Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Night-time visitor..

This beautiful creature invaded our room last night, and prevented us sleeping for a while by fluttering around our faces. Happily it also paused long enough on the wall to allow me to line it up in the camera's sights.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sometimes the very best part of a day out  walking is the long trudge home, when the sun drops behind the hills.

Dreamy Layers


On to the Lynedoch Obelisk


Although I have seen the Lynedoch Obelisk on Murrayshall Hill many times, from various angles - I'd never walked out to it before.

I was expecting wide views of the Strathtay to the North, but was surprised that a gap in the Braes of the Carse allowed a view of the river estuary out towards Dundee. Southwards, the Paps of Fife lurked behind Kinnoull Hill in the foreground.

Pleasingly, the sun shimmered off the little metal information plaque on the stonework.

The Folly of it All

While I have walked almost every corner of Perth's Kinnoull Hill and Barnhill many times, the hills just beyond them stretching out about Scone from Deuchny Woods, I have neglected.

While these low hills lack the obvious attraction of Kinnoull's dramatic cliffs, and interesting wildlife - they do offer an hour or two's charming strolling away from the crowds and man-made paths and adjacent motorway which so detract from the latter.

Like Kinnoull Hill, Murrayshall Hill is graced with a folly. McDuff's folly stands on the Northwest Edge of the wide, rolling summit ridge. Anyone driving Northwards from Perth on the A94 will have had their eyes drawn upwards to this little landmark on the skyline.

It is a strange, silent, life-less place. My walks through adjacent woods usually find me stumbling upon deer, squirrels, falcons, owls, grouse or a host of smaller birds. Strangely this place was utterly deserted.

The views out across the gentle Perthshire countryside were quite lovely, however.


Monday, December 12, 2011

In Bonnie Glenshee

-Looking Southwards from the Ski Centre-

-'Norris' almost capsizes the sledge-

-The Sun dips below the hills, and sledging time will soon be done-

-Mountain ironmongery-

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-Chairlifts waiting for 'real snow' and thousands of paying customers-

-'Boris' the abominable snowman -

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-All roads were open on Saturday, we followed the snowplough/gritter all the way back to Blairgowrie-

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Best Ever Sledge?

Half-light Glen Shee

Monday, December 05, 2011

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Sun

The low winter sun 'bursting' through the woods on Kinnoull Hill, Perth

Friday, December 02, 2011

"The Parenting Children Course", Week Four: "Our Long Term Aim"

This week we completed a pilot of "The Parenting Children Course", with a group of friends/fellow parents. Over these five weeks we have covered a huge amount of ground, as the headings for each session (above) reveal. As we suspected, the course has provoked our thinking and encouraged us to both make some changes to some family routines, as well as persist with some of the things we are getting right, but which are tiring and could be all to easy to give up!

Week five of the course is entitled, "Our Long Term Aim" - and encourages us to draw back from the frenetic day-to-day of managing a busy house, and busy children - in order to think about the 'big-picture'. Sometimes a course like this is surprising and provides new insights; but more often I find that (as with the Marriage Course) the greatest benefits come not from new information, but from the structure of the course. We had known, for example, that we needed to weight our discipline more towards reward, and less around sanction for some time. However, actually making these changes, didn't happen until we did the course, talked the issues through in the 'homework' and then implemented it. Actually a similar thing was true for us with The Marriage Course. We identified that a key need in our marriage was to spend time together as a couple on a regular basis when at a marriage seminar in 2001! However we didn't actually start having such "Marriage Time", until we did The Marriage Course in 2006, as it presented us with an allotted discussion time to actually think it through, plan it and organise it. Some people mock the 'course' format; but for me, it imposes the structure that my thinking requires, enables awkward or touchy subjects to be raised not postponed - and creates the stimulus to get on with required action.

