28 April, 2013

The ancient art of karate

My oldest daughter recently obtained her brown belt in karate. Quite an achievement, really. Just two more belts and then she’ll be aiming for the pièce de résistance—her black belt.

She started learning karate three years ago and has progressed quickly through the belts, despite only having lessons once a week (twice a week is just too expensive, given all our other commitments!). Thinking back to when she was starting out as a newbie white belt, it’s interesting to compare how she practises karate now with how she practised then. When she was a beginner, she (quite understandably!) moved less fluidly and her kicks and punches weren't terribly convincing. But now she’s really quite scary. She moves fast and gracefully, and her attacking is strong and sharp. She does a pretty impressive job of defending herself.

If you watch the lessons, though, it’s not entirely clear how students progress from beginner status through to advanced. That’s to say it’s not clear exactly how they are able to master the moves and improve. The classes are large (20+ students), cover a whole range of belts, and are led by (at most) two instructors. And my daughter does little practice outside her weekly class, so what she picks up and perfects, she does in class, not outside. But improve and move forward she certainly does, all the time. Perhaps it’s by a process of osmosis...

The gradings (the examination sessions which determine whether or not students are awarded their next belt) are interesting too. Students grade en masse (all students currently holding the same belt grade together), which means that the examiner has to keep an eye on roughly twelve students, all of whom are doing the same thing at the same time. They are examined on several things—their ability to perform a number of moves called at random by the examiner; how well they perform in their kata (the unique sequence of moves associated with a specific belt); and how well they defend and attack in a sparring session with a fellow student. It’s quite a lot for the examiner to take in and assess—and the grading always ends with him frantically scribbling notes!

But the system appears to work. Those students who you know to be good generally pass the grading, and those who you know to be less good often don’t pass, or are awarded a 'temporary' grade, meaning they’re not quite up to the required standard.

My daughter really enjoys karate and she seems to get a lot out of it—fitness, agility, discipline, confidence, a sense of achievement... Ultimately (once she’s a black belt), she hopes to be able to earn a bit of pin money from helping out with teaching. So, I’m very glad she decided to take this ancient art up. It’s been worth it.

20 April, 2013

Career and parenthood: is part-time working the answer?

Work and parenthood, as we all know, can be hard to combine successfully. However, talking to friends and from my own experience, there is a very specific issue surrounding part-time working and parenting.

I, and several of the people I know, work part time. In this way we are able to keep our careers going (or at least keep one foot in the world of work) while being around for our kids. This situation sounds ideal--not only are we still working, but we can also be there to deliver and pick up from school and, with any luck, have enough flexibility that we can be around for those occasional events that demand parental attention such as sports day and parent meetings at the end of the school day.

However, this kind of part-time working does present problems in itself. For a start, by the time you've taken into account travelling to and from work (if you don't live on your work's doorstep), you are looking at working pretty part time -- probably fifty or sixty per cent of full-time hours at most. And secondly, these kinds of jobs are few and far between. Almost all 'decent' jobs (reasonably high level and fairly well paid) are full time. The result tends to be that you get highly-qualified, highly-experienced individuals working in part-time roles that are well below their capability levels. This situation may be alright for a while, but in the end it can lead to employee frustration and poor job satisfaction.

There is therefore also an issue surrounding how long it makes sense to work part time for, before going full time again and taking your career forward. My oldest child will go to secondary school in September, but my youngest won't move to secondary for another two years after that. And even when they're both there, will I really want them home alone for significant periods of time before my husband and I get home from work? And what about school holidays...?

I'm very grateful to have the opportunity to work part time at present, but it certainly isn't a panacea. It introduces a whole new set of issues--especially for the parent who works part time. Combining work and parenthood just is tough, it seems, particularly if you are aiming for some measure of fulfillment and happiness for the whole family.

13 April, 2013

Friday I'm in love...and other ruminations

I was walking to work on Friday and, as usual, I took a shortcut through the local shopping centre. They often have music playing over the PA system there and this morning it was "Friday I’m in Love" by the Cure. 

