Saturday 10 December 2022

Full in the Panting Heart of Toronto

Full disclosure: for years I've thought the Men's Schola was singing "Fool in the Panting Heart of Rome" back in the halcyon days when Benedict XVI was gloriously reigning. Only now do I discover they were attempting to pronounce "Full." That's what happens when you don't give the mere congregation the lyrics. 

It has been a very Toronto week, notwithstanding my 8-hour-a-day work schedule--save for Monday, whose afternoon I long ago arranged to have off, knowing that jet lag would strike around 12. Instead of working, I telephoned my Canadian goddaughter's mother, and the latter came to get me in her automobile. We traversed the highways and byways of northernmost Toronto; I seem to recall these once having been thinner and racing past fields, not vast expanses of ugliness. We then went through neighbourhoods I've never seen before--there are Polish cities I know better than those parts of Toronto--and we never stopped talking.

Still, there was a very homey, very Canadian sight in one cul-de-sac: two tall boys on rollerblades playing road hockey, using a bona fide net. And even better, they were my friends' sons, three years older then when I saw them last. The eldest gave me a hearty squeeze. Inside the house there were more children, one of them the very pretty little girl who is my goddaughter. Naturally she did not remember me, but we soon became good friends. 

Tuesday I managed to sleep until 6 AM and had a good day's work. What I did in the afternoon completely escapes my mind, but I am certain it involved eating cookies. The Advent fast is nigh impossible at my parents' house, for my mother bakes dozen after dozen of traditional biscuits, and every one tastes like Christmas. 

Wednesday I got the message that a prominent local activist I knew very slightly at 18 had died, and that someone should write about this. Reading the obituary, I realized that not only should she be eulogized, someone should represent work at her funeral. Consultations led to the realization that the most senior person in Toronto that day was me, and so it was that one of my oldest friends came by in his car, and whisked me off through more neighbourhoods about which I know nothing to a church I haven't been in for 20+ years. 

I saw many people I know, of all ages, two of them nationally famous, one of them internationally so. I exchanged greetings with a woman I first met when I was 18  and her husband (ditto) and her mother (ditto). I exchanged greetings with a man I might not have spoken to since I was 19. And I must say, that was a very full church for a woman who had been 97 and never blessed with children. 

To the cemetery we went, my old pal--my actual prom date, come to think of it--now driving me through streets both familiar and unfamiliar, and once again the conversation was freely flowing. And then after the interment, the drive home. I bowed out of the funeral tea (to be precise, a late lunch at Red Lobster) to return home to work. 

After work, I went downtown to dine with my Toronto brother. This time I took public transit, and this too was a mix of familiar and unfamiliar: although the routes are the same, the elements have changed slightly. There was a new place on the bus to put my transit card--and the machine depressingly informed me how much money was left on it. The subway train--which for some years now has been one long snakelike compartment-- rang with the shouts of a mentally ill man. The northeast corner of Dundas and Yonge Streets looked onto a neon and jumbotron scene from Bladerunner and stank of now totally legal marijuana. The streetcar along Dundas Street West was dotted with people who wore masks and people who did not. The restaurant was dark, chic, tasty, and expensive. Oh, what it is to be a grown-up with a real job and to eat in the kind of restaurants I barely dared look at as a student.

My brother, happily, was materially the same. He is still into vegetables and initially ordered all the vegetable dishes on the menu (plus lamb chops and haute cuisine lasagna), but the waiter thought that would be too much. 

Afterwards my brother generously drove me home--the streets were all familiar even in the darkness--so once again I had the enormous treat of seeing Toronto by car. (When you're a non-driver married to a non-driver, car rides are as exciting as magic carpets and much more comfortable, I imagine.)

On Thursday I went to my goddaughter's house for supper. Her dad was summoned to pick me up from the nearest subway station. He pointed out that I could have waited for him from the nearest bus stop instead, but I said that for all I knew that intersection is patrolled by drug dealers. A fair main, he allowed this to be so. 

Anyway, once again I was met by some truly delightful children, and I had the great privilege of discovering that I was seen in the light of a gigantic huggable teddy bear by my goddaughter. She and a toddler both managed to sit on my lap, which was very cozy. There was dinner--the adults got their very own table for maybe as much as 10 minutes--and then family prayers, in which I felt greatly privileged to take part. My goddaughter and her siblings went off to bed, and I had a good long chat with her mother until her father drove me all the way home. So I had yet another magic carpet ride through the sprawling metropolis. 

Friday's exciting excursion was a 45 minute walk in the cold through very familiar ways to a new hairdresser to put my hair in some order. It was very reassuring to see that every woman in the joint, clients and staff, had curly hair. I emerged de-frizzed and went home to eat supper.

This morning I walked for an hour--it was bitterly cold--to visit my sister and then we went to the local mall, she to have her nails done and I to have lunch with another old pal. Then I had my nails done myself (although less ornately) and walked home. 

Tomorrow I go by train to Montreal. 



Monday 5 December 2022

Return of the Native

The first thing you should know is that I have had an "Overuse Syndrome" flare-up in my right arm, which is why I haven't been blogging recently. 

The second thing is that I got on a plane in Glasgow yesterday morning and was deposited, about 7.5 hours later, in Toronto. 

Pearson International Airport was neither as crowded or slow as reporters been writing for years--perhaps because it was Sunday, or perhaps because I was lucky. Before speaking with border security, I stood in front of a large machine and stuck my passport in it. The machine froze when I pressed the screen to admit that I was bringing in an animal product, so I hit "QUIT" and picked up the resultant print-out as instructed. I joined a rapidly moving queue to the human border guards and soon found myself confessing my 300 grams of Scottish cheese to a solemn, mask-wearing, pale South Asian woman of university age. 

I was pleasantly surprised that instead of telling me my cheese--a present for my dad, who apparently no longer drinks single malt--would be confiscated, the border guard asked me if I had anything else to declare, handed me a yellow slip, and sent me on my way. I gave the yellow slip to the last man who looked at it, and he made no protest at all. 

The airport staff were all wearing masks. I was wearing a mask, too, for a family member believes he got COVID from the airport and strongly advised me to wear one. Most passengers were not and, when I spotted my parents in the Arrivals waiting area, I saw that they were among the very few watchers sporting them. 

There were no official questions about COVID tests or "vaccination status" or anything health-related at all. 

The parking ticket machine was in its usual place, beside a bin divided in half for trash and recycling. The highways were the usual frightening snarl of danger, and as usual, my mother looked to see when it would be safe for my father to get into the right lanes. 

"I haven't picked up anyone at the airport for years and years," Dad said. 

Three years.

The flags--for Canada, for Ontario--were in the same places. The sun was strangely bright, and the air outside was very cold. The buildings were the same and in the same places. The signs for Algonquin Park still rather weirdly (if accurately) pronounced it to be 250 kilometres away. Yorkdale Mall--the height of schoolgirl glamour in 1985--was looking positively decrepit. The charming little houses in my parents' neighbourhood looked modest and unassuming and great places to bring up two or three children. However, each would cost about $1,500,000 before being ripped down to build a wasted-space, cookie-cutter behemoth.

The front lawn looked tidy. I got down on my knees and kissed the ground. It smelled green and tasted of chlorophyll. I thought belatedly of dogs, but oh well. Did John Paul II think about dogs when he kissed airport tarmacs? Very probably not. 

The kitchen was the same, and when later I made coffee the tablespoon was in the same little drawer in the spice cabinet it has been kept for 30+ years. When I sat in the sitting-room the view was exactly the same as on Skype. I momentarily felt as if I had suddenly appeared in the TV show I had been faithfully watching. My mother pointed out the latest cushions she had embroidered. Although new in themselves, they were not all that terribly different from whichever cushions were newly embroidered in 2019. 

The coffee, by the way, came from a 930 gram Tim Horton's can on the top shelf of the cupboards on the left, as I should have expected. Instead I was pleasantly surprised. Three years is a long time, even at my age. I felt as if I had travelled back through time. 

I spent the afternoon looking at familiar things and sometimes touching them. The jadeite frog. The remains of the dolls' china tea set. My grandfather's cigarette lighter with "RED" scratched on it no later than 1975. I found the clothes I keep in Toronto to save having to bring clothes over from Britain. My blue flannel pyjamas are at least 10 years old, but they look almost new. 

My mother showed me the photographs tucked into my grandmother's old wallet: I was particularly charmed by the coloured one: my parents were in their twenties, going to a formal dinner, my pretty mother wearing the green-and-blue gown that's still in her closet and the both of them with round, soft faces. 

