Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Shrove Tuesday - Pancake Day

Today is Shrove Tuesday, pancake day !

In England, the last three days before Lent are known as Shrovetide. Shrovetide, which is always a Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, used to be celebrated with games, sports, dancing and other revelries. There were feasts to use up the food that could not be eaten during the Lenten fast. On Shrove Tuesday, also known as Pancake Day, all fats and cream had to be used up. Traditionally a way of using up rich foods in the larder before the beginning of Lent, the custom of eating pancakes on that day goes back to before Elizabethan times. There was a tradition of ringing a pancake bell which was the signal for everyone to stop work and join in the festivities of pancake day, which included pancake races where participants ran along tossing a pancake in the air as they went, a custom still observed in some places to this day.

Shrove Tuesday Pancakes
30g unsalted butter, melted, plus more for frying
150g plain flour
325ml milk
1 egg

Makes 6 x 20cm pancakes – you’ll probably want to double this!

Melt the butter and then put to one side to cool a little. Put the flour, milk and egg into a blender or a large bowl and whiz or whisk.

Heat the pan (not too high otherwise you will smoke out the kitchen) – a proper crepe pan is of course perfect but a shallow frying pan will do fine. Melt a tiny bit of butter and then wipe the pan – this is to “season “it. This is worth doing otherwise the first pancake is always a disaster!

Ladle in enough batter to coat the pan. Leave for only about one minute and then turn with a wide spatula; flipping needs firm confidence but have a go!

Continue until all the batter is used, melting a little butter into the pan in between each pancake. Pile the cooked pancakes onto a plate and serve with whatever takes your fancy.

Serving suggestions:
Sugar and lemon
Melted chocolate or chocolate spread and banana
Greek yogurt and fruit coulis
Apple puree and toasted almonds…..
Flambé Grand Marnier….but not for the kids!

Yum, yum….enjoy.

Copyright law

Reading today's followup on The Da Vinci Code plagiarism saga, I thought I'd transcribe the part of it that deals with the definition of "copyright". A useful reminder to some bloggers out there who wrongly claim their blogs's material to be protected by copyright.
Copyright is an old established principle of English law dating back to the Statute of Anne in 1709 and was codified in the original Copyright Act of 1911. Current UK copyright law is laid out in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 and gives "the creators of literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works the right to control the ways in which their material may be used".

To justify copyright protection, a work has to be regarded as original and show "a degree of labour, skill or judgment". Under the law, the creator has economic control of the exploitation of their work and the right to be identified as the author and to object to distortions of their work.

According to the UK Copyright Service, an "idea for a book would not itself be protected, but the actual content of a book you write would be". Someone else is still entitled to write their own book around the same idea, "provided they do not directly copy or adapt yours to do so".

Copyright for literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works end 70 years after the last
remaining author of the work dies.
--Duncan Campbell

Monday, February 27, 2006

To a Childless Woman

Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825–1905), Young Mother Gazing at Her Child, 1871
You think I cannot understand. Ah, but I do...
I have been wrung with anger and compassion for you.
I wonder if you’d loathe my pity, if you knew.

But you shall know. I’ve carried in my heart too long
This secret burden. Has not silence wrought your wrong—
Brought you to dumb and wintry middle-age, with grey
Unfruitful withering?—Ah, the pitiless things I say...

What do you ask your God for, at the end of day,
Kneeling beside your bed with bowed and hopeless head?
What mercy can He give you?—Dreams of the unborn
Children that haunt your soul like loving words unsaid—
Dreams, as a song half-heard through sleep in early morn?

I see you in the chapel, where you bend before
The enhaloed calm of everlasting Motherhood
That wounds your life; I see you humbled to adore
The painted miracle you’ve never understood.

Tender, and bitter-sweet, and shy, I’ve watched you holding
Another’s child. O childless woman, was it then
That, with an instant’s cry, your heart, made young again,
Was crucified for ever—those poor arms enfolding
The life, the consummation that had been denied you?
I too have longed for children. Ah, but you must not weep.
Something I have to whisper as I kneel beside you...
And you must pray for me before you fall asleep.

Poem by
Siegfried Sassoon

Handel's Water Music

Playing on the iPod is Handel's Water Music. Such pomp and grandeur. Can you imagine the scale and opulence of the event for which it was composed ? Can you imagine a floating orchestra on a warm Summer's evening in the 18th century ? Difficult, huh ? Here's some help:

On Wednesday 17 July 1717, in the evening, there occurred in London a royal event of great splendour. King George I and a large gathering of the English nobility boarded open barges on the river Thames at Whitehall and sailed up river to Chelsea, where they took supper. Such was the success of the evening that the party did not leave until three o’clock in the morning, the King arriving back at St James’s Palace at about half-past four. One of the river barges (according to a report in the Daily Courant of 19 July) ‘was employ’d for the Musick, wherein were 50 instruments of all sorts who play’d... the finest Symphonies, compos’d express for this Occasion, by Mr Hendel: which his Majesty liked so well, that he caus’d it to be plaid over three times in going and returning’. The Prussian Resident in London, Friedrich Bonet, also reported the event privately to his masters in Berlin and gave more information about the music. The instruments employed included trumpets, horns (‘cors de chasse’), oboes, bassoons, German (transverse) flutes, French flutes (recorders), violins and basses, and each of the three performances lasted an hour. These details leave little doubt that what the royal party heard that evening was the suite of movements that soon became known as Handel’s Water Music.

