Sunday, 29 March 2020

WTF WFH: N M Browne

Staring into my screen in hope rather than expectation. 

I suppose I should write something funny about working in isolation. To be honest I have been ill for most of it so far – not desperately-not-breathing ill, more fall- asleep-in-the-afternoon- blancmange- brain kind of ill, which has been almost restful.
 Of course I’ve worked at home for years and, although I like going out as much as the next person and probably more than many, I have no problem with the weird world of home working. I feel a bit ashamed that I’ve never learned a language, become amazing at yoga or found out how to cook sixty tasty things with pasta and tinned beans, instead I’ve just quietly been battling my own inertia for years.
 My top tip for home working? Chill. Don’t worry about it. The world does not end if you are still working in your pjs at lunchtime. I’ve always regarded the relaxed sartorial standards of home working as one of its greatest perks. If I’m not in pjs then I never wear a garment with a waist band - it’s all comfy leisure wear or disreputable joggers – my favourite pair is at least fifteen years old and has so many holes that they are technically indecent but they are wonderfully ignorable, which is the point really.  I 'team' the dodgy sweat pants with several layers of mismatched sweaters and /or sweat shirts  because it’s wasteful to put the heating on for one. The combined look tends to terrify delivery men with its derangement, but I don't have to look at me so its all good. Having warm feet is vital, but that’s really the only thing that matters.  I have fur lined slippers my kids bought me for my birthday. I wear them  pretty well all the time I’m not in bed. There are too many days when I don’t brush my hair.
   I am a slovenly kind of home worker with a relaxed attitude to domestic chores because the battle to get anything productive done uses all my energy. I have mad cleaning days when I rediscover my office floor, re-home all the mugs lurking in forgotten corners and scrub everything to within an inch of its life. It is a joy to work in an atmosphere of civilised calm but then, once I get into whatever I’m doing, chaos re-emerges, papers couple and breed over my workspace. I lose things and get angry and then return to the central battle – the effort to write something.  There are worlds to explore in my own head, and the complex psychological games I play with myself to make myself create them is exhausting. I still don’t know how to do it after all this time. Every day is different even when every day is exactly the same. I wouldn’t worry about getting bored – in my experience it hardly ever happens – frustrated and furious with myself, yes often - but not bored.
 Those of you new to home working may be disturbed by the odd things that happen to time – the slippages and stalls whereby, though you swear you never left your desk, you have achieved nothing except lunch, which holds a sacred space in the home worker's day ( as does a six o’ clock glass of wine, and myriad other bad coffee and chocolate consumption habits. ) Embrace it. Slow down, get distracted by the play of sunlight on the carpet, stare at a bird on a branch. These things are what life is made of. Unproductive days often prepare the ground for productive days. That looping, divergent, random thinking that comes from staring into space is your brain gearing up for something hard and maybe something wonderful.
 And my final tip for home working – optimism. There are a lot of days which an unkind critic could describe as failures:dead end days when inertia wins. I don’t keep a tally. Tomorrow is going to be the day I nail it.

Friday, 27 March 2020

The Isolated Writer - Andrew Crofts

At the time of writing this, “isolation” is gradually morphing from “voluntary” to “compulsory” around the world because the human race is under attack from a clever new virus. 

It has set me thinking about the whole business of being a loner in life.

Like many people who choose to write for a living, I have always been a solitary soul, a watcher of life rather than an active participant. If I hadn’t had the good fortune to marry someone gregarious and have a great many children I would probably be living up a mountain in a cave by now, (that’s the romantic version, I would more likely have spent my life locked in a bedsit in Brighton, eating ready-made soup amongst stacks of old newspapers). 

Maybe it stems from being an only child who was very much left to his own devices most of the time, (always good to make the parents responsible for everything that isn’t quite as glitteringly wonderful about one’s personality as one would like), or maybe I’m just a sociopath. 

Whatever the reason, it meant that I really had to find a craft at which I could earn a living which would allow me to be in my own company for a great deal of the time.

