health · Just for fun · top tips

How To Cope When Dealing With Hospital Administration Systems

Something that no-one realises about chronic illness, until they become ill themselves, is the sheer amount of extra life admin it generates. It’s simply incredible how much time can be taken up by what should be simple tasks – booking appointments, getting hold of medication, finding out test results, getting in touch with the right person if your symptoms change… It can actually become extremely stressful and difficult to cope with hospital administration systems and the issues they can create through sheer inefficiency.

I think the worst instance of hospital administration failure that I encountered was when I was telephoned by the hospital and told off for missing an MRI appointment after my first pituitary surgery. I had indeed missed the appointment, because the letter had got lost in the post. As I had been expecting a scan appointment, though, I had actually called the hospital two weeks earlier to chase up, and been put through to the MRI department, who had told me that I was not booked in for any scans. I later discovered the hospital for some mad reason has two MRI departments, so presumably my scan was with the other department, and at no point did anyone think to tell me to check with both departments. Well done, hospital. Good use of public money.

I was first diagnosed with my pituitary tumor aged 21, which means that I’ve been dealing with the hell that is hospital admin for 11 years, the vast majority of my adult life. And that means that I have a few tips to share!

I used to think that the difficulties I encountered in getting anything done was because I was dealing with the National Health Service. I’m so grateful for the NHS funding my treatment that I would just remind myself to be grateful for it, and put up with the terrible admin, endless phonecalls and feeling of being lost in the system. Then one of my friends developed a serious medical issue which they had treated privately… And they encountered the exact same problems! It seems that terrible admin may well be a universal healthcare experience. So here are my top tips for how to cope with hospital administration, without falling into a pit of total despair…

how to cope with inefficient hospital administration systems without giving in to despair

Top Tips For How To Cope With Hospital Administration Systems

1. Be Organised

You have to be organised. Just because your doctor tells you something will happen doesn’t mean it will, without your intervention. Keep a note of what appointments you’re due to have, and if you haven’t heard from the hospital or doctor’s surgery well in advance, get in touch to check what’s happening.

2. Get Ahead Of The Game

Try to get in touch with your hospital nice and early if you haven’t heard anything. It gives you the most time to get something sorted. There’s nothing more stressful than realising that, for instance, you’re going to have a gap in treatment because the hospital has forgotten to send you a prescription or order the right tests. So make sure you chase up on things sooner rather than later.

3. Remember it’s not anyone’s individual fault

When you’ve made six phone calls and still made no progress with getting an appointment sorted, it’s incredibly frustrating. Try to remember it’s not the fault of the people you’re talking to, who are mostly just human beings trying to do their jobs in an imperfect system. You’ll get better progress by trying to be friendly and build a rapport with the staff you talk to, rather than getting annoyed.

4. Think outside the box

Most hospital departments and doctors surgeries have a public number you can call, but of course when you do, you end up speaking to someone who knows nothing about you or your issue. As a result, you can find yourself explaining yourself over and over again to different people, and feeling like you’re getting nowhere.

It’s time to think outside the box! Firstly, get Googling. In hospitals, often the consultant or head of the department you’re under will have their own secretary and you may be able to find their contact details online, or even on the letters you’re sent from the department. You may have better luck contacting the secretary if you have specific issues with your treatment or new symptoms.

Over time, you may also be able to build up other contacts. Some hospital departments have specialist nurses attached to the department who run certain tests or follow-ups. If you can find the public phone number for the specialist nurses, they may be especially helpful in chasing up on things for you. I love the specialist endocrine nurses at my hospital, they’re so lovely and super helpful.

5. Take up cathartic screaming

Ultimately, despite all your best efforts, your encounters with hospital admin systems will likely still be frustrating and inefficient. At some point, it’s best to accept this and try not to let it get to you. All you can do is try your best to smooth the process, give timely reminders, and chase up on things that should have been organised for you.

Make sure you can have a good rant to a friend or family member about how frustrating it all is. If you find yourself getting too stressed out, try to take a step back and give yourself a break. You can always start making phone calls again tomorrow.

What are your worst experiences with hospital admin? Do you have any tips for how to cope with hospital administration systems? Let me me know in the comments!

Just for fun · mermaiding

Things No One Tells You About Being An Underwater Model

Underwater modelling looks super cool, but I can tell you from experience that it has it’s downsides. So today, I present my list of the things no-one tells you about being an underwater model…

Things No One Tells You About Being An Underwater Model

1. You might look amazing but you will feel GROSS

Underwater modelling (and underwater performance more generally) may look incredibly glamorous, but the truth is… It’s not! If you’re shooting (or performing) in chlorinated water, by the end of the shoot your eyes will be bright red like some kind of mermaid vampire, and your nose will be running like mad. If you’re working in seawater or fresh water, your eyes probably won’t be as sore, but you’ll still have a gross runny nose and… You might smell pretty bad too. Ever seen a mermaid performing in an aquarium, looking magical alongside the fish and sharks? Yeah, when she gets out the tank backstage, she will stink of seaweed and shark poop. And she’ll still smell pretty bad even after her third hot shower that evening.

2. It takes FOREVER

That gorgeous shot of the underwater model hovering in the water, wrapped in elegant folds of transparent fabric that float around her in perfect symmetry? Yeah, the photographer will have about 500 versions of that photo that didn’t work out.

Getting the perfect underwater photo takes patience and persistence, sometimes to a quite ridiculous extent. So many things have to come together for the shot to work. The model has to be floating just right; so does her costume and hair. There can’t be any bubbles or floating debris obscuring the picture. If the model is moving in the water (and let’s face it, it’s almost impossible to stay still in water!), the photographer has to press the shutter button at the exact right moment, not too early or too late. Plus, all of the normal considerations that need to come together to create a great photo – the lighting, the model’s expression and open eyes, the make-up, the props… The list goes on.

