Monday 23 June 2014

Oceans and all that

'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' by Neil Gaiman does what all the best fantasy writing does; it takes the real world and makes you feel that there are things about it that are unknowable, that fantastic things can happen right here not just in far away imaginary worlds. Not that you would want this kind of thing to happen, it was pretty scary, but I am a wimp and very easily scared so don't let that put you off. 

Life has been quite normal for our unnamed protagonist but things take a real world turn for the worst with the suicide of their lodger. To remove him from a situation that children are not supposed to see he ends up at the farmhouse at the end of the lane being watched over by a trio of strange women. The Hempstock's farm appears to exist in the real world, they have porridge for breakfast and everything, but things are not what they seem, and when Lettie befriends their young neighbour he unwittingly becomes the way in for a creature from another place. The creature then takes human form and begins to inveigle its way into his family. I like the fact that Neil Gaiman doesn't try and give any kind of reasonable or logical explanation for its behaviour, you just have to go with the flow. In spite of the increasing menace the boy draws on courage he didn't know he had faces up to responsibilities far beyond his years. The magic of the place protects him from the horror that he experiences, delivering him back to his family with only the vaguest notion of events, and it is only when he comes back in later life to sit by the 'ocean' that he can recall and thus agonise over whether he is responsible for what happened. 

Not really a book for children, but a book about childhood, and how it is a separate kind of existence from adulthood. I think that Neil Gaiman has a deep affinity for the child's point of view. The boy in the story really has no understanding of, or even interest in, the things that happen in the adult world, even while being aware of how any change might be a threat. 

When he is forced to give it up due to family economics the boy explains why his room is so important:
"the room was above the kitchen, and immediately up the stairs from the television room, so at night I could hear the comforting buzz of adult conversation up the stairs, through the half-open door, and I did not feel alone. Also, in my bedroom, nobody minded if I kept the hall door half open, allowing in enough light that I was not scared of the dark, and, just as important, allowing me to read secretly, after my bedtime, in the dim hallway light, if I needed to. I always needed to." (p.17-8)

And that porridge I mentioned earlier:
" She gave me a china bowl filled with warm porridge from the stove top, with a lump of home-made blackberry jam, my favourite, in the middle of the porridge, then she poured cream on it. I swished it around with my spoon before I ate it, swirling it into a purple mess, and was as happy as i have ever been about anything. It tasted perfect." (p.27)

Lovely enigmatic exchange between the boy and Lettie; I just like the way children accept what they are told and make their own sense of it:
" 'How do you know?'
She shrugged. 'Once you've been around for a bit, you get to know stuff.'
I kicked a stone. 'By "a bit", do you mean "a really long time"?'
She nodded.
'How old are you really?' I asked.
I thought for a while. Then I asked, 'How long have you been eleven for?'
She smiled at me." (p.40)

This final one seems to sum up childhood so perfectly. Children trust people because they have to, because they have so little control in their lives, and, to a certain extent, the happiness of a childhood is founded on that trust being well placed:
"I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth, the dark swollen currants in the spotted dick were tangy in the cake-thick chewy blandness of the pudding, and perhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock." (p.199)

Neil Gaiman doesn't try and create whole worlds like some 'fantasy' writers, he just makes little corners that capture your imagination and haunt you after you have finished reading. 

