Friday, 31 December 2010

2010 Review

I love New Year's Eve but not for all the parties. I actually despise New Year's Eve parties. People you barely know and don't really like all that much overdressed trying to all act like they are having far more fun than you are, which wouldn't be hard but still they aren't.

Nope, I prefer my eve to be a nice quiet affair at home with the ones I hold most dear and keep them near. I enjoy the luxury of hindsight the day offers and the promise of the new beginning tomorrow offers.

I will most certainly be happy to see the back end of 2010 and greet 2011 with the optimism every new year brings.

Our January started with a record snowfall all over the UK much like the year ended in December. (Un)fortunately for us, we were in Spain which also suffering from record rainfall and low temperatures so our attempts to go somewhere sunny and warm over the new year was a complete catastrophe. Upon returning to the UK we found airport baggage handling systems broken down and our car buried under 3 feet of snow. But the worse was yet to come. I had picked up a tickly cough which over the rainy new year and the stress of returning developed into a quite bad cough which over the next week developed into pneumonia which basically kicked my feet right out from under me. I was down for the count missing 7 weeks of work and still have very little memory of the days passing me by. It took 4 lots of antibiotics to shift the infection and several more weeks before I was back at full strength.

Oddly, our family grew without our having additional children and like something out of a novel, we discovered that Marc's father had spun a rather long yarn about who he was and where he had come from. We were contacted in early January by a woman who turned out to be a cousin of Marc's and we have since learned that his grandparents on his father's side only lived a few miles from us and passed away just a few short years ago. Regrettably, he never even knew they existed as his father maintained he was an orphan. The good news is his father wasn't an only child as he claimed but in fact has 2 sisters and 1 brother all of who have provided amply for a truckload of cousins and second cousins and now Marc's extended family rivals mine for size and love. I tell you fact is always stranger than fiction! You couldn't make this stuff up!

And just when I thought I had recovered to full strength, I then suffered the torture of bad chairs sitting in a training room for 5 straight days and my back seized up. I could barely move for over a week. I sincerely convinced myself that my body was giving out and promptly reviewed my will.

A trip to the British Museum provided Marc with a guaranteed joke for those numerous occasions when he would like to poke fun at Americans. After a long and thoroughly enlightening and educational tour of all the treasure the Brits have plundered (acquired) from various cultures all over the world our feet were tired and our spirits weary but we knew our experience would be incomplete without a journey to view the famed Elgin marbles. I had passively absorbed the controversy and really wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about. I followed my family through the rooms and found Marc dawdling in the middle of a large room reading about some sculptures hanging on the walls. I sighed heavily a couple times to express my impatience and still he didn't get a move on. Finally I urged we needed to get a move on if we were going to see the marbles before closing time. Marc stared at me and held out his arms sarcastically gesticulating for me to look around. Yes, I see those, I reliably informed him, but where exactly was I going to find those tiny round little balls of marble that little boys play games with and apparently continue to cause the odd diplomatic row? He nearly embarrassed himself at that point by laughing so hard he pissed his pants. I may never ever ever live that one down.

Abigail moved from being a Rainbow to a proper Brownie and her efforts impress us. She has started taking piano lessons and really enjoys it. She added street dance lessons to her ballet and can really boogie. But her passion is her horse riding. She rides every Saturday morning and the dreaded request for a pony appeared on her Christmas list this year for the first and I doubt the last time. The academic year was tough for her but Year 2 started in September. She has rallied and shown amazing progress in the 3 Rs. Keep up the great work, Abigail!

Sebastian moved from boarding 2 nights/week and being a probationary chorister to boarding 3 nights/week and being a novice chorister. He received fabulous mid and end term reports and performed very well in exams (if we ignore English - and who amongst us hasn't failed an exam or 2?). Cubs and all his other curricular activities are suspended due to chorister demands but he gets better every day at the piano and violin. His music theory and Latin are very impressive. He loves boarding although I suspect this is since he doesn't have any chores there and perhaps the hot breakfast is on offer every morning!

My mother visited for an extended time and we took her on the whirlwind of the British Season: Garter Day, Polo, Wimbledon, Windsor Horse Show, Royal Ascot, Travener's cricket, World Cup, . We also treated her to the tornado of our social life with school sports and family days, boat shows, May Fayres, Old Windsor Carnival, May Bank holiday camping in the freezing cold in the New Forest. I am certain we wore her out.

Our summer holidays were spent in the UK with 2 weeks in Bude, Cornwall and 1 week in Wales near Brecon. We saw quite a bit of rain but we have become quite expert at paddling round a campsite. We did meet lots of lovely new friends whom I suspect we will be seeing for years to come at various campsites around the UK!

We lost 2 people very dear to us in 2010. Marc's great cousin, John Somers, departed this earth during the summer after battling cancer for a brief period. I was amazed to learn so much about him at his memorial service and wish I had known him better. But I will never forget the first time meeting him when he showed me the telescope he had made with a camera inside it. He certainly changed our world making a major contribution to the development of the etching of microprocessor layouts. In November the precious Dorothy Harrison decided she had other places to be. She was the mother of Marc's Aunt Mary. She lived in Windsor and until she became ill a few years ago we saw her often. At Abigail's birthday party this Christmas Eve her presence was certainly missed.

This Christmas was dominated by the schedule of our chorister. In early December Sebastian participated in 2 full performances of The Messiah and 1 Festivo performance. The performed at the City of London club for "some very posh people" he reliably informs me and a service at St Mary-le-Bow. It was his first stay over and despite the school term breaking up on 17 December, he had to return to school on 20 December to fulfill all his singing engagements. This included multiple carol services, 2 services on Christmas Eve (including Midnight Mass), and 2 services on Christmas Day. We attended all and enjoyed every single minute. We are so proud and somewhat amazed that this young boy is so utterly capable of such inspiring feats. I simply can't imagine where he gets his energy, dedication, sense of duty and commitment. He astounds me.

Luckily, Marc's business has not felt the effects of the economic downturn other than a few customers being very slow to pay. Knock on wood, the good run continues and he gets the yacht he so desperately desires.

If you are a devoted reader you will have seen the domination in October of the self discovery of my writing abilities. I have regrettably not been able to fit it into my daily schedule but I am committed to making this work in the New Year. I approach 2011 with renewed commitment to the craft and am determined to finish the first draft of my novel, get an agent, and see if I can get a publisher interested. Not much then.....

We wish you all a very Happy New Year in 2011. May all your dreams come true and you face the adversity life invariably throws us with grace and determination.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Autumn

Autumn is such a bittersweet season. It is my favourite season. I love the smell of leaves rotting, sending their nutrition back into the earth, the bite of the crisp morning air, the mist rising up over the river signaling the imminent arrival of winter. Mother earth has given us all she has and needs a rest for a few months before she can return to feed us with her bounty and warmth.

It is the time of soups and stews; Moorish food to warm the body and soul. The last of the harvest has been brought in; no more tomatoes or courgettes. The last of the potato crop has been dug up and stored for the months of hibernation. The lure of staying indoors curled up with a book and/or the children is irresistible.

Gloves are found and scarves are dug out of the bottom of the basket where they have spent their summer holidays, discarded after the last snow; forgotten despite their faithful service of last winter.

The darkness of the grey, damp winter days have not yet deflated my spirits. The excitement of Christmas begins to build and the laughter of Halloween looms with the promise of a delightful Thanksgiving feast well executed.

School days have found their rhythm and the children progress through each day growing in their abilities and knowledge, getting a step closer to the adults they will some day become.

Before long the days will become nearly indistinguishable with the nights. A fire will burn in the grate all day on the weekends and the aga will warm the kitchen. Socks will be worn to bed and we will cuddle up to each other to keep warm.

But for now, the electric blue sky signals another glorious respite from the biting rain, the gale force winds and surprising snow. The gold and red leaves light up the daytime landscape like Christmas lights.

And we attend the very last Harvest Festival in which our youngest child will shine whilst she gives thanks for all that she has and remembers that not everyone is as fortunate as we are. It is a lesson we would do well to pause and remember.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Dissolution & Dark Fire by CJ Sansom

The first novel in the Master Shardlake work is a masterpiece in transporting the reader back in time to the sights, the smells, the sounds, but most importantly the feel of the reign of Henry VIII as he dissolves the monasteries across England. The novel is steeped in rich historical details and the plot carries you along without ever once losing your attention.

Master Shardlake is one of the most wonderful creations of historical crime fiction I have ever come across. He is a hunchback but the author doesn’t stoop to the carnival clich├ęs and for large parts of the book you forget he is disfigured much like you imagine he forgets about his obvious physical deformity until someone else notices it.

The setting of a monastery on the Sussex coast in Scarnsea is brilliantly executed right down to the lighting and the echoes of footsteps. It did make me think how he knew what a disintegrating monastery would sound like. I particularly liked the descriptions of the journeys back and forth to London by horseback in the mud with driving rain and the state those travels must have left their clothes in.

The plot and pacing are perfect. I found myself unwilling to stop until I finished a chapter and before I knew it I had started another chapter. I read this book whilst we were on our summer holidays in Cornwall and many a cold night was spent curled up in the sleeping bag reading with only the light of my headlamp.