Bonet also noted that the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King George II and Queen Caroline) took no part in the festivities — a reminder that the event had
considerable political significance. For some time a rift had been developing between the King and the Prince. By 1717 the Prince had gained several influential followers and was able to command sufficient support in Parliament to be a serious hindrance to the King’s ministers. In consequence the King cancelled plans for a visit to Hanover in the summer and instead decided to display himself more conspicuously to his subjects than had previously been his custom. The party on the Thames, held two days after Parliament had risen for the summer recess, was the prelude to three months of festive activity, mainly marked by a series of lavish receptions at Hampton Court.

The provision of the Water Music may have been Handel’s way of showing that in the conflict between the King and the Prince of Wales his first loyalty was to the King — an important gesture, for at Hanover Handel had been a particular favourite of the Prince and Princess. No attempt to publish the Water Music seems to have been made at the time of its original performance — Handel may have wished to keep the work to himself — but the music that had given so much pleasure to the King could hardly be forgotten. Within a few years it was to be heard frequently in London’s concert halls and theatres.

In 1725 Handel’s publisher Walsh included the Water Music overture (in F major) in his Third Collection of Handel’s overtures — the first appearance of any of the music in print — and arrangements of several movements were included in a collection of Handel’s minuets published by Walsh in 1729. In 1734 Walsh issued a set of orchestral parts for what he called the ‘Celebrated Water Musick’, but in fact the publication contained only about half the movements. A complete version of the suite in the form of a transcription for solo harpsichord was issued by Walsh in
1743. Arnold’s edition of 1788 was the first to present all the numbers in full score. This erratic publication history, coupled with the unfortunate loss of the original autographs, leaves several aspects of the Water Music open to question. Contemporary manuscript copies suggest solutions to some problems, but their evidence is sometimes contradictory.

Any further discussion must begin with an attempt to clarify how the Water Music came to be composed. Though the Daily Courant and Bonet both say that Handel wrote the music specifically for the water party of 1717 it seems probable that some parts of it had been composed earlier for other purposes. It is difficult to believe, for example, that the overture, with its delicate writing for two solo violins, could have been conceived with outdoor performance in mind. The Water Music may have started life as two independent orchestral suites or concertos scored for woodwind and strings only. In 1717 Handel could simply have combined these and added the movements with horns and trumpets, which are obviously suited to outdoor performance.

The music itself provides a brilliant conspectus of the full range of Handel’s style in the period of his first opera for England. As ‘occasional’ music combining quality with immediate appeal it was not rivalled until Handel provided his Music for the Royal Fireworks of 1749. It seems that Handel, always ready to exploit a new orchestral effect, introduced French horns into an English orchestra for the first time in the Water Music, immediately perceiving how to make the best use both of the bright F horns — on their own, in conjunction with the oboes — and of the lower pitched D horns — reinforcing the trumpets or antiphonally echoing them. The very English ‘Country Dance’, with the main tune presented in the middle of the harmony, is a charming tribute to the country in which he chose to settle, and like all the tunes in the suite cannot now be heard without happily evoking Hanoverian England in its most genial aspects.
-- Anthony Hicks

The Da Vinci Code in Court

Historians Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh are claiming that the American novelist Dan Brown, author of "The Da Vinci Code", plagiarised themes and ideas they explored in their 1982 book "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" . The case went on trial today in London and is expected to last two weeks.
Having read both books, I know for a fact that the main pillar in Dan Brown's book is precisely the very same theory that was presented by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, after a decade of research, in "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail". The only difference between the two is that Dan Brown's work has a bunch of flowers and cryptograms to sweeten the pill and the other's academic historical research style makes it much more difficult to read.
But I have to agree with the former Man Booker Prize judge who said: 'Baigent and Leigh are not going to win. I don't think plagiarism any longer holds up - we live in a world of cut and paste, and in a global village. Creativity is always a beautifully arranged patchwork that nudges something a little further on'.

A mother's role

It's been a very pleasant surprise to find that so many educated people feel the same way I do about this: a mother's first and foremost responsibility is to her children. Not to a career. Not to a boss. Not to a husband. Not to mainstream pressure. Not to the despicable legacy of fundamentalist feminism.
Looking at the ills of the world nowadays, I believe that more and more people will start re-addressing the fundamental role of full-time mothers and functional families in a healthy society. I mean, how could we have let people like Simone de Beauvoir, who in 1974 proclaimed this chilling commentary, "No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one." lead us into the present day reality, where women are more stressed and oppressed than ever, torn between what they feel is right and what society demands of them, and where children have no one to look up to, love and respect, growing up to be violent, depressed and dysfunctional ?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Party weekend

Three parties this weekend ! THREE ! For the kids, of course. I just drive them around.