So if you have a specific shot you’re trying to create, be prepared to try for the shot over… and over… and over… and then maybe just a few more times…

3. Being an underwater model is super cold!

So this one sounds obvious, but modelling underwater gets really cold. I presume that professional mermaids and underwater models who live in lovely hot countries don’t have this issue to quite the same degree, but if you’re in the UK it’s going to be an issue. Make sure you plan how you’re going to warm up once you’re out of the water – hot towels, warm drinks, a space heater or hot shower are all good ideas to have on standby. You also need to ensure that you’re not in the water for too long at one time – 15 minutes is the absolute max in cold water before you should have a break.

One of my coldest mermaid performance experiences was at an aquarium in Scotland where the water for their main sand tiger shark tank was fed directly from the Firth of Forth. After each stint swimming in the freezing water, we climbed straight into a large sink filled with warm water… It was heavenly!

Photograph by Mark Jones

4. Risk assessments are really important

Risk assessments for underwater models:

Modelling and performing underwater is inherently dangerous. You’re trying to hold your breath for long periods of time, often in cold water, often while wearing impractical costumes or working with props that could impede your ability to swim to the surface if you needed to. If you’re modelling or performing in open water, there are even more dangers – waves, tides, entanglement hazards from fishing gear, and so on. With all these dangers, it’s important to manage the risk to yourself and others.

I actually ended up with a concussion after one underwater photoshoot – we were shooting at night against a black background with a single beam of light, so it was pretty dark, and I surfaced straight into a metal ladder that had been placed across the pool as part of the lighting rig. Talking to my doctor the next day about how I sustained the injury required a LOT of explaining… And my GP always remembered me as the professional mermaid after that. So, proper risk assessment for underwater photography is really important.

How to do a risk assessment for an underwater photoshoot:

Essentially, the process involves identifying possible risks or hazards that could arise as part of the photoshoot, and taking action to eliminate or reduce the risk, as well as planning for what you’ll do if the risk materialises.

So for instance, linking back to aprevious section in this article, with an underwater photoshoot a risk could be that the model ends up with hypothermia; and you could plan to mitigate this by controlling the amount of time spend in the water, the temperature of the water (if possible), providing a heated area where they can warm up afterwards, having towels and warm drinks on hand, etc. etc. Or another risk could be the model getting into difficulties in the water; so think about having a safety diver or divers in the water, and/or a lifeguard on hand in shallower water, and agreeing a hand signal that the model can use to signal that they need help. Think about whether the model’s costume(s) could impede any rescue efforts, and how you can manage that.

By working your way through the possible dangers, and planning for how to keep the models and photographer safe, you can ensure you have a fun and low-risk shoot.

Other risks to consider in your assessment:

You should also think about other types of risk, such as whether you have the right insurance, and whether your photoshoot will be in line with the law. For instance, if you or your photographer is diving using SCUBA gear in the UK, you will be subject to the Diving At Work Regulations (1997). Make sure you do your research and know the relevant laws in advance of your photoshoot.

I’ll write more about risk assessing underwater photoshoots in a future post, so watch this space.

5. Being an underwater model is incredibly tiring

Underwater modelling is exhausting. Repeatedly diving and posing while holding your breath is very strenuous work, and it’s another reason why it’s important to schedule short diving windows – even if the water is warm. It’s really easy to underestimate just how tiring it can be! I recommend restricting photoshoot timings to a maximum of 20 minutes at a time before the model gets a break. If you have multiple models at a shoot, it’s best to rotate them; often the photographer will be able to keep going longer if they’re shooting from outside of the water or are using SCUBA gear, so it’s the best way to make use of the time.

Make sure you’ve properly considered how tired you will be after any extended session as an underwater model, and how you will manage that. It may be sensible to ensure that you’re not going to have to drive yourself home after the photoshoot – especially combined with the risk of things such as getting sore, dry eyes from the chlorine.

Photograph by Johannes Hjorth

6. You can’t communicate with your photographer

Again, this sounds obvious, but it’s easy to overlook. Underwater, the photographer cannot direct the model while actually taking pictures. In order to discuss how the shoot is going, you’ll both need to surface to talk to one another. That takes time and can be a real pain, especially if the photographer is using SCUBA gear, or if you’re shooting in a tank when it can be difficult for the model to hear anything that’s being said outside the tank itself.

So for a successful underwater photoshoot, make sure you have a thorough discussion with your photographer before getting into the water. Agree the type of shots you’re aiming for, the poses, location in the water, and any hand signals you’ll use to communicate with one another. That way, you’ll get the most of your time shooting together.

More tips and tricks for underwater models

This article is part of a series I’m writing called The Professional Mermaid’s Guide to Underwater Modelling! Why not check out the series page to see all the articles I’ve written about underwater modelling and photography? The series includes top tips on everything from learning how to open your eyes underwater, to styling hair and using wigs in the water, underwater makeup tips, and more!

Are you an underwater model or photographer? Do you have any tips that you think I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

Just for fun · mermaiding · top tips

How To Use Props To Create Stunning Underwater Photography (Tips From A Professional Mermaid)

Drawing on my experience as a professional mermaid and underwater model, I’ve been writing a series of articles with my top tips for underwater photography. These blog posts are primarily aimed at people who are new to underwater modelling, but they’ll be useful to models, photographers and anyone else aiming to create the perfect underwater photograph! In this article, we’ll be focusing on how to use props underwater for the best effect…

how to use props underwater to create stunning underwater photographs modelling top tips the sickly mama mermaid

How To Use Props In Underwater Photography:

Using fabric in underwater photography:

Loose fabric is one of the best props you can use in underwater photography, because visibly floating fabric is a simple way of enhancing the weightless sensation of being underwater. There are some simple ways to enhance the effect when selecting your fabric:

  • Pick the right fabric. Lighter fabric will float the best (and the longest) in the water, and fabric which is slightly translucent will catch the light and look most effective in your photographs. Organza, chiffon, voile, tulle etc. are all good choices.
  • Consider the background you’ll be shooting against and select a fabric that will contrast, e.g. white fabric against a black background, orange fabric against a blue background and so on. Bright block colours are usually more effective underwater than darker or heavily patterned fabrics.
  • Ensure the fabric is big enough to have an effect – if you are using loose fabric then you want at least a couple of metres of it, if it’s part of a costume (sleeves, skirts, etc) then again, bigger is better.