The second novel in the series, Dark Fire, is also quite good but not as good as the first in my opinion. I found the plot device of a ancient weapon of mass destruction from the time of the great Byzantine empire unearthed by a couple of bumbling idiots in Tudor London to be improbable if not impossible. I also felt this novel didn’t have the cut and thrust of the previous one. It plodded.

I really liked the subplot of Elizabeth, a young girl refusing to defend herself against the accusation of murdering her cousin. I felt this was a stronger plot and everything else detracted it. I finished the novel only to find out what happened to Elizabeth.

One of Shardlake’s sidekicks, Malton, whom he befriends at the monastery in the first novel, takes a much more active role and is developed more fully. Malton is a former monk with Moorish parents who fled Spain. Shardlake “rescued” him from the homelessness he would surely have suffered from the dissolution of the monastery in the first novel. Malton is a complex individual fighting the prejudice of the day but also exposing all those things which Shardlake doesn't know.

Both books capture the uncertainty and confusion that the people of England must have felt as their great and good King floundered in his many attempts to produce an heir. He was like a desperate, lovesick teenager flip flopping between women. Unlike the dalliances of our politicians of today, those whims had a profound impact on his image as the head of the church, the defender of the faith, and the one who declared the pope irrelevant. England was in chaos with every new wife.

Both books are clearly meticulously researched and with some more attention to editing, I reckon the remaining 3 books in the series will be as captivating, which is exactly why I’ve bought them on iBooks.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Twitter Explained

Twitter is a baffling tool in the social networking phenomenon dimension of the web. 

Most people get Facebook as a tool for linking up with newly found and long lost friends and all those in between.  I find Facebook invaluable for keeping in touch with the friends and family I have slung to the far reaches of the globe.  And then there are the people you know wouldn't necessarily make the effort to get together with or ring on the phone or write am email to or heaven forbid write a letter/postcard to.  But these are people who you would like to keep in touch with.  Facebook works for me.  Of course I have to be diligent about my privacy settings and I have yet to capitulate to my children's begging to be on Facebook.  I don't accept as friends people I don't know and I don't post photos or statuses I don't want the world to know.  But Facebook is a beautiful tool for finding long lost friends, like the best school mate from when you were 10 (Jessica) that you never would have gotten in touch with!  It's not hard to find friends using your email contact list or perusing friends of friends lists or searching for their names.  Just about anyone can figure out how to use it!

Linkedin is another social networking tool I use but this is for my business contacts.  These are the people that I have worked with, want to work with, are currently working with or want to work with me. It would be hard to keep track of them any other way unless you had a great business card filing system but even then you would lose track of them the minute they changed jobs.  Again, it's not hard to use LinkedIn.  When I get a business card, the first thing I do is link to them.  Then I throw the card away.  You can search on companies that you used to or currently work for and find just about everyone.  Easy peasy and invaluable, especially the mapping to other people's connections.  I can usually find someone who knows someone who can help.  LinkedIn has discussion forums which has helped my husband's small business with enquiries regarding products and services he would have struggled to answer on his own.

Twitter on the other hand is all a bit more obscure.  You have to invest a lot of time in Twitter finding the right people saying the things you are interested in and follow them.  Then you hope they follow you.  There is a lot of online marketing via twitter which is allegedly one of the primary benefits of the network but which I find wildly annoying.  I've been on twitter for several years now and have few followers but am assured that doesn't matter.  I try not to let it hurt my feelings.  I follow twice as many as follow me.  Daily I unfollow people who tweet rubbish which I am never interested in.  Daily I get followers that I don't follow back after looking at their recent tweets and deciding that on past performance they probably won't say anything in the future I would be interested in.  I block a lot of people who follow me.  I still can't say convincingly I get the whole twitter thing.  It can sometimes feel like I am participating in one great big long infomercial.  And since it takes quite a bit of time and effort to build up a catalogue of people you want to follow I can't say that it is easy.  I would hazard a guess that most people just don't invest that time and effort to make it worthwhile.  Since twitter has few people I personally or professionally know, it is a good place for me to vent anonymously.  And it is a great way to satisfy my insatiable curiosity of things are going on in a vast array of topics, eg energy, technology, poetry, writing, entertainment, politics, news. 

On a Venn diagram of my social networks, there is a big commonality between Facebook and LinkedIn.  It is inevitable that colleagues become friends, especially if you spend 8 hours/day for 8 years with a shared purpose.  Not so much with Twitter.  I have very few people (can count on both hands) that sit on Twitter and Facebook or Twitter and even fewer on all three (can count those on one hand).

What this does mean is that with the three networks, I have access to almost 900 people (allowing for duplicates in networks) which quite frankly I could never keep track of with an address book.  I certainly couldn't send them letters, or postcards, and could never give them a ring on the telephone.  But now I can electronically.  And keeping in touch with people is what it is all about.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

I Did & I Still Do

8 years ago today, I put on a long white dress and a veil.  I met a man on the King's Road outside the Kensington & Chelsea registrar's office in London and when we went inside we said these words we wrote to each other.

"I give you this ring as I give you my heart that it might remind you that you are missed when we are apart.


I promise to be by your side as a friend and lover through poverty and prosperity, strength and weakness, to celebrate our triumphs and withstand our trials, to go the extra mile to realise our dreams and to meet you half way to resolve our differences, to face our future with hope, grace and love. Shoulder to should, hand in hand all the days of my life."

Happy Anniversary, Marc!  Thank you for all you are and all you make of me.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Promise

The sun danced on the snow with a sparkling smile,
As two lovers sat quietly, alone for a while.
Then he turned and said, with a casual air
(Though he blushed from his chin to the tips of his hair),
"I think I might like to get married to you"

"Well then", she said "Well there's a thought
But what if we can't promise to be all that we ought,
If I'm late yet again, when we plan to go out.
For I know I can't promise, I'll learn to ignore
Dirty socks and damp towels strewn all over the floor.

So if we can't vow to be all that we should
I'm not sure what to do, though the idea's quite good".
But he gently smiled and tilted his head
Til his lips met her ear and softly he said

"I promise, to weave my dreams into your own,
That wherever you breathe will be my heart's home.
I promise, that whether with rags or with gold I am blessed
Your smile is the jewel I will treasure the best.


Do you think the, my love, we should marry - do you?"
"Yes" she said smiling "I do".

-  Eileen Rafter

Friday, 8 October 2010

Fear

Fear is my enemy. It keeps me from doing what I want to do. Dangerously, it sometimes keeps me from doing what I need to do.

I fear making the wrong decision so I make no decision. Anyone who has seen my attempts (or lack thereof) at home decorating will attest. We have curtains but they are "cheap, disposable, thrown up in a hurry so I can tear them down in a hurry and not fret over the wasted money" type of curtains. This is true in every single room of the house.

Curtains are expensive and I can't really see in my mind's eye what I want or need to cover the windows and get the room to feel the way I want it to feel. I fear making a decision that doesn't look good and having to stare at that decision every single day. And worse subject my family and guests to that decision. And I won't be able to just throw it away because that would be a waste of money and bad for the planet.

Honestly though does my fear of making and living with an errant interior decorating decision ruin my life? No. Does it even diminish the joy I find in my life? Not really. Not when compared to the joy I get when my daughter cuddles up to me with her "I just woke up" eyes and mummy's warm safe body is all she wants right now.

But my fears runs deeper, ever so deeper, than that fabric swatch surface.

I didn't make any plans for the summer holidays last year. I had a vague idea of all the things we wanted to do and I was afraid if I started planning we wouldn't get to do all the things I wanted.  Phew, glad that didn't happen and we scrapped by.

I have had only 3 really grown up jobs in my life. I don't count the jobs before university. Those were practice jobs. But once I got serious about who I was and what I wanted to do with my career I found a job and I stayed there. The first job I stayed far too long than was good for me. The second job they pushed me out because I wouldn't jump when I needed to change from a traveling crazy haired consultant to a mum who lived just down the road from where she worked. Now I'm in my third job. I've been there for almost 8 years now. Some might say I need a change. I'm afraid that I change jobs and it ends up being worse than the one I've got, which actually isn't that bad. In fact, it's pretty good. So I stay. I don't even look. I fear no one will want me, which is stupid and idiotic, but real.

But the biggest fear I have right now is that I want to write. I haphazardly write here on this blog and it kept me satisfied for a good long time. But I want to get a bit more serious about my writing. I aim for a novel. I've started one.  Then stopped.  Then started again.

Now I'm writing a lot of blog posts and a little bit of my novel and a lot of another book and a screenplay and a couple poems (I am bad at poetry).  Every day I think of new ideas to write and suddenly there just isn't enough time in the day to write.  The other night I was up til 1 am and woke up at 5:30 am fearful that the thoughts in my head just wouldn't be there when I woke up if I went back to sleep, like a dream you wan to remember but can't.  One fear replaces another fear.