In week five of "The Parenting Children Course", authors/presenters Nicky & Sila Lee (who have raised four children, themselves) steered us through two areas: Encouraging Responsibility, and Passing on Beliefs and Values. While discipline can correct a child's behaviour, the long-term plan must be to help children to develop the kind of character which will enable them to make good choices themselves, with increasing freedom as they grow older.

Firstly the issue of freedom is explored. Parents were encouraged to allow age-appropriate freedom to their children in order to begin the transfer of responsibility for planning and conduct from parent to child early on. Micro-management, over-competitiveness, over-busyness, and over-protectiveness are identified as barriers to this process of allowing children to make judgements themselves. Usefully for us, they pointed out that it is not always helpful to protect children from making mistakes - as having the freedom to make mistakes is a vital tool for children to discover the laws of actions and consequences for themselves! Micro-managing and over-protecting parents run the risk of not allowing their children to have learned these skills until they have really big decisions to make. The course DVD's contain interviews with parents and children (as well as experts) and some of the parents gave great example of ways in which they had let their kids face the consequences of their actions, as life-learning tools. Along with this, parents were encouraged to talk realistically with their children about the use of drugs/alcohol, the internet and electronic games; as well as engage with their questions about sex - and helping them prepare for puberty.

The last of the ten segments on the DVD, is the one in which the Christian faith of the authors/presenters is most apparent. While all parents try to inculcate a sense of morality in their children, the Lee's speak about the fact that for their four children this was done from a specifically Christian perspective. Much of what is discussed here could be used effectively by anyone parenting with secular views as the wisdom is widely applicable: its the values you live-out in the long term, not the words you say that have the most effect, for example (This lesson is especially focused on in a little section about money - where what we actually believe about its value/importance/use will be clear to our kids!) The home in which values are most effectively communicated is a happy, loving on in which loving solid discipline is practised, is another such insight.

The section on 'praying for our children' is possibly the one exclusively Christian-themed part of the course. While it should stimulate Christian parents, others might be a bit alienated by this. However, it is a very small part of the course overall, and (as with the Marriage Course), people coming from outside the church, to a church-hosted event, are usually expecting a Christian flavour to the proceedings.

The final element (before discussion questions for the parents) was a neat little section on the value of family traditions. Daily, weekly and annual routines - can be the basis of the formation of security, and very happy memories for children as they grow up. One of the most important things for children is a bank of happy, and significant memories to take into adulthood. The discussion time was entertaining too - as some of the parents talked about some of the funny or daft traditions their families treasure, unique to them!

The Parenting Children Course, has taken us on a whistle-stop five week tour through the key areas of parenting. It has given us a huge amount to think about, and we have started to make some significant changes (for the better!) in the way we run our home. We hope that like with The Marriage Course, many of these changes will not be temporary experiments - but will become the stuff of everyday life. Next week we will all meet again to evaluate the resources, see what we have learnt and decide what we should recommend to the church about if/how we should use them.

Monday, November 28, 2011

First dusting

The hills around Perth have experienced their first dusting of snow this week - which lasted a few days and then melted. So far down here close to sea-level, we have had none. This is a far-cry from this weekend a year ago, when we experienced the unusual 'Thundersnow', and everything was lost under a thick blanket of white, powdery ice.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Book Notes: How To Get Your Kids Through Church Without Them Ending Up Hating God by Rob Parsons


The title of Rob Parsons book "How to get your kids through church without them ending up hating God" was eye-catching enough in its own right to make me pick up this latest work from the whimsical Welshman. Let's be honest though - while the title speaks directly and powerfully to so many Christian parents' experience - that this title is even thought of, is a deep, profound and awful tragedy. So many of us find that when the church is good, it can be really, really good - like very little else in fact. Of course, it can be lame and useless, or just irrelevant too (as can each of our contribution to its life, I might add!). The fact is though, that Christian parents draw a significant distinction between church and faith; which means that when church either disappoints or bores, we ride the storm because faith remains. Things for kids, as Parsons explains, are much more complicated however. While we would wish for our kids to have a positive experience of church which would help them to kindle a faith of their own - Parsons pitches his book towards situations where the church is being part of the problem, not the solution. Into situations such as these, the chairman of Care for the Family pours his deceptively simple sounding wisdom.