But I was also born extremely curious, or maybe “nosey” would be a better word, with an urge to visit new and strange places and a habit of asking way too many personal questions of people before it is strictly appropriate to do so.

Combine these two character-traits and writing becomes the obvious career choice. It allows me to stick my nose into worlds that would otherwise be closed to me, ask all the questions I want, hear amazing stories and then go away and write those stories, (or fictional versions of them), on my own. It allows me to spend large chunks of my life reading and watching films or television, and many hours staring out the window, day-dreaming and making up stuff in my head.

These are all the things I was doing as a child. Nothing has really changed in sixty years.

Because I love to live this way, it has always puzzled me that more people don’t look for ways to work from home rather than commuting in unpleasant conditions into offices where they have to co-operate with other people. Whenever I have voiced this puzzlement to others it has been explained to me that I am the oddball here, not the rest of the world. Most people, apparently, relish the crowds and the socialising. Apparently, we are meant to be herd animals, not lone hunters. Most people go stir crazy if they have to endure their own company for too long and few have the necessary self-discipline to work hard without someone looking over their shoulders. This is what I am told.

So, it will be interesting to see whether the enforced isolation of the coming months makes any long-lasting changes to the way people work and interact in the future, or whether most people will be rushing eagerly back to their crowded trains and communal offices the moment the all-clear is sounded.  

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Home-quarantine: Through the Eyes of a seven-year-old

When she went to her weekly ballet class on Saturday, 14th March, Srishti had no idea that her normal school routine was about to change drastically. On Saturday, 15th March, the West Bengal State Government declared suspension of all classes and exams in all educational institutions of the state till 31st March – to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus. I broke the news to Srishti only on Sunday night. She gave me a quizzical look… but thankfully was very sleepy and didn’t proceed to ask any question.

Just a day later, the suspension was extended to 15th April. The whole of that week, her international school & the private undergraduate college where I teach, like all other educational institutions, were frantically trying to re-adjust to the new reality – working out the modalities of conducting online classes and working/learning from home. I was caught up in it both as parent and teacher, wondering whether this session/semester can get back on normal track at all. Towards the end of the week, a ‘janta’ curfew was declared on Sunday, 22 March. No sooner was it over that we came to know that there would be a ‘lockdown’ from Monday evening to Friday. But just a day later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation, declaring the extension of the lockdown till 15 April. In 10 days - from 14 to 24 March, to be precise - the enormity of the crisis was brought home to Indians, many of whom had deluded themselves to be immune from such a calamity.

My life, like everyone else’s, has been vastly affected by this lockdown. Working from home, with a child and elderly parent, and in the absence of all domestic help, is a challenge that I’m still in the process of figuring out how best to handle. But as the situation turned from bad to worse, and a looming threat morphed into an unprecedented crisis, it’s my daughter’s response to it that I tracked carefully - half-amazed/half-amused.    

Here’s her journey - in dialogue, text and image.

Monday, 16 March 2020 - Day 1:

“Mama, can we visit Damayanti and Anaya, and they come here during these 15 days? We’ll have such FUN!”

I tell her that that’s precisely what we can’t do: what is keeping her from school is also what will not allow her to visit her friends. She is crestfallen. Tears well up in her eyes immediately… a big tight hug and a bit of cooing about video-chats saves the day.  

Tuesday, 17 March 2020 - Day 2:

I make her a home-school routine. She is super-duper excited. Like me, she loves planning! And very helpfully suggests:

“Mama, you also make a routine for yourself, ok? We’ll work together. It’ll be such FUN!”

I love it when she says that, the way she says that - “such FUN” - with the involuntary stress on “FUN”; her eyes closed, her small palms joining in a joyous clap. Her ability to be happy with the littlest of things is a daily reminder for me of the innocence of childhood. She’s actually in the habit of saying “It’ll be such FUN!” for a wide range of reasons – but I’m floored whenever she includes an activity with me in that list!

Wednesday, 18 March 2020 - Day 3:

This is a day of reckoning. Her life has gone for a toss by an invisible enemy, and she deals with it fair and square in her English ‘composition’ of the day:

“My school is closed because of cronona varies.