"I never throw anything out," my mother has said on occasion, which is not true of the garbage and the recycling, but is definitely true of the personal effects of her family, living and deceased. Fortunately, this is a big house, and six living former occupants have moved most of our stuff out. While looking for dumbbells, I found a ceramic plaque, a gift for me from Italy, reading Attenti al gatto  (Beware of the Cat). I imagined taking it back to Scotland and affixing it to my veggie trug to ward off, gargoyle-like, the neighbouring felines.

My sister Tertia arrived with her son and her dog for supper. The time machine effect dissipated as Pirate is now taller than his mother and has a wild shock of dyed black hair. Also, it was a novelty to hear this larger-than-expected pocket bully click-clicking over the ceramic kitchen tiles and across the wood floor of the dining-room. She hovered under the dinner table, shoving a hopeful snout under the crotcheted lace tablecloth. We ignored her hope, and we also ignored Pirate checking his phone under cover of the table. I have lost track, but I think he's 18. 

My sister and I talked about language-learning. Functionally fluent in Spanish, she was recently summoned at work to explain to two children from Central America why they couldn't bring Nutella sandwiches into the building. She had to look up the word for "hazelnut".  She laughed merrily about their conversation.

A wisp of a five-year-old memory of a badly beaten young Pole passed over my mind. He was in my husband's room at the hospital, and he wanted his clothes back, and the nurse was frustrated because she couldn't explain that the police needed them. 

"My wife speaks Polish," addled Benedict Ambrose shouted helpfully, and my heart squeezed with fear. But miraculously I could, in fact, say "The police need your clothes; they're evidence" and the young Pole nodded. 

But Tertia and I spoke about Italian, not Polish, and I was intrigued that after only a week or two of Italian classes, she had cheerfully chatted with a Roman cab driver, for this shows one essential difference between my sister and me: she is cheerful and relaxed about languages, whereas I agonise over every syllable unless I am in a psychological state in which I can automatically rattle out words.  

No account of a visit home is complete without reference to languages, so there it is. The first language story is, however, my father examining a page of Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake, and murmuring, "Why did he choose the past participle instead of the aorist?" I did not know English ever had an aorist, but there you go. Every member of my family seems to have a vast, mysterious reservoir of specialist knowledge. 

I went to bed at 20:00 EST (or, my body thought, 1:00 GMT) and fell asleep over an old paperback. I woke up definitively at 3:58 AM, and now I have half an hour or so before I start work. 

A blessed Advent to all my readers! 

Sunday 6 November 2022

Here too

There are areas of deprivation in Edinburgh, their residents dubbed "the socially excluded." They can be dangerous even to travel through, and one night when I was travelling home on the Rough Bus a rock came flying through a window. Some of the socially excluded enjoy throwing things at symbols of the ordered society from which they feel excluded: busses, police cars, ambulances. 

Therefore, I was not terribly surprised yesterday evening when our driver suddenly stopped the bus before driving through a notorious slum and shouted at us to shut the windows. I reconsidered our seats but decided they were relatively safe from flying rocks. The sky was bursting with fireworks and dark silhouettes were thronging the streets. It was Bonfire Night, aka Guy Fawkes Night, allegedly the celebration of "papists" failing to blow up the House of Lords in 1605, as if anyone living in an Edinburgh slum could care less about the House of Lords. A goodly number of them are themselves papists---or descended from us anyway. 

Sadly, this is supposed to be a fun night for children, and the only reason why I can imagine for its continued celebration. At heart, it is deeply anti-Catholic--they used to burn the Pope instead of poor Guy in effigy, the weather is cold and/or damp, the night is dark, and who needs a bonfire to warm himself when he has, at very cheapest, a microwave oven to heat his tea? In past years, the bonfires have represented an orgy of destruction; one Bonfire Night a gang built an enormous blaze on Portobello Beach and threw in a piano. 

I felt a bit uneasy, thinking about a neighbouring family who, for the first time ever, I saw walking together, two parents, two children, down our street as we waited at the bus stop, probably bound for some official Bonfire Night fireworks display. 

Our slums, by the way, are mainly populated by "White, Scottish" (as the Census denotes them) although there are a number of immigrants from various countries there, now, too. I hope their White, Scottish neighbours warned them about Bonfire Night. I saw a trio of Indonesian ladies in hijab get off the bus at a spot I should not like to alight after dark, and I hoped they got home okay. 

We were going to a concert performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience. It was held last night in the Canongate Kirk, the official church of the Royal Family when they are in residence at Holyrood Palace. The church was comfortably full of the kind of people one would expect to find at an Edinburgh G&S performance: quiet, orderly, companionable, some wearing tweed jackets, some draped in silk scarves.

I mention this for contrast. 

After the performance, at which we recognised seven friends or so, we went to the Tollbooth Tavern with five of them and had a pint (or, in my case, a half-pint) of ale. We talked about 18th century Chinese wallpaper and ecclesiastical vestments.  

Benedict Ambrose and I got back on the Rough Bus at about 10:45.

This time the driver told us that he would be deviating from the route and that anyone who wanted to go to [slum] would have to get off at the last stop before his detour. This understandably disconcerted the passengers, some of whom were foreign students. However, Benedict Ambrose and I were merely annoyed by the delay (the driver seemed to get lost twice or thrice), suspecting and then knowing--I checked the news on my phone--that the point was to avoid the slum, which had been locked down by police. 

It was very dark, indeed, and it was difficult to see the bus stops. We rang the bell a trifle late for ours, so we alighted further from our home than we expected. The driver, B.A. thought, was rather frazzled. As he said so, I heard loud wailing. A youngish man in a hoodie was lurching down the other side of the street, one hand held to his torso, making gulping noises and occasionally bursting into noisy sobs. I couldn't see his face, but I had the fleeting impression that it was bloody. 

"Ambulance?" I suggested, but Benedict Ambrose thought that the man was merely drunk. He was, after all, still on his feet. We scurried--well, I scurried--home. 

I could write here at great length what I think is fuelling the rage of the socially excluded in Scotland, but instead I'm going to the gym to prepare my body for the old age that may leave me vulnerable to the fury of the young, Scottish and poor. I will throw out three concepts for exploration later: the breakdown of the family; consumerism; celebrity culture--especially celebrity culture. Jack and Lewis will never live like Kanye West, and they think they've been robbed. 

They have been robbed, in fact, but not of Bel Air mansions and babes. But that's a subject for later, for I'm off to the gym.

Saturday 5 November 2022

Plastic not fantastic

Conservation must be led by conservatives.

I received an SMS of approval from Polish Pretend Son, who lauded the anti-plastic part of my last post. He pointed out, however, that he saw a lot of plastic in my flat when he and his family came to stay last summer. 

They, in contrast, have been successful in eliminating almost all plastic from their daily lives, and I must admit I was charmed to meet the farmer who brings them their milk in glass bottles and tells them the latest countryside gossip, e.g. it was the Russians who poisoned the Oder river.  

Pretend Daughter-in-Law is a stay-at-home mother, which I mention because living a plastic-free, natural food, anti-sugar life depends on a lot of household work. I recall a very interesting lunch conversation in another traditional Catholic household, seven very mannerly children chowing down around the table, in which the father discussed environmentalists' reluctance to admit that the fulfilment of their eco-dreams would require women to leave the salaried workforce. Polish Pretend Son is, so far, not anti-fuel, so his wife takes a car to the rural butcher to load up on the high-quality organic meat. I wonder how long it would take to get there by bicycle, and I hope she does not attempt it. 

But these are idle thoughts. The fact is that there is indeed a lot of plastic in our flat, mainly in the kitchen (if we don't count the polyester carpets) because we have expelled most of it from the bathroom. We buy unpackaged soap and my conditioner bars come in cardboard. Add some eco-toothpaste and a bamboo toothbrush for B.A., and the bathroom will be an eco virtue signal in itself, impressing even Polish Pretend Son. But the kitchen... The kitchen is another can of polyethylene terephthalate. 

Therefore, one of my New Year's Resolutions for 2023 will be to cut down the plastic waste in the kitchen, even though it seems that Scotland (or Edinburgh, at least) is serious about actually recycling the stuff. Still, a ton of packaging is not exactly the closed system that my new online guru Paul Kingsnorth talks about. Not that I think a closed system is yet possible in a city--but please let me know if I am wrong. 

So far I have eliminated cookie trays by making cookies. Sadly, butter is £1.99/250g, so my homemade plastic-free cookies cost twice as much as the on-sale cookies B.A. was bringing home. At this point, Polish Pretend Son would make a surly remark about the horrors of sugar, about which he would be correct, but the homemade cookies are more satisfying, so they last longer. 

The reason why I am banging on about plastic again is because I am a conservative and think  conservation of the earth should not be left to liberals, who might not be able to do it alone, or at all. In Edinburgh the most headlining grabbing effort on behalf of "the environment" recently was conducted by a group of vegan adult children who dumped milk on the floor of a Waitrose supermarket for the employees to mop up. Well, there's no use crying over spilled milk, but who could take such people seriously? What the world needs are people who are not interested in theatrics but in facing cold, hard (and soft, warm) reality.  

