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Stress (or, you can’t always get what you want)

I am prone to stress. Don’t ask me why, maybe it’s perfectionism or upbringing or some kind of chemical imbalance, but more often than not I find myself overthinking things and locked into some kind of death spiral from which it’s hard to escape. This is particularly true of teaching, because it is an endless job, the kind of thing which (if you’re prone) you will inevitably carry home with you – even if you leave the books at school.

My habitual reaction to situations like this in the past has been to run away. If something is difficult, if it is not working, and you are stressed out by it, then clearly it is not right for you, and it’s time to go. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but that’s the gist of it. Friendships, jobs, cities… I don’t want to over-state how much I do this but I have that tendency in my brain, to think that if it was right then it would just work.

That’s easy enough when you’re young, but the older you get the more difficult it is. It’s harder to make new friends, for one thing, because who has the time for that? More than that, though. Each thing you burn up and get away from becomes another few months gone, another opportunity lost at a time when opportunities are narrowing and narrowing. And then there are those things that you can’t just get away from. You have a house, and a mortgage. Selling it means a massive upheaval, and finding a new commute, and losing a pile of money in stamp duty. You are married. Of course, you can’t get away from that person (and nor would you want to, incidentally), but suddenly your decisions make an impact on someone else, and you are less cavalier with them. You have a career. It might not be ideal, but the alternative is starting again at the bottom of a ladder you don’t even know whether you want to climb, and not knowing if you’ll even make it.

And so you stay put, or at least I do, and everything in you for a little bit cries out that this is wrong, and you should run away – be like Robert De Niro in Heat, and when the heat is on, be willing to drop it all and go in five minutes. And it’s terrifying. Your whole way of doing things, your whole cowardly (and mostly quite effective) way, isn’t really an option any more, or at least not without causing untold risk and pain to your family. And so you start to wonder, like you always do, whether if it was right, it wouldn’t be this hard. You’d love your job and you’d feel comfortable where you lived and you wouldn’t be so worried.

And then you stay a little longer, and the panic starts to pass, and you start to realise that maybe this is okay. That in turn makes you still more worried, because maybe you’re becoming complacent and settling for less, and so you start to think again about how maybe you should get out, and you start looking for new houses and new jobs… just in case. And the whole cycle starts again.

For a while I was breaking the cycle. I was content, things were great and I felt peaceful with just about everything. It lasted about three months. And then I got tired, exhausted even, and started to wonder if I could keep doing this job, if I was actually cut out for it at all, and the cycle started again.

I’m tired of this game. I was learning how to be content whatever the circumstances and then my stupid brain undid it all again, and for what? For possibilities that I worry about not ever being able to achieve. Fat lot of good they are. It’s a running joke at work that I have a ‘Plan B’, that I’m always thinking of what I can do if one day the heat is on and I have to get away. I’m tired of living life like that; living with an escape plan, always ready to run away. Just for once I’m sticking here, even if everything might not be perfect. I have to believe that’s a better plan for happiness than the alternative.

 
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Posted by on 25/01/2016 in Uncategorized

 

Getting better (or how pragmatism may have unexpectedly saved my soul)

I trained to be a teacher a good few years ago now, before which I worked for churches. I worked as a youth and community worker for a while, and before that I interned at a church in Oxford. I complained about things a lot at the time, because I was young and idealistic, but one thing that I always did before work was spend forty-five minutes to an hour sitting in a coffee shop reading the Bible and writing in a journal (I don’t say that to insinuate that’s normal, just that it’s what I did).

It would be no lie to say that I was proud of my knowledge of the Bible; I knew where passages were found and I’d often thought deeply about them and when I spoke to people, I found that verses would come to mind. I felt close to God, both in church and to some extent during the week.

