Wednesday 31 March 2021

Measurement is management

I read a lot of bad and sad news for work, which makes me unhappy. To cope, I have been keeping a "wellness journal"; I bought a personalised one from a quality paper company. It has pre-printed pages where you can fill in the date, your "intention for the day",  your hours of sleep, your meals, your water intake, your activities, your "self-care," your mood, your daily successes, your thoughts, and what you are currently grateful for. 

In the back there is graph paper, as in a bullet journal. I use it to record my hours of language study and time out of doors. 

I kept diaries until l began to blog (and even after that I kept travel journals), so this combination of tracking and writing suits me well. Writing down everything I eat seems to make me eat less, and the fun of filling in the water symbols makes me drink more. I definitely spend more time outdoors, now that I deliberately think about it. 

The journal certainly came in handy when writing my "Lenten Menus" post, as the original plans and the reality diverged so much, it was hard to make sense of the sheaf of paper in the kitchen. 

The very word "wellness" smacks of the mindfulness movement, but I think mindfulness is perfectly compatible with Christianity--as is good health. Mindfulness, Christianity, and good health all seem necessary to me for writing about, say, a priest who calls the cops on a pregnant lady in a back pew far from the rest of the congregation because she is not wearing a mask. For some reason, that low-grade pettiness depressed me more that the outright evil of clerical sex abuse. Maybe it was like the final snowflake that causes the avalanche. 

Fortunately, a delicious bowl of Ottolengi's "Tomato, Chickpea and Bread Soup" followed by a card game (which I won) cheered me right up. I finished my seventh glass of water and coloured in the symbol in my wellness journal, logged the soup and wrote down the things I was grateful for. There was already a note that I had planted "Pauline," spouse of Paul the Blackcurrant Bush.  

If you are feeling depressed, dehydrated, sluggish, fat, and overwhelmed, I definitely recommend a wellness journal. Here's a British list of recommended ones, and here is an American one.  

I also have a battered notebook in which I track our monthly spending, record our mortgage overpayments, and mention such helpful events as getting a lower phone rate after threatening to change providers. Financial bloggers often write about running one's household as if it were a business, which I think is sound to a certain extent. 

It makes more sense to do that in a household of adults. I don't think it would be good for children to think that they were financial liabilities. Of course, they could be reassured that, in fact, their presence reduces income tax and (depending on the state) brings other financial goodies, and--indeed--their happiness and security is the reason for running a tight household ship in the first place. 

I think children should know how much things cost, even if parents don't want them to know how much they earn. Growing up, I was blissfully unaware of how much ordinary things (like the electricity) cost my parents, and I think that was a pity because I just took it for granted. I also think it was a pity that I did not know that fancy clothes and cars and such things did not represent real wealth but just high spending. My classmates made fun of my clothes (a solid argument for school uniforms), and only now does it occur to me their clothes may have been bought on credit. 

I longed for snazzy clothes---how surprised (and disappointed) I would be to know that when I was paid enough to (almost) afford it, I would not have a closet of designer clothes but instead rely on my good old indestructable denim maxiskirt of maximum traddery. Of course, were we to win the lottery ... 

UPDATE: First ever endorsement of a company that I can remember. (Eeek!) If you were to order anything from Papier for the first time, using my name (or Dorothy Mclean--small "l" for some reason), you would save 10% and get me 10% off my next purchase, which I am very likely to make. I am not sure how this would work outside the UK. However, I really do like Papier's wellness journal. Just click here

Monday 29 March 2021

Thinking about Driving

Driving is expensive. It burns fossil fuel. It is not strictly necessary in a Scottish urban environment. My husband is anti-car, and I would probably be just as anti-car if I didn't grow up with a car, and then two cars, in the driveway. But I did, and now I am very sorry I didn't take driving lessons at 16, when I was too young to think about how scary driving was. I thought about organising my lessons myself, but I had a phobia about talking to strangers on the phone. 

The fact is, I would like to learn to drive because I'm frightened of driving, and I'm tried of being frightened of driving. (I overcame the fear of speaking to strangers on the phone some decades ago.) As I can read papal encyclicals in Polish (with a dictionary), surely I can learn to drive. 

The problem is that I don't want to drive in the UK. I want to drive in Europe, when the time comes. My tentative retirement plans involve driving throughout Poland, to see "real Poland" (as eastern Poles call it) and small-town Italy. 

Driving to Europe would mean driving down to Newcastle, taking the ferry to Holland and then driving to Poland or Italy, which B.A. points out is not very cost effective. It would also entail switching from driving on the wrong left side of the road to the right, and this really burns me up, for if I had learned to drive in Canada, driving in Italy or Poland would be a relative doddle. 