Any suggestions on eliminating household plastic waste? 

Wednesday 2 November 2022

Healthy Limits

This is what 50 looked like for me (plus lipstick)

When I was young and thin and angry, I worked in a passport office, which meant that I knew how old all the applicants were. The contrast between women who had recently turned 40 interested me; I discerned two groups, whom I dubbed "The Hockey Moms" and "The Fighters." 

The Hockey Moms had short hair, wore glasses, were dowdies. The Fighters dyed their long tresses, applied makeup, presumably wore contact lenses, and dressed well. The Hockey Moms were soft; the Fighters were sharp. I worked out for 3 hours a day, every second day, ate a low-fat diet, and weighed 117 lbs. I was definitely on the side of the Fighters in that I planned to be one when I were as old as they.

Now I am a decade past 40 and five pounds overweight and a lot happier than I was as a 20-something. I have long hair (albeit greying), which I rather eccentrically braid most of the time, but I wear glasses and I have largely given up make-up. I wear gym clothes to the gym but wear long skirts into town. I am trying to imagine how I will appear to the 20-somethings in the North York passport office when I get my own passport renewed. Not a Hockey Mom--and my apologies to real Hockey Moms, by the way--but not a Fighter either. 

However,  they would be wrong. I have become another kind of Fighter--not a woman who fights Nature for herself but a woman who fights herself for Nature. I wear glasses and eschew make-up because I can't justify to myself the mandatory use of plastic these entail. It wasn't just the solution bottles that weighed upon my conscience and fill the earth; it was the lenses themselves and their hygienic little plastic packets. I still have a lipstick on the go; we'll see if I can hold out against the temptation to buy another when it's done. 

And that points away from the one personal battle against plastic to the Great War humans are fighting against the boundaries of what it is to be human. We are part of Creation--called to be the stewards of Creation--but we carry on as if we were gods. We trespass over every border we encounter, and I can think of no more obvious example of this than engaging in in vitro fertilisation; I'm too used to the concept of murder. It is written on our hearts that it is for Almighty God to decide when a human life ends; it is necessary only now to assert that it is Almighty God's prerogative to decide how a human life begins. 

(This is not to dunk on so-called test tube babies themselves, by the way. They are just as innocent of their origins as babies conceived in rape.)

Another bizarrely god-like thing we're doing lately is attempting to turn boys into girls, men into women, and vice versa. Our God never did such a thing; it was Hera who, according to the story, turned Teresius into a woman and then back into a man. Yes, there are very rare exceptions to the rule (baby boys with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome brought up believing they are girls), but otherwise it is impossible for a male to become a woman or for a female to become a man.  

So far so Catholic, but what about the war against ageing I found so compelling when I was young?

Attempting to appear younger than we are by whatever means is an age-old pursuit, and as we in the West have always prized youth in women, growing old gracefully--by which I mean willingly--is decidedly counter-cultural. But I think this is something worth exploring because there is a real limit to youth and a limit to which we should go in attempting to transgress the borders. We wouldn't bathe in the blood of virgins, but have you checked that your skin cream doesn't include fetal cells? Saint Thomas Aquinas was not keen on cosmetics except to cover real disfigurement; I can only imagine what he would have made of Neocutis.

If any of this talk of limits sounds faintly familiar, it will be because this post was inspired by Paul Kingsnorth's Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. I heartily recommend this book--with the caveat that he wrote it before he (spoiler alert) converted to Christianity, so expect some mild rudeness about religious faith. Naturally Kingsnorth did not write about Woman's fight against aging (or, for that matter, her fertility or her infertility or her genetics or men who call themselves women). However, he is very keen on the idea of human beings keeping within the limits of humanity and not continuing carrying on as if we were gods, treating the rest of Creation as if we were the terrorists of Mount Olympus. 

Tuesday 1 November 2022

What do you want for Christmas?

November at last! I've been looking forward to the first moment it would not be indecent to write about the great Christian feast of wintertide, and All Saints Day is it. I've got time to do it, too, for I am going to the 10 AM Mass at the Cathedral and therefore have blocked off the morning. 

This year we're going to Canada for Christmas, and so we let the October 31 deadline for economy-class Yuletide packages pass us by. I also felt liberated from the need to buy presents during our Canadian Thanksgiving weekend holiday in the Borders. Last year we went to Cambridge, and I bought three bulky Cambridge U sweatshirts that were surprisingly popular with their recipients. At least, they wear them on our Skype calls. I am gratified because who wants to spend money on a dud gift?

I find buying Christmas presents incredibly stressful, and so I have worked out strategies to cut down on the cortisol. The first is to remind myself that only the gifts to the children have to be successful; the adults have their own money and if anyone asks them what they got for Christmas, it will be asked in a jokey fashion. The second is to count up how many people should get presents this year (the meter starts at 13) and budget. The third is to ask the principal 13 (or their parents) what they want for Christmas. 

This number, incidentally, includes me, and I know what I want Benedict Ambrose to get me for Christmas, and I know what he wants for Christmas, so that's two down, 11 to go. Actually, B.A. is in charge of buying his mother's present, so as far as I'm concerned, that's three down, 10 to go. 

And here is where I make my great appeal to my family--and to Christian society as a whole--to think of reasonably priced things you would like for Christmas. Now that I have thoroughly grown up and shot down deep roots into reality, I realise that the answer "Oh, I really don't know" is not a particularly kind answer to the question "What do you want for Christmas?"

Paradoxically, it is easier to know what you want for Christmas if you are in an economic downturn, or madly overpaying the mortgage, or a voluntary minimalist. What you want is something that you think is just a tiny bit too expensive for what it is, e.g. the really good coffee you bought when it was £5.50 but is now £7 a bag. Perhaps your gas bill was (she checks) £116 this month, and you would quite fancy a humorous draught excluder shaped like an overly long dachshund. Perhaps the cover of your hot water bottle is looking sad, and it would be lovely if your sister, a keen knitter, would knit you one shaped like an owl or some other homely creature. Perhaps you are worried about the Three Days of Darkness and want some beeswax candles to take to the priest for a blessing on Candlemas. Whatever you want, it surely does not cost more than £30/$34.61 US/$46.90 Canadian. (Holy cats! What has Trudeau done to you?) At very least, it does not cost more than the gifts you are giving to fellow adults. 

(That said, in 2020 I asked my parents for a wool cardigan from my favourite Edinburgh shop which definitely cost more than £30, and I wore out the delicate elbows within months. I am not proof against sudden bursts of Advent greed, but I'm trying.)

But anyway my point is to make life easy for the person who asks "What do you want for Christmas" by writing a Christmas list that does not at all resemble the Wish Lists you wrote as a penniless child but is tailored to the wallets of the givers. Tick off the presents as the askers ask. For example, when my youngest brother asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told him for two years running that I wanted beeswax candles--which I sincerely did. I was delighted when they arrived, and I hope I get more this Christmas, hint hint.

One thing for sure: I do not believe that anyone can magically read minds--although they might be unusually good at taking hints--so nobody should expect any loved one to know what his or her tastes are. (This is particularly true when you have been divided for three years by the shocking regulations of suddenly totalitarian states.) Instead, one should imagine the loved one at a loss in a frantic, tinselled, cookie cutter mall in a state of panic and confusion and feel a chivalrous desire to spare him or her that horror. 

I recommend a person-centred Christmas list that puts your loved one in the centre, with what you will volunteer to them as a present for yourself on the right side, and what they told you they would like on the left, e.g. 

That Book He Wants----->Benedict Ambrose----> Those Made-in-England gloves I will tell him about. 

A bonus: if you tell each person something different, you are unlikely to get the same thing from everyone. You might be happy to have multiples, but the wind might be taken out of the gift-givers' sails.

So be prepared. Make a list of little presents you would like to receive  and be sure to ask your loved ones what they want (if you are very brave, add "Under £30/$35/ $47") well in advance for Christmas. If this week they say, "I haven't thought about it" be sure to ask them again in 2 weeks. If they don't get back to you before the second Sunday of Advent, I recommend beeswax candles. But then, I love beeswax candles and if there are rolling blackouts this winter (or WORSE, see above) they will come in handy.  


Thursday 27 October 2022

Hot sun and cake

As long-term readers know, I am greatly interested in language acquisition and hope to become fluent in both Polish and Italian. "Fluent" to me (for this does not have a fixed meaning among language nerds) means being able to converse in, read and write in a language without much difficulty or dread. 

