Adventures in Home Education & Asperger's Syndrome

Yesterday we went fossil hunting. It was fun. It was also a tad breezy. And when I say a tad I mean it was blowing a gale fit to bust.

We were undeterred though. Well, possibly just a tad deterred.

The fossil beach in question sits about fifty miles south of here, along the coast of Northumberland.

Fortunately, Scotland having yet to achieve independence, no passports were required to get there.

As it turned out the boys came better prepared for the drive than I did, bringing with them a set of thirty seven CD’s of the Alex Rider books to listen to along the way. I think we made it to number three by the time we got home.

I on the other hand have apparently got out of the habit of packing for all eventualities which is why, when James suddenly experienced an unexpected bout of car-sickness, all he had to throw up in was a disposable glove he grabbed from, appropriately enough, the glove compartment.

Fortunately and against all odds you’ll be relieved to know the glove proved water-tight and James managed to dispose of it in a bin shortly afterwards.

Oh I had so forgotten how we used to measure car journeys in numbers of sick stops. The best we ever managed was a five sick stop trip to a dinosaur park. The boys bragged about that one for months.

Anyway, apart from all this excitement the main reason for the trip wasn’t fossils, or audio books even. It was to meet up with an old friend.

Julie and I worked together over twenty years ago, in one of the best jobs I ever had. She was (and still is) the information officer at Leeds Disabled Living Centre where I spent an extremely happy couple of years attempting to do my OT thing.

Whenever I got out of my depth (which was often), Julie was there to rescue me. Most notably when I was tasked with organising a one day conference on gardening for the disabled, a subject about which I knew next to nothing. Out of my depth doesn’t begin to describe how I felt at that point.

In my defence I was simultaneously in the throes of helping my parents plan our wedding, so it’s possible I might have been a trifle distracted. Anyway, Julie came to my aid and patiently, and with her brilliantly quirky sense of humour, helped me sort out speakers and publicity and the whole shebang. I absolutely couldn’t have done it without her. Happy days.

It was really great to see her again, meet her lovely daughter and catch up on nearly two decades of news in person rather than via email or either of our blogs.

My cousin Ruth and her daughter Molly also joined us, which was excellent, not least because they know the beach well and were able to show us the best fossil areas and some amazing petrified trees.

Hats off to everybody for putting up with three hours of icy gale force winds with such good humour.

The picnic idea was not quite what we’d hoped, as the weather made it impossible to sit out on the beach or anywhere else for that matter. So instead the young sheltered from the winds inside our various cars eating their sandwiches, biscuits, crisps and the like, while we hardy adults huddled outside between the cars catching up on so many life events whilst trying to maintain sufficient circulation in hands, feet and ears to prevent frostbite.

It was a typical British picnic in fact.

As always the time was too short and eventually we had to concede defeat to the dropping temperature and the howling winds and say our goodbyes.

Next time I think I’ll suggest meeting in a cosy tea room on a sunny summer’s day.

Still, despite all that the weather threw at us and the odd glove of vomit, we all spent a remarkably enjoyable afternoon combing the beach for interesting looking objects, pretending to know something about prehistoric geology and trying not to fall into rock pools.

I took photos of course. While I still had feeling in my hands at least.

DSCN6380Here we all are, hiking purposefully across the sands towards the fossils area. The winds did at least eventually blow away all those hyper-threatening clouds.

DSCN6335Along the way we discovered this prehistoric portaloo. Or bidet maybe?

DSCN6340 And then we found some interesting striated rocks. 

DSCN6346Full of beautiful swirly shapes. To use the technical geological term.

DSCN6348And these wormy things seemed to have formed a sort of Art Nouveau design in the rock. 

DSCN6352 Is this a fossilised sea creature or some sort of plant life? James thinks it could be the first ever spork.

DSCN6386And here are the petrified trees. Yes they do look a lot like rocks, but they are in fact ancient, oh so ancient, fallen trees. Cool eh?

DSCN6391See? Tree rings.

DSCN6393And then we discovered this couple of old fossils. Amazing what the sea can wash up isn’t it?

When we got home I had another look at the two interesting pebbles I picked up along the beach.

IMG_2114At least one of these is definitely a fossil. The other looks like someone accidentally smashed it into tiny pieces and then spent hours patiently but ineptly gluing it back together again. Nice eh? 

Next time we go fossil hunting maybe I’ll do a bit of paleontological research beforehand and also maybe I’ll just double check the weather forecast.