Friday 20 June 2014

Monkey Quilt - the final chapter

It has been a quiet week work-wise but a hectic one on the hexipuff front. I spent the entire of Sunday and then Wednesday sewing together the beekeeper quilt. It was quite a trial, that involved a certain unmentionable amount of picking apart as well as sewing together. We were still two half hexipuffs short but since Monkey had missed Knitting Club on Tuesday when we went to the Tea Hive to celebrate World Wide Knit in Public Day she insisted that she wanted to participate in a KIP and so we went to the park yesterday afternoon to knit them. 
Then we came home and I sewed them into place. 
And now the quilt is finally finished.
The project has taken two years and 29 days. We knitted 414 hexipuffs, but used only 410 of them (it is 21 by 20 puffs), and 20 half hexipuffs, Monkey decided to name them 'trapezipuffs'. Credit also going here to contributions from my sister Claire who was visiting when we started and knitted some, and Tish who has intermittently joined the madness. It measures 5' 4" square. We reckon about 300 hours of work have gone into it. I have no idea how much yarn has been used nor any notion of how much it has cost, but it is worth every penny.
We both had a little cuddle to appreciate its exquisite squishiness:
Then I made her pose in the garden where the light was much better;
I am thinking maybe I should hire it out for interior design photo shoots to help pay for her fees:
We are also considering making a 'beekeeper blanket bag' to protect it and transport it safely (she was a bit iffy about letting me put it on the grass, but I pointed out the carpet in the living room was probably dirtier).
Final details that I neglected to mention are the pockets. There are four: two empty hexipuffs open at one end, one double empty hexipuff for keeping her phone in and this lovely creation with a button fastening for keeping the sweetie stash in
It is comforting to know that whatever adventures may befall her when she leaves home for the big bad world in September ... she will have a constant reminder of how important she is to me and she will definitely not be cold at night:
Linking back to Fibre Arts Friday for craftily sharing.

Monday 16 June 2014


'Schroder' by Amity Gaige was quite a hard read for me; stories that mention custody fights and family courts still have the effect of giving me a sick feeling of anxiety even though the memory is nearly ten years old. In this story a father recounts the disintegration of his marriage and a last ditch attempt to reinforce his relationship with his daughter. Having been on the receiving end of a hatchet job I could not help but find myself sympathising with Schroder but you also got a strong sense of his unreliability since his whole existence was based on a false identity. In the end, whatever the rights and wrongs of what he does, in truth his daughter becomes a pawn in the power struggle between her parents, a situation in which he is as culpable as the mother.

Having escaped East Germany as a child with his father, leaving behind his mother, Schroder then forges a new, more american, 'persona' for himself in  the form of 'Eric Kennedy', under which identity he gets first a scholarship to a summer camp and then a place at college where he meets his future wife. He seems to have lived his whole life trying very hard to be what other people expect, and his marriage follows the same route. In fact part of why I did sympathise with him was because the bond he forms with his young daughter seems to be the only authentic one in his life. Following an economic crisis his wife becomes the breadwinner and Schroder takes on the role of caring for his child, and from being relatively indifferent to her he abruptly finds himself entranced by being with her and watching and nurturing her growth. His recounting of the times they spent and what they did entranced me, and I really felt he shared her child's curiosity about the world (particularly excellent was his description of them observing the decay of a dead fox). 

The book takes the form of a long statement of explanation to his ex-wife for his escape with Meadow. To a certain extent it is one long blustering excuse for some very selfish and irrational behaviour, mixed in with the truth about his background and a slightly peculiar life philosophy.

Interesting quote time. 

"In North Albany in February, the flora and fauna are dead, the traffic turns the snow to the colour of tobacco juice, the children are shuttered away in their schools, and the long days are silent. The cats grow wet and skinny, and the rain grows hard and bitter, as if it is not rain but the liquid redistribution of collective conflict; it's a frigid rain, a rain that pricks the skin of any upturned face, a damning rain that makes men eke corks from bottles. O February, you turn our hearts to stone." (p.30-1)

Schroder is "writing a book" about Silence, something he brings up from time to time in footnotes and elsewhere, which I found quite interesting; this quote is quite long but it is peculiarly observant about relationships:

