Friday, November 29, 2013

Proust questionnaire

Like most girls, I went through a magazine phase when I was younger.  I would read Seventeen, Cosmo, Glamour, later Elle and She.  Their glossy covers were so full of promise.  Inside I would learn to attract boys, perhaps even men, discover the real truth about Cindy Crawford's exercise regime, find out what personality type I possessed and how I could make it work for me.  Not exactly James Joyce, but it was a good way of avoiding writing essays and they were good with tea and biscuits on a rainy day.

Like chocolate bars, they are delicious while you eat them, a lovely sugar rush, but no real nutritional value.  And as I grew older (I can’t say ‘grew up’) I had less time to spend reading articles about self-tanners and Men Who Loved Too Much. I still have a quick peek at Hello! or Marie Claire at the hairdressers but I have moved on to more substantial fare.  A few years ago, I received a subscription to The New Yorker.  I loved it but couldn't really commit to a weekly magazine and they gradually piled up in the corner, berating me when I walked by them.

'Oh, watching television?  You realise you could be learning about something culturally significant, but if you'd rather watch Poirot, I guess it's up to you.'

'Oh, marking essays?  Wouldn't you rather read this Julian Barnes short story?  At least have a quick look at the cartoons.'

And so the pile grew until I finally told my mother not to renew the subscription as the unread issues made me feel inadequate. And sometimes homesick.

There is one magazine I still buy, a nice monthly called Vanity Fair.  It's dishy enough to be a guilty pleasure but you can feel virtuous by reading the financial, newsy articles.  But my favourite part of each issue is on the back page, the Proust Questionnaire, where one random celebrity answers a set of questions.  Apparently pondering such queries used to be a popular pastime among Marcel Proust and his friends and the answers you gave were meant to reveal your true nature. 

Anyone who's read an issue or seen Inside the Actor's Studio will recognize it.   The questions range from 'What is your biggest fear?' to 'On what occasion do you lie?'  It's not that I am especially fascinated by Dolly Parton's personal motto or what living person Stephen King despises.  Rather I am interested in the depth of the answer and (egotistically) whether I have anything in common with them.  I sometimes wonder if the subjects respond quickly, instinctively, or if they take time with their answers.  Some answers are funny (What is your greatest fear? Converting kilometres to miles - David Bowie) and some are revealing (What is your favourite occupation? Eavesdropping - Dustin Hoffman).

The Vanity Fair website has one you can take that will see which luminary's answers most closely matches your own.  It's at  I took it and my closest matches were Eleanor Lampert (a fashion guru I had never heard of, odd match as I am very uninspired in what I wear) and Donald Trump (no idea how that happened!).

I'll leave you with one that made me laugh - What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?  Thinking of the right thing to say—later.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Queen bees and snooty cows

Why were you so concerned? She will find her way.

One of the joys of teaching in a boarding school is Saturday lessons.  Yes, you are at work while most of the adult population has already begun their weekend.  Last year after finishing lessons on a lovely warm Saturday afternoon in September I walked past the garden of another boarding school mum on my way home.  There is a tall wood fence around the garden so I couldn't see anyone but I could hear children giggling and women chatting.  I heard the lady of the house say my name and then say 'that snooty cow'.

I stopped.  I admit I listened outside the fence for longer than I should.  I didn't hear anything else and it would have looked like I was eavesdropping if anyone happened to see me.  I continued home ruminating (see what I did there?) on three important facts:

1. It was definitely the tenant of the house as she has a distinct regional accent.
2. It was very, very likely to be me that she was discussing, as there wasn't anyone else at the school with my first name.
3. It was unlikely to someone else with my first name that she knew in another area of her life because...

It's a bit true.  Well, I don't think it is but I can see why she would think so.  You see, I am a slow burn.  Many of my closest friends have admitted to me that they didn't like me when they first met me.  The explanations ranged from, 'You just seemed really remote' to 'I thought you were kind of a bitch.'  I'm the one at the party staring at the bookshelf or talking to three or four people rather than working the crowd.  Luckily for me, fate threw me together with some lovely, tolerant people who were willing to, or were forced to, get to know me and ended up liking me.  I had a demanding job and two small children, which left me little time or energy to be as outgoing as some of the mums living on the school site.  And I've never needed to occupy the queen bee role, to have lots of friends/minions at my command.