Then you need to think about how you’re actually going to use the fabric in your pictures. Some top tips for working with fabric underwater include:

  • Move slowly and steadily through the water, to maximise your opportunity to get the shot.
  • If you’re using loose fabric, aim to keep it at chest height or above, as this will accentuate the weightless effect of the picture.
  • Think about how you’re shaping your hands as you hold onto the fabric – you don’t want beautiful flowing fabric clenched in tight little fists!
  • Aim to keep the fabric mostly behind or above you unless it’s partially translucent, as otherwise it will block you in the photo.
mermaid using fabric prop underwater the sickly mama mairead claydon blog

Using Small Props In Underwater Photography

Often small props can be a very simple way to create some extra interest in your underwater photography, or to give it a fun sense of surrealism. One of the most fun photographs of me underwater is of me dressed in a mermaid tail, reading a newspaper at the bottom of a water tank (see below, by Shamira Crivellaro). I love it because it’s such a surreal shot – the floaty hair makes it clear that the photo really was taken underwater, but the calm pose reading the paper with my glasses on is not what you expect from typical mermaid photography!

mermaid reading a newspaper underwater wearing glasses

Here’s a few top tips on getting the most from using small props underwater:

  • Make sure they’re waterproof! Okay, it sounds incredibly obvious but there’s nothing worse than having a key prop disintegrate in the middle of a shoot (and then finding yourself swimming around the tank trying to retrieve the pieces!). So make sure they’re waterproof before you start – that includes making sure they won’t leak colour, or have bits fall off, and that they sink/float as you’d expect.
  • A single prop is usually more effective than loads of them. Getting the perfect shot underwater is difficult enough without introducing too many variables! Make it something simple that’s easy to interact with.
  • Combining ‘everyday’ items with underwater photography is often very effective at achieving that surreal look. For instance, newspapers, tea cups, fans, mirrors etc.
mermaid holding a model ship underwater david ballard
Photograph by David Ballard

Using Large Props In Underwater Photography

Large props, such as furniture, can also look incredible in your underwater photography, but they bring their own challenges! Again, you need to make sure they’re waterproof, but what other considerations are there when working with large props?

  • The biggest consideration is buoyancy! If your furniture is trying to float away, it’s incredibly difficult to work with. I once did a shoot with a chair that was almost impossible, because it just was not heavy enough to stay sunk at the bottom of the pool, and we both kept drifting away together! (See the pic below… We made it work eventually!) You can always add weights to help something sink if needed.
  • Working with large items creates additional risk, particularly in terms of getting the props into/out of the water and the risk of costumes catching on the props during the shoot and restricting movement. Make sure you’ve properly risk assessed the shoot and considered how to manage these potential dangers.

The Underwater Photoshoot Series

This article is part of a series giving advice on underwater photoshoots both for photographers and underwater models, drawing on my experience as a professional mermaid. Why not check out my previous articles, including top tips for modelling underwater and this blog post helping you learn how to open your eyes underwater.

baking · celebrations · food · gluten free · Just for fun · recipes · Seasonal

Ridiculously Delicious Pancake Day Inspiration and Ideas

So the 16th February is, of course, Pancake Day. And let’s face it, what with lockdown and coronavirus, we’ve not got much to look forward to this year. Which means (in my mind) that Pancake Day should now be treated as a major holiday and celebrated as such. To that end, I’m bringing together some of my personal favourite recipes and ideas for incredible pancakes – including sweet and savory recipes, gluten free pancakes, and some slightly outlandish ideas as well… By the time I’m finished, I might just have to turn it into Pancake Week!

Pancake Day Inspiration and Ideas

Big Fat Pancakes

Ah, big fat pancakes. You know the ones. The kind of fluffy pancakes you find stacked up like the Empire State Building and smothered in syrup, on a plate that’s much too small, in a cheap American diner…. Om nom nom. Here’s a recipe for big fat pancakes from BBC Good Food – the normal flour can be directly substituted for gluten-free flour. And see below for ideas on how to make them a bit more exciting…

Savoury Pancakes

These kind of American pancakes really work well with additions to the batter. If you’re a fan of the Hawaiian pizza, I highly recommend scattering shredded ham and small pieces of pineapple into the pan along with the wet batter. They will cook into the pancake and, served with a little melted cheese on top, create a delicious (if slightly unorthodox) Hawaiian pancake treat! Unless you are my husband, in which case you will think it is the pancake of the devil. Fair enough.

If you are of my husband’s mindset, with regards to the combination of ham, pineapple and cheese, then there are of course big fat savoury pancake alternatives. Another great choice is to keep the shredded ham in the batter (but drop the pineapple!… not into the batter…) and then top your pancakes with smoked cheese and chives.

Sweet Pancakes

The obvious choice is, of course, to drop blueberries in your pancake batter and serve with syrup or, if you’re feeling especially extravagant, blueberry yoghurt and maple syrup. I think pretty much any fruit + yoghurt combination works – I’m not the biggest ever fan of blueberries but I love these pancakes with raspberries and yoghurt (in fact you can see that exact combo in one of the pictures on this page!). Ice cream is a more than acceptable yoghurt substitute if you don’t care about pretending that your breakfast is remotely healthy.