"For all his brilliant writing, playwright and unofficial pausologist Harold Pinter loved moments in which the characters did not speak, leaving us now with plays chock-full of excruciating or 'pregnant' pauses. Although Pinter later came to repudiate his famous pauses, he happily wrote 140 of them into Betrayal and 224 into The Homecoming, which, if faithfully acted, led to some satirically long theatre-clearing performances that will fuel bad undergraduate repertoires for generations to come. I'd like to draw a connection here between dramatic and marital pauses. Both dramatic and marital pauses vary in duration; the shortest, or most minor, and easily ignorable ('...') but do signal some form of inner struggle; other beats are longer and more loaded with effortful suppression of confusion  (pause), but the longest pauses (silence) are the ones no one should have to bear, and speaking personally I would have rather been flayed alive than to stand there with my wife having nothing to say, as in nothing left to say." (p.151-2)

A few pages later he is equally observant about his daughter:

"The only place in which I knew we were invisible was right where we were, but we couldn't stay here. I could see that Meadow had lost the fragile enthusiasm she's first had for our trip. Hell, she'd been doing me a favour the whole time. I could see that.
But what did I want? Just a little more time. But what for? What spectacular thing was I going to do with it? I didn't want to be exposed - how much I was about to lose - but I knew I was going to lose it, now or later. I grabbed a nearby chair back, squeezing until it hurt. There was something more to do. I wasn't done." (p.158)

I kind of hoped that he would come to his senses, but it seems the course, once set upon, had to be followed to its bitter end.
Just like 'Dirty Work' the other week there is only one person in this book; Meadow doesn't get much of a look in, she gets to eat junk food and skip school but really he's not that interested in what she wants by this stage. It is only Schroder's thoughts, feelings and reactions we know about, only his view of the world and their very specific situation. I was so caught up with him however that I did not find myself giving much thought to the woman back home, terrified that he would do something desperate. So, not quite the touching portrait of a father/daughter relationship that was expected, or even really about parental love, it was much more about how fragile our sense of identity is, how easily breached and how hard people will fight to save it.

Friday 13 June 2014

Adventure in miniature knitting - Fibre Arts Friday

We have finished knitting hexipuffs. 
No, really we have. I'm not addicted, I can give up any time I want.
I have been doing a second smaller beekeeper quilt alongside the main one, but have not been working on it seriously. They are done in 4ply so are significantly smaller:
 I am not sure how the idea came up ... but I decided to try making a really, really tiny hexipuff:
It was knit in a fine 4 ply with three large straightened paperclips; they are about 1mm in diameter:
 For scale, it is a bit bigger than a 50p:
I am in awe of people who knit tiny jumpers for dollhouse dolls. It was torturous and took about 2 hours. I will not be continuing with my plan to knit a tiny hexipuff blanket.
Linking back to Fibre Arts Friday.

