Monday, 28 September 2009

On Four Fabulous Felines

Hello dear blog reader! I’m really sorry I haven’t managed to post anything for so long, and thought you might be getting a bit bored of waiting, so I thought I’d just put up a few pictures of the family for you to see!

I’ll be telling you all about how each of these furry friends came to live with us in future posts (when I have a few minutes to write those posts). I thought you might like to meet them first though.

Felix is our boy! He and the Wonderspouse were bachelor boys together before I even appeared on the scene. He’s big, strong, agile, and loves to headbut our legs so hard we nearly fall over. He also has the endearing habit of coming to the car door to meet me every day when I get home from work.

Tiggy is our little girl. She’s sort of MY cat (although there are no hard and fast rules here – it’s more a case of 4 cats with 2 slaves in actual fact). Her face is my picture on twitter. She’s a prolific and skilled hunter, but has an adorable temperament with all humans except vets.

Athena is the younger of the two old dears. She has an extremely loud voice, different coloured eyes, and very fine white fur that sheds absolutely everywhere. She can also be quite stroppy at times, and would eat herself to death if we let her. She loves being brushed though and can be calmed with enough fuss.

Pebbles is the quiet one, and the oldest (she’s around 17). She’s absolutely terrified of anything mechanical, especially the hoover, but she’s become increasingly friendly during the years we’ve had her. She’s very small and light, but still quite an agile old thing, and she loves climbing all over her humans!

So there you are – four fabulous felines, our little family. Of course, they can be quite troublesome, and we often call them the fearsome foursome. Anyone who’s ever been in our kitchen at suppertime will know what we mean – allegedly cats don’t hunt in packs, but it often feels like they might!

Thursday, 17 September 2009

On Trying to Get Comfy

This morning I’ve been trying to solve a number of semi-long-standing problems with the set up of my computer at home. By the set up, I don’t mean software, that’s all tootling along as well as can be expected, but the actual physical set up of my workstation.

The fact that I decided to do it this morning was triggered by pain in my wrists when I sat down to type. Inspection showed them to be red and rather sore. I decided that I needed a wrist rest, like I have at work. However, I have no such thing, and the fact that our local town centre is currently closed off for a funfair means that going to search for one would mean a 30 mile round trip, so I fetched a hand towel from the airing cupboard, rolled it up, and discovered that even if I did have a wrist rest, it wouldn’t fit on the desk in any case.

I decided it was time to install the small flatscreen monitor that a friend loaned me over a fortnight ago. The giant (really giant) old fashioned monitor that I’ve had for several years started off with a beautiful screen, but has now got to the stage where (a) it looks all white & milky, (b) all the windows have wiggly edges and (c) it has irritating diagonal stripes crossing the screen. It is also so big that even if I have it right up against the wall at the back of the desk, my nose is almost touching it when I sit at the desk, which is probably not very good for me.

In my office job I am trained as a DSE (display screen equipment) assessor, which means that I’ve been on courses that tell me how people SHOULD sit at a computer when they’re working, and tell me all sorts of horror stories about RSI (repetitive strain injury) or the even more catchy WRULD (work related upper limb disorder). Partly because I spend so much of my life stressed and tense, and partly because I’ve done a lot of jobs involving data entry, I do have various problems with my shoulders, arms, wrists and fingers. At work, where it comes from the health and safety budget, I have a special rollermouse device, a workstation properly set up, and a chair that does almost everything except stir my tea.

Home, however, is a different story. Buying a rollermouse is beyond my budget, so I have two mice, one each side of the keyboard. When my right hand starts to hurt, I use my left, when my left hurts, I use my right. When they both hurt I get a glass of whisky! The keyboard sometimes wobbles a bit, so I wedge it with a piece of tissue, and the chair (a cast off that was headed for a skip) provides no support, and doesn’t really fit under the desk (which isn’t a desk at all, but a table with drawers, also rescued from a skip, sanded down and repainted by me). Furthermore, the printer has to go on the floor, so I often rest my left foot on it and end up sitting lopsided too.

None of this was a problem until about 3 months ago when broadband entered our lives. Before then, internet time was just a couple of short sessions each evening, I didn’t blog, didn’t do very much on facebook or twitter (it was all just too slow and cost a fortune on the phone bill), and just typed up the occasional document or did a bit of household budget stuff on spreadsheets. I was never on the computer long enough for it to be a problem. Now, however, I’m online all the time, I read & write blogs, I footle around on facebook, try constantly to keep up with e-mails, watch digital TV stuff on the iPlayer, and as for twitter – well, let’s just say that I’m more than an occasional user!!