**Looks like pretty much all the fossils we found yesterday were Crinoids (Sea Lilies, creatures related to Sea Urchins and Starfish). They are, I believe, from the Silurian period and are therefore around 425 million years old. Impressive huh?

Every couple of years or so we find ourselves faced with the renewed challenge of major and at times heart-rending form filling.

Several years ago we applied for Disability Living Allowance on behalf of Robert and later also for James. I wrote about it all here in fact. If you search hard enough you might even be able to track the posts down, if you’re interested.

I’m very glad we did that because, not only has the money been a vital lifeline in maintaining the structure of our lives whilst being full time carers, but also receiving the recognition that there are genuine life-affecting issues to be overcome here has been an extremely affirming and supporting element.

Becoming carers can be an isolating experience, separating you from the norm, from the road that most of your peers are travelling down. You find yourself instead striking out along an unchartered path and it can leave you feeling very uncertain and distanced from people around you.

So we are more than grateful for any support, whether physical, psychological or financial, that makes us feel protected and understood.

However financial support like this doesn’t come without considerable effort on our part, and nor should it I suppose in a world where money is hard to come by for everybody.

The process of applying for DLA involves laying out in stark detail every problem, every flaw and every challenge being faced. That’s how it has to be.

But it’s a very hard thing to do.

Picking apart every aspect of your child’s personality, their physical challenges, their academic limitations and their emotional difficulties, by going through the minutia of their daily lives, pointing out every problem, is a most unpleasant thing to have to do.

It goes against every parental instinct to uplift, protect and encourage your child, to see the positive in every act and help them build on their strengths and move forward. It feels like a massive backward step in fact and is a most depressing thing to tackle.

After James turned sixteen last month we were sent another forty page form to fill in, this time to apply for PIP (Personal Independence Payment), the new payment system gradually replacing DLA.

This is actually the fourth time we’ve jumped through this particular form-filling hoop, or the DLA version of it at least, so I’d like to think I’ve become a tad more thick-skinned about it all than I was the first time around.

Just a tad.

So I dug out a copy of the previous form I filled in and studied my answers and the long report I added at the end, now two years old.

And then, as you probably know, I procrastinated for a week or so, flicking half-heartedly through the form every now and then, before going off to make an unfeasible number of cakes. Because that’s my own personal diversion tactic…cake baking…and cake eating of course, which does explain a lot.

But there was a deadline for the form and so a few days ago I was forced to face the demon and get the form filled in and sent back.

Needing to find gaps in the day long enough to think clearly without being interrupted by long monologues about computer games involving zombie apocalypses or cracks in the space-time continuum…

Seriously, are we the only family to have these sorts of conversations on a regular basis?

…I got up very early for several mornings and devoted the first few quiet hours of the day to the form-filling process. And boy was that fun!

With my OT hat firmly back on my head, I then wrote yet another detailed (oh SO detailed) report supporting the application and describing the issues being faced here every day, before getting Matthew to check and edit it for me.

Thirteen pages later we agreed it was good enough, I photocopied it all and yesterday, with great relief, posted the whole thing off to Wolverhampton.

And then I came home and made a big batch of fruit scones. Because that’s what I do.

Now we’ll just have to wait and see what the good people of the West Midlands make of it all.

Cream tea anyone?

All Grown Up

Today was Robert’s 18th birthday.

He’s EIGHTEEN!!

IMG_2085See?

We are officially now a household of two grown men and a 6’4″ (and a quarter) adolescent. And me, of course.

Slow deep breaths Catherine…

We’ve been having a quiet but happy celebratory weekend, hopefully doing things just the way Robert likes them.

Yesterday we had a family trip to the cinema to see the latest Captain America film. That wasn’t actually that quiet, but it was entertaining and the boys were totally enthralled throughout which is always great to see.  I must admit I couldn’t exactly remember what happened in the previous film, but fortunately that didn’t seem to matter too much. Not to me anyway.

This morning started with waffles, as all good celebrations should.

DSCF7997This turned out to be a particularly successful batch. Didn’t last long though.

Then, of course, there were presents…

 DSCF8007Lots and lots of presents.

IMG_2087And Monty Python which should put a smile on that serious face of his.

DSCF8036And pizza. There must always be pizza.

DSCF8044And toffee fudge pudding too. For some of us at least.

While we were waiting for our pizzas to arrive we gave Robert a wee bonus birthday present.

DSCF8008Surprises are always fun.

DSCF8017This is Robert’s equivalent of a broad grin of happiness.

DSCF8013He was really thrilled in fact.

