Journal keeping course assignment #1

I’m posting this here because I’m the only one in class who had the book ahead of time (Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal by Alexandra Johnson) so everyone else is running a week behind. I hate being first to post. I had my first assignment ready to roll, so I’d value some feedback/criticism on this. I think the ending is lame but I’m not sure what else to do with it.

Assignment #1

Recall your first diary. What did it look like?

When did you get it?

What single good thing did it spark?

If you stopped, what would you miss most?

My first real diary, the first one I had that was private and mine, was nothing special to look at. An A5 hardback book, black cover with red spine and corners and lined paper. I got it from Ryman’s Stationary Shop in Guildford at the top of the High Street in the autumn of 1993. I was eighteen and away from home for the first time. The University of Surrey took me in to study Physics and I gladly left home. I was a real adult now. I could lock my door without fear of recriminations or threats from Mother. I could stay out as late as I chose, tell no one where I was going or when I would be back.

I walked across campus, into town, across the bridge over the rail tracks and the river Wey, up the cobbled street trying to talk myself out of extravagantly wasting two pounds fifty on a stupid notebook. I was on a student grant with barely enough to eat and get books at the same time. Using the overdraft I’d got as a backup would cause an almighty row with Mum and Dad. If I had to eat carrot and herb omelettes three weeks running, that’s what I’d do. They’re not bad after the first week. But I bought the notebook. I had to.

The first page is special; you use special handwriting for it. I wasn’t meant to be right handed, the elementary school teacher didn’t like me alternating hands and everyone else was right handed, why should I be different? On the first page I try extra hard to be neat and make rounded letters. I know five pages later there will be spiky scrawl but on the first few pages I can dream that I know how to write well. There’s always a start and end date on the front page with my name and a volume number. I’m nearing the end of volume twelve now, US volume eight. Volumes thirteen and fourteen are waiting in the closet, blank and hopeful.

The diary represents independence and freedom. It prompted trust between my boyfriend, now my husband of nine years, and me. I knew he would never read it, so I left the first volume with him when I went to stay with my parents for the Easter vacation. When they demanded I fetch my diary for them to read, all they got were a few pages of volume two. Volume one was in Camberley with Hubby-to-be, in workings of his sofa bed away from temptation, safe and unread.

If I stopped writing in it, great swathes of life would go past unrecorded, sunsets and quotes and complaints and dreams all lost. Rereading old diaries is horrifying to see the mess I was in, the storms I had to travel through, but comforting to see how I got through, and with whom.

Therapy cat

Quantum is about two years old now, she was our house warming present from Pat and Jodi. Her tail had been crushed, and then amputated since it wouldn’t have healed, so she’s a bobtail cat. Her previous owners didn’t want her without the tail, we were looking for a cat to put in the new house, so she came to us. Her tail stump was just healed, belly hair all short from spaying, and weighing a mere three pounds.

Quantum as a kitten.

Now she’s pretty much full grown, and thirteen pounds big. You notice this cat when she sits on the AC vent and blocks all air flow to the study, or decides she must get between you and the keyboard. She’s smart enough to never be seen on table tops, or even in mid-leap off the table tops. Quantum is the original therapy cat, around when you need some four-legged comfort, comes running when you call her, usually waiting for me when I get home. She’s mostly silent.

Quantum today.

Tangle is a little more unpolished and a lot more noisy, orange and with a full tail. Probably taken from his mother too soon. He doesn’t eat or drink as tidily as Quantum, throws his tail out behind for all to step on, and is afraid of plastic bags. He does know his name, he just hasn’t got the idea of coming when called. He has three drives: hunger, blind panic, and need for affection. Hates strangers, but he’s very cuddly when the strangers go. Blind panic outweighs need for affection for a while, until hunger sets in. Never get between this cat and the food bowl. Both are “four-wheel drive,” cats with all their claws. Their names are related, Tangle’s full name is Tangle Mint, so we have Quantum and Tangle Mint (quantum entanglement). It’s a Physics geek thing.