There are people who pick up languages easily (there are controversial theories about them), and there are people who have to plod. Me, I have to plod, like Sysiphus, up the language hill. It is not always rewarding, but the research suggests that the longer you spend learning and relearning a language, the more likely you are to succeed. Naturally, living in Scotland does not particularly help me learn Polish or Italian.

Needing, after five years, to take a break from reading, writing, and editing news reports, I test-drove my retirement plans by signing up for an intensive Polish course in university-rich Lublin. (My first choice was open only to Ukrainian refugees this summer.) By going there, I learned what discomforts to avoid in future and how to distract myself from them by focussing on what was great, like the sunshine and the beautiful architecture here and there and especially in the Old City. 

Lublin is in Poland's southeast, and it is hot in summer. This was not comfortable at night, but it was marvellous in the day. The sun poured down heat like a hot tap gushing water. I wore prescription sunglasses and slathered myself with sunscreen every time I went out. I wore cotton T-shirts, linen skirts, and sandals. At night I washed my clothes by stomping on them as I took a shower and dried them on clothes hangers in my room. 

My average day involved waking up between 5 and 7 AM. If it was after 6, I would dress and go to the kitchen at the end of the hall to make coffee. I'd make a potful, pour it in the kitchen's one mug, and then fill the pot again. Then I'd carry mug and pot back to my room, drink the coffee, read the headlines, and  do homework. I'd leave at 8:10 AM, going down several flights of stairs to hand my keys to one of the revolving team of porters, and then go down a few more steps to the street. Then I'd walk to the school, avoiding the noisy main street as much as I could. I'd usually pass a building painted with an enormous mural of a Russian bear being goaded by a two-headed snake to attack a beehive painted the colours of the Ukrainian flag. I'd eat breakfast in the student dining hall; the food was set out buffet style. 

At 9 I went up several flights of stairs to grammar class, which lasted until 1 PM. The main meal was then served in the dining hall, kitchen staff bringing brimming tureens of soup and then plates of meat and bowls of potatoes and vegetables. The BBQ-style chicken was particularly memorable, as was the one time we got a pudding: strawberry mousse cake. Sadly, we had pierogi only once. Dinners were always Polish, always homemade (as it were), and always delicious. Sometimes there were kitchen-cooked eggs or sausage for breakfast or dinner, too. 

Most days after dinner I would apply more sunblock and walk back to my dorm to trade my grammar book for gym clothes and lie down for 10 minutes. I'd then walk all the way back to the school, sometimes buying a coffee from a bike cart, although I was more likely to dash out and buy it between my 1.5 hour session with a private tutor and my 1.5 hour conversation class. As I had only half an hour, this was a rather hot and rushed walk. 

Incidentally, I lost weight. 

After class I'd go to supper, which was again buffet-style, and then walk to the gym. The weight rooms were deluxe with a lot of machines although not many benches. A 72-hour pass cost £9; it would have been cheaper to pay for the minimum 2 month membership, but in the fuss of needing a working phone to be a member, I didn't do the math. 

Also incidentally, I was able to hoist my suitcase over my head into the luggage rack of the train from Lublin to Wroclaw when I left. 

After working out, I might buy yogurt and fruit or nuts from Stokrota (a chain supermarket) or a book or stationary from Empik (a chain bookstore) and then walk along the darkening streets back to my dorm. There I would study until 9 PM, when I called Benedict Ambrose over Skype. At about 9:30 PM, I would wash myself and my clothes, set my alarm for 7 AM (which was usually just wishful thinking) and read Hemingway in Polish until I was sleepy, say the Rosary and fall asleep.

The bed was very hard and some mornings the dustmen's truck came rattling down the street at 5:30 AM although sometimes the street was quiet until the construction crew arrived at 6:30 AM. I had never suffered loss of sleep so long in my life, getting about 6 to 6.5 hours a night for the 3 weeks before I went to stay with a Polish family. I'm surprised I learned anything, let alone never lost belongings or got hurt. 

Occasionally--especially in the third week--this schedule was enlivened by cake. At first I bought myself petits fours at a bakery on the way home on Wednesdays. But then I had coffee and cake with my classmate Stan, where we discussed Polish travels, the State of the (American) Union, Millennials and Generation Z. Later, I met Stan for extremely amazing cake--featuring rum- or Kahlua- laced whipped cream slathered between layers, for example--at a cafe set in the outer wall of the Old Town. 

Because I was so busy walking to and fro, going to classes, going to the gym, studying and trying to get enough sleep, I didn't do much sightseeing. In fact, I walked around the Old City only two or three times, and went to only one art exhibition. The program was supposed to feature weekend trips, but these joys were, in the end, only for the July students to enjoy. The August students were offered upgrades instead, which is how I ended up with private tutors. 

I very much appreciated the private tutors, for after four hours of grammar class and notwithstanding all the English spoken at dinner (for English remained the lingua franca of the students),  I was well-primed to speak fluently on topics about which I know most, like Poland's pro-life, pro-family movement. (After one particularly successful session, I asked my tutor to tell my grammar teacher how well I had done.) So one thing I definitely learned is that I speak Polish best (and make the most progress) privately with a professional teacher of Polish for Foreigners.  

Thus, I should add to my list of Lublin joys the thrill of improving my conversation skills with tutors while also acknowledging the excellent teaching of the grammar and group conversation teachers. If it weren't for the organiser I complained about so thoroughly yesterday, I would go back to that school, only arranging for my own board and lodging. I would certainly not remake the mistake of assuming that students 20-30 years my junior would accept my presence with equanimity. If possible, I would bring Benedict Ambrose with me, so that I wouldn't be lonely. But as Benedict Ambrose has no interest in learning Polish, I am not sure what he would do all day. Well, perhaps he could do the sightseeing for us both. 

Wednesday 26 October 2022

The Angry Birds of Lublin

I have not read much Polish--just headlines here and there--since I fell ill at the end of September. The brief bout of what the stick afterwards told me was COVID seems to have left me reluctant to study. I would not say it was the last straw, but it has given strength to the little voice that says, "Why bother?"

And the moment has come to write about the trials and tribulations of studying Polish in Lublin, which contained not only the difficulties to which post-Soviet workplaces are prone, but the nastiness of fellow foreign students of Polish, most of whom were more than 20 years my junior. 

When I arrived at the student residence, after a long and solitary journey involving a plane and a train, the porter had no record of my existence. Although I was disappointed, I was not surprised. The organiser of the course had sent me emails about my studies only when he was reminded with a phone call. Years of experience of travelling in Poland led me to sit down and let the porter sort it out. He did. So far so good. 

But I had no internet connection, I discovered, and the porter couldn't sort that out, so I wondered what to do. As I was going up the stairs, a group of women in their twenties swept past me, chatting in American.   

"Girls," I said cheerfully in Polish and then, Polish deserting me, I foolishly said, "Are you Americans?"

"No," one shouted up the stairs scornfully, and I could have kicked myself. Five years of working online with Americans had made me forget the essential (and hypocritical) anti-American streak in Coke-drinking, Disney-watching, American-speaking European (and Canadian) life. Another said, more honestly, that they weren't all American.

Dropping the American theme, I asked them if they knew the wi-fi password, and they told me, in surly, suspicious tones, that I should have got it in "the email." 

And off they went. 

I have given this a lot of thought, and I suspect that was my Devastating Social Error Number One. Devastating Social Error Number Two happened the next morning, at around 6:30 AM, when I dropped a metal French press full of coffee in the small vestibule outside my door and that of the women in the next room. (We shared a bathroom.) I was tired, burned and furious with myself. From the other room, there was not a peep. I cleaned up--and there was a lot to clean up--and determined to apologise to my neighbours as soon as I saw them.

But I didn't see them for days, and when I did, they didn't acknowledge my existence. In fact, I only realised that one of them was my neighbour after I recognised the scarf hanging in the vestibule as belonging to the rainbow-haired young lady who had been flirtatiously contemptuous (I thought) at  a handsome young priest. (He was a seminarian, actually.) I was shocked, and it may have shown on my face, which would have been Devastating Social Error Number Three. 

Devastating Social Error Number Four was habitually turning off the light in the vestibule, for which there was only one light switch--by the hall door. I realised my mistake only when my rainbow-haired neighbour swept past me and turned it off as I was unlocking my bedroom door. 

"Hey," I shouted.

Slam went the hall door. 

This young lady, whom I will call Gerta, was American and had such a large, prominent and distinctive tattoo that if I described her, you would recognise her immediately upon meeting her. Therefore, I'm not going to describe her but leave this for a novel I will write in the tranquility of my old age. (Dye stains on towels left for Housekeeping will feature.) What I will say is that she didn't speak to me or respond to my greetings for two weeks. 

I was so rattled by this silent treatment that eventually I broke down and cried in front of my 22-year-old private tutor and sobbed out (in Polish) my feelings of isolation and rejection. 