So I'm going to stop writing this and start writing something else.  Just to let you know, my fear is still there.  But I've asked it to go out for a bit and let me get on.  I've got a lot to do.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

New Dads

I read an article in a newspaper (I think it was The Telegraph) a while back about how there is a new generation of dads emerging. These new kind of dads do the dishes, hoover the carpet, make dinner. In fact some even go so far as to be the primary care giver whilst mum goes out to earn the wage. Well goody for them. What do they want, a medal?

Women have been doing these jobs for ages and they certainly haven’t won any medals. In fact the press largely ignores their ongoing selfless contribution to raising the next generation of adults. But boy golly, a dad lends a hand to the running of a house and it is worth a feature article. Give me a break.

Let me tell you about the next generation of dads as I observe it.

1. Do Over Dad. This is the dad that has decided he isn’t quite happy with the wife and family he made the first time so he has decided to abandon them and do it all over again with a new woman and new children. This dad rarely visits his first children. If he does, it rarely ends in a satisfactory outcome for the children and the now single mother is left wiping the tears of children disappointed when these dads don’t turn up at their football matches or music concerts or dramatic performances. This dad is never around when they are sick or have nightmares in the middle of the night. The dad prefers to pretend that the first family never happened.

2. Absent Dad. This is the dad that left. And never came back. Ever.

3. Career Dad. This is the dad so obsessed with himself and his career that he never or rarely makes it home to have dinner with his children. He rarely, if ever, attends school meetings with the teacher because the only value he imagines himself as having is earning more money or getting an outstanding performance appraisal from his boss who would quite frankly make him redundant with the nod of a head if it was between him or the dad. He’s fooling himself and leaving his children feeling abandoned.

4. Late Again Dad. This is the dad who never makes it in time to anything. He misses the first half of the birthday party because he wanted to watch the last half of the football match on television or finish his pint at the pub. The message this dad sends to his children is that the time he spends away from his children is worth more to him than the time he spends with his children.

5. Mobile Device Dad. This is the dad that is there in body but absent in mind. He stands apart from the group of parents whilst fast and furiously typing away on his blackberry/iPhone/mobile device of choice. He is so self important he can’t be bothered to engage with anyone. He takes phone calls or replies to emails during dinner or a rainy Saturday at the cinema.

So maybe there is an increase of dads more fully engaged in family life. But I would argue there is a larger group of dads less engaged in family life who are abdicating responsibility for their family to their wife/partner whilst pursuing a self serving agenda.

Let me just say before everyone spams the heck out of my comments, there are a lot of great dads out there. My husband is way more engaged in our children’s lives than my father ever was. He used to do the majority of nappy changes (I have a weak gag reflux – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). He does way more of the bath time than I do since I once read an article that children get better academic results if they are given bath time by their dad (I made him read it and have been using it ever since.) My husband has been known to make a wicked lasagna. It is fair to say that we don’t have a traditional divide of household duties in our home just like many of you out there.

And to be fair there ain’t nothing wrong with the traditional divide if that suits each skill set. Whilst my husband can just about manage to cook a meal, he can’t plan a a weekly meal schedule or do the grocery shopping (without wildly exceeding our budget), and trust me when he’s done every dish in the kitchen is dirty so I don’t let him do it very often.

What I couldn’t abide was this self congratulating attitude in the article that dads were doing so much better than they used. Looking round, that’s not what I see. Unless we have ridiculously low expectations of the men among us. And I know that can’t be true. Or maybe it is if you read The Telegraph.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Under the Influence

365 days have passed me by and the passage of time fails to have much effect on me. I’ll bet I’ve got a few more wrinkles and my weight has probably gone up and/or down. My hangovers last longer but I don’t get as drunk as often. My 40s are passing me by and I’m relatively ok with that. I don’t think I could survive the agony of examining every inch of my face or body for endless hours as is the habit of teenage girls and was most certainly my habit in my 20s. There’s just way too much wrong with it all now.

My children seem to grow up every time they walk back into a room. They don’t need my presence or even my permission. They even mature over night as they sleep and dream of gigantic sweet shops. They lose teeth. They grow new ones. They learn new words. Their hair grows. Their feet grow. I sometimes don’t recognize my babies in the bodies of this 9 and nearly 7 year old.

I’m excited and frightened of the people they will one day become. I watch my son’s fragile ego take a beating due to his small stature. No matter how many times I assure him that dynamite comes in small packages, his classmates don’t exactly agree and his performance on the rugby pitch is not exactly winning him a place on the A team. Then I watch him sing. And I see his ego soar up with the eagles. He is in his element. I have seen the singing of his choir move people to tears.

My daughter fears and withdraws from conflict or confrontation of any kind, which will most certainly keep her out of a street fight for which I am most grateful. Bu when classmates are not treating her with respect she loses her confidence and doesn’t stand up for herself. She would rather not answer a question than risk getting it wrong in front of everyone. She has a wicked sense of humour and can make me laugh my fool head off with her wry commentary on life but her tears when she can’t read a book break my heart.

With every passing year the influence a mother has on a child’s life diminishes with every passing day. Indeed this is the very job of a parent: to teach your child to be an independent and contributing member of society. They are part of your body and then they are born, the umbilical cord is cut and suddenly they are separate. We teach them to feed themselves. Then we teach them to walk. My heart leaped and then fell to the ground as I watched them take their first tentative steps away from me because I knew eventually they would walk out the door of our home and not come back for days, weeks, years. Finally, we hope they learn to have the confidence to go out into the big wide world and make their own way: find happiness in a career, find love, find joy in their own children, find contentment in their own wisdom and judgement. Everything you do leads them down the path you wish for them. But ultimately they pick their own road, their own journey through life.

As a parent your influence begins to diminish within the first year of their life. First I went back to work and the child minder had a part to play. Then they started school and the teachers had a large part to play. And now I find their peer group is starting influence their decisions and I’m caught in a crisis of confidence. Not long from now their peer group will be the primary influence on their lives. Did I tech them to pick the right friends? Did I teach them well enough about everything else, quickly enough? Did I simply teach them enough? Is what I’ve given them a sound foundation for the future? How much longer will they be influenced by me and does that have to come to an end?

Maybe it doesn’t ever end. My mother and father still have a profound influence on my life’s decisions, both good and bad. My grandmother, even though she is no longer living, is constant source of answers when I ask the question “What would nanny say?” For now, I will continue to hope that my voice can be heard over that of others even when I’m not there.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Like Bees to Honey by Caroline Smails

So here it is:  the first book review I've published since 5 April, precisely 6 months ago.  You have been warned.  Regrettably, the novel at the top of the stack is not one about which I have many good things to say.

The possibility of one of my children dying before me haunts my sleep. I have nightmares of attending their funerals. I can’t even think about it so this is a hard post to write and it was an even harder book to read.

The worst possibly scenario is my children dying because of something I did: my driving, my carelessness. I imagine the rubbish that would become our lives. I doubt I would recover. Ever.

So I was interested in what Caroline Smails had to say about this scenario in her book Like Bees to Honey. She didn’t hold my attention long and my interest waned.

Nina is a dull character and I felt the personality flaws were used as a way of making her more interesting.  I found it made her less sympathetic and more annoying.  Christopher is predictable (the "shock revelation" didn't surprise me at all) and the constant repetition of words, phrases, and noises quickly became irritating and I began to imagine that maybe Ms Smails didn’t have much of a handle on this topic either. And she certainly didn’t have much of a book. Without this repetition she certainly had a few 10,000 less words which if deleted could have left her with little more than a short story.

I entertained the possibility that the purpose of this repetition was to make the point that Nina was living her tragedy over and over, is the road through the grief and just needs things pounded into her head. But the affect on the reader is pure boredom and frustration, like someone is pounding you on the head. I felt Ms Smails used this device repeatedly thinking maybe her reader wouldn’t realise how recovering from the death of your child might be difficult. Sure wish she’d give us more credit than that.

The preaching of Jesus to Tilly using her own words was painful to read. I hope when/if Jesus ever speaks to me he doesn’t speak to me like I speak. I hope he has something more clever to say than I could ever come up with.

There is a small passage in the cave at Il Madonna Talghar that is beautiful and captures what a small step towards recovery from such a tragedy might feel like. But it is over way too soon and this skillful writing doesn’t appear anywhere else in the book.

Ms Smails might have some talent but I think she needs a bit more time to refine her next novel and maybe a better editor.

PS  In the book group, none of the women liked it but the one man did.  Go figure!

Monday, 4 October 2010

Blogging About Books

I used to post a lot of book reviews on this site but one time a colleague of mine said he checked my site every day but if there was a book review posted he would just skip it and come back the next day. I thought maybe I couldn’t write book reviews. So I stopped. Writers have fragile egos. Even this writer.

What I failed to grasp was that this man actually just didn’t enjoy reading. This seemed like a bizarre and foreign concept to a girl/woman who read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at the age of 14 and basically has never been frightened by a piece of literature since. But now I think maybe he just didn’t really care what I, or anyone else had to say, had to say about a book, any book.

