat before you've learned to sail. Or something.

Luckily we have people at work who know about these things so I install a copy of Adobe Premiere Pro which is similar to the industry leader, Final Cut Pro which you may have heard of. Turns out that CS3 doesn't support AVCHD natively so had to 'source' a plug in for this which could have cost a further £150 on top of the £500 + for Premiere. Also turns out that 2Gb or Ram and just the 2 processors wouldn't even get me close for editing. I could view a 5 second clip but still had to reboot every time.

Eventually I sold the video camera at a £200 loss but do have a year's worth of Jake sitting on my pc. I bought a Panasonic Lumix TZ7 digital camera which also shoots HD, albeit 720 as opposed to 1080. Much more useful as Clare takes it everywhere and we'll get a lot more of Jake that way.

Anyway the point is that up until I bought my new pc, the new hobby I was so excited about just over a year ago has been well and truly on hold. At long long last I have the new pc, installed newer versions of the software, learned how to use it and am finally putting together nicely edited video of Jake's first year. The software is quite intimidating at first but I'm slowly getting to grips with how to create subclips from larger clips (the ones where I do a lot of panning and zooming and Clare covers her face a lot), add mp3 files, add still images etc and cut the whole thing together. It's quite addictive but also time consuming. I'm up to around 40 mins of the final video and it's taken me 6 or 7 hours so far but I'm enjoying it immensely.

It's incredible looking back at videos of Jake, especially before his lip was fixed. It's still not shocking to me but I notice it more now than I did then. He's changed massively in a year and although the video thing was a hassle I'm so pleased I bothered to get the footage I did.

The finished video will be too big for You Tube but I'll try to break it up and put some up here when I'm done.

Friday 9 October 2009

And the Oscar goes to....

I spent yesterday trying to think what sort of evening we would have. I didn't know if there'd be 500 or 50 people. I made a sensible guess that I would more likely be part of a larger number than a select few. In the end I reckon there were maybe 120 ish guests so between us, to make up over 1% of the audience made us feel particularly privileged.

I'll start by saying it was a really great night and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I thought I'd been to the Berkerley before when trying to flog them a website years ago but I now think that may have been the Burlington. Whatever. The Berkerley is pretty swanky and after sat nav had failed to get us anywhere close enough to be useful and several heated words later, we eventually found a parking spot and managed to only be 20 minutes late. The room was filling up and we sipped our sparkling whilst I scanned the room for signs of Martin. As it turned out he couldn't make it due to last minute business complications. It was a shame as I was looking forward to catching up and more importantly saying thanks for the invite. Perhaps next time.

Clare and I were chatting when an American chap came forward, stuck out his hand and introduced himself as Brian Mullaney, the co-founder of the Smile Train, as if the last part of the intro was necessary. I was a little shocked and almost star struck but needn't have been. He seems almost matter of fact about his achievements but he still speaks with passion about the job which lies ahead. We chatted for a while - it was him who told me Martin had been caught up with work - talked about the blog and Twitter etc and then went into the banquet room.

We sat on a table of 9, closest to the stage and had the privilege of sitting next to Mr. Mullaney Snr., a former vice president of Gillette. Shortly after Brian took to the stage and gave a riveting speech detailing the back story of the Smile Train. Photos accompanied the talk via two large projector screens. Most of the story I had heard in parts before but Brian has such a business-like way of telling it. Showing the difference that the 'teach a man to fish' ideology makes over the more traditional missionary approach. I could be wrong but I believe the stats read something along the lines that in the first year that the Smile Train took hold some 8,000 cleft repairs were made possible and that it would take 30 years to achieve the same using the alternative method. One slide showed the number of operations performed over the ten years with an ever increasingly vertical trend. This was compared against a very similar graph, although this one was for the number of donors. Currently the Smile Train has 1.4m donors and although I have no idea what that equates to in terms of finance, I can imagine it is a huge amount of money and this is obviously a major reason why the problem is being tackled so effectively.

One of the things which resounded most was that unlike many health problems which affect so many such as malaria or AIDS, there is no search for the cure, we have the cure and it takes 45 minutes! No funding is provided by UK or US governments, this has all been achieved through charitable giving.

Brian went on to make a couple of points that I have written about. The first being the fact that they will fix more Indian and Chinese clefts this year than the number of children who will be born with one and that he hopes we'll all be back in a few years at the Smile Train's 'going out of business' party! Also they touched on the greater number of people who will have been positively affected by the good that ST does. I.E those families, villages, communities who have better quality of life, hope, education etc following a cleft repair to one of their number. I'm glad we're onthe same page, I felt pretty flippant when I made those observations before.

He said that the finishing line is in sight. Apparently the backlog was 4 million un-repaired clefts before they started. The next half million repairs will happen in half the time the first half million did, so this thing is scaling up at an alarming rate. I honestly think that the Smile Train might be one of the first charities ever to eradicate the backlog of a problem and be easily able to contain the ongoing problem within its founder's lifetime. That has got to be the ultimate motivator for Brian and his team. He showed pictures of a man who'd spent 40 years waiting for a 45 minute operation which changed his life forever. He also told stories of girls who were literally thrown away at birth in shoe boxes on rubbish tips as their parents couldn't cope with having given birth to a deformed child. One of the speakers said that in India to be born a woman is already a disadvantage but to be born a woman with a cleft is unthinkable.

Dinner was delicious; a trio of mushroom soup, risotto and flat mushroom with parmesan to start (Clare had the alternative, she hates all fungi) followed by fillet of beef with rosti and veg and finished with an apple struddle and ice cream. Coffee and chocolates accompanied the final speeches. The last speaker was an Indian man, Dr Hirji Adenwalla, who was fixing clefts, one smile at a time, long before the Smile Train ever came to town. Aged just 20 he set up camp in a disused hospital, his new wife / untrained anaesthetist in tow and with rudimentary medical supplies started making magic happen. When the Smile Train did come along the partnership which formed thereafter has been making history ever since. He said;

'To see a child smile is one of the most wonderful things one can experience however to see a child unable to smile is one of the worst things one can experience.'

