June 30, 2008

Smokey the Bear and I are like this

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 9:38 pm

Yesterday was the Fire Department open house and an island event not to be missed.  Besides the fire fighters, the Disaster Preparedness Committee were out in force.

There were free hotdogs, crisps, pop, juice and cake.  For the kids there were free tee shirts, fire hats, colouring books and those throwing discs with a hole in the middle that are kind of like frisbees (what are they called?)  There were free bicycle helmets on display with the motto: “Need a helmet, grab a fireman.” 

Now I have been to a lot of village fetes in my day (you Yanks have seen these on Morse or Midsommer Murders) and I have paid good money to guess the colour of the towel and the name of the teddy bear and the weight of the pig, but I have never, ever been given anything free, so I took what I thought I could get away with.  I really wanted a tee shirt, and judging by the size of some of the kids, there were plenty that would fit me, but I didn’t dare ask. 

And I can tell you, this island is prepared for disasters, including volcanos, featured on the publicity for this event although we are a really, really long way from the nearest dodgy mountain.  There was a whole trailer full of stuff – blankets, cots (Brits nb: not baby cots, camp beds), portable kitchen, pots, pans, propane, first aid kit, cleansing stuff and a whole lot more, not to mention the defibrillator and the oxygen tanks on the fire engines.

There was also a lot of really scary literature, and I started to feel guilty that I didn’t have a Family Plan in Case of Emergency and had never assembled a kit placed by the door containing food and water (a gallon per person per day for three days), radio, torch, battery, hygiene stuff (like toilet paper but no guidance as to how many rolls per person per day), sturdy shoes, coats, jackets, hats, mittens, blankets, whistle, kitchen accessories, pots and pans, tools, maps, hearing aid batteries, nappies, dummies and a white flag. 

Nor have I conducted twice yearly family drills, but if I had I would know for sure by now that I can’t carry that kit.  Meanwhile, I probably would have been sued several times when visitors fell over the kit on the way into my house.

Never mind.  I got a great picture of me and Smokey.

June 26, 2008

I love it when you talk Brit

Filed under: A long way from home,misc — Duchess @ 3:52 pm

My housesitter opens the post and emails me about anything I need to know. In one of his occasional updates he mentioned that Her Majesty’s Revenue Collectors were “a bit unhappy” about the National Insurance I owed them, and would I like him to forward the letter?

Since I don’t owe them any money I wasn’t too worried. A few weeks later I guess he thought I really ought to see the letter so he scanned it and sent it to me.

My British email provider decided it was junk. Well, of course.  It was bound to be fake; Her Majesty’s Revenue Collectors would never use such intemperate language. The letter was headed “Warning of legal proceedings”.

When I finally retrieved it during an occasional trawl of the junk folder more than a month had passed since the date of the letter. I did think my housesitter might have given me clearer warning, but it was my own fault — I ought to know by now that “a bit unhappy” is strong stuff.

I telephoned the number they offered, in friendly British way, in case I knew any reason why they shouldn’t begin legal proceedings, or if I needed “help or advice”. It’s one of the things I like about the Brits. They never really expect you to be competent about your tax affairs.

A man with a beautiful Edinburgh accent answered the phone. After a few moments discussion he said, “Ah, now there’s where you went wrong Miss – “ and then he pronounced my name so beautifully that I wanted to work out how to change the spelling so it could always sound like that. Meanwhile he twiddled with his computer a bit and said it was all fixed. So it seems I will not be helping the police with their inquiries or detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

I wasn’t expecting the Scottish accent, though. The tax office is on Tyneside, near where my ex husband’s family comes from and where I expected to hear a version of Geordie, the local accent.  This accent is still distinctive, although many of the dialect words are vanishing, except among the elderly. When their father’s uncle talks my kids just smile and nod. I’ve heard them tell Americans emphatically, “There is no way you could understand our Uncle Bob.”

For Yanks who don’t know Geordie, here’s a recording from the British Library archive. This man is a generation or two younger than Uncle Bob and speaks much more slowly and clearly, but I bet even so you have to concentrate.

June 25, 2008

It’s a nation of animal lovers (tennis without tears)

Filed under: A long way from home,misc — Duchess @ 9:03 pm

Yesterday the All England Club at Wimbledon was taking a hard line, but by this morning the policy of hiring marksmen to shoot pigeons above the courts was abandoned.


June 23, 2008

Tennis anyone?

Filed under: misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 4:46 pm

Wimbledon started today without me.  I wasn’t sure it could do that. 