Plácido rules OK !

For the first time since 1990, the Three Tenors will not be singing at the opening ceremony of the Football World Cup, to be held in Germany this June. Plácido Domingo will be doing it alone. As Norman Lebrecht puts it, in his La Scena Musicale weekly column:

No matter who wins the football, Placido Domingo will walk away from Germany 2006 as the richest and most powerful operatic personage on earth. Where the Three Tenors carved up the record business between them in royalty deals worth more than 40 million dollars, Domingo now has the game all to himself.

Plácido Domingo, who has just been given a five-year contract extension as general director of the Los Angeles Opera, is undoubtedly still going strong. THE star of opera stars.

Capriccio Espagnol

The iPod is playing Rimsky-Korsakov's Scena e Canto Gitano from Capriccio Espagnol. A feast for the senses.
About Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), Paul Serotsky wrote:
A kaleidoscope is an instrument comprising mirrors enclosing bits of coloured glass which produces, by the simplest of means, the most marvellously coloured patterns - a close analogy to Rimsky-Korsakov, except that anyone can work a kaleidoscope.
Rimsky-Korsakov's skill for shaking up orchestral instruments is arguably still unique. It wasn't always so. Originally a Naval Officer, perhaps explaining his taste for the exotic, he started composing as an untrained amateur. In 1867, his “ultra-modernism”(?) earned him the Professorship of Practical Composition at St. Petersburg Conservatoire. But, as he said, he “couldn't harmonise a chorale, had never done any exercises in counterpoint, had no idea of strict fugue, and moreover couldn't name the chords and intervals.” His knowledge of instrumental techniques was scant (and obsolete!). He coped by teaching himself one step ahead of his students, thereby becoming at once a great teacher and a model pupil.
It must have been Sadko, A Musical Picture Op. 5, a disgracefully neglected masterpiece of orchestral inventiveness, that prompted this crucial recognition, setting him on a course (N.B. Naval metaphor!) which led in 1887 to the Capriccio Espagnol, that most famous of ersatz-Spanish music (indeed, many find it more idiomatic than Falla). You could just relax and bathe in Rimsky's intoxicating brew (I usually do!).

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Painting by Claude Monet (1840 -1926 ), Neige à Argenteuil (1874-1875)

Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent and soft and slow
Descends the snow.

Poem by
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


First snowfall of the year. Lots of flurries during the day but the snow was too wet to stick and cover everything. For some 10 minutes during the morning, though, there were really big snowflakes slowly falling in huge numbers from the sky. It looked so beautiful and peaceful. They say more is on the way ...
P.S. Ana was happy to go back to school today. Everyone welcomed her back and she was in a really good mood at the end of the day. She had a karate session in the evening and she's having a grading examination next week to earn her next belt. She looks so cool in her Gi (karate training clothes). Oss!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Vivaldi's Summer

Now playing on the iPod is one of my favorite pieces of music: L'Estate from Vivaldi's Le Quattro Stagioni.
I always had a little trouble associating Vivaldi's Summer with my own notion of Summer (obviously a Portuguese Summer, calm and blue, with no violent, sudden thunderstorms or hail storms). Only after I lived in Ohio did I truly understand and respect the violence of summer thunderstorms...

Skype et al

It's a couple of days since my last entry. I haven't felt up to writing for a number of reasons, the most important of which being that Ana is ill with a gastroenteritis. On Monday she spent the whole day throwing up and going to the loo. She was so shaky and weak she couldn't even manage to go to the doctor's with me. Since then, medicine, rest and a special diet have made quite a difference: she's feeling much better and she's up to going to school tomorrow. This term is really important because of the SAT's in May. I hope she doesn't have to miss any more school.
Meanwhile I've talked my folks into getting Skype and now we can talk to each other any time we feel like it without having to worry about what it costs because it costs nothing at all. Great!! Yesterday we were even talking about the Benfica-Liverpool football match, which Benfica won in Lisbon. Unfortunately, around here all the media's attention was focused on the Real Madrid - Arsenal match which Arsenal won in the Santiago Barnabeo Stadium in Madrid. About the game against Benfica all that was said was that one of the English players had been hit in the eye in the beginning of the game and had to spend the night in hospital. Oh well. As if I care much about football ... My dad does, though ! He is and has always been a fervent Benfiquista !
I've finished Paul Auster's "The Brooklyn Follies" and am now reading Nick Hornby's "About a Boy", Stephen Fry's "The Ode Less Travelled" and a PhD thesis written by a BIG shot Portuguese philologist (I can't seem to get past the page 6, though ...).
Right now, however, I'm off to watch the begining of the new The Apprentice series on BBC2. Sir Alan M. Sugar reigns supreme and, once a week, shoots his famous "You're fired!" at one of his wannabe apprentices. Boy, oh boy, am I glad I got out of the business jungle !