That said, train travel in the UK is hella expensive, and it would be a joy just to drive where we want to go.  Perhaps B.A. would enjoy working out the mathematics to prove that insurance + car club membership + petrol is in fact more expensive than train travel. 

Any decision about learning to drive has to be put off, however, as commercial driving lessons are currently prohibited in Scotland. If I were Queen of the World, and would not be immediately forced into an expensive hotel quarantine upon arrival in Canada, and then again upon return to Scotland, I would go to Toronto, get a learner's license, do an immersive driving course and practise with my parents' smaller car. Maybe that is what I will, in fact, do one day--unless someone convinces me that this is a ridiculous thing to do, given that I live in a country where everyone drives on the wrong left side of the road.    

Update: Another factor is that the European continent has a widespread--and cheaper--network of trains. After retirement, it might be much cheaper to travel even in the UK by train than by private automobile.  

Sunday 28 March 2021

The Lenten Menu Challenge

Every year when Lent approaches, I think about the Eastern Churches, especially the Greek Orthodox. Their Lenten traditions of fasting and abstinence are just so superior to the contemporary Latin Catholic practice. The Greeks have whole cookbooks of Lenten dishes, largely vegan because they don't touch meat, fish-with-a-backbone, cheese, milk, butter or eggs during the fast. Oil and wine are allowed, but only on Saturdays (except Holy Saturday) and Sundays. I believe they get a break for the Feast of the Annunciation, upon which day they may eat fish. 

Well, you are what you eat, which means that Greek Christians who observe the Greek Lent are really Greek Christians, and Latins who think giving up meat on Lenten Fridays is a massive sacrifice are pathetic. Celebrating feasts and observing fasts through food is the very essence of the world visceral.

Benedict Ambrose draws the line at adopting Greek Lent although he has become accustomed to Latin mostly-vegetarian Lent. I think he prefers giving up meat six days a week to watching me give up coffee again. I doubtlessly need to stop drinking as much coffee as I do, but I think it would be safer not to attempt cutting back to less than a cup a day. 

We usually eat a lot of fresh fish, and as fresh fish is now (really) a luxury food (even in Scotland), I thought we would reserve it to Saturdays. I also thought it was about time I tackled the grocery bill, which has been no less than £400 a month for at least a year. That is a ridiculous amount of money for two people, I thought. No wonder we are overweight.

Therefore, to solve the problem of "What to eat?" and "How to spend less?" I sat down with a few cookbooks and a lot of paper and worked out six weeks of dinners. The menu was adjusted as time went on, for not all the dishes were to our taste. I made out a new shopping list every Saturday morning, consulting the cookbooks and researching the cupboards and fridge.

In sketching out the plan, I originally assigned a different protein to each day: meat for Sundays, lentils for Mondays, eggs for Tuesdays, chickpeas or anchovies for Wednesdays, cheese for Thursdays, and beans for Fridays. We didn't keep strictly to this. The choice of Saturday (and Annunciation Day) fish and Sunday meat I left to B.A.

The principal cookbooks were the Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favourites (1996), my food bible in my boxing days, when I was a young green twig; Yotam Ottolengi's Plenty, a gift from a beloved Guardian-reading friend; and The Classic 1000 Indian Recipes. For variety's sake, I added things like "tuna casserole" and "quiche" and printed off recipes found on the internet later. 

The cook was usually B.A., who is at heart a meat-potato-and-veg man, so cooking dishes of many ingredients almost every night was real heroism. I wrote out the page number for each recipe on the menus. Meanwhile, the recipes would all feed four adults, so we both ate the leftovers for lunch the next day. They were filling, so we weren't that temped to snack--and actually, there wasn't much to snack on. 

So here we go, for those of you who are really interested.  

