Ageing practically

We were at the hospital with my mother again on Friday night. She’s fine, she’s home now, before anyone worries. My stepfather was with her and I turned up to provide additional support and tell the story properly as he can’t be relied on to give the appropriate details. So my sister, who usually handles all the medical scenarios, had called me. Eventually, my mum was admitted overnight and I drove my stepfather home and finally got in myself at around midnight.

As I head into another break up out of whatever, strange, intermediate relationship status this currently is, I realised that if I were in a similar situation, most likely there won’t be anyone turning up at a hospital to look after me. That’s not self-pity, but there really isn’t anyone fulfilling the role of husband or daughter in my life and based on life experience to date, it would be fucking madness to assume that the future will look any different. I’m quite comfortable on my own and although my friends are busily reassuring me that ‘You’ll meet someone else,’ my primary response at the moment is ‘Why?’ On the off chance that they’ll be around if I have any health scares does not seem like much of a reason.

Much better, I think, to look at the situation pragmatically. Aside from the huge unknowns, which I cannot predict and for which I can’t plan, there are some steps that can be taken.

  1. For the whatevernth time, I have to get back to exercising. Which I’ve known, but seeing my parents wheeze their way through a few steps really brings it home. My stepfather’s refrain is ‘It’s all due to getting old’, but I know it doesn’t have to be.
  2. I realised I can’t become one of those people who doesn’t know how to do stuff. Whatever the equivalent in my senior years is of internet banking or dealing with utility company screw ups, or fixing the computer, I’ll have to be able to handle it. This is bad news, given my propensity to hate dealing with that shit already. On the other hand, if there isn’t anyone else to do it, necessity will damn well have to become a virtue.
  3. I’ll have to use what is available to my advantage. So, let’s assume that the IoT has moved beyond just a selection of pointless, hackable tat in the next 20 years. With that, and whatever wearable tech is around, I presume I’ll be able to pay for a service that will remotely monitor my health and take action if I collapse somewhere. That’s going to have to be outside the home as well, but we’ll all be geotagged by then anyway. At the very least.
  4. Chuck money at the problem. Tricky one, as I don’t have any, but if there are any tattered remnants of the NHS left, there will most likely need to be some private options filling the gaps as well. I have to think about this one.

This is turning into a year of real adulting. I can’t look ahead with pre-regret to the situation that my own choices are likely to bring about. But I do have to think and plan now, because being old is no longer unimaginable.

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Responses to Ovid

It was the last day of my Ovid’s Metamorphoses course on Monday, and I shall miss it. The good news is that there are plenty of online courses, so when I move I’ll still be able to study something, although not anything in the classics line.

There were a couple of lines about Helen in Bk XV that stayed with me, because they reference Helen when she’s old and you never think of Helen as old. In fact, I don’t know what does happen to Helen after she’s taken home from Troy. I can’t imagine it was back to married life with Menelaus. I think there’s a play to be written about Helen’s life when she’s older, and I’d like to see Helen Mirren play her.

In the meantime, a few stories were stuck in my head, so I exorcised them by scribbling some bits down. Sorry, Ovid.

Helen

‘and, when her glass shows every time-worn wrinkle, Helen weeps

And wonders why she twice was stolen for love.’ (Ovid, Met. XV)

Helen dreamed her birth again. Curled, nestled, perfect in the perfect oval of her egg, she felt the sunlight illuminating her and stretched out to reach its warmth. The eggshell fell away. Helen, unfolded, saw for the first time her own graceful, white arm extended towards the sun. She recognised beauty as though it had been waiting all along for her to claim it.

Waking, she felt the weight of dried tears on her cheeks. Old griefs.

Eurydice

‘And now they neared the edge of the bright world,

And, fearing lest she faint, longing to look,

He turned his eyes – and straight she slipped away.’ (Ovid, Met. Bk X)

‘Do you know, just before he slipped out of sight, I swear I saw him shrug. Like, oh well, that’s it then, worth a shot. Why did he have to look back like that, just as I was nearly out in the light of day? I only stopped to check for snakes, once bitten, twice shy is what I say. If he really loved me, he’d have been straight back down here, begging Hades for another chance and never mind that dratted dog had woken up again. What’s the point of being a great musician if you can’t lull a dog to sleep, I ask you? Not that I ever liked the lyre all that much myself. But oh no, off he goes, drowning his sorrows by partying with those Maenads, and they’re no better than they should be… And now he hasn’t even got a head, and if he thinks I’m spending the afterlife with a man without a head, well, he can just think again is what I say…’

Medea

‘Medea fled, swathed in a magic mist

Her spells had made…’ (Ovid, Met. Bk VII).