My mother says her tele doesn’t get sports channels (so I won’t break my no TV since 17 April record).  The BBC has a player that allows you to watch it through your computer but only if you are in the UK, and it seems to know I am not – which makes it a lot smarter than Google or Match.com, because no matter how hard I try I can’t convince either of them that I have moved 8000 miles.

At home, Wimbledon fortnight was the only time of the year when I managed to seize control of the television: kids always cave in when they know you are implacable.  At work I would cheer for afternoon rain (because then I might get a chance to see some of the biggest match), then race home, mix a gin and tonic and paint my toes in between points.  No one was getting dinner until doubles came on.

The children just about fitted in with this deprivation.  Anyway, it’s more or less obligatory for Brits to be passionate about Wimbledon – the BBC devotes 50% of its afternoon and evening air time for the whole two weeks to cover it.  My youngest took her patriotic duty seriously, although, as ever, she had her limits.  When she was three and a bit she informed me as she watched a particularly energetic match that when she grew up and played tennis she was never, ever going to play with – I cannot now remember whom, but my sons will – Pat Rafferty?  She said, “I’m going to refuse to play with him, mummy, because he smells.  I can smell the smell of him right through the tele.” 

I’m not, on the whole, very interested in sport, though I did get a bit worked up about cricket a couple of years ago when we won the Ashes, and, according to some, cricket is also an important test of patriotism.  About a decade earlier, when I found myself rooting for the home team against the Yank in a Davis Cup tie, I realised with surprise that I had become at least a little bit Brit.

I never watched tennis at all before I went to the UK.  But, from my first summer, I was fascinated by the Englishness of Wimbledon.  Players in regulation white competing on manicured green courts in between hours of rain delays which the commentators filled in with chit chat about strawberries and cream and who was in the Royal Box, and, whenever there was any tennis played, charming understatement from genteel commentators with perfect, now very old fashioned, RP.  I never went to Wimbledon, but it was great fun watching it in the graduate common room at college on the summer afternoons and evenings of the Long Vac.

But I really fell in love with tennis when my first baby was only a few weeks old and England was having a heat wave.  For days the baby was dressed only in a tiny nappy (cloth!), and, not wearing a lot more myself, I lolled skin to skin with him in the “master” bedroom – so small you couldn’t walk all the way around the bed – in my little British house.  On the black and white tele, with a dial you had to tune like a radio, fuzzy athletes darted around the grey court – in real life it was toasted brown.  My son and I dozed off to the thwap, thwap of the ball back and forth, back and forth, he waking to suckle just a little when the applause was particularly loud, and me to smile as I heard again, “Oh, well played!”



June 18, 2008

The Battle of Waterloo and other important anniversaries

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 11:35 pm

Today still feels like my grandmother’s birthday, though she died a little over two years ago, aged 100 and some. Her life spanned most of the 20th century and on into the 21st.

I’d like to spend a long time bragging about her. I’d never get bored, though I know you might, so I’ll just say that she was born British in 1905 and her parents emigrated to New Zealand when she was a toddler. She grew up and won a scholarship to study at the London School of Economics. It took six weeks by sea to get back to England (which they still called “home”). She didn’t see her family again for almost twenty years.

At the L.S.E. she met and married my grandfather (an American) in a civil ceremony in London in 1929. The bride’s father, a clergyman in New Zealand, was too far away to protect her virtue, but the groom’s father, a clergyman closer to hand, insisted that they travel that same day to Paris to be joined together in his church (where he ministered to American expatriots). He was particularly concerned that the religious ceremony should be immediate – before they went to bed – which amused them both. They each told me separately, more than half a century later, that they had long since consummated their relationship, my grandmother having read Marie Stopes’s Married Love and later, posing as an honest woman, visiting the first family planning clinic in London.

When her first child (my mother!) was nine, my grandmother was awarded her PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. That was 1941. By the sheer force of her character and intellect she forged a life remarkably unrestrained by the conventions of her time. She married two husbands, raised two daughters and was stepmother to two sons.

Her progeny were a motley crew if ever there was one, and we gathered in La Jolla, California to bury her ashes and celebrate her life. The ashes burying followed a church service with glorious music, laughter and tears, and then a solemn Rite of the Dead ceremony where each of us, in order of degree, touched the earth that finally covered her.

The whole rest of the time we got to know people we had barely, or never, met, but were part of her, and we played together. The families of the two stepsons (one dead) had fallen out and weren’t speaking, and because they weren’t speaking they had accidentally booked rooms in the same hotel. Both stepsons had stayed in touch with their stepsister, my mother (the grand Vizier of all family gatherings), and when she and I went to greet the family of one stepbrother we had to jump into the bushes because the other stepbrother was just arriving to check in.