There was another totally self serving reason for writing book reviews on the blog. I forget what I read. Maybe that makes me a bad reader. But I read a lot. I'm a member of two book groups. One group sometimes almost manages to get the members to read 1 book but the other group has many members reading both books. Yeah, you read that correctly. I am a member of a book group that identifies 2 books per month. On a bad month, I can only manage 2 books/month. But on a good month and with some good novels, I devour 5 or 6 novels. But that’s a lot of books to be reading and keeping track of.

For years I didn’t read The Lovely Bones by Ablice Sebold because I thought I had already read it. I didn’t read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover because I thought it was by the same author who wrote Clan of the Cave Bear and I had read that years ago on my mother’s recommendation. Despite my mother (and many others) loving it, I hated it. Not having a reference as to what I had read already meant that it took me years to read both these books which I know realize was a loss, particularly The Poisonwood Bible which simply put is epic and beautiful.  Watch for my review coming soon!

I also forget which book is which. People will start talking about books I know I’ve read and I just get a blank look on my face. I can’t remember the characters and have only a vague inkling what is was about. It takes a few moments but usually I am able to piece together enough fragments from my memory to recall a skeletal outline of the plot and form an opinion about whether I liked it or not. But please do not ask me what the names of the characters were. And most definitely avoid any deep discussion of their development or motivations.

This frustrates the heck out of me. I get immersed in great books and they have the power to change my life. I forget to eat. I forget I have to do the school pickup. Often I want to forget to go to work. One author, Lionel Shriver, has written 2 books which still have a profound influence on my thinking, We Need to Talk about Kevin and The Post Birthday World. Everything else she has written is rubbish, especially her latest, So Much for That (watch out for that review too!). But those 2 books, which are entirely different from each other, have had an elemental effect on me and my thinking. But I can’t tell you the characters names and if I were to describe them to you today, I would probably even mess up the plot arch.

There is only one book which remains fresh in my mind perpetually and that is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. This is primarily due to the fact that I have read and reread this book about 8 times. I cry every time I read it and don’t think I will ever forget it. It fundamentally changed my feelings towards the people of Afghanistan and the war the west is waging against them. If you haven’t read it, you should. Now, before you read anything else.

The point of all this is that I am notifying you my loyal readers and fans that I am going to return to publishing my book reviews on this blog. Not because I don’t care about what my readers think but mostly because this is my blog and I can do what I want to. If you don’t like the book reviews, skip reading that day. But come back tomorrow. Even I rarely manage to read more than 1 book in 2 days.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A380s at Heathrow

This morning I am living under the flight path for landing aircraft at Heathrow airport. I don’t move around but the approach pattern does. We only have to deal with the noise every third or fourth day. I have lived in or around this area ever since I moved to the UK and trust me when I say that you get used to the noise very quickly and I hardly notice it unless I’m standing in the garden trying to speak to someone. BBQs can be frustrating. When the Icelandic volcano was erupting, we had a glorious week of silence. During my recent Scottish retreat, my perceived blissful isolation was broken only twice by the roar of a military jet flying exercises. I felt violated.

A friend of mine was complaining on Facebook the other day about how airplanes flying over Windsor Castle ruins the full force of the historical impact when the racket of modern day invades. This same friend travels abroad several times every year and appears to have forgotten that without the airport and these very same planes, his journeys would be severely more difficult and fewer and farther in between.

And whilst I may protest the noise, I know I am downright pleased as punch when I can make an early morning 7 am flight knowing that one of the world’s largest airports is a mere 6 miles away. We can get there in 20 minutes or 10 depending on the audacity of our taxi driver. Or you can spend an entire afternoon quaffing magnums of champagne whilst enjoying a thrilling polo match on a glorious sunny English summer day and then transport yourself in minutes for a quick hop over to Zurich without missing a beat. (not entirely true but that’s another post)

There has been a debate raging for several years about the addition of a third runway at Heathrow airport. Currently, London boasts the busiest airspace in the world with 2 of its airports, Gatwick and Heathrow in the top ten of busiest airports in terms of number of passengers. Heathrow alone is the third busiest airport in terms of number of passengers which is astonishing considering this country has a population of only 62 million. Airports in slots 1 and 2 are both in the USA (Atlanta & Chicago) a country with a population of just over 307 million. How does that work?

Adding a third airport has been violently opposed my residents of the surrounding neighbourhoods. No surprise there. I’m not too happy of what a third runway would do to my property value. What these protestors forget is that the people, including themselves, need to own that responsibility. If you don’t want another runway, stop flying.

Over 15 million passengers travel through Heathrow during the year. Many of those are merely connecting to other flights. Could a possible solution be to build another airport further away from London which could handle the connecting traffic? The north east of England is in sore need of employment since the demise of manufacturing and a large international airport would no doubt be a welcome employment opportunity for those economically challenged parts of the country.

My family is full of plane spotters. My daughter and husband could quite honestly watch planes land all day. I would rather do just about anything including clean the toilets. But I do learn things by listening to them prattle on. Most valuably I’ve learned that the new A380 Airbus is much quieter when flying overhead than any other older models including the 737 or 777. Not only that, but the plane is huge. Gigantic. It can carry 555 passengers if it is split into three classes or 840 if only one class is offered. By comparison, the 777 can only carry a maximum of 440 with one class and 340 with 3 classes.

So, it can carry more people so it can make fewer flights and it is quieter. My solution for avoiding building another runway at Heathrow airport is simple. Replace all the legacy aircraft with the new A380 and everyone will be happy. The already dwindling wildlife in the area will not be impacted. The airports neighbours will have a wee bit more peace and quiet. The airlines will make more money having to fly fewer flights.

Am I the only one who thinks this is blindingly obvious?

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Writer's Retreat - Final Part

The story of Assynt, the area in Scotland where the retreat was hosted, is a fascinating one. You can read more about that here.


The Assynt Foundation, who works with Top Left Corner, is doing some amazing things for the area.  You can read more about that here.

The history of the Vestey family is equally enthralling. You can read The Rise and Fall of the Vesty Family by Phillip Knightly (although I haven’t yet) or you can read more details here.

Lochinver and the surrounding area appears to be a mecca for creativity. There are artists for every discipline. Actually I don’t think this is limited to Lochinver. In Ullapool we met artists in the local tea shop. It seemed I was surrounded by them. I wanted to be one of them. Must be something in the water.

I’m not entirely sure how much of my transformation was due to the majesty of the scenery, the comfortableness of the lodge, or the stillness of the silence. I do, however, fundamentally believe that a large part of what I learned, what I took away, what I am becoming were the people who joined me on this voyage. I could not imagine having made this journey and travelling as far as I have without the benefit of having them along for the ride.

Obviously I could spend hours in the land of the hypothetical. Would it have been the same with another 12 people? Are all writers supportive and giving? Is the world full of really lovely people just waiting to be friends? Is this a byproduct of the retreat itself and a happy outcome for every Top Left Corner retreat?

I like to think we were special. We were unique. Somehow all the planets aligned and lightening struck in the same place more times than I can count. We are all still in touch. Many of us are on facebook. Some of us are sending emails. Some are only just returning from their extended travels abroad. We are planning on meeting up again during the year and with a little luck and a fair wind many of us will manage to bring ourselves back to the lodge at Lochinver and see what we can else we can accomplish.

In the meantime, I write. I don’t manage my morning pages every page when real life invades but on those days I can feel I didn’t do them. I’m cranky and grumpy and less able to be calm. I’m not writing my blog every day as despite the alarm going off at 5 am I am still just as good at turning it off. This post is a day late. I haven’t written a word on the novel for about 7 days which I’m ashamed of.

But what and who I have taken away with me will last me a lifetime and help me fulfill some of my lifelong dreams.  What more could I have asked for?   Oh, I know.....everyone will buy my book when it gets published!  LOL!!!!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Writer's Retreat - Part 5

But the end was nearing and I could feel it.



An unexpected bonus to the retreat was the expanded cast of characters who would enter our daily routine and enhance it in ways unimaginable with little unexpected opportunities to watch, listen, learn and embrace. One day we were treated to a visit from Helen who runs a lovely business dying her own wool for knitting. When she arrived with her tubs of yarn I had to resist just jumping in. Her skeins varied from delicate 2 ply to the big thick and chunky. The yarn had combinations of cashmere, mercona, alpaca. They all felt wonderful as they caressed your hands. The colours came from within Helen’s own imagination and largely echoed the vibrant nature outside the windows of the surrounding Assynt basin.

Or Phil who just occasionally joined us for a walk and as magically as he appeared, he would disappear.

Or Martin, an Iyengar yoga instructor with eye popping blue shorts, who had an exquisite command of every muscle and could move each in isolation of another. He urged me to hold poses for longer than I ever had and stretch my shoulders out way beyond the boundary of the Arctic Circle in a downward dog. And boy, I felt that stretch in the morning.

And John who greeted us and helped lug our bags about on the first awe struck evening, spent the first night with us and then vanished never to be seen from again.