Over the years we’ve given the boys a number of different watches. They’ve had digital ones and analogue ones, colour coded ones and even talking ones. All bought in an effort to help them develop a better understanding of the passing of time. But none have been worn for more than a day or two. The boys have just never shown any desire to register or engage with time passing.

Anyway, a month or so ago I was chatting to Robert and asked him again about watches. To my surprise he said he rather fancied a pocket watch. He always has been rather an old-fashioned sort of fellow.

So I tracked down an ebay seller with a stock of bargain watches. Not the gorgeous antique ones we would have loved to have given him, but instead far more affordable and decent enough quartz jobs.

The watch was supposed to be a small additional present, a little extra recognition of his special birthday, but not by any means a major present.

But Robert was bowled over by it. I don’t think I’ve seen him look as pleased with a gift before. He couldn’t stop fingering the watch, a subtle smile hovering over his face as he studied it. It was delightful to see.

And that watch hasn’t been far from his hand ever since. Obviously there’s something about it that gives him great satisfaction. I have a suspicion however that it isn’t anything to do with his desire to know what time it is.

But maybe I’ll be proved wrong about that. You never know.

And finally of course no birthday is complete without a cake.

DSCF8054Carrot cake. Robert’s favourite.

IMG_2092And covered in 18 years worth of Robert photos.

Having done the photo-icing montage thing with James’s cake, we thought we’d do the same for Robert. It is amazing to see how he’s changed over the years.

DSCF8060He really loved that horse. And look at those wee dungarees.

So, despite not organising a big party for him, I think Robert feels his special day has been a good one. He certainly seems content with it all. He’s delighted with ALL his gifts and is as I type enjoying the madness that is Monty Python. That should be right up his street.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY ROBERT.

Due to a total lack of dramatic, funny or interesting events occurring this last week, I thought instead I’d give you a run-down of the least boring ones. Lucky you eh?

Monday:

Family visit to dentist. Escaped with a clean bill of dental health and mouths full of gleaming, plaque-free chompers to keep us going until the autumn.

Noticed they had revamped the waiting area.

Previously a cosy carpeted room with comfy leather sofas to relax into and a toy corner where the boys have, in years gone by, enjoyed happy times playing with plastic pizza pieces.

Now a stark, lino-floored, toy-less room, lined with hard wooden chairs and small armless pouffes for perching anxiously on and a large flat-screened TV on the wall, tuned to News 24.

So much for calming and relaxing your patients prior to their treatment.

Tuesday:

Studied the forty page form required to apply for James’s Personal Independence Payment. Made some illegible notes in pencil then put it to one side and made pizzas instead.

Wednesday:

Made two dozen mini chocolate cakes for club to celebrate Robert’s upcoming birthday a week on Sunday. His 18th… Flip me!

Thursday:

Took another browse through James’s form. Tried to find some relevant documents to back it up, failed and made flapjacks instead.

Friday:

Dog-sat Gigsy, who currently has to wear ‘The Giant Cone of Shame’ to stop him chewing on some stitches on his leg. Poor wee thing kept crashing into the furniture. His attempts at scratching his ears sounded like he was playing a very repetitive tune on a wash board. Once we stopped laughing we felt quite sorry for the old boy.

IMG_2071We’re laughing with you, not at you. 

Saturday:

Thought I’d have another bash at the dreaded form. Quickly discovered that I had a burning desire to make a marmalade cake. Tasty.

Sunday:

Absolutely can’t remember what happened on Sunday. Nothing to do with the form anyway.

Monday:

Opened a new bag of gerbil food and thought it smelt far more appetising than the muesli I had for breakfast. Very fruity. The gerbils certainly seem to like it.

IMG_2072Although this photo probably doesn’t demonstrate that fact very clearly.

Tuesday:

April Fool’s day. Received an email from the YHA advertising their latest hostel…on an oil rig in the North Sea. Tempted to take them up on it. Might be quite peaceful.

You must be envious of our madcap lifestyle.

Depressingly this post, such as it is, has taken me three days to write. Maybe next week will be more productive, once that dratted form is out of the way.

Meanwhile I’ll try not to eat all the gerbil muesli. I’m sure they wouldn’t miss a little bit though…

[Oooh! Just remembered what happened on Sunday. Funny, since it was pretty much the only thing of interest that did happen this week. Went to a cool gig in a back room of a pub, by singer songwriter Kevin Montgomery, from Nashville. His father wrote and played songs with Buddy Holly back in the day (including writing the title song now used for the TV series Heartbeat) Kevin is a talented guy with a very friendly personality. We really enjoyed the show and wish him well for the rest of his UK tour.]