And my body knows it. So, I thought replacing the screen would be a good idea. Furthermore it would mean that I could tell the friend who loaned me the monitor that I’d set it up, so I wouldn’t look like an ungrateful so-and-so! Like everything, it turned out not to be that simple. Getting of torches, crawling under desks, locating wires and so on, was followed by a gargantuan effort to move the giant monitor out of the way (hampered by the chair getting stuck in the doorway – everything’s a bit tight round here – we have way too much stuff), then the discovery that I needed to reset the screen resolution because the new one wouldn’t work (more unplugging etc) then dropping the giant monitor on my toe (why do this job in slippers?) then needing to find polish to dust the desk properly, then setting the whole lot up properly.

At that point I tweeted “I want my mummy”, and the Wonderspouse tweeted back that my mother would actually be one of the least helpful people to have around since she is even more OCD than me and would be even more stressed. He then rang me up to tell me to keep calm. I would say that the battle between me and my workstation has now reached some kind of uneasy truce. The rolled up towel now fits on the desk and is an adequate enough wrist rest for now to stop my most paranoid fears about nerve damage preventing me from ever playing the viola again. The screen is almost at the right height (assisted by Donald Jay Grout’s “A History of Western Music”), although my desktop icons have all gone haywire and it’s so small that I can only see about 5 tweets to a screen. It isn’t stripey or faded or wiggly though. The chair & desk situation remains poor, but to sort that out would require serious removals, which will need much preparation (there is a bookcase on top of the desk for starters), and maybe financial outlay.

And all the time, the maths books sit on the other desk, where I should be working. Maybe I already knew that I wasn’t going to get enough assignment done to gain the marks I need to get a higher grade. Maybe all the computer moving activity was just a diversion to confirm the inevitable. I can almost hear my ambitions of a decent mark dropping to the ground like a giant monitor onto a toe. Maybe it’s time to listen to the wise Wonderspouse again, when he tells me that all I need to do is pass the course – I can worry about degree classifications later. I’d never think of chastising somebody for not getting high marks in every assignment, so why do I do it to myself?

So am I comfy? Well, not really. The knowledge that the computer set up is still not finished unsettles me. A few of the physical problems have been solved, but many remain. The unfinished maths assignment also unsettles me. But I have simply reached the end of my resources with it, having been under so much pressure for so many months. Most of this pressure, I hasten to add, self-inflicted. Perhaps it is time, as the Wonderspouse suggests, to draw a line under the maths coursework situation, to take a break, and then to revise gently for the forthcoming exam. Then, if I can manage that, I might try to indulge in an activity very foreign to me, which I’m told is called “relaxing”.

This wasn’t what I intended to blog about at all this week, but, like computer set-ups and maths assignments, things aren’t always exactly as we would wish them to be. I think it might have been good for me to write this, even if a little dull for you to read. If there is anybody out there still reading at this point, then I admire your perseverance – thank you!

Saturday, 12 September 2009

On The Big One

Eight years ago today I got in the car to go to work as usual (it was a Wednesday, not a Saturday as it is this year). I’d had a very usual sort of morning: drag myself out of bed, drink a glass of orange juice, sit in the bath and cry for half an hour, nibble a bowl of cereal, then get into the car. Rather different from my morning routine today, but that was how it used to be.

I left my flat, drove the 20 or so minute journey to work, and pulled into the car park of the large comprehensive school in the London borough of Haringey, where I was Head of Music. All seemed as usual until I tried to get out of the car.

My legs refused to budge. I couldn’t move. I called the school office from my mobile phone and told them I wasn’t feeling too well. I then drove straight to the doctor’s surgery. After a tearful appointment with a very unsympathetic doctor, I headed for home with a medical certificate and a stash of antidepressants.

I then went to bed. I didn’t get up again for two weeks.

In fact, the next date after that time that means anything to me is November 5th, when I was visited by an old friend, the same old friend who would eventually become my husband. He had to visit me at my flat because at that time I was still leaving the house only to go to my psychiatrist appointments.

The weeks between September 12th and November 5th are largely lost to me. I know that the world was full of turmoil, and I suspect I watched a lot of news (in those days I had digital TV and was in the habit of leaving the rolling news on 24 hours a day). I know that I still wasn’t driving again in November, and that I gave the car keys to a friend who had the car while I was too ill to use it. I know that I saw my psychiatrist, and I have vague memories of walking through Grovelands Park to visit the hospital from time to time. I remember huge pain in my head. I remember one night that nearly didn’t have a following morning (and am thankful to this day that the main effect a large amount of alcohol has on me is to induce sleep). I know that I must have checked my e-mail at some point, because I read a very significant e-mail that resulted in the meeting on November 5th.