I was also deeply unhappy and destructive, both to myself and to those around me. I was a ruthless perfectionist and terribly idealistic, and so I put great demands on people, which is a terrible trait to have when you’re leading people. The church that employed me as a youth and community worker was a community whose kids work was ambling along well enough until I showed up and, in my first year, tried to change the entire structure of their volunteer rota in a way that meant volunteers would never get the chance to go to a church service. Many of them stepped down and the rest looked exhausted, and I praised the ones who did step up and despaired that people weren’t more committed. I was twenty-two when I started. About a year and a half in, I hit a point of total burnout when after running seven separate weekly youth events with less than five volunteers to help out, one day I woke up and found that I was so exhausted I literally couldn’t hold onto a single thought.

All of that happened when I was spending an hour’s ‘quiet time’ every day. For all the good that it did me – and I’ve missed it, believe me – I don’t know that it made me more loving, or compassionate, or understanding. If anything it made me more demanding, because I was doing it and so should others.

When I became a teacher, my hour’s quiet time disappeared, almost overnight. When you get up at 6am daily, it’s no joke telling people to get up an hour earlier. To get eight hours sleep, I would have had to go to bed at 9pm each night. Coupled with work stress, and long hours, and planning for a wedding, I was lucky if I managed to read my Bible for ten minutes a day. There just wasn’t time! Church felt like a slog, particularly because I felt judged for my failings – failure to serve, failure to invite people, failure to spend time in prayer – and it hardly seemed like I was going to get back into it when that was my feeling every Sunday morning. Admittedly, things are better on that front now than they were when I started teaching, but that took a while, not to mention a move to a new church.

It’s hard being a teacher. Every day you are required to show endless patience and compassion to kids who are often distracted, or irritating, or personally vindictive towards you (in my case at least). You are under huge pressure to plan good lessons and to stay on top of marking and to get results, and it can feel overwhelming at times. It’s the kind of thing where you need to be spending time with God, not just to ask for help but also to get refreshed (non-Christian friends, if you’ve read this far, I can only say from experience that this is definitely one of the benefits of those times). There’s rarely a week that goes by when I don’t think wistfully of those mornings spent in coffee shops.

However, a few years into teaching, I’ve started to notice something odd. All that choosing patience, and having to show compassion to people who you don’t want to, and asking for help when it’s insanely difficult to do so – all of that has started to reshape me. I’m more compassionate that I used to be, more patient. More (whisper it) loving. I think somehow am starting to look more like Jesus, against all the odds and without even really trying. It’s a hard thing to explain and I don’t know what to do with it, really. I thought theology came first, followed by practice, but years of getting my theology right didn’t change my heart; getting out there and doing it has, which doesn’t mean that all those years in coffee shops weren’t valuable, but it does make me think they weren’t quite enough. Maybe that’s why some parents can have a greater experience of compassion and patience – all those years of loving somebody who can be an enormous pain. I don’t know, really.

Don’t mistake me, I got it really wrong when I started out teaching, and alienated a lot of my students. Yet in spite of all of that, a few years in and with less time to read my Bible than ever, I’ve found myself being rewired and renewed all over again by the experience of trying to follow God at school, in a way I never expected to be. Has anybody else had that happen to them, in schools or elsewhere?

 
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Posted by on 10/01/2016 in Uncategorized

 

Competence (or how I learned to stop worrying and love being average)

One of the things I miss most about University life is being really, really good at something. Essay writing, specifically about English Literature, was something I was once very good at – and I don’t mean to brag by saying that, but that was definitely one of my skills. Now it’s useless. There are days when I think, I would happily sit down and write an essay about Dickens if there was anyone out there who cared about what I had to say, who would read it and say ‘well done, that was great’.

Now I work as an English teacher, and although there are elements of that degree that I use, it’s rare that anyone looks at anything I’ve done and says ‘well done, that was great’. My kids certainly don’t. They don’t walk out of my lessons with enormous grins like in those adverts the DfE has produced, as satisfying as that would be. As a teacher, I am fine, but I consistently feel a temptation to be the best teacher. To beat all the others and prove how I excel, at whatever it is I do. I want that glow of satisfaction, and I want that external recognition, no matter what it takes.

