Friday, September 16, 2016

7 Quick Takes 39: Geriatric mother ventures forth

... in oh so many ways. With mixed results.

1. I read on the internet - so it must be true - that introverts, even if they try the extrovert thing for a while - tend to revert more strongly to their natural ways later in life. I choose to believe this, because it justifies my opinion that, at my age, I'm finally entitled to be myself, not the (sociable) person the world demands.


On the other hand, I've got a baby who might actually grow up and want to interact with the world, so even though I'd like to hide in a cave nurturing my inner chinchilla, I have been girding my loins, gritting my teeth, and trying to get out.

2. Step one on coming home was picking up our morning walks. Not because I am agoraphobic, but because it's so d*** hot. When I left England, I was wearing a coat - a coat! bliss! - in the evening. I get back here and the radio weather man is cheerfully saying, "A lovely day ahead, with a high of 93." And I'm thinking, There's an oxymoron in there. So, armed with water, sunglasses, and hats, I venture out every day - before 9am, or it's too hot. Even so, I usually return with sweat tricking down my face. The plus is that I usually only have to communicate with horses and dogs, and I have pretty good social skills where animals are concerned.

3. Step two is trying to hang laundry with the baby, who is fifteen months old and still doesn't want to walk. In England, this was easy: I plonked him down on the tiny lawn in my parents' fenced garden, and about the worst he did was try to feed a snail to one of their tortoises. Here, we have over an acre of unfenced yard, not to mention fire ants, velvet ants (aka wingless wasps), ticks, red wasps, black wasps, mosquitoes... well, let's just stop before I get to the spiders. So putting him on the grass is a crap shoot that might end in a trip to the emergency room and being arrested for child endangerment.

Still, maybe that's just my being paranoid. So, I took him out and sat him down next to the laundry basket to "play quietly". Except that it took him about twenty seconds to notice that he was free and shoot off towards the pond. He did pause to turn and wave good bye, though. I dragged him back, and another twenty seconds later, he made for the swing set in the other direction. Not as bad as potential drowning. Then I remembered the poison ivy in his path... Thank you, guardian angel, for stepping in there. Sorry about your rash.

4. Step three - actually leaving our property to an actual mother-baby event. I picked story time at the library because there wouldn't be pressure to talk to other people, and anyway, the people who go must presumably like books. Alcuin sort of enjoyed it, while being overwhelmed at the same time. And I even exchanged a few words.

5. Step three and a half - going back to story time. Alcuin knew what was what and plonked himself down in the middle of the rug to wait for the songs and stories. But he soon got bored and raced off around the library with the aid of a purloined kick step stool. In the meantime, I started to figure out this conversation thing: you were meant to open by saying something about how the other mother's baby was cute, then ask how old he was, then what your plans to pay for college were something about yourself.

So, I managed to chat with a young mother next to me. It was all superficial, but at least it was a conversation. Then it came:
Her: "You seem familiar to me."
Me (resigned smile): "I probably taught you."
And I did. When she was in seventh grade. Which, considering it's been over ten years since I taught grade school is... well, a long time.
The bright spot - she told me her mother got pregnant the same time that she did - and then her sister - and then, in her words, "It was a disaster." I can empathise with that.

6. Church - a relaxing end to the week with people who are like family. Doesn't happen. The only thing Alcuin is religious about is his morning nap, which is currently about 11-1. Disrupt it at your peril. It's sermons in stones for us most weeks. Except that's dangerous around here (see #3 above).

7. Going out On My Own. To Something New. I got free membership to our Homestead Education Center for buying an advance copy of the manager's book, but I hadn't yet managed to make it to any event. So I looked at their calendar and made myself pick something: girls' night in. Free, and had to be fun, right? In case you think I'm a really sad and lonely person, I did invite two people to come along, but they couldn't make it. The introvert me said: cancel! cancel! The stupid radical me said: go. Only three things could happen:
A. I'll have a good time. There's bound to be other people there I know well.
B. I'll have a good time, but the baby will have a meltdown without me, and I'll have to come home.
C. Everyone else will come in a group with their buddies and it'll be really awkward.

What happened? C :(  Not even one person I was acquainted with, and I got tongue-tied and couldn't think of good conversation openers to butt in on others' cosy chats. I politely exited after the presentation. Next time, I will listen to my wise, introvert self and stay in my shell.

No! Not that one!

For more quick takes, several of which are probably by other introverts hiding behind a computer screen, hop on over to This Ain't the Lyceum.