Highlights in the book include his warnings against trying to compress our children into our mould - that is compressing them on secondary issues. He warns against over-busyness of parents who don't invest in an adequate relationship with their kids in easy times, so that the children can turn to them on a meaningful level in more difficult periods. He also challenges parents to live out what they say they believe - as hypocrisy is a faith killer for kids! He advises parents to be very guarded about how they speak about the church or about other people, especially when young ears are listening, pointing out that destructive cynicism is a highly contagious disease. Chapters on judgementalism, hypocrisy, cynicism and overfamiliarity are contrasted with the positive material on 'creating a sense of Belonging'. The only reason he ever advocates for jumping ship and joining another fellowship - is if the church to which you belong is not creating a sense of belonging and place for the kids and teenagers!

The final chapters are all entitled, "Get Them Ready for......" and are about preparing children for realities of a hard world, which requires robust, rather then sentimental faith. Disappointment with themselves, with others and with God will come - says Parsons, and the wise parent will not paint an unrealistically rosy picture of the life of faith, for reality to then shipwreck. Instead, he urges us to talk with our children about our failures, sins, disappointments and experiences - and how we have walked with God through such times. Likewise - he warns Christian parents against ghetto-ing children, and not exposing them to the real world. Finally he tells us to do all we can to impart a positive vision of the Christian life to which they can aspire, and which they can explore for themselves. A young believer will be healthy and happy in their faith, not of they are driven by a fear of the world which becomes a long string of 'thou shalt nots' - but when they gain a sense of calling from God to achieve something in this world for Him. So we should actively expose our children to the positive work of organisations doing great work in areas such as combating people-trafficking, or disaster-relief; he says.

This is a really easy book to read, in which Parsons' many insights are littered with nicely observed anecdotes. It is written with genuine spiritual, pastoral concern to see young people emotionally and spiritually thrive. Helpfully too, it is not guilt and law-driven; but gently gracious, in encouraging us parents to do the best for the children we have. While it is easy-reading, there is a lot to chew-on here. Most immediately challenging is the reminder that the greatest thing which will go towards shaping our children's character, is not what we try and impress on them, nor the values which we espouse; but that which they see us modelling in the course of everyday life, over almost two decades of parenting.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tweak

I got an e-mail the other day from someone who had been helping me with some camera stuff, that said, "hopefully you're not one of these photo realism blokes that doesn't tweak to suit......" Here's the answer...

"The Parenting Children Course", Week Four "Teaching Healthy Relationships"

Week four on "The Parenting Children Course" was probably the hardest session we have done so far, the one we have found most challenging and stretching. The discussion times were more difficult than previous weeks as a result - with some longer 'pauses for thought' as we contemplated how to respond to the material.

The course can be run over 5 longer evenings or 10 short-sessions. I've heard that evening courses tend to run with the five; but daytime courses being run in conjunction with parent & toddler groups or coffee mornings, tend to do the 10 shorter sessions. We are moving though it at the 5 - longer-sessions rate; but the DVD is arranged in two halves to facilitate running it either way.

The first half of session 4 focuses on our behaviour, attitude and actions as parents, and the way in which our practical example is hugely significant in the shaping of our children. There is a strong emphasis on listening to children, and developing an interest in their world, even if the things which delight them seem silly to us. "Active" or "Empathetic" listening is encouraged here, just as it forms such an important part of The Marriage Course. Things such as eye-contact, allowing them to express negative or critical emotions, or even anger are stressed - along with the technique of "reflecting back" which is such a critical element of deep listening. So far, so good - but then a stumbling block. The first exercise involved an element of role-play - the mere suggestion of which was enough to send a shiver round the group! A long discussion ensued in which there was a lot of reluctance to break into two's for the exercise. Eventually one member bravely said, "we can't say we've evaluated the course unless we've tried it" - so with a deep breath we did. It didn't last long, it has to be said - but it did lead to some useful discussion in the two's three's we were in.

