March 31, 2011

Sartorial Drama


Occasionally being a lazy, careless, indecisive slob is worthwhile.  I belong to the Ramblers * and more often than not when their magazine plonks through the mail slot there’s a sale offer of something of interest to walkers included.  This winter there was a flyer for waterproof parkas, always a subject of deep interest to someone who hurtles hounds every day in frequently-soggy Hampshire.  I tend to burn—or sog—through parkas kind of quickly.**  The current one is starting to look like Pernicia’s spell in the run up to Rosie’s*** one-and-twentieth birthday, and the frelling zipper died about two years ago, and while this is mostly not a big deal since the snaps still work, it IS a big deal in a monsoon headwind.   So I looked at the special-price-for-Ramblers parkas.  And I looked, and I dithered, and I looked, and I dithered, and by the time I decided that the hot raspberry one was the one for me†—well, maybe—the offer had expired.  Oh well, I thought.

            That was now several months ago.  The current zipperless parka is letting the rain in pretty freely at this point.  I really do need a new parka.

            Today I was taking Peter—and me—to Tabitha, my Bowen [massage] lady.  I’ve been trying to persuade Peter to try her again for months, and in his current post-fall bruised and weakened state I barely had to get out the handcuffs and the flails.  But we both had errands to run in Mauncester first.  I went to the Outdoor Stuff shop and looked at parkas.  There were lots of parkas.  There were black parkas and white parkas.  Once upon a time I would have instantly snabbled a black parka, but that was before I lived in town with a hellhound named Darkness for cause.  I want the cars to see me.  And white . . . oh, glory, I can’t face a white parka.  I would fall down in the mud even more often than I do, in a white parka. 

            There were green parkas.  There were blue parkas.  There were purple parkas.  There were green, blue and purple parkas.

            None of them was what I wanted.  The sleeves were too short, the pockets were too small, the belts were disgusting and the fake fur was worse.  Also, approximately half of all women’s parkas are cut from some other design than the way the female human body is actually shaped, but you can’t always tell this till you get the offending object off the hanger and draped over your female human body.††

            I didn’t have much time;  we’d got off later than planned ††† and Tabitha would be waiting.  I was having a last sprint through the shop when a flash of something raspberry caught my eye.  No, no, it won’t be.

            It was.  It was the only one in the shop, it was at the back of a row of fashionable, mud-attractant ecru parkas . . . and it was in my size.  This doesn’t happen.

            It was also still flaunting its full-price tag.  Rats.  But the faded-mushroom coloured ones were all on sale, so I took it hopefully to a clerk and he buzzed the tag through the system, and it came back with a price better than the Ramblers deal last winter.  Careless slobbishness rules.  Wheeeeeee.  So I bought it and shot back to Wolfgang.  Where Peter was already waiting (of course).‡

            And this system of going to Tabitha together is great.  I sat in Tabitha’s frighteningly clean and beautifully decorated sitting room for an hour while Tabitha worked Peter over like a bowl of recalcitrant bread dough and I knitted.‡‡ 

* * *

* Although to my embarrassment I’ve never been on one of their walks.  I’ve told you this before, haven’t I?  The Hampshire group is lively and active and hellhounds and I regularly cross paths with a Rambler hike.  When we first moved into town I thought of trying—meant, in fact, to try—going out with the Ramblers.  The previous generation of hellhounds were elderly by then and only wanted a mild stroll around the block any more;  I was on my own.  But I never got around to it, partly because I was feeling pretty wretchedly anti-social after the move^ and partly because Peter among others told me it would make me nuts because of course they pretty much have to go at the pace of their slowest walker—or you spend a lot of time waiting around at checkpoints.  Which would make me nuts.  And now, of course, there are hellhounds.  Who are used to travelling at my clip, except when they’re going faster than the speed of sound—and I’m standing there muttering the mantra, they will come back.  They will come back.

            But I remain a bit wistful about the Ramblers.  I belong because I support their work in keeping the countryside healthy and open to walkers, but I also still read the magazine, and the Hampshire schedule.