Friday, September 2, 2016

7 Quick Takes 38: UK: The pint-size edition

1. Five weeks in England with no obligations. Time to take lots of artsy photos and write witty blog posts, right? Apparently not. So here is a random, whirlwind tour...

2. Our elder daughter flew in from Boston to meet us at the airport. For the first time, we have a child of legal drinking age (at least in the UK), which led to my initial idea for an easy blog post: Seven photos of big sister drinking with her baby brother. However, we only made it to five because she was with us for less than two weeks. We must be slowing down in middle age.

3. The educational benefits of taking your children to the pub are myriad. Those of drinking age learn to drink responsibly within the family. You can brush up on their sharing skills if you failed at this when they were five by getting them to buy rounds. This will also teach them the value of budgeting because pints in pubs are very expensive.

Younger children learn the creative value of being bored, sitting around with a soft drink and a packet of crisps if they're lucky, while their parents and older siblings mellow out. At least they have beer gardens. Back in the day, we were left in the car, and back back in the day, children would be left outside in the street. With an arrowroot biscuit, as my father would add. Don't ask me, I've never seen one, let alone eaten one.

4. So... this photo says: "Hey, people in this country think I'm an actual adult!"

This one says: "Three days of dealing with the baby's jet lag. I deserve this drink."

The knee belongs to the bored non-drinker.

5. At the Bankes Arms - named for the Bankes family who owned Corfe Castle until Cromwell demolished it, so this was also a local history tour. Sort of. We took the bus to Studland, then went to the pub for fortification before tackling the two-hour clifftop walk back to Swanage. Not such a good idea for those with small bladders, but I'm not naming and shaming anyone here.

Why we really went:

Aside: While we were drinking, a young child at the table behind us started yelling "Trump! Trump! Trump!" For a few seconds, I thought he was very excited - and informed - about the American election. Then I realised he was playing cards.

6. Pub signs are an obvious opportunity for preschool reading and comprehension: The Red Lion, The Black Swan, and, incorporating basic maths, The Square and Compass. But while I'm here, I have to confess that every time we drive past the Cock and Bottle, I think of a sperm bank. Apologies for putting that into your head.

7. Ah, England in August. One day it's this:

The next it's:

... and I love it.

For blog posts possibly less obsessed with pubs, hop on over to This Ain't the Lyceum.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Seven Quick Takes 37: Totally Random Takes

1. I only decided to write a post last minute this week, because, although life was a roller coaster, it involved dealings with the Federal government and happenings that introverts don't share, which is just about everything. But then ideas fell into place. I'm banging this out while packing for the UK, so please overlook any typos. No, actually, hack into my account and correct them, I beg you, in case I die before I get to edit this.

2. So here is Monday's story, with details made fuzzy so that men in back suits don't land their helicopter on what passes for our lawn and whisk me off to Syria.
I had to make a four-hour round trip to the 'local' federal government office on the case of  ______. Once there, I waited for ages until out shuffled this person who pretty much looked like the witch queen of somewhere I won't mention, but isn't New Orleans. She immediately let slip that the problem was her office should have _______ when I came in previously. But, in a lightning-quick feat of backtracking, she declared that it wasn't possible they made the mistake, so it must be my fault. From here, for no apparent reason, she decided to prove I was actually a criminal who was really living in the UK and only visiting the US (this detail is the actual truth, folks). She kept me in the office for an hour until she had to give up and give me what I'd asked for, which was a stamp in my passport. And that wasn't even the worst part for me - what really stunk was having to be sweet as sugar to her the whole time for fear something terrible would happen to me. I can only hope that my attitude spoiled her whole day.

3. I picked up a Beatrix Potter board book in the consignment store this week, based on her rabbit books. I pass lightly over the smoking and drinking bunnies, which to be honest I didn't even register until my husband pointed it out (cultural differences, I suppose). It was the plot inconsistencies that blew my mind. In feats of time travel that Dr. Who would admire, we meet two Mrs. Rabbits coexisting in the same plane. Then, on one page we have Flopsy surrounded by her children, while two pages later she is a baby rabbit gathering blackberries. I think someone in Frederick Warne has been smoking too much "rabbit tobacco."

4. Proof to me that baby boys need to come with a warning label - and that children really do have guardian angels. Alcuin was playing quietly with the contents on my bedside table, so I decided it was safe to take a pee in the en suite bathroom a few feet away. In the twenty seconds I was not at his side, he had dismantled a photograph, chipped the edge from the glass plate and made about twenty gouges in the table with the cut glass, with no more than a pin prick on his thumb.