I am not geting close to anyone because of that too.

I have been asked to wash my hands every one hour.

I am not touching anyone because they have infection and I don’t want to sraed it that why.

Mama has made a small rooteen for me and I am trying to follow that.

And now I am stuck with mama in the house. (Evidently, she’s not having fun with me!)

I am staying away from meet and fish.

I am not going to any place and I am not going anywhere outside.”

Thursday, 19 March 2020 - Day 4:

There is an accidental pink co-ordination in her outfit after her bath. And she also chances upon her misplaced pink sunglasses the same afternoon. What do you think happens?

“Mama”, I hear, while working on something (can’t recall what). I look up: there she is, giving me a pose. (She can pose anytime, anywhere)! We have a small photo session.

Friday, 20 March 2020 - Day 5:

She is furious with me:

“The whole day you are saying, “Don’t do this”, “Don’t do that”… “Don’t touch this”, “Don’t kiss”, “Don’t put your hand inside your mouth”, “Don’t rub your eyes”…

She continues with some gibberish, and then… makes faces at me. I am appalled. But before I can respond to that verbally, she storms out of the bedroom.

“WE HAVE TO BE CAREFUL, beta”, I shout back, helplessly….

Saturday, 21 March 2020 - Day 6:

Her dad gifts her a portable chess board which he had ordered online. She learns the preliminaries of the game from him with great interest. But she is far more intrigued with the mechanism of the item: the wooden square board folds into a rectangular box, with all the combatants encased in a green velvet cushion inside. She opens the box into a board and shuts it back into a box innumerable times that evening, taking out and putting back the double kings and queens, bishops and knights, and the rest of the gang. She gives them the freedom of movement that she is being denied. 

Sunday, 22 March 2020 - Day 7

Srishti is in a lazy mood in the morning. That doesn’t change much in the afternoon, but at some point, she plonks herself down on the sofa and making a table of her upraised knees, draws a set of flowers and a ballerina. I’m surprised to see the firm breasts and cleavage of the ballerina (never mind her face and palms); but I love the flowers, especially the rose. The orange tinge on the left petal and the yellow tint on the left leaf are “because of the sunlight falling on it”, she tells me. Her drawing teacher has taught her that, I’m informed. Her own favourite is the other (undefined) flower: she is mightily impressed with herself with the shading she has been able to accomplish with her colour pencils. “Just pencils”, she adds, in case I’ve missed the point.

Monday, 23 March 2020 - Day 8:

It’s exactly a week that she’s at home, and she’s bored to death. I know it when she is pissed off with, of all things, PEPPA PIG! She is supposed to have outgrown Peppa long time back. But she loves watching the series; and by now, probably knows all the dialogues of all the episodes by heart. I frequently see her mouthing the dialogues of Peppa or George or Suzy Sheep or Rebecca Rabbit while having her dinner – finishing a sentence someone has just begun or giving a response before it comes. And I see her laughing at the end of every episode with Peppa and her family, their backs to the ground and bellies thrust up.

But tonight she hungers for something new: “Why do they show the SAME episodes over and over again?

I’m genuinely surprised. But I also know that a lot will happen in the next few hours. Getting bored can be very productive: Srishti is at her creative best during these spells.

So first: she transformed herself into a fairy; and then, late at night, when her sleep just won’t come (because, uncharacteristically, she has slept during the day), I ask her to style my hair. I need to write… and there’s no other way of engaging her while I do so. Immediately, she’s all fired up: with her small arsenal of clips and bands, she gets down to being the hairstylist, expertly commenting on the quality of my hair, of the need to oil it regularly, how the styling could have been so much better if it was longer, etc. etc…

Tuesday, 24 March 2020 - Day 9:

The happy effect of the hairstyling wears off with sleep. She wakes up with a rage and writes an angry letter to Corona Virus.

“Dear Corona Virus,

I would like you to get out of earth and travel to Mars, it’s lovely there, nobody is there, and nobody will try to harm you. If you stay here I will beat you! And sqish you and kill you. If you don’t want that to happen then you better get lost from here.

Angry regards from Srishti.”