Ash Wednesday to Friday 

Wednesday: Chickpeas with ginger and rice
Thursday: Macaroni and cheese with mixed vegetables and broccoli
Friday: Black bean chili

Vigil of Lent I to Friday

Saturday: Aubergine enchiladas, chocolate cake, wine 
Sunday: Beef stew, cheesecake, wine
Monday: Moussaka
Tuesday: black bean chili (leftover)
Wednesday: Middle Eastern chickpeas with spinach and rice
Thursday: vegetarian lasagna and broccoli
Friday: "Fat Tuesday Skinny Red Beans" with cornbread

Vigil of Lent II to Friday

Saturday: Trout and leftover skinny red bean stew
Sunday: Steak, veg, potato, apple crumble, wine
Monday: Giambotta & big roasted mushrooms
Tuesday: Kale spanakopita (Hello, the Greeks!)
Wednesday: Pasta with anchovies and onions
Thursday: Goat cheese and garlic tart (Ottolenghi)
Friday: Cassoulet with spiced tofu (NB Not a keeper)

Vigil of Lent III to Friday

Saturday:  Tuna casserole (Hello, the Americans and Canadians!) & cherry bakewell
Sunday: Duck leg, potatoes, baby corn, snap peas & cherry bakewell, wine
Monday: Lentil curry with rice
Tuesday: Tomato, chickpea and bread soup (Ottolengi)
Wednesday: "Surprise tartin" (Again Ottolenghi)
Thursday: Macaroni and cheese with red pepper and mixed veg
Friday: Black bean chili and whole wheat toast

Vigil of Lent IV (Laetare Sunday) to Friday
Saturday: Fillet of plaice, baked potato, mixed veg & strawberry cake
Sunday: Duck fillet, roast potatoes, red cabbage with apple & strawberry cake, wine 
Monday: Cauliflower curry 
Tuesday: Cheddar and broccoli quiche, leftover red cabbage with apple
Wednesday: Middle Eastern chickpeas with spinach and rice
Thursday: "Lighter Lasagna" i.e. vegetarian lasagna with cottage cheese
St. Joseph's Day: Fish cakes, mixed veg, & zeppole di San Giuseppe (pastry cream buns)

Vigil of Lent V to Friday 

Saturday: Ottolengi's "Very Full Tart" (roast veg, cheeses, cream) & cherry bakewell squares
Sunday: poussin, mashed potatoes, broccoli & cherry bakewell squares, wine
Monday: Giambotta (Italian veggie stew) & large roast mushrooms
Tuesday: Tuna casserole 
Wednesday: Pasta and anchovies, glass red wine because: 
Feast of the Annunciation: trout, baked potato, mixed veg & apple crumble
Friday: Cassoulet with baked eggplant (NB Still not a keeper)

Vigil of Lent VI to Good Friday

Saturday: fish in beer batter and oven chips, mixed veg & chocolate cake
Updated: Sunday: ham, potatoes, broccoli & chocolate cake, wine & pasta with pesto (long story)
Monday: lentil curry
Tuesday: chickpea, tomato and bread soup
Wednesday: "Surprise tartin"
Thursday: macaroni and cheese with mixed vegetables
Good Friday: Skinny Red Beans, hot cross buns

The truly attentive will notice that we usually had dessert on Vigil of Sunday as well as Sunday, and the reason for that was principally that it is difficult to make cakes and tarts for only two people to consume on one day. The other Vigil & Sunday treats were pre-dinner crisps and, for B.A., beer. The daily staples were muesli and bread. Eventually I began to make the bread myself. To keep wine fresh, we bought it in boxes.

The cost of groceries during Lent, not including coffee, was approximately £240 - £270. (I usually work this out on a monthly basis.) Meanwhile, we both lost weight. Update: It was more like £450!

Saturday 27 March 2021

12 Years On: Advice for Married Life

Actual spouse in hospital.

When, to my great surprise, someone splendid wanted to marry me and indeed did, a reader suggested that I begin to write advice about married life. My response was a mix of humility and trepidation, as I hadn't been in it long enough yet. Besides, that whole first year of marriage, Benedict Ambrose and I had a gin-and-tonic before supper and then half-a-bottle of wine at dinner, so I was drunk every night and in no shape to give advice. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. 

However, a young affianced person recently asked me to send posts about married life, and I realised that 12 years is probably enough experience to draw upon, especially when explicitly asked for advice. Also, I once asked a very wise Lebanese woman for marriage advice, and what she said at once was so personal, shocking and yet obviously sound that it stuck in my mind together.

The Lebanese lady advice was this: the bedroom door is shut; never discuss what happens behind it with anyone. I would temper that by saying "except when, at absolute need, the doctor, the priest, or the therapist." But yeah. 

That leads to my own first piece of advice, which is that your first human loyalty is to your spouse. If out rowing on the pond, and your boat sinks, and you have to choose between saving your spouse and your sibling, you have to choose your spouse.  What is more likely, fortunately, is that your dilemma will be between family time and putting in more time at work. Pick the family time; work through your lunch-hour if necessary. Go to work at 6 AM. Whatever. Spouse first. And yes, for heaven's sake, don't discuss bedroom stuff with the girls or guys. Of all the things not their business, that is at the top of the list.