This man spoke with such reverence and you can see the passion he still has today and it's truly awe inspiring. He mentioned that along with the donors, and children who are helped, the surgeons gain so much from this process. He spoke to the audience about how, even as caring donors they will never know what the parents feel when they collect their child or they will not see the look on those parents' faces when they see their child fixed for the first time. We do though, we know that absolutely. I shook his hand afterwards and thanked him but also told him, we know just how it feels. A lovely man.

The agenda made reference to the Smile Pinki Oscar success but it never occurred to me that the actual Oscar might be there. Brian made a point of inviting us up to hold it and take a photo or two and I jumped at the chance. Also, it seems I didn't have to play the stalker as Brian was only too willing to pose for a photo as you'll see below. We only had an iphone hence the quality but at least we captured the moment.

There's so much more I wish I could remember so I'll update this if it comes back to me but for now, I'm really grateful we got to go and I believe in the charity even more than I did before.

We were all given a copy of Smile Pinki to go home with but you can order yours for nothing at the Smile Train website. They're giving a million of them away, Brian said 'It amazes me how cheap it is to distribute a film when you own it'. Cheap only if you discount 10 years of unbelievable hard work and all of the millions raised!

Thursday 8 October 2009

Smile Train Dinner is tonight!

The time spent on the Kiddigate affair has almost lead me to forget more important events. Tonight is the Smile Train 10 year anniversary celebration dinner. It's at the Berkerley hotel in fancy London and starts at 7pm. We're going to drive as the logistics of taking the train are too precarious and wouldn't leave much room for error or unforeseen events. Jake's at my mum's and will stay there until we get back around midnight later so it does work out o.k.

I have no idea what to expect. I reckon it'll be reasonably intimate, it seems that the audience has been hand picked to an extent, something which makes me feel both privileged and unworthy at the same time.

I like events like this, everyone's in a good mood and small talk (which I hate) comes easy. This time though, the talk will not be small, it'll be something Clare and I are expert in. Even Brian, Mr. Cleft as he could rightly be called, doesn't have a child who was born with a cleft lip and / or palate. I'm really looking forward to hearing the stories and getting more of an inside track on what makes the organisation tick. For all the research one can do and words one can write nothing will compare to actually being there. The main man and main men and women will all be there and so will we.

I'm taking my camera and hope to get something to put on here. I have no idea what. I am definitely not the sort of person who'd go up to a celebrity in the street and ask them to pose with me for a picture but I will try to get a picture of Brian. In this case I think I might ask him to pose with me, I almost feel justified but will feel stupid while posing! I reckon he'll be pretty accessible, hope so but we'll see.

Anyway, work to do.

Kiddicare customer service - a result!

I love to be proved wrong in these cases. It seems ridiculous to be surprised when common sense prevails but surprised, in this case I am. Despite the fact that I had to wait in the Kiddicare telephone queue listening to 'slam dunk da funk' by 5IVE on loop for 15 minutes, and despite the fact that I was making the call two days after I was meant to be receiving it, I did get to speak to Lisa.

Lisa, the customer services supervisor listened patiently while I explained to her the basics of customer services and how online businesses ought to operate. I explained the point about consumer opinions being every bit as visible as those of independent reviewers and that prospective customers gravitate towards the web before any significant purchase. I told her to Google 'Ryan Air Sucks' and see my post in 2nd and 3rd position and then to Google 'Kiddicare customer service' and see the 3 customer reviews mentioning words like 'appalling', 'abysmal', 'disappointing' etc. Anyway she got my point and promised to go check the lever personally.

She promised to call me back and she did. This in itself was a milestone given our experience to date. What happened next is a consumer victory to make even Lynn Faulds Wood proud. She agreed with me. She said that she'd tested our buggy, one from the shop floor (they do have one branch afterall) and one from the warehouse. All three levers seem stiff and inconsistent in their operation. The resolution, a full refund!

So, there you have it. Many people give up and just can't be bothered when it comes to bad service and I get stick from those who say I complain too much. But I seriously believe that, by not pushing the issue and just accepting things, poor service is perpetuated and things won't improve. It's frustrating and hard work but eventually as long as you have a point, you'll find someone who agrees and who cares about the place they work and its reputation. You don't always need to go to the top either. There are plenty of people willing to help but sadly they more often than not sit behind inept and poorly trained automatons who are only there to pay the bills. Customer service operators, like waiting staff are looked down upon in this country, as if it's not a proper job so you can hardly blame them. In the States, service is EVERYTHING and although I'm sure you can find poor service if you look for it, those people on the front line do seem to care.

Check out the video below on Zappos.com. It's an online shoe store. So what, right? Actually no. This is a shoe store which people evangelise about because of guess what? Great Customer Service. These people give you free shipping, both ways so if it's not right send it back for nothing. Oh and you've got a year to make that decision. The CEO answers some of the customer services calls from his desk in the open plan office. Also, if they're out of stock, employees are instructed to look online and send an email to the customer with up to 3 links to competitors' websites where they the shoes are in stock. The result is that people tend to buy more and more shoes from Zappos instead of anywhere else and tell everyone they know how good Zappos.com is. People like me blog about it and tell people like Kiddicare about it and the good word spreads. It really is that simple.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Kiddicare - still waiting

We never received the call back from the Kiddicare supervisor. Clare tried calling them at 17:20 last night but their phone line was constantly engaged. At 17:30 it switched to a recorded message which said the offices were now closed. Funny that the website is still open for business though. A cynic might think that the phone was taken off the hook for the last ten minutes so as no caller could delay going home time. Not me though, no siree.