Almost all other detail is lost, which is strange, because I usually have a reasonably good memory. I do remember the date though, every year, and not just because of the events unfolding in the world at the time. Eight years ago today was the breakdown that I now call “The Big One”, where I went from functioning human being to complete wreck in the space of a few hours.

I can hardly believe how much life has now changed, how much I have learnt about myself, and how my plans and ambitions have changed since that day. One thing never changes though – every year on 12th September I think about the years I nearly didn’t have as a result of what happened back in 2001, and every year the sun shines just a little bit brighter that day as I consider the wonderful things I would have missed out on if things had turned out differently.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

On Being Obedient

That looks really strange that title! Me? Obedient? Although I do what I can to fit into society and would, I hope, be unlikely to get an ASBO, I’m usually about as obedient as a cat – i.e. not very!

It was therefore quite a shock to most who attended my wedding to the Wonderspouse that I promised to OBEY him! Yes, I really did. Although we got married in a relatively modern United Reformed Church (yes, we did get married in church, however extraordinary that now seems), we had the “traditional” marriage words from 16somethingorother: having and holding, better for worse, richer for poorer (still waiting for the richer bit!), etc etc. and yes, we had the bit where I said I’d obey him.

Fortunately for me, he hasn’t held me to the obedience bit too much – he’s a wise enough man to know that if he tries too hard to control me then I’ll become very unhappy – we’re both creatures who need our own personal space, just like the cats need their own places to sleep. Quite a household of independent creatures here!

However, from time to time the obedience clause is invoked. Usually it happens when I’m still footling about hanging out washing or looking for a CD or some similar activity and am clearly exhausted and he’ll say “Come on, sit down, have a rest and drink your tea – you promised to obey me!” It’s not exactly heavy tactics, but it has reduced the number of cold cups of tea that end up down the sink because I’ve forgotten to drink them!

This week he’s been urging me to obey him again! I’ve been ill. Not seriously ill, not mentally ill (although my mood has dipped because my usual exercise regime has gone wrong), but just the sort of boring “sore throat, cold, cough, slightly queasy feeling” ill that everyone gets from time to time. I’m pretty useless at being ill, or, as he puts it “You’re a nightmare when you’re ill”, and I find it very hard to switch off and “relax”. I’m just not really a “putting my feet up” sort of a person.

However, this week has been worse than usual, partly because the house REALLY needs cleaning, but mainly because I’m in the middle of one of the busiest times of the year for my current OU maths course. I have one assignment now a week overdue (for which the revised deadline is tomorrow) and another due next Friday (which cannot be extended). There is also an exam looming in October.

Early this year, when I started the course, I had my usual high hopes for a top-grade pass for the course. My first TMA (tutor marked assignment) came back with a perfect 100, which seemed like a good start, and all other marks were 95 and above until the one I had to complete after a month off for a depressive episode in June/July, which weighed in at a lowly 85. Oh well, I thought, if I work extra hard I can make it up!

However, that hasn’t really worked. Time quite literally ran out for the next assignment – I was only able to submit 12 marks worth of work and came away with a mark of just 11. One really bad assignment is just about coverable, but I’m now so far behind that it’s now certain that there will be at least two bad assignments (if not 3). This means that the top-grade pass for this course will no longer be possible, even if I do really well in the exam (which is, of course, not a foregone conclusion). Me being me, I’m starting to stress about the whole business. I want to do it all perfectly. I don’t want to hand in rubbish work, I don’t want to get a low mark. I want to try to get a first for my degree overall. The dreaded perfectionism creeps in!

So I try to work harder. I make more effort to sit at my desk and study. And, guess what happens – the harder I push, the less I get done. And I am surprised. Goodness knows why I’m surprised, this exact thing happened in the final weeks of my doomed doctorate when I was trying desperately hard to complete a chapter at the beginning of my third year in order to convince my funding body and supervisor that my money should continue. I got up at 8 every morning (sounds like a lie-in now), sat at my desk at 9, and tried to write. And failed.

In the years since then I’ve learnt that this method does not work for me. My mind is no more likely to obey me than it is to obey anyone else. However, this “sit at your desk, shut up, and get on with your work” thing is so ingrained in me from years of school and helpful advice that I keep doing it. Apparently I’ve not actually learnt anything in the 15 or so years since my doctoral thesis dried up like a river that flows into the desert, never to reach the sea.

However, last night and this morning I’ve finally had to accept that I can’t do it all. I’ve spent the last 3 days sitting at my desk watching limits and functions swim before my eyes, coughing until I ache, sucking on an inhaler and swigging Benylin straight from the bottle, before eventually giving up, playing on twitter all day and giving myself RSI as well! It is time to stop. Now I must attend to the practicalities of contacting my tutor (will I never get over feeling as though I’m telling her the cat ate my homework?), and working out what the best strategy is to get the best pass I can for the course (even though it will not be a top grade and, in all likelihood, will not end up counting towards my final degree result anyway). Damage limitation!

