Category Archives: Life

Life lessons

So, Charlie-with-the-broken-leg is now out of his cage and under house arrest. It’s been a week so far and I can see him getting stronger every day: he’s gone from limping a little and being uncertain about some jumps, to bounding wherever he feels like. He got out one night by going through an open window and down a sheer, 8 foot wall. A couple of hours later, at the sound of the snack packet, he came racing across the lawn to me.

He’s got another 10 days in the house before he’ll be back at the vets to have the pin removed from his leg. Then normal life will resume. I’m looking forward to that, as he’ll be so much happier being allowed outside; but he’s taken to following me around and I’ll miss my little shadow.

Meanwhile, my other cat barely comes in the house because she no longer recognises Charlie. When I do lure her in, usually with food, she’ll tolerate him for as long as it takes her to eat, then resume growling before making for the nearest exit. I’m hoping the trade off for seeing less of Charlie will be that Belle feels comfortable in the house again.

With all this cat care going on, I’ve been at home a lot more. I haven’t done any overnight stays away and I’ve been working from home as much as I can. I’m at my laptop by 8am latest, but as everyone who gets to skip their commute knows, you get to sleep in, do a fuller day’s work and still have more of an evening. So for me, despite working longer days, it’s felt like something of a holiday simply because I only recharge by being at home.

I hadn’t realised the extent to which I had gotten into the habit of looking at the various locations ahead of me during my week and thinking ‘Just got to get through it.’ Or the extent to which a constant low level of tiredness and stress was delimiting my ability to relax in what felt like very limited time in my house. The balance was off and although I knew some of the negative effects, I hadn’t appreciated all of them. There’s a pretty long list:

  1. Not getting time for lunch at work, so 3pm lunches of popcorn and granola bars, plus too tired to cook proper evening meals.
  2. Not drinking enough water
  3. Drinking too much tea, I think, and therefore over-caffeinated and twitchy
  4. Plus tired and unable to concentrate properly, so too much time on my phone
  5. Therefore internet shopping and then wondering where my money goes
  6. Not enough exercise
  7. A bit of not-exercising guilt
  8. General sense of should be doing something but failing to tackle any of the above because tired and lazy

And the big one, not feeling as though I had any time. Which is different to not actually having time: if I had any time at all to read Popsugar then I certainly had time to make decent food or practice yoga. It just didn’t feel that way because I had trapped myself in an apathetic circle of lethargy.

Now, I am definitely busier when I’m commuting, and I had been spending a couple of nights away a week. So it wasn’t all perception. But the situation wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, either. It’s just taken a bit of critical distance for me to be able to reassess the situation. I’ll have to get back to a more normal working pattern, but there are still steps I can take to keep some balance:

  1. More driving, fewer hotel stays. Not that more miles on the road is ideal, ideal but it’s the necessary swap for me to be at home where I can relax.
  2. Less time on my phone. I don’t think it’s a smartphone addiction, I think it’s a lazy habit (I can stop any time). Right now, I’m not sure where my phone is, but it’s definitely not within arm’s reach.
  3. Yoga. I’ve found a great yoga studio about half an hour away, and I’ve been trying to go to at least one class a week. I’m going to try to start a home practice, which is something I’ve never been successful with before.
  4. Water. I don’t understand why I struggle with this one so much. I spent Monday with a self-induced dehydration headache and it’s still hovering in the background, waiting to come back if I’m not careful. I can drink tea by the bucket but even with a water bottle on my desk, I can fail to take a single sip. I know all the benefits, I know from experience that I feel better if I’m hydrated (no shit, Sherlock) so why am I punishing myself? Argh.

So that’s kind of my promise to myself. Nothing huge there and yet, in small ways, life changing.

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In which I go to a gig on my own

Yeah. Not the original plan, but at last minute the arrangements didn’t work out, so my choice was pretty much go or don’t go. So I went. It was Miranda Lambert at the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham (which was much, much better than the vile and never-to-be-returned-to O2 in London) and as luck would have it, the on site food was a faux diner.