Another amazing big fat pancake is a cinammon swirl pancake. These are perfect breakfast pancakes! Basically it’s a normal American pancake but with an addition of sweet cinammon butter, swirled into the batter. I make them at home on a semi-regular basis and they are super delicious, but fair warning: I have never managed to get them looking particularly attractive (hence the absence of photos). To this day, I have no idea how the folks over at BBC Good Food managed to get theirs looking so perfect. But who cares? They don’t last long enough to photograph anyway.

I also weirdly love the combo of banana, bacon and maple syrup for the ultimate sweet and savoury twist.

Skinny Flat Pancakes

Let’s be clear. By ‘skinny’ pancakes, I mean pancakes that are physically slender, not ones that are in any way healthy to eat. That is not in the spirit of Pancake Day. The best thing about skinny flat pancakes, a.k.a. classic French crepes (basic recipe here, straight swap the flour for gluten free flour if needed), is that you can eat a lot more of them before you’re full! As we all know, on Pancake Day one should maximise the quantity, as well as the quality, of pancakes consumed…

Savoury Crepes

Crepes work super well with savoury flavours. My favourite is to spread the crepe with cream cheese, sprinkle with cracked black pepper, smoked salmon, a squeeze of lemon and a generous scattering of chopped chives. It’s sort of like a smoked salmon blini, but much much bigger!

Sweet Crepes

Having started with a savoury crepe (or two, or three) obviously you need to move on to dessert. When I was a kid, my mum always served up crepes spread with strawberry jam, and/or a sprinkle of lemon juice and sugar. Sometimes the classics are the best!

But these days I often dish up a range of sweet fillings, so people can pick and choose their favourites and maybe have a few different combinations. Strawberries and banana are the perfect versatile fruits to have available to fill your crepes, along with Nutella (other chocolate spreads are available…) or caramel sauce.

Fun and Fruity Pancakes

Speaking of fruit, my husband was the one to first introduce me to banana pancakes. Before he came along, I thought ‘banana pancakes’ were the same as ‘banana and pancakes’ – I clearly didn’t pay enough attention to Jack Johnson in my youth. Boy, was I missing out! Proper banana pancakes are now a staple in our house, and Little Man loves them too.

Making banana pancakes can be as simple as two ingredients – banana and egg – making them naturally gluten free, although I prefer recipes that include baking powder for a little extra lightness. My go-to recipe is here, but I usually add a tablespoon of gluten-free flour – because I find the addition of flour makes the pancakes much easier to flip! Banana-only pancakes can be very runny, and you end up with rather unattractive melty blobs (although to be fair, they are absolutely delicious melty blobs). I recommend serving them hot from the pan with either maple syrup or golden syrup – both are delicious.

I’ve heard a rumour that you can make other types of fruit pancake, but honestly why would you bother?

Boozy Pancakes

The classic boozy pancake is, naturally, the Crepe Suzette. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a delicious recipe, but also requires a certain amount of confidence and fancy chef-y skills like making caramel and then setting it on fire. The BBC conveniently have an easy version recipe which they call Cointreau Pancakes (other orange-flavoured liqueurs are available).

I have been religiously Googling alternative alcoholic pancake recipes for Pancake Day 2021 inspiration, because as we all know, lockdowns are vastly improved by the addition of booze. The ones that have caught my eye the most are these caramelised banana and rum pancakes (drool!), these Bailey’s red velvet pancakes with whipped cream (I love the idea of red velvet pancakes!), these pina colada pancakes (my favourite cocktail) and these strawberry lime margarita pancakes which just sound straight-up amazing. Will I get the chance to try all these recipes before Pancake Day? Clearly, no – so if you try one, let me know what you think in the comments!

More Pancake Day Inspiration

Do you have any 2021 Pancake Day inspiration of your own? Let me know your favourite recipes in the comments! Or check out my other recipes and gluten-free baking ideas here.

celebrations · history · Just for fun · Seasonal

Just Who The Flip Was St Valentine, Anyway? Love, Beekeeping and Epilepsy

Ah, Valentine’s Day. If you have no-one to spend it with, it can be an unwanted reminder of singledom. And if you do have someone to spend it with, there’s a lot of pressure for the perfect romantic day. But you may not know that St Valentine is one of those greedy saints who is the patron saint of all kinds of random things, not just romantic love. So just who was St Valentine…?

Who The Flip Was St Valentine, Anyway?

St Valentine The Romantic

First things first: there are various legends and stories surrounding St Valentine, which may actually refer to multiple different figures. Valentine’s Day itself honours Valentine of Rome (who died in 269) and Valentine of Terni (who died in 273), but there were apparently even more early Christian martyrs named Valentine, which at this point seems like it was basically the Roman Empire’s equivalent of the name John Smith.

The legend that most obviously connects a St Valentine to a tradition of romantic love relates to a Roman priest during the reign of Claudius II, who was apprehended performing marriages for Christian couples and assisting Christians, who were at that time being persecuted. This was a major inconvenience to the emperor at the time, who supposedly believed that unmarried men made the best soldiers (legend is silent as to why he believed this, but perhaps the widow’s pension scheme simply proved too costly on the imperial purse). St Valentine was therefore promptly put to death. How romantic.

So next time you’re single and a newly coupled-up friend tells you about their Valentine’s Day plans, you can smugly remind them that Valentine’s Day is a holiday for married couples, and St Valentine (or any one of the various St Valentines) would certainly disapprove of chocolates, flowers and a romantic dinner out of wedlock.

St Valentine The Epileptic (?)

Less well-known is the fact that St Valentine is also the patron saint of epilepsy. And once again, he’s not the only one. According to Epilepsy Action, there are forty separate patron saints of epilepsy, although St Valentine is the most famous one… which does seem a little unfair, considering some might argue that he’s already famous enough for the celebrations on February 14th. He’s very much stealing the epilepsy thunder from other saints like St Vitus. Ever heard of St Vitus? No. But after he freed the Emperor Diocletian’s son from demonic possession (read: epilepsy), he was promptly put to death for doing it like a big old Christian. That’s gratitude for you.