My elder brother and sister in law were also staying at that hotel because he suspected cooties at the one our mother had chosen, the cheapest in town, where I was sharing a room with her. Anyway, Elder Brother and Sister in Law are generally the floor show wherever they go. He’s about five foot eight, white, stocky, carries a physics or math book at all times, can’t sit still, needs the bathroom every five minutes and shouts very loudly whenever he doesn’t get exactly what he wants. She’s six feet tall, athletic and slim, black, from Barbados, with perfect manners, and perfectly in control of her very difficult husband.

Baby Brother, eighteen years my junior, and his wife and toddler were in a room next door to my mother’s and mine. He can only aspire (but does) to the kind of tantrums Elder Brother pulls off. My big son, a young but grown man, peaceful, British and tantrum free, had a room on the second floor (and paid for it too).

My younger sister, the Killer one, was being a guy in those days and was at our hotel with her partner who was a guy being a girl. I hope you have that straight, because it is going to shift.

The Lawyer Sis somehow got muddled and booked a hotel a whole freeway drive away.

The first day we all agreed to meet at the zoo, which, on the whole, seemed appropriate, only in those days the Lawyer Sis didn’t carry a cell phone so she – and we – had to call her assistant from a phone booth to relay messages, as in “She says she is at the Monkey House” or “Your family will meet you in the Aviary”.

We did finally all find each other at the gift shop on the way out, but meanwhile everyone needed the loo and I was really curious how we were going to divide. I had been in big trouble at Baby Brother’s wedding (you’ll just have to wait for that post) and I was lying low. It was clear to me which restroom I was headed for and that’s all I cared about. The Killer sister (the woman man) followed me into the Ladies, as did her partner (the man woman).

For three days the grandchildren and great grandchildren hung together. We didn’t care what kind of feuds our elders were nursing, and we were just a La Jolla gang, arriving on mass at whatever bar had space for us, and ordering drinks for eighteen.

It’s a small city and let’s just say that what with being so many, not to mention the transvestites and the mixed marriage and the Brits, all there to bury that really old lady from New Zealand with the PhD, we didn’t go unnoticed.

June 17, 2008

How very unlike the home life of our dear queen

Filed under: A long way from home,misc — Duchess @ 11:52 pm

I spent much of tonight with G who was angry because the Firefighter Builder wasn’t home and hadn’t called her (a fair cop in my book).  Her house is on my walk from work and I stopped by to say hello.  When her husband hadn’t answered his cell phone a few times I said I would go with her to check out where he might be.

So we got in her car with my small dog and her forty pound puppy and a large senile mutt she’s kind of inherited.  We cruised by a few usual haunts while she got it into her head that she saw his pickup truck where it shouldn’t have been.  Back at my house she made calls to friends, and friends of friends, and husbands of friends, and husbands of friends of friends, and friends of husbands of friends, to ask them to drive their own trucks by where any husband’s truck shouldn’t be, to see if her husband’s truck was there. 

After a while the guys stopped returning her calls. And her husband definitely wasn’t responding, even to my one pound sterling a minute United Kingdom cell phone that I obligingly lent her because it was a particularly good disguise.

G suspected that the Firefighter Builder was at the house of a woman who sleeps with married men and wants sympathy from other married men when she feels neglected. G didn’t believe her husband was in the first group, but was furious at the possibility he might be in the second. Also, besides being an adulterer the woman used to be a department store decorator and now her home looks exactly like a three bedroom Neiman Marcus.

G’s other complaint was that even if he wasn’t at Neiman Marcus with the Adulterer, at the very least the Firefighter Builder preferred drinking beer to doing the family taxes which had been her suggested activity for the evening.

Just as I was about to throw G out, her husband and a friend (male — not the Adulterer) showed up here. I didn’t wait for explanations and pretty unceremoniously told all three of them, plus the puppy and the senile mutt, that it was time to go home. G had drunk most of a bottle of wine, and the puppy and the senile dog had eaten all of Eloise’s cat food, and meanwhile I really, really wanted to get into the bath and read Trollope.

But I should not exaggerate the drama of the evening. How unlike the home life of our own dear queen was one perspicacious late Victorian’s response to seeing the play Antony and Cleopatra. And I would like to confirm that not once this whole evening was anyone bitten by an asp.