Furthermore, the Wonderspouse is telling me to obey him again. This time his orders are “Stop worrying about everything!” and “Don’t beat yourself up!”

I’m going to try very hard to be an obedient wife. I did promise.

Monday, 7 September 2009

On Childhood Cats

I realise that, thus far, this blog’s main title may have been a bit misleading. While there have been several posts that are, at least loosely, linked to music, I still haven’t written much about maths (partly because I’m doing so much at the moment in order to prepare for a forthcoming exam that I don’t feel very inclined to blog about it), and I’ve hardly even mentioned the moggies.

So here is a little post about some of the cats I grew up with!

Cats seem to have featured in my life ever since I was born. In fact, when my grandparents came to visit me just after I was born, they had the rather sad task of telling my mum that the old family cat from her childhood had just died. All thoughts of new baby (me) vanished, and mum went straight into mourning for the cat!

When I was about 5 my parents decided that it was time to introduce a cat to our family. We’d just moved into the house that was to be my home until I left to go to college when I was 18, so it seemed like a good time. We adopted a little kitten, who was named Leonora (and subsequently Leonora the First). However, this is a sad story – little Leonora was already fatally ill when she arrived and we had her for just 3 days. My only memories of her are of a small kitten being sick into a saucer.

Leonora the Second was her replacement. She was a fine and social cat, who loved the car (particularly curling up to sleep on the back parcel shelf where the sun came in through the window). She was very friendly with a white tom cat called Toby who lived over the road. Unfortunately, her life was also cut tragically short – she was hit by a car on the way back from visiting Toby one night. I remember my parents telling us the next morning. Another grave in the back garden, and a white tom cat sitting on the doorstep for ages afterwards howling and looking for his Leonora.

At that point my parents decided to stop getting cats. However, circumstances overtook them. My father was a science teacher, and took one of his classes out on some sort of nature walk one day. Two boys discovered a tiny kitten under a bush, and the body of a grown cat was subsequently discovered on the road outside the school. The kitten lived in a box in the prep room for a day or so until it was established that no home could be found. My father called my mother, preparations were made – the kitten was unweaned so we fed her Cow&Gate milk from a teat pipette, and my mother named her Smokey (Leonora was now deemed bad luck).

Smokes, as she was generally called, became my childhood companion. She was antisocial to all except our family and one or two select friends who visited the house a lot, but she was gorgeous to us. She was often terribly nervous, and we could never have had another cat with her (even though I nearly brought one of my uncle’s kittens home – he had 12 cats at the time), but she even trusted me enough to let me tie my school tie around her neck, and then sat still for long enough for me to take a picture!

Fortunately, she also enjoyed a much longer life than either of the Leonoras. It wasn’t until I was away at college in London that she finally succumbed to some kind of growth in her mouth. We’d had her when I was 7, she died, age 14, when I was 21. Her timing was interesting – my parents had just sold the house we had grown up in – I’m certain she would have been deeply unhappy if she’d had to move. I still keep a picture of her in my purse today. It’s terribly battered and faded, but I love it anyway.

Again, there was a decision not to have any more cats. We children had flown the nest and my parents were making a new start. However, when my mum heard about 2 kittens, living on the farm next door to my stepgrandparents’ house that were due to be drowned, I and my stepsister were dispatched in the car to collect them.

Ebony and Ivory (as they were eventually called - some of the ruder alternatives having been vetoed by my mum) were joined a couple of years later by their little half-brother Felix (named after Mendelssohn since I was working on my D.Phil. on Mendelssohn’s String Quartets at the time). Felix had been found foraging on a compost heap by my stepgrandfather and rescued from almost certain drowning.

I must have been absolutely besotted with little Ivory – I’d never have let anyone else walk on my viola!!

Sadly Ebony died about 18 months ago. Here’s one of my favourite pictures of him, when he was in his prime.

Ivory (who is now rather elderly and not in great health) and Felix (who remains in good shape) still live with my mother. She says she’ll never have another cat when they go, but I’m not 100% convinced! Kittens under bushes and on compost heaps will always need rescuing.

In the meantime, I’ve both inherited my mother’s soft spot for the furry felines and married someone who has a similar soft spot. It is about time for you to be introduced to our feline family. I had originally thought that I’d introduce them all at once, in a single blog post, but, on reflection, that might make for a rather lengthy post, so I hope to give them each their little moment of glory over the next few weeks. Watch this space!