Anyway, the point is that St Vitus literally died to cure epilepsy and you’ve never even heard of him.

So how did St Valentine become one of the many patron saints of epilepsy? Well, allegedly it once again comes back to the name Valentine. Epilepsy was for many years known as the ‘falling disease’ and in German, there is a similarity between the word ‘fallen’ and name ‘Valentine’, which led to alternative names in German for epilepsy, such as St Valentine’s disease. Bit of a weak connection, if we’re totally honest. St Vitus is pissed as all heck about it.

St Valentine The… Everything Else

Saint Valentine (well, one of them anyway) is also, for some reason, a patron saint of beekeepers – a link that seems even more tenuous than his connection to epilepsy, but there we go. The best justification for this link that I could find was a few beekeeping websites that vaguely referred to a supposed relationship between love and honey/bees. I can only assume they’re confusing love with pollen.

Now, you may be thinking that, well, someone has to be the patron saint of beekeepers, and maybe there just weren’t many volunteers for the job. Perhaps St Valentine just offered to help fill a blank spot on the celestial staffing rota? But no. St Ambrose and St Bernard of Clairvaux (you have to include the “of Clairvaux part, because otherwise people assume you’re talking about a dog) are also patron saints of beekeeping. If anything, you might say it’s a little oversubscribed on saints.

On top of this, Catholic Online lists St Valentine as the patron saint of fainting, greetings, plague, travellers and young people. It’s certainly a miracle that he has time to rest at all, especially as he seems to have overlooked the opportunity to become the patron saint of something a bit more chill, like embroidery (Rose of Lima got that gig). No wonder he needs Cupid to lend a hand on the 14th February…

So there you go. If you’re feeling a little left out this Valentine’s Day, why not try a spot of beekeeping, or celebrating your love for travel? It’s just as valid a way to mark the occasion as a box of chocolates and a bunch of roses…

children's books · Just for fun · parenting · reviews

Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review: Zoo Sounds (Usborne Sound Books)

Since having a baby, my husband and I have often discussed some of the vagaries of the children’s books that we read to Little Man. No matter how much he loves them, to the adult eye, a number of these books have some pretty major issues. And so I thought I’d start a new series on this blog, called Brutally Honest Children’s Book Reviews. I’m going to review Little Man’s favourite books. And I’m going to be brutally honest about it! Read on for the first instalment: a review of Zoo Sounds by Sam Taplin, and illustrated by Federica Iossa, from the Usbourne Sound Books range…

brutally honest children's book review zoo sounds usbourne sound books sam taplin the sickly mama

Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review: Zoo Sounds

Judging A Book By Its Cover:

With a title that sounds more like the name of a disk in the BBC’s famous Sound Effects Library, on first sight Zoo Sounds did not inspire me with confidence that a roaringly good yarn was in store.

How wrong I was. In fact, if you press the small button in the middle of the book’s cover, you will quite literally hear the (slightly tinny) sound of a lion’s roar.

The cover includes pictures of some of the animals whose sounds feature in the book, along with the word denoting their accompanying nose: a lion (“roar”), a monkey (“ooh-haa”), an alligator (“splash” – hmm, okay), a bird (“squawk”), and a couple of meerkats. What sounds do meerkats make? Other than “simples!” – as my mother rightly pointed out – I have no clue. I’m looking forward to finally hearing the cry of the meerkat, courtesy of Zoo Sounds

False Promises Of The Meerkat Kind

But brace yourself, my friends. For Zoo Sounds – despite prominently featuring not one, but TWO meerkats on its front cover – not only does not feature any meerkat sound effects, but actually doesn’t feature any bloody meerkats at all, in any capacity. Pretty sure they could be done for false marketing… Or at least, false meerkat-ing! (Dad joke alert!)

The Plot Thickens (Or Not)

Speaking of false promises, I have to admit that I didn’t have high expectations of Zoo Sounds in terms of plot. I wasn’t anticipating a Game Of Thrones-esque struggle for power between the lions and the monkeys, mediated from the sidelines by their semi-mythical meerkat overlords (although if anyone wants to write that children’s book, I will gladly review the heck out of it).

But I did expect some plot, even a simple one. Like perhaps a family on a walk through the zoo, or a zookeeper doing their job and seeing the animals along the way. But no. Zoo Sounds has dispensed with the frankly conventional notion that a story book should have, you know… a story. It’s literally just several pages of random animals making noise, and then it ends, abruptly, after an alligator hops into a pond (spoiler alert).

I’m not the only person to have this criticism of the book either. One Amazon reviewer closed their (3 star) review with this zinger: “This one reminds me of the scene in Elf when Buddy’s Dad demands to ship the book even though it hasn’t been finished.” Ouch.

What Does The Penguin Say

One of the things that I try to do when evaluating a kids book is to consider its educational value. And, to be fair, there’s a fair amount of educational value in Zoo Sounds. Lots of animals to discuss, including their accompanying sound effects, and most of them are doing something you might reasonably expect said animal to do (the monkeys are eating fruit, the seals are eating fish, you get the idea).

However I’ve had to downgrade the educational value score for this one because I just straight-up do not believe that any penguin on earth sounds like the corresponding ‘penguin’ sound effect in this book. I freely admit, I’m not a penguin expert, and perhaps someone who is will prove me wrong. Maybe there is a sad, demented species of penguin, somewhere in remote Antarctica, that sounds like the man from the Go Compare advert being subjected to cruel and unusual torture. But until I get some cold hard proof of that, I will continue to describe the penguin sound effect as ‘wildly unrealistic’.