June 14, 2008

Bad blood

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 11:11 pm

When I got out of the shower the other day there was a message on the answerphone to say that my uncle Jonathan, my mother’s half brother, had died.  I didn’t even know he was sick.  That is, I knew he was sick – he had been for 25 years – but I didn’t know he was dying sick. 

Jonathan was a haemophiliac.  As a child he was confined to a wheel chair, the result of constant bleeding into his joints.  He struggled to walk on crutches and then finally to walk unaided.  As a young man he worked to register voters, mainly poor and black, in his home state of Virginia, and marched – with his pronounced limp –against the war in Vietnam.

In the early 80s, like the majority of severe haemophiliacs, Jonathan contracted the HIV virus.  The product haemophiliacs needed was made by mixing the blood of up to 30,000 people.  If you needed the stuff a couple of times a month or more – and Jonathan did – you were pretty lucky not to get HIV.

Another of my uncles, also a severe haemophiliac, must have been infected at about the same time and died of AIDs within only a few years.  It was a particularly ugly death.  The virus laid waste to his body and burrowed into his brain.

We thought it was inevitable that Jonathan would share the fate of his brother soon.  Early on there were no treatments, though he could track his T cell count as his immune system crumbled. 

Around then the British ran a stunning series of tele adverts with the slogan, “Don’t die of ignorance”.  There’s a good description here, though unfortunately the video clips are not available unless you are accessing the site from a UK school or university.  The ads are still rated number 49 in the top 100 scariest moments on British television.  Meanwhile headlines screamed of the bravery of the Princess of Wales when she shook hands with AIDs patients without gloves on.  The disease carried a terrible stigma.  I told no one but my closest friends that my family was affected.

HIV was new, terrible and always fatal.  Despite the ad’s warnings we were almost completely ignorant, because there was very little real information beyond the sensational press.  On a long ago balmy evening I sat with my brother, my mother, various cousins, and Jonathan in a New England kitchen, with the usual summer annoyance of a lone mosquito humming in the air.  Only it wasn’t usual because as we were chit chatting away we were all silently trying to remember whether the news had ever mentioned this method of transmission – hell, it’s how you get malaria, and what did we know?  Finally Jonathan slapped the mosquito on my mother’s arm and it splatted red.  “Your blood, Anne,” he said, and then he smiled.

Jonathan survived until AZT, and he carried on surviving until the HIV Cocktail.  We began to think of him as indestructible.  He was angry about what happened to him, and, always an activist, founded the Committee of the Ten Thousand, a group that fought for justice for haemophiliacs infected with HIV.

Ironically in the end it was probably the drugs he took to keep the virus at bay that got  him, or the hepatitis infection, which was also a constant risk in blood transfusions.  Jonathan died of liver cancer last week, aged 62.

Years ago he and my mother fought over the care of their dying father and over their father’s will, and they had not seen each other in a very long time.  My mother telephoned every now and again and Jonathan was always charming, but he never called her and they never again became loving brother and sister.

When he died his widow phoned my number in England – I am the only one who hasn’t moved in decades – before she tracked me down here.  She said she hadn’t really noticed how estranged Jonathan had become from his family. 

I am too far away and won’t go to the funeral, nor will my mother who is even further away and cannot muster the energy, though I think it will be hard on her to miss it. Although they had quarrelled, he was her father’s son and the last of her three brothers.

I thought of him today as he was buried.  He was a brave man.  His work for justice for haemophiliac victims of AIDs made a difference.  The Boston Globe ran a full obituary here

June 9, 2008

Mooin’ in the rain

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 8:54 pm

Yesterday morning I looked out the glass front door and there was a big black cow staring back at me.  Behind her was a brown one.  I grabbed the camera and opened the door to take a pic (damn! dead battery) and they both ran off up the road.

Later I went outside to find there were great big cow footprints (double damn) all over the newly sprouted grass I have been nurturing for weeks.

And I have to ride the ferry to get more grass seed.  And it is raining again.  And cold enough to be March.  Kvetch kvetch. I know it doesn’t often get hot here, but right now it barely touches 50 most days. 

I am told this weather is probably the result of global warming, and when I make what I intend to be a dry remark suggesting that au contraire it is not warm but COLD, exactly one hundred per cent of the time someone very patiently explains to me that global warming is just a general term, and that, in fact, some places will actually get cooler and the sea levels are predicted to rise and… 

And then I have to remember all over again that, on the whole, Americans don’t do irony.  (For any American following this, when I write dry remark I do not mean a not raining remark.  And I do know global warming predicts more rain in some areas and drought in others, okay?)