Well, when in faux Rome… I had a burger and fries and a Budweiser. I don’t drink beer, but in England Bud doesn’t count as beer and anyway, I wasn’t going to chance the wine list. The diner was pretty full and I could see several other people who were definitely Miranda bound. You could tell by the hats and the cowboy boots, and one of the women sitting next to me at the counter had a Miranda Lambert cap on.

It probably would have been easy to get into conversation with someone, but yeah. No. I read my book and ate my food, and the diner gradually emptied around me, which gave me some indication that the support act were probably on. So, eventually, I toddled out into the Friday night rain and found the right door and was shown to my seat by a grumpy man. It was a little way into the Ward Thomas set, and the rest of the row stood up to let me pass.

Ward Thomas were pretty good and I read my book again until Miranda came on, and she was great and I was glad I was there. And partway through, I realised with a bit of surprise that this was the first time I’d been to a gig on my own, but it just felt normal. I thought about it some more, and I’m not sure there are any ‘things to do on your own’ left on the list: movies, dinner, theatre, holidays, living, weekends away, drinks, parties, weddings. I’ve got the set.

Isn’t that great? I started off going to movies on my own in my teens, and sure I felt conspicuous but then I’d forget about it while watching the film. All of those things where you don’t have to engage with other people are easy. I sort of drift through them, feeling comfortably invisible in my own head. Parties and weddings are harder, because of the forced engagement with other people, but they don’t really take more than a thin veneer of fake sociability. And, no one notices when you leave early.

I think I owe a big thank you to teenage me. If she hadn’t faked feeling comfortable standing in the queue at the cinema on her own, while hoping that none of the school couples would show up, then I probably wouldn’t have been at that gig on Friday.

The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, Enid Blyton

Really, I was looking to wrap up reading about the O’Sullivan twins at St Clare’s, but Blackwells didn’t have the next volume. But I’d been thinking about the Cherry Tree Farm and Willow Farm books, although I now know I was mixing them up in my head with another book/series that I can’t remember the name of.

Anyway. Who knows how long ago I first read these, but it just goes to show how formative and influential one’s early reading can be. I was brought up on Enid Blyton, from The Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree, to Mr Galliano’s Circus, finishing up with The Famous Five, Malory Towers or the aforementioned St Clare’s. I read them again and again and again, probably long after I was technically too old for them. I always read a lot and I never had enough new books, so I got very familiar indeed with the old favourites.

I desperately wanted to go on an adventure with the Famous Five and I also desperately wanted to board at Malory Towers. Enid Blyton introduced me to the solid, middle class, mid 20th century life that I definitely wasn’t living. There were lovely Mummies and jolly Daddies, bustling cooks, scary but essentially kind teachers. Her books are easily challenged these days on the grounds of reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes, being xenophobic, racist and privileged, and I’d be hard pushed to defend them. Then again, a fairly wide swathe of literature from the 30s onwards shares some similar traits, so are we supposed to stop reading all of it?

From Enid Blyton, I did learn about some good, solid values. Anyone who wasn’t quite the thing learned the error of their ways, whether they simply wouldn’t try at games or were too boastful, or stole sixpence from the mantelpiece. The important thing to do was to own up and take responsibility for your actions, whether you’d left the farm gate open or almost burnt the whole place down. I also learned about the countryside, a place that up until my 30s I thought was somewhere that you occasionally visited rather than lived. So the countryside was exotic, exciting, a little bit intimidating. I wasn’t quite the city child who had never seen a cow, because when I was 9, I was lucky enough to participate in the Farms for City Children programme and spend a week at Nethercott House. But most of what I knew was gleaned from books like the Cherry Tree Farm series, my first experience of nature writing.

They are very straightforward, plunging straight in with liberating four London born children from their unhealthy city existence into the robust healthfulness of the country. The children’s parents have to go to America (children’s books of this time always seem to pack the parents off to America – see also The Children Who Lived in a Barn) and so Rory, Sheila, Benjy and Penny are sent to stay with their aunt and uncle at Cherry Tree Farm.