Part two contained a lot of useful material about the use and abuse of anger - as it is displayed by three groups of people (i) toddlers (ii) older children and (iii) us - the parents! Toddler tantrums were addressed first, with a range of useful tactics discussed by both experts and parents. We've all been in the supermarket with a raging inconsolable little-one, concerned both with the plight of the distressed infant - and the embarrassment of appearing to be a failing-parent in front of the watching world. The tactics for coping with toddler-angst were as wise as the sense of camaraderie amongst fellow-sufferers engendered was emboldening. Personally, we looked back at the toddler years through the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia!

The anger of older children was looked at secondly. Here the emphasis was on allowing a child to express their feelings, but within the limits of permissible expression. Some children are not allowed to express negative or critical thoughts at all - and this extreme they said was damaging. The other extreme, allowing children to shout, swear, criticise the other parent, slam doors or hit siblings, is obviously unacceptable too - and must be met with sanctions. This though, can often be a result of the child perceiving that they are not listened to. The balance is to allow EXPRESSION but not AGGRESSION; while not imposing SUPPRESSION. Again in our own parenting we reflected on this and the fact that my wife and I both get this wrong sometimes but in different and opposite ways. This section - which hit right on the age of our children, was a helpful and useful reminder of the balance we should be aiming to achieve.

Children's rage is often not well articulated - which means that an angry child might yell at a sibling about a minor incident, when the real source of their stress is a problem at school, for example. The interviews with parents on the DVD were particularly insightful about this as they talked about the different ways in which their various children talk about their thoughts and reveal the sources of anger. This was thought-provoking stuff.

The session ended with an extremely searching and hard-hitting look at the behaviour which we as parents model to our children. If we have fits of rage, in which we lose control - this will determine our children's attitude to rage, and far outweigh any words we say to the contrary. The point here though - is not to attempt to dupe our children into thinking we are perfect; (that facade would be short-lived!) but modelling to them how fallen, far-from-perfect people maintain healthy relationships. That is, by admitting fault, saying sorry to one another, forgiving and moving on. While we cannot model perfection to our kids - we can model handling our imperfections in this way. We will also have to apologise to the children when we wrong them too. If we can manage all these things we will set them a useful example for later life, as they chose and develop and maintain relationships of their own.

So much to think about here...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ben Challum

Even on a generally dreary day in the Scottish Hills - there's something to see. Like many other people I was fooled by the wonderful weather predictions; and enthusiastically made my way to the hills to enjoy the promised temperature inversion and "superb visibility". Of course, what we actually got was traditional Scottish cloud, and icy winds. Any disappointment I felt about the weather was offset by moments such as that (sort-of) captured above - just magic!
I took the 'trade-route' up Challum's southern flanks above Kirkton Farm, skirting the farmhouse on the West Highland Way, passing the site of an ancient priory and two graveyards, before crossing the railway line into open country. Much of the ascent is fairly featureless, and is criss-crossed by fences which need to be climbed over. Some of the route up is marked by a row of fenceposts, with rusting strands of wire tangled around them
Earlier this year I blogged about the demise of my old walking boots. Today, my new boots were given a baptism, not so much of fire, but of mud! This photo (snapped with my phone), is of me and my new boots, out for our first proper date; at the summit of a Munro.
The summit of Ben Challum, wide, expansive, glorious views ........ not!