But what had I really accomplished? My objectives were vague. I had always loved writing but felt that my writing lacked depth and was one dimensional. I had written a journal from the age of 9 until I was 36. For some reason I stopped when I met my husband and in the intervening 10 years have completely failed to pick it back up again. My blog was an outlet for a while but that too fell into disregard when I ran out of ideas. I suppose I needed to discover if there was more to my writing than just my day to day, self-indulgent capture and recapitulation of what happened in the last 24 hours.

I needed to discover if I had a creative bone in my body; if my imagination could soar with the eagles. If I had the power to move people with my words the way so many authors have done and continue to do for me when I read. Could I actually take all these ideas for novels, short stories, and journalism articles in my head and put them down on paper? And if I did would they be worth reading.

During the week I discovered that I could indeed get the words out of my head. In total I wrote more than 30,000 words not including my morning pages and my daily journal. I started my novel writing the plot arch, most of the character profiles and the first 4 chapters. I am very happy with how Chapter 1 reads although I am still tinkering. I wrote several professional articles which I am hoping to send into to professional journals. I wrote some more articles which I hope to get published in magazines. I wrote poetry! I’ve never written a poem in my life but somehow the people, the place eeked the words from me and they landed on the page resembling something that vaguely resembles a poem. I’ve submitted it to the Royal Berkshire Poetry Competition. It won’t win but I did it.

I write my morning pages most mornings. I’ve skipped them a couple times since I’ve been back and I can feel that impact the rest of the day; my state of mind is distracted and grumpy. I am forcing myself up out of bed at 5:45 in the morning to make sure I have time before work, children, the rest of my life invades this precious space.

I’ve written quite a few lengthy blog posts which you know if you are reading this. I’ve loved writing about it. I cannot recommend this retreat highly enough if you, like me, harbor a desire to write, or just want to see what is in that other side of your brain.

Work continues on the novel. I’ll be sure to keep you updated.

I can only imagine the sheer scale of Mandy’s exhaustion when we waved goodbye as she stood in the purple doorway. I can’t remember ever feeling the conflict of emotions as we pulled away and headed back to our other lives, our other selves, the other side of our brains.

I’ve struggled to find the left side of my brain since I’ve gotten home. My education and professional life seems to have sent that part of me into a long enforced silence. Now that the best has been awakened from its winter sleep I don’t want it to go back to bed but equally I don’t think I can do my job solely from the right side. I am trying to integrate the two.



For now, I’m a writer who just happens to also be an IT Manager by day.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Writer's Retreat - Part 4

There is earth, wind, fire and water. And then there is Mandy Haggith. She is the fifth force of nature. And nuture. She is tiny but do not for one minute think she is weak. She is strong like a hurricane is strong. And then she is as gentle as a duckling’s feather.

She is passionate about the environment and has written a fabulous book called Paper Trails about the lifecycle of paper from trees to trash. Everything she says or does includes nature. She can’t help it. Several days during the week we were given opportunities to join Mandy on a walk. You got the impression that she was going even if no one went with her so you might as well join in. Some walks were long and others were just in front of the lodge. You never knew where she might take you. But one thing that never failed was her ability to ignite your sense of wonder, heighten every sense in your body like when you were a child doing and seeing everything for the very first time. She took me to places I never knew existed inside and outside of myself.

When she speaks with you she is so thoughtful and considerate. You never get the feeling she wants to interrupt you. Or hurry you along. She just absorbs you and ignites your passion in writing, in poetry, in nature, in people.

The exercises during the week were always optional. There were no rules except to be respectful of one another which just sounded like common sense to me. Mandy held a stream of consciousness writing session at 10 each morning. Some people came to all of them, 1 person came to none of them, others mixed it up a bit. These were followed a few times by writing exercises meant to get your brain thinking inside, outside, and all around the box with the ultimate goal of encouraging and enhancing your writing input and output.

I suppose at some point I could have doubted that any or all of it would work. But that wasn’t why I was there. My logical, left side of the brain told me you are all in, darlin’, give it all you got to give it or just go home with your head hangin’. That left side of the brain sometimes speaks with a Texan accent, just so you know.

So I threw myself all in. Three or four times during the week the afternoons were punctuated with “walks”. Mandy’s definition of a walk is quite broad. One day this was a wonder out around the front garden seeing, feeling, squashing, tasting (yes, eating). I fear a few of us were expecting something bigger (like a climb up the glorious and ominous Suilven mountain) but what an unexpected pleasure to find us just wandering around in front of the lodge and finding wonder so close to where we were. You mean I don’t have to go far to find inspiration? Gee, that never ever occurred to me.

One day’s walk did push me up the side of a mountain. We didn’t go all the way to the top just to the bothy. Bothy? “What the heck is a bothy?” I hear you say (if you’re not Scottish). I just went along with it and had a certain feeling in my bones that I would know it when I saw it. The walk started out easy if a bit muddy. But I had my hiking boots on so I was appropriately kitted out. There was something satisfying in getting the boots well and truly covered in the mud. And then the walk took a more sinister turn and we were walking up some steep bits but again the path seemed to have a staircase of stone placed there by the power of nature made especially for me to simply walk up. I was gasping for air but not because I was out of shape (ok, a little bit of that) but more because the views across the landscape were literally breathtaking. Who could have guessed that the world looked like that from there?

I was sweating like a stuffed pig. I had packed for the cold, wet Scottish weather everyone had warned me about and didn’t really bring any T-shirts with me. Plus this was a walk out into the wilderness and I’d read all the alarming literature about being prepared for the weather to change at a moment’s notice. The trouble was the sun was beating down on us and I was trying to keep pace with the keener walkers in the pack. These people walked for fun and entertainment. I walk when my car breaks down. Nope, don’t walk then either. I ring a taxi.

Just when I thought I couldn’t take another step a stone structure appeared before me. So, this is a bothy. The skies had suddenly turned dark and ominous and the heavens began to spit on us. As we went entered the bothy, the heavens opened up and it rained and hailed like I’ve never seen it before. Actually, like I’ve never heard it before. The bothy has a tin roof and when the squall convinced me a military fighter jet was hovering above. We broke out our packed lunches all individually packed at the lodge that morning. In my backpack I had tucked away a tin of sardines, some crackers, a wedge of cheese, some dried apple crisps, a pear and a Green & Black’s bar of chocolate. Mandy had brought some ginger beer for us all to share. It was the best picnic I’ve ever had. We talked about the sources of our inspiration and what blocks our creativity. We all signed the bothy book which is like a guest book and packed up our rubbish to take it back down the mountain. As we stepped outside, miraculously/magically the storm stopped and the sun won the battle against the darkness. The path was a lot muddier, the puddles a lot bigger and where there had been small trickles of stream large waterfalls where thundering down the mountain.

Returning to the lodge was easier than I expected and I found myself marching like a soldier headed home. I have no idea where this reserve of energy came from but I was turbo powered. But the real magic happened in the way Mandy chatted to each and every one of us about our lives and our relationship to writing. She was interested in each and everyone of us in our own, her own special way. When she listened to you, she gave you every ounce of her attention. When she gave you advice it was constructive and supportive and imminently relevant and useful.

Just as we stepped on to the slate stones of the lodge porch the rain started to spit down on us once again as if mother nature had grown weary of keeping the threatening weather at bay. We’d only been gone a few hours but it seemed like a lifetime. By body ached and my brain had an electricity storm of its own going on. I went to my room, changed into my cozy tartan slanket with feet. I returned to the lounge and sunk into a big leather chair with my book and began to read.

Next thing I knew a gentle hand was on my knee giving me a little wobble and a soft voice was asking me if maybe I wanted to get changed for dinner. I was slightly alarmed to find that the sun had set and people were gathering in the lounge for pre-dinner drinks. When I went to sit up it was clear that my body was not in an entirely happy place. There was no way I was going to be moving any more than was absolutely necessary. I went to dinner in my slanket. Then I went to bed. And then I went to sleep like a bear out for the full count of winter.

Which was in fact the exception to the rule. I had visions of wasting away my precious writing time with sleeping and reading. As a mother I find it difficult to carve out me time to sleep in on the weekend mornings or just laze about in the evenings with a good book. I was fearful that my sleep deprivation would catch up with me or the books I was reading (Dark Fire by C.J. Sansome and Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld) would prevent me from focusing on my real mission of writing. But nothing could have been further from the truth.

On more occasion than I would like to admit, we would finish our after dinner readings and sharings, each made our own way to our own room. My brain would be full of everything I never knew was in there. I would sit down at the computer and the words would just tumble out of me. And it wasn’t just me. During the nights when the house turned quiet and the fire had died down a casual observer might have thought that everyone had gone to sleep. What they couldn’t appreciate was that our brains just didn’t turn off. Like a freight train hurtling at us without any brakes our minds would unleash themselves on to our laptops and we would frantically write to keep up with the avalanche of words coming out of us. It was like everything that Mandy said and everything that Mandy did and every word we heard and every emotion we’d ever felt purge when the silence of night descended. Nearly every one of us experienced the nighttime energy and produced seminal works in the wee small hours of the morning.

This was so much more than I could have expected, planned , hoped, dreamed, prayed, begged.  And it wasn’t over yet.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Writer's Retreat - Part 3

We were the last to arrive. We could hear voices coming from somewhere else in the house. John announced our arrival and after putting our luggage down he went looking for Mandy. The three of us stood there smiling at each other not yet having found our comfort zone.

