Friday, January 23, 2009

Instead of a New Rule, A Well Trod Path

I am going to make an impossible suggestion. Over here, politicians are always keen to tout their newest initiative. I am sure it is not unique, but it seems to have become extreme with some new thing announced every day. It was especially disturbing to me when Gordon Brown campaigned for the position of Prime Minister, after having been Chancellor for 10 years, on the need for a change. And now that we have the credit crunch or whatever you care to call this financial stricture, he is trying to pin the responsibility for it on anyone but the man who had been chancellor while it was hatching.

So today as I was labouring to get my passport renewal application in the mail and came upon yet another stumbling block, I decided that I would not only endorse but would actually adore the politician who said, "I am going to go through the process for each and every thing that my constituents have to do and when I see things that are foolish or awkward or nonsensical, I will fix them. Brilliant, eh? And I think it would be newsworthy because it manifests the kind of common sense that we all cherish.

OK, so here's what I'd like my champion to look at first.

On page 1 of the passport renewal application, it has provision for a non-US address. On page 2, it doesn't.

The instructions for how to fill out the DS 82 come as a pdf. The instructions for photos are not included--the pdf says "link to web site for photo guidelines"). Well, its not a link on a pdf, and when I go back to web site, it is still not a link.

The post office does money orders and they do foreign currency, but they do not do International Money Orders. They used to. They don't know why they don't any more.

My bank can do it, but the teller has to tell me that some of my confidential information might be viewed by someone outwith some organization known only by an acronym. Neither the clerk nor I have any idea what those words mean, but she has to say them and I have to agree to them to get my money order.

The money order has to be mailed to my house--why can't she give it to me? Neither one of us can figure that out either. Now she also has to point out to me that as an extra security measure, my request may be selected for a phone call. Someone from that acroynmous organization may call any time from within two hours of my conversation at the bank until 10am tomorrow morning. And if they cannot reach me by phone, the transaction will be cancelled. In a panic, I give her my cell phone number rather than the home number which we may or may not answer. I make sure my cell phone is turned on and the ringer is turned to LOUD. I am walking around with my cell phone in my pocket and I'll take it to bed tonight in case the person I don't know calls to find out if I am the person they don't know either.

So perhaps in a few days I'll have the money order and can put the last piece of the application together and send it off on a wing and a prayer. Or perhaps I'll be stuck in this loop for a few more days or bounced into another trajectory like one of the steel balls in an old fashioned pinball machine.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gales All Around

Inauguration Day here has dawned cold but clear. I was a bit surprised because the 1am shipping forecast had begun with the news "Gales, Force 8 in all areas except Cromarty". Those carefully carved regions of irregular shapes cover the ocean from Iceland down to Spain, around Ireland (both of them), and all of this little island that I call home. Gales at sea can stay there or they can roll onto us with force. So for now, the day is clear, but the gales are there and their impact is not known.

It seemed an apt analogy to the pending inauguration day: great optimism with an awareness of storms at sea.

Much has been made on the news about the similarities between Lincoln's train to Washington, D.C. and that of Obama, including the fact that there is a threat of assassination now as then. Violence runs through American history like a burn through peat: sometimes in spate and dominating the landscape; other times out of sight, but never far away.

Racism, or racialism as it was in John Brown's time, is the tragic flaw of American history as seen as a Greek tragedy. By agreeing to keep that ugly little secret of a compromise too far to preserve the fragile new country it has grown up like a tree around a stone--strong, healthy but permanently disfigured.

Those are the chronic gales--the familiar but unwelcome part of the climate of the country. Uncle Sam, the personification of America, is an uncle given to unfortunate fits of temper and antisocial behaviour. He embarrasses me, and I have argued with him and refused to go along with his tirades from time to time, but I have always been there with hangover remedies and rolled up my sleeves and cleaned up the messes made as best I could.

I put up with Uncle Sam's inexcusable behaviours because he has with that same violence and dark energy managed to carve an amazing experiment out of a raw country. Land hungry Europeans went to America for a little patch of ground to call their own. It was not free. Land speculators had gotten there first. Not free, but cheap enough that ordinary people could carve out a life that would otherwise have been impossible.