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

A Noisy Ghost Story -- by Susan Price

Tuning pipes
When I was a child, my parents had a family friend who was, in Fast Show parlance, a little bit whoo, a little bit wha-hey. He came by things. He wheeled, he dealed, he knew people. But however whoo and wha-hey he was with other people (I really don't know the details) he was great to us. (And I loved his dogs as I wasn't allowed to have a dog.)

Me and my siblings were always in need of drawing paper and the friend would turn up unexpectedly with boxes of pencils, enormous rolls of paper and once, two big rolls of shiny metallic foil, one gold and one silver. On another occasion, he handed a cavalry sword to my brother, albeit a broken, rusty one. He was a picker-up of unconsidered trifles.

When I won the Children's Literary Prize, I came home from school on a Friday afternoon, with a cheque for fifty whole pounds. (Note: this was in the early 70s. Banks closed at 3pm and didn't open at weekends.) By lucky chance, our friend rolled in that same evening, to sit at our table, smoking and drinking tea. When told about the cheque, he took a roll of money from his pocket, stripped off a fifty pound note and gave it to me.  He told me how to endorse the cheque, so he could cash it.

To put this in context, my Dad, with three children, didn't earn £50 a week. I'd never seen a £50 note and didn't realise they existed. Who could possibly need one? I was later told that our friend carried the cheque around with him for months afterwards, before cashing it, so he could show it to people and boast about me. It probably won't surprise you to learn that, during the decade of rationing that continued after WWII, this family friend could always, according to family legend, provide extra sugar to make birthday cakes and toffee apples -- and also pairs of nylons. I think he was what is known as 'a loveable rogue.' A very rare species, believe me.

You never knew when he would turn up or what he would bring. One day he arrived with a box of tuning-pipes. They were a little like the ones in the picture above, except they were shinier and weren't joined together. There were a great many more of them, too. Each was neatly labelled with the note it produced. A, A sharp, A flat and so on.

They came in a fascinating, neat little box, oval in shape. Pull off its close fitting lid and you revealed a honey-comb of narrow wooden cells, each of which held a silver pipe. The outside of the box was covered in a slightly furry, plush crimson cloth.

As children, we simply accepted this as another odd gift. We played with it for years, endlessly arranging the pipes in the box, sniffing the scent of the wood, blowing the pipes one after another, choosing our favourite sounds. There was a note for every mood, from deep, lugubrious lowing sounds like a yak with indigestion to bright, high, cheery song-bird notes.

Looking back now, I realise that this boxed set of pipes must once have been quite an expensive item. Forget the pipes -- that little box alone was such a beautifully made and delicate little gem, its lid fitting with an almost air-tight seal. We never thought to ask and were never told where or how our friend acquired the pipes --it was an age before boot-sales, but there were jumble sales and junk shops and scrap-yards. I've no idea why he gave them to us either, since none of us were musical. All we knew was that he'd turned up out of the blue one day, as he so often did, unshaven, bear-like and smelling of tobacco, took this little box from his pocket and gave it to us. Perhaps we were just the first household with children he dropped in on that day.

Knocking Jack: A Noisy Ghost Story.
Somewhere along the way, the box of pipes were lost. I no longer have them. But they found their way into my book, Knocking Jack: A Noisy Ghost Story. Their various notes are among the noises of the ghost.

The book was originally published in 1992 when, as often happened, I was approached by a publisher and asked to write a book for a particular age-group, so many words, to be completed in a couple of months. Given so little time to think about plots, I usually turned to folk-lore, which I love. Myths and legends have always spilled from my ears.

Something else from my childhood that found its way into the book was a very old house built at the side of a road that climbed one of our steep hills. The road was even older than the house, an ancient trackway along which loaded pack-ponies had trudged for centuries. Both road and house are still there.