...and he reads Beatrix Potter board books

5. I've been nearly 47 years on this planet, and what did I notice only this week, on my daily walk with the baby? That horses can have different coloured manes and tails. Who knew?

6. May I just add: Mick Jagger plus 29-year-old pregnant girlfriend. Eww. I mean, I love the Rolling Stones' music, and I used to think the young Mick Jagger (of the sixties) was beautiful, but...well, just but. The Torygraph summed it up nicely:

7. That was it. Now you've wasted your time, hop over to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum for some honest and entertaining quick takes. See you in the UK!

Friday, July 1, 2016

7 Quick Takes 36: In Memoriam Memoriarum

1. I have only one public comment to make on the Brexit (very mild language warning - the delicate of nerves should cover their eyes and go to #2).

2. Talking of childhood, and seguing into my actual topic, I've begun the mammoth task of sorting through photos and sentimental items, as a slave to the cult of inspired by Marie Kondo's Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. (More on our saga with this book here.)

I began by pulling out several archival boxes of stuff. I opened my elder daughter's box, which was brimming with art work, oversize photos, random decorations etc., most of which I could no longer remember why we kept. Anyhow, I ploughed through it, and then called out my middle daughter for the fun of sorting out her memories. We hauled the huge box to the middle of the room and eagerly opened it - to find about half a dozen items. Oops. Thank goodness she saw the funny side. And at least she has a baby book - I never even bought one for Alcuin. He's thirteen months, and I already can't remember when he began to crawl or talk. I guess I'll have to make it all up.

3. In my own box, I found my primary (elementary) school project on our home town of Thornton Heath. it includes an "I spy" trip we made around the streets. Question number one:

"There is a pub at the end of the road. What is its sign? Why do you think that is?"

Erm, I think it's because it's a British school trip in the seventies. The teachers didn't even have to bother to be as 'subtle' as ending at the pub. "You just walk up and down the road, kids. I'll be right here when you're done."

4. Have you had the discussion about when your baby actually looks like the girl or boy he is? We pretty much agreed several months ago that Alcuin was 'definitely' a boy. Then I found this from 1998.

Oh, well.

5. I don't know whether it's just that reading Marie Kondo put this in my head, but I find myself agreeing with her that sorting sentimental items helps you come to terms with the past and embrace the future. In sorting through all these photos, I have been able to celebrate lifelong friendships or confront those that faded away, remember - and be thankful for - what I have learned from people in those photos, get a little closer to letting go of people who hurt me, have a few laughs at times remembered (and some of our ridiculous moments), and start to make peace with an expanding waistline and greying hair. (The last one was sort of a lie, but it sounds good.)

6. Going though photos, I'm not only meeting people again, but clothes. I'm no fashionista - I keep my clothes until they're worn out. That cosy cardigan that went with everything, the blue floaty skirt that made me feel so boho - it's like seeing dearly departed friends. Even more satisfying is to realize which clothes are still trooping through life with me. Like this jumper (photo 1998). I like to wear it with leggings and boots, in what my husband dubbed my Legolas outfit.

Or this dress, which I bought for my going away outfit for my wedding twenty-two years ago (the photo is from 1997, NOT my wedding, before tongues wag), even though we didn't actually have a honeymoon. But I have to confess - it's a teeny bit tight right now because I have a mummy tummy for the first time in my life.

7. And to end full circle: I'm just about in the "older" demographic of Britons whom some of the younger generation are accusing of being racists and bigots. In response, I offer this fuzzy picture of a school camp trip ca. 1980 (I'm down the bottom in the yellow top, by the way).

People called us: English, Jamaican, Pakistani, Mauritian, Greek, Turkish, and African.
We called ourselves: Friends.

For more modern quick takes, visit Kelly at This Ain't the Lyceum.

Friday, June 24, 2016

7 Quick Takes 35: My Inner Chinchilla

1. It's been a hectic summer with family comings and goings, and I don't handle change well. One day, while in a spin about managing the fluctuating household, I remarked to my elder daughter how flustered I was by the constant change in routine, and she quipped, "You have an inner chinchilla." And, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

2. For a start, Chinchillas don't like changes in temperature. This made them about the worst pet to hit the British market back in the 80s. Bring a Peruvian animal thousands of miles to cold, damp houses. Great idea. I think they all caught colds and died. Me - I'm British, so I about die every Mississippi summer. I know when it's really heating up because I get lethargic for about two weeks, accompanied by a slow decline into depression. Honestly, there have been times when I got up, looked at the thermometer outside the kitchen door, and cried.
And apparently, chinchillas don't like high heat and humidity either, so they're with me on this.

