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.

Friday, May 27, 2016

7 Quick Takes 32: Geriatric Mother: One Year On

Apparently I have survived a year. At least, I know the baby's a year old. I have trouble remembering my exact age. A few reflections, a little rambling due to #6.

The birthday boy already knows how to take selfies.
Not the best photo, but it shows nicely the chaos
 that went into baking a handful of cupcakes.

1. Most people kindly said, "It'll give you a new lease of life." Only one friend at church, who started having children at thirty-nine, said, "Don't believe them. I was exhausted." And... she was right. You out there in your early thirties, with several small children. Think you're exhausted? You're frisking about like Bambi. Me, I'm more like Bambi's father. 'Nuff said.

Young parents: your life is like you fart butterflies. (I didn't say that out loud, did I?)

2. What having children late does do is slow down time. The cliche that the years go by faster and faster was getting more and more true - but now, it seems a lifetime ago that I was counting down the half dozen years to an empty nest and plotting what to do with my future. Instead of years, I now count my hours playing, strolling, rocking; instead of huddling in my own little bubble, I watch the universe unfold through a baby's eyes. That, and plotting how to use pension funds to pay for his college :)

3. I don't have to waste time reading child care manuals. We just follow the baby's lead and trust we'll recall enough to get by. My mantra is "Out eldest is studying Mathematics at MIT; I must know how to bring up children." Or create mentally scarred mathematicians. But many of the best mathematicians are mentally unstable, so.. ahem, on to the next one.

4. One thing I have learned without cracking open a book is that there is a reason "boys" rhymes with "noise". His love of noise is incredible. When our contractors were running a compressor for their nail gun, he yelled along. Getting out the vacuum cleaner is party time. He shouts randomly just for the fun of it.

5. Less is more. Apart from socks and a couple of books, I've bought no new clothes or toys, but, thanks to the cats, our home is full of enriching activities like anatomy (whatever half-eaten animal the cats leave on the rug) or a second language (from meowing to hairball coughing, the baby's cat is fluent), and adventures in nutrition (hello, cat food).

6. I know what full-blown mastitis is. Got it the day after he turned one this past weekend - it went from pain to fever and chills in about 30 minutes. Luckily, I nipped the worst of it it in the bud, but I've still had to spend a lot of time sitting on the sofa. And just when I was going to spend the week tackling all the chicken coop/yard jobs I'd left undone for months. Oh, darn.

7. You can still achieve your lifelong ambitions. I've had a copy of Moby Dick sitting on my shelf for about twenty-five years because I know I ought to read it, but it's about whaling and I'm a vegetarian. Enter... Cozy Classics. Classic books with felted illustrations, in twelve words. Who needs hundreds of pages describing the whaling industry when you can have:

Come to think of it, that's pretty much a metaphor for the past year.

My husband says he's still having trouble following the twelve-word plot of Jane Eyre, though.

For more quick takes, hop on over like Thumper to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum.

Friday, May 13, 2016

7 Quick Takes 31: Things I Wish I'd Told My Students

Because it's over! Not just finals, but the job. Time to regroup, reclaim our family life, and then on to pastures new. And a few reflections on things I ought to have said in class: the good, the bad, and the ugly...

1. I know I look pretty old standing up here (because, unlike most of your mothers, I don't dye my hair and wear make up), but I really remember being your age, and I really, really feel compassion for you. It's just, I have to be your teacher, not your friend.

Me in class on a good day...

2. I get much more excited about the student who struggles his way from a D to a C (or even B!) than the know-it-all who breezes through with his A. OK, I try to say this on occasion, but I doubt they believe it.

3. Just hand me the exams and let's all go home. There are usually two types who stay for the whole university-appointed three hours: the over diligent who already have a solid A, and the desperate who aren't going to pull their grade up at the eleventh hour. The air conditioning's been going full blast and I'm freezing, I've read exams until my brain has given out, I've scrolled through Facebook ten times, I'm dying for a cup of tea. It's painful to watch you scribbling against the clock - let's take pity on one another and call it a day.

4. Please cover up that cleavage. Here's a poncho I have just for the purpose. I never had any problem telling guys to hitch up their trousers and not flash everyone their underwear, but there's all this baggage attached to requesting that girls have a certain minimum dress code: you're suggesting they're asking to be assaulted, that they can be labelled for what they wear, that their body isn't their own, that it's always the other person's problem if they cause distraction, and so on, and so on.  No, I just want a level of attire that shows both respect for everyone in class and suggests you are learning how to dress and act for the occasion. That, incidentally, is why I also ban swearing and blasphemy - and told a student not to wear a baseball camp with "f**k Trump" written on it.

Now that creates a proper learning environment.

5. I'll say this only once. I never dared say anything less than three times - and maybe that wasn't enough for some. Maybe saying it once would have trained them better.

6. Whine all you like. I've given in my notice and got an exit letter of recommendation from my department head - and he's retiring and moving to Wyoming. Burn. A very small, naughty part of me longed for a student to make a complaint so I could say this :)

7. And finally, I really, really wish I had said this:

For more life lessons in seven digestible bites, hop on over to This Ain't the Lyceum.