The potion had taken weeks to create, and Medea had used up the last of her energy in searching for the right herbs, picked at just the right time. Much of the mystery attaching to her rituals was for show, but this particular magic needed moonlight in its making. Now she was exhausted and all she wanted to do was to sleep. She would complete the spell in the morning. She sent the dragons away, and told her maidservant to wake her at dawn.

The girl had been with Medea for a year now. She was quiet, unobtrusive. Medea mistook her silent watchfulness for stupidity and was grown careless. When the moon was full in the sky, the girl took the wicked black knife set out for the morning’s work, and slit Medea’s throat.

Things I will do when I live on my own

I have had an offer on a house accepted, so now I’m working slowly through the strangely Dickensian conveyancing process. Sending documents via the post, really? Still, at the end of it, I will have a house. I realise that I’m supposed to be more excited than I am about this sudden achievement of a long held dream, but circumstance is rather against me. Buried deep, there is some excitement, it’s just that I have to excavate down through layers of sadness, tiredness, anxiety, dislike of paperwork, worry about my job, concern about how the cats will cope with another move… Inner me may be whooping it up with champagne, to which I say ‘You go, girl!’; but outer me is knackered.

As well, this reality of becoming a home owner is still incomprehensible to me. I realise that all my thinking about where I will live is short term and assumes precariousness. So presently, I’m fighting the impulse to rush to buy curtains or blinds, or think about paintwork, or organise built in shelves. Yes, all that will need to be addressed. No, it doesn’t have to be done immediately. I’m planning on being in this house for at least 5 years. I can take my time settling in before effecting its gradual transformation into Musings Towers.

Other thoughts that come unbidden are the small mental pop ups about the difference between now and then. Inevitably, when you live with someone, you both adapt your life’s natural patterns. I have early starts, I’m gone in the morning before my partner gets up and a weekend lie in for me is 7am. This isn’t to say that I resent the status quo. I wouldn’t get up early if I didn’t have to and I quite see that being disturbed several hours before you need to be is horrible. But, this is a sad parting of the ways, prompted by a single but insurmountable difference in life choices. Instead of focusing on that, I’d prefer to look at the small sources of contentment that will follow.

  1. I will put the lights on the morning when I get up. Well, not overhead lights because who can face that cruel blinding brightness at 5.30am? In fact, I might not have any overhead lights at all because I’ve always hated them. Give me the soft, reflected glow of uplighters. But the main thing is I will not be navigating around by torchlight.
  2. I will get a really good reading lamp in the bedroom, and stay up late at weekends, to read in bed.
  3. I will go back to bed on weekend mornings with a novel and a pot of coffee.
  4. Or, I will get all my cleaning done by 9am so it’s out of the way, and then I can sit down with the novel and the coffee.
  5. I will buy a beautiful, colourful rug. We have never managed to agree on a rug for this house, so there are none.
  6. I will have music throughout the house. Or The Archers. Or audiobooks.
  7. I will buy more pictures, and put them up on any walls that don’t have bookcases and I won’t have to leave space for a TV because there won’t be one.
  8. I will scent things my airing cupboard with lavender and rosemary.

Reading roundup January – March

Technically, also a listening round up as I’ve been getting through audio books so fast I keep buying extra credits on Audible. The hard part is finding anything – as with Amazon, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, browsing on Audible is a horrible experience.

Wins of the year so far:

London Rules – Mick Herron. Inevitably, because I am such a fan of the Jackson Lamb series. In this one, hopeless Roddy Ho has been giving out secrets to his girlfriend, which explains how he even got a girlfriend, and someone is trying to kill him. The only reason Lamb objects is because if someone is going to kill one of his Slow Horses, he’d prefer it to be him. Meanwhile, a terrorist cell is making use of the plans Roddy inadvertently passed along, the minister who engineered Brexit is gunning for higher office (and hoping his cross-dressing won’t come out), while the PM is hoping he can retire and write memoirs from his shed. Shed. Got that? Definitely not shepherd’s hut. Can Jackson’s motley crew save the day? Can Jackson get any more objectionable? You betcha.

Brilliance, A Better World and Written in Fire – Marcus Sakey. Seriously, I don’t understand how these haven’t been optioned into a Netflix series already. Picture a world in which 10% of people have abnormal abilities. Could be maths, science, pattern recognition, you name it. In the US, the government has responded by putting the most brilliant in concentration camps schools, where they are routinely de-humanised and driven to be dysfunctional. Nick Cooper is an agent with the Department of Analysis and Response (DAR), which hunts down criminal abnorms, and he’s one of the best. Nick finds out that DAR isn’t what it seems, the factions within the government, society and abnorm society start to follow up on their independent objectives, and the world is heading for a showdown.