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The weekend

The cold and rainy weather determined that we stay at home, warm and cozy, during the weekend. I'm devouring Paul Auster's "Brooklyn Follies" but unfortunately I couldn't give it my undivided appetite as I had to attend to all the chores and little family-life happenings that go with a weekend indoors: cooking, ironing, helping with homework, and so on and so on.

I did my ironing in the living-room "watching" Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks with the rest of the family, at Ana's request. Even Clara likes that movie (she particularly likes the drilling part, in the basement, when the loonies in the gang burst a water main as they begin to dig a tunnel to rob a bank).
Today, after supper, we watched a bit of the Winter Olympics Ice Dancing competition. No clear winners but my personal favorites are the American Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto. I have to say, though, that as far as I'm concerned, none of them even come near to Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean in the 1984 Winter Olympics. I'm beginning to sound like my Mom !
Anyway, the girls were supposed to go to bed early because it's back to school tomorrow. Guess what ? Clara fell asleep when she was supposed to but Ana is still reading !
Gotta go sing her a lullaby or something !

Gulbenkian: Britain's loss ...

... and Portugal's good fortune.
Britain lost a tycoon's priceless art collection to Portugal 50 years ago. Now, for the first time in more than half a century, the Gulbenkian Foundation is lending some of its paintings to an exhibition at Tate Britain. The story in today's Observer.
Painting by J. M. W. Turner, Quillebeuf, at the Mouth of Seine, 1833,
Oil on canvas, 88 x 120 cm
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon

Fiddler on the Roof

Painting by Marc Chagall(1887-1985), Le Violiniste Bleu
Chagall's work is so dreamy, isn't it ?
Why the fiddler on the roof ?
"In Chagall's village, Vitebsk, the fiddler made music at crosspoints of life (birth, wedding, death). "
"Life is like a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck"
"The balance between tradition and change is that of a fiddler on the roof."

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Sabbath Prayer

No, I'm not Jewish but I do think this song, from one of my daughters's favorite musicals, "Fiddler on the Roof," is heartwarming and lovely: a parents's Sabbath prayer for their daughters.
Now playing on the iPod.

May the Lord protect and defend you.
May He always shield you from shame.
May you come to be
In Israel a shining name.

May you be like Ruth and like Esther.
May you be deserving of praise.
Strengthen them, Oh Lord,
And keep them from the strangers' ways.

May God bless you and grant you long lives.
(May the Lord fulfill our Sabbath prayer for you.)
May God make you good mothers and wives.
(May He send you husbands who will care for you.)

May the Lord protect and defend you.
May the Lord preserve you from pain.
Favor them, Oh Lord, with happiness and peace.
Oh, hear our Sabbath prayer. Amen.

The human brain

Another interesting article and test in the Guardian.

Recommended reading

This article, which I took from today's Guardian, addresses a problem that is very dear to me. I recommend its reading.

Too early, too much, too long -- by Steve Biddulph

It began 30 years ago with a phone call. A friend, a young mother, is on the line, distraught. It's her first day back at work after four months' maternity leave. Her little boy is at a nearby nursery, howling. She is howling too. I'm about to say, "He'll be fine," but instead I ask how she got to this point. She tells a story that is very familiar to me now, 30 years later. Her husband and her boss want her back at work, and her peer group are all doing the nursery thing - but in her heart, she has never really asked, what do I want? And it's taken this separation to find out.

At the end of that day, and with no prompting from me - for in those days I was an advocate of "quality care", she is back home, and doesn't return to work for 18 months more. And I am launched on a journey of concern. What do we do to parents in our society? We think we are free to choose our lives, but pressures from all around, not least the housing price crisis facing the UK, mean women, like men, are just as enslaved now as when feminism first stormed the barricades. The tyrant has changed, but the choices are just as poor.
And then there's the babies, lying in rows of cots, then milling about in garish rooms through their toddler years, aching for one special adult to love them. Twelve thousand hours of this before they set foot in school.

Childhood today is nothing like it was for preceding generations, especially for very young children. In 1981, only 24% of mothers returned to work before their baby was one. Today the figure is over 70%, with 95% of fathers working full-time. As a result, almost a quarter of a million British children under three attend a day nursery full- or part-time.

Daycare was originally intended for three- and four-year-olds, but its use has spread downwards; some babies are now put into nurseries when they are a few weeks old. The hours have got longer too: throughout the industrialised world, millions of children under three are in nurseries 10 hours a day, five days a week. This large-scale group care of the very young has happened without prior research (compared with the invention of kindergarten, which was designed with child development needs in mind).

Daycare, nurseries, home carers and nannies are an absolute necessity given our newly hurried lives. Day nurseries are an attempt to slot messy and needy young children into the new economic system, while at the same time reassuring us that it is good for them, socially and educationally. Nurseries are marketed so well that parents at home have even begun to feel that they are not as good for their babies and toddlers as "experts" might be, despite the fact that these "experts" may well be teenagers with minimal qualifications, who fell into this line of work. The critical, rarely mentioned core of nursery care is that our children will be looked after in bulk - on a 1:3 or 1:8 ratio, compared to 1:1 at home. Like McDonald's fast food, we can enjoy the convenience of drive-through; through the miracle of mass production.