Because it wasn't just Gerta. 

It was the Slovenian girl who asked, her voice dripping with contempt, why Polish- and Slovenian-Americans were so interested in Polish and Slovenian culture when, in Slovenia, it was more cool to be foreign. 

It was the American boy whose every word to me was a verbal eye-roll. 

It was definitely the young woman from somewhere or other in Europe who actually made an "ugh" noise at the back of her throat when I wished her a good day. 

It was also the Montrealer whose "I don't want to talk to anyone from the wrong part of Canada" declaration and jokes about "boobs" did not reduce his popularity with Generation Z an iota. 

And it was the female passerby who smirked when all Polish deserted me when I was downstairs trying to talk to the porter. 

It was also, in a lesser way, the organiser of the course who could not be bothered to add my email address to the list, or come up with an alternative list for those who would be at the school in August. Or for those who weren't university students. 

Every day for two weeks I was blanked and blanked again. I felt like the big ungainly fowl who interrupts the little birds by landing on their own personal telephone wire, only without the sense of humour.  

Because, even keeping in mind my active mistakes, I realised that the Most Devastating Social Error of All was being a woman over 40.   

(And in case you are wondering if they had all Googled me, I was there under my maiden name.) 

That I wasn't utterly miserable is thanks to the friendly personality of a half-Polish Italian girl in my homeroom (as it were) and, especially, a 50-something Polish-American civil servant I'll call Stan. (Hi, Stan!) The Italian girl and I didn't speak much outside class (she lived and lunched with Polish relatives in town), but she smiled and acknowledged my existence. Stan chatted with me and the other old lady in the dining hall, a melancholy Poland-loving Central European widow. It turned out that her melancholy was partly due to Gerta, who had been her great pal last summer, but was now blanking her. 

I am very grateful to Stan for enlivening a lonely time. His previous stay in Lublin was during the Cold War, and he told me all about what the city looked like then. Stan has family in the Tatras, near Zakopane; he told me about Goral hospitality and family ties and how his late grandfather, who spoke no English, gave him an American $20 bill. Stan really really believes in American democracy; he also told me about what he had done to preserve it. 

It was Stan who told me where the nearest weight room was and where the best cakes were. He also attempted to harden me up to the realities of life as the next-door neighbour of Silent Treatment Gerta by saying, "Are you going to let a 22 year old girl upset you that much?" That said, he was annoyed and disgusted by another a young American, a man who bragged so much and was so self-absorbed that he was positively iconic. You couldn't make him up. Stan couldn't stand him; I valued him as a future character in my next novel. 

And I will say this for Frank (not his real name): he was not an age snob. Although he never asked us about ourselves, he didn't make "ugh" noises or roll his eyes or blank us. And when (Week 3) I was exclusionary myself, asking Stan at the one lunch table of remaining students if he were free for cake later, Frank didn't sneer. As the group of students got smaller and smaller, he just asked whoever was left if he wanted to go out for drinks.  

Stan, a Democrat, looked up my workplace but was quite openminded about it, possibly because he had been cold-shouldered or cancelled for not always sticking to the party line. Apart from being Generation X and Catholic, what we had in common was a wistful desire to improve our Polish and the notion that it would be a great retirement plan to live in Lublin all year and study Polish every day. The teachers, at least, were very good, and Stan had not been as neglected by the organiser. For example, soon after he arrived, a beautiful young Polish girl popped up before him and announced, "I'm your angel!"

"Yes, you are," thought Stan, but it turned out that the angel's job was to make sure he didn't get lost, had everything he needed, etc. (Where was my angel? Well, I guess he was Stan.)

This post is for Stan, who told me to contact him when I wrote about the course. I suspect he was hoping I that I would lay waste to Frank, but I don't want to squander the rich possibilities of Frank, the millennial Rex Mottram, in a blogpost. Frank deserves a novel, and I'm sure Frank would agree. 

Meanwhile, now that I have gotten the Angry Birds out of my system, I think I will later write a happier blogpost about Lublin, this time stressing the loveliness of the actual Poles (except the organiser), the splendid cafes, and the delicious farewell supper I shared with Stan. 

In case you are wondering, Benedict Ambrose is also grateful to Stan. Once I got my wi-fi sorted out, B.A. had to listen to my trials and tribulations every night. "I had cake with Stan" was a nice break from "All the twenty-somethings hate meeeee!!!!"

Message for Stan: I first wrote about it here.

Friday 21 October 2022

Sufficient Unto the Day?

Actual British boiler in a weeny flat

The plumber is coming, so I have been tidying up and thinking about my late, great friend Angela who used to talk wryly about "cleaning for the cleaner." Now I am thinking about those lovely little robots that do the vacuuming and how much buying one would disrupt our savings goals. 

I think about money quite a lot these days, in part because I enjoy doing simple sums and thinking about how we guessed right in (A) overpaying the mortgage (B) locking in a fixed rate mortgage before even the lowest ones soared above 2%. 

The alternatives were, of course, spending more on our "Lifestyle" or shoving the money into the Stockmarket. Until recently, financial independence bloggers often compared the great gains you can make on the Stockmarket versus the relatively low percentage everyone seemed to be paying on their mortgages. They would warn against "opportunity costs" and talk about making 6%-10% on your own money in the markets versus the 1-3% you had to pay on the bank's money. 

Naturally, banks don't loan ordinary folk hundreds of thousands of pounds/dollars to put into shares, so in a bull market using the bank's money to finance your home while you make a killing with your own money makes sense. But that sounds all very 2009-2019 to me. Since Spring 2019, we in the UK have had Brexit, the COVID lockdowns, and three prime ministers. The markets are down, the pound is down, inflation is up, and mortgage interest rates are up, too. Oh, and so are gas and electric and rents. 

Buying a weeny, well-insulated flat far from the city centre and throwing money at the mortgage as if bailing water out of a sinking boat turned out to be very smart. And this reminds me that even if money cannot buy you happiness, it can buy you a certain peace of mind. 

This in turn reminds me of Matthew 26:6 - 34 ("Behold the fowls of the air...") which in turn leads me to wonder what the Lord meant about not worrying about food, drink, clothing and tomorrow. (I shall send a text to a seminary professor friend to ask.) Perhaps He literally meant that we should not feel unhappy about the food, drink, clothing and tomorrow issues but just do what we're called to do (which usually means paid work of some time or keeping house for your salaried spouse) and trust in the Father to make things work out ultimately for the best.

I wonder if schools now teach children and teens about money, the miracles of compound interest, and the joys of capitalism versus the evils of consumerism? When I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, it was still fashionable in some circles to be rude about the bourgeoisie and capitalists, but I would guess that a large percentage of the students born in Canada sprang from the bourgeoisie and that their parents owned capital, if only in the form of their houses. (Today the average house price in Toronto is over a million.) Thinking back to the 1990s, it seems to me that the children of immigrants were less likely to be rude about capital, perhaps because they knew how much work it takes to get it. 

It strikes me this puts the children of immigrants to Canada at a psychological advantage. They know where money comes from, which means they know where to get it, and how hard their parents had to work to earn money, which fosters gratitude and loyalty to their parents. Second, they might also understand why it would have been even harder (or impossible) for their parents to get the money in their countries of origin, which fosters gratitude and loyalty to their new country.    

I'm thinking not so much of immigrant kids of my own generation but of Millennial Revolutions' Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung. Toil do they not and neither do they spin because they took degrees that would land them high paying jobs, saved as much as they humanly could and retired as millionaires in their early thirties. They don't worry about food, drink, and clothing but live within their means, keep an eye on their aging parents, chat with likeminded people from around the world and travel like the unusually energetic Canadian retirees they are.  

Their book doesn't mention this, but I am relatively sure Shen and Leung didn't spend their time at university shutting down other people's freedom of speech. 

And now about that night at Edinburgh Uni

My keenest readers will know that I was at Edinburgh University on Monday night to report on a lecture by a speaker from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. They will also know that this lecture was attended by a hostile group carrying banners and interrupted by a second (but related) group carrying a bullhorn. The blue-haired holder of the bullhorn made a speech which could have been a parody of such speeches, carefully mentioning "people with uteruses" instead of women, and saying that the students who had invited the speaker didn't "deserve a platform." 

The odds are the blue-haired woman was American, but there was something about her voice that made me think she might be Canadian. Either way, leading an occupying army into a room to stop a woman from speaking was an atrocious way for someone to behave in a foreign country. I would not have been thrilled had a Scot led the charge, but I might not have been so angry.   