^ I am very grateful for the irresistableness of those noisy bells two garden walls over from the cottage.

** And I don’t, myself, find that the re-waterproofing or de-clogging or whatever it’s supposed to be, of old parkas all that effective.  Although with the accumulation of bramble-slashes and what-the-hell-was-that-fence-post-doing-there climbing-over-stile ripped-out seams it’s usually pretty moot after two or three years.

*** I had a very sweet email from a reader a few days ago who said all the right things for several gratifying paragraphs and then ends saying that she wishes I’d write more tall awkward heroines.  That besides Harry in SWORD, they’re all small.  They what?  Sylvi is the only little one.  The rest are all middling-tall to gigantic—Rosie is another whopper, like Harry, and [semi spoiler alert] Cecily is not merely big enough to pass convincingly, she also picks up her wounded friend and walks away with her—and granted I’m 58 years old and have ME, but I would not want to have to lift Hannah in my arms.  Tall and awkward is what I do.^

            This is one of those GAAAAAAH CANNOT WIN moments.  Here I was so pleased to have Sylvi, who is finally short.^^ 

^ Or at least awkward.  The only unawkward ones—Beauty in ROSE DAUGHTER, Lissar in DEERSKIN, and Rosie’s friend Peony—are that way because the plot requires it.  I had to sort of not think about this when I was writing about them.  Gracefulness and I are strangers.

^^ If I ever get the story written, the woman sitting by the pool in Aerin’s vision is short.

† You’re saying, there was a hot raspberry and I didn’t immediately know it was for me?  Well—no.  There was also a very nice lilac which was considerably cheaper. 

†† I am normal, aren’t I?  Aren’t I?

††† Something to do with hellhounds and lunch 

‡ Peter is always on time.  I am always late.  This is the sort of thing you don’t realise till after you’re married.

‡‡ And gloated.  Although I’m dreading tomorrow, and examining my prize more closely, and discovering the large purple ink stain, the scorch mark, and/or the torn-off hem where the Hound of the Baskervilles almost got the official store tester of new clothing.  The zipper works though.

Little teeny demonstrations of progress


I spent most of Saturday knitting.  Well, it gave me an alternative excuse for red, burning eyes* and at least at the very plain beginner knitting level I’m still doing it’s soothing.    Nothing matters but that next stitch-loop, and the one after that, and the one after that, and they’re so cute, as the neat little things line up on your needles,** and so orderly***, as row piles up on row.  The appearance, however illusory, of control, plan, system, is part of the comfort.  I wrote this to a non-knitting friend† who is something of a science/medical geek, who wrote back that as it happened she’d just been reading AN ACTUAL SCIENTIFIC STUDY of knitting and the release of endorphins:  it’s the small precise repetitive motion that drugs us silly.††  The knitting world, by a casual glance at google, is apparently well aware of this connection anecdotally.  I still don’t recommend knitting and chocolate simultaneously:  they may rub off on each other to mutual disadvantage.

            But I’m fascinated at this acquisition of another new skill:  this one is so much more methodical than, say, singing.  I think I may have said this before:  the hellhound blanket squares are in pretty fat yarn, so-called ‘chunky’, and on 6 mm needles.  When I started of course this was quite fiddly and scary enough . . . and when I leaped somewhat too quickly to my first Secret Project on 4 mm needles it was total moan and bane and horrible crooked knotty things.  Then I made it worse by adding a new yarn to Secret Project #1 that had BOBBLES on it.  I did not, of course, realise that they were, you know, REAL bobbles.  I thought they were just flecks of colour.  Nooooo.  When I got them home and cast them on the needles the ghastly reality was revealed.  Bobbles.  After struggling through a square of that diabolical stuff the ordinary smooth 4 mm is positively feasible.  And then . . .

            Okay.  I need to hang photos.  Among other things I need to demonstrate to doubters that I am not indulging in my bent for fantasy:  the (various) squares are mounting up.  But I’m not going to do it tonight.†††  For one thing, I want a little time for knitting before I go to bed. 