Tangle Mint.

Just in case you were thinking this was a blog about knitting. 😉 Thanks for the idea Norma.

Blogger Idol Week Six – Movies

Blogger Idol week five.

Movies that should never be made:

  • Anything based on a video game, or computer game (e.g. Resident Evil, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat). Just don’t go there.
  • Sequels of movies based on games (e.g. Resident Evil 2)
  • Battles that pit the evil bad guys from two totally different movie series against one another (Freddie vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator, etc.)
  • Movies that exist solely to try and prove some rapper/model/singer is a really talented person, honest, multi-talented even. You’re not convincing anyone here.
  • Really crappy movies about hacking/programming that think they’re being realistic (e.g. Antitrust, Hackers)
  • Movies with terminal over-reliance on unlikely coincidences (e.g Legally Blonde 2)
  • Sequels (or prequels) of something that was mindless to start with (e.g. Dumb and Dumber-er)
  • Stories with plots a five year old can figure out within five minutes of the start. Script writers should make use of the readily available ISO standard five year old to test plots before filming.
  • Movies with lousy dialog (e.g. “I love you Flash! But we only have seventeen hours to save the Earth!”), unless the dialog is so bad it’s funny.
  • Anything about cats and dogs taking over the world. Such movies are worthy of the term “sucktacular”.
  • Battlefield Earth.

Blogger idol week one: “The 80s”

The big event in the 1980s for me was moving from the new house to That House.

Blogger Idol week one.

The 1980s was when we moved from Stowemarket, a small village in Suffolk, England, to Ipswich, the county town of Suffolk. We bought That House in 1981. It seemed like a decent house in a good neighbourhood. I hated it on sight because there was a dead baby bird on the doorstep when we first saw it. The previous owner had died there and never left. Buying That House meant leaving my best friend in the world, Matthew, who I’d hung out with from nursery school. I learnt to write with him, to fight with him, to run and climb and be popular with him. I even promised to marry him. We were only six years old when I left and never saw him again.

That House was on the corner of the block, one street back from the two-lane 40mph “main” road, part of an estate built in the 1960s. It had two bedrooms but we needed three, a nasty garden that had been neglected since Mr Hunter had died, ants in the back garden, a toilet seat that broke when my sister sat on it, and kitchen cabinets so full of woodworm they looked like frothy coffee. It was all on one level and painted the kind of light green they use to subdue the inmates in mental hospitals. Even the skirting boards were green.

It took two years to build a third bedroom, build a half bathroom, tame the garden, get rid of the green, rebuild the kitchen, build two garden sheds, move the fence, get rid of the peach trees, plant a tarragon bush that wanted to take over the world, pick the stones out of the garden, lay turf, weed the turf, schedule the garden blooms from snowdrops to roses, make it our own. The plan was to move out then. It’s 2004 and my parents are still there.

The hall had a shiny wooden floor my sister and I used to polish. It was smooth enough that we could chase the dog from the lounge out to the hall and watch him run in place, piling up rug against the wall until he finally got enough grip to shoot off into the dining room like a fat brown comet. After he got cancer we buried him in the flower bed he used to excavate. I learnt to knit in that house, taught myself to program, practised playing the flute, tried to learn some woodwork from Dad, cleaned up and drove my first car, gardened, ate, slept, prayed, read, studied for two sets of exams, lived through the 80s. I still don’t like the place, but That House was home.

Cardinal Sins of Blogging

It’s been a while since I created my list of the Cardinal Sins of Web Design, high time for a new list: the Cardinal Sins of Blogging. These are the content sins, for the design sins, you’ll have to go read the full list. For the irony-impaired, this list is what I call caustic humour. If anyone refers to it as Brit wit I’ll just have to kill you.

