Martha and Mary

Dot writes: Here’s a post in praise of the contemplative life. In the middle ages the cloistered orders, those who thought and prayed, were thought to have taken a holier path than those who went out and got their hands dirty in the world. This reflects a mindset that is almost incomprehensible today. But really we should all do a bit less. All our busy-ness scribbles on the world, poking it, moving it, using it up. Ecosystems would be happier without thrusting proactive humans being innovative and industrious/industrial all over them. Here are some not-things we should do more of.

Looking out of windows
Staring at the sky
Re-reading
Listening to waves
Not bothering to replace stuff
Solving equations in our heads
Learning Gothic
Remembering
Letting the grass grow

Please add more ideas of your own in the comments.
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Picture credit: Sweet Like Cinnamon. The image was taken on Dollymount Strand, which is our nearest beach and somewhere I like to be contemplative.

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Let him who is without sin…

Dot writes: Frank threw a stone. The context: the boys and I have just begun a camping holiday with my parents in Wales. The original idea was that my mum and dad would take them off our hands for the week, but the boys were both very upset at this idea, so I have come too. I have my laptop and the plan is I shall spend the week watching videos on YouTube via the campsite wifi working while their grandparents take the children to see the sights.

The boys quickly made friends with some other boys and started rushing around the campsite. The other boys had toy guns and the play was a little…dramatic, but it was all good-natured and no-one was being rough. Unfortunately, Frank picked up a stone from the path that runs down the middle of the campsite and threw it. This struck the bumper of the family opposite’s almost-new car, leaving a circular scuff mark.

So Frank is not very happy this evening. He has been told he cannot go out to play with the others until tomorrow. He said sorry to the father of the family who owned the car, who was very mild and resigned about it all (apparently it’s the mother’s car), and so he didn’t entirely understand why there had to be further consequences. But Frank finds it all too easy to do naughty things and think that a sorry makes it all magically go away ready for next time. There must be no next time. Next time it might be a tail light.

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Fun with spam

Dot writes: just clearing out the blog’s spam queue, just in case there were any real comments in there. Alas, I don’t think there are. I wish my posts got more comments. I guess I should just become more controversial, but it isn’t in me… Anyhoo, there’s some lovely stuff in there. I expect you know the form, but still:

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familiarity here with friends.

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By the way, I searched for ‘silly spam pictures’ to enliven this post and Google gave me the image below. Showing that Google sometimes makes just as much sense as our spam commenters.

images

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Tash Parker, Waking Up

Dot writes: I’ve been buying a fair number of albums lately, some on iTunes, some from Bandcamp, one or two even in physical shops. When I bought Tash Parker’s album I got it from her website, and within ten minutes she had emailed me to say thanks for buying it and that she would put it in the post the next day. I’ve never had that happen before. Then a few days later she emailed again to say she hadn’t managed to send it before going away to see her sister, and that she would put in a little something extra to make up for the delay. The something extra turned out to be an attractive cloth bag with a block print of her face on it, which I am keeping in my handbag to use as my emergency shopping bag. She needn’t have done any of this, as I would just have blamed the slowness of the postal service; and she doesn’t even charge extra for postage (from Australia) (she really ought to as it’s quite expensive). Moreover, I love the album and now have it on heavy repeat. So here is a little review – not a very timely one, as Waking Up came out in 2010, but I think she deserves to sell a lot more copies. Maybe someone will read this and be inspired to go and buy it too.

Album cover image by Kat Kallady

Album cover image by Kat Kallady

In Not Unprepared, one of the two songs from this album that hooked me into ordering it, there’s a rather odd line in the chorus: “Her heart rocks side to side” (it goes on: “she feels warm and safe and / not unprepared for loving his face from / day to day, no longer scared of waking up alone”). It’s an unexpected image – is she on a particularly unstable train? – but at the same time a key one, because the album is full of rocking, though not of the ‘n’roll variety. Not Unprepared is one of several songs that are built around a rhythmical alternation of chords, rocking back and forth, and thematically the album repeatedly returns to ideas of comforting, sleep or sleeplessness, and fragile places of safety.

In Somers, we find ourselves in a “cosy town, slowing down”, a place where “we’ve settled in, settled down” to “warm embraces daily”, but this is a song haunted by yearning strings and less identifiable atmospheric noises, and she hears the “call of the grey bear…all around”; the song tells us both that fears are forgotten here and that they are ever-present – and also that, strangely, “it’s all that we need”. Perhaps one needs danger to feel safe. Two songs earlier, Oh What a Beautiful Town deals with rather similar territory, though here the music is partly sunny and partly wistful, while the words indicate that peace comes from privilege: “to escape is their way of life / can’t you see the world is in some strife? … so much beauty and so much money”. When It Rains – again, beginning with one of those rocking chord structures – deals with the refuge offered by a lover; the lyric conveys anxiety and need, as much from the way the words are fragmented across the musical phrases as from the details they select, before crystallising into a very specific, gently erotic image of comforting touch: “3/4 time in my mind from when you played on my thigh through thin sheets till early near the dawning… you are my light when it rains”.