Loyalty to spouse can take an unusual turn. When poor B.A. went back to work after his first brain op, his mental agility began to decline, and he would come home angry and frustrated. He was making many mistakes, and his well-meaning colleagues were covering up for him. He was very worried about his manager finding out.  Finally, I snuck into his work behind his back, knocked on his manager's door, and told her that B.A. was unfit for work and needed to go back on medical leave. I would call the doctor for a letter. The manager agreed at once. 

I'm very glad I did that, and so was B.A. when his manager told him to go on medical leave, but man, that was hard to do. 

This leads me to my next point: spouses get sick and sometimes they even die.  In my experience, men are especially prone to this illness and sometimes even dying stuff. So this leads to a whole sub-category of good advice, namely:

    If your spouse hasn't signed up with the doctor and dentist, sign him/her up yourself.
    If your spouse feels lousy but won't make an appointment, make his/her appointment yourself.
    If your spouse is very sick but is not getting adequate medical attention, call up the doctor and report      how sick he/she is. 
    If your spouse is hospitalised, visit him/her every day. If you can, arrive at the beginning of visitor hours, and hang on until the end.  
    If all this applies, get yourself the support you need: reach out to family, friends, your priest, the parish, the local caregivers association. Otherwise it will be much harder for you to fight for your spouse. And if he (or she) does die despite your efforts, you don't want to be alone. 

Meanwhile, here are three important things you need before your spouse gets sick: both of you need to make wills and the husband of a low-income wife needs either life insurance or to sign on for his work's death-in-service payout. (If the woman has such things at her work, she should sign on for that, too.) One of the worst moments in my life was getting half-loopy B.A. to sign onto his work's pension plan from his hospital bed, so that I would get his death-in-service payout if he croaked. 

My next point, drawn from experience, is also depressing but a fact of life in this vale of tears: God doesn't send babies to everyone. The question is, what are you going to do if God doesn't send babies to you? Learn the actual facts about adoption in your country. When I discovered that adoption is astonishingly inexpensive in the UK, I almost collapsed. But, sadly, adoption is not an option for us because, inter alia, B.A. is still technically a cancer patient. Fortunately, we have a niece and nephews, and kindly Polish Pretend Son sends me photos and videos of my quasi-divine god-daughter Godling. 

Childlessness can be absolutely devastating for your spouse, if not for you. I got the bad news (over the phone, thanks NHS! Clap, clap!) years ago, and the last time I cried over it was--last night. So have a plan. Hopefully you won't need it, but have it. 

But to go back to this "spouses get sick and die" concept, here is some excellent money advice: learn to live on half the family income, and bank/invest the rest. This way, if your spouse is no longer being paid for some reason, like illness, job loss or death, your finances will be okay. (This sense of okayness assumes, of course, that both spouses normally work. If not, life insurance is even more important.) This is also a good way to save for a down payment on a home--if you want to own a home--and to pay off the mortgage much faster, saving you thousands in interest payments.  

One of the most enduring of traditional female beliefs is that once you get married, your financial future is assured because husband. No disrespect to BA, who worked day in and day out at the same challenging job for 15 years, but HA HA HA HA! My advice to all wives--including stay-at-home mums--is to find some way of making even just pin money, as a way of bringing in extra income and having something to put on the CV if/when their husbands get sick/lose their jobs/die. My full-time job--snagged between BA's operations--came thanks to 9 years of paid part-time column-writing. The lockdown wiped out BA's job, but mine remains. How like the 1980s British horror films about male unemployment that haunt my nightmares.

Another weird but enduring female belief is that married life looks anything like the adverts in bridal magazines. In bridal magazine world, you go from eating pizza on unopened crates in your sunny, hardwood-floored apartment (or even house) to your parents' level of upper/upper-middle/middle-class comfort in a twinkling. This is a lie. There is no twinkling. There is scrimping, saving, budgeting, and self-denial. You're not getting diamonds-by-the-yard from Tiffany & Co. until you're 45, if even then. As it happens, Tiffany stuff keeps its resale value, but when you are 45, you might be more interested in socking as much as possible into investments, so your husband can semi-retire at 55 and live until 80 instead of working a stressful job until 65 and dying at 66.