Every year I start thinking that this will be the one in which I really get into the mountains and walk well over 20 Munros. Today has almost certainly been the last one of the year - and my total for 2011 stands at a miserly 8. As the light from the sun dropped below the skyline (it was only mid-afternoon!), I turned round and looked back up the path towards Ben Challum. Tracks like this have a drawing power that is all their own, which seem to engage the eye and then lure the senses. I can't wait to get out again! Actually, I am quite achy after my exertions today, knees, back, joints and muscles al protesting about their working conditions. I think I need to reward it with a hot bath and a fine dram.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"The Parenting Children Course - Week Three": Discipline & Boundaries!

Last night we completed the third week of "The Parenting Children Course". While the previous weeks had focused largely on the happy and positive side of parenting (expressing love, setting aside adequate time etc) - this week we looked at the necessary but less enjoyable task of setting and keeping boundaries. One aspect that got us all thinking and talking was the concept of making sure that we are 'authoritative parents'. That is not to say 'authoritarian' - which is something quite different, as we saw in the following diagrams, based on the book 'Toxic Childhood'.

The first diagram (taken from the course manual) suggests that we can plot our parenting style on a graph of two axes, representing "warmth" (ie love, affection, closeness, fun, time and emotional connectedness) and the other "firmness" (ie the extent to which rules we set, imposed and re-enforced with punishments).

We then thought about the implications of different combinations of these attributes/failings. We first thought about a home in which there was no warmth, love, affection - but equally no setting of boundaries of acceptable behaviour. This they described as "Negligent Parenting". In this bottom-right quadrant, the parent is either too busy, or incapable of either meeting the child's emotional need for love, or its developmental need for understanding right and wrong. This is disastrous.

The top-right corner was then considered. In this quarter of the chart, parents are warm, generous, devoted and caring - but do not ever discipline their children. The children are either considered to be incapable of wrongdoing, or the parent is simply scared to say "no" when required. These children are spoilt - with serious implications for their future happiness and success in relationships.

At the bottom left, the "authoritarian parent" makes the opposite error to the indulgent parent. In this model, rules are set firmly and transgressions punished severely. There is little scope for independent judgement or beginning to take responsibility for making good choices by the child. The child is forced to behave in accordance with the parents code of behaviour, but there is no sense of closeness, love, affection or warmth. Fun is certainly not on the agenda.

The right balance is found in the top-left quadrant on the diagram, which is labelled "Authoritative Parenting". In this model, the parent seeks both to develop a warm relationship with the child in which skills such as the " love languages for children", discussed last week are used deliberately and intentionally to make children feel loved, accepted, and valued. However - along with that (and not in any sense in tension with it!) this love goes hand-in-hand with the kind of positive disciplining which makes children feel secure.

My wife and I were fascinated to realise the extent to which, while we strive for this balance, when tired, stressed, busy, or overwhelmed by three children, we can each slip into a dangerous imbalance. Our personalities mean that we would each naturally get pulled in a different direction, and become imbalanced in different ways!
We spent a long time thinking about and discussing the different methods of maintaining standards, imparting a sense of right and wrong, and re-enforcing the boundaries we have set. It was really interesting to speak to other parents about the different things they have used; systems of warnings, red/yellow cards, star-charts, withdrawal of privileges and working towards defined rewards - to inculcate the ability to make good choices. Obviously the need for consistent application of these is vital - and difficult; and requires long-term application for results to be seen.

Once again, this has given us loads to think about and some really important adjustments to make. On The Marriage Course, we discovered that sometimes our 'default settings' weren't helpful, and that taking a step back in order to think things through to make changes -is a hugely constructive exercise. It is proving to be the case with the Parenting Course too.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lins Honeyman & Friends - Live at Dunbarney