I was also angry at the self-righteousness of the occupiers who shouted "Who funds you?" at the SPUC speaker, apparently believing (despite their own American members) that there is something particularly disgraceful in receiving donations from Americans. (In reality, SPUC is mostly funded by British donors, and in Scotland I would guess the majority of them are working-class Catholic Scots.) Their unshakeable belief that--at a university, at Edinburgh University--they were entitled to stop an audience from hearing a speaker they had come to hear--was appalling.  I was also angry at the sense of entitlement of these shrimps, especially when they expressed how "f****" angry" they were against Edinburgh University as if it were their own ungrateful child who had let them down. 

I was also scared, both for the security of my phone (with which I was recording this disgraceful scene) and for the speaker. When I was in my twenties, pro-abortion demonstrators could be damned violent and in 2012 someone tried to murder people working for the Family Research Council because he didn't like the FRC's stand on gay marriage. (He succeeded in killing the security guard.) I got a young man I know from church to walk me to my bus stop after the fracas, and I ascertained that the pro-life women I thought most at risk were similarly protected on their way home. (To be fair to the Gen Z mob, thoughts of physical violence may never had entered their university-enrolled heads.)

I was so angry that, not only did I not sleep until 2 AM on Tuesday morning, I woke up at 6 AM on Wednesday. I realised then that the only way to exorcise my fury was to return to my "platform." At the meeting I couldn't say anything because I was reporting on the incident, but afterwards--let's just say I made full use of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998. 

When I had written this second article, gone to the gym, and returned home to begin my real working day, I reflected that not only do I have a "platform" to express many opinions the occupying activists wouldn't like, I get paid to express them, too. It was a very cheering thought.

Sunday 16 October 2022

The Care and Feeding of Husbands

Don't let him eat this more than once a year.

First, I must declare that I am not a doctor (even of theology) and that random posts by church tea ladies should not be read in lieu of seeking proper medical advice. 

Second, I regret that this will not be a particularly intensive article. 

But, third, I also point out that all men--despite being the same in some respects--are unique, each carrying a wondrous galaxy within. Therefore, the SAHM (stay at home mother) and other wives in general (why do we not say SAHW?) will have to think about her own particular man whenever weighing up advice about the care and feeding of husbands. 

Incidentally, not too long ago it was common for a Scotswoman to refer to her husband as her "man," and Scotswomen--after getting past initial greetings and remarks about the weather--would say "How's your man?" Now they seem more likely to say "your partner," and I no doubt cause offence when I say, "My husband is very well, thank you."

1. Medical care

My husband is very well, thank you, and not six feet under because when we first married, I signed him up at the medical clinic charged with the care of our geographical area. I was surprised to discover that I could do this until I read that, in general, men in Scotland don't go to the doctor unless their wives (women, partners) send them. The male reluctance to go to the doctor is apparently one of the reasons why men-in-general die before women-in-general do.

Therefore, I recommend to the starry-eyed young bride to find her husband a family doctor (or sign him up at the neighbourhood clinic) as soon as the honeymoon is over. If he hasn't had a physical in some time, it might be a good idea for him to have one now, just as you're starting out. You might want to have one, too.  

Naturally, suffering may be involved. The overweight nurse who weighed me told me I weighed too much, and she told Benedict Ambrose that he drank too much. However, the sting wore off when I realised that 60% of women in Britain are overweight or obese, and 26% of men in Britain drink more than the recommended 14 units per week. More on this anon. 

2. Man flu, etc., should be taken seriously

My mother has never made a joke at my father's expense, and I was quite advanced in age when I came across the phenomenon of women mocking men for "man flu." The idea is that men lack fortitude and make the most of their minor illnesses so they can do even less housework/childminding/yardwork than ever, ha ha. But it turns out that men might actually, objectively, suffer more from minor illnesses because they have weaker immune systems.  

Having just come out of a rather achey bout of COVID (which I thought was flu and through which I breathed as freely as a zephyr through the woods), I cannot think of anything crueller than mocking someone suffering from an illness so badly that they take to bed. 

Meanwhile, my own husband is still alive because I took his aches (behind his eye, in his neck) seriously and said, "You should see the doctor" and "You should reschedule that cancelled eye appointment." Of course, it was not just me. Benedict Ambrose was also saved by the late food critic A.A. Gill, who wrote that the first sign of his terminal cancer was a pain in his neck. 

Therefore, I also recommend to the starry-eyed young bride that when her husband confesses to her that he has a strange shortness of breath/recurring angina/a pain in his neck/a pain behind his eye/recurring migraines/a lump or any other weird thing that she say "You should see the doctor" and then, if he does not make an appointment, to make an appointment for him and inform him where and when. If necessary, drive him. 

3. Meet your sick husband's primary caregiver: you

Should your husband end up in hospital, God forbid, visit him every day, get to know the people caring for him, and don't take COVID for an answer. (I don't myself know how to do that, mind you, and I often thank God B.A. recovered by 2019.) At any rate, try to be privy to all conversations about his medical care, and go with him to appointments if you are in the slightest doubt of his current mental capacity or ability to communicate clearly. 

I don't know (of course) how things are where you live, but the National Health Service in Scotland was very stretched, even before the COVID crisis, and it was obvious to me that whereas nurses and doctors had to divide their attention among dozens of people, I had the advantage of being able to concentrate on only one. 

Had we had children, by the way, I believe I would have sent them to family in Canada during this period--or imported my own SAHM to watch them.  

4.  Praise

As I have blogged many times over the past 16 years, my mother constantly praised my father to their children. This means that it feels easy and natural to praise my husband. Of course, my husband is also very praiseworthy individual, but presumably even the good-enough husband does praiseworthy things like wash the dishes, take out the rubbish, bottle the apple cider, call the plumber and all those other things you would have had to have done had he not done it. 

I have a theory that men need praise more or less in the same way they need food, so if you want to help keep your husband mentally and physically healthy, you should thank him every time he does some household task, tell him he is clever whenever he does something clever, and applaud him for anything he rather thinks he has done well. 

This also has a good effect on wives. I once had a very sad email or comment from a young reader who wrote that she couldn't stand to go to bed with her husband because she could no longer respect him. I do not at all know their circumstances, but it occurs to me that if she heard herself thanking him daily for such simple and mundane things like putting his dirty socks in the hamper or applauding his ability to throw an apple core into the trash bin from 12 feet away, she might not feel that way.

Fifty years of propaganda have led me to believe my dad is just a little less than the angels, and fourteen years on, I am pretty sure B.A. is reaching dad-like heights. Is all this rooted in reality or in brainwashing? Hmm. Either way, my dad and my husband are both still alive.* Yay! 

5. Example vs nagging

People are very much influenced by the people with whom they spend the most time. Therefore, if you are determined that your husband should have healthier habits, you should first adopt healthier habits yourself.  During the COVID lockdown, when my health club locked up, I bought an exercise bike. I kept it in the kitchen as a reminder to exercise.  I pedalled away and was absolutely delighted when my never-caught-dead-in-a-gym husband began to pedal away, too. 

Another healthy habit to consider is giving up alcohol on the same days you give up meat, should you be the sort of Christian who both drinks alcohol and periodically abstains from meat. If you announce that you are no longer going to drink alcohol on Wednesdays and Fridays, your husband may decide to join you in that. (To be honest, though, I think Benedict Ambrose and I came up with that idea together.) 

So much for alcohol and fatness, the twin devils of the NHS (see above). Other healthy habits you can take up include eating at least 5 vegetables (and fruit although vegetables are now said to be vastly superior) a day. If you are in charge of cooking, you have a lot of control over what your husband eats. If you yourself smoke, you should stop. If your husband smokes and refuses to stop despite everything doctors, scientists, his mother, his sisters, his teary-eyed children, and you have to say about it, you can at least set limits like "not in the house" and "not in front of the children."  

But I don't have very much experience with nicotine addiction because my smoking grandmother quit cold turkey after landing in the hospital with double pneumonia. To this day I associate cigarettes with nervous but affectionate old ladies with long crimson fingernails, and when men ask me if I mind if they smoke, I usually say, "Oh, not at all! It reminds me of my grandmother." This never fails to annoy them, which I don't mind. In fact, I hope it makes them so self-conscious they quit because--I haven't had an excuse to type this in years!--men are the caffeine in the cappuccino of life. 

*UPDATE: All joking aside, your husband is going to die, and unless you murder him, it won't be your fault. (See yesterday's post.) God will call him to Himself when He sees fit. However, I feel that there is some room for negotiation with the Most High on this matter. 

Saturday 15 October 2022

Advice for prospective young SAHMs

Suitably lonely looking road.

Before I go any further, a SAHM is a "stay at home mother," o readers who are not acquainted with Christian lifestyle disputes on Twitter. 