This is a long-standing problem. It happened with me and my sister to an extent, but then I suppose that sibling rivalry isn’t that uncommon. It also happened at school, especially in Sixth Form. It happened on my internship year, with my fellow interns, and on my PGCE, with my fellow placement students. It has even happened in church, where I have tried to prove how I am the best Christian, as mad as that sounds. The most knowledgeable, humble, insightful, best preacher, best leader… and so on. I seem to instinctively want to show off my own greatness.

The biggest issue with that is that it is utterly destructive. I could be the best teacher my kids had ever been taught by, probably. I could mark all their work intensively, plan lessons that were always exciting and vibrant, make sure that every student felt cared for and followed up on, prove that I was an innovater and a visionary to my colleagues, but at what cost? That would mean sacrificing time with my wife, and it would mean working to the detriment of my hobbies and interests, and it would probably also affect my health, and all of those would mean that I wasn’t the best at something else. I wouldn’t be the best husband, or the best writer, or the best chef. So how do I work out what to prioritise? What should my ‘thing’ be?

Most Saturdays I read The Times, and so much of that seems focused on how to be the best whatever – to cook the best Christmas dinner or own the most stylish house or read the best books or go to the best restaurants, if you live in London at least. But then each week it also has a section devoted to undoing its own work – showing you how to be happier and more content, how to build better relationships with your children or partner, or having better self-esteem. The secret is almost always to not be so obsessed with work or your smartphone: to be more present where you are.

Over the past few (exhausting) years of adult life, I’m increasingly starting to realise the hard way that the latter is a better way to be; the era of my being the best at anything has to come to an end. It would be very easy to rage against that, but I think it’s okay. So with that in mind, my new year’s resolution for 2016 is just to be competent at what I do. To be a competent teacher. To be a competent writer. To be a competent husband. To be a competent chef. Nothing more, nothing less – just passionate, defiant competence.

Deep down, I think competence is the secret, even if the word has acquired negative connotations recently. It doesn’t mean doing a lacklustre job, just doing what you do well and making sure that you do what needs to be done. Is it worth doing more? I’m not so sure, because if I keep trying to be the best at whatever it is, all that’s going to happen is that I start pushing other people down. I will start competing with others and driving them away, rather than working with them. It’s happened before, and that kind of showboating is no use to anyone. Surely it’s better for you to decrease so that others increase, so they can develop their talents and gifts alongside you – and if you’re always top of the pile at everything you do, there’s no way for that to happen. It’s a recipe for being a bad teacher, anyway, failing to trust and empower your students and doing all the work for them, and I’m sure that it has to apply elsewhere in life too.

Maybe that sounds like a terrible admission of defeat to you, but I think the alternative might end up spelling disaster. And anyway, surely putting that much stock by anything just equates to idolatry; it’s making something into your saviour that’s not capable of saving you at all. My history suggests that I will fall down, but for my sanity and wellbeing in 2016 I’m resolving to try and become less, whether I fail at that or not. I’ll let you know in time whether or not I turn out to be the best at being humble.

 
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Posted by on 02/01/2016 in Uncategorized

 

Trivium Theology: The Way Back?

triviumI went home last weekend for a wedding and, naturally, had an argument with my parents about Theology. It happened quite accidentally – my dad and I have differing views on a high-profile issue that Christians everywhere are arguing about very publically, and we’ve debated it on and off each time I’ve gone home for the past six months. Broadly, he thinks that the church is jettisoning years of established tradition too casually, while I think that the church is trying to steer a new path through culture by questioning that tradition to see if it really stands up. It should have been a constructive discussion, one that brought resolution and greater clarity for both of us, but what happened instead was that our two positions crystallised into frustration and anger and the whole thing got rather less pleasant than it could have been.