The Smiling Man – Joseph Knox. I loved Knox’s debut, Sirens, which i also listened to, and which introduced us to extremely flawed DC Aidan Waits. In this follow up, Aidan is clean but back on the night shift with his partner Peter ‘Sooty’ Sutcliffe, who could give Jackson Lamb a run for his money in the being deeply unpleasant stakes. Aidan is investigating a dead body found in a disused hotel, while also battling his own demons in the return of the brutal father figure who traumatised and criminalised his childhood. There is a nightmarish, hyperreal quality to Aidan’s life, helped by the narrative being from his point of view and the fact that he barely seems to sleep. I’ve seen Knox’s novels described as ‘Manc noir’ and it’s certainly the dark underbelly of the city that we get to see.

The Ruth Galloway series – Elly Griffiths. I’m not going to name all the individual titles, but having read the first four novels in this series, I suddenly got addicted to them in audio form and listened to the next six. All the individual mysteries are strong and compelling, but almost more than that I like the overarching story of the difficult relationship between Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson. That’s what keeps me coming back, as with Susan Hill’s Serrailler series. Just as you think something might come of it, another blocker ends up in their way. Which may not be a bad thing, because try as I might I can’t see Ruth and Nelson actually living together with any degree of success.

In which I am buying a house

I know. I never expected that to happen, either. But, yet again, life’s been moving pretty fast around here and the unexpected need to find somewhere to live has trumped the desperate desire for a new job. Plus, my hopeless boss left a couple of weeks ago and things immediately got better. Now my immediate aim is to stay employed for long enough to get a mortgage and mortgage payment insurance.

Gifted with the opportunity to pay Oxfordshire rent solo again, I decided to explore my options. Somewhat to my surprise, if I’m prepared to head northwards, to the land of affordable housing, I have savings that amount to a deposit. Not remotely to my surprise, mortgage payments on the sort of amount I’ve got a deposit for are the same as rent down here.

Fuck me. I’m buying a house. I mean, I’m still looking at the moment, but only because I’m trying to be a grown up and not grab the first house I liked. But there is also a very viable contender for the long term role of Musings Towers. It has original beams and a wood burning stove, parking and a garage and a garden. It has three small bedrooms, the third of which would become a walk-in closet. Ladies… adequate shoe and handbag storage is within my grasp.

The move out date agreed with my current landlords is the end of June, and I’m glad I organised that. They put this house on the market on Monday and it sold to the first people who viewed it, last night. So there’s time enough, I think, to get it right. To finally find the place where the cats and I will stay.

Force of Nature, Jane Harper

I listened to The Dry on audio last year, and loved it for the characters, the sense of place and the finely drawn claustrophobia of going back to a small town where everyone knows you. Aaron Falk was a great character, so I grabbed a copy of The Force of Nature as soon as I saw it in the bookshop. I read it in an evening and I almost wish I’d gotten it on audio as well so I’d enjoyed it in a more leisurely way. On the other hand, give it a while and I can get the audio anyway. Not that I’ll forget the story but audio is a different experience so it doesn’t always matter.

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A Force of Nature kicks off with a woman going missing. Alice Russell disappeared on a hike with others from her company when they were all on some ghastly team building weekend. What gets Aaron Falk involved is that Alice was a whistleblower for her company, BaileyTennants, who seem to be heavily involved in all sorts of financial irregularities. Without Alice’s information, the trail goes cold, so Aaron and his partner, Carmen, have a vested interest in finding out what happened. Plus, Aaron has a frustratingly incomplete message on his phone from Alice, that must have been made not long before she died.

The story switches between two narratives, day by day of the investigation into Alice’s disappearance, as well as day by day of what actually happened on the hike. There’s also a sub-narrative, because the area the team is hiking in is notorious for some murders that happened 20 years back. The last body was never found, so the fact of another woman going missing is enough to raise old fears.

None of the women on the hike is particularly likeable, and for all that the point of the exercise is team building, no one is really trying. They’ve been dumped together for a variety of different reason: Bree is considered to have potential so she’s building her career, whereas her twin sister Beth is at the ground floor at the same company. Alice herself has been accused of bullying, Lauren has been underperforming. Jill is one of the owners of the business, along because it’s the right thing to do. It’s exactly the sort of ‘resilience building’ bullshit you can see a corporate pulling on its staff.

