Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why I Avoid Horror Movies

As a young girl, I devoured gorey comic books. The more extreme, the better. I read them before the Code of Decency stepped in to protect our young minds from ourselves by cleaning up comics. I was indignant: even then I did not like other people telling me what I could read/think. I had a perfectly balanced system. I read one horror comic followed by one or two Donald Ducks or Classic Comics or other more child-friendly comics. I loved Gyro Gearloose and read Jane Eyre first as a comic book.

I also learned my vampire lore from films such as Dracula and lycanthropy from werewolf movies. I know it was not meant to be educational TV, but I found it very helpful and felt buoyed rather than frightened by it all. I knew about garlic flowers and wood stakes and sunlight and its potent effect on vampires.

Perhaps I could sleep soundly after indulging my imagination in comics and films because I had the faith that adults were in charge of the world and they certainly would keep watch for monsters. Now I am an adult, however, I am painfully aware of how limited my powers of prevention are. I am one of that generation for whom the first chords of the shower sequence of "Psycho" are enough to keep me from showering for weeks (I think I hear someone humming it now. Please don't. I am not exaggerating.)

When my daughter was the same age at which I had enjoyed horror movies, I was obliged to go into another room and put my fingers in my ears. The soundtrack was enough to cue the creepy terrors and leave me jumping at shadows for days.

The only thing more compelling than my terror at seeing such things is my curiosity. If I start watching a film, I must see the end. Sometimes, like Pandora's box, the ending contains the balm for all that went before it. Not always, but the second most compelling thing about me is my steadfast optimism. Well, this time it might have a happy ending. It could. It could. Yep, just like Melina Mercouri laughing at the Greek tragedies in "Never on Sunday", if the stories got too bad I would invent a better ending. This re-working of the ending is only a partial solution, but it got me through "Pan's Labyrinth."

It also got me in to see "The Orphanage," which was "presented" by the same person who had directed "Pan's Labyrinth." In addition to curious and naively optimistic, I am very fond of a good story and Pan's Labyrinth was a good story. Not a happy one, but a good one.

Likewise, "The Orphanage" was a good story. All the details hung together. The characters were fully defined, and the plot moved quickly but carefully to bring the watcher along from the undoubted true to the fantastical and then at last to the all the more real for being fantastical. I loved it with all those parts of my childhood-confident brain, but the adult part of me was jumping at shadows for some time afterward. I thought that shadow-jumping had gone until I read a recent newspaper article about the former care home on the island of Jersey where the remains of a child had been recovered from a blocked off basement. The full weight of the music and the larger than life images on the screen came back in an instant.

Currently 150 people have come forward saying either that they were victims or witnesses to abuse. A sniffer dog has found several "hot spots" in the bricked over basement, and there is a list of 14 children who were reported as runaways. It is going to be very hard for me to invent a better ending for this story.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


"Accidentals" is the term used in guide books to describe birds that have been known to show up in some place, usually blown in on a storm, but they are not regularly there. Recently a rare North American something or other showed up in a Scottish garden and was summarily dispatched by the housecat who had her own understanding of "accidental."

The wind has been blowing here. That is not remarkable. A still day is remarkable. I remember one still afternoon, but not an entire day. Usually only the direction or the ferocity of the wind is remarkable. The radio reported force ten winds at places with sea girt names like "Irishman's Bight."

When I ask "Where are those places? "my husband knows how to respond to what is not said but is really asked. He gives a short geographical limn and then he realizes that the actual answer is, "Yes, it's coming here."

By morning the wind is up, and the crests of the waves look like white horses galloping on a collision course with the rocky shore. Even I could tell that worse was coming. The next day the wind rocked the car in the driveway and hurled horizontal rain and then sleet. The wind grew so strong that not even the birds were flying higher than a wee hop or a determined short flight to safety. The gulls following a tractor at the plowing of a field lined up in a solemn row on the ground rather than soaring and hovering and diving along behind the tractor to feast on the worms that come to the top of the soil. I suspected that even the worms were keeping a low profile but I did not stop to check it out.

For three days now it has huffed and puffed out of the northwest with gale force intensity. When the wind blows as hard as it does now, the vital envelope of air around us is ripped so violently away that cold pervades your bones, your teeth, your very thoughts. Sheep snug so tightly up to the shelter of the long stone walls, dykes, in the fields that they look like polka dots on its surface. Any pedestrians move as quickly as possible from shelter to shelter.