Cardinal Sins of Blogging (content sins only)

  1. Debating the difference between “weblog” and “journal”
    (no-one cares. Really, no-one in their right mind cares.)

  2. Passive-aggressive blogging or insulting someone by making veiled references in your blog. Childish, stupid and boring, please GROW UP!

  3. Excruciating detail about your sex life, recent surgery, gruesome illness, messy divorce, vomiting pets, etc.
    (please, make it stop!)

  4. Obsessing about your hitcount/Ecosystem rank/Google position
    (talking about web site stats is so yawnworthy I think I need a nap to recover.)

  5. Not attributing your sources
    (sources like to be linked to, it’s the polite thing to do.)

  6. Linking to your own blog multiple times
    (Come on, FIVE links to yourself is excessive. Two is excessive. Get over it!)

  7. Excessive use of the word “like”
    (like, there are other, like words you could like, you know, use. Buy a thesaurus and a grammar book immediately.)

  8. Blogrolls with over 120 links in
    (we know you don’t read them all. Stick to ones you do read.)

  9. Posts without titles
    (You can fake it even if it’s not supported, use <br /><p> <b> Title goes here </b> </p>)

  10. Overuse of exclamation marks, or missing punctuation
    (if it’s easy to read, people come back. Proper capitalisation makes it easier to read, and one exclamation mark is enough.)

Please email me if I’ve left anything out. The list will be archived here for posterity.

Changing the world

From Philip Gerard’s “Writing a book that makes a difference

If you had the power to instantaneously change one thing in the world that didn’t affect you personally, what would it be? Why would you change it? What’s the most eloquent argument against changing it? What makes you believe the change would be for the better? What would be the effect on a specific community of strangers? What would be some possible unintended consequences?

Part of me wants to say I’d eliminate mental illness of all kinds, but then I have to pause. Depression has been linked to creativity, would eliminating one reduce potential for the other? I would remove the prejudice, stigma, and ignorance about mental illness. A pancreas fails, you’re labeled as someone with a defective body part, known as a diabetic, you get insulin, and you live an almost completely normal live. A neurochemical fails, you get depression, you can be branded weak, a failure, lazy, unstable. In the US, health insurance severely restricts what treatment you can get and how often, if they pay for it at all. In the UK, you get treatment, but they want you off it as soon as possible, which is months too soon. On top of dealing with the illness you often have to hide it from people and act normal, as best you can. People assume you’re responsible for getting the illness, and you can just “snap out of it” anytime you choose, as if you like to sit in the pit with the hungry dragon. Some Christians label you a sinner because of it, it’s all the proof they need.

An argument against changing it? I’m having trouble coming up with one. I’ve seen the mess this causes in people’s lives, and talked with a few of the offenders. Society isn’t set up to deal with this change. You’d probably end up with some “false positives,” people who think they have it but don’t, demanding treatment because they feel a bit down, wanting chemically induced warm fuzzies. It would affect the drugs industry, making it more profitable to sell antidepressants to a much wider market. Look at Prozac, branded as Sarafem and sold for a PMS related condition that may or may not exist. There could be outrage and lawsuits from people denied treatment, families of people who killed themselves. It could become fashionable to have a mental illness, people may invent or “discover” strange new conditions.

The change would be for the better because of the thousands of people who could relax their guard, get the treatment they need, and get better. OK, so some people would lose an important scapegoat, but the goat would be better off. You’d lift the weight holding people down, sapping their energy and focus, who knows what they could achieve then?

Unintended consequences? Finding out just how widespread mental illness is, and how it affects people’s lives to have an illness you’re ashamed of. There’s an episode of Babylon 5 in season two called “Confessions and Lamentations” where the Markab race fall prey to a fatal disease. They see the disease as divine retribution for sinful behaviour and withdraw to a place to separate from the sinful ones. They believe no-one who is righteous could get ill, but the entire race is wiped out because of their prejudice and ignorance. You can’t treat someone who refuses to believe they’re sick, and you can’t study something no-one will admit to having. Ignorance can kill, depression has a pretty scary suicide rate, coupled with a lousy detection/treatment rate. Just knowing it’s something fixable is a huge relief, you’re not going mad, not marked by God as a lightening rod for despair, not dying, not incurable.