Somehow we managed to avoid turning on the TV all day yesterday. Not even to watch Murdoch. Impressive right? Especially for a Saturday.

It was instead a day set aside for creative thought. Or that was the plan at least.

The main thrust of the creative energies was supposed to come from James as he tackled his current course on Ethics, and the essay he had to write on Utilitarianism.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had to write a coherent account of the pros and cons of Consequentialism within Philosophy? No, none of us have either… until now.

Essay writing for James involves a LOT of pacing about, some anguished hand wringing, a fair amount of flopping onto the sofa and more than a little heavy sighing, especially when there is a deadline rapidly approaching.

This essay’s deadline was ten pm last night. By early evening it seemed to be approaching with gathering speed, and certainly a lot faster than those wise philosophical words were appearing on the page, or screen in this case.

It turned into a sort of tortoise and hare scenario eventually, with the relentless tortoise of time threatening to overtake the hyperactive but unfocussed hare of creative philosophical thought. The despairing hare that spent the hours between seven and nine pm circling the sitting room, searching the internet and latterly googling random and unrelated phrases in the desperate hope of finding inspiration or distraction at least.

And then James and I decided to check out the course details again, just to confirm the assignment requirements and marking rubric, and that’s when we discovered one very pertinent fact. Apparently Princeton University (this particular course organiser) have a policy of NEVER issuing Statements of Accomplishment for their online courses.

Now over the months he’s been tackling his Coursera courses, James has built up an outstanding CV of excellent results from his courses. Those eight or nine Statements of Accomplishment he now has tucked away are the only proof we have of all the hard work and focus he’s put into all those subjects.

Apart from knowing more stuff, obviously.

Rightly or wrongly, having that final recognition of achievement has often provided the motivating boost James’s needed to complete challenging coursework, essays, projects and exams.

He received his final result for his Astrobiology course just a couple of weeks ago, scoring an outstanding 83.6%. He was chuffed and so were we. He worked hard for it and was delighted to have something to show for all that slog. That Statement of Accomplishment, like the others, got printed off and admired by us all before being safely filed away. Good job James!

So anyway, whether it should make a difference or not, discovering that there was to be nothing tangible to show for all James’s hours of pacing and googling and planning and brain-wracking and creative thinking, made a big difference to him.

After some discussion we agreed that attempting this essay had indeed been really excellent practice, that none of the work was wasted, that it would all help next time and that maybe he should stop stressing about it, finish what he had started to the best of his ability and submit it regardless of flaws and the fact that it still fell somewhat short of the 850 word length requirement. This he did with something under twenty five minutes to spare and then with HUGE relief went off to play a therapeutic game on his computer.

The greater good, as the Utilitarians might describe it.

We are SO proud of James and his attitude to his own home grown education. In many ways his maturity far outstrips his sixteen years. There will be time enough to develop greater focus and clarity of thought as he gets older, but for now I think that’s enough hare and tortoise racing for one weekend.

Apart from a wonderful visit from an old friend, (when we didn’t pause for breath for several hours as we reminisced about old times and caught up on more recent ones), it’s been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon.

I did start writing a couple of posts but quickly realised I didn’t really have anything much to say, so stopped again.

And then my blogging friend at stimeyland.com posted her answers to a series of random questions and I thought that might be fun to try, especially as I have not one other idea in my head just now.

So here are my answers to the same questions and, to make them more interesting, I asked James if he would like to include his too. Feel free to add any of your own.

What is the last thing you watched on TV?

Me: Murdoch Mysteries. Since discovering this series, based in Victorian Toronto, we have started having Murdoch Meals, timing our family lunches to coincide with whichever episode is being shown that day. The programme’s been going for several years, so we’ve had a lot of catching up to do. I suspect the fact that Detective Murdoch himself is an analytical perfectionist, has exceptional talents in maths and science, is a rigid rule follower and tends to be somewhat socially awkward, rings some bells with us. We love its gentle humour too. It’s a beautifully produced series altogether in fact. Highly recommended.

James: Also Murdoch, unless you count the Dr Who DVD I watched after school today.

When did you last step outside? What were you doing?

Me: This afternoon, despite the chilly wind and threat of rain, Robert and I set off on one of our brisk daily walks for about ninety minutes. We’ve been hiking out together most afternoons for a little while now as one way of helping him combat the low moods he has been battling with in recent months. It does seem to help and of course has the added advantage of helping us both get a little fitter. Robert is a very fast walker and so we can certainly cover some ground when we’re out and about, when we’re not distracted by charity shops at least. Today we took ourselves down to the bottom of Morningside Road and back (which I realise means nothing at all to those of you who don’t know this area), stopping to explore …it must have been…ten… charity shops and dropping a parcel off at the Post Office along the way. It certainly cheered me up anyway.