The rapid adoption of nursery care in the early years has been a social experiment; a gamble taken by millions of parents. The results of that experiment are now emerging. The first generation of babies raised in this way are now entering their teens and early 20s.

Most western industrial countries are reporting record levels of young people with mental health problems. The proportion of teenagers in the UK with behaviour problems has doubled since 1980; the proportion with anxiety and depression has risen by 70%. The incidence of attention problems, violence problems, eating disorders, and of binge drinking and other addictions has also risen dramatically.

These are not poverty-stricken children, lacking education, healthcare or food; affluent children are equally represented in this problem generation. In the past 10 years, researchers have learned that a baby's brain grows whole new structures in response to the love and affection, and caring firmness, given during its first two years of life. If this kind of intense love is not given at the right time, these areas of the brain do not develop properly. This is perhaps the most vital message: children raised without sufficient loving care do not fully become the human being they were meant to be.

In the 1990s, because of the critical importance of the whole question and the widespread disagreement among experts, a number of governments were persuaded that something had to be done. In the US, Britain and half a dozen other countries, large long-term studies were set in motion to try and establish the truth. Was nursery care harmful? And if so, under what circumstances, and why?

The most comprehensive US study undertaken, the National Institute of Child Health and Development study (NICHD), involved more than 1,000 children. Results have been released progressively since it began in 1991. In the UK, the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) study, based at the University of London, followed the lives of 3,000 children from babyhood, with extensive interviews and assessments of children's behaviour and academic performance. This study reported its results in 2004. Another large-scale study of 1,200 children was designed and carried out by the childcare expert Penelope Leach, together with the academics Kathy Sylva and Alan Stein. This study revisited babies at 10, 18, 36 and 51 months old and its results were published in late 2005.

In the NICHD 2004 results, three times as many children - 17% - had noticeable behaviour problems in the over-30 daycare hours a week group, while only 6% had these problems in the under-10 hours a week cohort. According to the researchers' report, these problems included "disobedience, being defiant, talking back to staff, getting into fights, showing cruelty, bullying or meanness to others, physically attacking other people, being explosive and showing unpredictable behaviour". These increases were small, but they were present in a large number of children. The EPPE study likewise reported that "high levels of group care before the age of three (and particularly before the age of two) were associated with higher levels of antisocial behaviour at age three".

The Leach study reported babies and toddlers in daycare to have "higher levels of aggression", and to be "more inclined to become withdrawn, compliant and sad". It concluded: "The social and emotional development of children cared for by someone other than their mothers is definitely less good."

Perhaps most significantly for the researchers and parents, the quality of care - how good, stable, caring and educationally rich the settings were - had only a partial effect on the behaviour outcomes. Quality of care mattered a great deal, for reasons other than the ones being studied - it helped cognitive skills and literacy, and children receiving more one-to-one care in nurseries with more and better-trained staff were less stressed, but it could not undo the damage done by "too early, too much, too long".

This finding had huge ramifications. The mantra of the 90s had been that poor outcomes were due to poor-quality nurseries. The studies seemed to indicate something that loving parents give in one-to-one care that cannot be substituted. Quality care was not the panacea that had been hoped for: it was still "stranger care" in a group setting, and this mattered to the proper development of secure children.

The most significant factor of all in determining child mental health was called by researchers "maternal sensitivity"; the ability to respond warmly and sensitively to the needs of the child. This depends on the mother - or father - being sufficiently calm, supported and free from pressures to make the child their focus, and sufficiently resourced materially and emotionally, so that they are not depressed, lonely or overwhelmed by the demands of parenthood. This quality relies on parents having the opportunity to get to know their baby, its needs and its means of communicating them.The studies found that one of the dangers to children was that too early, too much, and too long use of nursery care could weaken maternal sensitivity - or rather, prevent it from developing.

The negative effects of nursery care did not have a specific threshold or safety level in terms of the hours spent in care. The more nursery care a child receives, the more the effects received, in a proportional amount. The researchers refer to this as a dose-related effect. There isn't a safe level of nursery care usage for the under-threes (but a little is better than a lot). For anyone who knows children, this is common sense. The toddler is emotionally vulnerable, acutely aware of her social environment, who loves her, and with whom she feels safe. A toddler fears strangers, and is strongly bonded to one or two trusted adults. Babies do not have a sense of time; they cannot understand that "in eight hours' time, my mother will be back". Indeed, they are programmed to assume that if their beloved caregiver leaves, they are in danger. Their body escalates into full panic, measurable in rising levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood.

A 2005 Cambridge University study reported these alarming results: "Toddlers starting at childcare experience high levels of stress in the first weeks after separating from their parents ... Hormone levels doubled even in secure youngsters during the first nine days of childcare ... The levels fell over time but five months later were still significantly higher than for infants of the same age who stayed at home."