Tash Parker may be interested in refuges but she isn’t running away from anything. The album opens on one of the most upbeat numbers (and one of my favourites), Move Around, which is all jazz chords and patters of snare drum. It impressionistically evokes a world of restless hyper-connectedness, of “lonely lovers” who have “heart to hearts with tiny technology”, and points out that “children don’t come from little tubes, they come from me and you”. Put down the mobile phone and let’s get it on. Not Unprepared then follows, portraying a girl leaving home and travelling south to live with her lover. It’s a happy song but also a clear-sighted one, aware of what is being left behind (“her last warm night for the year”), and the double negative of the title phrase, which does something more complicated than simply cancel out and mean “prepared”, conveys the sense that love makes demands for which one can never be more than mostly ready.

I Take the Blame is the other song that had lodged in my head before I bought the album. It explores an interesting emotional space: Tash says on her website that it “is a song about recognising that your actions may have hurt or changed someone, and that you can be sorry for their pain or sadness without feeling regret for your actions”. To me the chorus seems to go a bit further than this – tender but morally steely, with sleep here an image of inadequacy: “Sleep well my dear, life only happens when your eyes are open, you’ll realise that life is always chosen [I'm not sure I agree with her about that], you’ll learn your lesson…” But it’s tempered by the gorgeous music, which expands into rich layers in the chorus under her most irresistibly singable melody. Later on she deals with the collapse of a relationship, in Taking Back Her Name. Again according to her website, this is a song about her parents’ divorce, but in a number of ways it links to Not Unprepared. One link is the re-use of the phrase “day to day”, but another is the way it offers both the man’s and the woman’s perspectives. In Not Unprepared the section about the man’s feelings was filtered through the woman’s attraction to him (“he smiles that smile that takes her breath away”) but in Taking Back Her Name it’s actually more symmetrical, with the female and male characters each recognising that there is “no one else to blame”.

Tash Parker has one of those voices that sounds high at any pitch. Ken remarked that she sounded like Nina Persson of The Cardigans, but she doesn’t have that breathy girliness that I find a bit irritating; her voice is pure, clear and precise. It could almost be called innocent, and the instrumentation of the album plays with that – lots of delicate sounds, zither and xylophone (though nobody is credited with playing xylophone so I wonder if the sound in question might just be high notes on the vibes?) – but actually it’s not, and indeed she can be quite saucy, as in Baby All the Time. Her voice and her acoustic guitar playing, which again tends bring out the higher notes in the instrument, are the core of the album’s sound, but around these elements are built some really beautiful arrangements, mostly strings and tuned percussion. On most of the songs she worked with J. Walker of Machine Translations, and getting Tash’s album has prompted me to take the plunge and finally buy The Bright Door, which I’ve been slightly flinching from on the grounds that the reviews are so ecstatic I wonder if it can actually be as enjoyable to listen to as it apparently is to write about. (Hmm. Maybe writing this wasn’t such a great idea after all.)

Two of the songs are produced by Wally De Backer, who also contributes “vocals, percussion, organ, autoharp, vibes, keyboards, piano and just about anything else he could find at the time”, and who happens to be Tash Parker’s partner. I admit it was through Gotye that I heard of her. (Not sure why I feel I should apologise for this.) One wonders whether it was at all odd for him to sing backing vocals on a love song to himself, but I expect songs become sets of problems to tackle while they are being arranged and recorded, before turning back at the end into messages and gifts and wakeful lullabies. The other thing, however, that strikes me about the connection, especially as he must have been working on Tash’s album and on Making Mirrors at least partly at the same time, is that Somebody That I Used to Know in many ways sounds more like one of her songs than one of his. The loop from the Luis Bonfa piece that it’s built around, rocking back and forth, the xylophone and the dual perspective (though more conflicted than any of hers) all seem rather her thing.

Anyway, nice person, beautiful album: go forth and acquire it.

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A blog post about a Facebook conversation about Twitter

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Dot disappears into the social media rabbit hole:

I posted this on Facebook back on 5 July (I’ve edited it slightly).

Wondering again whether I should join Twitter. On the downside: I would never have a train of thought more than twenty seconds long ever again; I would embarrass myself by saying unconsidered things in an extremely public forum; I would worry that nobody wanted to follow me; the one person who definitely would follow me is mad. On the upside: I could pretend to be friends with Tracey Thorn.

You see, I read Bedsit Disco Queen recently and I think Tracey Thorn is very cool.

Anyway, this initiated quite an interesting conversation, and I hope my Facebook friends don’t mind me summarising it in anonymised fashion. The following positions emerged:

1) The barge pole approach. As in, not touching it with one. It can only lead to pain and lasting sorrow.

2) The lurker approach. Several of my friends have twitter accounts but don’t tweet. That way you can follow people but not get sucked in. Or you can just ignore the whole thing for years at a time.

3) The professional approach. This seems to be favoured by my fellow academics: tweets are confined to matters relevant to one’s professional concerns, and for this it can be good for making connections, but nothing too personal goes on there.