Have I mentioned that husbands get sick and sometimes even die? Yes, I think I've covered that. 
To continue on a more cheerful note, always remember why you fell in love with your spouse in the first place, and ponder that you knew his or her bad points in advance, probably because kind friends told you what they were, or he or she confessed to them to you in a moment of conscience-stricken candour before you got married. Presumably, in the fog of love, you nodded and gave your assent to living with whatever it was. Therefore, you have no right to resent the overwhelming ambition (or lack thereof), the neat-freakery (or sloppiness),  and the placid disposition (or frequent bouts of hysteria). Also, ponder how difficult it may be to live with you.  The devil sends you bad thoughts about your spouse, and the quickest way to get rid of them is to think about your own very real faults. Do that. 

Next, remember that men are not women, and women are not men. If you're the kind of woman who loves female companionship, don't expect your husband to be a woman substitute. When you vent to your husband about something, and he just gives you advice or (worse) tells you not to exaggerate/sees it from a contrary point of view, instead of killing him, find the phone and call a girlfriend. If you're a man who routinely insults and one-ups his friends, don't be surprised if your wife bursts into tears when you do the same to her.

Finally, really celebrate all the great times. Memories of the great times, thoroughly celebrated, will get you through the bad times. In the long cold night before BA's first operation, we discussed the wonderful holidays we had had in Italy, and we planned the wonderful holidays we hoped to have in future. 

Finally finally, there is nothing like a brush with death to make you understand how really loveable your spouse is and how lucky blessed you are to have one another.

Thursday 25 March 2021

Menus and shopping lists

Just a tiny post to say that this has been the tastiest Lent ever because, in an attempt to have a strict Lent, I worked out a six week supper plan, using three cookbooks with many vegetarian recipes, plus a couple of online finds. It was easy to make shopping lists based on this plan, and this cut down our normal shopping trips to 2 a week--or 3, if you count grocery tourism at Tesco. As a result, we have not just lost weight, we have also saved a lot of money.

Wednesday 24 March 2021

Paul the Blackcurrant

Yesterday afternoon I found a tall cardboard box outside our door. It contained a tall budding stem in a plastic pot and a smaller, somewhat prickly stem attached to a beanpole. These were our new blackcurrant bush, which I have named Paul, and our new gooseberry bush, which almost inevitably is named Goose. 

Gooseberry bushes are self-pollinating, said my beloved Fruit and Vegetables for Scotland. It did not say this about blackcurrant bushes, so I did some extra research. Apparently it is not good for blackcurrant bushes to be alone, and so I have ordered Paul a spouse, Pauline. 

This morning I weeded, dug and composted the raised bed beside the shed and put Paul in. Then I dug a hole for Goose in one of the beds beside the apple tree, in front of the nodding daffodils and behind the blown snowdrops. Gooseberries are one of Scotland's hardiest fruits, so I am not very worried about Goose. I am a little worried about Paul. 

"I am now going to talk about the blackcurrant a lot," I warned Benedict Ambrose as we went for a short walk along the river, up the hill upon which Romans once lived, and down to the supermarket. However, the blackcurrant was driven from my mind when, on a rather wild bit of land at the end of a half-hidden green corridor, we saw a young deer with short, half-formed antlers. We stood stock still, apart from me taking out my phone to photograph the lovely thing, but he still leapt away. After that he stayed outside photographing distance and was joined by two other deer among the trees and the underbrush. The smell of foxes was very strong, and I was delighted that such a wild bit of Scotland still exists so close to Tesco. 

Upon arriving home, I discovered that I don't have to write for work today but instead read spiritual or professionally developing books. So I repotted Auntie Spyder (a spider plant) and ordered six packets of seeds from the trustworthy birthplace of Paul, Pauline and Goose. Last summer, B.A. and I liked the beans best, so I ordered broad beans, runner beans, French beans, and--hope winning out over experience--peas. I also ordered rhubarb and spinach. We still have lettuce, rainbow chard and kale left from last year, and they did very well, despite me ordering them from eBay. One important lesson from last year was not to order seeds from eBay or Amazon, but straight from tried-and-true garden centres. 

I thought I was behind on gardening, but I had a look at my blogposts of last March and saw that I began the weeding only March 23. Well, today is the 24th and I have weeded half the raised bed and the herb garden, plus planted two bushes and a small Tesco rosemary shrub. (The snow killed my last one.) At Tesco this morning, I also bought a coriander plant and a mint plant because the seeds packets cost twice as much. I shall transfer them in the herb garden tomorrow and hope for the best. And if it isn't raining, I will begin to dig the dandelions out of the lawn.

Last March and April I dug the dandelions out of the lawn as a kind of reaction to the lockdown. Naturally none of us knew that lockdown would last this long--although I must say, we in Scotland were a lot more free in August and October and even December than we are now. My hopes of going to Poland to see my little Godling this Sumer are dashed, and heaven only knows when I will set foot in Canada again. 