They have to learn to help out on the farm at a point when farming was still only beginning to get mechanised, and at least in the Blytonsphere, was still profitable. So they feed chickens, bottle feed lambs, milk cows by hand, churn butter by hand (so that’s how you make butter!) All of this was completely alien to my own experience, of course, but when you’re  young there is so much that’s new that you can take a lot more of it in your stride.

This still leaves the children plenty of time to become friends with the ‘wild man’, Tammylan. Despite living in a cave in winter and a tree house in summer, Tammylan is locally respected for his skill with and knowledge of animals, so the children are given the all clear to spend time with him. Ah, more innocent times.

It’s Tammylan who gives the children the important first lesson of not littering the countryside, when they allow their sandwich wrappers to blow away after a picnic. Subsequently, over the course of the books, he introduces them to a hare, rabbits, a red squirrel that Benjy gets as a pet, and a fox. He shows them a weasel, teaches them to distinguish between a grass snake, an adder and a slow worm and is very clear that bats do not get into people’s hair. It’s down to Tammylan that I found out that hares live in a form; that stags grow their antlers every year and that the covering their new antlers first have is known as velvet. Without having ever seen either, I know how to tell the difference between a stoat and a weasel:

‘The stoat is easily told from the weasel/ By the simple fact that his tail is blacked/ And his figure is slightly the bigger’.

It’s probably down to Tammlyan that I’m anti fox-hunting, because, in one book, a tired, old fox takes refuge from the chase in his cave.

Of course, now I re-read the books I can spot the thin plot lines, lack of exposition, recycled characters and the bits where Blyton is just running out of steam. Even the familiarity is distant, grasped at, a memory of a memory. But there was a little girl, 30-40 years ago, who didn’t hear anyone calling her name because she was reading.

In which there is a missing cat, a cat chase and a hopeful outcome

On Friday night, I called Charlie in from the garden and he came sprinting across the lawn to me, neatly avoiding Belle as she launched at him from the side. Later, there were odd scuffling noises in the night, which turned out to be Charlie scratching at the laundry basket as he nested amongst the pegs. So far, so normal.

I saw him in the basket in the morning, petted his head, and trotted happily off to London. Some few hours later I had three missed voicemails and a text: ‘You need to call me. Charlie has hurt his leg and I can’t get to him’. It turned out that Charlie was holding up one of his hind legs in a way that boded no good, but was so resistant to further examination that he’d run away to hide in an old outbuilding in the field next to the house. Outbuilding 1 is on the boundary line between our garden, the field and the neighbour’s garden. It doesn’t seem to have a door because it’s not in use, but it does have a cat sized hole in the rusted corrugated iron. And there Charlie stayed, just visible through the hole.

By the time I got home, he couldn’t be seen, so had either removed further into the outbuilding or moved on somewhere else. Either way, he wasn’t giving us any signs of his presence and there wasn’t much to be done but hope that he’d come in overnight.

He did not come in overnight. I’m all for the cats having some independence and some time to walk by themselves but I’m also in favour of them eating. We went to look for him and finally found him in Outbuilding 2, which did have a door. He had curled himself up on an old cement bag, and was looking very unhappy indeed. He ate a few bits of Whiskas, leveraged himself up and walked unsteadily away for some privacy and a bathroom break. I had the basket ready to put him in… and as soon as he saw it, he adopted a surprising turn of speed and bolted straight back into Outbuilding 1.

So we took the side of it down. This still left some fairly solid corrugated iron at the bottom but there was enough of a gap to get in, slide down some rubble and hope that either Charlie would run back out of the hole (and into the waiting cat carrier) or realise there was no escape and sit mildly. There was another hole at the far side of the outbuilding, but up a slope of rubble and surely a three legged cat couldn’t…?

Oh, but he could, and went to ground in the neighbour’s garden. They were out. I fumed inwardly at the English obsession with gardens, privacy and trespassing and we went home to wait for the neighbours’ return.

The neighbours came home and we trooped round, with the cat carrier, a large towel, and a pair of gardening gloves in lieu of gauntlets. Charlie had ensconced himself behind their large pile of grass cuttings and beneath a web of sticks and branches. I carefully moved the wood away, stroked him a bit to calm him down. And he legged it through the wire fence behind him and into yet another garden.