Little Man’s Book Review

Obviously this wouldn’t be a very good children’s book review if I didn’t take into account the views of an actual child. And Little Man absolutely loves this book. I asked him to write a review, but sadly it was so full of expletives and foul language that I felt unable to publish it. So instead, we’ll have to infer the review from his behaviour: a huge smile whenever we sit down to read together, and regularly selecting the book to be his chew toy du jour.

If I had to suggest what Little Man’s favourite features about Zoo Sounds are, I would say that: a) he loves sticking his finger through the cut-out hole on the front cover (but not, for some reason, the cut-out holes on any of the other pages), particularly if I grab his finger and pretend something is nibbling on it; and b) he likes turning the book over when he hears the sound effects, and trying to work out where the noise is coming from. It’s good stuff.

Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review: The Verdict…

And so, in conclusion we come at last to the moment you’ve all been waiting for… Drumroll please, it’s the Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review Star Rating System:

  • Plot: * (1/5)
  • Illustrations: *** (3/5)
  • Interactive features: ***** (5/5)
  • Educational Value: *** (3/5)
  • Little Man: ***** (5/5)

Aggregate Score: (3.5/5)

brutally honest children's book review zoo sounds usbourne sound books sam taplin the sickly mama
Just for fun · mermaiding · top tips

How To Use Your Natural Buoyancy For Underwater Photography (Tips From A Professional Mermaid)

Controlling your buoyancy is key to successful underwater modelling. Ideally, you want to be able to sink when you want to sink and float when you want to float. Everyone has a different level of natural buoyancy, so you will need to learn what works for you! I’ve collected together my top tips from my time as a professional mermaid and underwater model, to help you work on controlling and using your natural buoyancy for underwater photography.

Understanding Your Natural Buoyancy

On average, the human body has a density of 0.98 compared to water (according to Wikipedia!). That means that most people’s bodies are inclined to float, rather than sink.

Your body composition plays a large part in determining whether you’re more sink-y or float-y; muscle and bone are more dense than water and sink, whereas fat will float. Women naturally have a higher body fat percentage than men and so are more likely to be inclined to float – great in a shipwreck situation, but potentially more of a challenge when modelling underwater.

When it comes to learning how to control your buoyancy for underwater photography, you could work on changing your body composition, but that tends to be quite a long-term fix! In the short term, buoyancy control is mainly about controlling the amount of air inside your lungs, which effectively act as a floatation aid when full of air.

It’s also worth remembering that the salinity of the water will make a difference: if you’re swimming in salt water, you’ll always be more floaty than you are in a pool.

buoyancy for underwater photography two girls floating gregory brown the sickly mama blog modelling professional mermaid
Photograph by Gregory Brown

If You’re Floating Too Much

If you find that you’re constantly floating to the surface when modelling underwater, the first thing to think about is your breathing. Our natural instinct is to take as deep a breath as possible before submerging, in order to be able to last as long as possible underwater; however, having lungs full of air is likely to make it difficult for you to pose in place for long.

As you’re about to dive, take a deep breath and then puff out a little air before going underwater; you’ll need to experiment with this to find the exact amounts of air you need to breathe out in order to be able to float neutrally in the water or sink to the bottom and stay there.

If you’re a very competent swimmer and this is something you’re struggling with, you can also think about incorporating diving weights into your costume. Scuba divers use these to compensate for the buoyancy of their equipment. You can purchase small amounts of lead shot ballast online in pouches which can be hidden or incorporated in weight belts or costumes. However, being weighted down always has the potential to be dangerous – your weights should be quick release, and you should be careful not to weight yourself down too much. It’s always good practice to have an agreed hand-sign so that your photographer and/or assistants know if you’re in difficulty and can come to assist.

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Photograph by Johannes Hjorth

If You’re Sinking Too Much

If on the other hand, you find that you’re sinking too much and you’re not able to simply float in place underwater, firstly make sure you’re taking a good deep breath before submerging. You may find that it’s your natural instinct to breathe out as you’re diving down in the water, thus making it easier to dive down quickly, but if you tend to have negative buoyancy (i.e. you sink!), you need to hold on to that breath of air while diving.

If that still doesn’t make a difference and you find you tend to sink straight to the bottom, this is probably a natural effect of your body composition. You’ll need to try to get good photographs on your way to the bottom, while swimming, or after pushing off from the bottom of the tank or pool for an underwater jump.

mermaid floating holly meadows photography the sickly mama blog buoyancy underwater modelling
Photograph by Holly Meadows

Playing With Buoyancy For Underwater Modelling

Finally, it’s worth thinking about how you can capture great shots underwater while working within the limitations of you/your models’ natural  buoyancy.

If you constantly float and can’t stay in one place for long, you’ll need to go for shots with more movement; try diving down to the bottom of the pool or tank and then allowing yourself to naturally float up through the water (remember: if your lungs are full of air it will mean that your torso floats up first, so you will pretty much always maintain a vertical body position if you do this).

Having a model with negative buoyancy who sinks straight to the bottom can be great for setting up more complicated poses or scenarios, or working with props.​

Having two models with different natural buoyancy affords a lot of possibilities for underwater photography; having one model with negative buoyancy who is able to remain at the bottom of the pool means they can act as an ‘anchor’, who can hold the more floaty model in place. This makes it much easier to catch the perfect shot of more than one model, while keeping the underwater ‘feel’ in the photograph.

buoyancy on a chair sickly mama blog gregory brown underwater modelling mermaid professional
Photograph by Gregory Brown

More tips for underwater modelling

This blog post is part of a series of articles on underwater modelling and photography, based on my experience as a professional mermaid and underwater model. You can read more top tips for underwater models here, or learn how to open your eyes underwater here.

Just for fun · mermaiding · top tips

How To Relax Underwater (Tips From A Professional Mermaid)

Feeling calm and being able to relax underwater is a big part of being a good underwater model or performer, and that’s my background and where thus blog post comes from. But if you suffer from fear of the water, or enjoy freediving and want to improve your breath hold and confidence in the water, these tips should also be useful to you.