Thursday 12 June 2014

Favourite moments - Costa Rican Adventure Part 7

When mum first proposed a holiday together I was a bit stumped. I had no 'bucket list' of things I wanted to do or places I wanted to go; I never imagined having the money to travel so had not thought much about it. When I mentioned going to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam I think she was a bit disappointed. The plan emerged quite gradually, mum's only request was being able to use her spanish. Neither of us was interested in lounging on a beach or sipping cocktails. The travel agent's initial plan entailed hotels and rented cars. I didn't want to have someone else decide everything so we politely rejected her itinerary in favour of doing our own arrangements. Mum reckoned it cost about half what it would have done if we had gone with the original plans.
The thing we agreed on was the principle of experiencing the rainforest. We didn't go 'off the beaten track', but we really did go into the wild forest.
In terms of 'adventure' the second day was my favourite: the flight on the tiny plane and the collectivo bus ride and the walk along the beach were all part of feeling that we were remote from civilization, that we were seeing a part of the world so different from the one we knew.
La Leona gave us a tiny taste of paradise, without it feeling luxurious or self-indulgent. The Pacific Ocean was 30 metres in front and the rainforest was 30 metres behind us. 
Most magical moment was our first encounter with wildlife. The first morning we set off up the self-guided trail in the private La Leona reserve. At the top of the hill we came upon two tapirs asleep in the undergrowth. They were just there, minding their own business, having a nap. I think it was the first time I have seen such a large wild animal that wasn't under some kind of control by human beings:
The encounter with the family of coati was another of my favourites. What I was astonished to find was that the animals were not afraid of humans (except the Tayra that we also saw this day but did not stick around to be photographed). I had assumed that if they noticed us they would run away and all we would get was a fleeting glimpse, but on the contrary, they were utterly unperturbed and carried on regardless:
Jim was another highlight of our stay at La Leona. Here he is communing with the coati. He knew so much stuff about the rainforest and I learned so much from him. Our hikes never felt like preplanned tours to see the sights; everything we encountered was spontaneous and unexpected. He is a lepidopterist by inclination and has his own species that he discovered and documented.
The black vultures became my favourite birds; we saw them everywhere, often circling:
And look, we found a place where chocolate grows on trees:
The only scary moment for me was that first walk at La Leona. We were enjoying watching a line of red army ants that were alongside the path then I stepped over the roots of a tree to find that we had discovered the nest and the entire path was swarming with ants. I could not avoid treading on them so I panicked and retreated. We had to do a quick hop-skip-jump over the swarm hoping they would not mind too much and decide to gang up on us.  This is the nest below the tree roots, it is a couple of metres square in area
Last night at La Leona we had a real pacific storm; Jim lit the candles in the garden when we were waiting for dinner to be served, and they did survive the first few minutes of rain. In a short space of time the paths were mini streams, and then the thunder and lightening started. We sat in the dining room and just watched the spectacle:
Taken seconds after the one above, the lightening did not flash across but lit up the entire sky. It was a fantastic dramatic end to our stay on the coast:
But just being in the rainforest was the best thing. The forest does not smell as I expected. it felt as if you were breathing pure oxygen, the cleanest air imaginable. I worried that it was naive to expect to feel like an explorer rather than a tourist but we did, and I loved the feeling of being surrounded by untamed nature; there are few places in Britain where you can find this:
and you never knew what you were about to come across:
If the definition of an adventure is "an unusual and exciting or daring experience" then I think that it certainly lived up to expectations.

The human impact - Costa Rican Adventure Part 6

The beach of the Pacific Ocean was as wild and remote as you could hope for. You really get a sense of being on the edge of something vast. There is no gentle lapping of waves, they crash in relentlessly whatever the weather, the distance between the low and high tides being merely 50 metres or so. The forest comes right down to the beach where the coconut palms drop their fruit onto the sand and hermit crabs scuttle by the thousand amongst the driftwood. 
But if you look closer at the dark grey volcanic sand, along the high tide line this is what you find:
While this is not strictly 'microplastic' is marks one stage in the process. Plastic waste that is dumped in the oceans gradually breaks down due to degradation by sunlight and the action of waves, and it becomes these tiny pieces of plastic that now exist everywhere in the world's oceans. Other forms of microplastic are abrasives and exfoliants deliberately manufactured as tiny pieces (and entering the oceans via the water cycle) and microscopic pieces from artificial fibres. The bacteria in the sea that break down organic substances cannot deal with plastics. While it is well known that large pieces of plastic are a danger to marine life and seabirds, who consume it or get tangled in it, these pieces of plastic are so small that they can then enter the food chain, with currently poorly understood consequences for animal and human health. The 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch' is not actually a floating island of plastic, but an area of concentration of microplastic, brought about by currents that keep them concentrated in a specific area.

On our way back from one of our hikes mum and I litter picked the few hundred yards of beach leading back to the lodge. In a way I was surprised by how little there was. Because the place was deserted there was no dropped litter, this is entirely plastic that has been washed up on the tide. It felt like a small thing we could do to contribute, though quite literally a drop in the ocean.

Thursday 5 June 2014

Dirty Work

(Trigger warning: contains discussion of abortion.)

