Confessions of Another Common Reader

How Far Can You Go?

May2

I’ve had to move into temporary accommodation back here (edit: that would be at flossieteacake.wordpress.com), despite the dustballs, after my lovely site got hacked to pieces. Not that I was really maintaining it (probably why it got hacked to pieces as I wasn’t paying attention), but I still feel the same sense of violation that someone decided to use it for spamming. Anyway, I’m having some problems rebuilding the site. Since I foolishly signed up last night to Blog a Penguin Classic, and have therefore committed myself to reviewing The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket within the next six weeks, I thought I’d better have somewhere to write it – and also get back into the swing of writing stuff like this online. Not that I was ever really in it in the first place to get back into it, but that’s beside the point.

On a bit of a David Lodge binge at the moment, in order not to arrive at his event at the London Review Bookshop on Thursday with insufficient recall. Wolfed down The British Museum is Falling Down in the space of 24 hours, which I remembered not at all (even though I’m sure I must have read it before) but enjoyed, and now getting stuck into How Far Can You Go?, which is more interesting with a higher degree of understanding of Catholicism than it was when I first read it at university.

I’m trying not to think about how much all the rereading I’m going to be doing during May (I have to swot up for Lorrie Moore at the end of the month too) is going to set back my progress through my immense backlog of yet-to-be-read books. Still wish I could identify that marvellous essay in the Grauniad Review x years ago about how many hours there are left in one’s life to read books. I’d like to have it etched on my soul.

Setting priorities

May8

Wonderful evening on Sunday made up for the mess the rest of the day had become through lack of forward planning. I realise I am very bad at standing up to be counted in more ways than just the political-protest one: sometimes when I know what the right thing to do is I still feel too embarassed to insist on it. And I can’t spell “embarrassed” either. Anyway, my failure to press home the “pre-booking strongly advised” message about the Star Wars exhbition at the National Space Centre meant that we ended up there at 1:30 on Sunday afternoon, with all exhibition tickets sold out, no lightsabres in the gift shop, and a departure deadline of 3:00 to allow Himoutdoors to get back for singing. Which it later turned out we didn’t need to do as he actually wasn’t on the rota.

Thrilled to spot old friends at (very stressful for me) evening service. Elizabeth and family moved away from us last year and we miss them, but since we are equally bedecked with offspring, meeting up is like the proverbial military campaign only more inflexible. We managed to lure them back to our cave for “just a quick drink”, the first baby step on the slippery slope to DVDs and popcorn (air-popped, no sugar, naturellement) for the smalls, curry and gin for the grown-ups. It was really great to see them, and to feel that it is possible to still do fun and spontaneous things without causing massive upheaval to everyone. (Doubtless the second this is published Liz will post a torrid tale of hell on the London Eye the next morning, thus proving me wrong. Bad, bad mummy.)

Something Liz said made me think about the nature of priority-setting and what is important to us. There are so may things that I feel I should do as a parent but don’t. Just saying I don’t have the time to and that’s that doesn’t feel good enough. Sneakingly, deep down (OK, actually not very deep down at all, but a small distance below the surface at least) I believe that actually I do have the time, and it’s just my own selfish need to do other things that prevents me from doing all of these things. Ergo, I am a terrible parent.

Late last night I decided that instead of going to sleep to prepare for the week ahead (are you spotting a pattern here?), I was going to finish reading the Grauniad Weekend magazine. This dreadful piece of tat annoys me so much I really am at a loss as to why I still bother reading it. But currently enjoying Oliver Burkeman’s This Column Will Change Your Life, on self-help etc. etc. but with a strong emphasis on the productivity angle. This week, he covered a book by Arnold Bennett, How To Live On 24 Hours A Day, which I am looking forward to adding to my ever-growing list of 5,000,000 Books I Don’t Have Time To Read. Apparently it’s online which makes it even more likely I’ll never get round to opening it. A pity, as this quote really got my attention:

His central idea echoes down the decades: cultivate your capacity to pay attention – to not let life go by in a distracted blur – and time expands. His book is full of techniques for finding a few hours a week to study music, history, public transport systems. His point isn’t what you pay attention to; it’s that you pay attention.

This was one of the most wonderful things about my year off with Smallest. I felt that I had suddenly discovered how to pay attention to time passing. I don’t think I had yet moved on to the next step of discovering how to set some of it aside to do important things, but it must have been a good first step.