As I see I use my blog as a reference tool, I will add that I am almost finished translating Mulieris Dignitatem (Godność kobiety) Chapter III, and today's post brought Rilla di Ingleside, which begins: 

Era un pomeriggio caldo, alle nuvole dorate, delizioso. Nel grande soggiorno di Ingleside Susan sedeva con una certa cupa soddisfazione che le leggiava attorno come un'aura...

Lucy Maud Montgomery's original opener, which you can find in Gutenberg, if not on your own shelves, is as follows: 

It was a warm, golden-cloudy, lovable afternoon. In the big living-room at Ingleside Susan Baker sat down with a certain grim satisfaction hovering about her like an aura...

Another detail that might interest me in a year is that B.A. and I are still drinking daily glasses of Berocca (which isn't cheap) and swallowing daily doses of cod liver oil. We are also slimmer than we were on Ash Wednesday (Feb 17), having given up inter alia snacking. B.A. has also followed my example with the stationary bike in the kitchen. 

I have lost ten pounds, thanks not to the bike, which is more of a mood-lifter than a weight-depressant, but to Lent. The lesson here is that snacking is bad, which perhaps you knew. Daily desserts are also bad, but Sunday-and-First-Class-Feast desserts turn out to be good, if homemade, or at least not terribly damaging. When Easter arrives, I will keep the no-snacking and no-daily dessert habit and cultivate such old-fashioned mantras as "I don't want to spoil my appetite" and "I must watch my figure."  

Also, B.A. has been accepted for a post-graduate diploma course in his preferred field, so that is really the great news of the day. 

Tuesday 23 March 2021

A List of Things

I love minimalism when it means not having a lot of stuff. (I'm not so keen, I seem to recall, on minimalist art.) When B.A. was terribly sick four years ago, I read Marie Kondo's book and got to work throwing away possessions that did not "spark joy." B.A.'s CD collection did not spark joy, but as an act of wifely loyalty, I did not throw it away but instead filed it in shoe boxes in alphabetical order. I think I won an invisible Olympic Medal for Wifedom that day. 

Yesterday I clicked on Early Retirement Extreme (a minimalist's feast) to see which post had been recycled that day, and it was one about owning only 100 things. As the charity shops have been closed for months, and I missed the window they were open, our closets and my desk are an utter mess. Perhaps that's why I suddenly felt so amused and began to scribble a list of all the things I used that day. 

If you enjoy lists, you're welcome to read the list, minus the food. I don't think food should count as a possession, even though naturally it is good to have around. 

1. bathrobe
2. clock
3. kettle
4. French press
5. favourite mug
6. computer
7. computer remote keyboard (because of the state of the computer)
8. wooden board
9. big glass bowl (for dough)
10. wooden board (for kneading)
11. pen
12. paper
13. hand soap
14. hand towel
15. wellness journal
16. cereal bowl
17. spoon
18. kitchen scales 
19. kitchen sponge
20. water glass
21. bread tin
22. plastic wrap
23. bath towel
24. table
25. exercise clothes
26. cooling rack for bread
27. exercise bike
28. oven thermometer
29. Elizabeth David's bread book
30. bread knife
31. dinner knife
32. computer remote speaker (because of the st. of the comp.)
33. mobile phone
34. portable phone charger (Thank you, Nulli!)
35. day clothes
36. house phone (for remote Italian class)
37. Italian dictionary
38. Italian notebook
39. Carmelite brown scapular
40. pencil crayons
41. mobile phone cable 
42. remote speaker cable
43. dinner bowl
44. spoon
45. fork
46. chair
47. washing machine
48. oven with stove
49. laundry detergent
50. silver necklace with 2 pendants, one Scottish, one Polish
51. spectacles (Getting basic here.)
52. pack of playing cards
53. pair of dumb bells 
54. measuring spoons
55. liquid measuring jug
56. smaller glass bowl
57. pot with lid
58. 1.5 pint casserole dish
59. colander
60. tin opener
61. fridge with freezer
62. dishtowel
63. dishmatic (dish scrubber with tube of dishwashing liquid attached)
64.  knife for chopping vegetables
65. nightclothes
66. IKEA bag for laundry
67. toothbrush
68. sleep mask
69. pillow
70. bed with duvet, sheet, and blanket
71. hot water bottle
72. recycled squirt bottle/plant mist-er
73. spider plant
74. (forgot, although not at the time) Pears soap

So that's about it, short of the radiator, the kitchen counter, and the flat itself. I didn't list shoes because unfortunately I didn't go outside yesterday. Instead I read Polish, baked bread, had an Italian class over the phone, did my job over the computer, washed a load of laundry, ate a delicious Lenten dinner cooked by B.A., played whist, and then made a tuna casserole to put in the fridge. The gas men have come this morning and turned off the gas so that they may replace pipes without fear, so I had to prepare tonight's supper in advance. (The stove is gas, but the oven is electric.)