Uncle Sam is at his best when he engages his enlightened self-interest--the conviction that a rising tide lifts all boats--and then he makes the tide. From time to time this self-interest has become unenlightened. From the safe distance of history, we can look back on the post civil war era of a failed reconstruction when, rather than stitch the country back into its best self, the great barbecue of President Grant led to plundering and despair that replaced legalized slavery with economic slavery that kept generations deprived of their share of the American dream.

When Bush was elected, my heart sank. I envisioned a new generation of carpet baggers swarming not only over the carefully preserved wild parts of America and all those with a small share of the American dream but also over the treasures of a culture far away where they hoped to avoid the watchful eyes of those like myself who shook our heads. It has been even worse than I could have imagined. That legacy of unenlightened self-interest is another one of the gales swirling around Washington on this inauguration day.

There have always been gales around America. Perhaps that is why I am not as worried as I should be. America was born in the small space created between the wars of the European giants of the time and it fought Britain again less than a generation later to show that it meant it. It has convulsed and reinvented itself several times. That resilience is founded on the belief vested in so many people that they can make their own destiny. Americans are far too fond of Uncle Sam to let him go on with his tirades for too long. The inauguration today is, among many other things, a collective "enough is enough" to the spree of the past eight years. More importantly for me, it is a return to enlightened self-interest. Not every black child in America can grow up to be president, but they can grow up to be a bigger part of their country and feel welcome in it. Obama in the white house is dusting off the welcome mat to the American dream. Martin Luther King reminded us that the check given to black Americans had come back unpaid. Now Obama is making good on that check and telling every single person that they can take their dream out of the cupboard or the rubbish heap and dust it off and get on with living it.

No one ever told any of the Americans that it would be easy. That has never really been a part of the American dream. And so I took great hope from having Martin Luther King's birthday become a day of service. Community service should not be a punishment reserved for those who offend the laws; it should be a way of life, a weaving together of the us and them that forges a community from a collection of individuals. I plan to celebrate the inauguration both by watching the event and by recommitting myself to helping my first country into its best self. The same group of American ex pats that helped me find my way through the bureaucracy to vote for Obama have continued their involvement with service activities. I have decided to spend a little time writing letters to service men and women recovering in hospital. When Uncle Sam took us to war, I said No, but I respect and support those who answered their country's call. That's part of the dream, too, we have room to disagree with each other and then sit down with a cuppa and look after each other.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shave, Shower, and Shake Your Head

A friend who recently lost her mother wrote me about seeing her mother in a new light after hearing what others had to say about her mother at the funeral. That second glance phenomenon--discovery moments-- can come to us in many different ways but must always be cherished because they give us knowledge with that extra layer of judgement peeled away.

Judgement is not always a bad thing but it leads us dangerously into the land of "ought to" and "should have" and the invisible expectations of role. Children see their parents first and foremost as their parents and secondarily, if at all, as people. Children, by their nature, see things in black and white. Any failing, real or imagined, in a parent is magnified and can be carried along from the child-mind into the adult one without our noticing it. Even children who have fond associations with their parents struggle to see their parents as their peers do. And so my friend was fortunate to be able to see her mother in that other light.

Inevitably, my mind turned to my own parents. Neither of my parents would be candidates for parents of the year--in any year. Fortunately I found a good place of offloading the childhood disappointments years ago but only slowly have I been able to see them as people--as full and flawed as we all are--and to revisit my childhood without the hurt of a disappointed child.

A couple days ago I was moving slowly, reluctantly into a grey dawn. It may have been the turning point day up here, where the few more minutes of daylight begn to make a noticeable difference in how everyone feels. Every fiber of my body suggested that rolling over and closing my eyes was the best plan. Without thinking about it, I was up and putting one foot in front of the other. Not fast, not fancy, just one step and then the other--into the shower, into clothes for town--not the soft, schlumpy cardigan in which I can disappear--and high heels, well, as high as they get for me. I looked the part of a grown up and sounded clumpety-clumpety as I strode through the corridor.