Whilst we're waiting for the elusive call back, check out what happens when you Google Kiddicare customer service.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Kiddicare - a test of customer services

A few weeks back we bought the Maclaren Quest Sport stroller. It has been a breath of fresh air. Don't get me wrong, the Quinny Buzz has been a faithful servant over the last year and of all the travel systems I still rate it highly. It's just a bit heavy now that Jake's got heavier. It was a real work horse and we still use it when we need more space for shopping and such but we wanted a cut down version for, well, strolling. It's also great for holidays, you can literally open and collapse it one handed and it weighs nothing. Perfect for when you need to collapse it at the steps up to the plane so you still get a good seat.

Anyway, it has a fault. The mechanism at the back which you push with your foot when you want to collapse it gets stuck so as you have to bend forward and wiggle it loose with your hand. You may think this is not too much of a hassle but do it a few times every day and you'll see the problem. Also, at £130 this wasn't the cheapest we could have bought and besides, it should work as it's meant to.

So, we email Kiddicare and get a series of frustrating replies. The first is to ask us for a photograph. They want a photograph of a buggy which has a stuck lever. The point is that the level is stuck in a position it has every right to be in. A static picture shows only a perfectly good lever, it's just that we can't push it with our foot. Perhaps they'd prefer us to go to the trouble of recording and editing a video? Anyway alarm bells started to ring.

The next email is a series of instructions so patronising, they could have come from Sky TV themselves. The ones where they ask you if your satellite box is plugged in. Anyway we go back to them to say we've tried it, and believe us, there is a fault, we're not doing this for fun etc.

Then they tell us we must pay them £29.95 to have it collected and if they do not find a fault then they keep our money and send it back to us. This is like saying 'we don't believe you but you can pay us for our time to prove it'. Incensed, I called the technical department and spoke to the only person there who sounded like they knew what they were talking about - I should point out at this point that every email we had received was peppered with spelling and grammar mistakes and that when I put this to the technician, he told me that their email system does not have a spell checker. In 2010, no spell checker! At best it shows that the emails are going out unchecked and at worse it shows that people are checking their emails and missing fundamental mistakes which is more worrying. A mistake is fine, a checked and missed mistake is pure incompetence. (God I hope there's not too many in this post!).

So after a few diagnostics with the technician, he concurred that there was a fault and put me back to the customer services operator after telling me the fee would be waived. We then were told we had to box up the buggy ready for collection. My loft is full of every box to every product I have ever purchased. Except one. For some reason I recycled the Maclaren box within minutes of getting it home. Typical. Admittedly the 'box' we sent the buggy back in was a rather makeshift affair but it did constitute a protected package of sorts.

Yesterday we received an answer phone message saying that no fault had been found and we'd have to pay the £29.95 to have the buggy released back to us. After we called back and were, frankly, insulted by a woman who could only say 'there's no fault' and 'we've all tested it', we are now waiting for a call back from the supervisor.

Depending on the outcome of that call, I may well have to write a letter to someone further up the pecking order. I hope that I do not have to write another 'Ryan Air sucks' type post but I can feel one coming on.

Web-only companies have only two things to offer. One is price and the other is customer service. Customer service should be a cost centre, not a profit centre. By providing excellent after sales customer service any cost associated with it, ought to be negated via word of mouth recommendation and repeat purchase. It really isn't rocket science.

Watch this space.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Another week

Just like any other I suppose, although Jake is coming along at an alarming rate. He only goes to nursery once a week but it seems to make a real difference to his development. In particular his walking and general standing. He seems much more steady when standing still and more confident going forward. Before he would start his toddle and couldn't believe his luck so whilst his brain was saying 'run' his legs were saying 'hang on...' and he would lurch forward, hopefully within adult reach. Now he is able to keep his excitement under control and walk and walk until he reaches his destination. We're not confident enough to just leaving him wandering around but it won't be long.

He also recognises the achievement we think. It would be hard not to, to be fair, given our reaction every time he completes 6 feet or so. Perhaps we should save some of the enthusiasm for other major events so he won't expect too much. He does seem genuinely happy to be walking around though and is very mobile generally now. Whether it's the proper crawling, toddling, cruising or pushing the brick trolley, he's on the move. Sitting is so last season.

A downside of this is bath time. Undoubtedly my favourite time with Jake to date has been every other or third night when it's 'bath time with Daddy'. The routine would be run bath, check temperature, add toys. Prepare Jake, let him see the water, control his excitement and then plonk him in. He'd sit up playing whilst I would shampoo his hair and apply wash to all parts above water. After more play I would lie him back, whereupon he would kick and kick until all newly exposed parts were clean and all exposed parts of bathroom and Daddy were soaking wet. He loved it, I loved it. Now however is a different story. The first part remains the same. It's when I need to clean the parts other beers can't reach that things go pear shaped. I try to lie him on his back and he does two things. The first is to lock his arms rigid against the sides of the bath and the second is to look as if the end of the world is approaching. It's a look of sheer terror, the kind you see in cartoons when the character strapped to the conveyor belt is approaching the chopping / sawing / drilling device. Given his distress I desist and stand him up to continue his ablutions. When finished he'll sit back down and instantly lurch forward onto his front. So he's lying down in the bath on his elbows and appears to be trying to swim. Manically. At first I thought he was doing it because he liked it but on inspection his expression is similar to the one previously described. So I put him back on his bottom. He then relurches, same expression. It gets to the point where I have to hold his arm to stop him drowning himself. The process is repeated until I can get the towel and haul him out. It's really annoying; what was a pleasure has become a chore in a matter of days. Evening bath routine is quite important and I guess will become more so when he has them more regularly, although by then he ought to be more able to get himself from front to back to sitting again. or perhaps he'll realise how ridiculous all the lurching is.