3. In the wild, they hide in crevices in rocks and only socialize with other chinchillas.I completely empathize. Even a low-key, part time lecturing job got too stressful, so I'm working on building a home business that means I'll get to face people even more infrequently.

Go away. I'm a rock.

4. Chinchillas have a low stress level/ are highly strung. Absolutely me. For example, I have a phone phobia. I dread making calls of any kind. I can put off the simplest inquiry for weeks. I don't care what people say about email and texting making our communication impersonal - as far as I'm concerned, it's a godsend. If I have to think for more than five minutes about what to have for dinner, I start to panic. I feel sick just at the thought of flying. You get the idea.

5. Chinchillas are not recommended for young children. I feel that I'm pretty hopeless with young children. I can about handle my own, with lots of accompanying stress, because we breed little geeks, but ask me to help out at the church nursery, and I'd run the proverbial mile. I'm stumped by a preschooler who doesn't want to read Moby Dick , listen to Wordsworth, or do fraction problems.

"'I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er dale and hill...'
What? You want 'Mary had a little lamb'?
Sorry, don't know that one."

6. Chinchillas require gentle handling or they can bite. I'm sensitive, and one perceived negative comment  - to me or by me - can have me sleepless for nights. On the other hand, although I'm introverted and soft-spoken on the outside, inside I'm a seething mass of snark. This is probably what leads to #4.

7. And finally, most chinchillas are grey. I'm definitely getting there :)

Chinchillas of the world, unite. Actually, no. Go hide in your own crevice. But if you feel like popping out, check out This Ain't the Lyceum for more Seven Quick Takes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Off My Shelf: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

An occasional series where I share a review of a book I've had sitting on my shelf for a while and finally get around to reading/ rereading. I'm blackmailing myself to get through some of the backlog by posting about them!

Orlando is a re-read for me. I picked up a library copy several years ago, then bought a Folio Society edition last year. I should have started on one of my many unread books (Folio subscription addiction), but this one called to me, partly because it's short and my long reads keep getting interrupted at this time in life, but partly because the prose was playing in my head every time I glanced at the spine.

Vita Sackville-West
Vita Sackville-West
Orlando is Virginia Woolf's attempt to turn biography on its head. It's fiction, but is presented as non fiction, even including an index. Orlando's life itself refuses to conform to the template for all standard biographies. His story begins as a sixteen year-old nobleman in the Elizabethan age, and when it ends, she is thirty-six, and the year is 1928 (Woolf's present day). No, that wasn't a typo - Orlando wakes up part way through the book to discover he has become a woman.

Perhaps the only convention that Woolf aims for - and she even achieves that unconventionally - is to evoke the spirit of each age Orlando lives through. She explores the question of  how much we are an individual, and how much we are shaped by the world around us. Only in the Victorian period does Orlando feel out of sync with her life, which she remedies by taking a few minutes to find a husband and embrace the conventionality of the age.

Like Orlando, Woolf and her circle, the Bloomsbury Group, tended to bend and transgress societal boundaries. Although she and her husband had a deep love for one another, her life was coloured by an intense Sapphic affair with Vita Sackville-West, whose family owned the Knole estate in Kent. Orlando, of course, is Vita, not even thinly disguised - several photographs of 'Orlando' included in the book are of Vita.

Orlando is described as Woolf's love letter to Vita Sackville-West. While this is indisputably true, I also read it as a love letter to England. The anchor in Orlando's life is the great oak tree on his estate, whose roots, he feels, are the ribs that help anchor it - and him - to the earth. Although a prevailing theme of the novel is literature, its symbol is Orlando's poem "The Oak Tree", four hundred years in the making. The Spirit of the Age is found not only in the literary lights, but in the very atmosphere of the country, from the bold weather of Elizabeth's reign to the fertile, damp miasma of the Victorian age. Poetry, literature, life, love - Orlando never finds the answers to these questions, that bend and twist with each new century. Only the land remains a constant one can trust.

Admittedly, Woolf is not for the casual reader. But if you are serious about literature, enjoy quirky novels, and a good dose of poetry - or you're an Anglophile or bibliophile - Orlando is worth a read.