For Perthshire singer/songwriter Lins Honeyman, Saturday evening was something of a homecoming. When he led his band of friends and musical collaborators on stage at Dunbarney Church Hall, he was performing just along the road from his home village of Forgandenny. Amongst the capacity crowd were several people from the area who have known Honeyman for decades. But alongside that geographical homecoming, Saturday also saw a musical returning; Honeyman led the band back to his musical roots, which burrow down deeply into the Blues & Spirituals of African-America.
The evening began with the music of Bruce Cameron and then Paul Becher. While both these guys are basically solo acoustic guitar/voice acts, their two sets could not have stood in greater contrast. Cameron's studied intensity sought to convey the thoughtful poetry of his spiritual lyrics, alongside his intricate guitar work. Becher on the other hand engaged the crowd in singing-along with him as he attacked the likes of Pinball Wizard and American Pie.
After an interval with food served(!), Lins Honeyman and friends took to the stage; opening up the second half of the evening with a rip-roaring version of Johnny Cash's Fulsom Prison Blues. It was good to hear Lins performing in the context a full band again, after some smaller-scale events recently. Blues gigs can sometimes dissipate into jams which can either work brilliantly, or completely flop - but which are inevitably too long! This certainly was not the case on Saturday, when Les Dalziel (keys, organ, double-bass), Lins Honeyman (guitars, mandolin, dobra, keys), Jon Assheton (drums & percussion), Bryn Rees (electric bass), and Andrew McCully (electric guitars) - showed how hard they had worked together to nail their performances pretty darn tightly. Sound-man Gilbert Spiers managed to produce an admirable sound-mix, in a size and shape room which must have created a few issues to overcome!



















To an audible "oh yes" of approval Lins announced that their second song would be drawn from the catalogue of the great Ray Charles - an uptempo blues called "Unchain My Heart". Like Ray Charles who I think saved his very finest performances for his pure Blues work, this band just seem at home in that musical landscape, the Hammond organ being unleashed in a way that no doubt Charles himself would have approved.

Lins' self-penned number "Charles Atlas where are you now?", provided a nice little study on the difference that a band can make to a performance. While recent solo performances of this song have been good, the presence of the band enabled him to crank this track up to a completely different level. This was most notably the case during the funky guitar solo/break, in which Lins and drummer John Ashetton sparked off each other, whilst exchanging appreciative grins. "Where can I find my peace?" found Honeyman in pensive, reflective mood - a true lament in the tradition of the Psalms. Anyone who remembers Clapton's famous "unplugged" album will remember "Hey-Hey", which came next, although the band were careful to correctly credit it to Big Bill Broonzy.

The first of two so-called "Negro-Spirituals" followed, "Oh Mary Don't You Weep". The sacred was swiftly followed by the profane and a rocking version of "Money: That's What I Want". Honeyman mused that "I want your money" wasn't a sentiment he subscribed to, without any apparent sense of irony that he was saying this to a paying audience! Thankfully I restrained my urge to heckle at that point. The second ancient 'Spiritual' was "I want Jesus to Walk with me", a haunting song, with deep words - sung and performed with real conviction by the band.

Elvis' Lawdy Miss Clawdy lightened the mood and facilitated some entertaining soloing from McCully, Honeyman and Dalziel. It was multi-instrumentalist Dalziel who was responsible for a new jazzier arrangement of Honeyman's version of the 23rd Psalm. Tight, edgy, fascinating and neatly executed, this was the musical highlight of the evening for me; and you can't fault the lyrics either! "Stranger Blues" brought proceedings to a conclusion, giving Lins a chance to play some good Blues harmonica.

Someone then mistakenly turned the house-lights on full - suggesting that no encore would be offered. Thankfully several people (including my wife) wanted their money's worth, and called for another track, so Lins returned and led the crowd in a singalong of "It must be love".

I am privileged to know the guys in this band, and to have such talented people amongst my friends. They also have an appreciation and respect for the history of the music they play - and are not embarrassed to play a Blind Willie Johnson song from 1926, if that is what they want to do. The only slightly negative aspects were the rather reserved crowd, who I felt significantly under-appreciated the band, and the absence of soulful vocalist Morna Young. Her collaborations with Honeyman on the African-American spirituals are something special. This was though a terrific night's entertainment, which could easily have graced a far more illustrious venue than a country church hall.