It exemplified my frustration with the way debates are increasingly conducted in the church, where people seem to divide quickly into one of two polarised camps and start criticising their opposite numbers. I’m exhausted by it; I’ve been in conversations where people visibly flinch if you mention the names of certain theologians. It’s the same in education, and it gets nobody anywhere, which is why I was so glad last year to read Martin Robinson’s excellent (and resolutely non-theological) book Trivium 21c.

In it, Robinson outlines the concept of the Trivium, a series of ‘core’ disciplines that used to make up the curriculum, as a way of liberating education from those polarised positions. The Trivium was made up of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, which broadly equate to tradition, questioning and speaking, although there’s significantly more to each of them than that, and each of those arts in tension with one another was supposed to equate to a ‘complete’ education. It’s worth dwelling on those parts of the Trivium in a little more depth before moving on, as they’ll be important in a bit:

Grammar: Not just how to speak, but more than that. Tradition, and the way things have been done. The accumulated wisdom of ages on a subject, and the best that has been thought and said about it. The ‘proper’ way of doing things; the established, the conservative.

Dialectic: The critical, the analytical. Challenging what is included, challenging the ways of studying it, defining different examples, discussing the importance of the whole endeavour. Setting up identities. Satirising, exploring and undermining.

Rhetoric: Turning outwards. How to communicate your thoughts clearly, thoughtfully, logically. How to be involved in your community, and how to find the place of your discipline or subject there.

It was born in Ancient Greece and ultimately adapted by Christianity as a way of teaching faith. I’d never heard it explained that way, but in truth, that’s how I’ve ended up exploring faith too – and it really worked. I became a Christian in a conservative church (grammar), I explored other traditions through the cross-cultural camps and youth events, before discovering the emergent church (dialectic), and then I learned to preach and be trained and express myself in a church community, as a leader and an intern (rhetoric). Each of those schools has been profoundly valuable to me individually, but it’s in their combination and interplay that they’re of most value.

What has frustrated me about some of those very public discussions about ‘issues’ lately is that people insist on entrenching themselves into one of those camps – like me and my dad did – and then arguing from there. That’s much more pronounced now that the internet exists, too, and on any issue there are staunch grammarians (read: conservatives) arguing their point, which I can see, with staunch dialecticians (read: liberals, sometimes) arguing their point, also coherently and clearly. Yet because it happens on the internet, in the ether, it doesn’t translate into true dialogue; none of us are really changed by it, just educated, because we’re not really talking. All three of those arts need to exist in one place, in community, or the whole thing falls apart.

The way Martin Robinson lays it out, the Trivium is a stool with three legs, and so in the places where there’s only been two or one of those legs it can become unbearable. The staunchly conservative churches where you believe the right thing and don’t question it are doing a good thing, but they can become suffocating and cult-like if there’s no space for dialectic. The challenging, progressive churches engaging with culture are powerful, but become empty and cynical if they don’t have grammar to discuss and explore. The great storytellers of some of the conference circuits (admit it, they exist) may have extraordinary rhetoric, but do they have the ideas underpinning them?

The Trivium has got me thinking. I like the idea of it, and I like it because, for all those frustrations I and others feel with the church, it bridges some of those divisions. A good church needs all of these things in unity, in discussion with one other, and from that comes clarity and perspective. The best places – say, off the top of my head, Soul Survivor, arguably, and New Wine – have that interplay of differing views. You will likely gravitate towards one of those areas of the Trivium more than another, and that’s fine; that doesn’t need to change, as you’re part of a community. Even Paul acknowledged that would happen. But you need to be willing to listen, as those churches that become toxic can emphasise one or two of those things and chuck out the others, and then they become self-reinforcing and vilify people with different views as the ‘enemy’. That’s the danger of discussing theological ideas on the internet; we read in isolation, not in community, and we can too often feed one art at the expense of the others because that’s where our inclinations lie. I don’t want that, and I have to fight that too, or else I end up in conversations like the one I had with my father – angry, frustrated, and feeling like someone who’s on the same side is against me. That’s no good for anyone.