Oh well, at least our version of global warming is good grass growing weather. Meanwhile, I have thought up a get rich slow scheme.

The geniuses at the County have changed the ferry prices.  There are 29 different tariffs depending on whether you have a ticket or pay with cash and what size vehicle you’ve got.  No one seemed to have noticed that it is cheaper to be a walk on passenger with a bike than a walk on passenger without a bike.

So I am thinking I could go on over to the res and round up some rusty old bicycles then rent them out to tourists to take with them on the ferry.  I figure I could make a profit of at least 50 cents a bike.

See what a cheerful, proactive person I have become?

June 7, 2008

Last orders anyone?

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 10:25 pm

Friday I applied for a job as a waitress at the island version of a diner.  The plan was G and I would wander down after the lunch rush, have a beer at the bar and fill out an application.

Getting ready in the morning I showered and kind of scrunched my hair.  A couple of years ago my British hairdresser was so shocked at the very idea of more significant intervention that he stopped cutting, scissors poised in the air, and said, “You don’t actually use a brush or comb do you?” 

I sometimes, guiltily, still brush my hair, but, frankly, I always regret it.  It only makes matters worse.

I put on my tightest shirt and the pedal pushers that show my ankles but not too much of the rarely touched by sun or razor parts of my legs.  I went as far as lipstick, and I thought I looked quite fetching in an over 50 sort of way, but when I saw the lissome young things already working at the diner my heart sank and I asked G why on earth they would hire us.

“Because we’re smart,” said G, “and we won’t give away free food to our friends. You’ve got waitress experience, right?”

Well, yes I have.  About three decades ago in college vacations.  The best was an old fashioned steak house in rural Florida where I worked several summers.  The owner was a widow, a tiny, painfully thin woman who always had a cigarette (on a long black holder) hanging from her lips.  Getting summoned to her quarters above the restaurant was like getting an invitation into Miss Havisham’s house.

The other waitress was Billie, a middle aged woman who hinted at many ailments, all of which she darkly ascribed to the fact that her husband wouldn’t have anything to do with her in the Right Kind of Way, which even now puzzles me.  I thought I knew what she was talking about but I didn’t think it made you sick.

There were two cooks, Rosie and Maud, large, kind, black women with many children and more grandchildren.  They worked seven days a week and all day long. In the afternoons between shifts they lay down on the cool, concrete kitchen floor to rest, and Rosie read the Bible to Maud, because Maud couldn’t read.  After awhile they fell asleep, and the sounds of their snores came through to the dining room, quiet before the evening rush. No one was getting paid.

The butchering was done by Miss Havisham’s son, who hadn’t a clue how to do it properly, and, as Billie said, kept cutting the meat leaving “big old spoon bones”.  It is true we sometimes got complaints. Miss Havisham was always unmoved.

The restaurant had what now seems to me the most extraordinary system.  We took orders, and then we went into the kitchen refrigerators and chose the raw steak for each customer ourselves.  We grabbed the meat, slapped it down on a long stainless steel table and announced how it was to be cooked.

Then, I am sorry to say, we went straight out to the restaurant again (and I don’t remember any intervening handwashing), or picked up the plates of cooked food from the serving hatch.  (“That one’s yours, Baby,” Rosie would shout to me; she always knew.)

Rosie and Maud hardly ever got the orders muddled and I did learn a lot about how to choose the best steak (and get the best tips).  Far as I know I didn’t actually poison anyone.

At closing time the customers at the bar ordered their drinks with wheels on (in a takeaway cup).  If someone local was really drunk the barmaid, who ran a tight ship, would ask me to give him a lift home on my way. 

I liked being a waitress then, and I think I would like it again now.  I can’t quite afford not to work at all (and besides I need to pay into Social Security – I’ve been gone a long time and I haven’t got my 40 quarters), but I want to spend more time writing, and thinking about writing, and that means trying to keep away from work that takes up my mental energy – at least the creative part.  Memorizing who ordered what is just fine. 

There’s good research that says even elderly rats who get problems to solve can grow new neurons (and I’m thinking I could use a few), but you are going to have to google the research yourself because I haven’t got the job yet and my neurons aren’t up to it.  Try me again later.

June 5, 2008

This isn’t a mommy blog.

Filed under: This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 12:36 pm

But here’s my elder daughter.

When I first saw the picture I didn’t really take it in. I looked past the man to my daughter. I recognized the pose, hands on hips and the tilt of the head, and I thought, oh dear. What’s that child so angry at now?

And then I looked more closely and saw the gun.

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