Tough question. Gerard’s intent is to find out which issue preoccupies you. No surprises it’s depression given my other website.

Float Trip

Hubby and I went on our first ever float trip this weekend, on the Black River, with a whole pile of people, friends and family of friends. After three days of solid rain, the river looked high and there was a noticeable current.

Our first capsize happened about five minutes after setting off. There was a bend in the river and a fallen tree that had already downed two canoes before Hubby and I landed. Float Trip Lesson #1: You will get wet. Float Trip Lesson #2: Bungee the cooler shut. It was a shock hitting cool water after warm air, Camo (the dog) was traumatised by the whole experience. After that, we figured what else could possibly be worse?

Most of the time you were paddling to steer, not to propel. Trouble is, the steering takes a bit of getting used to, and we ended up floating diagonally downstream several times. This was what led to the second capsize. A bunch of friendly Texans were smoking and drinking on the gravel bar and helped us tip out the canoe and get floating again (“We’ve got it honey, let it go, are you OK?”).

The first day ended with about seven miles floated, a major grilling session, lots of food, all was well. Other lessons of the day: coolers float, don’t drink the river, fruit is waterproof, keep putting on the sunscreen (learnt a little too late), and try to have a decent grasp of left from right before anyone starts yelling “Paddle left hard! LEFT!”

Day Two started with a wonderful cooked breakfast, and a goal of another seven miles. Camo stayed home, and we were down to four canoes, from Day One’s six.

Capsize number three was fairly mild, involving a collision with a tree on the bank, and me leaning away from the current instead of into it. Hubby and I sorted that one out ourselves. Capsize number four was the bad one. It happened a few miles past our pick up point, which all nine of us managed to miss. The river was deeper and wider and the current was stronger that day.

One canoe holding three people was already stuck on the fallen tree in the really fast current at the river bend. They were holding up OK until our canoe hit the tree. Their canoe flipped and went under the tree, leaving three people hanging on. Our canoe went broadside against the tree, then flipped and went under. Hubby went under the tree and got stuck. Really stuck. I remember the capsize, hitting the water, then I remember being clear of the tree and grabbing our cooler to stay afloat with the horrible realisation that I couldn’t reach the riverbed. There’s a blank in the middle of the memory, just after the capsize when David Lee pushed me around the tree, for which I am truly grateful. Thank you David Lee!

While this was going on, one canoe was zooming across the river retrieving two canoes, five paddles, multiple flat cushions, coolers, bags, water pistols, and the lawn chair. The other canoe was beached, and people were hauling stuff ashore and rescuing the three from the first canoe. I was part of the stuff hauled ashore, still attached to my cooler. We took a while to sit on the shore and recover from that one, munching on the food that had stayed dry.

After that, it was pretty uneventful. We found out from people on the bank we’d overshot the pickup point by multiple miles, and to head for a bridge a couple of miles downstream. It started to rain, and then we were paddling full time to get to the mythical bridge. One phone call and some waiting time, then we were in a truck, heading back along bumpy roads to the cabin.

Even with capsize number 4, it was still a great weekend, lots of exercise, swimming, time with good people, time outdoors, great food and gorgeous scenery. I think I’ll stay on dry land for a few weeks yet.

Let’s Motor

(US Translation: bonnet = hood,

boot = trunk,

exhaust = tailpipe)

We’ve been idly looking for the Mini dealer for about a year now, ever since we saw the web site. On Saturday we got there and test drove a Mini Cooper S. First, the dull technical stuff: 1.6 litre fuel injection engine, six speed manual transmission, automatic traction control widget, 17 inch alloy wheels, 0 to 60mph in 6.9 seconds, top speed of 135mph. In other words, it’s a rocket powered skateboard with major style.