I can only hope that the Trivium might provide some kind of a solution to those kinds of conversations happening everywhere these days – a way back, perhaps, from something destructive towards something constructive. I have to hope for that, as the alternative makes my heart sink.

 
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Posted by on 21/06/2015 in Uncategorized

 

Pasta

Nobody can compete on Masterchef without being able to cook a perfectly oozing egg yolk raviolo, at least not by the time you get to the end of the heats. If you can’t, then why bother applying?

Well, I can’t even make my own pasta yet – but fortunately I own a copy of Leith’s. Making pasta is pretty easy, as it turns out, although recipes vary slightly according to how rich you want it to be. Leith’s says you need the following per serving:

100g 00 pasta flour
1 medium egg, beaten
1 teaspoon olive oil

You sift the flour onto a work surface and make a well in the middle, breaking your eggs into the well and then “slowly drawing the flour into the egg with the fingertips of one hand”. I cracked two eggs into the well and then created an egg volcano that ran off the work surface onto the floor. Good start.

Eventually, I improvised a dam to keep the eggs on the surface and then after about five minutes of kneading, it did indeed turn into a “smooth and silky” dough. After that you’re supposed to wrap it in clingfilm and let it rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. I used foil instead. Don’t use foil, or this happens:

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Anyway, after separating it from the foil and picking bits of silver out, I started to roll it out. You’re supposed to roll it as thinly as possible or pass it through a pasta machine, and I didn’t roll it out anywhere near thinly enough. You want it thinner than you’d expect, and it’s going to spring back on you, so be prepared; a pasta machine will help a lot here, or if not a weighty rolling pin (I had neither). If it looks like this, it’s too thick:

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Cut your pasta up into whatever shape you want – some sort of thick tagliatelli thing seemed easiest for me, although in time I’m going to attempt a filled tortellini – and then leave it to dry on the back of a chair, if you don’t own a dog that will eat it, or on your drying rack in your kitchen if you do. It’s ready to cook “when the surface feels leathery”. Thanks, Leith’s. Use your common sense on what that means:

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If you’re going to leave it a while before you cook it, dust the pasta with a little flour and store in a plastic bag – but not too much or else it will go slimy when you cook it. If you’re freezing it, then blanch it for a minute and then store in a plastic bag with as little air as you can.

It should cook in between 1-4 minutes. There’s no salt in the dough, so you must put some in the water or else it will be grim. I put too much flour on my pasta, so it did indeed become slimy, but only slightly, and then we served it with a fiery tomato and chilli sauce with some chorizo, which fortunately was potent enough to overcome the rather thick pasta. It looked like this, and as I say, if it looked this thick, you probably want it to be a little bit thinner!

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Still, not bad for a first effort, right?

 
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Posted by on 31/05/2015 in Uncategorized

 

Roast Chicken

My mother, bless her, was always slightly cautious about cooking expensive cuts of meat in case she ruined them, which is something that she passed on to me. It’s made me thrifty – a blessing, I suppose – but also filled with panic, especially given that an ‘expensive’ cut of meat is anything that costs over about four pounds. A decent chicken costs a whole six pounds, and despite being reassured that it’s virtually impossible to get them wrong, I’ve always shied away just in case. We ate cheese on toast for Sunday lunch for eighteen years, and now that I’m married, I still do the same (lucky Mel).

For the past two years we’ve also had ovens with doors that don’t shut properly, which has also made it virtually impossible to cook anything where crisp skins are important. In the end, it kind of seemed like too much hassle. But then I finished reading Andy Miller’s great book The Year of Reading Dangerously, where he ruefully reflects on having reached the threshold of middle age without even knowing how to cook a chicken, reflecting:

I had heard that other people dealt with [reaching middle age] by having ill-advised affairs with schoolgirls, or dyeing their hair a ‘fun’ colour, or plunging into a gruelling round of charity marathon running, ‘to put something back’… my sadness for things undone was smaller and duller, yet maybe more undignified. It seemed to fix itself on minor letdowns, everyday stuff I had been meaning to do but somehow, in half a lifetime, had not got round to. I was still unable to play the guitar. I had never been to New York. I did not know how to drive a car or roast a chicken. Roasting a chicken – the impossible dream! Even my mid-life crisis was a disappointment.