Children are incredibly resilient, but we should not take this for granted. The one factor agreed by all research in child development is the importance of the infant-parent bond, and how closeness of the relationship immunises a child against present and future stresses. If the only negative of long days spent in nursery is to weaken this connection, or prevent it ever growing, then this is a significant concern.

A nursery situation never has a one-to-one ratio of carer to baby - it would be prohibitively expensive. The best nurseries have one carer to three babies, and often this is one to five or six when carers are filling forms, taking a break, or performing other duties. So the child gets only a fraction of the time and energy that it ideally needs.

To find out what kind of interaction children receive from nursery-care workers, detailed studies have been carried out. Trained observers have rated the interaction quality between carers and children. The results are not good. Even when childcare workers know that they are being observed, they do not do as good a job as parents. There are far fewer intimate exchanges between carers and children, and interactions are more mechanical, brusque and shorter in duration. They are simply not as responsive.

This is not the fault of the carer - in most cases they try their best, but there are two significant factors working against them. They are not the parent of the child, and they rarely have a long-term relationship with them. Both child and carer are just passing through each other's lives. Turnover of nursery staff is running at 30-40%, caused by low pay, poor training and low status.

Of course, parents at home are also sometimes stressed, depressed, angry, unresponsive or even positively dangerous to their kids, and some kids are better off in nursery, which at least is routine, safe and (hopefully) provides some level of warmth and stimulation. But we have to ask whether there is a better way to give parents a life, and children a life too. Why does it have to be a choice of two evils - parental loneliness and frustration, or children spending long hours in the care of strangers? Surely we can emancipate women, and yet not abandon children to indifferent care ?

In those European countries that have better support for families, the situation is very different. In France, Germany, and Denmark low cost, good-quality housing is supported, jobs are secure and retraining available for parents after two or three years' absence. We look like misers by comparison. Britain spends only 0.3% of GDP on early years provision, compared with 2% in Sweden. Yet in Sweden today, there are almost no babies in daycare, a new generation of parents has opted instead for the excellent parental leave and job-sharing provisions in that country. In other words, a six-fold increase in expenditure would be needed to achieve a standard that Swedish parents have decided still isn't good enough.

The British government is moving tentatively in the right direction - there have been advances in parental and maternity leave. But our medieval workplace culture needs to shift dramatically to make parenthood possible.

Meanwhile, some parents are choosing less affluent, more time-rich lives, and finding the joys of simpler living. Since the world needs us to consume less, and live more, this must be a good thing. Let's hope that the care of babies in nurseries might soon go the way of child labour in factories or boarding school for six-year-olds.

In an ideal world ...

During your child's first year
Do not use nursery care at all. Organise for your baby to be with a parent or grandparent all the time, except for occasional breaks - days off or evenings out - when you have a trusted and familiar babysitter.

When your child is one
Up to one short day a week, for example, 9 am to 3 pm, with a trusted and familiar carer. Ideally 1:1, but in a 1:3 ratio at the very most.

When your child is two
Up to two short days a week with a trusted and familiar carer. After two and a half, a group setting such as a good-quality nursery can be suitable for girls, but usually boys are not ready until three. Only use group care if the child settles well, and for short days only.

When your child is three
Up to three short days or half days a week in a good-quality nursery or nursery school.

Late night musings

Glancing over my blog. What comes across about me so far (not that that's what it's for, but it's inevitable...) ?


I love my daughters
I don't get out much
I'm moody
I have a conservative approach to life
I strive to be a good mother and present myself as such
I put family before self
I love music, poetry and reading
I like artists that either went mad or committed suicide
I like sharing
I'm interested in politics, the economy and society but, in my own interest, mostly keep my opinions to myself
I feel the need to keep in touch with family and friends
I'm on some kind of bloggist therapeutic experiment

This is how I paint myself. Is all of it true, I wonder...

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Sometimes Life ...

Playing on the iPod is Joan Manuel Serrat's "De vez en cuando la vida". I looked around in the net and found no English translation for this wonderful poem, so here's my rough attempt at it:

Sometimes Life
Kisses you on the mouth
And colorfully unfolds
Like an atlas,
Takes you through the streets
Flying through the air,

And you feel you're in good hands;
Her measure is your own,
She takes your own pace
And pulls a rabbit out of the old top hat
And one's as happy as a child
Coming out of school.

Sometimes Life
Has coffee with me
And she looks so pretty that
She's a joy to see.
She lets her hair down and invites me
To join her on stage.

Sometimes Life
Presents herself naked
And bestows on you a dream
So slippery
You have to tiptoe
So as to not break the spell.

Sometimes Life
Perfects with the paintbrush:
You get goose bumps
And you're short of words
To name what it offers
To those who know how to use it

Sometimes Life
Plays a joke on you
And you wake up
Not knowing what's going on,
Sucking a stick
Seating on a pumpkin.