4) The extremely enthusiastic approach. One friend said she very much preferred Twitter, not just because it was quicker and easier to fit into her life than Facebook, but because she thought someone’s personality emerged over the course of many tweets in a way it wouldn’t in carefully-crafted Facebook updates.

I subsequently joined Twitter and am essentially pursuing strategy (2) with the intention of moving to (3). So far I have sent a grand total of four tweets, one to say hello to the enthusiastic friend of approach (4), one to be my official first tweet (in which I said I wasn’t sure what kind of bird I was going to be in this aviary), one to return a greeting from someone I’d just followed, and the last a retweet about the Middle English Dictionary. I think the personality that may be emerging in my tweets is cumbrously humorous but extremely guarded.

The distinction between the carefully crafted Facebook post and the spontaneous and truthful Twitter feed is worth examining. It’s certainly true that I think about the image I project through Facebook. Particularly since I started having some Facebook friends who are professional contacts, I have tended to edit out certain aspects of my life, in particular suppressing my gloomiest moods and also how cheesed off and demotivated I sometimes feel about work. I select things to say that strike me as interesting or amusing, or I post things I want to publicise, and when I don’t have anything to say that at least someone in my friends list might respond to I don’t update my status.

But this is even more true for Twitter, where I can’t know who my audience might be (of course it needn’t just be my followers – anybody can look up your Twitter feed). I also feel very acutely that my public face on Twitter reflects, far more than my Facebook persona, on my role as an academic and on the educational institution that I work for. I do not, for example, think that Twitter is the place to air my thoughts on Gotye (though I am following him). I feel I have to at least pretend to be a smart, enthused, authoritative specialist, instead of someone who at the moment is struggling a bit with her book project and consoling herself with music.

It seems to me that, on the one hand, there are people who seem happy to live their lives whole, and have their job, their politics, their geekery and whatever all mixed up together and served up on Twitter where the world can take them as it finds them, and on the other hand there are people like me who find it necessary to divide themselves up into separate boxes. Partly this is because I am naturally rather introverted. Partly it is the nature of academia itself: it’s a whole-identity job. You’re not supposed to treat medieval literature as a nine-to-five: it’s supposed to be your obsession and your life and the main thing about you. Moreover, if someone follows you because you’re an Ashgate author, for example, they’re probably not looking for your opinion on Tash Parker’s album (it’s great, by the way).

Is this dividedness a way of being false? I don’t think so. Rather, it’s a kind of discipline, and an acknowledgement that I do have several different roles with different demands, and that Twitter is a very public forum. Of course, there is always Twitter strategy (5), which no-one mentioned: invent a ludicrous Twitter alias and romp around saying silly things to people to your heart’s content. But actually I do live my life slightly too whole for that.

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Stowaway, or ‘wee sleekit cow’rin tim’rous beastie’

Ken writes:

Dot found one of these wee creatures in her overnight bag while we were camping. We think it’s a shrew.

Here’s the link

I don’t know what kind of shrew it is. Possibly not the afore linked to pygmy shrew, but the Irish Independent reports that the pygmy shrew has been driven out of Tipperary, where we were camping, by the great white toothed shrew.

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Apple juice, castles and skeleton hands

Dot writes: we’ve just had a brief family holiday in Tipperary. Notoriously it’s a long way to get there (and the children clearly knew this and complained bitterly for the whole journey), but actually we chose it partly because it’s close – only about three hours from our house – and partly because one of my colleagues had recommended a campsite on an apple farm. I had got it into my head the campsite had cooking facilities the campers could use. This was not the case, but it did have fridges, a piano, nesting swallows, a playground, a friendly dog, free apple juice on arrival, and a lot of signs everywhere telling us to wash our hands. There was a notice in the ladies’ toilets detailing the hand-washing procedure and listing occasions on which to use it, including ‘after touching doorknobs’. To get out of the room where you could wash your hands you had to touch a doorknob. Despite this hint of somewhat self-defeating OCD, it was a lovely place.

Here are some of the things we did in Tipperary.

We went to Cahir (6km from the campsite) and visited the extremely excellent castle, which is full of stairs that go up and down and underneath into surprising tunnels and corners.
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Then we went to the nearby Swiss Cottage and had a guided tour. Oddly, Ken seemed to like it more than I did. It was fearfully pretty.

On Wednesday (Ken’s birthday) we went to the Rock of Cashel.
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At the Rock of Cashel Ken tried to dissuade the boys from trampling all over the graves by telling them that the occupants would reach up with skeletal hands and grab their ankles. This was before we saw this.
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Then we went to Clonmel and had a picnic lunch followed by a swim at the swimming pool.

We had been going to stay until Friday, but the forecast was for rain so we thought it might be more pleasant to come back on Thursday and – hooray! – there was no ferry or anything to stop us doing that. We drove back via Kilkenny and visited another castle.
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In many ways the nicest part of the holiday was just hanging around the campsite. The children were distraught to find we hadn’t brought the iPad, but then they went off and made friends with a group of slightly older girls and did a great deal of running about. Frank told the girls they were so beautiful he wanted to marry all of them.

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