James: Headed out this morning to collect Gigsy the terrier for our day of dog-sitting and gave him a walk at lunchtime too. Apart from that, it was Saturday afternoon when Daddy and I took the bus across town for our Korean martial arts lesson. We had to do about fifty press-ups, apart from all the other action moves. The next day my legs were really stiff. We each got our yellow bands though, having taken and passed our first exam last week.

What is on the walls of the room you are in?

Me: Mostly pictures of greyhounds, including a photo of our beloved and much missed hound. Also a landscape watercolour I found in a junk shop years ago, which has an old car driving into the distance which has always intrigued me. On the back of the door is a poster of the Tree of Life, (from the Open University, showing how evolution caused the diversity of life on the planet) and on the pantry door a poster of the periodic table. Obviously.

IMG_2058I do miss having a greyhound about the place.
They are uniquely strange creatures.

James: A Doctor Who calendar, a large poster of Wallace and Gromit and a plastic fish that sings ‘Don’t Rock the Boat Baby’ when you press the button. DON’T PRESS THE BUTTON.

IMG_2066ABSOLUTELY DO NOT PRESS THAT BUTTON

If you became a multi-millionaire overnight, what would you buy?

Me: I’d buy us a bigger house, pay off everybody’s mortgages and then get myself a 1920′s Bullnose Morris, or maybe a Morris Minor, in memory of the one I learnt to drive in.

IMG_2062This lovely old girl (I’m talking about the car here) was passed around the family to whoever was in most need of a car at the time. I had her for the first few years I worked in Cambridge. We did a LOT of miles together.

James: As I now have over 350 items on my Doctor Who Amazon wish list (this is not an exaggeration), I expect I’d start with that. Then I’d probably go onto Steam (online seller of games) and download their entire stock.

Tell me something about you that most people don’t know.

Me: I know how to double de-clutch. When you’ve driven a 1960 Morris Minor with no synchromesh, you discover it’s the only way to change gear without causing that terrible grating crunching sound. Also you have to come to a complete stop before getting into first gear.

James: Not many people know that I own over seventy Dr Who DVDs, not including the twelve box sets of course. Although they might guess.

Who made the last incoming call on your phone?

Me: On the house phone it would have been Matthew’s business partner, and before that, my mother. On my mobile, probably one of those irritating automated PPI claim calls.

James: I only use my mobile for emergencies so probably Robert wanting to know if I’ve checked out Steam’s sale today.

If you could change something about your home, without worry about expense or mess, what would you do?

Me: I’d get all the window frames repainted. They’re all peeling badly. I’d also get the carpet tiles I laid several years ago pulled up and something nicer put down in their place. They’re looking very grubby these days.

James: I’d add a few extra rooms on to the flat, filled with bookcases to house all my stuff.

What was the last thing you bought?

Me: A chamois monkey laptop screen cleaner. I spotted it in a charity shop today and thought my dusty screen could do with it. It was a bargain.

IMG_2063Nice monkey cleaning device thingy

James: Games on Steam

Would you go bungee jumping or sky diving?

Me: Not if you paid me. Ever. Ever… Never

James: Probably not.

If you could eat lunch with one famous person, who would it be?

Me: It would have to be Jimmy Stewart, or Gregory Peck, assuming it doesn’t have to be a living famous person. They both seem to have been really lovely people and would have so many interesting stories to tell.

James: Any of the cast from Dr Who, past or present, would do.

Which store would you choose to max out your credit card?

Me: I’d probably go to the bookshops at the Edinburgh book festival and get all those signed copies I saw there last summer but didn’t have the money to buy, or space to store, or time to read.

James: Amazon

Is the glass half empty or half full?

Me: It depends on the day. I try to be a half full person but don’t always manage it.

James: Both

What’s the farthest-away place you’ve been?

Me: The southern tip of India

James: Seattle

What’s under your bed?

Me: A pile of empty boxes, just in case they come in useful one day, a variety of items of luggage, a pair of ancient metal roller skates I never got the hang of using as a child, my banjo stand and plenty of dust.

IMG_2065Told you they were old.

James: The sitting room carpet and dust.

What is your favorite time of the day?