Painting by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Mujer frente al espejo, 1932

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful --
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish

Poem by
Sylvia Plath

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Unfinished Adagio

Playing on the iPod, rudely truncated, is Albinoni's Adagio.

in memoriam Joana


I'm coming down with the flu. I have a fever, I'm shivering, I ache all over and all I long for is to be in bed. As I'm usually pretty tough, the virus must have taken advantage of my shock at learning, last night, that one of the people I most vehemently admired in the blogosphere had died of a sudden and violent pulmonary embolism. Joana, who I had known for almost three years and whose political blog, Semiramis, I considered to be one of the best in Portugal, was just slightly older than me. She had two kids about the same age as mine. For me, and many others, this early departure brought on a tremendous feeling of sadness and emptiness.
And it's just so eerie for the blog to calmly stay there, vast, beautiful and severed; a window into the mind of a person that not longer exists but whose essence is still there. It's still visited daily by hundreds of people who just can't believe it and who are desperately hoping to find yet a new post. Joana used to post daily.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Chicken Little

Went to the movies with the girls to see "Chicken Little". The main character is cute but the movie is nothing special and it's full of the same old annoying clichés. The girls loved it, though, and the theatre was packed. On the way there, the most beautiful rainbow adorned the sky. On the way back, the bright winter stars had taken its place.

Mid-term holidays

This week the kids are on mid-term holidays. Since hubby is very busy at work, we're not going anywhere and I'm trying to figure out how to keep the TV turned off for as long as possible because (the weather's changed and it's miserable outside once again).
Ana is devouring Jacqueline Wilson books and listening to music (when she's not studying for her SAT tests). Clara has been drawing, playing make-believe princesses (who cook and clean the house), playing the piano and painting the little white ceramic animals I got her yesterday. Last night I managed to convince both of them to write some cards to family and friends back in Portugal.
On Sunday night they put on their own version of "Romeo and Juliet". It was truly hilarious, with Clara as a monosyllabic Juliet and Ana as an exuberant Romeo/narrator. Ana did a tremendously good job as director, choreographer and actress (the love for all things dramatic is in her genes, coming from her dad's side of the family).
Today my eldest daughter is going to cook lunch ! She keeps going on about getting her ears pierced and has been doing everything to win me over to that effect but I'm not ready to give in just yet...
PS - Getting on eachother's nerves is also a favorite around here whenever they feel they're not getting enough excitement.

Bedtime rituals

After the common and ordinary bedtime routine most children follow(changing into pajamas, going to the loo, brushing teeth) there's still these daily voluntary or involuntary "it's time for beddy-bed" rituals and customs to be observed around here:


1. Making Teddy's bed. This basically means surrounding and covering poor Teddy with all the pillows that are on the bed.

2. Reading a story with Mummy, Daddy or, occasionally, Sis.

3. Lighting up the glow-in-the-dark sheep above the bed. You point the reading spotlight at them and then turn off the light "real quick" to see them glow bright green (they make your nightmares go away ...).

3. Falling asleep (holding hands with Mum) within 2 minutes.


1. Checking for spiders or other creepy-crawlies under, around and above the bed.(*)

2. Putting on hand-cream and waiting for it to disappear.

3. Reading until lights out time.

4. Tossing, turning and counting sheep until heavy eyelids finally close for the day.

(*) This has a logical and rather traumatic explanation which I won't go into now... It basically has to do with the fact that we now live in the country, where certain creatures which we weren't used to in the city are not that uncommon inside the house ...

Monday, February 13, 2006

Live from Turin: poetry in motion

Torino 2006, figure skating (pairs):

Gold to Russia: Tatiana TOTMIANINA and Maxim MARININ. Pure poetry in motion. Awesome.

Silver to China: Dan and Hao ZHANG. In spite of a very VERY nasty fall (OUCH ! That truly hurt just watching ! Ana even started crying !!!) And what a display of courage for her to go on after that ... Unfortunately, I believe the judges were too sentimental and influenced by this ...


Playing on the iPod is the very dreamy and romantic Notturno III (O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst) from Franz Liszt's "Liebesträume".
"Its nostalgic charm and fervour understandably carried Liszt's name around the world" -- Joan Chissell
This CD was a gift from my husband fourteen years ago.


"That does not keep me from having a terrible need of -- shall I say the word -- religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars."

--Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother

Painting by Vincent Van Gogh, Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum at Night (Arles, 1888)

PS -The last of Van Gogh's starry night paintings was the inspiring Starry Night. Click here to ear Don McLean's "Vincent", which goes like this:

Starry, starry night.
Paint your palette blue and grey,
Look out on a summer's day,
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.
Shadows on the hills,
Sketch the trees and the daffodils,
Catch the breeze and the winter chills,
In colors on the snowy linen land.

Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they'll listen now.

Starry, starry night.
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze,
Swirling clouds in violet haze,
Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue.
Colors changing hue, morning field of amber grain,
Weathered faces lined in pain,
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand.

Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they'll listen now.