I come from the Black Country, which people associate with the industrial revolution of the late 1700s and 1800s. They're right to do so, of course: canals were dug here to serve the iron works. Limestone was quarried, coal and iron-ore were mined, clay was dug... But people outside the area tend to forget that the Black Country existed long before the Industrial Revolution. The name is supposed to date from that period, because industry's smoke 'turned the country black.' I doubt this. The Black Mountains of Wales aren't so far away and the Black Country's soil is very black, in contrast to the redder soils of surrounding areas. I think the name probably predated the industry, but no one took any notice or wrote it down before then. Once industry attracted attention to the area, people invented a reason to explain the name.

Coal was mined and iron goods produced in the Black Country in the fifteenth century and, most likely, long before then. We have the 700-year old Dudley castle,and ancient abbeys and churches. The old house I mention above was a half-timbered farmhouse, with a date of 15-something carved into the beam above the porch. I often passed this old house, with its undulating slate roof and bending walls, its small, leaded windows and tiny door in a deep porch.

It no longer looks like that. It's been 'done up.' Its beams, if they're still there, are hidden by smooth, regular walls of brick and its roof no longer heaves up and down like a rough sea. It now looks like an executive mock-tudor house pretending, unconvincingly, to be old.

But the old, ricketty house crept into my story as the home for the ghost -- although the interior of the house, as described in the book is my invention. I've never so much as been through the gate of the real house.

The 'noisy ghost' of the story is a house-spirit, a boggart, a bogle, tales of which are found all over Britain and Scandinavia. Leave bread and milk for this creature and it will do your housework for you -- but make sure that, at any family celebration, it gets cake and ale or it will be offended.

And never thank it or it will take revenge.

Michaela doesn't mind her Mum moving them to live in Mr. Wheeler's really old house, until Mr. Wheeler tells them about Knocking Jack, the noisy ghost...It's Jack's house and humans are only allowed to live in it if they follow his rules...

One of Michaela's treasured possessions is a little plush box of tuning-pipes, which she peeps and parps constantly, driving her mother mad.  Soon after they settle in to the old house, the tuning pipes vanish, but their sound is heard in the air... Knocking Jack has stolen them.

Michaela and the ghost engage in a battle of wits. Michaela tries various ways to see the ghost and she tries to hide her tuning pipes from him -- but Jack always manages to sneak them away and then sounds several at once and plays tunes on them, which Michaela can't do. The ghost then sends resounding knocks around the walls, floors and ceilings of the old house, to taunt her.

He makes Michaela so mad that, to be revenged, she plays a spiteful trick on him. Jack's retaliation is terrifying...

It always surprises me to look back and see what a rag-bag of odds and ends a book is patched together from: a set of tuning-pipes, a familiar old house, a few old stories...

You can buy Knocking Jack here.

And you can find out more about my other books for the 8-10 age range HERE at my website.


Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Words Matter - Jo Carroll

We live in apocalyptic times.

I've not read much dystopian fiction - The Day of the Triffids was enough for me - so I'd be interested to know if the current runaway virus and the panic it has engendered is accurately reflected in fiction.

For one thing that has struck me in recent days (distracted me, if I'm honest) is how words that have such momentous consequences for us all are thrown around now without a second thought. For instance:

Social distancing: this, we are told, means we have to stay about two metres away from anyone else. Unpicked, it means no hug for the friends you bump into in the street. No sharing a cake. No sharing books unless you both do the ritual handwashing thing first. But - does it mean we shouldn't hug our children? Can we cuddle up to our partners on the sofa? (In theory, I've heard - no. We must all sit in separate chairs; couples should sleep in separate beds. As if every house has enough chairs and a spare bed lying around. To say nothing of anything couples might like to do to while away an hour or two).

Self-isolation: this goes one step further. Not only must we stand well-beyond hand-shaking distance from everyone, we must shut the door on them too. Supplies must be left on the doorstep and we can only pick them up once the angel who has brought them steps well back. In a family, it means one person has a room and, if possible, bathroom, to themselves (the great and the good might have enough rooms to do that, but in most people's real world when one person sneezes the whole family catches a cold). For two weeks, with the help of the internet and a book or five, it's probably manageable. 

Lockdown: everyone is in isolation. We can only scurry out for milk if we have to. Every other hour of every day is spent in your own four walls. 