Daddy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow

May1

Actually, I hate zoos, so that’s not a great choice for a title – apart from the cultural associations with wide-eyed excitement at going somewhere Big and Elsewhere. Off to Internet World at Earls Court tomorrow, and feeling quite excited about it. It’s a free event, so it’s only costing work the price of my train ticket plus the time spent there, but nevertheless there have been rumblings about it…. sigh.
Still – I’m going and that’s that. I have planned myself a hectic programme of seminars which actually leaves me relatively little time to do what I really intended to, which was visit as many stands as possible and come home with a large amount of literature about CMSs (strictly work-related). Nevertheless. (What a great word.) It should be productive professionally, and satisfying from a personal development point of view. Plus I manage to miss the dreaded Company Lunch when the Scary Restructuring is going to be Explained (yes, it definitely needs initial caps) and hence escape the risk of me speaking my mind and getting into trouble.
Gosh, it’s quite cheered me up writing this. Have been feeling quite low most of the day for no particular reason – worrying because I haven’t felt non-specifically-blue for quite some time, and no matter how much I racked my brains I couldn’t work out what it was I needed to do to shake it off. Turns out it was writing a rather feeble entry about a Country Lass’s Big Trip to the City. The End.

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People who don’t sleep enough because they stay up late for no reason

April20

Possibly my favourite Facebook group. At present, I have a near-pathological inability to go to bed at something resembling a “normal” time. I suspect it’s closely connected with Smallest spontaneously deciding she was too grown-up for breastfeeding. As my hormones return to something approaching normal, I’m beginning once more to relish elements of a life beyond small children.

The difference third time round – at least for me – is that enjoying other parts of my life is not freighted with the baggage of resentment of the child-related bits. Finally, nearly 8 years in, I seem to be learning how to enjoy being a parent. I’m no longer kicking against the inevitable constraints implied by the needs and demands of small people (who did not ask to be brought into this world, after all). Instead, I actually do come back from the other things really looking forward to seeing the small people, and energised by the different experiences. (Unless my boss has spent the day in super-control-freak mode and I am infuriated to the point of nuclear meltdown, in which case I need some time in my padded cell before I am fit for human interaction)

Nonetheless – I’m recognising that actually, I do need some space for myself as well. Unfortunately, at the moment I seem to be annexing this by stealing from my sleeping hours.

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“Mothers suffered more prejudice than Asians, black people, the disabled and gays and lesbians”

April10

I have the house to myself. Eldest and Blondest are away with family; Smallest is asleep; HimOutdoors is in London sitting professional exams. So naturally instead of going to bed early I got on the computer.

While I was waiting for all the files for my shiny new WordPress installation to FTP their way across to the server, I thought I’d do a bit of a clear-out of my personal inbox, and finally got round to reading my TUC “Changing Times” newsletter, which told me all about the Equalities Review. This found, amongst other things, that:

“Mothers suffered more prejudice than Asians, black people, the disabled and gays and lesbians”

Based on my own experience, this didn’t surprise me at all. But I still found it shocking to see it there in black and white. What kind of a world do we live in where people can be discriminated against for having children?

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Obligatory meta-post on the nature of blogging, what I think it means, blah blah blah

March22

(originally entitled “Is Anybody Watching?” until I realised what it was actually saying…)

The main reason I haven’t really got into blogging, I think, is that you need to be interested in having an audience. There’s a certain (large) amount of ego required to push your thoughts out on the web and assume that someone will be interested, amused, entertained, annoyed, provoked, enthused, whatever, by what you have to say.

I realised last night that this is probably the major reason that I don’t really write much – I can’t believe that anyone would be interested in what I have to say. This is partly precipitated by joining Facebook – which I love, but which brings back all those old insecurities about my lack of popularity – I have enormously fewer “friends” than everyone else, and lots of unanswered friend requests, which makes me think (once again) that I am basically a not very likable person.

I noticed too that I’m really interested in hearing what all my friends are up to – I am completely addicted to the status message element of Facebook, despite having not really understood it, and am now hoping that Twitter takes off in the same way so I can be bombarded with text messages telling me what my friends are up to.

I’m not really into keeping a diary either, having had that knocked out of me when I went back and read the diary I kept intermittently at university. Ugh. Suddenly I realise I’m not nearly as good a writer as I thought I was, because the person I read in those pages was nothing like the person I remember being.

Then there’s the nature of how I write – I’m quite a planner. I always wrote essay plans at college, and when I’m trying to do anything major I tend to scrawl down headings, key points and so on, and plan my flow of argument. Blogging is meant to be more “natural” and stream-of-consciousness. At least, that’s my perception.