When the doorbell rang in the middle of this, I thought that it was just one of the people working on the farm or the postie--who else would be out in this weather? A farmer in his good clothes stood at the back door and was asking my husband, "Do you know me?" In my old life, I would have been checking to see who was at the front door while his accomplice kept me busy at the back door; in my new life I say, "Och whoever you are, come in out of this weather. Coffee or tea?" It turns out we had not one but two accidentals--a farmer and an auctioneer from Orkney who had gone to Perth for the bull sales and now were stormbound. The ferry across the Pentland Firth was not running.

Orcadians--as people from the Orkney islands are called--are in my experience a very plucky lot. They have an accent that is higher pitched and kind of sing songy in its rhythm so it would be more difficult to appear fierce even if they chose to. Also, like Caithnessians, their unassuming appearance belies a wide knowledge and deep understanding of things that they choose to reveal selectively.

One of these two accidentals is from my husband's native island of Stronsay. My husband had visited him some years ago on Stronsay and so the storm provided a good excuse to return the visit. They share the same surname, but they have not discovered the common ancestor if there is one. No matter. They talked about farms and people and I pulled out my knitting and half listened and shared my one story of when I was on a boat on a stormy sea and the time passed cheerfully until they left to visit other family nearby.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Return of the Hopefulness Tide

Before I lived by the ocean, tides were an abstraction. When I thought of homeostasis--that marvelous complexity of interrelationships of cells and systems that keeps itself in order without any real attention from us--I visualized a kind of bioengineering model with a team of hardworking engineers like Scotty of the USS Enterprise sitting neslted in the mitochondria coordinating and monitoring and rewiring as necessary. When I got sick, I went from warp drive to impulse power or, as in the shingles episodes, full stop, and the engineers did what they needed to do.

Two days ago I woke suddenly to the sound of what I first took to be an alarm clock. In an instant I was back in my old life--did I have a meeting that day or could I dress casually? was it a teaching day and did I have the students' papers ready to return? My waking mind started challenging these assumptions. I don't live with alarm clocks or meetings or late night teaching. The sound was a pheasant strutting across the front lawn looking for love in all the wrong places. For as pretty as he looks in all his gaudy spring finery, he sounds like, well, an alarm clock.

As I lay in bed celebrating the fact that I did not have to jump up and go out into the world, I noticed a songbird start to sing. Not a lark or one of the fabled song birds, just a sparrow and without a thought, I smiled. In that instant I realized both that I was back to my old self and that I looked at myself both inside and out with new metaphors for the rhythm of this new life.

It felt as if a tide had returned. I dubbed it the hopefulness tide: not hopefulness in the Polyanna- Pangloss-best-of-all-possible-worlds blind acceptance of everything, but a quiet faith in possibilities. I lay a while longer, and the doves joined the bird chorus. I got up and looked out the window to see the state of the tide in the bay. It was well out with the sun shining a bright blue gold twinkling on the beach. Each aspect has its own beauties, but that is one of my favorites, so I took it as a special gift to me and for the first time in many days set out to face a day with an eager curiosity.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Wee Voice from Little America

I have a room on the third floor of this rambling old farm house that I have dubbed either "Little America" or "my playroom." It has a transformer so that I can play my old mini stereo. I listen to books on tape up here, and, on a good day, I listen to some of my 200 CDs. I meant to put them on an iPod before I moved and thought that I could be tidy and hip. I should have known better. I have never been tidy or hip and it is much too late for such a personality transformation now.

I was in Little America last night until time for the last antiviral of the day at 11pm and then again today as soon as I could get back here because I was up to the very last instant of a deadline that meant a great deal to me personally. I am a chronic procrastinator, but in this case I can legitimately plead shingles as a genuine excuse.

Whatever else defines shingles, one of the worst parts of it for me is a woeful lack of energy. Last night was a last ditch effort to see if I could even make a passable attempt at the portfolio. I was delighted that I could work for three hours--up to yesterday anything more effortful than daytime television had proved too much for my virus-laden system. The past week, however, has been full of come and go energy spurts, so that effort might have been a flash in the pan. I did not get a chance to come to the playroom until late in the day.

I tested the possibility of meeting the deadline by writing first the dreadful 100 word statement: "Why I want to attend the masterclass." You know from previous posts how excruciating I find those. Next I did the cover note and by then, still upright and typing as in the old days of deadlines for other people's desires, focused and productive. Next I began putting all the pieces together and praying that my old dial up connection would hold.

Fantastico: "message sent". Now it is in the hands of the three blind sisters of fate--OK, let's blame the hyperactive rhetoric on shingles, too, shall we?