Anyway far too much description there, this was only meant to be a quick post. More soon...

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Smile Train Dinner

As I mentioned yesterday we have received a very nicely put together invite package to the Smile Train 10th year celebration dinner. Personally signed by Brian, the invite explains that the organisation doesn't have much time for parties on account of how busy they are fixing the world's smiles, one at a time. And the stats prove it's true. I've mentioned on here how the Smile Train have made over half a million cleft repair operations possible in just 10 years but the most interesting fact, I believe, is this one;

"This year the Smile Train will be able to fix more clefts in India and China than the amount of babies born with one"

I had to read that a couple of times because it's hard to believe, especially when you consider than nearly 1 Chinese household in 10 is affected by a birth defect. Granted not all, or even the majority will be clefts but it's a huge number all the same. And that's just China, India will have similarly alarming figures. Plus, don't forget, the Smile Train won't just be working in these two countries; they'll be helping thousands of others in more than 75 of the world's poorest countries as well.

Anyway, back to the point, which is that in China and India, the Smile Train, after only ten years will actually be helping now to reduce the overall number of children born with clefts and people who have suffered with them all of their lives. That really is incredible in the true sense of the word. Has ever a charity after such a short period of time achieved such a massive turnaround, achieved a level of success which matches its original goals so closely? I don't know but I can't think many would have.

I don't have any hard facts to hand but can you imagine where we might be in another 10 years? There is obviously still a huge worldwide backlog but talk about 'we're getting there'. That used to be British Rail's slogan which was rightly mocked and ridiculed but here's an organisation that could absolutely claim it.

I'm sure if you talked to anyone at Smile Train and especially Brian, they'd tell you that this is still the beginning, the surface is only just scratched but in terms of stage one we must surely be approaching job done? Conceivably there could come a situation actually in our life time when globally the number of unrepaired clefts could be dwindling and when the problem becomes 'contained'. A time even when there are no unrepaired clefts left and where the only operations left to do are those we don't need yet i.e for babies yet to be born. Perhaps I'm being naive with enormous rose tinted glasses on but this is surely the original driving force and motivation behind the doctrine of the Smile Train's philosophy. This would actually mean that fewer surgeons would be needed. Ironically the more successful the Smile Train is, the smaller it could become, the polar opposite of every other aspirational, ambitious enterprise. And that must be the overall goal for every charity, to no longer be needed. The difference is this charity could achieve it, or something very close to it. I admit this is pretty flippant, to suggest that such an important organisation which has and will have done so much to no longer be needed to be around but it is a point worth making.

The final thought I have is that, whilst the stats on the 500,000 ops to date are impressive the effects must reach so much further. For every family who benefits directly by having a cleft-affected member fixed, there will be those around that family who learn and share with others. Those other people will know others affected and can pass on the word of this organisation doing good things. That will give hope and understanding. Imagine that for every operation one community learns that a) pregnant mothers ought to take follic acid where before they'd have no clue b) there's a possibility that child / adult b,c, and d in their midst may be operated on free of charge and soon, and that most importantly c) a cleft is not something to be ashamed of, it is what it is, get over it.

So when you add it all up, 500,000 is really the tip of an enormous worldwide iceberg.

Monday 21 September 2009

Just like the old days. Sort of...

So we got back from Spain on Friday and had a really nice time. Our friends, Sarah and Hamish, along with Sadie, their beautiful seven month old baby and Sarah's dad (sorry don't know his age) had been at the villa for a week beforehand and then Sarah's father went home and we joined the three remaining Tullochs. We've been to the villa a few times with them and there are a few special moments of each day that we all remember fondly. These include the morning breakfast followed by sunbathing session, Hamish and me playing table tennis in the garage or kerbie (where you have to bounce a ball off the opposite side of the pool so you can catch the rebound, ideally without having to jump in to do so), eating at the beach and most of all, watching the sun go down with a glass or two whilst the bbq is getting up to temperature.

For the most part we got to do all of that so it felt just like the good old days. Holidaying with kids isn't so much hassle at all when you're with friends and the space to get on with it. Having the villa makes like so much easier, I think a hotel holiday is some years off for us just because of the logistics of it all. In a villa you're at home...make as much mess and noise as you want and spread out without worrying about the other guests and how pissed off they're getting.

I love the idea of going on a Mark Warner type holiday when they're older so they can meet other children in kids' clubs but for now, until they'll actually remember I can't really see the point in the extra money. Jake has less than a year of free (still £25) flying left so we need to make the most of it. He's been on six flights in his short life so far and even though he had a few moments on the way home, he was been as good as gold as we could have hoped for.

I used to get so stressed in airports to my lack of patience but now, because I know that things will be more difficult, I've chilled out a lot. Travelling with kids is basically as much hassle as you want to make it; by accepting that there's more stuff and things will take longer you can actually make it a lot easier. Getting wound up and shouting a lot (very much my previous M.O) just winds you up even more. I'm really pleased (smug even) that I've managed to calm down (with the exception of my ridiculous over charging by Ryan Air) whilst going through airports. Maybe I've matured or maybe the bastards have just ground me down.

We took Jake to the beach a couple of times, the second more successful than the first as it wasn't quite so sweltering. He could crawl along - forgot to mention that he learnt to do proper grown up hands and knees crawling while we were on holiday - almost until he was at someone else's sun lounger before we'd have to go get him. He did put his entire face in the sand at one point but this taught him that sand doesn't taste too good and tends also to block the nose.

He had a cold virtually all week but seemed in good spirits as did Sadie. They both slept well on the whole and I think the pair of them got something from spending lots of time together. I think they'll be great friends and I cannot wait to see them wanting to spend all day long on the beach while Hamish and I sit watching them all day from the bar!