* * *

* Must get some better lighting sorted out for my standard chair at the mews.  At the cottage my knitting locations seem already to have suitable lighting but at the mews I’m mostly either at the computer or the piano.^

^ Hellhounds occasionally try to run between my legs in such a manner as to make me fall on the sofa but this hasn’t been working very well.  And yet I’ve still got some operas stored on the TV.  Supposing I remembered how to turn it on.  Supposing the storage machinery hasn’t been eaten by moths or grey nanobot goo.

             I am occasionally nostalgic for the bad old days of three or four TV stations, when all you had to do was turn on the power and lo!, there was a rerun of Wonder Woman or Leave It to Beaver, right there on the screen.  There was no 437-button remote and yes, you did have to get up to change the channel, but that meant channel-surfing hadn’t been invented yet.  There was no forty pages of on-screen menu, including the page of instructions and inexplicable acronyms.  In America the stuff just came beaming in, over here you were (and are) expected to pay a relatively minimal yearly TV license fee—and the stuff still just came beaming in.  Only weird people had satellite—only the wealthy and/or obsessed paid proper money for TV.   There were only 9,813 ways for everything to go horribly wrong, instead of several gazillion, most of them involving long queues on the telephone to your ginormous corporate personal beam provider whose customer service centre is located on several of the larger of Saturn’s moons, and attended by inadequately trained aliens with a rudimentary grasp of all human language, which does not seem to include English at all.  You didn’t use to have to have a frelling password to watch TV.+

           I think that the pinnacle of the home entertainment system happened somewhere in the mid-80s, when using  VCRs stopped being slightly more complex than a combination of the Large Hadron Collider and the Tardis, and before two billion channels became the norm++ and you were obliged to develop a close personal relationship with an electronic negotiation consultant whom you need to answer questions at those times when the telemetry to Saturn’s moons is down. +++ 

            I was originally thinking that I might finally get back to watching TV—I’m sure hellhounds can learn not to lie on my knitting.=  But maybe I’ll just stick to knitting.

+ Passwords:  the Unacknowledged True Destroyer of the Modern World and Civilisation as We Have Known It.  Global warming?  No.  Terrorism?  No.  Cheap nasty acrylic yarn?  No.  The real villain is the  malign proliferation of passwords.  I think passwords may be the grey goo of urban myth. 

++of which no less than 51% by contract are home shopping networks, which does offer some relief to someone wanting dragons or the Doctor. 

+++At least one chronometric exception to stopping in the mid-eighties must be made:  Buffy.  Buffy is necessary. 

= Okay, not sure sure 

** Supposing they are neat, which is still a somewhat aggrieved issue.  

*** See previous footnote 

† Yes I do have them.  And I’m planning on keeping them. 

†† It’s also supposed to be a good defense against arthritis and rheumatism, which would be me^—also Alzheimer’s.  Mmm.  There’s Alzheimer’s in my biological family, and I have friends who’ve nursed Alzheimer’s relatives, so I’m most emphatically not being offhand about Alzheimer’s, which may be the ugliest, most horrible disease ever, or is anyway in the top three.  But have you noticed the way ‘prevents Alzheimer’s’ has become a buzz phrase?  Chocolate, champagne, fantasy novels, singing, hellhounds, they all prevent Alzheimer’s.  There are periodic little flurries in the bell-ringing world about method ringing being a preventative—and there are always the sad rebuttal stories about the multiple-surprise-peal ringers who nonetheless developed Alzheimer’s.  I don’t know if anyone has done a statistical comparison between incidence of Alzheimer’s in method ringers and the rest of the population however. 