So I wasn't upset at the Snooty Cow sobriquet on that afternoon.  I even contemplated having a t-shirt made up in a cow pattern to wear at the next community coffee morning. 

But as the month went on I noticed the mums and their kids around the school site, riding their scooters down the avenue or going to lunch in the dining hall.  My two were tolerated when they were around, but not invited beforehand.  The mums involved weren't mean but I worried about Big One, who can be a little sensitive, not being part of the group.  I blamed myself.  Maybe I should be friendlier or bolder about getting her included in picnics and playdates.  I did say to one mum that she should bring her girls around one afternoon to play and she looked at me like I had suggested that she run naked through the staff common room at break time while singing Baby Got Back.  While I was fine not being part of the Mummy Mafia, I didn't want Big One to become Snooty Calf.

While considering my approach, I ran into another teacher; he had grown up on site and his mother was a Head of Department at the school when he was younger.  I asked, 'How did your mum put up with this?'  He told me that he was never invited to parties so his mother would just find out when the parties were and send him over with a present.

'She would ring the doorbell and run away, leaving me standing there.'

'What did people say?'

'Oh, they were always pretty nice about the whole thing.'

He gave me a sympathetic look and said, 'The solution is easy.  You have to not care. [Big One] is fine.  She has no idea.'

It was sound advice.  Big One started nursery, got invited to lots of parties and seemed much more confident around other kids.  I can see now that most of my worry came from not wanting her to exhibit the aloofness that sometimes made my childhood painful.  Somewhere inside of us lies the desire to protect our children from making the mistakes that we made.  But we can't do that any more than we can prevent cuts, scrapes or falling off bicycles, and maybe we shouldn't.  Children learn from the mistakes they make, not the ones we make.  Thomas Edison didn't invent the light bulb on his first try and he took a healthy view of the situation, saying, 'I have not failed. I've discovered ten thousand ways which don't work.'  It's the attempt, not the result, that matters more.

And in the end, bees perish after they sting - but cows have very thick skins.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Money, room and a car

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.  Oh, and a reliable mode of transport.

There are certain patterns I've established to make the week flow more efficiently.  The Little One goes to nursery on Tuesday and Friday mornings.  We attend music classes on Monday mornings and do a big food shop on Wednesdays.  If it's raining we go to the library before picking up the Big One, if it's sunny we go to the playground.

One pattern that I am enjoying less and less is what I call 'the Halford's run'.  This is how it works.  After the children go to sleep, I try to get some work done.  About an hour or so into it, I start to get sleepy.  I debate the options; either I keep on working through my tiredness or I go to bed and resolve to work in the morning when I have more energy.  On Monday and Thursday nights I usually choose the latter option, knowing that the Little One will be occupied at nursery.

The next morning is almost always when the car decides to mutiny, like sailors taking advantage of an upcoming storm to prey on the captain's vulnerability.  First it was the cooler leaking, then it was the spark plugs, a few days later the engine light blared yellow which I was told 'could mean anything'.  Turns out it was just toying with me but the car spent most of the day hanging out at Halford's when it could have taken us places.  The car may be able to get Big One to her bus stop and Little One to her nursery, but each morning it becomes less and less certain.  Sometimes the yellow van will have to come to start the car, other times I can nudge it along to Halford's.  The car remains there until it is diagnosed and cured and I have decide what combination of train, bus and foot I will have to use to retrieve the children and get us home.

'Stop whinging and buy a new one.'  A brilliant plan, but buying an automobile is not like grabbing a bottle of wine at Sainsbury's.  Although my husband would likely look askance at my choice of both wine and car, I've only spent about £7 on the Cote du Rhone.  And the bottle is perfectly legitimate as a solitary purchase whilst buying a car involves some thought and bargaining.  It will have to wait until term ends to fill our driveway with something more productive. 

This past week both the car and washing machine went on a tandem strike.  The machine became very possessive of the precious soapy water it was filled with and would not release it.  The car, perhaps feeling neglected and seeking attention like an ignored pet, muttered, 'I can top that.'  It decided on Tuesday morning that the engine light would shine again.  The washing machine repairman was supposed to arrive between 8 and 1 on that very day.  He did not.  Meanwhile the pile of laundry had grown so high that I observed some Sherpas setting up camp at the base, with small binoculars pointing toward the summit, a lone pink sock.   