I remember writing in this post about how the new Spain, i.e the one with Jake wasn't as much fun as the old Spain, the Peseta one. Well it's still not the same but then neither are any of us. In fact I don't think we'd have wanted to go to the foam party last week anyway. It was nice to wake up without a hangover (or at least with one which only lasted an hour or two) and this is basically because instead of opening bottles three and four and turning in at 3am, we were all sound asleep by midnight. It sounds sad and I do wish we were a bit crazier but when you know you're only ever a scream away from a 5am start to your day, the motivation to stay up all night tends to wane somewhat.

Anyway, it was a great trip and exactly what I needed after the weekend of drunkenness in Ibiza the week before. It's going to be brilliant to go back year after year and see how Jake's take on our favourite part of the world develops.

I'll post some photos when I get a minute.

In other news we got our official invite to the Smile Train evening whilst we were away and we're very much looking forward to it. More about that in the run up to the event.

Yesterday was also the combined NCT babies first birthday party. Time truly has flown, we've know these seven other couples for well over a year now and it feels like a lot longer in some cases. I know I've said it a few times, but it really was the best thing we could have done to find so many decent, like minded people going through the same period of their lives at the same time as us.

Lastly, and by far most importantly, our great friends Rob and Josie had their second boy pop into the world last week. So hello to George Jacobs, (already sounds like a proper, traditional English gent) and congratulations to Rob and Josie but also to Oliver who has a little brother to boss around. It looks, like predicted at their scans, that George has Down's Syndrome. More about that later as I want to learn about it, however the Jacobs' are well ready for this. Their journey, whilst certainly different to that of others at times, will be just as engaging, hard work, wonderful, emotionally draining and ultimately rewarding as any other. Good luck to them.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Poo Pants is 1!!!

What a difference a year makes. At 10.40am September 8th 2008, Clare was just an hour away from starting to push. We'd gone into hospital at midnight and she was about 4cm dilated and we were sent straight into the maternity room. The realisation that this was 'it' was a scary and exciting time. As Jake was on his way 2 weeks early, I was in denial right up until the ward sister told us we were in the right place and a baby was happening. I'd been convinced we would be sent on our way to sit it out. I didn't want that so I was pleased with the news.

Clare had an epidural at around 3am and for the next 9 hours we waited, got some sleep, chatted and made a few calls. I think it was midday when the midwife instructed her to start pushing. An hour and a half in I was told to get scrubbed up and into my blues as Clare was busy signing consent forms and being prepared for theatre. The ventouse was an option but they decided she was too far along and needed to conserve energy and went straight for the dreaded forceps.

I'll never forget the emotions I was feeling before Jake was born, quivering with emotion, drained and utterly worried. I hate hospitals and was concerned that things weren't going exactly according to plan. The feeling which will stay strongest with me though, was when he was pulled out and unceremoniously dangled in front of us.

'It's a boy'.

In all it's cliched glory, that phrase spouted triumphantly from me and the pair of us burst into tears while the maternity staff cleaned him up. He was given to me whilst Clare was being seen to and I sat there, Jake - even before he was Jake - cradled in my arms, staring at me and me staring back with utter wonder, exhilaration, relief and love. I remember looking right past the cleft, no longer worrying about what had been worrying us for so long, just concentrating on his beautiful little face.

UPDATE: In the last few weeks I have learned that my darling wife felt my emotional outpouring at the birth of our first child made me sound like, and I quote, 'a pansy'! I'll admit to being overwhelmed and was indeed rather tearful but I am still puzzled at this. I could have been a typical alpha male, defined by my stoicism and simply expected (and therefore got) my son and heir to pop into the world. We'd have all had a cup of tea and been home in time for bed. But, no, I cried tears of joy and relief when my son was born, yet 'er indoors thinks this makes me less of a man. Well boo to her! Women eh?

It's a real rite of passage being present at the birth of your first child. Something which changes you irreversibly forever. It'd been patronising to say it's what changes you from boy to man - many things do that - but becoming a father, for me at least, changed me in a heartbeat. I definitely recommend it, even it is the single most scary thing one can endure.

Since then a wee bit has happened. After all the sleepless nights, crying for hours on end, Clare having to endure the breast pump, the consultations, the horrible operations, I can say it's all been worth it 110% and I'd it again tomorrow.

Over the last few weeks, days even, Jake has transformed. He's like a greased weasel cruising around the lounge, he's making new babbling noises, he's had his first day at nursery and today is 1.

I went to Ibiza at the weekend for a stag do and it's the longest I've been away since he was born. I really missed him, it sounds dramatic but it almost hurt and to get back and see him and Clare yesterday was awesome, felt like a real family home coming. I was very jaded after a weekend of partying though!

So, Jake, Happy Birthday son and thanks for an incredible year - even the sleepless nights - and here's to all the exciting times ahead.

Love Daddy

Thursday 27 August 2009

Interview with Brian Mullaney

I've always thought of myself as an ideas man with something of an entrepreneurial mindset. However the more things I try which don't come to fruition only serve to weaken my motivation, undermine my resolve. That said, real entrepreneurs need failure.

In the States, a failed business is almost a prerequisite for future success. It's worn like a badge of honour, stripes earned in the hard battle of business. In the UK, people who start a business which fails are seen by some as fools, yet those who enjoy even a modicum of success are revered by the same people. Many of the wealthiest self-starters have been bust, dusted themselves down and succeeded at the next attempt, or third or fourth. The desire or need to succeed is the driving force and what sets them apart from those happy in employment and especially those unhappy in employment whilst wishing they had the gumption to break free.