I understand the need for such measures. I'm not in the camp that insists this is an overblown drama and, though maybe a few people will pop their clogs, it's not worth this palaver. It will be months - and maybe longer - before we are out the other side of this, and our world may look very different by then.

No - what exercises me is how these words: isolation, lockdown, have been sewn into our everyday vocabulary in such a way that their full implications are sanitised. I, like thousands of others, live alone. I will not be in the same room as someone else for months. I can no longer go to my singing group; I can no longer help in the library; I can't go to a gig and sing till my throat hurts. Nobody will surprise me in the street with news. No grandchildren will hold my hand, nor climb on my lap for a story. Tough for me? yes; and for the families with small children who face the same four walls for days; for those with disabilities whose only social contact is a day care centre (now closed); for the homeless and the workless and the children in care.

We will do this, because it's essential for our safety and to do our bit for our beleaguered NHS. But we will not like it. Isolation - packaged as it now is in government directives - is not our natural way of being. 

And so, next time Boris and his henchmen remind us to shut ourselves away and repel all boarders, maybe we all need to remind ourselves what such isolation means. Lockdown is not how we should live; when this is all over I hope the word is confined to the pages of dystopian fiction,

Monday, 23 March 2020

Splendid Isolation by @EdenBaylee

“Splendid Isolation,” a song written by Warren Zevon is about the difference between being alone and being lonely. I’ve featured it on the Music Monday segment of my blog today.

Being alone is spending time with oneself; being lonely is a state of mind.

Though the two are distinctly different, we can slip in and out between them. Many of us have probably done just that, more so this past week than any other time.

Life with the COVID-19 pandemic has meant self-imposed isolation for us here in Canada. Like most countries, we are asked to “social distance” and to isolate ourselves physically from others for fear of spreading the virus. 

I believe it’s the right thing to do, and whether you are living on your own or with others, you must reconcile how to do this. 

Social distancing is a misnomer, really, as we’re not being asked to socially cut ourselves off from others. A more accurate description would be physical distancing. As writers, many of us are used to a solitary existence anyway, where the only other inhabitants of our space are the characters we create in our heads. 

I am often by myself in the home I share with my husband. We work independently in different parts of the house, and there are more than enough walls to keep us apart if we want to maintain that separation. 

Loneliness is more difficult to explain, and I don’t want to minimize its devastating impact on those who feel it. I'm just not sure I’ve ever felt it that way.

Since my mid-twenties, I’ve attended numerous silent meditation retreats, which translate to about a year’s worth of days to myself in isolation. It was a form of self-improvement, unlike what we are experiencing now. Shutting out the world at a retreat was a relief. It allowed me precious time to look inward, and even two weeks away in isolation was a chance to renew.

But life with COVID-19 is not a self-improvement course. As a society, isolation is not the norm. We view reclusive people as odd, secretive, possibly dangerous. We deem solitary confinement as inhumane punishment. We are, after all, a social species.

So now that we are forced into a form of isolation, how do we cope?

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has ample experience with self-isolation. He famously served as commander of the International Space Station, entertaining the masses with songs such as David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Forbes considers him “the most social media savvy astronaut ever to leave Earth.” 

His video outlines the key points on how to manage isolation during this difficult time.

  1. Understand the risks: Refer to credible sources for information. Knowledge is power! 
  2. Set goals for yourself: Give yourself a list of things to do and keep busy. Have something to look forward to. 
  3. Find out the constraints: Think about what might prevent you from doing what you want to do and form a plan to manage the roadblocks. 
  4. Take action: Just do it! Have fun by learning a new skill - play an instrument, learn a new language, read a few books. 
I know it’s not easy, especially when we are mired in uncertainty. By staying connected, we're looking for ways to gain control of what’s happening. And as a news junkie, it’s difficult for me to pull away from the grim reality, but I have to try. 

In closing, I’ll re-iterate the words of Chris Hadfield. "Take care of yourself, take care of your family and friends, take care of your spaceship.” 

If you have any tips on how to manage self-isolation, please share and let me know how you're doing. 💕🥰💕

Stay safe,