^ While I was poking around for mentions of knitting and endorphins, I wandered across several sites about overcoming depression—knitting again is cited for the repetitive motion thing:  it should include the fact that your repetitive motion produces something, which is to say, knitting, but I didn’t read that far—and was reminded that a favourite folk remedy for depression is potatoes.  So long as you don’t eat so many that you get depressed about the whole new wardrobe you have to buy.  I had to go off potatoes and tomatoes—another notorious health food—a few years ago when menopause began to bite, and rheumatism with it.  Works a treat.  I don’t know if it’s permanent or merely a staver-off for some years, but I’ll take what I can get.  But menopause with its hormonal havoc is also when my depressive tendency went from something I knew was there to full-blown I’m-not-at-all-sure-this-is-worth-it, and the chief thing that kept me putting one foot in front of the other for about three years was the hope that it was menopause and would go away.  Which it mostly has.  But potatoes weren’t an option if I wanted to go on using my hands and walking on my feet.  And that’s aside from the fact that your frelling metabolism shuts down with menopause too, and chances are you can’t afford the calories.  I certainly couldn’t.  Unless, of course, I wanted to buy a whole new wardrobe.  Which I didn’t.+  Menopause:  one of life’s little practical manifestations of killer irony.   

+ You know those periodic la-la-land stories about people who claim not to eat at all—this is usually in aid of being at perfect one with the planet and not having to murder things to survive—if any of them is a menopausal woman, I might just believe her.  

††† And probably not tomorrow night either.  I don’t want to frighten the non-knitters, who seem to be a much twitchier bunch than, say, non-singers, non-bell-ringers, non-rose-growers, and non-owners-of-hellhounds.  Feh.

Crying in Your Beer


I had a rather emotional voice lesson today.  I wasn’t at all sure how—or maybe I should say whether—it was going to go at all, and I briefly thought about cancelling.  The problem with a Monday appointment is that you don’t have twenty-four hours’ standard business lead time in which to cancel,* and you feel like such a jerk ringing up first thing Monday morning**.  Second . . . I did not in fact want to cancel, I just wanted not to make a complete dork of myself, and I wasn’t sure if singing without dorkification was an option.  What I have been finding over the weekend is just how rooted in your life your voice is.  I know:  duh.  I am someone for whom music is a very emotional experience—indeed I find it difficult to comprehend how anyone can not find music an emotional experience:  I feel that they must just not have found the right music yet.  And I have spent many many hours in my life playing recordings and crying, and more recently playing the piano and crying has been a not-unknown response to stress and sorrow.  But dear gods and gremlins, singing when you have lumps in your throat and knots in your stomach is eviscerating.  There was a moment on Saturday when I thought I might literally fall down.  So I sat down instead.  Hastily.  And waited for the world to stop spinning.  Nothing wrong with my breath control (such as it is).  No, this is about making contact with the lumps and knots.  I’m sharply aware of the physical herding-cats aspect of Yourself as Instrument but . . . dumb as this is, no, I wasn’t really expecting the instant sizzling zap to my emotional reality.***

            But I remembered Nadia saying that there’d been a rough stretch in her life when she’d go in to her voice lesson, take a deep breath, open her mouth . . . and start crying.  So I went.  And it was okay.  It was not great, but it was okay.

            But as I said:  I did not, in fact, want to cancel.  Life goes on, you know?  Which is chiefly what I wanted to say to you tonight.  Any of you—and that will be most if not all of you—who have lost someone† dear and important will know that the world changes irrevocably as a result, and that getting used to that change—which is to say grieving—takes a remarkably long time and, frankly, is never complete.  The person-shaped hole that your friend leaves is a unique shape and no one and nothing can fill it but them.††  The other thing that happens with every loss is that all your other incompletely-adjusted-to losses come back and sodding mob you.  Gah.  And the indispensible ones you’re thinking about every day anyway.†††  Sorry, but I think this life and death system sucks really, really big hairy tentacled Lovecraftian monsters, and first I want a refund and second I want to be in admin next time around because I’m sure this frelling system could be improved on.

          Meanwhile I’m going to try to return you to your regularly scheduled programme.            

          Tonight, for example, Peter was playing bridge and Penelope was out being a theatre critic, so I bought Niall a beer on the way home from tower practise at Glaciation.  I’ve been thinking, he said earnestly.  You said that Wild Robert was offering to bribe us with handbells.‡  Yes, I said warily:  there was a look in Niall’s eye that I know means trouble.  I’m sure, said Niall, blinking rapidly to prevent me from reading the secret agenda stamped on his retinas,  that the reason Wild Robert is trying to bribe us is because he really wants to ring Cambridge minor on handbells.  So do you suppose you could learn . . .