The UK and especially the UK press, loves a failure; easier to mock having never tried than to try, fail and risk being mocked. It's pretty negative when you consider how many people think or believe they have a business in them. Americans get a bad wrap when it comes to their patriotism, jocks chanting 'U.S.A, U.S.A...' don't help, but the American Dream and all it stands for drives many regular Joes to become pretty special Joes. A lack of formal class system may help; every man is born equal. Of course all men are not born equal but the belief of a level playing field is a great motivator when the gun goes off.

It bothers me, having had a small business (which didn't necessarily fail insofar as I got a reasonable price for it) that didn't set the world alight, my motivation to do it all again is waning. I remember when setting up Studley's how pumped up I was that I was doing something I enjoyed and that I was in charge and that it was all my own work and what the future might hold. It ran for just under 18 months and I had the most stressful but fulfilling time. Not financially fulfilling I might add but I did get a lot of satisfaction. I sold because I lost my nerve and needed the money; a proper entrepreneur would have remortgaged and cracked on. Who knows where he'd have got - the guy I sold it to shut up shop 6 months after I assigned the lease and he was selling all the types of stuff my doubters were encouraging me to sell.

Anyway, I'm writing all this because of an interview I just read with Brian Mullaney, the founder of The Smile Train. The Smile Train posted the link on Twitter and, as he will be at the dinner we're invited to in October I thought it would be a good opportunity to find out about the man. To say he's been successful is an understatement. It seems like he's very persuasive and got a lot of very influential people on board. He started an ad agency, ran it for six years, made so much money he could do pretty much whatever he wanted. Instead of buying the boat and joining the golf club he decided to start a charity. He runs it just like a business though, hiring and firing, paying proper rates for good people and ultimately he raises $100m a year and has just 42 staff. To date his organisation has fixed over 500,000 smiles which makes him not just an entrepreneurial businessman, but also something of a philanthropist and inspiration. I'm sure he pays himself well but why the hell not, I think he probably deserves it!

Success isn't defined by starting the next Web 2.0 hit or making a million dollar bonus in the city, it's about believing in what you're doing, acheiving your goals - whatever they are - and then acheiving some more and never giving up.

The full article is here.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Now I know

Growing up there were a few stories my folks told me about near death experiences my sister and I went through. There was one where my parents both felt something was wrong upstairs; a sixth sense, intuition, call it what you want but they got to my sister's room and she'd turned blue. My dad picked her up and gave the good old fashioned slap and blue turned back to pink. Horrible stuff.

Then there was the time, as a 3 year old I casually climbed onto the window sill of my first floor bedroom and was happily playing whilst looking out of the open window. Seeing me, my sister quickly went downstairs to fetch my parents, who rushed back upstairs and plucked me from my perch before I plopped out and changed history.

The most told story is one involving a boiled sweet. The kind of sweet you don't give to small children. Happily sucking away, I must have sucked a wee bit too hard just at the time the sweet had sufficiently reduced in size and at its slipperiest and it got stuck. I'm told I started choking and waving frantically. Blinded by panic, my mum screamed for Len, our ageing builder at the time, who promptly turned me upside down and administered an almighty whack which dislodged the sweet and allowed me to start breathing again.

Whilst interested, I guess I always dismissed the stories as moments in my life like the first day at a new school or removing the stabilisers. It wasn't until yesterday, I realised how my parents would have felt or the potential alternative route things may have taken, had the correct action not been taken or worked properly.

I mentioned that Jake had taken his first steps on yesterday's post and now we're encouraging him to try it on his own, get more confidence. I was home at lunchtime yesterday and he was standing next to his cot and holding on to the bars. As a test I got one of his favourite toys (moo cow) and sat on the bed opposite, beckoning. To my amazement, he let go of the bars and walked directly over to me and his bovine prize. I walked him straight away to go to tell mummy who was hovering our bathroom. I propped him up against our bed and was telling her all about this genius she bore when I heard a huge thud.

Jake had started walking along the side of the bed until he got to the bit which is covered with a sort of silk throw thing which covers the duvet. This tends to slide off our bed during the night as it is pretty lightweight, so it's not much surprise that Jake grabbing it would have the same result. Problem was that he was balancing off of it.

Ordinarily when he falls over, there's a split second and the crying and tears start. This time, nothing, I picked him and he made the face I never want to see again. It's the face he pulls when he's about to unleash hell. Mouth open, red face, wide eyes, lungs full and poised. As I held him up it was as if he'd been frozen in time. For what was about 5 seconds, but felt considerably longer, he held the pre-scream look. Didn't blink, breathe or move a muscle. We instantly knew this was a worse than usual bang to the head. I moved him into my arms and he went from bright red to milk white, his eyes rolling back in his head. His breathing was going from not at all to shallow half breaths. We were quickly onto 999 and trying to hold it together. Adrenalin kicked in and we were both shaking.

The operator told us to lie him down and as I put him on the sofa the scream came. To say I was relieved to hear it is a huge understatement. Crying equals breathing and breathing equals, among other things, not dying. The ambulance turned up a few minutes later and by the time the paramedics came in, he was even half smiling. We felt a bit fraudulent but they said we'd done the right thing and they took him to hospital for the relevant checks. After two rounds of eye, blood, oxygen and head massage checks, naturally separated by a three hour wait in a sweaty pediatric A & E unit, he was given the all clear and we went on our way.

Considering how much hospital time we've had, this was the first unplanned 'emergency' visit we've made. I know some people seem to live at A & E just for a bruised knee or a runny nose, but that's what it's there for and you only get to experience how good the system is when you need it most.

So there's the first story we'll be boring Jake with when he gets older. The first of many he won't really appreciate until his first born goes arse over tit and smashes his head on the floor.