So for all these reasons, blogging doesn’t really come naturally to me. But I think probably, it’s good for me to push against all of those things. To worry less about popularity; to care less about whether I’m writing well or not; to be a bit more spontaneous in how I approach writing; and above all, to just write MORE. People keep telling me I should be a writer. I don’t think I have the drive or the vision, and I don’t want to be a writer if I’m only going to be mediocre – I want to be the best. But I like to write, and I’m not too bad at it, so I guess I should practice more.

Facebook, Schmacebook

March17

OK, I admit it. I was such a cynic. I thought I was too old and grown-up for it. But my name is Flossie Teacake and I’m a Facebookaholic.

It’s yet another manifestation of time poverty. There are so many people out there who I have known well, and spent time with, and wish I could keep up with, yet never have time to do so (having small children doesn’t help). But it’s so lovely just to log on and see status updates – knowing that everyone’s out there doing what they do, even if I’m not managing to do it with them. Kind of like Hello! for people that only ever read Hello! secretly hoping that people they know will be in there.

Having said which, it’s in danger of taking up waaaaaaaaay too much of my time….

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Ceci n’est pas une pipe

March16

And this is not a ‘hello world’ post. snarf.

Seeing red on accessibility issues

June16

Last night I signed up for a Sainsbury’s credit card (oh, the temptations of a year’s interest-free credit for the new houseowner). The form was absolutely appalling in its accessibility. The layout broke so badly in Firefox that the text explaining terms and conditions overlapped the form controls, making it extremely difficult to read.

Worse than that, though, was the fact that you cannot navigate the registration screens using the keyboard – the interface will NOT allow you to tab between form fields after the first few fields of the second page, rendering it effectively impossible to complete the form when navigating only with a keyboard.

I sent off a little (fairly) polite email to the email address given as a contact for web problems explaining the issue and pointing out that where it’s just an annoyance for me as it renders my “preferred” method unusable, for a partially-sighted or mobility-impaired person that does not navigate using a mouse, it makes the site completely inaccessible.

What did I get back? A copy-pasted stock reply that in no way answered the points I had raised in the message. It referred to Internet Explorer configuration steps (“set the security to medium”), and suggested I upgrade my browser when I had clearly stated I was using the latest version of Firefox on Windows XP.

Bad customer service of a sort that is unfortunately an increasingly familiar experience when shopping or using services online. And more importantly, completely missing the point.

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What on earth does “editorial voice” mean?

June16

I was busy avoiding doing all the stuff I was meant to be doing (like, the washing-up… our change-of-address letters… about an hour’s work on my day job so that I can start tomorrow with a clean[er] slate and a tidier mind… and so on) when the latest from Kathy Marks on the writing process popped into my inbox.

That got me thinking about the question of “editorial voice”. In my previous job, this one was a real hot potato. I worked for a consultancy that wrote strategic reports on telecoms and IT, but also, unusually, employed an editorial team to help turn what the consultants spat out back into readable English.

There was a constant struggle between author and editor over the issue of where the line lay between dumbing down and improving readability – with the battle basically being decided by the quality of the personal relationship between author and editor, rather than any particularly sound and future-proofed policy.

I’ve just begun making a real effort to write properly on this site myself (confession: I broke my original intent to post once daily as a discipline analogous to the “1000 words a day” that some writers employ on – er – Day 2), and already, the voice I’ve adopted is direct, informal, personalised – feature-writing style, of the kind that lies somewhere between a confessional and an editorial.

Of the sites I read regularly, probably 95% fall into this category, with that percentage approximately 75:25 split between people who write in this style with an informative or tutorial purpose and people who are just writing personal stuff. The only ones that don’t are the Microsoft-watching tech sites, which adopt a computer-journalist style and rarely fall into the trap of writing personally (though Mary-Jo Foley’s recent post about the Channel 9 bloggers’ reaction to one of her reports is a notable exception).

Which said, this could simply be a reflection of my personal preferences – I buy the Saturday Guardian primarily on the grounds that I like the supplements, and find the journalism overly biased. So I’m not exactly renowned for seeking out the impersonal and objective in modern journalism.

It would be an interesting exercise to look around a bit more and expand my horizons, wouldn’t it? Oh, and it would be nice if there were around 36 hours in the day… that way I could be finishing this post up now and still get a decent night’s sleep.

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