Only then did I recall a phrase of my father's " shave, shower, and shake your head." This was his get up and get going song. For him, it was often recovering from a hangover and the venture that he was trundling off to may not have been the pinnacle of achievement, but having stripped away the judgment, I realized that I had learned a valuable lesson from him.

If we are lucky and brave enough to grow into wisdom, as my friend has done, we can say goodbye to our parents fondly, cherish their legacy, and continue to appreciate the full spectrum of who they were.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Long Twilight

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A family member is in hospital. so my heart is heavy. The last thing that those around me need is to have to worry about my own heart, so I am trying to keep it tucked up out of the way. A heavy heart is always a cumbersome thing and mine, which usually hangs precariously from my sleeve, is more difficult than most to manage.

I had a few moments alone in my car overlooking the lingering twilight of late winter sun. The beguilingly silvered tones contrasted with the dark hills beneath. I watched the clouds play hide and seek with the sun as I filled the inside of my car with music. At first static and then it cleared to the large orchestral sound full of strings that spoke to me of movie music. I have always loved movies. I love the bigness of the story played out in front of me. And music is so much part of that bigness that magical suspension of disbelief that allows us to believe in flying bicycles and magical kingdoms over the rainbow and the ultimate triumph of good over adversity.

The music sounded to me like the music that would accompany a hero experiencing hard times but confident nonetheless of something good to come. It might have been followed by a scene like Gene Kelly dancing in the rain or waking up in Oz. "Movie music" is not a derogatory description in my aesthetic. When I discovered that the rich, sweet, slightly melancholy but ultimately positive music was Delius sharing his delight at having heard the first cuckoo of spring it only added to my pleasure in the moment.

We will certainly have more cold days before we can believe in spring as well as many more early twilights but in my brief introspection with Delius I could conjure spring and a cuckoo's song in my my mind's eye and put my heart at ease for a moment.

(The silvery sunset above was photographed by my husband on Orkney at midnight on the longest day. Although it is another season, the silvery colours are the right tones.)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Flat Pack Queen Renews Her Skills

The wind is still ruffling more than feathers as she swirls and pounds. It is not impossible or even imprudent to go outdoors today--just not very pleasant. After feeding the cats and doing some basic house tending, it seemed a good day to actually assemble the two small sets of drawers that I bought long ago in a frenzy of organizational revival.

They have languished. Rather than tame the clutter that threatens to take over every corner and swallow up any useful thing that you dare to put down, these stalwart soldiers were in danger of going over to the other side.

As a semi-retired tech writer, I can not read instructions for assembly with the simple eye of "how do I put this together"? I cannot help but assess the language, the presentation, the usefulness of the instructions. Ordinary consumers find them useless or annoying. I find them an affront to the tradition of effective information management. A symbol of the decline of everything. Everyone has their foibles.

When I taught technical writing, I used to offer prizes to the student who brought in the worst user manual. It was often hard to tell which was the worst. I gave up offering prizes for good ones.

If I had time on my hands or felt particuarly annoyed, I would write to the companies with these terrible manuals and tell them that classrooms full of potential customers were holding their manuals up to ridicule. I never got a response.

So I stumbled through the instructions and drew on my wealth of experience as a flat pack assembler to put these things together, and, amazingly, it worked.

My daughter once said only half in jest, that I had spent a small fortune on closet organizers that I then sold in garage sales--usually never installed. If it requires more than a screwdriver, I am probably out of my depth. Even with a screwdriver, however, I can fall short of the best of flat pack assembly. Bragging to my daughter that I could assemble a bookshelf for her, I whipped through it--not bothering with instructions--and put the back on backwards. Not a great disaster and she very kindly pointed out that the books would cover the back anyway, but it was a comeuppance. Even the worst instructions have something worth reading in them.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Wind from the South

I must confess to having taken a certain perverse pleasure in knowing that our weather was milder than down south where they were suffering dreadfully cold temperatures. I also knew both that it could not last and that my hubris would have consequences. That's the logic of living as sons and daughters of the Grey Coast--the ocean that moderates our temperature likes to play rough with the winds.

I knew as soon as I herd the Shipping Forecast that something was coming. In the factual recitation of the winds came the tell tale--possible Gale Force 8. The wind was getting up to something out there at sea and she'd be coming our way soon.