You would not think a three legged cat could be so agile. It’s amazing what fear and adrenaline will do. On to the next garden, by which time Charlie had managed to jump up a few feet back into our garden, where we finally trapped him without anyone losing a limb in the process. Though all this, Belle was nearby, keeping a watchful eye on proceedings as though making sure no more harm came to her brother.

Now he’s spending his second night at the vets, after being diagnosed with a broken femur and biting a nurse’s finger in gratitude. We have no idea how the break happened, but he has no other injuries so it’s unlikely he was hit by a car. This morning, he had his leg pinned and plated, and tomorrow he’ll be home. The vets have all been great. Charlie is actually doing well but they’re keeping him in to monitor his pain management. He’ll spend three weeks in a crate (which we’re renting from the vets) and then, hopefully, he’ll be out wreaking havoc on the local wildlife again.

In which I’m supposed to care about stuff but I don’t

There is a shed load of shit out there that as a woman, I’m automatically supposed to have an interest in. I can tell this, because when I’m looking for gifts for my female friends, it’s all the tat that is specially selected to be ‘Just what she wants’. I don’t know who ‘she’ is, but if I ever meet her, I’m going to bitchslap her for being such a god awful stereotype.

If I weren’t me and I faced the constant barrage of bullshit from websites and TV and magazines, I’d be thinking the problem was me. As I am me, I think the problem is the constant barrage of bullshit. Anyway. Here is a list of stuff that I don’t give a rat’s ass about.

  1. Matching tableware or glassware – because shit gets broken. That’s part of its raison d’être.
  2. Looking younger – and hence, wrinkles/crow’s feet/fine lines/redness. I’m supposed to be spending a fortune on repair creams to fix all that damage. Because, why? What possible difference will it make to my life? It might conceivably make anyone who is looking at me a bit happier, but surely one of the joyful things about being in one’s mid-40s is that no one is looking at me? It’s an introvert’s dream, so I’m not particularly minded to fuck with it.
  3. Pleasing people – so, look. You can’t keep everyone happy all the time so why bother trying? Also, some people are far too high maintenance, so why bother trying? Much better if you just sort of accidentally keep a couple of people happy as you go along, purely by doing whatever you were going to do anyway. That way, it’s serendipitous.
  4. Whatever the latest box set is – it’s the investment of time thing. I simply can’t commit hours and hours to watching television and however good it is, it won’t be as good as a novel. It just won’t. No, not even that series you really loved, unless possibly you have just caught up with either Buffy or Brideshead.
  5. Diets – I think they’re all bollocks. Just aim for not too much of anything, cut yourself some slack if you had say, chips and wine for dinner on Friday (ahem) and don’t obsess about it. End of.
  6. Expensive scented candles – I’m never going to spend £40 on a candle. Sorry, Jo Malone. If I want my house to smell amazing, I’ll bake a cake and make some coffee.
  7. Personalised anything – I can still remember my name. So I think we can leave it a few years before I need it emblazoned on everything I own.
  8. Magazines – not entirely true, I do subscribe to The Economist.  The Economist is not big on celebrity tell all stories, sex tips, beach body tips, beach makeup tips, Christmas party wear tips or Christmas party catering tips. Thank fuck.
  9. Cooking/recipes – I’m increasingly less interested in cooking because I have increasingly less time and therefore I don’t want to fritter it away faffing around with food prep, cooking and clearing up. Bring on the roast veg or avocado on sourdough. Job done.
  10. Interior design – oh look, big empty wall, stick a book case on it. Add one reading chair and a decent lamp. Sorted.

 

The Power, Naomi Alderman

As usual when books are getting a load of hype, I immediately get put off and suspicious. This is especially true of prize winners, as I am so often underwhelmed that I use prize shortlists as an indication of what to skip. But. I was on holiday and, huge rookie error, I ran out books. So I fell back on audio and grumpily decided to give The Power a go, largely on the grounds that unless you know exactly what you want it’s impossible to find anything on Audible.