Me: If I happen to wake early, then I love to relax on the sofa first thing, wrapped in my fleecy dressing gown, coffee in hand, listening to The Today Programme on radio four, before the rest of the household wakes up and starts requiring food and clean underwear.

James: Evening, once school is finished and I can do some gaming.

What Inspires you?

Me: Any writers who manage to a) start and finish a book and b) get it published.

James: The Internet

Yesterday was James’s 16th birthday.

SIXTEENTH!!!

We did our best to make it fun and I think James enjoyed himself.

Here are some of the highlights:

IMG_2010James drags himself out of bed at the crack of 10.30

IMG_2016And opens some presents. This one proved to be a BIG hit. 

IMG_2017Rock on James.

DSCF7994He REALLY got into it in fact.

IMG_2043After that we needed some calming advice.

DSCF7974And then we headed down the road to PizzaExpress for a birthday lunch.

DSCF7956Mmmm…dough balls.

DSCF7958Mmmm… Pizza.

DSCF7967Mmmm…disgustingly huge chocolatey pudding…thing.

DSCF7972Oh well, so much for the diet.

DSCF7979Followed by birthday cake covered with photos of James through the years. Printed on icing. We didn’t just chomp through an old photo album.

DSCF7982It seemed like a fun idea, until faced with the task of cutting up and eating him piece by piece. 

DSCF7985We did our best to keep him as whole as possible, although I did have to remove Judo-James’s left arm at one point. 

The birthday weekend was completed this afternoon when we headed to the cinema to see The Lego Movie.

The boys thought the film was a laugh and a half. There certainly was a lot of action, Lego-style.

I may have dozed off briefly at one point but I think I got the gist. Hoards of lego people racing around, some bad guys, an explosion or two, some stuff happening at the end. Buy expensive Lego sets. Sound about right?

So one birthday down, about a dozen more to go. I’d better stop eating so much cake and pudding and pizza and start eating salad, or things are going to get very much more…podgy round here.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY JAMES!

The boys have devised a brand new way of communicating with each other.

IMG_1996This is Robert in his study/bedroom, discussing online gaming tactics with …

IMG_1992… James, who is in his own study area, the box room to the rest of us.

The headphones they’re both wearing are crucial to this new mode of interaction, allowing them to play multi-player games together whilst in different parts of the flat.

Seemingly using microphones and internet messaging is far better than being in the same room and communicating in the standard way, even though every now and then one or other of them can be heard scampering down the corridor to discuss server issues or gaming tactics or whatever, face to face.

Multi-player gaming lag was the main problem yesterday, apparently.

Despite feeling that it might have been healthier when the boys spent more time speaking to each other in the same room, it has been kind of fun watching them set up their computer systems together to be able to do this.

In fact it’s been a long time coming, since to get this far Robert has had to build both computers virtually from scratch. And that was no mean feat.

Having spent the best part of last year upgrading his own desktop machine until high-spec enough to play pretty much every game on the planet, Robert has learned a great deal about the ins and outs of home-building a computer.

Sorting out incompatibilities between graphics cards and power supplies, motherboards and CPUs (don’t ask me to explain…I only repeat the words I hear) has been a steep learning curve for Robert but has provided him with invaluable knowledge and a much greater level of confidence than he had before.

In recent months he’s been able to conduct detailed and informed discussions about computer technology, software problems and the like, with IT experts on the phone and in shops. Something he would have found almost impossible only months earlier.

And so, having successfully rebuilt his own machine, Robert offered to build one for James too, using some of the parts from his old set-up and even offering to fund some of the remaining components needed.

We were more than impressed that he would suggest doing this for his brother, even after Robert explained that his motives weren’t entirely selfless. He was very keen to be able to share some of his gaming with James and wanted to do everything he could to make this possible.

Still, we all thought it was a pretty cool idea and James was thrilled to think he would end up with his own desktop machine.

And Robert was as good as his word. Once Christmas was over, he and James got together and worked out a detailed shopping list of required parts and then costed it all out. They then came to us with their proposal, explaining what they could each afford to buy and how much was left to fund to be able to finish the project.

Between all of us the parts were ordered and, once they were delivered Robert got to work.

Apart from a bit of a hiccup relating to a faulty motherboard, Robert managed to get the whole thing built entirely by himself.

And last Sunday, James’s new PC was up and running. There was a lot of joy in the house as a result. It was a very happy moment for us all, and not least for Robert, who was more than chuffed with himself. And rightly so.

I love that Robert is gaining expertise in his beloved IT.

I love that he has now built two computers from scratch, accepting in the process the ups and (sometimes major) downs and riding them out remarkably well.