She made landfall in the night. I woke to her huffing and puffing and hurling rain spatters at the window. I was content to let her run around because I could spend the day tucked inside--with two exceptions--breakfast and dinner for my cats. It is not a long distance from the house to the dairy maid's cottage, which the cats have as their communal dining room and sometime dormitory.

I didn't expect to see faithful Solomon sitting in the window ledge--cats and rain don't mix well, but I knew he was out there and hungry, so I bundled up in my husband's hat and coat, collected the crunchers for the cats and opened the door. The cats tumbled across the threshold--propelled as much by hunger as by the wind. I made a sprint for the cottage, put down their food, and hurried back to the house.

The temperature, if measured on its own, would still be moderate, but the wind has brought all the cold from the south here. That's what I get for being selfish.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Into the New Year

As I walked the farm road under the golden sun of the New Year, I marveled at the stillness. No traffic sounds from the road, no clank of farm machinery, no rustling of animals in the fields, only the hard working waves making their way to the shore beyond the far field made their presence felt in that golden quiet.

As I rounded the bend toward the house, my favorite cat came up to me. He did not need to meow. He had seen me and he, too, I suspect, was enjoying the quiet. He and I walked into the walled garden. I could have done ever so many useful things there, but the best idea seemed to be to pull a stick along the grass and over the branches of our favorite tree--Solomon and I. He chased and sometimes caught this stick as we swirled around in tight circles or ran along the frost-covered grass. And then I just stood and watched the golden light make the frost sparkle on the stones of the wall.

Two of the other cats came to watch us in the garden. Sheba ran up the tree and took her turn chasing the stick. By now the cold was beginning to bite at my fingers and toes, so I reluctantly left the cats in the garden and came in to clean the kitchen.

My husband says that New Year's Day here is often "settled", which means the kind of day that keeps itself to itself. I like to think of it as a day holding its breath, thinking, reflecting--I am sure younger years may have had a hangover which imposed its own kind of calmness, but this day was thoughtful in the same way that a cow about to calve looks thoughtful--a new calf, a new year, each is a lot to think of.

Later that day I watched a male pheasant strutting--they can't help it, anything with that many colours and a too long tail has no choice but to strut--down the road between the house and the steading. After the hard frost of the past few days, he was enjoying the warm quiet for a trip to the barley buffet in the barn. I caught sight of a bevy of pigeons in the buffet line later that day. That, too, pleased me, seeing the steading as a calm centre for the life on the farm.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Hogmanay Hootenanny

The end of 2008 brought together some familiar and some not so familiar things. First we watched the Edinburgh tattoo. It is almost familiar to me now to see massed pipe bands (bagpipes, that is) and miles and miles of kilts.

New Years Eve here is called Hogmanay. No one knows with certainty why. There are a variety of explanations for the name--Gaelic, Norse, Flemish or French--take your pick. New Year's came to be more important up here as Christmas was down played. In the anti-Catholic reaction of the Protestant reformation festivals and images and such were regarded as suspect.

There was a street party in town, but it has been many many years since I went to a street party on either continent, so we headed home. My husband decided at the last minute to make a fancy dinner so he was running in and out of the stores that were still open as my worries grew. He makes me very nervous in the kitchen. Let's just say that he is very imaginative with his cooking and finds such things as recipes and cookbooks too restricting for his talents. I must give credit where credit is due: sometimes it works well. 'Nuff said on that score til the dinner is presented. I have learned after 4 years to stay out of the kitchen--it is better for us both on these occasions.

Just as in the States, there was the uncertainty--will I stay up til midnight or not? and the usual array of celebrities--most of them only vaguely familiar to me saying bland things to fill in the last moments before the countdown. The odd thing was the word hootenanny. I had not heard that word for many years. It connoted to me folk music and coffee bars. I never quite sussed what it meant here other than a collection of people making music between the people talking about the people making music and all of them really just marking time.

We made it to midnight. I put down my knitting long enough for a toast and a kiss, then I knit a couple more rows and called it a day--and a year.

I hope your Hogmanay was as contented as mine and as eventful as you hoped for.