Highly appropriate in day-of-the-week terms, at least. But it made me smile because when I was a teenager, back in the 1980s, the Cure was one of my favourite bands. ("Dressed up to the eyes/It's a wonderful surprise/To see your shoes and your spirits rise..." Not an easy line to beat, I reckon.) And you don’t hear the Cure's music that often these days--certainly not in a shopping centre.

All of this got me thinking about age and about context. How many people, I wondered, would recognise this Cure song, or indeed any Cure song? Certainly not the majority of today’s youth. They’re just too--well--young. And the Cure was, of course, an indie band (yep, I was alternative back then), so it’s in fact rather ironic to hear their music playing somewhere as mundane and mainstream as a shopping centre.

On Radio 4’s Today programme the other day, one of the presenters referred to “those of us of a certain age” who would remember only too well the '80s image of Nick Cayman stripping off in a launderette to the tune of “I heard it through the Grapevine”. For people not of that age, he added, YouTube could no doubt assist.

That placed me, time wise. Same with my Cure experience on Friday. Apparently I've now reached  “a certain age”. In the past I've always interpreted that expression as referring to people who can no longer be described as young. And that group now includes me, it seems...


06 April, 2013

The National Trust and Cadbury: an utterly commercial partnership

Last weekend my family and I visited one of our local National Trust haunts—Basildon Park—and our kids did the Easter trail there. These NT Easter trails are something that we’ve only recently started doing (just last year, I think), even though our kids have been around for over ten years now and even though we are regular NT visitors. I’m not sure why it’s taken us so long, really.

However, having started doing the trails, I am always rather stuck by their incongruity. They are an utterly commercial exercise. Sponsored by Cadbury, the staff greet you in large, attention-attracting tents, emblazoned with the word ‘Cadbury’ and the company’s logo. You pay a couple of pounds per child to enter and the aim (from your point of view) is to find all the clues that are hidden in the grounds of the house. Your prize, once you have completed the trail, is, naturally, a Cadbury’s egg.

The aim from Cadbury’s point of view is, presumably, some very well placed advertising. Strike a deal with an organisation that has sites countrywide which are visited by lots of people with kids over the Easter weekend and, hey presto!, you’re in the sights of a shed load of young potential customers, most of whom just LOVE chocolate.

Neat idea.

But the incongruity for me lies in the difference between the NT of today and the NT that I knew and loved as a child growing up in the seventies. I touched on this a while ago in a blog post that I wrote about NT tea rooms. Back when I was a kid, the NT was a dusty, old fashioned organisation that got very few visitors through the doors of its houses, even on bank holiday weekends. No point in Cadbury teaming up with the Trust in those days. But now, the NT’s sites are teaming with visitors, so much so that at peak times you have to queue up for entry and you don’t stand a chance of getting a table in the tea room—unless you happen to have extremely sharp elbows!

The National Trust has become an utterly commercial, utterly twenty-first century money-making machine. And its collaboration with Cadbury simply epitomises this.

When we were leaving Basildon Park at around 3pm, I heard the Cadbury staff turning one hopeful Easter trailer away. “We’re at capacity for this weekend,” they said. In other words, they’d run out of eggs. Much the same might be said of the Trust, I thought, with a rueful smile.

02 April, 2013

More on motorway signs

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about the odd messages that you sometimes see displayed on the overhead signs when travelling along the motorway.

Yesterday, travelling home along the M4, we spotted another such message. It read: "Take extra care while driving." As with the previous messages, this sentiment is laudable. But does reading such a sign really have any impact on anyone's driving? Surely, if you're a careful driver, you're a careful driver. And for those people who are not, well, I doubt whether such a reminder is likely to help much.

Of course,  it's good to see these overhead signs being used and displaying some kind of content. But still I can't help feeling that somewhere there's a Highways Agency employee who, in the absence of any earth shattering announcements that absolutely need displaying, is scrabbling to find some (any?) kind of public service information to brighten up our otherwise tedious motorway journeys...