The schisms reveal themselves pretty quickly. Bree, who has been stuck with the navigating, gets them lost early in day 2, and the fragile relationships start to break down almost immediately. The woman are out of food and water, both of which they’d have picked up at their campsite for the night if they’d made it. They lose the stove they’d need to cook with when it falls in a river. Alice impatiently takes over navigating, insisting that they’re heading west, west, west, until Beth points out that the sun is setting in completely different direction. The squabbles aren’t serious, but for a bunch of women who don’t like each other anyway, it doesn’t take much for it to escalate to physical violence. And it is a serious situation, as they’re off the trail in a vast territory where they stand a real risk of not being found.

Did Alice head off on her own and get lost? Or did one of them kill her? Any of them could have done so and it would have been pretty understandable. Meanwhile, Aaron and Carmen are interviewing the four women who did finally make it back from the hike, and figuring out where the stories fall apart…

There was such a lot going on in this novel, that the mystery isn’t anything like the whole of it. All the relationships are complicated, with a level of toxicity to them. Bree and Beth, despite being twins, have some real negative history that affects their behaviour. Lauren and Alice also know each other from schooldays, while Alice’s daughter has been dating Jill’s son. What ultimately happens in the bush is the result of a whole lot of bitterness, anger, resentment, fear and love. This is the same trick that Harper pulled off in The Dry and it’s what makes the novel so gripping, and ultimately, tragic.

New Year reading

There are two main things that are driving my reading at the moment. The first, the positive, is that I’ve started a short course on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and glory be, it gives me access to a bit of an academic library. The course is at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education, and the library has only a small classics section. Still, I will happily take the academic crumbs that come my way, so I scooped up some basics and have The Cambridge Companion to Ovid to play with.

It’s only a 10-week course and we aren’t reading all of Metamorphoses, so the tutor has given out a reading plan that allots us a section or two each week. It’s about 20pp maximum, so I’ve put together my own supplementary reading list to complement the selections from Met. 

  • Euripides’ Medea
  • Mr Heracles – Simon Armitage
  • The Odyssey – transl. Emily Wilson
  • The Aeneid – transl. Robert Fagles
  • Euripides’ Ajax
  • Lavinia – Ursula LeGuin

I’m really liking the look of that mix of original text and reception. I’ve got Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid  and Simon Armitage’s The Odyssey as well, so I may throw them into the mix too, if I have time.

Apollo and Daphne.jpg

The painting is Apollo and Daphne, by Antonio del Pollaiolo. In one of many rape or attempted rape scenes in Met., Apollo chases the nymph, Daphne. She prays for help to escape him and is turned into a laurel tree. Apollo promptly declares that the laurel will be his symbol, because even though the woman is turning herself into a tree to avoid him, he still can’t bloody well take no for an answer. Plus ca change, and all that.

The second driver is that I’m in that state of mind where it’s an effort to get myself to work every single day. I’m very actively job hunting and let’s hope something comes up soon. Anyway, audiobooks to the rescue: instead of getting in the car to drive to work, I get in to listen to the next instalment of my audiobook. It’s a small mental trick, but it works. I don’t have the same anxiety when I’m working from home – don’t know why it’s all so much more focused around the physical location when it’s the job itself that is the problem, but hey. More crumbs of comfort.

I’ve been chain listening to Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series. Ruth is a forensic archaeologist at the University of North Norfolk, and DCI Harry Nelson is the local copper. Ruth helps him out on cases sometimes, and they also had a very brief affair that resulted in Ruth having a daughter, Kate. While Nelson will never leave his wife, Michelle, he loves Kate and has very mixed feelings for Ruth. How all three of the adults navigate this scenario makes an interesting backstory to the murders or mysteries of the individual volumes.

I’d read a few of them but it’s one of those series where the next book is never on the shelf in a bookstore when I go in. (Unlike Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, when the next book is nearly always there. Spooky.) The individual books just about last me a week on audio, but I’ve now spent so many hours listening that I’m addicted. Plus, I find myself getting a bit confused as to whether Ruth and Nelson are real, and thinking back on things they’ve said and done before remembering that in fact, I don’t know them.

I’m also starting to really want to visit Norfolk again. Ruth’s cottage is set on the edge of the salt marshes, which sounds like a wonderful, liminal landscape. I can’t shake the longing for a blustery, sea-salty walk amid lots of sea and sky. What I’m really craving is mental space, of course, but I always think that a geographical open space will clear my head as well. Sometimes it does.