I love that he can now chat on the phone, or in a shop, to complete strangers (about IT at least) without clamming up or losing track of what he wants to say or struggling to understand what is being asked of him.

I especially love that he offered to do something wonderful for someone else.

And more than anything, I love that, at least while he’s focussed on piecing together components or setting up virus scanning software or explaining to the rest of us the intricacies of what he’s doing, he seems happy, or relatively contented anyway.

That is very good to see indeed.

Our old bread maker recently started making strange squeaky grinding noises.

It’s amazing this machine has lasted as long as it has. Bought on a whim well over ten years ago, a £25 bargain from Tesco, it’s paid for itself many times over, in bread and cakes and pizza dough.

But now it’s finally showing its age. I think the motor underneath is beginning to seize up. It’s probably filled with a decades worth of bread gunge and burnt crumbs that have found their way into the mechanism. Either that or it’s just old and cranky…like me.

So, when I spotted a pristine looking Kenwood version sitting on a shelf in a charity shop last week, I decided to invest £15 in it, since Sod’s Law would decree that if I didn’t, our cranky old machine would give up the ghost that very night.

I did wonder slightly why someone would donate a virtually unused machine, but decided it was probably an unwanted wedding present or such.

Turns out it was more likely to have been something to do with the fact that…IT DID NOT WORK.

To be fair it did start up ok, and it did do all the mixing and kneading perfectly too. In fact first time round it made us an excellent batch of pizza dough.

Greatly encouraged, I decided to try out a new fruit bread recipe. However an hour and a half later the perfectly mixed ingredients were still very much in batter form.

In the end I scraped the doughy mess out and into a loaf tin and cooked it in the Aga where it turned out ok in the end, little thanks to Mr Kenwood though.

Undeterred I decided to give the machine one more chance. Maybe I’d done something wrong? Put too much…cake…in it maybe?

This time I thought I’d try timing a cheese and onion loaf overnight. Maybe using the timer would kick start the thing into action.

It didn’t.

Basically the machine would not bake. A fairly major flaw in a bread baking machine.

BUT, since this machine had been a bargain, I was NOT going to give up without a fight. So I googled ‘Troubleshooting problems with bread makers’ until I diagnosed it must be either a faulty heating element or a dead thermostat…or both.

Youtube supplied a brilliant video showing how to dismantle a similar machine and replace the element. It took the guy less than five minutes to take it apart, fit the new part and return the machine to its former condition. Simples.

Spurred on by this I ordered the necessary parts from the internet. Cost £10. Still a bargain at £25 total though eh?

Yesterday, new parts at the ready, I found the relevant Youtube video, revised my DIY strategy and got cracking.

IMG_1980These were the tools I needed for the job. Those are professional quality plastic forks from Spudulike, I’ll have you know.

IMG_1976The forks proved to be the most useful items in my whole tool kit. I knew holding on to those things would pay off eventually. 

Only a five minute job? Yeah right!

Four hours later…

IMG_1979Getting that rim thing off nearly cost me my sanity, not to mention several fingers.

According to the man on Youtube, you just lever off the outer rim, lift out the drum, unscrew the element, replace it and put the whole thing back together again. Easy peasy.

Unfortunately this particular machine wasn’t going to give up its rim without a struggle. Honestly it was unbelievably difficult to lever that bloody thing off.

Truthfully? More than a little blood was shed in the process. There may have been one or two expletives too.

I almost gave up at one point. But I do like a bargain and the Youtube man was so encouraging…

FINALLY I managed to wrench off the top to reveal the guts of the creature.

IMG_1983Interesting. Hmmm.

I could go on to describe how I couldn’t lift out the drum completely like the man in the video did because the Kenwood guys had neatly tied up all the cables in such a way there wasn’t sufficient length left to do more than wriggle it half out, barely far enough to reach the screws I needed to undo to remove the element.

I could also describe how long it took me to rescue the tiny weeny nut that vanished underneath the workings while I was unscrewing a vital section. The man didnae mention that either.

But I won’t. Instead I’ll just say that, eventually I got the old parts out and the new ones in, screwed the whole thing back together, held my breath and plugged it in. The digital screen leapt into action and it gave a loud beep. Reassuring certainly, but we’d been here before.

I decided to test it out properly with a gingerbread recipe.

IMG_1989TA DAA!!

Yes folks. IT WORKS! This is the remaining half of my successfully machine-baked gingerbread. The other half was eaten in celebration of the success of our newly refurbished BARGAIN bread maker.