Our sales weasel fit in the back quite well, despite being 5ft 10. Having learnt my lesson from test driving the Mazda, we made sure she was actually wearing her seatbelt before we left the garage. At least, we tried to leave the garage. The clutch bite point was very low, and I lost count of how many times I stalled the car. The road was still wet, so I didn’t do the emergency stop test, and I’m kicking myself for not testing the horn.

Driving the Mini was the most fun I’d had all week. Flooring the accelerator got me from slip road to 70mph on a 55mph highway in third gear before I realised just how fast I was going, and shut the sales weasel up. There really is a wheel in each corner, so it should have the same glued-to-the-road stability of the original. I’d love to take a Mini out on Foxhall Road in Ipswich, down that really steep hill with the hairpin bends partway up and at the bottom, to see if you could do it all at 50mph like my Daddy taught me.

There was more space inside than should have existed, someone’s mastered dimensional transcendentalism, or wrested the secret away from the Time Lords (or the BBC). The windscreen was a good foot away from the steering wheel, and it felt like a much wider car. The boot was on the micro side of small, mitigated somewhat by the back seats folding down. There are only two passenger doors, the spare wheel lives under the car. You get used to the central speedometer surprisingly quickly. The inside looks retro stylish, all shiny metal and brushed alloy, highlighting the side impact bars in the doors. The sports spoiler looked like a carry handle for the car, I couldn’t take it seriously. There’s not a lot of headroom, and we forgot to test the stupid horn. You have to know if you’re getting a horn you can take seriously or if it’s some kiddy toy beep.

One flaw, at least for Hubby, was the traction control gizmo. It prevents the wheels from spinning, which also prevents you from gunning the engine, dumping the clutch and screaming away from the lights. Bummer.

The catch to open the bonnet was on the right side of the car, which was odd until we found out the thing is assembled in Oxford in England, which would put the catch on the UK driver’s side. Headlights are part of the bonnet, not part of the body of the car. Exhaust pipe is central, twin exhaust on the Cooper S. I loved the rear wash/wipe because the spray was part of the wiper. The waiting time for a new Mini has dropped from 6 months at the start to 3 months.

If someone’s reading this and decides to give me a Mini just to shut me up, I’d like the Cooper S in Chili Red with a red roof, and the 6 CD changer, sports package, floor mats, and whizzy steering wheel with the radio controls on please.

Press 87 to accidentally disconnect yourself

Every thirty seconds I get another “All agents are still busy. Please remain on the line. Your call is very important to us.” I timed it. It’s not like there’s a lot else I could do with the phone glued to my ear, trying to ignore the syrupy sax music burbling across the line. I called this morning, waded through the “Press 1 to hear this in English,” stuff, entered the account number (“Press 1 to enter a Social Security Number; Press 2 if you know your account number “) and finally got hung up on by the machine because it was five minutes before official opening time.

So I’m typing one handed and waiting again. You’d think a person could go more than thirty seconds before needing reassurance to keep waiting. It’s really not that long. Reading this took more time.

I wonder if they ever record what people say when they’re on hold. I’d love to hear it. You have to let some of the frustration out when you’ve been waiting twenty minutes going through menu after menu, then you get dumped in a mailbox that disconnects you because its too full to take messages. It’s been yelled at all morning and it just won’t take any more. It’s on strike. So you get cut off, try pounding the zero button in the hope of getting a live human, and find they’ve wired the zero to stick you in a special menu for impatient people that takes twice as long to disconnect you and never gets to a real person either.

What we really need is an automated system on our end. Something to do battle with the corporate voice menu from Hell and beep when an actual person gets on the line, freeing us to wander around the house and do useful stuff with that ten to sixty minutes of dead time, like call the insurance company and deal with their voicemail system…