I did not want to be that man in a decade or so, and so just like the book drove me to put down my Stephen King novel and pick up The Master and Margarita, so it would also encourage me to pick up a roast chicken.

(When I did finally roast a chicken, it turned out to be virtually identical to a recipe I’d cooked twice before, which Jamie Oliver calls Beer Butt Chicken and the Spanish call something unprintable, where you stick a beer bottle into the centre of your chicken carcass and the steam from the beer cooks it from the inside. But that’s another story.)

Roast chicken is incredibly easy. We got a 1.45kg free-range bird for two, which was far too much. Leith’s says, get 15g of butter and smear it on the outside with some salt and pepper. Put it in the oven for an hour and a half, baste it a couple of times with a little butter and then take it out. 15g of butter seemed too little for me, so we basically slathered it with ‘some butter’, shoved half a lemon (microwaved for 10 seconds, trust me on this) into the centre and sprinkled over some thyme and basil.

Roast potatoes weren’t in the recipe, but they are elsewhere in the book. I have all kinds of superstitions about roast potatoes, mostly because we never cooked them either (too much oil), and the internet is not much help. Since we got a puppy, Mel occasionally checks if things (ie. strawberries, peanut butter, jumping) are safe for the dog online, and normally the websites say something along the lines of it is IMPERATIVE that you NEVER let your dog jump out of the car or their joints will be RUINED and they will NEVER GROW. The same is true of roast potatoes. Equally, most of the advice is scaremongering. Buy floury potatoes (Maris Pipers work well), get your fat very hot and you’ll get something pretty tasty.

Leith’s said to heat up a tray of sunflower oil at 200 degrees, cook them for five minutes in boiling water, rough them up in a colander or with a fork and then chuck them in the oil. Roast for an hour, turning every twenty minutes, add 30g of butter, cook for another half an hour and then sprinkle with salt and parsley. We perched the chicken on top of ours and only turned them once and they turned out fine.

I didn’t take a photograph of the thing, because it was too delicious and we just ploughed into it, but we’ll be eating it for the next week. Skin was incredibly crisp, meat was wonderfully moist, effort was incredibly low. If you’ve never done it, what’s your excuse?

 
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Posted by on 25/05/2015 in Uncategorized

 

Braising

Last bank holiday I announced that I was going to cook through Leith’s Techniques Bible, and then didn’t post anything for three weeks. A cynic would say that I haven’t done it, that the whole thing was a silly spur-of-the-moment idea and nobody cares anyway. They would perhaps be right. However, I have actually cooked a number of things, I just haven’t written anything about them.

First up was braised leeks. I’ve always wondered what braising is, especially when it’s been mentioned on cookery programmes, and it’s never really been clarified. It sounded exciting, exotic. Actually, it’s not. Basically what it is, is making a stew without quite so much of the liquid. Technically:

To cook meat, fish or vegetables slowly, on a bed of vegetables in the case of meat or fish, with a small amount of liquid such as water, stock, wine, beer or cider, in a pot with a close-fitting lid, either on the hob or in the oven.

To braise meat you’re supposed to make something called a mirepoix of vegetables, to add moisture to the pan. As with a casserole, you brown them and then put the meat in, but unlike with a casserole you then discard them – they’re there just for the stock. However, Leith’s doesn’t give a recipe for a mirepoix, so trying to make one was too difficult for a weekday night. So I braised some leeks in chicken stock instead, and very nice they were too. More exciting than regular leeks.

Hardly the most exciting start to this experiment, but never fear. Coming up soon: tandoori lamb steaks on a griddle pan, roast chicken and, GCSE marking permitting, I might even make my own pasta this half-term. Bring it on.

 
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Posted by on 24/05/2015 in Uncategorized