I enjoyed writing my list, so if you need a lift, you may get one from doing the same thing. Perhaps a daily practise of object-listing will lead to emptier, tidier homes across the decadent west. My chances of having a truly Japanese-style minimalist home are, however, zero, as Benedict Ambrose has a fatal lust for chairs, and if he were rich, he would collect nice furniture, first editions, and paintings.  

And I would hire a daily cleaner.

Time to read the next exciting page of Mulieris Dignitatem po polsku. I have never appreciated to this extent how repetitive it is. "Na obraz i podobieństwo Boga" (in the image and likeness of God) is now stamped permanently on my brain. 

Sunday 21 March 2021

The Broken Jug

I came across this on Twitter early this morning, written by someone who calls himself or herself BrokenJug:  

What do you say to a person who has come to the conclusion that there is absolutely no reason for them to exist anymore, that they actually serve no purpose, have no meaning and think they should cease to "be"?

And I was saddened to see someone I know, someone in the public eye, respond by tweeting that he didn't know, as he was in the same boat.  I felt I should say something, so I wrote that circumstances always change and that the future held amazing experiences that are unfathomable now. 

I am absolutely certain of this because of all the extraordinary things that happened after I left a PhD program 15 years ago, my entire life (I thought) in ruins. It is not a stretch to say I wished I was dead, those hours I was in my brother's Montreal cellar. In fact, I embraced the possibility in literary form: putting fingers to keys and answering a not-so-distant-then what if.

What if (in 1998 or so) my coach had not forgotten (or, now that I think about it, "forgotten") my boxing license, and I had got into the ring with that woman who looked like a Ms. Olympia champion? Perhaps I would have been killed, and what then? Valhalla, surprisingly, which meant interesting new challenges and an end to all earthly responsibilities. 

My sanity was saved by Valhalla--through the workings of the Holy Spirit (how's that for syncretism?)--giving me a respite from crippling, painful depression for at least an hour a day. And then amazing things happened. I finished the novel--the first time I had ever finished a novel. I sent out the MS for my first book again and again. I was given a column in the newspaper that had published my book reviews and the occasional op. ed. I went to Scotland and fell in love. I got married, moved to Scotland and began a new life in a Georgian mansion (okay, its attic). My first publisher-published book came out. Eventually the Polish translation rights were sold. I flew to Poland, me, one of the last children of the Cold War. And as I waited in a Warsaw radio station, I reflected that it was I, and no-one else from my PhD class, who was about to give this interview. Life was incredibly, amazingly sweet. 

So there you go. Zero to hero (or zeroine to heroine) within four years, and incandescently in love within two. There is always hope, and as this story is too long for a tweet, I write it here. 

Saturday 20 March 2021

Combatting the Third Wave with Gratitude


& zeppole di San Giuseppe

Let's pretend I have been regularly blogging and move on ...

I felt rather desperate for a moment yesterday when I saw reports that there is a third wave of coronavirus in continental Europe. I didn't have time to delve into these claims, for I was whipping my donkey-like brain into rewriting the thoughts of an Israeli vaccine skeptic for work.  I have had professional advice that I should take ten days off, go somewhere with Benedict Ambrose and completely relax, with the proviso that I should wait until we are allowed to travel. However, from the headlines, I gathered that travelling to the Continent is off the cards.  

Thank heavens, I thought, that Benedict Ambrose and I travelled so much in 2020. And before anyone gets tetchy, I will assert that we haven't been within unmasked droplet distance of anyone aged over 70 (except our priest) since August, and to the best of my knowledge Polish Pretend Son's elderly great-uncle is fine. 

What a year of travel 2020 was! On January 2, we returned to Scotland from our very happy Christmas in Canada.  On February 28, we travelled to southwest Poland for my newest goddaughter's christening and returned to Scotland with Covid hard on our heels. There followed the March lockdown, when I was really quite frightened by the BBC, and the unforgettable "last public Mass" on St. Joseph's Day. 