I ate this up. If I’d had it in print and not been on holiday, I’d have put life on hold so I could finish it.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the premise of The Power is that roughly about now in history, teenage girls aged around 14 or 15 develop the ability to create electricity.  The novel is written from the perspective that it’s several thousand years after the initial awakening and a male historian is positing a theory of how the world got to be the way it is in his lifetime. He’s narrating the years between the discovery of the power and some tremendous cataclysm. Alderman plays slyly with the supposed letters between the male author of the history and the woman who he’s asked to read the manuscript. I imagine female authors smiled wryly at these exchanges.

From what becomes known as ‘The day of the girls’ onward, girls are able to use their power to jolt people, heal people, manipulate people, kill people. The girls can show their older female relatives how to tap into the power and bam! Women suddenly aren’t the weaker sex any more. Initial suggestions are that women should stay home and try not to use the power. (Well, of course. Exactly the same as how men now are supposed to stay home and not accidentally rape or beat up any women.) The boys are separated, for their own protection, so that the women don’t accidentally or deliberately hurt them, and governments search desperately for a cure that will get the world back to the way it’s supposed to be. But there is no cure, and this is the new norm.

What struck me very early on is that it felt like such an audacious feat of the imagination. Women! With power! With a strength that was equivalent to or greater than, men’s physical strength. Then it struck me as pretty fucking tragic that I thought it was so audacious. Then it struck me as even more tragic that I will never live to see even equality. But back to the story.

Women turn. Depending on the state in which they live, it’s with varying degrees of violence. Where they are repressed minorities, there are revolts; in the nice, civilised Western world, it’s an opportunity to make money and political capital. Women effect reprisals and it’s hard to read without thinking that the men involved were asking for it. A quick twist of bitter ‘How do you like it?’ Which I think is natural, partly the point and also, inevitably, within the novel it’s the seed that leads to the cataclysm.

Alderman uses the perspective and stories of four main characters to propel the story along. We’ve got a (male) African journalist; an American politician; a new religious leader, who encourages women to look to Mary rather than Jesus, Miriam rather than Moses; and the daughter of an old school British crime boss. These work well to show how all encompassing the changes are. Putting a female slant on all the main religions, in particular, seems surprisingly easy, just a quick shift of the angle of the light and yes, look at where the light and shade falls now. Exactly where you want it to, or rather where ‘Mother Eve’ wants it to. There’s money to be made from religious supporters.

There are some lovely touches that unfold. A particular US morning TV show recurs, and gradually we see the shift in perceived power and authority between the male and female presenters. When the lead male has an on screen breakdown, he’s replaced with male eye candy, and his former co-presenter, Kristen, gets to wear her glasses on screen. She becomes the main voice, while her cute male junior gets the ‘fun’ slots, giggles and doesn’t know anything about finance or international relations. Nope, can’t see any parallels there at all.

But, as the novel gets darker, there’s also a scene straight out of Greek tragedy, which pivots on the 5th century Athenian trope that women without their legitimate male leader can’t be trusted. In this novel, the violence breaks out when the legitimate female lead is away. It’s a classic hubris and punishment scenario.

Gradually, female dominance edges towards becoming normal, except with tensions and pro-male terrorist groups. But Alderman faces head on the idea that women are gentler and more nurturing, and demolishes it. Women are brutal, they kill, rape, torture and they do it for no reason – exactly as men do now. They do shit because they can. It’s not a better world, it’s just a world reversed, with women abusing their power and the authority that comes along with that exactly as men have done. The counter-argument is always ‘We don’t need to wonder what the men would do – we’ve seen it.’ But it doesn’t stop the women behaving precisely as unfairly. So, in one state, men need a female guardian and she has to authorise their travel. They aren’t allowed their passports, or jobs, or to get together in other than very small groups. They must do what women say immediately, or be punished. As a reader, you can see it’s mad and insane and you think that wouldn’t be allowed to happen – except, of course, that it’s the status quo now in some places and countries don’t intervene because they value political gains more than human rights.

So Alderman is partly making the point that indeed, history repeats itself, whoever is writing it. I don’t think there is a suggestion at the end, several thousand years post-cataclysm (when people are wondering about the significance of the ‘bitten fruit artefacts’, snort) that despite being given another chance, humankind (womankind?) got it right that time either.