I like it when things work out in the end. Now please excuse me while I find some plasters…and a glass of wine.

Last week was full of animals of one sort or another (when is it not?): one borrowed dog, a handful of dippy gerbils, a couple of kamikaze cats and a whole host of mostly endangered species.

​Gigsy the terrier joined us for a week of lunchtime walks and afternoons snoozing next to the Aga. He seems to accept this as his second home now and on arrival patrols the whole place proprietorially, checking for alien dogs or stray gerbils presumably. Then he settles himself in his bed and snores the rest of the day away, occasionally sleep barking at some random dream-induced enemy.

The gerbils, in their usual manic fashion, manage to destroy all the cardboard we can find for them, filling their tank with the remains and building tunnel systems underneath it all to escape our prying eyes, and cameras.

Tony has taken to sleeping with his head sticking out of the side window of their box however, so he obviously doesn't mind the paparazzi too much. 

And then there were the garden cats. I've spotted these two before and watched their antics from the kitchen window. They particularly like climbing trees. I suspect they dare each other to be as dangerous as possible. It would be entertaining to watch if it wasn't for the likelihood of one or both of them falling to their death onto the railings beneath.

This is higher than you might think. Twenty feet above the ground at least.

This particular Dodo decided to strike out along one rather narrow branch.

Unfortunately this venture didn't really go according to plan.

I didn't manage to get pictures of what followed, largely because I was so focussed on willing the creature not to fall to its doom.

Shortly after I took this photo of him, Garfield slid gracelessly around the branch until he was hanging by one set of claws to the underside of it. His other three limbs flailed about wildly in an unusually undignified manner for a cat, trying desperately to secure themselves back onto the branch. I'd have sworn there was panic in his eyes for those few dangerous seconds before he got a better grip and somehow managed to heave himself upright again. 

Of course, as is the way of cats, the two feline explorers then calmly meandered their way down the tree branch by branch before leaping off and onto the garden wall, dignity restored, until the next time at least.

And then we visited the zoo.

Thanks to the wonder that is The Lothian Autistic Society, this half term we again got tickets to Edinburgh Zoo to see, among other animals, our beautiful Giant Pandas.​

Tian Tian was having a snooze, in her feed basket apparently.

She looks awake, due to the ring markings around her eyes, but actually they are firmly shut. Fortunately for us she had decided to sleep in this semi-upright position, giving us a lovely view of her beautiful face, unlike her mate...

Yang Guang, yet again, refused to offer us much of a photo opportunity.

This was our third visit to the pandas and the above snap is the best I've managed to get of him so far. Ah well, fourth time's a charm.

Sadly, due to Tian Tian's failed pregnancy last year, there was no baby panda to admire. Fingers crossed for next time though​.

We did however manage to meet a baby bear of a different sort. Although 'meet' might a slight exaggeration.

This is Alinga and her baby...sorry joey...Yooranah. He's that furry ball in Alinga's lap.

Not unlike Giant Pandas, Koalas sleep for a very large proportion of their day, so I suppose we were unlikely to be lucky enough to get many action shots. 

​The other two Koalas were a wee bit more alert, although frustratingly both remained partially obscured by branches of their favourite, indeed only, food, eucalyptus.

This is either Yabbra or Goonaroo.

And so this must be either Goonaroo or Yabbra. Although, to be honest, they all look like Yoda to me.

So, moving on from bears, we next visited our friends the tigers. Or tiger. According to the zoo website there are two tigers in the enclosure, but we looked hard and this was the only big cat we could find.

 Meet Tibor, the one-eyed Sumatran. It's his other eye that's missing obviously

What an amazingly proud and elegant creature he is...unlike this guy...

Lunchtime may not be the best time to visit Meerkat Manor if you're of a sensitive nature. Or the perfect time, if you're a teenager, apparently.

This one meerkat succeeded in destroying my far too sentimentalised image of these loveable, funny and entertaining animals.

Thank you very much Aleksandr Orlov. I blame you.

Crunchy

And chewy too.

This was Robert's favourite moment of the day...BY FAR.

Whereas I think mine, gorgeous bears aside, might have been this one...

I mean who couldn't be moved by a bit of Rhino Romance? 

I know there are a lot of photos of animals in this post, but I did enjoy trying to capture head shots of them all. Also it is a wonder to see these incredible wild animals in the flesh and so close, disgusting Meerkats included.

Plus, I wanted to test out these new and larger images on my blog. I think they look pretty good, don't you? You can certainly see the details better. 

Perhaps I should have minimised Aleksandr's pictures though...​Blurgg!

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