And then as if to assure me that I was ascendant over the microbes tap dancing along my facial nerves, I put on a CD of Klezmer music and danced to Mazl Tov dances. The pain in my face could scarcely keep up with my approximation of a dervish. I danced to Maxwell Street Klezmer band and thought of how I had visited Maxwell Street and celebrated the melting point ideal of America. Sadly my first country all too often falls far too short of its multicultural ideal, but here in my own little piece of America I rejoiced in the best efforts of madcap idealists and homesick writers everywhere.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

The One-Pox Tradition

After the fact we are always so much wiser. I have shingles again. Fewer than 1% of people get shingles a second time, according to the chemist who gave me the antivirals. I missed the signs along the way to a full blown shingles-arama in part because of what I today dubbed the one-pox tradition.

When I felt kinda flu-y last week, the scar on my chin that is the legacy of the first bout of shingles kinda itched and tingled. When my husband called the doctor today, they asked, "Have the spots come out?" In case my attempt at emphasizing the terminal 's' is not apparent on your browser, I will make it clear: most people with shingles or chicken pox get an abundance of spots. Last time I got one on my chinny-chin chin. A couple others joined the fray late in the game, but for all intents and purposes, I was a one-spot wonder.

Once again, I have just one spot. It appeared beneath the bridge of my new glasses, so I thought it was one of those awkward, uncomfortable spots as a result of still-oily skin and new glasses. I had not cottoned on to the one-pox tradition until the side of my face affected by shingles turned to cardboard, a classic indicator. Then I understood and had sufficient conviction to offer my own one spot as evidence sufficient to plead a case for shingles again when the receptionist asked over the phone, "Are you sure it's shingles?"

After 2 doses of the antiviral I remembered that my daughter had had exactly one pox when she encountered chicken pox in her play group many years ago. At the time the pediatrican wondered if that were sufficient exposure to count as chicken pox. Now I can see it as a family tradition. Does our immune system stymie the virus except in one spot--a kind of DMZ between virus and white blood cells? Do we do things with such efficiency that one spot can do the work of many? Are we just lucky enough that our immune system fights the virus to a standstill and then sends up a flare for reinforcements?

Hopefully at the end of this course of antivirals I will never have to wonder again, but each and every spot on my face from now on is going to be suspect.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Growing Into My Mother's Music

I am old enough to span several generations of music. As a young girl, I danced on my father's feet to Big Band sounds. I saw the rise and fall of Elvis Presley, danced to the Beatles, and learned all the Joan Baez folk songs by heart. I danced to disco and went to see a matinee of Saturday Night Fever when it first came out to avoid being seen enjoying my secret passion for dancing movies. Even when most people my age have settled down, I discovered world beat music and embarrassed my daughter by becoming an ardent fan of a local band, Dogtalk.

Because my mother bounced through life much like the shiny steel balls in the old fashioned pinball machines with levers and springs and bright lights, it was not easy to hold on to her. One of my earliest memories of my mother is dancing in our living room as she taught me how to kick like a Rockette to "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" back when music came on large vinyl discs. When I was younger I thought that if I had looked less like my father I might have had an easier time connecting with my mother, but I have outgrown that idea along with most of my painful shyness. I have danced in the aisles of grocery stores (and probably will again), which is something that my mother would have endorsed wholeheartedly. She probably would have gotten other people to dance, too. That was one of her gifts. It took me a long time to realize that it was a gift--both the dancing in the aisles and the contagious whimsy.

When she was only a bit older than I am now, she sent me several tapes of the music of her generation along with commentary about who was playing and what she was doing at the time. Sadly, at that time it did not seem like a gift. Life with a mother like a pinball is not easy. I have outgrown both my resentment about all those difficulties and the guilt because I could not love her better than I did. It is not a regret to say that if she were here now, we could have a nice conversation and we might even dance around the living room again. There must be something like regret but milder, softer to describe that "now that I understand, it would be nice to sit and listen to that same music" feeling.

These thoughts began swirling through my mind as I listened to the Caithness Big Band last Friday at the Royal British Legion. They played classics such as Mood Indigo and Sentimental Journey and Tuxedo Junction and despite being far removed from anything my mother would have known, I felt her presence. I never knew the proper names of the dances to accompany them--foxtrot or quickstep-- because, unlike rock and roll or disco, I had only to follow a partner. And so it was again. My husband was at home with a cold, but he sent me on because he knew that our friends were expecting us and because he knows that I love to dance.