* * *

* Dentist from R’lyeh requires three days.  This totally freaked me out when my Nice Normal Dentist first sent me there saying that she could no longer cope with the disaster level, but to give Dentist from R’lyeh credit^, they have it on my record that I have ME, and if I ring up and say I’m wobbly and can’t risk dental anaesthesia today/tomorrow they say, now you take care of yourself, do you want to reschedule now or later?   It doesn’t really surprise me that a dentist that demands you deposit a gold ingot at the door every time you cross his threshold—and that’s before you get the bill—has to be a bit strict about compliance.  But is it only the state of the economy that has everyone who ever submits an invoice stamping it with large red letters pay this in the next thirteen and a half minutes or we’ll kidnap your dogs?  Peter says yes, it is, that small businesses are all suffering cash flow problems.  I keep thinking it’s also a plague of rudeness.   I’m feeling a bit testy about the bill I got from the electricians a few days ago:  these are the electricians who didn’t answer four phone calls in a fortnight, took another fortnight to do what they promised in a week, then took three weeks to send me a bill . . . which demands that I pay it within two weeks or they’ll sell me into slavery. 

^ much as this pains me+

+ ha ha ha ha ha

** Supposing you were awake first thing Monday morning 

*** I also have some fuzzy, inchoate thoughts about the linkage between talent and its practical manifestation.  However good or mediocre I am on an absolute artistic standard, I have a professional-level writing talent.  In practise this means that the strength of the talent itself will drag me through some pretty rough stuff, both stuff happening in my life and stuff happening in the story, which I have to try to make work, with whatever skills I have available, on the page.  While I’m beginning to feel rather cranky about the decades of amateur choir singing I’ve missed, I do not have a professional-level musical talent, and I wonder if this means my singing—or my piano playing—is more likely to be derailed by stuff just because it is itself weaker?   Does anyone else have a strong talent—it doesn’t have to be a standard ‘artistic’ one, just something that taps into what you know to be your own personal individual selfness, which is what usually gets called creativity—that will ride the big stuff, and some smaller talent/creative activity which is tapping into the same place in your self but isn’t as suited to who you are, which is to say you’re not as good at it (whatever good means), which goes to pieces when you do?  —Told you they were inchoate.  But if anyone follows any of the above, and has a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, I’d be interested to hear.

            I’m also very curious about how much more disintegrative singing is for me than piano playing.  Is it just the Yourself as Instrument aspect?  Or that I’ve been playing the piano for longer?  I know there are volatile, ardent, not to say temperamental, instrumentalists out there whose emotional reality, whatever it is, is heightened by musical expression.  But I was pretty shaken by just how directly the zap happened, singing:  like lightning striking a tree.  Smell of burning Robin.

† And of, I wish to add, whatever species.   Love and grief are not restricted to humans. 

†† Which is why getting a new puppy or a new rescue critter or a new horse is because you want to have dogs or cats or horses or guinea pigs or boa constrictors in your life, not because it’s a replacement for the one(s) you lost.  There are no replacements.  Loss is absolute. 

††† I want to die before Hannah.  It doesn’t have to be a lot before, and she can be in a coma in the next bed over at the old folks’ home.  Still.  I want to be first. 

‡ Have I told you this story?  I may not have told you this story.  Ask me tomorrow.  Or some time.