Occasionally I go over my past to find my life-changing mistakes: a terrible, demoralising habit. It is tempting to think that everyone else was handed a foolproof template of "What To Do and How To Do It" by their parents when they were 16. I am now inclined to think that almost everyone in my generation (X/Y) just stumbled from this imperfect decision to that, backtracked, leapt forward, and generally found themselves on a life-sized game of Snakes and Ladders.  

It has become a cliche for social conservative women to write essays detailing how "feminism lied to us." Although certain famous feminists most certainly tell lies, I'm more inclined to blame our reading and viewing material from preventing us from putting down roots into reality. 

It is a mistake, for example, to over-identify with the heroines of Regency romances. Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Bennett, who never had to work for a living, was the equivalent of today's multi-millionaire. Mr. Darcy was the equivalent of a 21st century billionaire. I'm unlikely ever to have seen a modern-day Elizabeth Bennett, unless she came north for the Knights of Malta Ball and bid for that jaw-droppingly expensive holiday on Gozo. Thinking we might be an Elizabeth Bennett of our time is an error for all whose photograph has not graced the pages of Country Life or Tatler.

I forget when I realised that it was a mistake to grow up always reading and studying books whose authors and characters think that having to work for your living (even if male, but definitely if female) is a brutal misfortune. That was as much as mistake as to think that people with the requisite brains and background are always blessed with high-status "careers" instead of jobs. 

Meanwhile, I had a magical feeling that I would always be financially okay unless I got addicted to drugs. (All adults and Time magazine rubbed it in well that drugs were a one-way ticket to earthly hell.) And, generally speaking, I was usually (not always) financially (just) okay until I found myself asking an HR man from my husband's work how much money I would get if/when he died. 

Guess what was the most traumatic episode of my life. Go on. Guess.  

Listen up, prospective young--and current--SAHMs! If your husband is lying in hospital and it is very possible he will die in the next six months, you do not want to have conversations about money with strangers. Neither do you want to take papers to the hospital for your horribly ill husband to sign, so that you are not left homeless and destitute. And you also do not want to freak out that the postman left something that cost you £30 in the wrong place because you're still processing a financial trauma that happened five years before. 

So you can reject feminism all you like and write splendid Tweets about how much you enjoy spending your days in the kitchen with your children cooking and then going out with them on nature walks, but I implore you to plan for your husband's eventual last sickness and death. Hopefully those sad things won't happen until he is 79.3+, but it could happen when he is 29. It could happen when he is 26. I once went to the funeral of a married man who died at 26. He had been married for only six months, and his unborn baby was due in five. 

The fact is that your husband is going to die, and you don't know when. This is why you, the prospective SAHM who as yet does not have a husband, let alone dependent children, are going to LEARN A TRADE, and for the time being AVOID DEBT,  GET A JOB, and SAVE SOME MONEY. You are also going to FIND OUT HOW MUCH LIFE COSTS, even if your parents have always sheltered you from this or told you that it's none of your business. (To dip a toe in the water, ask them/him/her how much the electricity bill is.) You are also going to READ BOOKS ON HOUSEHOLD FINANCE/FINANCIAL INDEPENDENCE. 

When a young man you actually would fancy marrying begins to talk to you about marriage ("Would you ever consider marrying me?" is how one of my friends put it to his girlfriend), this is a good time to ask him if he thinks he can support a SAHM and a flock of children and, if so, how. (Incidentally, this is also a good time to bring up the adoption issue because not all men are keen on raising what they have traditionally called "other men's children.")

Hopefully the young man has a solid job or career plan. (If his marriage plan is to travel the world as a busker, ponder if you will still want to pass the hat when you're 9 months pregnant.) If he already has a job/career, then he should look into such things as health insurance and workplace pension plans and how they relate to his future wife and children. He should also, when he is young and in the pink of health, buy life insurance. Immediately after marrying, you must both make your wills. The first three months you are married, write down everything you spend so you can realistically create the backbone of a budget. 

When you buy a home, make sure your name is on the deeds. Heck, make sure your name is on everything. This is not because you are a money-grubbing gold digger. It is because you have entrusted a man with your life and the lives of your future children and you are vulnerable. And it is also, by the way, because he is vulnerable. Men look all tough and strong but all kinds of dodgy cells are lurking in their hearts and brains and other places, biding their time to wipe them out and break your heart. 

So to make this a handy list, the prospective SAHM must:

1. Learn a trade or profession to fall back on if her husband becomes terminally ill or simply dies.

2. Do this without going into large amounts of debt. 

3. Use her pre-married life to get a job, get out of debt, and save as much as she can. 

4. Learn how much life for young couples with children in her area costs.  (Obviously 2 adults and a baby living in a one-bedroom flat in Dundee spend less on housing than 2 adults and a baby living in a townhouse in central Edinburgh.)

5. Read books on household finance/financial independence.

6. Ask suitors who have started to make marriage noises if they can afford to support a SAHM and, if yes, how.

7. Ask suitors how they would feel about adopting, should he and the prospective SAHM be unable to beget/conceive children. If this really is a deal-breaker (it wasn't for me), say so. 

8. Encourage her fiancĂ© to take out spouse-covering health insurance, join workplace pension schemes, and buy life insurance. 

9. After marriage, make a will and encourage her husband to make a will. 

10. Begin to record everything the couple spends so that they have enough data to make a workable budget. 

11. When the couple buys a home, makes sure her name is on the deeds. 

For my next post, I will offer advice for keeping your husband alive. 

Thursday 13 October 2022

Consolations during the Ordinary Form

Random photo of Pope Francis I took.

Sometimes I go to the Ordinary Form of the Mass, a more pleasant expression than "the Novus Ordo," words rarely typed with fondness. For me temptations to go to the OF instead of finding a Traditional Latin Mass usually involve convenience. There is an OF 15 minutes from my house and when travelling in rural areas it is much easier to find an OF than the TLM. The OF is also celebrated earlier in the day, and sometimes on Sunday evenings, or on Saturday evenings, so one is not tied to the time allotted to the TLM. 

Everybody who goes to the TLM knows this, and the time and money spent getting to the TLM is a considered a worthy sacrifice. However, sometimes a Catholic feels compelled to sacrifice going to the TLM for some reason: to reserve the time to make a lunch for friends, to go on holiday. But sometimes I'm not sure that one's attendance at the TLM should be sacrificed to anything else, especially when going to Mass is thereby reduced to fulfilling an obligation. 

The Prodigal Brother

One Sunday not too long ago, I elected to go to a local NO to give myself time to cook for a Sunday lunch party. Benedict Ambrose and our guests were all going to be at the Ordinariate Mass (aka the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in Scotland). Therefore, I went to the local OF, enjoying the short walk. I slipped into a pew rather near the back and cast an eye over the congregation. I was happy to see I was not the youngest person present. There was a man in his 30s, and I seem to recall two little children and maybe a few teens. The man closest to me was in his 80s, if not his 90s.  

The Gospel was about the Prodigal Son, and the homilist's non-Scottish accent was so thick I--born and raised in a city of diverse accents--could only rarely understand him. It seemed no attempt had been made to encourage him to learn to pronounce English in a way intelligible to his flock. I did understand, however, that he felt that the real Prodigal Son was the unloving Older Brother and that the parable would have been different had the Sons' Mother been in the picture. He did not seem to say this as a Marxist critique of Our Lord's storytelling, but as forelock tug to feminism, or mothers, or women in general. Certainly the Older-Brother-was-the-real-Prodigal was a hat tip to current anti-tradition prejudices, not to mention a total pastoral deafness to the universal child's cry of "It's not fair!" The Father in the story, I recall, did not rip a strip off the hardworking, loyal, and hurt Older Brother but told him all that he had was his. 

The hymns, with the shortbread tin exception of "Amazing Grace," were banal, childish, dated, and sung with great devotion by the elderly people around me. These were the hymns of their youth, I understood, and I shut my eyes and listened to them. I found this--not the songs, but the singing--consoling. 

37 years of the Ordinary Form

I went every Sunday to the Ordinary Form from the Sunday after my birth until I met Benedict Ambrose, and it fostered my love of Catholics ourselves, the crowd to whom the priests spoke, and the crowd that answered the priest together. As the critics of the Novus Ordo point out, the congregation who faces the priest and the priest who faces the congregation create a closed circle, the Blessed Sacrament (and therefore God) shunted off to a side chapel or behind the priest's back. This is a terrible thing, but there is a silver lining: it fosters the congregation's affection for the priest and it fosters affection in the community for the community. As a romantic adolescent, I would beam at the slowly moving communion queue, for those people, friend and stranger alike, were all the Body of Christ. 

It wasn't until I was in my twenties that the drawbacks of the Ordinary Form were pointed out to me--by an Anglican, who knew nothing of the Old Mass. I occasionally--and very much in the spirit of post-Vatican II Catholicism--joined this Anglican friend at one of the most beautiful, Oxford Movement inspired Anglican liturgies in the city. It was humiliating, but I digress. 