The answer may be to stop working on the book.  Then these breakdowns would not lead me to lose writing time.  'I'm not working on a book' is how I could respond to people who asked what I did for a living.  But I have a perverse need to finish it, to have something to show for the year.  So I must find other ways to outwit the car.  And the washing machine.  Perhaps the dryer and teakettle too.  But please, please, not the boiler.

I have some money before car repairs and taxi fares devour it all.  I have a room; my husband kindly gave me the study as he has an office at work.  Now all I need is a car that will start consistently.  I don't know if Leonard and Virginia Woolf had a car.  Mrs Dalloway did not have to rely on a Ford Mondeo to get the flowers for her party.  If she had, that novel would read very differently.  The ending would no longer be, 'For there she was.'  Instead, 'Clarissa had not arrived at her party as she was waiting on the taxi queue outside Lancing Station.'

Monday, November 18, 2013

What do you do?

Cleopatra's lips are kissed
while an unimportant wife
writes, 'I do not like my life'
underneath her shopping list.

'So, what do you do?'

I have been asked this question many times in the last few months.  My oldest child just started primary school, which means meeting lots of mums at pickup and children's parties, and my husband just started a new job, which means meeting his new co-workers.  The initial conversations all seem to involve the query about what I do 'for a living'.

It is a difficult question to answer.  I can reply, 'Nothing,' but that response would not be accurate.  I can say, 'I'm taking a career break,' which is a bit closer to the truth, but still implies that I don't do very much. 

The reason for my supposed inactivity is twofold.  My husband's new job meant having to move farther away from the job I had.  I could have commuted, but as our car has recently decided that it doesn't want to work all the time, I am glad I decided not to go that route.  Also, our youngest is still at home and the idea of not having to madly scramble when childcare arrangements fell through seemed more relaxing than the previous mix of pre-school, nursery, part-time nanny and occasional babysitter which led to panicked phone calls and lots of cash spurting from our bank account like the final gushes of oil from a drying well.  So now I am the childcare; the buck stops here.

But a break implies that I am considering other career or educational options.  And I'm not.  I enjoyed my job and I would happily take another one in the same field.  My husband and I both work as teachers but there were no jobs going in my subject area at his new school and there weren't any other jobs available that are part-time and close-by.  As teaching is seasonal, the jobs come in cycles unless a teacher gets sick and they need someone right away.  It seems ghoulish to wish ill upon other teachers, so in the meantime I trying to write a book.

Ah, I can guess what you're thinking.  And that's why I don't respond to 'What do you do?' with 'Oh, I'm working on a book' because I don't want to seem like a pretentious git or a dilettante who needs to sound important.  So if I use this rejoinder, I hope for a follow-up question on what the book is about.  Then I can say that it is a history book and that I have written two others.  I can assure the questioner that they would not have heard of them unless they were especially interested in Irish politics.  And then we're fine.  But if I don't get that follow-up question, I tend to blather on and, if I get bored listening to myself, I can imagine how the poor person I'm talking to must feel.

I could say that I am a 'stay-at-home mum' or a 'homemaker' but these terms bother me and I am not sure why.  The lack of status?  No earning power?  The inability for the person receiving that answer to define you, to figure out something about your personality based on the job you have chosen?  Perhaps it is the silence that sometimes greets that answer, especially from women who do work - the assumption that we will have nothing interesting to talk about from that moment further.  So if I choose that answer, I always feel compelled to add a 'but' to show that I am involved in something else.

My husband reassures me that it will only be for a year, that another job will come along and if it doesn't, there is always the book.  The verse above is a spoof of a W.H. Auden poem called 'The Fall of Rome' and it comes from Alison Lurie's The War Between the Tates.  I read the book a long time ago and have forgotten a lot of it, but I think of that bit of it every so often when I am doing the everyday Sisyphean chores of a household, chores that get completed only to begin again almost the moment they are done.  Sublime revelations out of the mundane.  I hope these posts can provide an outlet for me whilst wading through dry academic material (and piles of laundry) and maybe some mild entertainment for you. 

We'll see, won't we?