'Dirty Work' by Gabriel Weston is not your ordinary kind of novel. It is almost entirely an internal monologue by a young doctor, a gynaecologist, who has had a breakdown causing the near death of an abortion patient on the operating table. She does occasionally talk to people, but it's almost as if she is observing some other 'self' have these conversations, she is so utterly dissociated from her existence. There is an enquiry going on into the circumstances of the situation and in between interviews and assessments of her psychological state she remembers moments from her childhood and medical training, and spends her time sitting as close as she can to the ITU where the woman is being cared for, or failing that merely thinking about her. It is as she feels that by mere force of will and proximity she can repair the damage she caused:

"I have no job to go to, and snow falls on London. It stops, only to start up again. I lie in bed well past six, looking up at the sky, thinking of my patient. Anxious that the slow-falling processes in her body, the drifts of electrolytes across cell membranes, the sweep of inflammatory mediators and catecholamines, the piling up of work on vital organs should go in her favour and not against her. To bear her towards life not death. And there is nothing I can do." (p.46)

Despite the issue of abortion being something that is discussed at length in the media now the focus is on women who have abortions, the whys and wherefores, not on the doctors who perform them. For them too the process is a moral choice with ongoing emotional consequences. The story is not making any moral judgment or looking at the standard arguments for and against, it is simply presenting it as a fact; this is how it is and this is how this character came to be doing it and this is what happened. I felt it muddied the water a little by bringing some vague traumatic childhood sexual abuse into her background. It made you feel that her emotional reaction was more complex than just her struggling to handle her job. She is presented as someone who is already very withdrawn and self-contained, who tried to cope alone without asking for help. She takes her role as a doctor very seriously and early on vows to ensure she treats her patients with the utmost respect. But then she knows rationally that things are not right, and she steels herself to continue, for the sake of her patients. 

The writing is very intense and intimate, you are right inside her head, feeling what she feels, thinking what she thinks, picking up the tiniest of sensory details about her physical surroundings. This quote is very vivid, and very  familiar:

"Even from the outside, my primary school looked gloomy, a Victorian building set in the middle of black asphalt. The playground roared with boys, and they invaded everywhere, including the outside loos, which I tried to hide in during break-time. These loos stank and has see-through crinkly paper into which the pee didn't blot but ran off along its sharp creases into your hands." (p.10)

This one is more intense still, during the fateful operation when she is already aware of how she is loosing touch with reality:

"The antibiotic bullet is in my right hand. I hold it in a pincer grip between my thumb and forefinger. I don't want to look at this hand, would rather not discover if it is still mutinous. I prefer to control it by feeling what it needs to do, by stereognosis alone. The sanitary pad is in my left, reliable hand. The hand that belongs to me. The hand I can depend on. I am lifting the pad through the air from the trolley to where I will tuck it snugly just under my patient's buttocks, while listening to May. It looks fat and clean. I am pleased by its whiteness against the faraway gloom of the operating theatre behind it." (p.143)

The author is an experienced surgeon but it's not until the end that she spells it out for you. She very tactfully puts in in italics, inviting the reader to skip this bit if they so choose. We use very distant language when we talk about abortion: people are 'referred', sent somewhere else, to someone else, some nameless faceless person who actually does the abortion. It is all very clean and clinical and tidy. But you don't get off that lightly here. It is laid out for you in black and white, you are confronted with the reality. Don't shy away. If you believe in a woman's right to control her body you should not shy away. A woman's right to control her fertility is the most important way out of poverty. I think women should have lives that they are in control of. I think children should have the right to lives where they are wanted and loved and valued. The world will be a better place when these rights are available everywhere.