In the company of my friends and with the connectedness that life with my husband has given me, I could hear those songs with an enthusiasm once again. The melodies are lovely, the rhythms engaging, and now the whole constellation of memories associated with them add a richness to the listening and the dancing for me.

When my mother was first diagnosed with a recurrence of the breast cancer, it was easy to forget that she was dying because chemotherapy gave her almost three pretty good years. That interlude, that reprieve, should have given us time to prepare but even now I cannot say what else I might have done to prepare for the end of the reprieve. Sometime during that reprieve I remeber sitting with a friend in the back seat of a car coming back from somewhere and we were singing along with the radio to show tunes like Oklahoma and Meet Me in St. Louis when the music changed to big band tunes and pulled me into remembering that my mother was dying. I tried not to inject my sadness into the car on that celebratory road trip, but my friend sitting next to me noticed. I explained briefly that it was my mother's music. She just nodded and kept a tender eye on me.

My mother chose to spend her last years with my younger sister. It was the right choice for many reasons, but it meant a long trip to see her for a final goodbye. The first thing I noticed as I entered the room of the nursing home where she was staying was the music. My sister explained briefly that she did not know if our mother heard things or not most of the time, but she thought that, if she did, the music would please her. For many months after that, I could not listen to music of that era without crying. Sometimes I avoided it to avoid crying; sometimes I listened and cried until I could not cry any longer. Sometimes I cried and danced slowly around the room trying to collect all the memories and hold them in my arms as I danced.

Fortunately grief has eased into a welcome recollection of times past. Friday night when I danced a jive tune with my friend's husband and I did some of the moves my mother taught me many years ago. When I came back to my table a woman with hair as white as mine, called me over and said that she had loved watching me dance. I said thank you to her and to my mother as I went back to my table to listen, to watch, to remember and to dance again as long as I can.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Snowdrop Season

I am cautious about predicting spring. Last Wednesday as I practiced my tai chi I looked out the window and saw the golden light and the greening grass and decided spring was well on its way now. As soon as this thought took shape, the sea glowered and spewed forth a torrent of hail. It passed quickly, but left a smear of salt on the window to ensure that I cannot make any more presumptions about the passing of winter. Clearly the thought was an act of hubris that could not be tolerated.

Today, however, I venture to believe again that spring is inelecutably pushing winter aside. The most cloistered of the snowdrops in the shelter of the walled garden have begun to bloom. Their less protected cousins have pushed their first green leaves boldly out of the earth. A few daffodil tips are showing under the hedge, and the trees are showing the first swellings on their stems that will soon become buds. One sturdy willow sheltered only partially by a stone wall from the direct blasts of the ocean has sprouted catkins.

If these tender plants can believe in spring, then who am I to remain skeptical?

I read in Country Living about a woman whose entire garden consists of snowdrops of different varieties: some with tiny green stripes through their white blossoms; others with little yellow caps atop the white flower. I find charming both the variants on the classic all white flower as well as her idea of a luxuriance of a single flower which emerges, as she notes, when there are few flowers to compete for attention. I like to think that the simple white blossom would be remarkable even in a crowd of flowers, but I understand how it could be overlooked when the showier flowers come out to play--bluebells, daffodils, tulips all have more presence than the gentle unassuming snowdrop, but certainly no less courage.

So for now I will revel in this season of the snowdrop. Neither winter nor spring but a time of quiet flowering in sheltered spots.

Friday, February 01, 2008

A Fondness for Rocks

The stones here have lived their own lives for a long, long time. Waves of Vikings, Picts, Romans, and refugees from all over the world have passed through here. Stones from older sites are often recycled or buried for a few thousand years and then reclaimed by the wind or the water or a new wave of immigration. A friend has a viking long house in her back yard. Every summer the archaeologists come back and dig some more, but they have to make choices: excavating all of the viking layers would come at the expense of all the layers on top.

On my first visit to Scotland, we were told of a homeowner who wanted to replace the old paving stones with a more modern floor. She dug up the stones only to discover underneath a Pictish grave yard. She simply put back the stones and made peace with the Pictish ghosts.

One of three brothers farming in the Bu ("main farm", derived from old Norse) of Hoy disappeared. A sudden disappearance was not that uncommon with the Scottish diaspora, but questions about where he had gone persisted for many years until again, a floor was raised, a skeleton exposed, and again peace was made with the ghost.

The life of the stones is not just in the stories they hold and the secrets they keep. Each stone hosts a world of moss and lichens. And a chink between stones is a universe unto itself with whole classes of plants included under the name of "stonecrop. "

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