Public Masses were "allowed" again in the summer, and B.A. and I returned to lovely Poland in August. This included 21.5 hours in my beloved Kraków, which so far I love above all other Polish cities, despite Wrocław's greater claim. Naturally, however, our best times were in tiny villages: sitting outside a country hotel eating delicious things and holding my quasi-divine goddaughter or watching Pretend Polish Daughter-in-Law's folk music group feature highly in my memories. 

Then in October, after B.A.'s job had died of lockdown, we went to Rome for a whole month. We really could not have done anything better. Naturally I was on the job for days on end, but B.A. was free to go for glorious strolls and to visit such empty museums that were still open and to go to Italian classes. He liked Italian classes so much (I knew he would) that he continued to take them until we returned to Scotland. Meanwhile, I had enough time for morning cappuccini in the piccoli bar, to go to Mass, to meet friends for evening drinks, to have occasional glorious lunches with friends, and even to go to Naples and beyond. Now B.A. discusses his Roman month with other men in his Rome-loving field, and they frizzle with envy. A whole month in Rome! 

That, I daresay, was very much a case of "when lockdown hands you lemons, make lemonade." I have yet to find the recipe for No-Travel-From-Britain lemonade, but it must be out there. The annoying--and shocking thing--is that it is much more expensive to travel within Britain than to get on a plane to Poland or Rome. Round-trip rail tickets for two to Cambridge, for example, are in excess of $500 CAD. In the end, my therapeutic 10-days-of-doing-absolutely-nothing may be spent no farther away than North Berwick. As North Berwick is to Edinburgh as Santa Marinella is to Rome, how traditional. 

But I comfort myself with a great duvet of gratitude for all the glorious travel we had in 2020, and--for some reason--also for the very pleasant little house I lived from the ages of 4 to 15. 

This may be a non-sequitur, but I was reading as much of The Millionaire Next Door online as I could for free, and suddenly I thought of the nice little house on a tree-lined street in lovely, then-affordable Willowdale. There actually was a pussy willow in our back garden (which, being Canadian, I then called a back yard), which I thought proper to Willowdale living. At one point, there were seven people living in this modest, two-storey abode, which is why my parents eventually sold it (at an enormous profit, if I remember correctly) and bought a larger house up north. At the time I was delighted, but when in sleep I return home, it's always the now-demolished pretty white harlinged house that I return to. 

I may be thinking about this because, like many millionaires (among whom we are not) Benedict Ambrose and I live in a humbler dwelling than we can afford. (Of course, when I say "afford", I mean "with an enormous mortgage.") And I must say that our dwelling is very humble-looking on the side facing the street. It is not as aesthetically beautiful as, say, a two storey white harling house with a red front door and a green milk-box by the side door, a small grassy down-sloping garden out front, and a long grassy yard in back, which features a vegetable garden, a two-sided trellis with grapes and climbing flowers, a round raised garden with tiger lilies, a pear tree, a willow tree, a fat maple tree, a swing-set and a thirty-something woman with a profusion of chestnut hair hanging out the laundry. 

It's an odd thing--and I wonder if I would have believed it when I was a child--that you can spend your childhood dreaming of the adventures you will have and the glamorous abodes you will live in when you grow up, and then when you grow up, you would swap everything in your bank account for one more day as a child in your childhood home. I suppose, though, that this is something only people with an above-average happy childhood would say. It occurs to me, too, that just as North American Baby Boomers were the last generation (on average) to be more materially wealthy than its parents, the children of those Boomers were the last generation (in general) to have as materially secure a childhood.  

That said, I have lived in the very glamorous Historical House for nine years--and for free--which would have filled my 10-year-old heart with joy, had it known. I have also been a guest in an equally glamorous 19th century castle in Poland on more than one occasion. In London, it must be said, I have stayed in a windowless closet in a Tune hotel, but there is a French bakery with the most glorious croissants I have ever eaten within a 5 minute walk of it. In Rome, we lived in the airy, spacious flat of our dreams. In Quebec my brother Nulli has a sprawling bungalow with an actual conservatory with an actual grand piano. Meanwhile, I live in Scotland, I am reasonably conversant in Italian and Polish, which would have awed my 10-year-old self, I have two published books to my name, and I write for a living. 

Middle-Aged Me: So will that do? Are you okay with all this? Was this a fair trade for the little white harling house, the swing-set and the pear tree? 

10-Year-Old Me: Is the man nice?

Middle-aged Me: The man is very, very nice. 

10-Year-Old: Then yes, thank you. Thank you very much. 

Middle-Aged Me: You're welcome.

10-Year-Old: I'm so glad it's Scotland.

Middle-Aged Me: I know.