I’ve spent a lot of the last two days in the garden.*  The weather has been heavenly, and dirt and sunlight are therapeutic.  Today is a bit more of a heavy slog than it was going to be anyway because I managed to forget that the clocks were due to go forward.  In my extremity last night I was actually talking to a friend on the phone—I’m allergic to telephones—and congratulating myself on retaining sufficient presence of mind to remember I had to go to bed in time to get up and ring bells this morning . . . and after we rang off and the darkness was starting to close in on me again, some irritatingly chirpy bloke on the radio said, Remember, the clocks go forward tonight!  It is now ten past an hour later than you thought! **


            Furthermore I’d promised to ring for evening service at Crabbiton, which is suffering an unusually high percentage of ringer injuries, illnesses, and assorted hors de combat.  I was inclined to grumble about the time indoors and away from my garden(s), but I brought my camera*** and . . . there’s not a lot of the Christian bible that speaks to me, but ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help’ feels like a warm blanket when I’m colder than sorrow. 

fine tilth for sowing. You can see the streaks of Hampshire chalk.

* * *

Sorry about the less than perfect focus. My camera wants me to tell it something when it's supposed to be focussed on 'infinity' and I haven't figured out what yet.

* Diana was a gardener.  Her garden is tiny, like mine, but she too grew roses.    

            She was growing roses when I was still living in Maine with two granite boulders nearly as large as the house occupying what would have been the back garden if there hadn’t been boulders instead, and thinking of roses as annuals.  Diana liked my boulders—most people liked my boulders:  they were pretty spectacular—but a good deal of Down East village life was as alien to her as . . . Hampshire village life was to me a few years later.  I could feel my face settling into similar lines of awe and disbelief when confronted by an especially gnomic utterance or you-made-that-up-right? local custom—and I thought of Diana in Blue Hill.  I’ve told you the story of Peter handing me a basket at the greengrocer’s, the day I arrived in England after our mad this-is-the-beginning-of-the-rest-of-your-life weekend in Maine, and suggesting I pick out some oranges?  And I stood in the middle of the floor clutching the basket and thinking frantically, Oranges?  Oranges?  This is EnglandI don’t know how to pick out oranges in England!  —Something very similar happened to Diana when I took her to Merrill & Hinckley, the grocery-and-everything-else store in Blue Hill, which is a bit notorious for its Ye Olde American feel—Natty Bumppo and Paul Bunyan in aisle eight.  At the time she and I thought it was funny—but then Diana was going home again in a few days.  (I didn’t tell Peter about the oranges for years.

            Diana was recklessly brave to be going anywhere.  Her travel jinx was legendary.  That first trip to Maine she got off relatively lightly:  the airline merely lost track of the fact that she was on one of its planes heading for Bangor (and she didn’t even know this:  I was the one having the nervous breakdown) and it took two days for her suitcase to be located on the carousel in Tashkent and sent back to us.  But it’s perfectly true:  buying toiletries in an unknown and clearly unknowable culture (especially one that has just eaten your suitcase and has blue livestock in aisle eight) is very unsettling.   

           Years ago now, but after I’d married Peter and become a gardener too, Diana had been ill, and I gave her a gift certificate for David Austin Roses as a get-well present.  She bought three Golden Celebrations.  They’re like small golden suns, she wrote me. 

            Once when I was there this winter, there were several new, dormant roses in pots on the front step, recently bought, waiting for a day anyone could bear to be outdoors in, to go in the ground.  May they and every other rose already in her garden bloom more than any roses ever have, this summer, in her honour.

** I was, however, on time.  Niall was late.

*** Who needs a name.  I’m thinking.

Diana Wynne Jones


As most of you already know—the news went viral with incredible speed—Diana died this morning.  Quietly, at home. 

            . . . I keep sticking at this point.  I know I want to tell you about Diana—about my Diana.  I’ve known her since we were both Greenwillow authors in the early 80s.  Although our friendship has had long hiatuses due to illness and evil technology—her computer karma makes me look like a Silicon Valley geek—and my self-sabotaging default position that my friends have better things to do than talk to me, she’s been one of my favourite people for thirty years. 

            I also know I don’t want to talk about her today.  Probably not tomorrow either.

            Everyone leaves a themselves-shaped hole when they go, and we all feel it, whether we know or recognise the individual holes or not.  No one is an island, as John Donne almost said, each human death diminishes me.  But Diana was a bigger piece of the promontory than most.  This is not the same world without her in it.

            And I’m sure you’ll forgive me if I stop there.

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