Monday 24 August 2009

Jake's first steps

We had one of those moments on Saturday. One of the moments you'll remember forever and one you'll always remember where you were when it happened. The older generation always refer to the remembering where they were when they heard about JFK's assassination. We'll all remember where it was we heard about the twin towers. But more importantly for us, we'll remember the living room at 7 Artillery Terrace.

It was there that our beloved boy took his first solo steps. I reckon he could have done it any time over the last few weeks since he's been cruising and holding on to stuff since then. All I did was let go (I'm sure there's some deep metaphor here). He had two choices. Fall over or walk. And he walked!

O.K, he didn't exactly jump to his feet and start wandering around, but he did walk. On his own from A to B. A being next to the footstall and B being me. It was brilliant, Clare and I looked at each other in amazement. Almost as if we'd just had our Eureka moment, where we'd discovered gold or that our boy was the first human to ever walk upright. I know after a few weeks the novelty will fade but it's important to cherish these moments and remember how we felt.

Of course everyone is now telling us this is where the fun starts and life will get more difficult the more mobile he becomes but so what, our boy walked before his first birthday and I'm Proud Dad!

Here he is, the clever little thing...

Callum is 1!

It was over a year ago that I wrote this post, predicting what our fellow NCT'ers would be like. It seems crazy to me that the first of our crop is now entering his second year. Callum was born 6 weeks ahead of schedule and Jodi and Duncan won the 'first parents' cup. It was obviously a worrying time for them as he was in the special care unit for a few weeks. But before long he was home in time for his new friends to start popping into the world.

It's been brilliant to have the instant network the NCT group created. The girls see each other more than the boys do but we meet up regularlyish and I play squash with a few of them most weeks. When we moved to Guildford we had no pals on the doorstep, now we have 7 other couples, many of whom we see more than friends we've know our whole lives. So here I am, a converted cynic, happy to be proven wrong.

We spent yesterday afternoon in the sunshine at Jodi and Duncan's enjoying BBQ and a few beers. Jake's 1st birthday party will be a more sedate affair with just a few f&f as it's a Tuesday and our garden is tiny. The party is Tuesday 8th September. The day after I get back from a 3 day stag do on Ibiza....I'm glad my video camera has an anti shake feature.

Friday 21 August 2009

New dads are all the same aren't they?

It's always refreshing when you meet someone who thinks the same way as you. Regardless of what it is, the fact that they share your take on a given subject helps to remove any doubt as well as vindicating your original stance.

A few weeks back I was one of many recipients of an email sent by a former colleague. The subject was 'wah, wah'. The last time I met up with my old work friend was for a pint a few weeks after he'd broken his leg on a corporate paint balling day. I felt bad as he came along even though he'd already started his new job. He broke his leg 5 minutes into the first game and then spent 8 weeks at home whilst being paid by the new company. I felt sorry for them but also slightly glad it wasn't us footing the bill, even though it was kind of our fault. Anyway I digress. When we met up, he told me how much he wanted to start a family with his girlfriend of 10 years or so. Apparently she was having none of it. Happy with him but didn't fancy the whole wedding and baby thing.

I clicked the email right away predicting the news about a pregnancy and was thinking what to write back, along the lines of 'well done for persuading the missus, mate', only to discover a picture of his brand new baby girl! Blimey, I thought (blimey!), that was quick. But in reality it was probably 10 or 11 months since we'd met or even spoken so technically this was all very possible. It made me feel a bit guilty that I hadn't had the slightest contact with a guy who lives 4 roads away. I have been reasonably busy to be fair.

Cut to this morning, 5 weeks later and I bump into a guy I recognised but looking about as tired as man can get and significantly older.

"How you doing? How's baby?" I say.

"This parent thing. It's seriously overrated" he says.

Found it very funny that, after hearing so many other new dads cooing and resolutely refusing to see any sort of downside to new fatherhood, that there was someone willing to be honest about it all. It didn't seem to be an overreaction either, he genuinely looked like a beaten man. He went on, I have to say, to coo and say how wonderful it was, but for the most part he seemed to be held together by coffee and adrenalin.

Cleft and operations aside, our experience has been virtually the same as everyone else's. Just the little nuances which serve to make us all different separate us from them and them from us. Jake wasn't a good sleeper (I think I mentioned it once or twice) but other than that his first few months were straight from the text book. I found it difficult and wonderful in different measures depending on when you asked me. The overriding emotion was always positive but it's still hard work counting your chickens at 2, 3, 5 and 6 in the morning when you've got a pitch to present.

Anyway the point is, that I mentioned to him that Jake had started sleeping properly (and by properly I mean until 6am) from 8 or 9 months and he looked genuinely crest fallen. I remember being told the same thing by friends when the situation was reversed and 8 or 9 months seemed a long, long way away.

Already the memory of preparing 3 bottles every night, arguing about whose turn it was, the relentless lack of sleep, is starting to fade and I guess that's one of the reasons most people have 2 kids and stop there. Doing anything that hard for just one last time never seems too bad so as you'd not do it. Having just the one, I think, would always leave you thinking that you ought to have one more but I don't think that you'd feel the pressure to add a third, having had two. Those that have a big enough house, plenty of money or a few masochistic tendencies may want to crack on and have 3, 4 and 5 and good luck to them. I'd like to think that we'd pause after two and then go for the third but it'll definitely depend on how number two sleeps in the early days.

Reading this back make it look like Clare's pregnant or that we're 'trying' but I can assure you that isn't the case. The next major box which needs ticking is one regarding accommodation and logistics. Once that's dealt with we'll see. For now I'm just happy to be enjoying time with my boy, seeing him develop at a million miles an hour and getting enough kipat long, long last!

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Honoured and humbled

Back when I started this blog, I never imagined anything would come of it. I wasn't after anything in particular, other than getting thoughts and emotions out of my system. It was encouragement and feedback which kept me motivated to write it, but never did I think it would take me anywhere. And to be fair, it still hasn't. But it might.