"At five or six weeks' gestation, this is the size of a woman's little fingernail. The sac and the desidua look quite similar at this stage. The way to tell them apart is to transilluminate the tissue. This involves floating it in a tiny glass dish, over a light. By doing this, you will recognise the gestational sac because it looks like a tiny piece of coral. It is fronded. It is not upsetting to look at. it is pretty, and looks like a plant. There is nothing humanoid about it.
But even before you switch the pump on, it is a hard situation to be in. We use ultrasounds all the time now. And before you even start, the ultrasound shows you a human image on its screen. After a while of course, this image and the subsequent disintegration of this image does not affect you as profoundly as it may do on the first occasion. Everything gets easier with time. This is not a mark of the abortion provider's moral decrepitude, surely? It is a fact of life, that some things get easier and easier.
Holding heavy forceps, feeling the mixture of give and resistance in the tissue they grasp, with only the instrument between my hands and the dismembering of a foetus: the dismalness of doing this for the first time is dreadful. It also feels like a moral act. You cannot just walk away from a problem. You cannot be a gynaecologist and leave this work to someone else. That is cowardice. That is what I think." (p.171-4)

Not for the faint-hearted.
Woman Care Global - a charity that works directly to provide reproductive healthcare

Wild and Reckless - Costa Rican Adventure Part 5

On our penultimate night we went for dinner at The Treehouse in Monteverde, though it was raining when we walked over to eat so they were not seating anyone under the tree as it is in the open.
For our last day in Costa Rica we took a hike to the San Luis Waterfall (or catarata, a word we became very familiar with in chatting to various people along the way). It seemed straightforward. Take the early bus to the cloudforest but get off at the turning to San Luis, walk downhill 7 km until you find it. It turned out that Jovan probably hadn't ever been to the San Luis Waterfall (but it was the only time they let us down).
Another of my best photos, a green spiny lizard on the walk down the hill:
So we walked and we walked. It was downhill all the way. Past the school:
Past the health centre (these buildings were sprawled randomly down the hillside, seemingly nowhere near where anyone lived):
We saw plenty of birds, and then a very camera-shy squirrel:
We were very hot, very tired when we reached the bottom of the valley and the village of San Luis, having descended several thousand feet. There was no sign of the waterfall. I insisted that we walk out the other side of the village, where we finally encountered a man who told us it was back up the hill. Mum then knocked on someone's door and after a long chat established that we had to go back up past the school and take a turning. This was 3km ... back up the hill. In the scorching, midday, heat. We stopped by the river for a drink and to reapply suncream. Someone had thoughtfully dammed the river and created a deep luscious pool. Although just behind us the road crossed the river on a little metal bridge no vehicles had come past us in over an hour and there was no one about. 
It was irresistible:
Having been cooled and refreshed I was all set to march back up the hill. Mum was a bit more the worse for wear so the walk back up was done in tiny stints between patches of shade and included a welcome sit-down at the cemetery. Having got off the bus around 8am it was 1.30pm by the time we arrived at the entrance to the waterfall. From there it was another 1km to the fall itself. The perk was it was through the rainforest along the river.

I am trying to upload the video of the final stretch and the waterfall itself, but am not sure it is working. (Gave up on the video, in fact the two short films that I put together with these photos at the end wouldn't even load to Flickr). You can go to the 'Search for the San Luis Waterfall' album on Flickr and see the little videos of us making the final trek (actually, go to just this one, the first one has not loaded properly either). 

The water was take-your-breath-away cold but very exhilarating. It was so beautiful and we sat and watched a flock of swift type birds swooping in and out of their nests in the rocks around the valley and up above the waterfall. We had hoped to be there for the middle part of the day when the valley is a sun trap, to sit on the rocks and read and have our lunch. The perk of being late was that we had the place to ourselves, but the sun had moved around and it was cooling off down in the valley, so we only stayed about an hour, allowing plenty of time to walk back and call the taxi. We waited half an hour for it to arrive, admiring the fruit in the garden of the people who ran the little cafe and trying (and failing) to capture more hummingbird photos. 
The final one of my wildlife photos, and probably the best. This is a Glasswinged butterfly:
At 6am on the 23rd we said our goodbyes to Pension Santa Elena and caught the bus back to San José.
We left San José just after 5pm. As we flew away we briefly had the sunset through the window and then about eight hours later were awoken with the sunrise on the other side of the world.