Mandy bounded into the foyer. She looked exactly like I expected her to look but that was because we had cheated and she had friended me on Facebook the day before my departure from civilisation. She showed the three of us to our rooms and John helped us with our suitcases. We were told to meet in the lounge in 10 minutes.

1o minutes? Who does anything in 10 minutes? OK, so no long hot soak in the great big huge bath tub which could have doubled as a hot tub for 6. No splashing cold water on my face or freshening up my makeup. They were going to have to love me or leave me.

I took a quick survey of my room. The walls were a gorgeous periwinkle, cornflower blue. There were two single beds but only one of them had sheets. There were two pillows on each bed and they were huge. This is a good sign. I was slightly alarmed when I saw that the writing desk of my dreams was actually a folding table and the view of inspiration was actually out the back of the house. I had a not so lovely view of a dog run and small rubbish tip. Uh, not exactly what I expected.

I knew that I had booked late. In fact, I think I got the last spot available. Yes, I had planned this way back in April but it suddenly occurred to me when we were on holiday in Cornwall in July that I had completely failed to complete and return the booking form along with my payment. When we got home from holidays I rang Mandy in a panic and she said I could have the very last room. I knew room allocations were on a first come first serve basis and that my room would not be the one with the best view. I took solace in the fact that I had my own bath and toilet so didn’t need to share. But in that one moment, I felt a pang of disappointment.

I raced downstairs after hang up my higgly piggly wardrobe for the week thinking to myself I must have been drunk when I packed and in fact discovered I had not packed enough knickers (underwear) for the week. I was sincerely hoping no one would notice.  I was nervous to meet the others.  Who were they?  And what were they doing here?  Were they going to be authors and professionals who felt my sophomoric attempts at putting my thoughts to paper were ridiculous and more appropriate for a pre-school class?  Would I be able to write anything at all?

A fire roared in the lounge where we gathered only long enough to introduce ourselves but somehow this set the scene for everything beautiful that was to follow. We settled into the big soft brown leather sofas and all of these strangers proceeded to introduce themselves with honesty and vulnerability. They opened up about why they were here and showed us a tiny glimpse inside their souls. I immediately thought this is going to be good.

We were a diverse group but similar in so many ways. Of the 12 of us, only 1 was a man, 3 were Americans (including myself although I was the only one living in the UK; the other 2 had travelled all the way from the good ole US of A to be there), we ranged in age from 41 to 81, 2 of us had lived in Colorado (me and one of the Brits). We had a painter, a geologist, a psychologist, a sociologist, a nurse, a taxi driver, a runner and a hypnotherapist. We were cat lovers and dog lovers and animal lovers. Some had no children, some had children grown and some had children growing. And whilst our groups commonalities twisted and turned the one thing we all had in common was that we wanted to write. We wanted to write like we wanted to breathe.

After a few bottles of wine and the smells from the kitchen had wafted under our noses, we were summoned to the dining room where we enjoyed the first of many down home cooked meals (in the Scottish way) courtesy of the treasured Christine and Tina. Every night, these two lovely ladies prepared a home cooked meal with tender loving care. We ate homemade soups (carrot & coconut being my personal favourite), lasagna, fish pie, chicken curry, venison and cranberry stew and steak pies. We even ventured into true Scottish territory and had ourselves some haggis, neeps (mashed turnips) and creamed potatoes. We enjoyed gorgeous homemade puddings including a cheesecake that was simply out of this world.

After dinner we waddled our way back to the lounge, stoked up the fire and got ourselves cozy. If you felt like reading something you had written, then you were welcome to read it out. If you wanted feedback the feedback was honest but supportive and kind. If you didn’t want to read, well, you just simply didn’t read. No pressure. No judgement. No ill will.  During these sessions we laughed and we cried (just a tiny bit) but mostly we listened.  We listened with the rapt attention of a mother watching her child take their first steps.

And then the magic happened.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Writer's Retreat - Part 2

My mad dash for the taxi queue sent travelers scurrying out of my way and I hurled myself at the poor driver, grabbed his arm and promised him the world and all my money if he could get me into the centre of Inverness in the next 20 minutes. The bus station was 15 kilometers from the airport and I convinced myself I would hold my breath for the entire journey if that would reduce our drag and make us go faster. God knows, the taxi driver needed all the help he could get as he proceeded to pour out his life story to me: 4 children from 4 women and he was only 47 and didn’t I think he looked a lot younger. He didn’t seem to want my world or need my money. I snarled a speech about STDs and appropriate use of birth control. I have never wished more that I carried condoms in my handbag than I did at that moment. OK, that’s not entirely true.

Just as we rounded the corner for the station, I had a major panic attack that I had left my wallet on the counter at the airport Starbucks when I thought I had all the time in the world to enjoy a coffee as I strolled to the bus and sat back on my relaxing 1 hour bus journey. Instead I was clutching the cup as I jumped out of the taxi whilst it was stopped at a red traffic light and heaved open the boot of the taxi and started rifling through the various pockets. The poor taxi driver was speechless as he stood next to me watching me meltdown. Some of you may remember I certain trip I took a few months ago to Zurich when after enjoying a full day of polo with even fuller glasses of champagne being quaffed nonstop for nearly 6 hours I thought I accidentally left my card in the cash point machine (ATM) at the Zurich airport. I couldn’t find it when I checked into the hotel and in blind panic rang home for bank numbers and card numbers, then rang the bank and got it all cancelled before realizing I then had no way to check out of the hotel which did eventually let me check out using a debit card. The one bit of the story I haven’t exactly gone public with is that I hadn’t left the card in the cash point at all. In my drunken stupor, I had put the card in a secret stash pocket of my wallet where I had never before ventured and whilst searching for a pound for parking months later happened upon the card thinking to myself, how the hell did that get there? Stayed tuned to the very end of this long and winding road to find out about the latest adventures of my wallet.

Needless to say, my wallet was in the top pocket of my suitcase which is the home I had given it in light of EasyJet’s ban on handbags. Even women are allowed only one carry on which means that if you have a suitcase to carry on you must put your handbag or the contents of your handbag inside your suitcase. Do they know how difficult and disruptive this is? Do they care? Nuff said.

I jumped back into the taxi and apologized for being a wee bit crazy. I knew he was thinking “a wee bit”? He drove to the other side of the road and couldn’t get me out of his taxi fast enough as I threw copious wads of money at him. 15 kilometers in 15 minutes, life story of sexual irresponsibility, near catastrophic public meltdown in the middle of Inverness all for the low low price of £27. Who could ask for anything more? And this was just day 1.

Considering my lack of experience with bus stations, I found the right bus with surprisingly little difficulty despite the fact that I don’t think I properly pronounced the city of my destination, Ullapool, which is where I needed to change buses. The blessed driver even agreed to postpone his departure until I returned from the toilet. Phew. After that coffee, I was bursting and I was scared to death of being trapped on a bus with no loo for the next 2 hours and no access to facilities.

The bus wasn’t completely crowded but there were enough people partaking in the joys of public transport that I felt very green. The seat next to me was empty so unpacked my handbag which was inside my suitcase and started moving things around making my handbag much more useful. I was tweeting and facebooking until my fingers ached anticipating imminent disconnection from the grid. I surreptitiously sized up my fellow passengers looking for the two women, Kristen and Rhoda, who I had guessed would be on the same bus as I but I couldn’t spot anyone that looked like a writer. Besides, most of my fellow passengers had fallen fast asleep complete with drool down the side of their mouth and even one (perhaps two) rumbling snore(s). So, this is Scotland? I was so jazzed up on my caffeine and the adrenalin rush from the taxi journey I couldn’t even manage a yawn.

The sights outside the window were by far more compelling than my fellow traveling companions. I was soon mesmerized by the landscape passing me by. Somehow I had missed the news bulletin announcing how beautifully stunning this landscape is. All I had heard was that it rained all the time and the midges/mosquitos were evil. So far I had seen nothing other than glorious big blue skies (with some very dramatic clouds) and not a single midge had taken an ounce of flesh off me. So, THIS is Scotland!



The bus driver didn’t really announce any stops and there wasn’t an electronic billboard announcing the next stop so I was hoping it would be obvious when it was time to disembark. Since the bus stopped at Ullapool Pier and was returning to Inverness I made an educated guess that now might be the time to get off. No sooner had I got my luggage and walked round that bus than the next bus appeared.

It seems that time is a wee bit elastic in Scotland. Our bus to Lochinver was scheduled to depart at 4:52 but at 4:55 we were still sitting there. I thought maybe someone had gone to the toilet and we were waiting for them which was only kind considering they done it for me. But at 5:05 we were still sitting there. I resisted my standard mode of operation which would have been to go up and find out what was going on. I figured I had no place to be by any specific time so no skin off my back. You have no idea how liberating that was! Soon another bus arrived and a whole bunch of people got off that bus and got on to our bus. Seems there is a ferry in Lochinver and if our bus had left those people would have been stranded for the night away from their home. Waiting is not a bad thing.

But apparently being late is. The bus driver decided this was his opportunity to practice his Formula1 skills: twisting, turning, up, down, oncoming traffic be damned even if that is a lorry. Thoughts began to race through my mind: I think I’ll just close my eyes, no, that won’t work, oh god, that was a really bad idea, I think I’m going to be sick, hang on, you are going to fall into the lap of the old man with a flat cap, perhaps I shouldn’t have sat at the front of bus, oh dear those suitcases are flying, that suitcase is going to fall on me, ouch, that’s gonna leave a bruise, this may just be the end of my life, is my will up to date?

Every now and again the bus driver would stop and let someone out. Once a young, fiery red haired, Irish girl in her twenties hoisted her backpack up on to her back whilst the bus was still moving (that impressed the hell out of me) and got off when the driver stopped. I don’t know how he knew that was where she wanted to get off. And I don’t know where she was going. It had started to drizzle rain. She had no coat on. There were no cars waiting for her. There were no buildings anywhere around, only a road that headed off to the west disappearing over a hill.

I didn’t have much time to ponder her fate as I watched her disappear and the ride of my life resumed. Every couple of miles the bus would come to a stop and left off a few passengers. As the population of passengers diminished I noticed that the bars on my mobile phone had greatly diminished and I had little mobile phone signal. It didn’t really matter anyway because I didn’t dare release my grip on my seat to type out a witty text, status update or tweet. I couldn’t bear to look out the window and witness the landscape racing past me like my life before my eyes. I began to surreptitiously inspect the stragglers. Who on this bus looked like a Kristen? A Rhoda? I’ve never met a Rhoda although I’ve seen one on television. What does a writer look like? What does someone who would go on a writer’s retreat look like? I was only entirely sure that I didn’t have a clue and no one looked like they were looking for a LaDawn.

I saw the sign indicating we had arrived in Lochinver but instead of the blind good luck I’d had in Ullapool, it became clear that there was more than one stop in Lochinver and I couldn’t remember which one I needed. Before the driver could put his pedal to the metal, I raced to the front of the bus and asked if he knew where I was to get off for where I was going. He asked me where I was going.

It was at this point that I realized I didn’t know how to pronounce Glencanisp and that all I really knew was that I was going on a writer’s retreat to meet a woman named Mandy who ran a organisation named Top Left Corner. None of this came out of my mouth in any coherent way so that another human being could make any sense of it. Maybe he wasn’t really human in the way Lewis Hamilton can’t really be human. But he appeared to understand me and mumbled something that vaguely sounded like “next one” so I returned to my seat not feeling any better informed.

At this point, having revealed myself as the bus idiot, Rhoda and Kristen revealed themselves as fellow retreaters. Before we knew it, the bus had stopped again and the driver was mumbling something which sounded vaguely like “this is your stop” but could have just as easily have been “get off my bus you stupid women”. All three of us remained seated. OK, so they couldn’t understand him either. At this point he raised his voice and told us to get off the bus. Well, perhaps not those exact words but definitely words to that effect.

The trio retrieved their luggage and fell off the bus and looked for a woman named Mandy. There was no woman here but at least the rain had stopped. When only a man was in the car park I was certain there was a mistake and was ready to get back on the bus. But he introduced himself as John and asked if I was LaDawn, Rhoda or Kristen. He relieved of us our belongings and packed it all into the back of his estate car (station wagon).

Rhoda was very persistent that we stop almost as soon as we started to pop into a shop. She wanted wine and with my trip having frazzled every nerve ending, I felt that a bottle or 7 wouldn’t go astray. I also knew that the arrangements were that we were responsible for providing our own alcohol although the joining instructions had indicated wine would be provided on the first night. I didn’t want to risk running out either. I sided with Rhoda.

We crossed the road to the local Spar and whilst I bought a single bottle of wine, I was impressed when Rhoda purchased a bottle of gin. Kristen had a good nose around the shop but didn’t feel the urge for intoxication courage.

My mobile phone had lost any and all single at all as soon as we turned down the single track road towards the lodge. The sun was beginning to set and dusk was upon us. We were surrounded by breath taking scenery and were able to introduce ourselves properly to each other.

Soon we pulled up in front of the lodge. The door was purple. Who paints a door purple on a grand and genteel lodge? I hadn’t expected a purple door and now everything I thought I might find behind that door was pulled into question. What was I going to find behind that purple door? Who was I going to find behind that purple door? It started to rain and John opened the door and we stepped in.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Writer's Retreat - Part 1

I've been blocked. Just in case you have missed the bloomin' obvious I haven't posted to this site since April and even before then the frequency of my blog posts was in serious decline. I think I made some excuses about not having enough time but whilst that was certainly a factor it wasn't like the day suddenly had less than the 24 hours it had always had.

I believe I stopped writing because I didn't know what to say and I didn't know how to say what I did want to say.

I've always harboured a deep desire to be a writer, not just a blogger but a fully fledged, card carrying, published in paperback, want to see people carrying my novel around type of writer. I don't want to be famous like JK Rowling but known to my readers like Lionel Shriver or Ian McEwan: unrecognised on the street but moved to tears and/or laughter by their words.

So I finally decided to stop letting my dreams be jut dreams and trust in myself to make them a reality. But carving that time out of the chaos of my life is not only difficult, I found it quite simply impossible. I've got a full time career which to be fair has pretty much defined me for all of my adult life. I've got a husband who needs and deserves more of my attention. I've got 2 amazing children who I don't play with as much as I would like or should. I've got a high degree of commitment to my friends and communities which make it painful to say no when they need me.

This past year I have been plagued by pneumonia, back pain, weight gain, stress and general fatigue and when it all got to much I decided it was time for me to stop saying no to me and stop depositing some serious investment into my well being, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

I am back on the treadmill of losing weight. I've lost 14 pounds so far and the battle continues. I've set myself some aggressive targets but also some whopping big rewards. but the weight is a symptom not the problem. I needed to dig a bit deeper.

I decided to escape into the wilds of the northwest corner of Scotland. I haven't been to Scotland much having only been to Edinburgh twice for short weekend jaunts. This is most certainly the furthest north I've ever been in Great Britain since there isn't much more north to go before falling off into the North Sea. And the west coast is littered with only islands requiring boat, ferry, surf board which was perhaps a step too far for me this time.

I started my research back in April and decided a wee small chunk of my bonus would be spent on a Writer's Retreat. I had no idea what a writer's retreat was or what you did or what to expect. In fact, I found great difficulty in packing. Normally, I can get myself packed for a trip in under 30 minutes. But for days I circled the luggage struggling to come to terms with the dress code. What do writer's wear? What is their uniform of choice? Did I need high heels and a ball gown? Would I be allowed to wearing my pajamas all day long? At 2 am I surrendered and threw random items into my suitcase and hoped I was appropriately booted and suited.

Normally, the obsessive part of my personality ensures that I research any new venture with relentless energy and focus. I buy books about the subject. I speak to experts. I take classes. I do google searches until the wee hours of the morning. Nothing is approached without the full spectrum of the latest research committed to memory. But not with my writing.

I think writing is something you are rather than something you learn or do. I've always written and long time fans of this blog have commented on more than one occassion that I sure used to have a lot to say. But I knew that I wanted to add some dimensions and depth to my writing and I certainly didn't have a clue where to start to get the novel out of head and on to a page.

Lat Saturday, the alarm went at 5 am. I showered, dressed, agonised over what and how many books a writer takes to a retreat. Shouldn't I be reading rather than writing? But I couldn't help myself as I picked out 4. Just how much reading could one do in 7 days? A lot, if that writer couldn't write, I reckoned.

The children were eased out of their slumber bribed with the promise of a McDonald's breakfast and deposited in the car. Abigail couldn't decide if missing me was a good thing or a bad thing.

Whenever I've flown out of Luton airport, we've parked the car at the long stay and taken the bus to the departures hall. But Marc had to go round the round abouts several times before we figured out where to drop me. As I exited the car and unloaded the suitcases from the boot, I dropped the book I was carrying and it started to rain. I was trying to kiss the children and my husband goodbye, pull 2 small suitcases and keep the book and magazine from getting wet whilst trying to get the hood of my coat over my head and stay out of the way of impatient fellow travelers more eager than I invading the space behind me. I could hear the frustration in their sighs. I nearly started to cry. What was I doing? Why was I doing this? This was crazy and I had clearly lost the plot.

I entered the safety of the departures hall and found comfort in the predictability of an airport. I know what to do when I see an arrow pointing at Departures. I approached the desk, handed the small man with the perfect haircut my passport (photo id, not because I was leaving a country) and the boarding card I had printed out at home. I heaved one suitcase on to the belt becoming aware that my carry on was much heavier than my checked luggage which seemed wrong on so many levels.

I received my boarding pass back and made my way to the departure lounge to wait. I had managed to get a pretty good deal on my flight from EasyJet and I was trying to focus on the positive aspects of money saved as it became clear that the scheduled time of departure was clearly not going to be met. I don't know why I always expect EasyJet to do as they say they will. They never have in the past so why should they start that day?