My point is that just as people who go to the Ordinary Form (which is most of the minority of Catholics who go to Mass) take great pleasure from singing the hymns of their youth, I can find consolation in listening to their devotion. I recommend this to people who prefer the TLM but find themselves in an OF, an OF that they find distinctly unedifying. 

If the priest tempts you to join the Donatists and there is no silence in which to redirect your attention to God, then throw yourself back into the love of those around you and into the admiration for their fidelity. Can there be any word but "faithful" for those who, Sunday after Sunday, scandal after scandal, return to their local church to pray privately in the brief silences, laugh together at the presider's jokes, repeat together the 50+ year old (or less) formulae, and sing the same--often terrible--hymns. At any rate, even if you argue with that, you must admit that these faithful are faithful to churchgoing. 

There is a limit to how much consolation you can get from the congregation, however. Some Masses are celebrated so badly and with so much focus on the priest at the expense of God that it begins to feel like a sin not to have made the effort to get to the TLM. 

"Is that enough?"

Catholics must go to Sunday Mass on pain of mortal sin. Most Catholics don't believe skipping Mass is a mortal sin--those would include the majority who do so every Sunday. However, I suspect a majority of the minority who DO go to Mass are propelled there, on some level, out of a sense of obligation, which is why liturgical abuse is also abuse of the Catholic laity. We are, as it were, a captive audience.  

I think Steve Skojec, whose argument with the Church can be found elsewhere online, would agree with that. And the helplessness of the Catholic laity in our obligation came into my mind after the last Ordinary Form Mass I attended, which was in a small Scottish village. 

Benedict Ambrose and I were on holiday and were, in fact, grateful that there was any Catholic church there at all. We walked to it in the splendid, sunny morning and sat down in a pew near the middle, making us the front row. Nevertheless, I did a quick scan and saw that there were many people younger than us, and eventually three children or so. At the front, to the right, was an elderly couple with a guitar, and it was quite easy to imagine that they had come there, Sunday after Sunday, since 1970 and to see them as 20 year olds overjoyed by "Pope Paul's Revolution."

The priest was late, having driven a fair distance from a city to substitute for the absent pastor. He processed up the aisle singing the hymn and told us from the altar that he was "Father [Diminuitive of Christian Name]" and then launched into an anecdote about his first visit to the region and how odd he had found the local dialect. He followed this up by mentioning his more recent and important connection to the district, and I will say this for him: he was perfectly comprehensible. I doubt anyone had to strain to understand him. Indeed, the problem was tuning him out. 

The Gospel was about the Ten Lepers. The TLM community had this Gospel just a few weeks ago, and our priest, a noted scholar of the New Testament, had some very interesting and illuminating points to make about it. Sadly, I could not remember them all, so I hoped Father X would jog my memory with his own remarks. 

Unfortunately, Father X was not particularly interested in the Gospel at all, aside from saying that one should not always go with the crowd and that Our Lord was a "majority of one." Instead, his stream of consciousness took him to an exciting family anecdote about the Second World War (in which, incidentally, his soldier-relation had intended to loot a private house) and then to Pope Francis and the (hopefully and reportedly untrue) story that the pontiff had, immediately after his election, repulsed the "ermine" mozzetta with the words "The carnival is over."  

Father X was highly delighted by these words, which he evidently took as Gospel, and despite the look of horror that passed over the faces of the short front row in the middle, continued on to tell us about Pope Francis's delightfully savage remarks. Pope France had not, as Pope Benedict had, given Christmas presents to the Curia and slapped them on their backs (his words), but told them about their faults. Father X exulted in the many and various ways in which the pontiff had insulted these men, and then assured us he wasn't having a go at the hierarchy. He talked and talked, rambling, pausing for approving laughter, and I felt worse and worse. I attempted prayer, but Father X's delivery was such that prayer was impossible.  

"Is he drunk?" I whispered to B.A.

B.A. thought and charitably whispered back that he thought Father X might be in the earliest stages of dementia.  

And so it went for some time, until Father X, dentures flashing into a grin asked, "Is that enough?" 

The congregation laughed politely, and Father X went to the altar to listen to the petitions of the faithful before putting his personal spin on the Liturgy of the Eucharist. 

It was extraordinary. The words "Is that enough?" suggested that Father X really was just "filling in" for the absent pastor that that his homily was "filling in" what would otherwise have been dead space. By telling us his personal anecdotes and then what he thought were funny and improving anecdotes (and not, in fact, painful scandals) about Pope Francis, he thought he was doing us--or the missing priest--a favour. This leads me to the horrible thought that we, too, by going to the nearest Catholic church, were also just "filling in" what should have been our first consideration.  

But there was in fact a consolation in that Mass, which was the sight of a quarter of a Sacred Host between the priest's fingers. The priest was neither quiet nor humble, but the Host was quiet and humble. The Host was patient, and the Host suffered Himself to be held by that ninny (for whom He had died) and the Host later suffered Himself to be placed on the unconsecrated hands of the faithful who queued up to receive Him. 


By the way, there are edifying examples of the Ordinary Form to be found in Scotland. It is possible to hear a very good homily, and one is given enough silence to pray, at Edinburgh's Saint Mary's Cathedral. 

Thursday 6 October 2022

The Sun from Behind a Cloud at Noon

My favourite photograph of Benedict Ambrose--with whom I fell in love 14 years ago today--doesn't look very much like him, mostly because it was taken when B.A. was only about 11 months old. He is seated on the carpet, wearing white baby shoes and blue dungarees and a red turtleneck of a very 1970s vintage. He has white-blond hair and sticky-out ears and big eyes that are so dark, you can't tell they're blue. However, this is the truest photo of Benedict Ambrose in existence because he looks so absolutely delighted to be alive. He is simply beaming at the camera. 

I have another photograph of a beaming Benedict Ambrose, taken more than 40 years later. He doesn't like this photograph, and no wonder. He's lying in a hospital bed, he's got a large untrimmed beard shot with grey, and he has marks on his face from some fall or other--which is why I took the photo. It is likely that, when this photo was taken, he was so sick he was simply out of his mind. However, he was also absolutely delighted to see me. 

So we have photos of the two extremes of B.A.'s life: the happy infant who has no idea about the troubles that may be in store for him in life, and the dangerously ill man who is deliriously happy his wife is there and otherwise doesn't have a clue. But both photos sum up what has always been so wonderfully attractive about Benedict Ambrose: his unusually sunny and sanguine disposition. 

"Sometimes," B.A. would say to that. 

"Usually," I reply. 

And it's a wonderful gift to be married to an unusually sunny, sanguine, patient man, especially as an often stormy, pessimistic, and impatient woman. I can still call to memory outrageous offences against my dignity when I was four (for example, the future drug addict/criminal who mutilated my doll) whereas B.A. recalls (to me) very serious family betrayals without a whisper of a hint of resentment. In so far as a child ever "bounced back" from disappointments, B.A. actually did bounce. He was okay; he is okay. 

In some very good ways, he's like a happy rubber ball. And this is extremely fortunate for me because on my snappish and snarly days, days in which I would most definitely hurt the feelings of a more sensitive man (or any of my relations), B.A. is not hurt but merely concerned because I seem to be unhappy. To really get on B.A.'s nerves, I have to throw myself on the floor and scream--which fortunately I haven't done for some time, and I bet you would have done it, too, given those particular circumstances, just saying. 

Anyway, I (unsurprisingly) fell in love with this human sunbeam 14 years ago, and he (possibly more surprising, unless you knew about his ancient crush on Dame Emma Kirkby) fell in love with me, and it was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud around noon. It lit up the next fourteen years. It lit up the previous fourteen years. It was just one of those days (and weeks and months and years) that make unpleasant days and memories on either side pale and seem much more insignificant. We were so in love, we were probably actually insane, and our marriage would have been invalid if I hadn't got cold feet the day before the wedding and turned up in a very cautious, reflective mood. 

Naturally it ruined my career as a professional Single, and I suppose--had I any brains--I would have had a super Seraphic Singles podcast by now (maybe in three languages!) and figured out how to counsel other Singles in the age of Swipe Right. However, I would rather have Benedict Ambrose and that's all there is to it.  

What I can say about my pre-Benedict Ambrose writings about being Single is that it taught me to do my best to live a meaningful life as a Single. I believe that made me the kind of person I needed to be to be a happy married person. It certainly made me the person I needed to be to meet B.A. and appreciate him. So if you are Single and find this post vaguely depressing, contemplate that what you do NOW with your Singleness can contribute to your life LATER as a married person--if you marry, and in my experience, most Catholic Singles who want to marry eventually do.