The Power is being touted as this generation’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Too early to tell, of course, but it’s a good counterpart to it and I bet reading them side by side would be interesting. Both are mirrors, speculative fiction and cautionary tales.

The mental load

The Guardian published this comic on ‘The gender wars of household chores’ and fireworks went off in my head. I didn’t know there was a term for the ceaseless mental activity of planning, to do lists, forward thinking and logistics that keeps a house running. But there is and it’s ‘the mental load’. And the fact that mostly, women manage the mental load and mostly, men do not, suddenly explains a hell of a lot. And yes, there will be exceptions on both sides to this traditionally gendered breakdown but I will now be speaking to my own experience.

So, the concept of mental load explains why, in a domestic setting, men can present as so helpless (if one is being kind), or such useless fucking twats, God give me strength, you are slightly less use than a bicycle is to a fish (if one has had a stressful day).

Broadly, whereas for women running the domestic chores is a form of programme management, for men any activity is task based. Thus, you can ask someone to clean the bathroom and literally what you will get is a slightly cleaner bathroom. If you also wanted the towels to be replaced and the dirty ones put in the laundry basket, the bin to be emptied, any empty shampoo or shower gel bottles to be put out for recycling, the bath mat to be cleaned and the towel rail to be wiped down, then each of those sub-tasks needed to be individually identified.

So it is this continuous management of the sub-tasks that is so tiring and which leads to so much frustration. On one hand, the bathroom is clean – you got what you asked for. And that is undeniably true. On the other hand, how can so much that is so obvious have been left undone?  I believe the chore blindness is genuine, and then exacerbated by what are often different tolerance levels to dirt and disorder. But then again – how do you think any of this other stuff happens? Which is why men don’t get the gratitude they expect for having completed a basic chore, and women are left eye rolling and thinking ‘If you want something done properly…’

It also explains Male ‘I was going to do that later’ Syndrome. I’ve called out before that I don’t understand when this period called ‘later’ is, when there are not also a thousand more tasks to be done. But now I understand that of course, there can be ‘later’ if you are only aware of one task at a time, and if responsibility for that task has only been ceded until that one instance of it is complete. It actually annoys my partner that by the time ‘later’ rolls around, I’ve already done whatever he was going to do; not that he will necessarily have told me that he was going to empty the bin.

As well, if your only visibility is of a handful of seemingly unrelated actions, then it’s easy not to consider them a big deal. So what if the sheets didn’t get put out to dry? It’s only when you know that they’re part of a chain of events that will require some re-factoring that such minor issues are a problem. So the fact that the sheets aren’t drying now means that the next load of washing can’t be done for a day or two, which means that the running kit will now not be clean for that gap on Thursday when you had tentatively scheduled a run. So if you can leave slightly earlier then, and shift that, and if Sainsbury’s deliver earlier then you just might…

Years ago, in a bad bit in my marriage, I thought my ex had behaved really selfishly. He had given no thought to ‘us’ as unit. He had only considered himself. And I thought, fuck it, I’m going to give that a try.  I did it and it was hugely, astoundingly liberating. Life got so much simpler when I decided that the programme management of our lives was not my responsibility. I did not second guess the implications for another of my every action, presence or absence. I mastered briefly the fine art of not giving a fuck and It. Was. Awesome. I totally get why men exist in that context and don’t want to give it up. If I could walk away from that much responsibility on a permanent basis, I would. It’s one of the reasons why being single is so fabulous and life affirming.

But sadly, not giving a fuck is unsustainable when two people’s lives start overlapping. If those two people want to get out of the door at the same time for work, a day out or a holiday, then someone has to do the logistical planning and behind the scenes stage management to achieve that. Someone has to pick up the mental load, but at least once you understand what’s going on, maybe you can work towards a more equable sharing of that load. To refuse to take on the full burden feels like being selfish, which can be a hard thing for women to encompass. But I’d call it positive selfishness, a way to counterbalance the negative selflessness that leaves so many women ignoring their own need to have someone else just pick up the goddamn dry cleaning already.