For they could not love you,
But still your love was true.
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life, as lovers often do.
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you.

The man for the job ...

If you forget me

Painting by Vincent Van Gogh - Road with Cypress and Star - 1890

I want you to know
one thing.

You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.

If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.

If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.

if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.

Poem by
Pablo Neruda

(for the original version, in Spanish, click

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Full Moon

There's a full moon tonight

What the Gray-Winged Fairy Said

The moon's a gong, hung in the wild,
Whose song the fays hold dear.
Of course you do not hear it, child.
It takes a FAIRY ear.

The full moon is a splendid gong
That beats as night grows still.
It sounds above the evening song
Of dove or whippoorwill.

Poem by
Vachel Lindsay

Word clouds

This is this blog's word cloud. It was generated through this site. Neat !
PS - A word cloud is a visual depiction of verbal content used in a body of text. Usually, words are arranged alphabetically and more frequently used words are depicted in progressively larger fonts. Very much in vogue ...


Laudate Dominum

Today is Sunday and playing on the iPod is Mozart's Laudate Dominum from "Vesperae solennes de confessore", K. 339. As with his Requiem, Mozart blesses us with a glimpse of the Divine.

Laudate Dominum is a religious piece inspired by Psalm 116:
1 Laudate Dominum omnes gentes laudate eum omnes populi ( O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people).
2 Quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia eius et veritas Domini manet in saeculum (
For his mercy is confirmed upon us: and the truth of the Lord remaineth for ever).

"In his last years at Salzburg Mozart wrote two vespers cycles for use at the cathedral, the Vesperae de Dominica, K. 321, in 1779 and the Vesperae solennes de confessore, K. 339, in 1780. Both use the same liturgical texts - Psalms 109 to 112, Psalm 116 and the Magnificat canticle, each of these six parts concluding with the doxology. The key sequences in K.339 is quite varied (C major, E flat major, G major, d minor, F major, C major), and the individual movements are independent enough that they could be - and were - performed separately. The D minor fugue subject of the "Laudate pueri", spiked by a prominent diminished seventh, joines a venerable tradition of learned contrapuntal exercises that will later embrace the double fuge of the Kyrie in Mozart's Requiem. Here is the sober stile antico counterpart, sung by the full chorus throught, forms an effective foil to the ravishing 6/8 melody for solo soprano of the next movement, the F major "Laudate Dominum". The modern, secular pedigree of this aria with chorus is already palpable in its broad orchestral ritornello, a feature found in no other movement in the Vespers." -- Thomas Bauman & Martha Feldman

Italia, ti amo

Click to find out more about this record ...

Today's wacky quiz

You scored as Eating Disorders.
You know what it's like to have "fat" eyelids and that there's exactly 58 calories in one medium-sized green apple. Western society has discarded your well-being for sickly, paper-thin models and celebrities; welcome to the club, sister. Your scores:

Eating Disorders


Unipolar Depression


Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder


Antisocial Personality Disorder


Borderline Personality Disorder




Which mental disorder do you have?
created with QuizFarm.com

Saturday, February 11, 2006

O mio babbino caro

Playing on the iPod is the exquisite voice of Angela Gheorghiu (truly born with "tears in her voice") singing Puccini's "O mio babbino caro" ("oh my dear daddy") from the opera Gianni Schicchi. Beautiful.
This post is dedicated to my father (il mio proprio babbino caro) who really likes this wonderful Romanian soprano and who first called my attention to her almost ten years ago.

More signs of Spring

in my garden.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Worthy of note today

The start of the 20th Winter Olympics

the return of the mummy

click on the pictures ...

Sunny Winter afternoon

View from my window on this sunny Winter afternoon. No camera can do the light justice. It's cold but already there's a promise of Spring in the air. More sun. New buds. New life.

The relativity of huge numbers

Royal Mail is being fined for 11.7 million pounds. Why ? Because in 2005 more than 14 million letters and parcels it handled were lost, stolen, damaged or tampered with (including a couple of mine). This huge number, however, represents only about 0.07% of all the mail Royal Mail handles, with 22 billion letters being sent and arriving safely each year. Furthermore, it represents only about half of all the mail that was lost two years ago, which denotes a big improvement. Still ... 14 million ?!!

In the mood

Playing on the iPod is Glenn Miller's In the Mood, at no. 1 for 15 weeks in 1940 !

Dance with me ...

Lessons in hunger

Painting by Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Nighthawks, 1942

"Do you like me?"
I asked the blue blazer.
No answer.
Silence bounced out of his books.
Silence fell off his tongue
and sat between us
and clogged my throat.
It slaughtered my trust.
It tore cigarettes out of my mouth.
We exchanged blind words,
and I did not cry,
and I did not beg,
blackness lunged in my heart,
and something that had been good,
a sort of kindly oxygen,
turned into a gas oven.
Do you like me?
How absurd!
What's a question like that?
What's a silence like that?
And what am I hanging around for,
riddled with what his silence said?

Poem by
Anne Sexton