This is part of my blog series A Professional Mermaid’s Guide to Underwater Modelling – check out the other posts for more top tips on looking incredible underwater.

how to relax underwater sickly mama real mermaid blog

How To Relax Underwater

Why is it important to relax underwater?

Staying calm and relaxed in the water is likely to help you hold your breath for longer, enable you to keep going for longer – and ensure that you actually enjoy yourself. If you’re modelling or performing underwater and you feel panicked or you need to make a lot of adjustments to your pose, hair or costume, you’ll burn through your oxygen much more quickly and find that you can’t hold your breath as long.

Practise makes perfect

The number one way to ensure you feel relaxed underwater is just practice. It’s not the advice anyone wants, but it’s true! The best thing you can do is spend lots of time in the water, diving and holding your breath, until it doesn’t feel strange or unusual or even particularly exciting. Once being underwater feels kind of standard, you know you’re relaxed! Of course it’s important to always practice in the water safely, with a dive buddy (see more on this below).

Underwater photoshoots in particular can be stressful environments; there’s a lot of pressure to get the right shots within a set time frame. If you’re not comfortable in the water, this will only exacerbate the stress and pressure. Making sure you’ve spent a lot of time in the water in a non-pressured environment will help you to have the confidence you need to relax underwater.

mermaid with sunglasses underwater how to relax underwater modelling the sickly mama blog
Photograph by Mark Jones

Minimise the pressure

In order to feel relaxed, you need to think about your environment both before and during your time in the water. Think about how you can create a calm environment that will help you feel relaxed. Music can be really helpful for this – a few times I’ve done photoshoots in a tank which had a sound system, which was awesome but obviously is not always available!

Be organised and ensure you’re not rushing around before you get in the water. If you’re feeling stressed out before you even begin, you’ll find it difficult to relax once you start swimming.

Breathing exercises

Ideally, take time to do some breathing exercises before getting in the water. This will help you to hold your breath longer, but will also help you to feel relaxed and calm. Focus on your breathing, your inhalations and exhalations, and try some specific exercises such as this breathing technique recommended by the NHS for anxiety and stress.

mermaid diving underwater light and dark how to relax underwater modelling the sickly mama blog
Photograph by Vanessa Mills

Be safe and manage risk

It sounds obvious, but ensure that you are swimming or diving in a safe environment. This is especially important if you are undertaking an underwater photoshoot or performance, or swimming in open water. Making sure you’ve undertaken a risk assessment beforehand will help you relax when it’s time to get in the water.

Think about things like: is there a lifeguard? Are you diving or swimming with a buddy? Are there any obstructions or hazards in the water? If you’re wearing a costume with a lot of fabric, or something like a mermaid tail that might be quite restrictive, aim to practice being in the water in your costume to ensure you feel comfortable and safe.

You should also consider the way your tank or diving area is set up. When you surface for a breath after diving, will you have something to hold onto, to give yourself a break for a moment if you need it? This could be the side of the pool, a float, a rock, whatever – but it’s good to know you can take a pause if and when you need it.

Linked to the above, think about the length of time you’ll be diving for. For modelling or performing, ten to twenty minute sessions with decent length breaks in-between is sensible, to ensure you don’t get too exhausted or too cold, and have a chance to recharge your batteries.

Don’t push yourself too hard

If you’re modelling or performing underwater and you try to hold your breath as long as you possibly can on every dive, you will very quickly run out of energy and start to find the rest of your time in the water much more difficult. As with something like running, it’s important to pace yourself. It’s better to maintain medium length breath holds consistently over a twenty minute shoot, rather than exhaust yourself with a couple of really long breath holds right at the start and then not be able to maintain it. Running out of air will stress you out, so make sure you take the next breath before you absolutely have to.

Similarly, if you’re trying to get over anxiety about being in the water, don’t force yourself to stay in the water for a really long time at first.

Learn More About Underwater Modelling

This article is part of a series sharing top tips on various aspects of underwater modelling! Why not check out this article on general underwater modelling tips to look amazing underwater, this post about learning how to open your eyes underwater, or the series page to see everything I’ve published so far.

food · health · Just for fun · Seasonal

Brussels Sprouts: A Festive Safety Warning

Now, there are apparently some people in this world who actually enjoy Brussels sprouts, and they will insist on saying things like “it’s not Christmas without sprouts!” and “they’re incredibly good for you, you know!” BUT ARE THEY? I have always believed that Brussels sprouts are the work of the devil, and now it turns out I may well be justified in that belief. So I’m sharing this festive Brussels sprouts safety warning with you: these little green vegetables are dangerous…

brussels sprouts safety warning festive christmas hospital blood thinner vitamin k sickly mama blog

Brussels Sprouts: A Festive Safety Warning

Brussels Sprouts Overdose: The Facts

Back in 2011, a man was hospitalised at Christmas after overdosing on Brussels sprouts. Yes, really. You see, sprouts contain vitamin K, which the body uses to help with blood clotting. This can be a problem if you’re on medication to stop your blood clotting (a.k.a. blood thinners or ‘anticoagulants’ – like warfarin, which you may have heard of). All the vitamin K counteracts the effect of this medication.

The man in question suffered from chronic heart failure, and had been fitted with an artificial pump in his heart, while he was awaiting a heart transplant. It’s normal for patients in this situation to take blood thinners, and he was prescribed warfarin and his blood was monitored to check it wasn’t clotting too easily. All was well for four months, when the festive season approached. Suddenly, blood tests indicated that the man’s blood was clotting much too quickly. The doctors increased his warfarin, but it kept getting worse and worse. They told him not to eat too many leafy green vegetables due to the vitamin K content. But nothing seemed to help. Three days after Christmas, he was admitted to hospital.