Friday, June 10, 2016

7 Quick Takes 33: A Tale of the Pen and the Spirit

Or, a would-be novelist's tale of vanity and woe.

Or, why I'm changing my blog name.

1. Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, in a neighbourhood where a single man in possession of a fortune - call him Ishmael - must be in want of a wife...

Rewind the purple prose.

That is to say, a long time ago, I had aspirations to write novels, inspired mainly by being homesick, bored, and unemployed in Mississippi. Because of the homesickness, I started writing very British themes, including a reimagining of an Arthurian legend. In the rounds and rounds of submissions (back in the days when you actually had to send letters), one got misdirected due to a printing error in a directory, and I got a call from England from a gentleman who had set up his own press to help small-time and local authors. He wanted to publish the novel, and was willing to put the money up front and have me pay back my own share from profits. It seemed like a good gamble.

In anticipation of literary fame, I bought web hosting and a domain name and decided to use it for a blog. I called it The Pen and the Spirit because I was going to write about writing and spiritual matters. Original, I know - but I'm terrible at titles. I found a stained-glass style picture of a man with a quill, which fitted nicely. I must have had lots of that stuff called time, because I ran it as two blogs that no one read.

2. Meanwhile, the novelist's career wasn't panning out. The publisher sent the book to the press before I'd finished the final edits - and it came back with a glaring typo on the back blurb. I wasn't sure enough of myself to demand he make the printer redo the run, so there it was. Friends and family bought it, and said some nice things, but the publicity promised turned out to be minimal. Gradually, I got rid of my author's copies, and just have one tucked at the back of my shelf. No, I'm not revealing the title. Surprisingly, it wasn't that catchy.

3. So, the blog lapsed. But I didn't give up writing. I joined an online critique group, and started submitting again. Eventually, a combination of rising enthusiasm and free blogs from Google enticed me to begin blogging anew. I called the new blog... The Pen and the Spirit because I couldn't think of a better name, even though it was only going to be about writing. To be precise, about neglected classics and releases from small presses and independent/self-publishers. I enjoyed researching and sharing about quirky reads and authors. I even got a handful of followers.

4. Then, I landed an agent who "loved" my medieval mystery. I signed a contract and got to tell everyone that I had a literary agent. Except she was the only one who turned out to love the book, because she didn't manage to sell it. We went back and forth on what to do next, and I started a twentieth century cozy mystery inspired by Edith Nesbit's characters, but I got stuck revising it.

5. My life was being consumed by an ambition - publishing - that never came to fruition. Eventually, sanity intervened. I decided to take a break, perhaps for good. Not writing for several months was cathartic. I was free of the stress I'd invented for myself. But then, a trip to Dorset and the home of Lawrence of Arabia set a story going in my head. I banged it out for a year. This time, I had a plan. I was going to edit it, try to get a local publisher, and if that didn't work, then self-publish. At least it would be out there...

6. ... but I got unexpectedly pregnant. For me, this means 24-hour nausea and vomiting for several months. I couldn't edit a word, and when I did start to feel better, I knew it was no use preparing a manuscript for publication when I'd have a baby and no time to promote it.

So, once my days no longer began with an intimate look at the toilet bowl, I set myself the small goal of blogging again, and linking to Seven Quick Takes twice a month. And I renamed the blog... The Pen and the Spirit, because I still couldn't come up with anything else. Did I mention I suck at titles?

7. Now, a little over a year later, and with a little wisdom gathered from reading other Seven Quick Takes linkups, our family came to the conclusion that everything had to go out of the window to save our sanity - even the job that actually paid money. I finally admitted to myself that what I'm actually best at doing is helping others to write better, one-on-one. I decided, once the aforementioned sanity is somewhat restored, to slowly build up a writing services business. But now I really needed a new name to convey me and my business and be a 'brand' across all 'platforms' (see, I've got the lingo). And... another thing that Seven Quick Takes has done for me is honed my titling (is that a verb?). After some vague meditation, inspiration struck: The Runcible Pen. It fits. It's quirky, a little old fashioned, but with a sense of dedication to the craft of writing. At least, that's what it said to me. I tried it out on my daughters, and they didn't quite say "meh", but almost. But I'm stubborn, so I paid for the domain name so that no one else could get rich off it. And here we are.

L--d! said my mother, what is this story all about?--
A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick--And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.

For Quick Takes from people who probably have fewer novels under the bed, skip on over to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum.