Monday, August 31, 2009

The Days Thou Gavest....

Well.....that's the summer hols over for another year, and needless to say I am riven with guilt about not appreciating it more at the time blah blah blah. As per usual. Actually it was great: I loved every moment of our foreign sojourn. The fact that we've been to the same mediterranean island for the past six years (...I know - how predictable) lent the strange illusion that the total weeks spent on vacation had consolidated into one six-week long visit, and by the end of our second day we could not believe that we'd only been there a mere 48 hours. So we ate and drank and sunbathed far more than would be deemed good for our bodies, but it was immensely healing and nourishing to the soul - and that's what holidays are all about. But back to this grey and bickering small island with its cold drizzle and unappetising diet......We are already planning our next escape.
At the moment, I feel quite tired out and unenthused about rejoining the fray: the Bright-Eyed Boy returns to school later this week, leaving daughter #3 and myself to make a few desultory trips for new school uniform before she goes back next week. Then I am on my own again, facing the HUGE responsibility of becoming a full-time, fully-funded PhD student at the beginning of October. Ulp! (That, and daughter #2's wedding which is scheduled for a fortnight's time) No doubt I'll perk up once relieved of my quotidien maternal resposibility. Perhaps I should buy some new stationery goods to symbolise my new 'start'. I remember from my schooldays that a new pencil-case and jotter always seemed to promise a new, improved term-time identity, a new commitment to study and enthusiasm. I was always baffled by those who chose to cling on to their scruffy old pencil-cases and eschewed new goods: were they deliberately embracing asceticism as a style-choice or simply unable to appreciate the frisson generated by minor self-indulgence? Probably neither - they just weren't as neurotic as me, and no doubt their lives have gone on to be models of rectitude and fiscal commonsense.
I was mesmerised in the outbound airport by a rack of Moleskine goods of every size. Had I not been going on my holidays (rather than returning from them) I would no doubt have plundered the display for another large floppy-back 18-month diary (week per page). I've been using one of these for over a year now and am very conscious that it runs out at Christmas and I haven't seen one locally. I love it: it's now covered in my erratic handwriting in various different inks and is full of useful website addresses, quotes, references and bibliographic essentials. My supervisor expressed a modicum of surprise that I 'did everything longhand'. I don't - at least not 'proper' work -but I've never mastered the art of cyber-notes - where do they all go? Everything that has caught my imagination or attention is there to see and, most usefully, I can usually visualise a particular item's whereabouts on the page or pen-colour which makes its retrieval much easier than snatching it back out of the ether. It is a real vade mecum, a commonplace, a forum, a repository of knowledge, ideas and the springboard of thought. And much as I love the functionality and range of my laptop, it will never replace my diary.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Idyll Fears.

Am suspended in that strange no-man's land between 'normal life' and going on holiday. I am feeling a compulsive need for order which saw me up at an unfeasibly early hour cleaning out the bird and hoovering up. The clothes that are washed are being put on one side for ironing and packing, so we're wearing some pretty strange combinations, I just can't -just CAN'T - be relaxed about travelling: I've tried and all that happens is a terrible sensation that I've forgotten something vitally important. Trouble is, I see the whole process as a series of hurdles to be overcome. I start in a state of high tension: the drive to the airport....what happens if we break down or get a flat...or God forbid! have an accident? The flight: did I really check our documentation thoroughly enough? Did the airframe inspectors get distracted at a vital moment? Turbulence? Air traffic computers crash? Will we get our luggage? How are we going to get to the apartment? Will there be a taxi available if our flight is severely delayed? Has the apartment owner double-booked us? Run off with the deposit? Will the whole week see freakish storms and power-cuts? Acute appendicitis anyone? Food poisoning? Jellyfish stings? And then the whole thing in reverse to get home. Ach! Who'd be a control freak?

So until I am actually sunning my wine-numbed carcase like a tide-driven leviathan upon that golden shore, lulled by the lapping waves and the roar of the occasional Airbus, I shall remain Very Ill At Ease Indeed.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Carelessness of Youth

I'm deliberately weaving a little web of happiness around myself today, having finished off a particularly downbeat book in the early hours of dawn. The residue of sadness that overlaid me was almost palpable. Recognising that I can slide off down into the Slough of Despond if I dwell on gloomy thoughts too long, I made a conscious decision to Be Happy, buy little treats and act like a jolly mummy today. And happily it has worked. I feel quite perky, particularly as the weather is sunny and breezy. The dog is happily sunbathing in the garden, the children - tired, but not exhausted from their trip into town - are contentedly sprawling about the house listening to music and drawing. I am not going to do any work today: I've decided to give myself time off to anticipate our trip to foreign shores. I've invested in some clip-on sunglasses (not too hideous) so that I can lie and read on the beach without getting a pounding headache from squinting through my untinted readers (like last year). I am far too stingy to pay out for a pair of prescription sunglasses. I also bought a heavily discounted hat, a man's fedora that is big enough for me to wear even when I've got my hair clipped up, which is absolutely essential as I can't stand having a hot neck. It looks, I have to say, rather stylish - in a 'Sissinghurst' sort of way. Daughter #3 bought a bikini, tiny slivers of material that makes me nostalgic for the days when I too could get away with such minimalist clothing. Daughter #2, having produced #1 Bouncing Baby earlier this year, has been more than a little shocked by the way her previously svelte figure has disappeared under a mass of stretched skin. Ah me!Careless youth passes like a golden shadow over our corporeity, ephemeral gorgeousness that evaporates in so few years.

ἐπάμεροι: τί δέ τις; τί δ᾽ οὔ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ
ἄνθρωπος. ἀλλ᾽ ὅταν αἴγλα διόσδοτος ἔλθῃ,
λαμπρὸν φέγγος ἔπεστιν ἀνδρῶν καὶ μείλιχος αἰών

Creatures of a day! What is a man? What is he not? A dream of a shadow
Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given of Heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory
And blesséd are their days.

Pindar: Pythian 8, line 95-8; (courtesy of Wikiquote)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mild Annoyance at Irritating Bloggers

I generally spend about an hour a day catching up with the blogs that I've got filed under 'favourites': it makes me feel like I am keeping abreast of the work environment even if I'm not putting words down myself. But just recently a couple of them have began to rankle and I'm seriously thinking of knocking them off the list. It's hard to identify the reasons precisely, but it's the same sort of feeling that you get when a colleague's voice starts to get on your nerves and you sit drumming your fingers, waiting for them to get on their favourite hobbyhorse yet again. The intrusion of ego into scholarship, I think. Sure - everyone's got a point of view (and there's nothing duller than a blog detailing field-resources with no personal reflection) - but when that point of view becomes absolute conviction and obscures objectivity......

The older scholars tend to take themselves less seriously, even though they are the ones with greater academic clout, but I suppose that self-deprecating humour comes after years and years of experience and the realisation that the more you think you know, the less you actually do! I have to admit a wry smile when one of these established scholars verbally 'pats' a neophyte on the head: the puppy-like fawning and widdling that follows is most amusing.

Friday, August 7, 2009


The carpet fitter is coming at some point today to fit some new stuff in the hall and landing and on the stairs. Ordinarily the husband would do it himself, but the stairs are that bit more tricky to get right - and more to the point - safe! So I am confined to barracks until the fitting is complete. As usual with tradesmen, there was no indication of any time slot -even whether it would be am or pm, so patience is the name of the game. And I'm bored already.

It will be nice when it's done, but really, I have no interest in soft furnishings, textures, colour schemes and the like. Our house is functional, not an aspirational statement. I spend little time fretting about how it looks or how it will appear to others. What I do care about is the life within its walls, and that that is what should be nurtured and tended. I don't think children particularly care about home decor, although the Bright-Eyed Boy once expressed an interest in 'modern' houses. All they need is a safe, warm, dry, food-filled bolt-hole to curl up in - not sea-grass on the floors and a Smeg fridge.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Incrementality and Jesus Saves

School holidays are actually progressing much more smoothly than last year. Looking back, I think I was feeling pretty tense about the whole PhD thing and the funding thereof. That all came to a nasty head during our week away when daughter #2 decided to let me know (by text) that I'd had a letter from the AHRC. Of course, then I had to know what it said, got her to read it and text me any news "I'm SO sorry...." she started. Great. I was massively disappointed, but couldn't let the others know how I felt, which was really difficult when we were confined in such close quarters. So I pretended I didn't really care, dismissing the whole issue as a mere inconvenience. When we returned home I found out that the scholarships had already been awarded in early June, so no luck there either. All this tension pretty much overshadowed the whole Summer from start to finish. I had the OU course to do, but all the time I was thinking beyond that to possible doctoral study, but couldn't feasibly do anything constructive towards it. I was very ill at ease and this manifested itself in many ways.

This year however I think that I am much more chilled. The children are that little bit older, a little less demanding and tempestuous and I have my 'bolt-hole' where I can go and write for a couple of hours. Plus I have a plan, which always makes me feel positive and cheerful. Everyday I commit to writing for at least a couple of hours - it doesn't matter what I write: even blogging is a useful authorial experience, and hones the compositional skills. Refinement can come later. In the evenings, I spend half an hour brushing up my basic German.

One of the things that I have learnt over the years is the value of small increments. Whatever needs to be done can be done in small chunks that barely impact at all. 'A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step' and all that. Just keep those steps coming and you'll get there remarkably quickly and with minimal effort. This is one of the really useful things that motherhood taught me: it's no good bewailing the lack of time you have when you have small children. Divide your day into 15 minute slots and allot an achievable task to one of those slots. I carried this philosophy through to later my university years: 15 minutes is quite long enough to memorise some vocab, or photostat an article, or source a book, or grab a coffee. Just don't approach life as a monolithic entity: break it down so you can see its constituent tasks, then tackle them one at a time. Don't get overwhelmed: be a serial do-er.

Our 20 pence Jesus bears testimony to the benefits of this approach. He is a garish 9" high pink flock covered plastic statuette, with a slot in his back for coins, bought (with an ironic wink) by daughter #2*. Every time I find a 20 pence piece in my purse I pop it in the slot: I have been doing so since last summer. Just before our trip away, I'm going to empty him out and cash the savings in for Euros. I anticipate there'll be about £40 sterling, enough to buy us a cheap lunch out on holiday. A salutary lesson in the incremental approach.

* she understands my deep fondness of Catholic imagery, even if she doesn't share it!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Moan moan moan....

The weather has been absolutely atrocious recently: persistant heavy drizzle. The children are climbing the walls and I'm not far behind them! Fortunately daughter #3's rowing sessions have provided a focus for many of the days that would otherwise pass in an amorphous blur. At least we've got out! Many acquaintances are feeling the pressure: we've all done the painting/pasting/baking thing to death over the years. Neither we or the kids can tolerate any more make-do-and-mend bargain basement amusement. Intelligent youngsters suck up mental stimulation like sponges, and they won't be fobbed off with substandard offerings. The local museums are dull and patronising even with a well-planned 'treasure hunt' element. Theatre and cinema fare is predictable and overrated, concerts rare and exhorbitant. And you can only read so much in one day! My heart goes out to 'staycationers', those poor fools who thought it would be ironic 'fun' in these economically straitened times to camp or hire a beach hut or stay put and have 'days out'. By the time you've paid the entrance fee and marched a family of four around a good old British attraction in the cold and rain, paid for a few hot drinks and some seriously overpriced slimy sandwiches (or worse than dull, brought your own), you might as well have bitten the bullet and got some cheapy last-minute foreign holiday deal. At least the weather or food actually can't be worse than here, nor the locals less welcoming, nor your teeth less gritted.