This morning I received an email from one of the UK managers at the Smile Train inviting Clare and me to a dinner in October at the Berkeley, no less, being held;
'as a thank you for our supporters and also a chance to celebrate some of our recent achievements - Smile Pinki's Oscar, our 500,000th corrective cleft surgery, and 10 years providing children with free cleft care.'
My name was suggested to Smile Train when organising the event by Martin Moodie, who I first wrote about on this post. We never did do any business with Martin but we've emailed a time or two about Jake and how he's doing, but I never thought something like this would happen. You might think this sounds over the top - it's just a charity event - but actually it's not just a charity event, it's an event for a charity that I really believe in, and that is something I never thought I'd say. I used to give a fiver a month to a charity for the blind after being door stepped 10 or so years ago. I thought it made sense as I have crappy eye sight and felt I might one day need their help. I guess I felt an affinity with the charity and in fairness, it was only a fiver. That said it was a pretty one sided relationship; money out, statement, not much else. Maybe giving a monthly donation, albeit tiny, made me feel better about myself and justify any personal shortcomings. Beyond that, nothing.

When I started reading about the Smile Train, I was intrigued, obviously, but due to a combination of the coincidence with Martin, all of my research on clefts, our experiences with Jake and the proactive approach the Smile Train take (such as the letter from Brian, the tweeting etc), I found myself feeling more a part of the whole process rather than one of many important, yet essentially impotent contributors. And that's an affinity.

I keep thinking that one day I'd like to go and have a look at what they do in the places they do it and then I think I'm not that sort of person. Maybe I'm not that sort of person, or maybe I'm not that sort of person yet but might be one day! Who knows?

Anyway, I'm really looking forward to the evening to find out more (like who does the tweeting for one!) and help celebrate with them, maybe even brush shoulders with Brian and especially to say thanks to Martin.

It's on the 8th of October so I'll do a full report the day (or so) after.

Monday 10 August 2009

Not long now

Jake can now get round the living room on his own, going from sofa to footstool to radiator to TV unit to fireplace to chair. He's quite the little mover and has also learnt to go from prone to lying on his back to sitting up. He can obviously pull himself up but the last piece to jigsaw is standing up unaided from a seated position. Once he's mastered the stand, he'll be ready to learn the art of the toddle.

Amongst his NCT friends, I believe he was first out of the blocks in terms of forward momentum but always as army crawl. Over the last few weeks some of his litttle pals have all started proper grownup crawling, using knees and palms. Naturally my competitive Dad syndrome has reemerged and therefore it is vital that he starts to walk as soon as possible! And I'm only half joking!

I reckon he's a couple of months away but he's definitely getting stronger on his feet and we can walk him one-handed now for a while before he collapses. We're off to Spain with Sarah, Hamish and baby Sadie in September and for once, I'd welcome a dollop of sod's law which means he starts to walk on his own just as we try to relax next to the pool. Holidays will all be about keeping an eye on Jake, hard surfaces and deep water from now on.

Relax? Are you kidding?!

Tuesday 4 August 2009

A tribute to Walter Cronkite

I got an email from Brian Mullaney, founder of The Smile Train last week and thought I would post it here. Although most Brits will have heard the name, most don't know who he was or what he stood for in the states.

He was a journalist and broadcaster from the old school, not the modern day world of E! front men and women who just care for the latest celebrity gossip.

I think lots of people from outside the USA look down their noses at Americans as crass, overweight and loud individuals who do not realise that there is a world beyind their shores, but by all accounts Walter Cronkite was an intelligent, hardworking and thoughtful man as well as a consumate professional.

He was the classic network anchorman and broke some of the biggest stories of the 20th century. He was known as the 'most trusted man in America', a bit like our Trevor McDonald and then some.

When I was younger I wanted to be a journalist and writer and so I had come across his name and seen some of his work but I had no idea he'd done work for the Smile Train. He's gone even further up in my estimation. Here's the email.


The Smile Train lost a very good friend when Walter Cronkite passed away recently.

10 years ago when we started The Smile Train, Walter was one of the very first to get on board.

Many years ago I remember vividly meeting with him for the first time in his office and talking about what we were trying to do.

Always the reporter, he started quizzing me about what causes clefts, where are they most prevalent, why can’t a cure be found that would prevent them, etc. He was in his 80s at this point but he was sharp as a tack. I was kind of surprised at how interested he was in what we were doing and even more so at how much he wanted to help us.

When I explained to him how tragic it was that there were millions of children with unrepaired clefts in developing countries who were not being helped solely because they were too poor to afford surgery, he said it was a “Story that was almost too sad to tell.”

After watching videos of children with clefts that I had brought along, he shook his head and said it was “just heartbreaking.”

As I sat there speaking with him I looked around his office and saw photos, newspaper front pages and headlines of many of the biggest events that have happened in America and the world over the past 50 years. Walter was front and center at each and every one of them: JFK’s assassination, man on the moon, Vietnam, Watergate, The Berlin Wall, etc. I felt like I was in a museum and sitting across the desk from an American Institution.

When Walter agreed to appear in our very first Smile Train video, we were so honored and excited to have "the most trusted man in America" helping us. (If you want to see the video he did for us, Click Here)

And help us he did, in many ways, for more than 10 years.

Altogether, Walter Cronkite helped us provide free cleft surgery for more than 524,000 children who would otherwise never have received it.

And a few months ago when our documentary Smile Pinki won an Oscar, one of the first emails we received was from Walter congratulating us and saying how proud he was to have helped us launch The Smile Train.

He was a great man.

And we will miss him.

Brian Signature


P.S. We have posted a special tribute to Walter on our home page, to thank him for everything he did for us. Click here to view the tribute.