While in hospital – eating hospital food – things started to improve. Eventually, under (presumably) intensive questioning from his doctors, he finally admitted that he’d been eating Brussels sprouts three or four times a week during the festive period. But not just that. Oh no. He’d been eating 15 – 20 Brussels sprouts at a time. That means he was munching down around 45 – 80 sprouts PER WEEK.

Now, I have some sprout fans in my immediate family, and they’ve long tried to convert me to eating this appalling vegetable. But I have never met anyone who loves them so much they’re guzzling down 20 sprouts a day (unless they’re so rightly ashamed of this sick behaviour that they’re hiding it from me, I guess). Anyway, the point is: not only are sprouts gross, they’re also potentially little green balls of death, so heed my festive Brussels sprouts safety warning and steer well clear.

Why do I hate sprouts so much?

Random side note: the the hatred of Brussels sprouts is, in fact, genetic (or at least, probably genetic). Those people who have this gene can taste the bitter and hideous taste of a chemical called phenylthiocarbamide, which is extremely similar to a chemical found in brassicas, like Brussels sprouts. And cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower… pretty much all the vegetables I and so many other sensible people hate. So if you’ve ever been sat around the Christmas dinner table, watching your family guzzling down sprouts and wondering: why do I hate Brussels sprouts so much? Now you know!

Just for fun · mermaiding · top tips

How To Do Incredible Make-Up For Underwater Photography – Tips From A Professional Mermaid

Chances are, if you’re looking for advice on make-up for underwater modelling and photography, you’ve found a lot of information on waterproof make up. Unfortunately, waterproof is definitely not the same as underwater-proof. A lot of time spent performing underwater as a professional mermaid and underwater model means I’ve learned plenty of tips and tricks that will help you get the best out of your underwater makeup up.

But before we even start to talk about brands and application, there are a few key pointers to be aware of…

makeup make-up for underwater photography from a professional mermaid how to top tips the sickly mama blog

Make-Up For Underwater Photography

Underwater Make Up Needs Drama

Make-up generally needs to be more dramatic in order to make an impact underwater; the water washes out the picture. It’s not dissimilar to the effect of stage lighting; you need to ensure make-up is more vivid than you would make it for an above-the-water shoot.

The clarity of the water and the distance between you and the photographer will also make an impact; the further away your photographer is, the more ‘washed out’ the image will be before post-processing.

Once You’re In The Water

Secondly: no matter your make up, don’t touch your face once you’re in the water. Don’t do it. When you surface out of the water and your nose is full of water and your hair is in your eyes, don’t touch your face. Your make up will smudge, and the only way you can fix it is by getting out of the water, drying your face off (probably removing more make-up!) and patching it up.

It’s also worth being aware that the water you’re swimming in will make a difference, and chlorinated water tends to be much harsher on your make up than unchlorinated water.

Photograph by Jules Abensour

Types of Make Up For Underwater Photography

Different types of cosmetics perform differently underwater. Oil-based, alcohol-based, and silicone-based products are all more resilient. Grease paints, such as those used for theatrical and film productions are oil-based and shouldn’t wash off in water; well-known brands such as Kryolan are widely available online. However, I’ve focused this section on easy underwater make-up solutions from personal cosmetic products, rather than high-grade film and theatre products, as it’s more likely to be useful for those planning their first underwater shoot.

Foundation and contouring

Look for liquid foundation that’s advertised as being super long-lasting. Obviously powdered products do not hold up in water BUT a number of companies make cosmetic products you can use to transform powder-based makeup into a gel or paint-like consistency, which allows it to set in place and makes it more resilient. This is great for using your normal pressed powder bronzer, highlighter etc. I use Face Atelier’s transforming gel, which I’ve found very useful.

Underwater Eyelashes

Don’t be tempted by false eyelashes. It’s not worth it. Unless you’re planning to shoot for all of three minutes, the glue will give way and you’ll end up with eyelashes hanging off your face – or worse, floating around in the water ruining the shot until you can catch hold of them (yes, this has happened at a shoot I was at… Although not with my eyelashes, fortunately!).

Getting your eyelashes permanently tinted, or having proper semi-permanent false eyelash extensions from a reputable salon are both viable, but more expensive alternatives. Or, just go with a really good waterproof mascara: I use Maybelline Great Lash Waterproof which lasts well even in quite strongly chlorinated water.

Photograph by Hugh Spence

Eye Shadow and Eyeliner

My favourite brand of eyeshadow is Inglot. They do a great range of colourful eyeshadows, which I’ve found the be incredibly resilient underwater without the need to use a transforming gel – and the eyeshadows still look pretty good even after repeated dunkings in an aquarium with no chance to top-up.

With regards to eyeliner, there are a lot of good waterproof eyeliners on the market which I’ve found to generally hold up well underwater. Barry M’s waterproof eyeliner is perfectly good and reasonably priced!

Underwater Lips

Lipstick can hold up underwater, but don’t bother with lipgloss. I find MAC lipsticks to be about the best, but even with MAC if you’re spending a lot of time in a chlorinated pool, it will fade noticeably and you’ll need to top up. The best tip I can give you to help with that is just: try not to touch your mouth when you’re surfacing from the water, and it’ll last longer.

Photograph by Johannes Hjorth

Lip liner is a good idea to prevent it running; lip seal products are also available, but I’ve never found that they make much of a difference if chlorine is involved, unfortunately.

It’s worth noting that underwater photography tends to emphasise the blues in a shot and suck out the colour red, so choosing a more vivid shade than usual is advised.

Learn more about underwater modelling…

This article is part of a series sharing top tips on various aspects of underwater modelling! If you’re interested, you can check out this article on general underwater modelling tips to look amazing underwater or this post about learning how to open your eyes underwater… or see all my articles on my Guide To Underwater Modelling page.