Amazingly, despite a 30 minute delay in boarding the passengers, everyone was on board and we headed north landing 15 minutes before our scheduled arrival time. Clearly we passed through some space and time continuum because we almost landed before we took off with no time zone changes. Or I had already lost touch with reality and all concept of time, which is entirely possible.

There is only one building at Inverness Airport, one gate, one luggage carousel, one Starbucks (hurrah!). I had a 4 hour wait for my bus to Ullapool so I made myself comfy and immersed myself in technology fully aware that before nightfall I would be off the grid. Where I was headed had no mobile phone reception, no wi fi, no internet, no connection to the wider world other than a landline phone which I was entirely convinced I still knew how to use.

I lost track of time in twitter, facebook, hotmail, text messaging, my book, my magazine, my thoughts, my head. With about 30 minutes to go before the bus departure I decided to enquire about where and how I might purchase a bus ticket to Ullapool at the Information booth. Politely, the lady informed me that I couldn’t get there from here. My nervous breakdown was unfolding before her very eyes as I realised it was a very real possibility that I would miss the only transport that day to Lochinver and the gateway to my dreams.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Volcano

Dear Iceland, we said 'send Cash'.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Talking in Cars

Could someone please explain to me why it is dangerous to talk on a mobile phone using a hands free kit but not dangerous to have a conversation with a passenger in your car?

Just asking.......

Saturday, 10 April 2010

A Good List

Some nights, can't sleep, I draw up a list,
Of everything I've never done wrong.
To look at me now, you might insist
My list could hardly be long,
But I've stolen no gnomes from my neighbor's yard,
Or struck his dog, backing out my car.
Never ate my way up and down the Loire
On a stranger's credit card.
I've never given a cop the slip,
Stuffed stiffs in a gravel quarry,
Or silenced Cub Scouts on a first camping trip
With an unspeakable ghost story.
Never lifted a vase from a museum foyer,
Or rifled a Turkish tourist's backpack.
Never cheated at golf. Or slipped out a blackjack
And flattened a patent lawyer.
I never forged a lottery ticket,
Took three on a two-for-one pass,
Or, as a child, toasted a cricket
With a magnifying glass.
I never said "air" to mean "err," or obstructed
Justice, or defrauded a securities firm.
Never mulcted—so far as I understand the term.
Or unjustly usufructed.
I never swindled a widow of all her stuff
By means of a false deed and title
Or stood up and shouted, My God, that's enough!
At a nephew's piano recital.
Never practiced arson, even as a prank,
Brightened church-suppers with off-color jokes,
Concocted an archeological hoax—
Or dumped bleach in a goldfish tank.
Never smoked opium. Or smuggled gold
Across the Panamanian Isthmus.
Never hauled back and knocked a rival out cold,
Or missed a family Christmas.
My list, once started, continues to grow,
Which is all for the good, but just goes to show
It's the good who do not sleep.


Brad Leithauser, poet

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Little Plastic Bits

This time of year I venture into the depths of my children's assorted toy boxes, drawers, closets, caves and caverns for a good spring clean. I try to match all the games and puzzle pieces to the right boxes. Anything that can't be match gets thrown in the bin. Anything that the children have outgrown (or that I find just too annoying) gets either thrown in the bin (if I don't want to risk annoying countless other parents) or put in a big black bin bag headed for the charity shops.

I have discovered an uncanny talent which my son possesses. He showed a penchant for this talent at quite an early age. I'm wondering if there is any way to make any money with this talent. Oh perhaps not!

This son of mine cannot remember to put his dirty underpants in the laundry basket. He cannot remember what I ask him to do once he leaves the room I am not in. He has the memory of a newt.

Unless you are asking him which toy this little piece (smaller than a fingernail) of orange coloured plastic goes with. Or this turquoise square? Or this yellow tube?

He knows exactly which toy every stray piece of plastic goes with. He will tell me "It's the base that goes with that grey Transformer that was missing the arm that you threw away last spring clean." How does he remember that. I picked up this little clear yellow plastic bit and he identified as as belonging to a toy we threw out over 3 years ago.

My daughter is also displaying similar tendencies when we started on her closet. Are we all born with this? Do we then grown out of it? Are my children the only children that do this? Can we make money from this?

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Another Day, Another Museum

It is the Easter school holidays so the challenge is to keep 2 children busy without them killing me, me killing them, or them killing each other. In predictable English tradition, the school holidays begin and the heavens open up and the rain falls. Do NOT underestimate the scale of this challenge.

Our desitination this time was the Museum of London to which I turned for my salvation. As we were traveling with a rather large group I was determined not to make that classic marble mistake again! We had organised a small group of 5 boys (ages 8-9) and our wee little Abigail to descend all at once. What could possibly go wrong.

We caught the train and so far so good. We got a bargain basement group ticket for 4 adults and 5 children for only £13 more than it cost for just us 4 to go a few weeks ago. How exactly does that work? I am reminded of that line in the film Sleepless in Seattle where the little boy asks the little girl how much it costs to go to NYC. The little girl replies, "I don't know. No one knows."

I have discovered that train travel with boisterous children is a sure fire insurance policy for securing an empty carriage. People started to head towards the empty seats in our direction, heard the noise, and promptly retreated. Woo Hoo!

We were greeted upon entering the Museum and given maps and told of the day's events. Soon after Merja & William joined us and we were shown the various children's challenges and duly picked up each and every one of them. Abigail and I broke off from the group of boys to follow the medieval London tour which was incredibly informative and captivating.


We took a break for lunch and despite our best attempts to get the children engaged back into the swing of the museum they were a group of boys in desperate need of a run about. We headed for the Barbican. In typical English luck the rain started pouring down just as we headed outside. It stopped raining as soon as we were under cover of the play ground and then started again when we went to enter the park. Once again we ran for cover in the coffee shop at the Barbican.

We went home a bit soggier but with an enhanced appreciation of the Museum of London and Barbican and swore to return on a less wet grey day!

PS The Museum of London is completely free!

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

British Museum

A few weeks ago during the school half term, Marc and I took the children to the British Museum. I'd heard all sorts of rumours that this was allegedly the best museum in the world and I wanted to be the judge of that myself.

I also have a fairly strong opinion about how the British came to have of this stuff to put in the museum. Basically, the Brits went round the world pillaging and plundering all the great civilisations in every corner of the globe and brought home the best bits. The British Museum was built for the express purpose of showing the world these ill gotten gains.

The defenders of the museum will tell you they've got paper work for it all. Yeah, right! And pigs fly.....I didn't want any part of that.

My curiosity (and the children nagging) got the better of me. With my morals well and truly compromised, we set off for the day.

We headed straight for The Hamlyn Library in the museum which has numerous sets of trails and challenges designed for various age groups and they are all free. They not only teach the children about many items in the museum but also how to navigate a museum and scrutinise historical objects. They learned how to translate Latin (always a useful skill?). They even got to handle some objects under the watchful but not too over protective eye of a museum volunteer. Abigail can tell you all about an alabaster pot which held kohl for Egyptian eye makeup.

We worshipped the stone statue lifted from Easter Island. Seb sketched the remains of a sculpture of a roman foot in a sandal. Abigail copied the names of the busts of the Greek gods. They thrilled a woman with their knowledge of the countries of Africa (and taught us a thing or two).

I stood in awe at the Rosetta stone as I gained a better understanding of just how incredibly valuable this piece of history was in helping us to uncover the mysteries of long forgotten languages and how this has led mankind to a greater capability in translating all different texts.

As the long day drew to an end and we had seen just about all we had the energy for, Marc reminded me that we still hadn't seen the Elgin marbles. Oh yeah.....I'd always wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The Brits took these marbles from Greece a couple hundred years ago at the height of their empire building. Of course, Greece was taking very good care of them before they were taken away since they were being used as a gun powder store. But I didn't understand what that all meant.

We walked into a room and on every wall was a stone sculpture. Marc started reading the exhibit in front of us. I patiently reminded him that we were at the end of the day and if we wanted to see the marbles we should probably get a move on. Marc looked at me like I had gone completely bonkers, an expression he has perfected over the years. I gently reminded him that our highest priority right at this moment were to see the marbles. Exasperated he pointed to the four walls surrounding us and said "See!"

Oh.....but I thought marbles were little round spherical things that little boys played with in a circle on the ground and carried around in little leather bags.

No, of course not. The sculptures were taken from the walls of The Parthenon. This article can tell you specifically what they are. And this link will show you some incredible photographs of these precious treasures. Just wished I'd looked at these before I'd made a right idiot out of myself.

No matter how these treasures were acquired, they are housed here with incredible care. The museum is free. The curators take care to ensure that everyone gets the most out of their visit: adults and children alike. Our school's half term was a week earlier than everyone else's so we practically had the museum to ourselves. The only disappointment was the tea in the cafe but I can overlook that.

The children got some fantastic certificates with their names on them for completing a couple of the challenges. Everyone is still laughing about my interpretation of the marbles. And I will definitely be going back to the British Museum. Sod the morals! And the marbles.